[Jhn 1:17 NASB] 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
I’ve decided to pick up where I left off 5 years ago in my writing on the gospel of John. It’s such an amazing document! John 1:17 is an absolutely pivotal and amazing verse, and that happens to be where I left off. So let’s dig in!
Giving and Realizing
The first thing that catches my eye in this verse is the difference between the ministry of Moses and the ministry of Jesus. The Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. What is the significance of this?
According to my lexicon, the word “given” is translated from the Greek word “didomi” which means, to deliver, to grant, to let have. The word “realized” is a translation of the Greek word “ginomai”, which means to become, to arise, to be made, to finish. I think “realize” is a very good translation of this word.
The reason I think this is so important and that these words bear such scrutiny is that there is a world of difference between these two ideas. Moses did something very very different than what Jesus did. Moses was like an uber eats driver: the driver didn’t make the food, and he doesn’t eat it either. He just delivers it. Moses didn’t create the law. It wasn’t his magnificent insight or character which caused it to come to be. Nor did he fulfill the law. He did not embody it, he did not finish it. He didn’t really even perfectly obey it. At the end of days, when no one is found worthy to open the scroll, Moses doesn’t step forward and say “Hey, I’m worthy!” All he did was deliver the law. He himself was subject to it, and he did not live up to it.
Jesus on the other hand did not merely hand over something. He embodied it. He fulfilled it. It was not merely theoretical. He made it real. In the actual world, applied to our genuine flawed lives, He walked among us and healed us and bled for us. He did not merely give us instruction. The fundamental difference between a teacher and a savior is just this: the teacher hands out idealized instruction and demands that we live up to it, while a savior comes to us as we are and gives us the help that we actually need.
The Law vs. Grace and Truth
I have noticed that when the gospel is consistently preached, a question is often raised along these lines. “All of this theology and theory is great,” it is said, “but we need some real practical instruction in how to live.” Grace is good doctrine perhaps, but give us some law to live by!
I think this verse tells us that it is the exact opposite. The law is a perfect ideal, a state of living to which we ought to attain. It describes the Platonic ideal of a human being. But it is an ideal. It is not reality, nor is it actually attainable, any more than we can draw an absolutely perfect circle. When we deemphasize certain points of the law to make it more attainable, we do tremendous harm to ourselves:
[Mat 5:19 NASB] 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others [to do] the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches [them,] he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
So what does this word “annul” mean exactly? You say to yourself, I’m not doing that, I would never annul the Biblical law! But if you say to yourself, I have not committed adultery! And yet, you lust secretly after a woman who is not your wife, you have not kept the law. If there is some person that somewhat rubs you the wrong way, that you find irritating, and you keep trying to find ways to stay away from them, is that love? Isn’t that the functional equivalent of having ought against your brother? According to James, such favoritism transgresses the law (James 2:1). According to Jesus, you are guilty of the very fires of hell (Matthew 5:28-29). You have coveted (Exodus 20:17)! Jesus actually isn’t saying anything new about the law in the sermon on the mount. He is simply pointing out what Moses had already delivered, and correcting common human misconceptions about it. It isn’t enough to “obey” God. You have to love God. Doing what God would have you do must be as joyous and pleasant and beautiful to you as going fishing on a beautiful day or as watching a new movie that you’ve really wanted to see. The law not only demands your obedience, it demands your love. It is only satisfied with the ideal.
Grace, on the other hand, comes into the down and dirty truth of our lives. The law is not wed to truth, it is an ideal. You will notice if you reread John 1:17 that truth is not on the side of the law. It does not go on that side of the equation. Truth belongs on the side of grace. The practical reality of our lives is met with grace. The law sees us for what we should be, while grace sees us for what we really are, and extends mercy and help and blessing regardless of the state of our obedience to the ideal.
Grace and Truth
As a young man, it was the emphasis on truth that so strongly drew me to John’s gospel. I read the word “Truth” with a capital “T”. I still think that is a valid reading. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). He is the teleological end of all Hebriac theology and all true Greek thought up to that point. He is the exact representation of of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). He is the teleleogical end of all OT prophecy and the ideal logos embodied in a finite human being. It is impossible lavish grace that God has sent such a grand and magnificent manifestation of His awesome presence to us in such a humble and fragile way!
But I have come to read the gospel of John in a different way. He does not love the ideal world as it should be. He loves the world as it is. He sees the imperfect world and sends a redeemer to save us (John 3:16-17). He comes to us in a way that unmasks our pretense and disarms our fears, and allows us to receive His great affections in a practical sense. His grace comes to us as truth – real help in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16)
What do I mean, in a practical sense? I have had many physical afflictions in my life. I grew up with severe asthma from which I almost died several times. I still struggle with this. I have osteoarthritis in my knees and hands. I have myasthenia gravis, which has rendered me half-blind and unable to drive. I would like God to heal me. I really really would. It would be a great blessing.
But when the paralytic was lowered through the roof for Jesus to heal (Mark 2:1-12), He saw through the man’s paralysis to his deeper problem. He started by saying, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” This caused a stir, and Jesus further explained, by asking which is easier, to forgive his sins, or to heal his paralysis? To our feeble minds, it would seem much easier to pronounce forgiveness than to heal. It would also seem much more important. Forgiveness is mere words. Guilt can be born, but crippling and terrible illness bring the true suffering. But it is the other way around. For God, healing is simple compared to justification. Justification is the difficult thing. Jesus can heal by pronouncing a word or waving His hand. To achieve forgiveness, He had do die. Perhaps I am suffocating to death from asthma. But my guilt, my sins, are inescapable. Justice itself stands against me for all time. Forever, I am the man.
And so God comes in Christ to save me from the most intimate and secret and terrible problem I have, that I would hide from everyone to my dying day: my shame and guilt! He grants true and even just forgiveness to me!
So I think this sense of understanding “truth” is so important. God so loves the world of men, as we are – not as we should be. He does not love us for the potential success we might have. It’s too late for all that. A murderer cannot have success any more – his guilt outweighs everything. So it is with all of our sin. Christ crucified to justify sinners is the only medicine which cures our deepest need. It reaches down to the central truth of us, and declares that we are the beloved of God as we stand.
And so grace and truth are realized by Jesus Christ. Amen.