THE TRUE MEANING OF JOHN 1:17
by Doug Ward
In Christian discussions of the relationships between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, or Christianity and Judaism, one biblical passage that is often cited is John 1:17:
``For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ'' (NIV).
This verse is routinely used as a proof text by those who wish to claim that law and grace stand in essential opposition to each other, or that ``the law'' has been superseded or ``done away'' by the coming of Jesus Christ. The view that an antithesis is expressed in John 1:17 seems to be endorsed by the King James Version of the Bible, which places the word ``but'' between the two clauses of this verse even though no such word appears in the original Greek text [1, p. 261].
Is the word ``but'' implied in John 1:17? Is law being contrasted unfavorably with grace in this verse? From a theological standpoint, an affirmative answer to these questions is problematic. Since God's nature and character are unchanging, it seems logical that He is working out a single, unified plan and purpose in the world. Why, then, would there be a sharp dichotomy between two important aspects of that plan and purpose?
An opposition between law and grace or Moses and Jesus also does not stand up to an examination of the biblical text, either of the Hebrew Scriptures or of the first chapter of John's gospel. To see this, let's review the events surrounding the giving of the law, as chronicled in the book of Exodus. We will find that God's grace shines through very clearly during this momentous time in salvation history. Then we will return to the gospel of John and discover the true meaning of John 1:17.
Grace in Torah
The establishment of God's covenant with Israel is described in the Bible in Ex. 19-24. God begins His explanation of the covenant by reminding His people of their miraculous rescue from Pharaoh and the Egyptians:
``You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself'' (Ex. 19:4).
In [1, p. 129], Lutheran scholar Göran Larsson has this to say about Exodus 19:4:
``This is the foundation of the covenant, properly not understood as a legal contract but as a loving relationship, predicated not upon what the people of Israel are to do, but upon what God himself has done unconditionally for them. So far, we have not found a single word that God lays down as a condition to save his people out of Egypt. The disobedience, ingratitude, and obstinacy of the people have not led to a change in God's mind. Without fail, God has taken care of them and given them all they need. They have experienced the Lord's grace, an overwhelming loving-kindness.''
As Larsson points out, the Sinai covenant was founded upon God's grace. This fact is reinforced in Exodus 20, when God speaks the ``words'' (Ex. 20:1) of the covenant, elsewhere referred to as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28). Notice how God begins His address to Israel:
``I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery'' (Ex. 20:2).
The Hebrew text of Exodus 20 contains no indication of how God's words to Israel are to be subdivided into ten parts, and there are slight differences in the way they have been numbered by Jews and by various Christian traditions. In particular, Christians consider Exodus 20:2 to be a preamble to the Decalogue and not actually part of the Commandments, while Jews count Exodus 20:2 as the first of the ten words (see [1, pp. 137-140, 286-287]). Regardless of how the words are counted, Exodus 20:2 shows that they are based on God's grace in saving His people. As a result, the commandments that follow should not be viewed as burdensome regulations, but as the people's appropriate response to the great love God had shown them. Law and grace are not at odds; instead, they are inextricably tied together in the close covenant relationship that God was establishing with Israel.
The law as a whole is also a gift of God's grace. At Sinai, God shares important aspects of His character and invites His people to follow His precepts and thus become more like Him. Those who embrace God's commandments will ``live by them'' as Lev. 18:5 says; in other words, they will live a rewarding, abundant life, the kind of life that Jesus later came to bring (John 10:10).
The true nature of God's law is indicated by the word Torah, the Hebrew word for ``law.'' Torah carries the connotation of teaching and instruction more than of rules and regulations. As David writes in Psalm 119, God's instruction is a demonstration of His love and a source of wisdom, peace, and freedom (see e.g. vv. 24, 32, 45, 64, 99, 165).
The Covenant Broken
The children of Israel readily affirmed their willingness to obey God's words (Ex. 19:8; 24:7). Still, there were early indications that they were reluctant to have too great a degree of contact with the awesome Creator of the universe. According to Exodus 20:18-19,
``When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, `Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.'''
God responded to the people's fears by conveying the following message through Moses:
``You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold'' (vv. 22-23).
This reminder from God cautioned the people not to use idols as ``go-betweens'' in their relationship with Him. It would be natural for the Israelites, frightened as they were by what they had seen and heard on the mountain, to set up idols-which were familiar to them from their experience in Egypt-as a non-threatening alternative to approaching God more directly. God makes clear in Ex. 20:22-26, however, that they were to worship God on His terms rather than in other ways that they might have found more comfortable or familiar.
Unfortunately, these admonitions went unheeded. Not long afterward, while Moses was away on Mt. Sinai receiving further instruction from God, the people set up an idol in the form of a golden calf and began a pagan orgy to celebrate its construction (Ex. 32:1-6). In the very shadow of the mountain where they had seen and heard God's fiery revelation, the children of Israel blatantly disregarded the words God had spoken to them just a few weeks before, the words they had promised to obey. Moses' shattering of the stone tablets upon his return to the camp (v. 19) was a vivid statement of what had happened: the covenant had been violently broken. In effect, the Israelites had rejected their Deliverer and ``in their hearts turned back to Egypt'' (Acts 7:39).
Moses' Repeated Intercession and God's Gracious Response
God had made clear that there was no room for idolatry among His people (Ex. 20:4-5). He now emphasized the magnitude of Israel's transgression in an announcement to Moses:
``Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation'' (Ex. 32:10).
In Ex. 32:10, God expressed the fact that the Israelites deserved destruction for their sin. Notice, though, that He did not simply destroy them; instead, He made His intentions known to Moses, leaving the door open for other courses of action.
