Here, we continue our verse by verse study of the Prologue to John's Gospel.
The first thing we must note about this verse is that it refers to the previous verse. John says: "For the law was given. . ." By saying "For", John is giving this verse as the source of what the previous verse said. In the previous verse, John told us: "From the fullness of His grace we have all received one blessing after another" (John 1:16). Now we are given the source of all the blessings that we have received: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."
Many see John in this verse as putting "the law" and "grace and truth" in opposition to each other. I disagree with this. I see this verse as showing "the law" as being a step in a progression toward "grace and truth". As John says, "We have all received one blessing after another" (vs. 16): the first blessing, "the law was given through Moses"; then another blessing, "grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." Make no mistake. The law, as given by God, was a great blessing. David teaches: "The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward" (Ps. 19:7-11). The law teaches us true morality. The law teaches us what God considers to be right and wrong. Without God's law, we would have to guess by our own feelings what is right and wrong. We would be like ships without rudders without the law of God.
Christ, of course, has the utmost respect for the law, and lest we misunderstand His ministry, He told us: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matt. 5:17-18). Our text in John describes Christ's fulfilling of the law: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The law needed to be "fulfilled" because, though the law is "holy, righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12), it is an incomplete revelation of God and His plan. The law by itself condemns us. As Paul teaches: "Law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression" (Rom. 4:15); and then, "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: `Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law'" (Gal. 3:10); and then again, "Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in [God's] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin" (Rom. 3:20). The law is incomplete in that it sets out commands that we are required to obey, but it does not give us the strength or the means to obey, nor does it adequately provide us with a process by which we may atone for our sins. Yes, the law does set out the means for limited atonement through animal sacrifices, but this means of atonement is incomplete. As the writer of Hebrews stated: "But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Heb. 10:3-4). These ritual sacrifices were purposely left incomplete by God. In fact, rather than being the true means of atonement, they were meant to be prophetical in pointing to the true means of atonement. "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming--not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship" (Heb. 10:1). As stated, "the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming". It is a "shadow" of the true means of atonement: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The writer of Hebrews points out the difference between the "shadow" and the true means of atonement: "Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God" (Heb. 10:11-12). Paul also explains: "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering" (Rom. 8:3).
So the law was purposely left incomplete so that it may point us to Christ. The law set out commandments which were impossible for sinful man to carry out. Thus, the law showed us that we needed the grace of God in order to avoid the judgment of God. In the law we were given elements of this grace through the limited atonement provided by the ritual sacrifices, but (as stated above) this grace was imcomplete, and meant to be a shadow of the true grace that would come through Jesus Christ. So, what John states is now clear: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The full measure of God's "grace" came through Jesus Christ. "Truth" also came through Jesus Christ in that He is the fulfillment of the things to which the law pointed. And so, the law as given through Moses is not in opposition to the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ, rather it is a step in the progression that leads us to the complete revelation of God as given through the life and work of His Son Jesus Christ. Paul taught: "So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24). Yes, indeed, the law is good, in that it points us to Christ, the ultimate source of all blessings, the ultimate source of all grace, the truth of God revealed to man.
Yes, Father, we praise You and thank You for the law You have given us. We praise You that it leads us to Your Son, Jesus Christ. We thank You for the grace with which You have showered us through the forgiveness of sins through Jesus. And we thank You for Your magnificent Word, through which we know of Your perfect plan that allows us, sinful men and women, to be reconciled to You, through Your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray these things, Amen.