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"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." John 1:17
John 1:17 is often used to show that Moses didn't bring truth or grace and that what he did bring was a religion that was essentially a legal system. We know that's not correct.
John summarizes the purpose of his gospel in 20:30-31. He wants his readers to "keep the faith," (NEB) or, less likely, to come to faith in Jesus Christ so that they might have eternal life. In pursuing that end he has a number of sub themes and one of them is that Christ outshines all who went before him whether it's Jacob who gives water, the Baptist who bore witness to him, Abraham who rejoiced to see Christ's day or Moses who gave manna in the wilderness.
That theme begins early in the book where the Baptist's light bears witness to the true light and where the glory of God (the Shekinah) that dwelled among the people is exceeded by the incarnation of God in all his glory (Compare 1:14 with Exodus 40:34). That glory, we're told, is seen in his very Son who is full of grace and truth. 1
The contrast then moves to Moses who had been intimately associated with God and even reflected the glory of God (Exodus 33:13-22; 34:29-35). But Moses had never seen God himself. The only Son whose eternal intimacy with the Father made the Father known in a way that wasn't possible for Moses or anyone else.
It was out of the fullness of grace and truth that Messianic believers were blessed. Moses brought glory and grace (compare Paul's 2 Corinthians 3:7-11) 2 but the Son brought fullness of glory and gave "grace upon grace".3 Moses brought grace and truth when he came in God's name, proclaiming God's loving faithfulness to the patriarchs, and anyone who doesn't know that has been blinded to the truth of the scriptures by an over-eager defense of the peculiarly Christian faith. Blinded, too, by a misunderstanding of the nature of Old Testament Torah.
John has no intention of denying Old Testament grace or truth; he fully intends to insist that that truth and glory and grace has reached its summit and completion in God's own Son. In Christ we have received glory upon glory, truth upon truth and grace on top of (or in place of) grace.
According to Hebrews 4:2 what Moses brought from God to Israel was gospel. "For good news came to us just as it did to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers."
Not only does the Hebrew writer insist that what Moses brought was "gospel," he insisted that an appropriate response to that gospel was faith. He had earlier made the point that those to whom that gospel came, died without blessing because they were disobedient, and he calls that disobedience "unbelief". (3:16-18; compare also 4:2 and 4:6.)
It's clear from this that the profound difference between the Old and New Testament messages is not that one was legalistic and the other gospel or that one required (a legalistic response of) "deeds" rather than "faith". Both messages were gospel and both messages required the obedience of trust. This shouldn't surprise us and we shouldn't give the impression that the contrast throughout Hebrews is between a "system of works" and a "gospel of grace". It is no such thing. Hebrews 11 insists that the New Covenant called for nothing more nor less than what had counted before God from the very beginning the obedience of faith! 4
And no wonder the Hebrew writer calls Moses' message "gospel", listen to Moses' commission in Exodus 6:2-8, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they dwelt as sojourners. Moreover I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold in bondage and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, 'I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment, and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.' " All these rich promises and what they imply about the God who makes them is nothing short of "good news". And part of that gospel was that God would take them as his people and he would be their God in a covenanted relationship (compare Exodus 19:5-6 and 24:3-8).
To contrast the obedience the Torah calls for with the gracious redeeming work of God in Christ is to contrast the wrong things and create needless tension. To make a proper contrast we need to compare God's gracious redeeming work in rescuing Israel from Egypt with his redeeming work in rescuing a human race. One outshines the other but it doesn't deny the glory or grace of the other. It wouldn't be difficult to create a pseudo tension if we compared the blunt demand for obedience found in a host of New Covenant texts with God's gracious redemption of Israel from Egypt. If we did that, it would make the New Covenant writings look legalistic. God's free and sovereign grace undergirds the call for obedience in both covenants and that gives obedience a responsive character rather than a creative one.
Moses brought grace and truth. He takes almost eleven chapters of Deuteronomy to lay a foundation of salvation and life with God by free grace, before he repeats and expounds the commandments of the Torah.
