January 4: John 1:17

John 1:17-18

Verses 17-18 represent the final portion of the Johannine Prologue, and our study of them will bring these notes on the Christ-hymn in the Prologue to a close. As with the other two ‘additions’ to the hymn, in vv. 6-9 and 12b-13, verses 17-18 follow one of the three main poetic units (or strophes), interpreting the lines and applying them in the unique context of the Johannine theology.

There are two statements, in verses 17 and 18 respectively; and, while they are connected, they are also distinct, and we will examine them each in turn.

Verse 17

“(For it is) that the Law was given through Moshe, but the favor and truth (of God) came to be through Yeshua (the) Anointed.”

For commentators who prefer to see vv. 17-18 as a continuation of the poetry of the Prologue-hymn, they can be read as a couplet with antithetic parallelism, i.e.—

“(It is) that the Law was given through Moshe,
but Favor and Truth came to be through Yeshua (the) Anointed”

There certainly is a strong antithetic parallelism at work in verse 17, involving three points of contrast:

    • Subject: Law | Favor and Truth
    • Means: through Moses | through Jesus
    • Action: “was given” | “came to be”

We will examine each of these points in turn.

1. “Law” vs. “Favor and Truth”

By “law” (no/mo$) is meant the written collection of regulations and requirements, etc, recorded in the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy, and customarily referred to as the “Instruction” (Torah)—given by God to His people Israel. The Greek word no/mo$ fundamentally signifies something that is “allotted” or “assigned” to a person, and, as such, has a relatively broad and comprehensive range of meaning. It can refer to any kind of accepted or authoritative custom, tradition, social or religious norm, etc. In the New Testament, it almost always refers to the Old Testament Torah, as an authoritative law-code—i.e., the “Law of Moses”.

The word no/mo$ is relatively rare in the Johannine writings, never occurring at all in the Letters. However it does occur 15 times in the Gospel, more than in any of the other Gospels (compare with 9 in Luke, 8 in Matthew, and none in Mark). The most substantial usage of the word occurs in the Sukkot (Tabernacles) discourses of chapters 7-8. The main section is 7:14-24, set midway during the feast, as Jesus is teaching in the Temple precincts. He is in conflict with the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem, a dispute which appears to be a continuation from the discourse in chapter 5. The implication of the discourse is that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, and, if the Jewish leaders claim to accept the Torah, then they should accept Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s Torah. This point is reflected in Jesus’ famous rebuke to the religious leaders in 5:39.

The noun xa/ri$ means “favor” (i.e. the favor shown by God to His people), though it is typically (and less accurately) translated as “grace”. This contrast between the Law and “grace” is reminiscent of Paul’s line of argument in Galatians and Romans. His main concern is religious, and he argues vigorously that believers in Christ—Gentile believers, especially—are no longer required, as a religious obligation, to observe the regulations of the Torah. The basis of the Christian religious identity is trust in Jesus, and it is the guiding presence of the Spirit that takes the place of the Torah in the New Covenant. All that remains of the Old Covenant is the “love command”, as defined by the teaching and example of Jesus.

This summary of the Pauline theology is generally in accordance with the viewpoint of the Johannine congregations, as expressed through the theology of the Gospel and First Letter. However, there is a somewhat different point of emphasis at work. Paul’s argument repeatedly stressed that the New Covenant in Christ means the end of the Old Covenant (for more on this, cf. the detailed discussion in the articles of my series “Paul’s View of the Law”).

The Johannine portrait, on the other hand, tends to emphasize the person and work of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Covenant. Throughout the Gospel, in various ways, Jesus effectively fulfills many types and figures of the Old Testament religion—the Temple, the Festivals and their symbols, the Passover sacrifice, and so forth. This is discussed and documented in some detail in the articles on the Gospel of John in the series “Jesus and the Law”.

The pairing of “favor and truth” was used earlier in verse 14, in reference to the Divine do/ca of the Logos. The final strophe of the hymn makes the point that the incarnate Logos (Jesus) possesses the very honor/splendor (do/ca) of God, much as a son possesses the do/ca of his father. God the Father has filled the Son with His “favor and truth”. As I discussed previously, in the context of the Johannine theology, this “favor and truth” essentially means the Spirit of God. I.e., the Father fills the Son with His own Spirit, so that the Son (Jesus) is able to give it, in turn, to those who trust in him.

2. “through Moses” vs. “through Jesus”

The point of contrast here involves the means by which the Covenant was established for the people of God. The Old Covenant, governed by the Torah, was established “through Moses”, while the New Covenant (of the Spirit) was established “through Jesus”. The preposition in each instance is dia/ (“through”). The parallelism is thus precise: Moses vs. Jesus.

Moses is mentioned a number of times in the Gospel, usually in terms of his close association with the Torah (and the Scriptures which contain the Torah). In verse 45, reference is made to Moses having “written” down the Torah, and the Torah as part of the authoritative Writing (i.e. Scripture) is very much in view in this contrast between the Law and Favor (xa/ri$). Both in Jesus’ dispute with the religious leaders in 7:14-24 (see above), and in the earlier discourse of chapter 5 (esp. the climactic verses 39-46), Jesus portrays himself as the true fulfillment of the Torah. If the Jewish leaders actually believe what Moses wrote, then they will trust in who Jesus is.

The Jesus/Moses parallel is motif that runs throughout the Gospel, as the following points will illustrate:

For a similar contrast between Old and New Covenant (written Torah vs. Spirit), drawing upon Moses traditions, see Paul’s famous line of argument in 2 Corinthians 3.

3. “given” vs “came to be”

The final point of contrast involves the verb that is used. The Law was given (vb di/dwmi) through Moses, but the Favor and Truth of God came to be (vb gi/nomai) through Jesus. As we have seen, throughout the Prologue the verb of becoming (gi/nomai) refers to created beings (in contrast to God, who is). However, in the case of the pre-existent Word/Wisdom (Logos) of God, it has the special meaning of incarnation—the Logos “came to be flesh” (v. 14), i.e., came to be born on earth as a human being.

This context makes it absolutely clear that Jesus is to be seen as the fulfillment of the Torah in his own person. This human life and existence of the Logos included the mortality of flesh and blood, even to the point of suffering and death (i.e., shedding of blood). On the importance of the idea that Jesus (as the incarnate Son of God) endured a real death and shed real blood, see both the historical detail in 19:34 and the discussion in 1 Jn 5:6-12. The ‘Eucharistic’ references in the Bread of Life Discourse (6:50-59) should be understood in this light as well. It was the sacrificial death of Jesus that allowed the Spirit to flow out to believers, symbolized by the figure of “water and blood” (19:30; 20:22; 1 Jn 5:6-8; cf. also 7:37-39).

Moses was an intermediary in the communication of the Torah to the people of God. However, the ancient Sinai tradition itself suggests that the original intention and ideal was for YHWH to speak directly to the people, without an intermediary. This is fulfilled for believers under the New Covenant, through the abiding presence of the Spirit, as Paul beautifully and powerfully expresses in 2 Corinthians 3. The Johannine Discourses develop the same idea in various ways, a theological development that reaches its climax in the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33) and the great Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17.

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