For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The above quotation is John 1.17 and comes from the New King James Version of the Bible. It is quite similar to the original translation in the old King James Version.
It is also entirely misleading.
The word “but” is an addition to the text. John’s Gospel does not oppose the Law of Moses with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. The New American Standard Bible is more accurate on this point:
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
Is there an implied contrast between “Law” and “grace and truth” in this verse? Quite certainly there is. John is describing the difference between Moses and Jesus. Moses was the giver of the Law; Jesus was the mediator of grace and truth (i.e. he did not “give” them as Moses did but they were somehow manifested “through” him).
However, the nature of this contrast is not that of complete opposites. It is not the same as the difference between condemnation and vindication, for example, nor as the difference between guilt and forgiveness. On the contrary the difference between Law and grace and truth is the different between good and best.
To see this, let’s look at the broader context:
And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is become before me, for He existed before me.’” For of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1.14-18; NASB with margin readings).
From verse 15 through 17 John gives us several different sorts of relationships between Jesus and John the Baptist and Jesus and Moses. A diagram might help us understand what John is saying:
John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying,
A. For of His fullness we have all received,
A. and grace
B. for grace [or “in place of grace”].
B. For the Law was given through Moses;
A. grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist comes as the last and greatest of the prophets in the line of Moses, but Jesus surpasses Moses and thus must surpass John. In John’s Gospel, this transition is summed up in verse 17b as “grace for grace” or “grace instead of grace.” Perhaps “grace in place of grace” would be clearer.
What John is teaching is that God was fundamentally gracious and loving in giving the Law through Moses but that Jesus manifests more grace and truth than what was in the Law. We have received greater grace through Jesus. Moses was good, but Jesus was better!
John is saying even more in this preface to his Gospel. Verse 14 has an allusion to an incident in the life of Moses. John writes “And the Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Then Moses said, “I pray you, show me [literally: “cause me to behold”] Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”…And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth… (Exodus 33.17-23, 34.5-7).
That last verse (34.7) could easily and accurately be translated from the original Hebrew as “…full of grace and truth.” John is saying in no uncertain terms that it was Jesus who met Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses gave the law because Jesus gave it to him first. It is no accident that John used the word for dwelling that the common Greek translation of the Old Testament in the first century used to describe God’s presence in the Tabernacle (v. 14). The Angel of the LORD who led Israel out of Egypt was Jesus before his incarnation.
Moses and Jesus are not enemies but friends. Their revelations of God are different because Jesus’ gives us greater grace.
To go back to Moses would be an unthinkable affront to God who has given us something better. Paul wrote the entire letter of Galatians to make sure people understood that simple point. But to portray Moses’ revelation as the antithesis of what Jesus revealed is also an unthinkable affront.
It is no accident, that John’s Gospel, having given us this prologue in favor of Moses also records Jesus’ accusation against the Jewish leaders:
Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in 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? (John 5.45-47)
The Law of Moses and the grace and truth of Jesus are not contradictory, but in a continuum.