He rehearses how good God has been to them; multiplying them, delivering them, guiding them, tolerating their unbelief and presumption, sustaining them for forty years in the awful wilderness, overcoming their enemies and giving them even more land than he had promised. He reminds them that God honoured them by giving them a covenantal Torah that the world would be jealous of and that he offered them such intimacy with himself in that covenant that was totally unheard of.
All of this, not because Israel was impressive or strong (Deuteronomy 7:7; 8:17) and it certainly wasn't because they were a righteous people. Note how repetitive this text is as it drives its truth home. "Do not say in your heart...'It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess the land'; ...Not because of our righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land...but that he may confirm the word which the Lord swore to your fathers, the Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people..." (9:4-6) And the rest of the chapter documents this description of them.
Whoever came up with the notion that the Old Testament Torah taught a "save yourself by the merit of your obedience" doctrine, didn't get it from the Torah itself. The redeeming history it rehearses and the theological meaning it gives to those redemptive acts are death to any self-salvation message. In addition to this, it always links Israel's obedience with God's prior grace and redemptive work.
Years ago I read a man who was Mr. Death on legalism. In the course of his argument he said Israel should have said 'no' to God's offer of the Torah. He said God was only putting them to the test and they failed that test by agreeing to do whatever the Torah asked. But Deuteronomy 5:27-28 disagrees with that. Israel says to Moses: "Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey." God's response to that was, "I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good." God knew that they wouldn't keep the word they gave but he did commend the response.
Joshua (24:2) reminds Israel that their forefathers, in the days of Terah and Abraham, worshipped idols beyond the Euphrates. And what is it that redeemed them? God graciously made himself known to Abraham and so the night of idolatry and polytheism began to dawn toward a full blown knowledge of the one true God who gave Israel his covenant name, Yahweh.
Was this a privilege? Was Israel advantaged by this light? Were they blessed when compared to other nations who worshipped things that crawled and rattled and slithered? Paul gives voice to a Jewish protest in Romans 3:1, "What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew...?" and answers, "Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God." And later, in Romans 9:3-5, the gifts and privileges he says belonged to Israel include "the receiving of the law". God made himself known to Israel as to no other nation and a part of that self-revelation was the Torah.
Moses is thrilled with the privilege he had brought to Israel in the commandments of Torah. He has no thought that he's delivering to them a yoke of bondage. Far from it; in Deuteronomy 4:6-8 he delights to tell them:
Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you this day?
Not everyone was as fortunate or as privileged as those to whom Moses spoke when he said (Deuteronomy 5:2-3): "The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today."
And it was when they were called to, "Stand up and praise the Lord your God" that the returnees from exile confessed how good God had been to them down the years delivering them from captivity and sustaining them through the awful wilderness. It was in that celebratory setting that they said, "You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good." (Nehemiah 9:5-13)
No wonder Jacob Neusner, probably America's most prolific Rabbi, reminds us that, for the Jews, the Torah finds its place among the gifts of a gracious God: "We thank Thee, Lord our God...for Thy Torah which Thou has taught us, for Thy statutes which Thou has made known to us, for the life of grace and mercy Thou has graciously bestowed on us..." 5 In describing halakhah (the authoritative interpretation of Torah) he remarks, "When people think of law, they ordinarily imagine a religion for book-keepers, who tote up the good deeds and debit the bad and call the result salvation or damnation, depending on the outcome. But when we speak of life under the halakhah law, we mean life in accord with the halakhah, the rules and regulations of a holy life." 6
Agreeing with this viewpoint, Old Testament scholar, Walther Eichrodt, said: "This new saving act by God consists in his giving of the law. In it the Exodus from Egypt reaches its objective...The value set on the law makes it clear that it constitutes the actual divine gift of life...God's law as a new order of society takes a man out of the cursed sphere of sin and remoteness from God, and gives him his place in the living God's sphere of blessing, where the powers of death cannot lay hold on him. This seems to characterize the law of the covenant as the great gift of life...Here is not a set of severe demands made by an arbitrary and alien will, narrowing down life, and subjecting it to a rigid regime of reward and punishment." 7
The gracious nature of the covenantal Torah is stressed not only in the redeeming acts of God which were the prelude to the giving of the Torah, it's cultic service proclaimed the nation's debt to God's amazing grace. B.W. Anderson is surely correct when he says: "Ritual is belief that is acted out by the people in corporate worship or by their representatives, the ministers or priests. In religion what is done in worship is sometimes more important than what is said. Actions may express convictions about God and God's relation to the people more eloquently than words or even specific theological statements." 8
The Christian will think about baptism and the Lord's Supper in this connection. In the Jewish setting, take the Feast of the Firstfruits as observed corporately and individually. Here's Deuteronomy 26:1-10: When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firsfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in the office at the time, "I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us." The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: "My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me. "Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him.
