“The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17)
When Christ “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), He was full of grace and truth. But what does this mean, and what is the relationship between these and the law that was given through Moses?
To give a correct answer we must remember that in the beginning, God dwelt with his people (Adam and Eve) in the Garden of Eden. Then, as a consequence of sin, man could no longer dwell in God’s holy presence. But in His grace, He created a way to dwell with His people (Israel) in a tabernacle and later in a temple. In the context of the construction of the tabernacle, Moses asked God to see His glory (Exodus 33:18). In response, God did not show Himself physically to Moses, but revealed Himself as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exodus 34:6).
The phrase “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” can also be translated “rich in grace and truth”. This describes God’s faithfulness to the old covenant, to the covenant of the law, which He had made with Israel and which had Moses as mediator. Therefore, most certainly, when John describes Jesus as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), this goes back to Exodus 34:6 to affirm that God’s faithfulness found its ultimate expression in the incarnation of his Son, in his new covenant, a covenant of grace.
What John wants to show is a progressive and superior development of the new covenant over the old covenant, a superiority of grace over the law. The apostle shows us this superiority, personifying it in John the Baptist, Moses and Jesus Christ (Luke 16:16).
Jesus is superior to John the Baptist (John 1:15-16)
Although in physical birth, John was born before Jesus and he also began his ministry before Jesus, John the Baptist knew that his work as a prophet was to “bear witness to Christ.” He knew that he was just “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23) and “the friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29). He was aware that God would establish the new covenant in the person of the Christ, as promised in the Old Testament and proclaimed by the prophets he represented.
John the apostle understands the superiority of Christ over John the Baptist and affirms that everyone who has believed in Jesus Christ has received “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). He affirms that there is “grace” in the Old Testament, but the fullness of God’s grace is found in the New Testament, in Christ.
Jesus is superior to Moses (John 1:17)
John sees “grace upon grace” in the persons of Moses and Jesus, and in the covenants they mediate. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Philip made a great declaration: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). Later, Jesus would affirm his superiority over Moses before the teachers of the law (John 5:39-47).
There is a superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant, of grace over the law, for the law speaks of Christ. This superiority is not based on the fact that Christ puts an end to the law, but that He fulfills it (Matthew 5:17). Therefore, in no way is there a dissociation between law and grace. On the contrary, there is a very solid unity between the two.
The law shows our sin and makes clear that we fall short of the glory of God, outside of his communion. But the law also leads us to Christ, the only mediator of God and man (Galatians 3:24). And it is there where grace overflows, because only through Christ can we obtain forgiveness of sins and recover that communion with God which we lost in the Garden of Eden.
The relationship between law and grace is that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant because now God’s law is in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34; Hebrews 10:16), and now we are not burdened to obey his law but we love to do his will (1 John 2:5-15), and when we sin we repent and ask for forgiveness.
The new covenant is full of grace and truth in Christ! The Law speaks of Christ!