For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,” so says John (John 1:17, NIV).1 What does this passage say about the position of Jesus and Moses on the law? Is it one of antagonism—Moses versus Jesus, law versus grace? Such an antagonist position was common among the legalists, both Jewish and Christian, at the time of John’s Gospel, as it is common among antinomian Christians of today, who would do away with the law in order to establish grace. A second position is continuum— Jesus built upon Moses; New Testament grace and truth were built upon Old Testament grace and truth (chesed and ’emeth, “steadfast love and faithfulness”).2
This paper will argue for the continuum position: Jesus built on what went before, and He did not discard the law; indeed, He overwhelms the law with the fullness of grace and truth. The difference is between partial and the full revelation.
The legalist charge: Jesus was antagonistic to Moses
Obviously, the Jewish leaders at the time of John’s Gospel3 regarded Jesus as antagonistic to Moses. They asserted that they were disciples of Moses rather than of “‘this fellow’ ” (John 9:28, 29, NIV).
John’s Gospel details the Jews’ prolonged lawsuit against Jesus, and Jesus’ countersuit against them. Central to the debate is the law of Moses. The Jews tried Jesus on charges of blasphemy, deception, and sedition. On two occasions He was also accused of Sabbath breaking because on Sabbath He healed a paralytic (5:16, 18) and a man born blind (9:16). Claiming to be followers of Moses (v. 28), the leaders were zealous for the laws of the Sabbath (5:10).4 Ultimately Jesus was condemned to death for blasphemy because of His claims to be divine: “ ‘We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God’ ” (19:7, NIV).5 Jesus’ execution at the hands of the Romans was the climax to the Jewish lawsuit against Him.
Jesus’ defense and countersuit: Moses supports His claims
Jesus answered the charges against Him by allying himself with Moses, calling upon Moses to support His claims: “‘If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me’ ” (5:46). Jesus was not antagonistic to Moses. Rather, the Sabbath miracles were signs that the Creator, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of Moses, was walking in their midst. He who had created the world by the word of His mouth (1:1–3; Gen. 1; Ps. 33:6, 9) healed the paralyzed man by the word of His mouth (John 5:8). He who had created Adam from clay (Gen. 2:7) restored sight to a blind man by applying clay to his eyes (John 9:11). Jesus claimed to be co-Creator with God (5:17; cf. 1:1–3), doing the works of the Father even to raising the dead and giving them life (5:19–21). It is part of John’s irony that Jesus’ own people tried their own Creator on charges of breaking His own law!
Then in a sharp reversal, Jesus arraigned His accusers before the judgment seat of God by projecting before them the spectacle of the dead coming forth from the tombs to be judged by Him (vv. 25–29). He shocked them further by asserting that Moses, the very one they defended, would be their accuser because they did not believe in the One about whom he wrote (vv. 45–47).
The Jews were right in claiming that the greatest revelation of God in their history was the torah, of which Israel was the guardian. In the torah, God revealed Himself through His mighty acts of Creation and Exodus. John shows that God’s “mighty acts” foreshadow the life and work of Jesus.
Creation. The opening of John’s Gospel evokes the language of Genesis 1:1–3: “in the beginning,” creation by God’s “Word,” light dispelling darkness, the making of the children of God (John 1:1–5, 12, 13). When John indicates that Jesus was “the Word of the Lord” by which the heavens and all else were made (v. 3; Ps. 33:6, 9), he inserts Jesus into the Genesis record: Jesus was the co-Creator with God, the one God consulted when He said, “ ‘Let us make’ ” (Gen. 1:26; John 1:2). The major theme of Jesus as Life-Giver, bringing physical, spiritual, and eternal life now and hereafter, proclaims that He is the Creator (see especially John 11:25).
The Exodus. The Exodus theme lies prominent in the book of John. Jesus surpasses the giving of the law. Jesus did not abrogate the moral law; rather, He intensified it by introducing a new commandment to His disciples: “ ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another’ ” (13:34, 35). The command to love was not new. Already the torah had proclaimed, “ ‘You shall love the LoRD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ ” (Deut. 6:5), with its complement, “ ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Lev. 19:18). What was new was the dimension of the love required: “ ‘even as I have loved you, that you also love one another’ ”—an infinite dimension!6
Consider some instances of how John portrays this infinite dimension:
The miracle of the manna is infinitely surpassed by Jesus’ gift of living Bread (John 6:32, 33). Whereas the manna spoiled (Exod. 16:20), the bread Jesus gives endures to eternal life (John 6:27). Those who ate the manna hungered again; those who eat the living Bread never hunger (v. 35). Those who ate the manna all died (Judg. 2:10), but those who eat the living Bread will live forever (John 6:33, 48–51, 58). The manna sustained only Israel; the living Bread gives life to the world (v. 33).
Water from the smitten rock (Num. 20:7–13) is surpassed by the stream of living water from the smitten body of Jesus (John 19:34; cf. 7:37–39; 4:14).
The healing of those bitten by serpents by a look at the bronze serpent (Num. 21:8, 9) is surpassed by the salvation of the world through beholding Jesus lifted up on the cross (John 3:14, 15; 12:32; 19:17, 18).
Fulfillment: Symbols and feasts. Jesus transformed the feasts by presenting Himself as the reality to which they pointed. John stresses that Jesus’ crucifixion took place on Passover day (13:1; 18:28; 19:31) to make the point that Jesus was the Antitype of the Passover sacrifice.