Notice the repeated confession that the land was "given" to them by God even as he had long ago promised. Note the confession of desperation and utter helplessness and the witness that God listened to their cries, rescued them, brought them safely to the land and richly blessed them.
And there was the Passover that bore witness to God's gracious passing over Israel at the time of judgment on sinners. The feast said, "We should have died and the only reason we are alive and flourishing this day is because of the Lord's goodness and kindness."
The sacrificial system, which included the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), was only possible because God gave them the blood on their altars (Leviticus 17:11) to make atonement. Sinners though they were, the continuing mercy of God extended to them through the sacrificial arrangement enabled them to live in relationship with the holy Lord who was pleased to dwell among them.
In the Torah, the Tabernacle and sacrificial system is not seen as man's self-chosen means of securing God's favor despite sin. In Exodus 39:40 we're told about seventeen times that the Tabernacle and all connected with it was carried out by "Moses...as the Lord commanded him." 9 Moses didn't invent the Tabernacle, priestly or sacrificial system to gain God's good grace by sacrifice; God set it all up and gave it efficacy.
Finally, when Moses came back down the mountain Israel had violated the covenant in the most fundamental way and came under threat of obliteration. Moses pleads on their behalf and the God of all grace extended mercy. They lived because of grace and not merit accrued by deeds. They earned nothing but death and received life as an expression of God's grace.
All this Israel knew! All this the Torah proclaimed! All this meant that there was truth and grace abundant in the ministry of Moses to Israel. See Exodus 32:33.
1. It hardly needs to be said that Moses brought "truth". Paul insists on this in Romans 2:20 and says Christ came to confirm God's truthfulness in light of Torah's promises (Romans 15:8).
2. I think 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 connects well with John 1 in following a contrast. What is prior is glorious, what follows is more glorious. See especially 3:18 as part of the argument.
3. In the phrase "Grace upon grace" the preposition is "anti" which often (Hendriksen and others would say usually) has a substitutionary notion. Both Hendriksen and Morris settle for the substitutionary use in this passage but suggest that the phrase means something like: the Christian has one experience of grace following another. If what I've suggested above has merit, it might be better to see the fullness of God's grace through Jesus Christ replacing the grace that came through Moses. Morris and Hendriksen treat the passage as a contrast between law religion brought by Moses and gospel brought by Christ. I don't think we should understand it that way.
4. This raises questions about Paul's claims about the Torah. I'll say something about these elsewhere, God enabling.
5. An Introduction to Judaism, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, 1991, page 5. It won't hurt us to note again this phrase in which the Jewish Synagogue service expresses thanks to God, "for the life of grace and mercy Thou has graciously bestowed on us." We read a lot of quotations from evangelical writers which are assigned a "legalistic" thrust. Here's one of many that humbly confesses that life is a gift of grace and mercy.
6. Ibid., page 63
7. Ezekiel, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1970, page 267
8. Contours of Old Testament Theology, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1999, page 116.
9. In Exodus and Numbers there's a clear defense of Moses against accusations that he seized authority and acted like a dictator. This is probably the immediate point for this reiteration. Nevertheless, the constant refrain that the Tabernacle and its services were structured by Moses "as the Lord commanded" him establishes the point made above.