A Law-Keeping Redeemer is Born
One of the most important of all the statements about the birth of Jesus is that He was "born under the Law" (Gal. 4:4). The one who gave the Law on Sinai was, "in the fulness of time," born under the Law. Of course, in making this declaration the question is raised, "Why was the One who gave the Law born under the Law?" After all, there was no Divine necessity for God to become man and to be made subject to His own Law. The answer comes on the heel of the statement when the Apostle explained that it was in order that Christ might, "redeem those who were under the Law." In short, Jesus' law-keeping was an absolutely necessary component of our redemption. Consider the following ways in which this plays out in the Gospel record:
1. At His Birth
At eight days, Jesus was circumcised according to the Law. He took to Himself the covenant sign--a bloody sign that pointed to His death on the cross. Circumcision promised the cleansing of the heart of sinful man by a bloody cutting away. The One who had the sign of circumcision was promised covenant blessings and curses. Either he would have the filth of his heart cut away by the bloody judgment that would fall on Christ or he would be cut off from the land of the living in the judgment of God. Though Jesus had no sin, and therefore had no need of the promise of the cutting away of the filth of the heart, he took to himself the sign because He would become the sin bearer for us. Paul tells us that, for Jesus, the cross was a bloody circumcision. Christ took the sign to himself as a boy to fulfill the demands of the law and to have a constant reminder that he was the one who would bear the curse of the law for His people.
At forty days, Jesus was brought into the Temple and was present to the Lord according to the custom of the Law. Mary came and sacrificed to set apart her son to the Lord. He was sanctified by the offering that pointed to Himself (though he needed no sanctification because of personal sin) because he was the sin-bearing substitute of His people. Isaac Ambrose captured this idea so well when he wrote:
There was no impurity in the Son of God, and yet he is first circumcised; and then he is brought, and offered to the Lord. He that came to be sin for us, would in our persons be legally unclean, that by satisfying the law, he might take away our uncleanness. He that was above the law, would come under the law, that he might free us from the law. We are all born sinners; but O the unspeakable mercies of our Jesus, that provides a remedy as early as our sin: first, he is conceived; and then he is born, to sanctify our conceptions and our births: and after his birth, he is first circumcised, and then he is presented to the Lord; that by two holy acts, that which was naturally unholy might be hallowed unto God. Christ hath not left our very infancy without redress, but by himself thus offered he cleanseth us presently from our filthiness.1
2. As a Boy
We are told that Jesus, at age 12, stayed behind in the Temple where He was "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers."
Sinclair Ferguson explains the significance of the actions of the boy Jesus in the Temple:
Jesus did not come to earth in the womb of the virgin Mary with a Bible in His brain. The only way Jesus got to know what was in the Bible is exactly the same way that you and I get to know what is in the Bible. He had no magical method. God didn't send it directly down into His brain. He got to know what was in the Bible by learning it.2
In this sense, we can say that Jesus was obeying the Law by learning the Law. God had given so many instructions to His people in the Law about learning all the words of the Law and their meaning. When Jesus responds to His mother and father, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father's house?" we quickly realize that He was keeping the Law in the Temple by learning the Law.
Luke tells us that it was not merely the fact that He was learning in the Temple, but that He was growing in the knowledge of the Lord through what He was learning from the Scriptures.
3. During His Earthly Ministry
Whether it was the fulfillment of the law to which Jesus referred at His baptism (Matt. 3:15) when he subjected Himself to receive the sign of repentance--something that He did not personally need, yet underwent as the representative sin-bearer of His people--or the obedience that He rendered to His Father during the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), the Evangelists' record of the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus, from start to finish, was a record of His perfect obedience and Law-keeping.
Herman Ridderbos summed up the totality of Jesus' law-keeping when he wrote: "Jesus behaves in accordance with the precepts of the law when he goes to the temple, keeps the festivals, the Sabbath, pays the temple-tax (Matt. 17:24ff)...refers to the priest the lepers he had cured (Matt. 8:4), defends the sacred character of the temple against those who use this building as an object of gain (Matt. 21:12; Mark 11:16)."