At the Feast of Tabernacles when the great lamps were lit, commemorating the pillar of fire (Exod. 13:21), Jesus proclaimed Himself as the Light of the world (John 8:12).
Jesus came as the fulfillment, the embodiment of the tabernacle built by Moses. When the Lord entered the tabernacle built by Moses, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LoRD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34).
Later, when Solomon replaced the ancient tent of Moses by a magnificent temple, “the glory of the LoRD filled the temple” (2 Chron. 7:1). So great was the glory that no one could enter God’s dwelling.
So it is natural that when Jesus entered the tabernacle of His human body, He would reveal His glory: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [Greek, tabernacled] among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). What was the glory of the Baby in a manger? He revealed the character of a God who would hide His splendor in a tent of humanity in order to dwell with His people.
Thus, Jesus fulfilled the symbols of religion: temple, light, bread, water, and tabernacle. He was the reality to which the symbols pointed.
Glory: Moses and Jesus
Sinai was the greatest revelation of God’s glory that human beings had ever seen (Deut. 4:32, 33). God appeared to Israel with overpowering thunder, lightning, fire, earthquake, and trumpet blast (Exod. 19:16–19). In the wake of these pyrotechnics, it seems surprising that Moses made the further request, “ ‘I pray thee, show me thy glory’ ” (33:18).
While God did not permit Moses to look upon His face—“ ‘You cannot see my face . . . and live’ ”—He revealed His character to Moses: “ ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ ” (34:6). Moses received a revelation of God unsurpassed in human experience (see 33:12–23; 34:5–7).
John had Moses’ experience in mind when he exclaimed, “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . . And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).
John says “grace upon grace” or “grace instead of grace” (Greek, charin anti charitos)—one new vision taking the place of the previous one. The words “grace and truth” are generally recognized as the equivalent of the Hebrew chesed and ’emeth—loving kindness and faithfulness. There was an abundance of grace and truth in Moses’ day, but the grace and truth shown in the life of Jesus excel even the previous revelation of God in the torah.
What was the new revelation of God’s glory that surpassed the torah? Was it the wonder of the incarnation—that the Creator of “all things” (1:3) would strip Himself of His divine majesty to become flesh and dwell among His people (v. 14)? Was it the glory of Jesus’ servanthood—that the One whom angels delight to serve stripped Himself of His garments to wash the dust from His disciples’ feet (13:3–5)? Was it the Lord Himself stripped of His clothing and dignity (19:23, 24), lifted up from the earth so that all who looked on Him might live (3:14; 12:32)? For our redemption God gave His only Son (3:16), and Jesus gave His life (10:11). Father and Son gave until there was no more to give. And this very self-emptying was His glory (12:23–25).
And the ultimate moment of Jesus’ glory on the cross was the ultimate moment of the law’s permanence.
John caught the significance of Jesus’ concept of glory. To the Savior, His hour of shame and suffering was His hour of glory. Jesus frequently had said that His hour had not yet come (2:4; 7:30; 8:20). But shortly before the Crucifixion, He announced that the hour had come (12:23)—the hour for Him to be buried in the earth (v. 24), the hour for the Father to glorify His name (v. 28), the hour for Him to be lifted up, the hour for Him to draw all men to Him (v. 32), the hour for the ruler of this world to be cast out (v. 31). Though He dreaded the hour, He moved resolutely to meet it (v. 27).
What effect did Jesus have on Moses? What happened to the symbols—animal sacrifices, feasts, and even the temple itself—with the coming of Jesus? These dropped off like faded flowers before the ripened fruit of the reality of Jesus. He Himself was the Lamb, Light, Water, and Temple to which the symbols pointed. How do “the mighty acts of God” in Creation, Exodus, and giving the law, relate to the coming of Jesus? Jesus repeats the mighty acts in greater grandeur—ultimate salvation and the re-creation of human beings. What about the glory of the revelations of God to Moses? These are the dawning rays leading to the sunrise of the glorious revelation of God in human flesh. The full blaze of His glory awaits His second coming when believers will see the glory that He had from the foundation of the world (17:24).
So the text “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” shows not contrast but intensification. “The law has been neither destroyed nor preserved intact by the coming of Jesus, but transformed by being transcended.”7
Moses and Jesus are related as the prelude to the finale, the journey to the destination, the partial to the fullness. “And from His fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1:16, 17; emphasis added).
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture references are from the Revised Standard Version.
2 Raymond E. Brown posits that John considers law “a magnificent act of God’s love,” and that verse 17 “contrasts the enduring love shown in the Law with the supreme example of enduring love shown in Jesus.” The Gospel According to John, I–XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 16.
3 John often uses “the Jews” as a pejorative term referring to Jesus’ critics, the religious leaders (e.g., 1:19; 5:10, 18; 9:18).
4 Their initial charge was that Jesus told the healed man to carry his pallet—a violation not of the laws of Moses but of the oral traditions of the Jews. Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v.“Law in First-Century Judaism.”
5 For the Jewish understanding of Jesus’ claims, see John 5:18 and 10:33. For the death penalty on blasphemers, see Leviticus 24:16.
6 The commandments of the law gave way to the commandments of the Father to Jesus, and the commandments of Jesus to the disciples. The will of God, once expressed in the law, is now communicated by Jesus. Severino Pancaro, The Law in the Fourth Gospel: The Torah and the Gospel, Moses and Jesus, Judaism and Christianity According to John (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), 450.