Moses seized this opportunity by passionately interceding on Israel's behalf. Appealing to God's reputation and His mercy, Moses reminded God that He had rescued the people in order to carry out His promises to the patriarchs (vv. 11-13). And Moses' appeal was successful. Verse 14 states that ``the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.'' Here we find another demonstration of God's grace.
Israel, of course, did not go unpunished. Three thousand of the revellers died that day (vv. 25-28), and a serious breach in the nation's relationship with God remained. The next day Moses interceded again, pleading for forgiveness for the people and offering to give up his own place in the book of life on their behalf (vv. 31-32). God then relented further, instructing Moses to lead Israel on to the Promised Land with the help of His angel. However, God's Presence would not accompany them directly, and appropriate punishment would be carried out at the proper time (Ex. 32:33-33:3).
A Clean Slate
In the days following, the Israelites were reminded in at least two ways of their continued separation from God. First, there was the fact that they were not allowed to wear any ornaments (Ex. 33:4-6). The ornaments, part of the treasure the Egyptians had given them upon their departure from Egypt (Ex. 12:35-36), had symbolized Israel's special status under the covenant as God's treasured possession, so their use of some of those ornaments in the construction of the golden calf had been a sign of their rejection of the covenant (see ). God's prohibition against the wearing of the ornaments thus served as an extra reminder of their sin.
Second, Moses now communed with God at a tent some distance from the camp (Ex. 33:7). When Moses walked to this location, the people rose and watched him (v. 8), a possible indication that they were coming to repentance and longed for reconciliation with God.
Soon Moses went before God yet again and asked for His Presence to accompany the nation. God had previously offered them a special commission to represent Him before the world (Ex. 19:5-6), and Moses prayed that they be allowed another chance to carry out that high calling (Ex. 33:15-16).
Once again, God gave a positive response to Moses' request (v. 17). To show that His reconciliation with Israel was at this point complete, God then instructed Moses to bring two new tablets back to Mount Sinai for the purpose of renewing the broken covenant (Ex. 34:1-4). ``I am making a covenant with you,'' God stated in Ex. 34:10, and He went on to repeat several instructions from the original covenant and to write the Decalogue on the new tablets (vv. 10-28).
The remainder of the book of Exodus serves to further emphasize that God had completely forgiven the Israelites and granted them a clean slate. Chapters 35-40 describe the building of the tabernacle, rehearsing almost verbatim the instructions given in Chapters 25-31, before the sin of the golden calf occurred. Indications of Israel's repentance are also present in these chapters, from the large size of the freewill offering (36:1-7) to the fact that each instruction was carried out just as God had specified.
Through the tabernacle, God would be present in the midst of the camp rather than some distance away. When the construction and assembly of the tabernacle were complete, the inner chamber of the tent was filled with God's glory (Ex. 40:34-35). The stage was set for Israel, accompanied by God, to proceed to the Promised Land.
Grace upon Grace
Exodus 32-34 presents one of the most striking accounts of human sinfulness and God's amazing grace to be found in the entire Bible. Today, these chapters can help us to remember that when we sin by worshipping golden calves like materialism or prestige, God is ready to forgive us and give us a clean slate when we come to Him in repentance (see also I John 1:8-9).
The incident of the golden calf might also be described as ``Moses' finest hour.'' Unwilling to see his brethren destroyed, he tirelessly interceded on their behalf. When we read Ex. 32-34, we can understand why the Bible lists Moses as a type and forerunner of the Messiah who is our heavenly Intercessor today (Deut. 18:15-18; Heb. 7:25).
In summary, our study of the book of Exodus has not revealed a sharp dichotomy between law and grace or Moses and Jesus. Instead, we see Torah as a gift of God's grace and Moses as one of the outstanding forerunners of Jesus. What, then, is the true sense of John 1:17?
Larsson [1, pp. 260-262] believes that one key to understanding John 1:17 can be found in Exodus 34:6-7, one of the most important and often-quoted passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. When Moses climbed Mt. Sinai with the new set of tablets, God met him with the following declaration of His essential attributes of character:
``The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation'' (Ex. 34:6-7, NIV).
This passage gives a wonderful summary of the traits shown by God in His dealings with Israel. In working with His people in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, God was indeed ``compassionate and gracious'', ``slow to anger'', and ``abounding in love and faithfulness.'' The phrase ``maintaining love to thousands'' is also significant, since it is a promise of future grace. The verb translated ``maintaining'' has the sense of something being stored up for the future, and ``thousands'' can refer ``to coming generations or to a great multitude in general'' [1, p. 261].
With these verses in mind, let's look again at John 1. Verse 14 of that chapter describes the Word, Jesus Christ, as ``full of grace and truth'', a possible reference to the phrase ``abounding in love and faithfulness'' from Exodus 34:6. John goes on to say in verse 16 that ``from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.'' In other words, God's grace just keeps on coming. As Ex. 34:7 pictures, God stores up His love and pours it out again to generation after generation.
In context, we can see that John 1:17 is elaborating on the fact that God gives ``one blessing after another.'' It mentions the law as one great gift of God's grace, then Jesus Christ as a second, even greater gift. John 1:17, then, is not a statement of ``law versus grace.'' Instead, it rejoices in the ``grace upon grace'' that God has showered on His people for millennia and promises to continue to pour out upon us forever.
1.Göran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1999.
2.Chanoch Waxman, ``The Jewelry and the Tent,'' commentary on Parashat Ki Tisa available online at http://etzion.org.il/en/jewelry-and-tent-0.
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