John 1:17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
A popular misconception people have about Jesus and Christianity is that Jesus came primarily to tell us what to do. His primary purpose was behavior modification on a gigantic scale. I know a young man who faithfully read our church’s devotional magazine, Meditations. With each devotion he tried to find the “moral of the story,” the lesson meant to change your behavior. It was something of a revelation to him that, when God speaks, he isn’t always trying to change your behavior. He may want nothing more than to tell you something about himself. John is telling us something similar about Jesus here. He came to give you more than rules.
Everyone knows the name of the most famous movie about Moses, the one starring Charleton Heston: The Ten Commandments. It’s no surprise, then, that John says the law was given through Moses. If you read the first five books of the Bible, the ones written by Moses, you find that God gave Moses more than ten commands. There were hundreds. They covered every facet of life. He gave laws to govern what you ate, what kind of clothes you wore, how you worshiped, whom you married, how you conducted business, how you farmed, how you schooled your children, how you practiced good hygiene, and even where and how you used the restroom. Hardly a moment went by in the lives of Old Testament believers when they weren’t consciously carrying out some rule, some instruction God had given them through Moses.
The world didn’t need Jesus to come and bring more rules. It had more than it needed from Moses. Jesus’ coming actually rolled back many of the rules given by Moses. He fulfilled them for us. That is why you don’t even feel a little bit guilty eating your Christmas ham, or worshiping on Sunday instead of Saturday.
But didn’t Jesus give us new commandments about love, like “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”? No that was Moses, too, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus just brought them to people’s attention again. Didn’t Jesus give us something new when he taught us, “Love your enemies”? No, that’s in Moses, too, (Exodus 12:49) if you read the context of what he says about the commandments. Jesus clarified things for a generation that had lost its way.
So why does John make a point of this? People have a tendency to think this way about religion, “Don’t bother me with theory and theology. Just get to the practical part. Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.” It so happens that the “theory and the theology” (which really involves no theory at all, but is all based on unchangeable facts God has revealed. More about that in a moment.) is the main part. Without it, none of the practical stuff works. You can no more follow God’s rules and live a Christian life without understanding God and his love, than a doctor can perform surgery without studying anatomy, or a mechanic can fix your car without knowing how an internal combustion engine works.
It’s not that Jesus is unconcerned about the rules, but he knows, better than we do, how miserably we fail to keep them. That is why he comes to give us something more than rules: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Didn’t grace also exist before Jesus came? Didn’t the Lord describe himself this way to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin”?
Yes he did. But God never joined us in our world as a man before Jesus. God never fulfilled all the law’s demands as our substitute before Jesus. God never died in our place to pay for all our sins before Jesus. It wasn’t until Jesus came that we had the basis for our freedom from sin, and guilt, and fear, and legalism, and Satan, and death. These gifts, this grace and truth, came through Jesus Christ. They are so much more than another set of rules.