‘For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.’ — John 1:16-17 NET
This is the first occurrence of the name Jesus in John’s Gospel. John identified Jesus as the Christ. This is significant because the eternal Logos was never known as Jesus before He was ‘born flesh’ or ‘made flesh.’ He was named Jesus because He would save His people from their sins. The incarnation was indeed a new beginning.
John had already mentioned how he was among those who witnessed the glory of the incarnate Logos who was ‘full of grace and truth.’ (v.14) It seems John could never overemphasize the fullness of grace – unmerited blessings of God – and of truth embodied in Jesus Christ. Therefore, he waxed eloquent about it even in this brief Prologue. John was eager to show his readers that Truth is not limited to a set of propositions or hidden knowledge. Truth is a Person—a man called Jesus Christ.
John wanted his Jewish readers to know Jesus was greater than anyone they had known. Clearly, Jesus ranked above John the Baptist. The Baptizer had confessed, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me’ (v.15). But the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ greatness doesn’t end with a comparison between Jesus and John the Baptist. The apostle was bold enough to stir up a hornet’s nest by taking it all the way back to Moses, the great leader and founder of Judaism.
‘The law was given through Moses ….’ The word ‘Law’ is used in at least five different senses in the New Testament. It is commonly used to refer to the Law that was given to Moses at Sinai. The Mosaic Law is found within the Torah. The Law consists of the Ten Commandments; laws regarding rituals, sacrifices, and purity; and laws to govern civil disputes and criminal cases. The Mosaic Law created Judaism with all its rituals and practices. Before the law was given, there were no Jews. Abraham was not a Jew. Neither were any of the Patriarchs or their descendants all the way down to the time of the Exodus. When God handed down the Law to Moses, God entered into a covenant with Israel. Moses was the mediator of that covenant (Exodus 24:8). Israel pledged to keep the Law and thus was born Judaism. Therefore, the word Law, referring to the Mosaic Law, is another way of referring to Judaism.
‘The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.’ This comparison is clearly between Moses and Jesus. Jesus Christ is far superior to Moses. This statement, however, was not intended to set Jesus in opposition to the Law of Moses. Moses did not come up with the Law. It was given through Moses. It was given by God, the Father of Jesus Christ. (Herein lies another blow to Gnosticism which claimed that the Father of Jesus Christ was not the same as the ‘inferior’ Elohim of the Hebrews who gave them the Law.)
Why is Jesus Christ superior to Moses? Why is it better to be a follower of Jesus Christ than to be a Jew? According to John’s Gospel, the answer is simple and straightforward. The Law (or Judaism) was instituted to lead a people to Jesus Christ. The Law testified about Jesus Christ. That’s what Jesus said to the Jews who refused to believe in Him.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. …John 5:39-40, 45-47 ESV
Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? — Jesus Christ
One of the key things that Jesus taught his disciples was to reread the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of His incarnation. He expounded the Torah, the books of the Prophets, and the Poetic books, and showed his disciples that the Hebrew Scriptures were actually about Him, the Messiah. After his resurrection, Jesus met two men on their way to Emmaus. Without realizing that they were in Jesus’ company, they discussed the problem of His empty tomb. They refused to believe that Jesus had come back to life although their associates had told them about the empty tomb and a meeting with angels. This is what Jesus told those two doubters:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
And Jesus said to his disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures …Luke 24:25-27; 24:44-45 ESV
Those who follow Judaism, carefully studying the Hebrew Scriptures, and yet fail to see Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah) miss the whole point of Judaism! But both Jesus and the apostle Paul did not despair about the unbelievers among Jews because they knew that not all who belonged to ethnic Israel were chosen to receive a revelation of the Messiah (cf. Romans 9:1-7) That’s why Jesus told the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds. Only a small portion of the seeds sown fell on good soil and yielded a harvest (Matthew 13:1-9) Jesus also said that not all of the Jews of his time belonged to his ‘flock.’ To those who stubbornly refused to believe Him, He said, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice … I give them eternal life …” (John 10:26-28 ESV) A clear distinction was made between Jesus’ flock and those outside who were destined to destruction.
The apostle Paul too explained the function of the Mosaic Law. God had granted his promises to Abraham and to his promised Son. That promised Son was Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:16). The Law was given 430 years later in order to restrain Abraham’s descendants from sin. Israel had to be nurtured within the safe confines of God’s law, protected from polytheism, idolatry, superstitions, occultism, and immorality of the nations around them. God wanted to prepare Israel to receive their Saviour. This is how St. Paul described it:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made …
Now before [Christian] faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came …
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. …
Galatians 3:19, 23, 25, 28, 29 ESV
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Even though God’s law was good and holy, it could not save Israel. First of all, none of the Israelites could obey it perfectly. Disobeying one law was as good as disobeying the whole Law. As a result, they were not only sinners like the rest of the world but were also under a curse brought about by their disobedience to the Law. The Law was designed to help people understand the high moral standards of God. But it could not prevent people from sinning or rescue those who had already sinned. (Romans 7:7-12)
Jesus came under the law to rescue those under the Law and those who were outside it. He did not despise or set aside God’s Law. Instead, he upheld the Law and fulfilled it (Matt 5:17). He obeyed its provisions and lived a sinless life. He did what the Law could not do (Romans 8:3a). Jesus, through his sacrificial death, paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world. He is able to liberate those under the Law from its charges and its curse. He is able to save Gentiles who had never been under the Law. Thus, all believers in Jesus Christ – whether from Jewish or Gentile background – can become God’s children and be known as Abraham’s offspring.
The laws regarding sacrifices, ritual purity, priesthood, tabernacle, etc., were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The old covenant was replaced by the new covenant sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ. The moral Law of God – the Ten Commandments – still holds good because Jesus and the apostles affirmed it.
The Law of Moses served its purpose. The nomos pointed towards the Logos. It prepared a people to receive their Messiah. There is no reason why anyone should continue in Judaism after God sent Jesus, the embodiment of God’s Word to give us eternal life.