According to John 1:17, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This statement seems to suggest that divine “grace and truth” did not exist before the arrival of Yeshua, and that God withheld these gifts in Moses’ day. However, Israel’s Scriptures resist this mutually exclusive conclusion. Instead, the Gospel asserts that Jesus is the physical embodiment of the grace and truth that God bestowed through Moses.
Several English translations of John 1:17 overemphasize a supposed contrast between Moses and Jesus by adding to the Greek text. The King James, for instance, reads, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (cf. AMP; CEV; GNT; ISV; NET; NKJV). However, there is no “but” (ἀλλά or δὲ) in the original Greek. While this English addition insinuates that Moses was not a conduit of “grace” (χάρις; cháris) or “truth” (ἀλήθεια; alétheia), the biblical record disallows this restrictive reading.
The entire point of Moses’ mission is to dispense grace upon the people through the exodus from Egypt. At the burning bush, the Lord tells Moses that the Israelites “will listen to your voice… and [Pharaoh] will let you go, and I will give this people grace (χάρις; cháris) before the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:18, 20-21 LXX). As the Hebrews leave Egypt, God’s outpouring of grace is linked with Moses’ work as Israel’s leader: “The Lord gave the people grace (χάρις) in the sight of the Egyptians… and the man Moses was very great before the Egyptians” (Exodus 11:3). After the exodus, Moses blesses the priestly tribe of Levi with reference to God’s truth: “To Levi he said, ‘Give to Levi [God’s] manifestations and his truth (ἀλήθεια; alétheia)” (Deut 33:8 LXX). Moses gives “grace” and “truth” to his people, and Jesus also offers those gifts according to John’s Gospel.
Indeed, just as Moses dispenses grace and truth, Jesus imparts wisdom from the “Law” (νόμος; nomos; cf. John 7:19-23; 8:17; 10:34; 15:25). But if both Moses and Jesus impart grace, truth, and Law, then why does John make a comparison between the two at all? The difference is not in the nouns of John 1:17 (i.e., “grace,” “truth,” and “Law”), but in the verbs: “the Law was given (ἐδόθη; edóthe) through Moses; grace and truth came (ἐγένετο; egéneto) through Jesus Christ.” The word for “came” (ἐγένετο) denotes something being physically “manifest” on earth, as John’s immediately prior use of the term corroborates: “The Word became (ἐγένετο) flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14; cf. 1:15). That is, Moses received God’s Law and gave it to Israel; grace and truth came into physical being through the person of Jesus. This is why Yeshua declares, “I am the way, the truth (ἀλήθεια), and the life” (John 14:6). To be sure, Moses imparts grace and truth, and then God offers the very embodiment of that grace and truth in Jesus.