“For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (Gospel of John 1:16-18)
As the Protestant Christian movement emerged, one of the biggest disagreements between those who would one day become Protestants and those who would remain Roman Catholic was the issue of the law’s function in the life of the believer. One of the five most important theological “shortcut” phrases of the Reformation was, “sola fide” which means, “by faith alone”. This phrase indicated how one was “saved” from God’s eternal judgment. This 15th-16th-century conflict between Protestants and Catholics was later read back into the Pauline writings and projected back into Paul’s own words. Today, hardly anyone will object to that fact that Paul must be read through a first-century Israelite interpretive lens and not through the later lenses of a Catholic-vs-Protestant conflict historically unrelated to Paul.
While the juxtaposition of the law and the gospel was present in the Church Fathers, it is not until the time of the Reformation that the juxtaposing of law and grace became so pronounced. This became a dominant emphasis of the Reformation. The opposite of grace became law; the opposite of law became grace. However, scripturally the opposite of law was never grace but lawlessness. Just as the opposite of grace was never law but disgrace.
Like Paul, John has also been greatly misunderstood and interpreted anachronistically. In John 1:17, for example, some important English Bible translations (such as KJV and NET Bible) insert the additional word – “but”. This word is not present in the original Greek. Moreover, even when modern translations do not add the word “but” (see the ESV quoted above) the verse is normally understood as if the “but” is implied. It is almost impossible for us to read this text and not juxtapose law and grace in our contemporary minds (Try it! You too will have a hard time.)
If one ignores the negative reading and instead interprets the phrase (in verse 17) positively – “The Law came through Moses; (and) grace and truth come through Jesus Christ” – then the text flows organically. In this case, it is obviously connected with the previous confession by the Gospel’s author that grace was given in addition to the grace already provided. (16“For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”) Perhaps a translation that can help us get rid of this inbred dichotomy would read like this:
“For the Torah was given through Moses and grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
God’s desire is that we come to know Him intimately. We come to know Him through the study of His Word. If you desire a deeper understanding of God’s Word, it is essential that you understand the Jewish background and culture.
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