CAN YOU EXPLAIN JOHN 1:17?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Yes, I can. In short, one is distant and the other is near!
The Jews were cruelly enslaved—in bondage to Egypt, sin, and Satan. God heard their cries for help, and He brought to mind the covenant He had made with their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After destroying Egypt with 10 plagues, defeating Pharaoh and his idols, the God of the Hebrews brought His people across the Red Sea with a mighty hand. Those miracles should have caused Israel to see they would have to rely on God rather than their religious works. It would be His works, not theirs.
In His grace, JEHOVAH God gave Israel everything she needed. They desired deliverance from Egypt; He gave it (Exodus 14:1–15:22). They wanted potable water; He provided it (15:23-26). They wanted food; He furnished them with manna and quail (16:1-36). They desired drinkable water; He offered it to them (17:1-7). He gave them military victory over their enemies, the Amalekites (17:8-16). After seeing God’s faithfulness to them, amazingly, the Jews overlooked it and pompously declared they could now be faithful to God. After all of their complaining and doubt in the previous chapters, they claimed they would now obey God!
We read the LORD’S words to Moses in Exodus 19:4-6: “ Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.  Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:  And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” After emphasizing what He did for them (verse 4), highlighting their weaknesses and deficiencies, He tested them (verses 5,6). “Do you want to be My people based on what you do?” Verse 8 says: “And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do.”
How will the LORD respond? How will this affect His relationship with Israel?
In Exodus 19:1-8, Israel accepted God’s Covenant of Law. They will be His people only if they obey His Law. How does God react? How is His relationship with Israel changed? Their wish is granted via an extremely frightening encounter with Him!
“ And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the LORD.  And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes,  And be ready against the third day: for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.  And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:  There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.”
“ And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.  And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.  And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.”
The dreadful Law of God will be implemented!
Hebrews chapter 12 summarizes the drastic change in how God dealt the Israelites when they rejected His grace and preferred a performance-based acceptance system: “ … the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, … blackness, and darkness, and tempest,  And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more:  (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart:  And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake: )….”
With the institution of the Mosaic Law (delineated in Exodus chapter 20), JEHOVAH God became distant and severe. If there was so much as an animal that touched Mount Sinai, God demanded it be killed! A man was to be put to death if he touched Sinai! Israel, up to this point, had not been fearful of God. They had seen God deal harshly with Egypt, but not with them. Now, they literally tremble as the Old Covenant is ratified!
Friend, the Law is not the sinner’s friend. No, the Law is not flawed: God’s Law is “holy, just, and good” (Romans 7:12). However, it is “weak through [our] flesh” (Romans 8:3). The Law “worketh wrath” (Romans 4:15). We cannot measure up to God’s righteous standards. Not only are our deeds evil; we, by nature, in heart, are evil (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 7:11). The Law exposes our sinful nature and deeds: “For by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). “The strength of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56b). The Law only highlights our failures. It was intended to teach Israel they could not be God’s people based on their efforts! As long as they had a performance-based acceptance system, their religious works being the issue, God would always be distant, displeased, offended, and angry. They would need JEHOVAH God to institute a more advantageous, and personal, system.
John 1:17 highlights how the Law was dispensed from a distance. God did not speak directly to Israel on Mount Sinai when He issued and defined the Law. No, He instructed Moses to come up and meet with Him. Moses then descended and delivered the Law to the Israelites. The Jews were kept at a distance. We have neither time nor space to detail that with quotations, but you can refer to Exodus chapters 19-32.
In opening his Gospel Record of Christ’s earthly ministry, John the Apostle moved from the Law—a distant, cold, strict system—to something called “grace and truth.” Notice the contrasting conjunction “but:” “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” The Holy Spirit is actually highlighting the advantageous and new system that God will institute in Israel one day. To wit, John 1:17 is really demarcating two covenants—the “Old Covenant” (Law of Moses) and the “New Covenant” (Law of Messiah).
We remind ourselves of the Mosaic Law’s true purpose, Romans 3:19-20: “ Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them [Israel] who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world [Jews and Gentiles] may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The Old Covenant was never meant to be permanent: it was to serve one purpose. It was to show the whole world—every Jew, every Gentile—that they were sinners. There would be no argument or doubt, as God made it very clear. Religion and man’s efforts are not the answer! Grace and God’s efforts are the answer!
The Law was “given” by Moses, yes. But, grace and truth “came” by Jesus Christ. Unlike with the Old Covenant, God did not send something to Israel from afar. No, with the New Covenant, God came to Israel literally, physically, visibly, and personally.
Notice Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the LORD himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” When Jesus Christ came to Earth, specifically to Israel, He was their greatest sign. The JEHOVAH God who had dealt so frighteningly with Moses on Sinai when delivering the Law, had now revealed Himself by taking on a human body! Jesus, living among other Jews, was indeed “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
John 1:11 says, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” JEHOVAH God came to His own people, Israel, but they rejected Him. Moreover, they conspired with the Gentiles to kill Him (Psalm 2:1-3; Acts 4:23-28). Still, it was in God’s design to use man’s free will to accomplish His end. With man crucifying Christ, there would be shed blood, allowing the implementation of a new covenant for Israel. Please see Hebrews 8:8-13: “For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah….” “For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Romans 11:27—verse 26 identifies this as Christ’s Second Coming, yet future from our day).
Israel accumulated much wrath under the Old Covenant, but grace would cover it. Jeremiah 31:2 speaks of Israel’s redemption and restoration: “The people which were left of the sword found grace in the wilderness; even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest.” Zechariah 12:10 describes this Second Coming: “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications….” As does Acts 3:19-20: “[Israel] Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord. And he shall send Jesus Christ….”
With Jesus Christ coming once to Israel to shed His blood, He will return to ratify the covenant that typifies for them “grace and truth.”
While we have merely scratched the surface, we conclude this Bible study by reading the context of John 1:17: “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God….  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.  And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.  For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Israel did not need Law—hundreds of rules and regulations she could never keep. She needed grace, “grace for grace,” abounding grace—what God would do to make her His people (see verses 12,13).
Long before Israel demanded the Mosaic Law, God had promised her father Abraham that He would make of Abraham’s seed a nation of people for His name (see Genesis 12:1-3). The New Covenant qualifies Israel to receive the blessings of that Abrahamic Covenant. Moreover, that New Covenant cancels the sin debt accumulated under the Old. In the New Covenant, God puts His Spirit in the Jews and causes them to keep His laws. “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10). “And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (Ezekiel 36:27).
We see here a glimpse of Israel functioning as God’s “kingdom of priests” in the Millennium, Christ’s Second Coming onward. Messiah’s Law is much stricter than the Mosaic Law (see Matthew chapters 5-7). However, the New Covenant, unlike the Old, provides Israel with forgiveness for her past transgressions and the ability (indwelling Holy Spirit) to never, ever to repeat them!