Phil Ryken has made the important observation that "What qualified Jesus to redeem us from the law was the fact that he kept it perfectly."3 William Still has put it in even more stiking terms when he noted that, "The most victorious thing that Christ ever did was to die sinless...Get that deep into your heart and mind."4
4. In His Death.
Of course, the Scriptures highlight most fully for us the fact that Jesus was "obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." The great act of obedience to which the Scriptures constantly demand our attention was His atoning death on the cross. His last great act of law-keeping was his act of offering up His body on the tree. He was the second Adam, undoing what the first Adam had done in the Garden. Adam had taken of the fruit of the Tree of which God forbid him to eat. Jesus ate of the fruit of the only Tree of which God commanded Him to eat. In fact, the sufferings of Christ can rightly be said to have begun in the second Garden--Gethsemane. Jesus marched obediently onto the battlefield, fought through the agony of the prospect of being rejected by His Father and went forward to obey His Father's command to take up the cup of His wrath and drink it to the dregs.
In A History of the Work of Redemption, Jonathan Edwards summed up the nature of Christ's obedience to all of God's commands under three categories: i.e. moral laws, ceremonial laws and Mediatorial laws. In addition to keeping the Ten Comandments and the Ceremonial Laws of the Mosaic economy, Edwards noted that Jesus kept commandments that were uniquely given to Him as the Mediator:
Christ was subject to the mediatorial law,--which contained those commands of God to which be was subject not merely as man, nor yet as a Jew, but which related purely to his mediatorial office. Such were the commands which the Father gave him, to teach such doctrines, to preach the gospel, to work such miracles, to call such disciples, to appoint such ordinances, and finally to lay down his life: For he did all these things in obedience to commands he had received of the Father, as he often tells us. And these commands he was not subject to merely as man; for they did not belong to other men; nor yet was he subject to them as a Jew; for they were no part of the Mosaic law; but they were commands that he had received of the Father, that purely respected the work he was to do in the world in his mediatorial office.5
In his sermon The Excellency of Christ, Edwards further expounded this idea when he wrote:
The greatness of His obedience appears in its perfection, and in his obeying commands of such exceeding difficulty. Never any one received commands from God of such difficulty, and that were so great a trial of obedience, as Jesus Christ. One of God’s commands to Him was, that he should yield himself to those dreadful sufferings that he underwent. See John 10:18. "No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. This commandment received I of my Father.” And Christ was thoroughly obedient to this command of God.6
What are we to make of the Scriptural record of Jesus' law-keeping from infancy to adulthood to death? The early church theologian, Irenaeus, answered this question, in part, when he explained:
Jesus “came to save all by means of himself–all, I say, who through him are born again unto God — infants, and children and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age...a youth for youths...thus sanctifying them for the Lord.” - Irenaeus (Against Heresies book. 2.22.4)7
We needed a Redeemer who would be a representative, living the life we could never have lived and dying the death that we deserve to die. Edwards explained the obedience of Christ's whole life "unto death" further when he stated:
And it is to be observed, that Christ's righteousness, by which he merited heaven for himself, and all who believe in him, consists principally in his obedience to this mediatorial law: For in fulfilling this law consisted his chief work and business in the world. The history of the Evangelists is chiefly taken up in giving an account of his obedience to this law: And this part of his obedience was that which was attended with the greatest difficulty of all; and therefore his obedience in it was most meritorious. What Christ had to do in the world by virtue of his being Mediator, was infinitely more difficult than what he had to do merely as a man, or as a Jew. To his obedience to this mediatorial law belongs his going through his last sufferings, beginning with his agony in the garden, and ending with his resurrection.8
You can find a sermon that I recently preached on this subject here.
1. Isaac Ambrose Looking Unto Jesus (Pittsburgh: Luke Loomis & Co., 1832) p. 191
2. An excerpt taken from Sinclair Ferguson's sermon, "Jesus, the 12 Year Old"
3. Excerpt taken from Phil Ryken's Galatians commentary.
4. An excerpt taken from William Still's sermon, "The Third Dimension of the Cross."
Nick Batzig is the church planter of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Ga. Nick has written numerous articles for Tabletalk Magazine, Reformation 21, and is published in Jonathan Edwards and Scotland (Dunedin, 2011) In addition, Nick is the host of East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards. You can friend him on Facebook here. Nick is on Twitter at @nick_batzig.