Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:16–17 NIV 2011)
What John says in verses 16-17 should change our view of how God dealt with people in the days of the Old Testament. In Jesus, God unveiled the full measure of grace and truth. But John does not picture the time before Jesus as a time lacking grace and blessings. Rather, grace has been added to grace. Now we are left with the question: what does it mean that we have all received “grace upon grace” (ESV) or “grace in the place of grace already given” (NIV)? What does it mean that grace was added to grace? Verse 17 is the explanation of this message. Notice that verse 17 begins with the word “for.” John explains what he means here. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John does not paint the law in a negative light. Rather, the law is described as the first grace that was offered.
The Law of Moses revealed grace in a number of ways. We must never forget the occasion of God giving his law to Israel. He had just delivered them from Egyptian slavery. God had just shown his power against Israel’s oppressors and had set them free. Grace was already flowing toward Israel. The Law of Moses reveals God’s grace in many ways. First, the law revealed the character, nature, and will of God. The law was a detailed explanation of God’s demands. God did not leave his people in the dark about who he was and what he desired. It was gracious for God to reveal himself through the law. This is one of the misconceptions we continue to have about the scriptures and about God’s laws. We often look at God’s laws as a bunch of rules given by a cosmic dictator trying to tell us what to do. Instead, we need to see the scriptures and the laws of God as grace. God is revealing himself to us. God is telling us about himself. God is telling us what we must become if we are going to have a relationship with our Creator. Law is not in opposition to grace. Law is the extension of grace, the revealing of grace. Israel’s deliverance under the first redeemer, Moses, issued the gift of the Law. The Law was given to the people. It was not a burden. The Law was the revelation of God’s will for his people.
Second, the Law revealed the truth about ourselves. The Law was gracious because it showed where the people stood before God. The Law revealed their shortcomings. The Law declared the character of God so that their hearts would be illumined that they fell short of his character. In this we truly see grace. The Law revealed sins and revealed that the people were law breakers. But God did not judge the people immediately for their sins. God did not destroy people for every sin they committed. Grace was extended to the people. Grace was being offered, allowing the people to repent and offer sacrifices so that the people would see the gravity of their sins. Fire did not come down from heaven and consume every person for every sin. We see that happen on a few occasions toward those who were standing in rebellion to God. But that was not the stance God had toward the world, nor toward his people. Grace was being offered through the Law of Moses in that though the people did not obey the law, God continued to have a relationship with his people. God continued to bless his people though they were violators of the law. This is the very point the apostle Paul was making about God in Romans 3:25. In speaking about Jesus being the propitiation for sins, Paul says, “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25 ESV). Carefully read those words: in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. Passing over sins is grace. God was being gracious to the people throughout their history.
But now we are receiving the fullness of grace through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God has revealed the full measure of grace. God’s faithfulness has its ultimate fruition in Jesus. God’s character of grace and truth (faithfulness) was revealed with the giving of the law but was fully revealed and made available to all people through Christ. To parallel the exodus, the redemption brought by the second Redeemer (Jesus Christ) was a deeper revelation of God and the fullest experience of salvation, grace, and covenant faithfulness. God had been giving grace but now the ultimate reality of grace has been bestowed through Jesus. God’s grace and faithfulness are seen in Jesus.