Grace and Truth: Moses Heard it, We Saw it

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And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1.14, 17-18).


I came of age in a fellowship that rarely opened the pages of the first seventy-six percent of the Bible.  Since we did not really read those Scriptures, it never occurred to me to read Jesus and the New Testament in light of those texts. But believers in the first century did not have a New Testament to read the New Testament in light of.  When first Jesus, then Peter, then Paul and John sat down to talk about God’s ways and what God wants, they turned to what we today call the Old Testament.  John wrote his story of Jesus in light of the Hebrew Bible. Because I did not grow up immersed in the same Scriptures as Jesus and the apostles, I sometimes misunderstood what those apostles wrote.

A classic example of missing what was in neon lights is the Prologue to the Gospel of John.  I grew up on teaching that asserted John was making a sharp distinction, a contrast, between the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament,” between “law” and “grace,” between “Judaism” and “Christianity.” Barton Warren Johnson summed it up succinctly in his classic New Testament Commentary, Vol.III-John, “It [OT] was not a system of grace, nor could it make men perfect; in contrast with it the system of grace and truth (see verse 14) were given by Jesus Christ” (p.31).  Or, as Ashley S. Johnson wrote that the law was “of a character that held a sword or a menace over the people from the day that they were born until the day they died” (The Two Covenants, p.63). The contrast could not be starker.

What did not occurred to the Johnsons was that the Gospel was actually quoting from the “Old Testament” when it describes Jesus in the words “grace and truth.”  They make two mistakes. They fail to hear John through the Hebrew Scriptures and they limit themselves to the King James Version. The KJV renders 1.17 as,

“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

Law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus. However, the italicized “but” lets the reader know this term does not occur in the Greek text, it is not for the sake of emphasis. The KJV inserts the “but” and creates a contrast that John did not intend. This has been corrected by modern translations where there is simply a semicolon. There is no antithesis in the text as Raymond Brown notes in his Anchor Bible Commentary on John (vol.1, pp.16-17). To introduce it does violence to John’s message. In fact it subverts his message.

Rather, John is operating more on the level of type and anti-type. John is telling his story of Jesus in light of the Scriptures he held to be sacred. And John’s description of Jesus, in neon lights, is one of the most common, and dear to Jews, description of Yahweh found throughout not only the Hebrew Bible but also other literature like the Apocrypha.  Over the years, I have come to call this description “the God Creed” and it is first vocalized by God when God’s glory was revealed to Moses after the horror of the Golden Calf debacle.  The Beloved Disciple is narrating our text using ink from Exodus 33 and 34.

Moses and God’s Glory

Israelites of John’s day were well aware the God of Israel was characterized by the language John uses: grace, truth, glory and dwelling.  The premier exemplar of these themes is the story of the Exodus. Yahweh does battle with the gods of Egypt in order to rescue a group of oppressed aliens from the kingdom of death. Yahweh brings these redeemed slaves through the Red Sea in a stunning act of grace. Yahweh leads these nobodies to a mountain to invite them into a covenant of love (Deuteronomy 7.7, 12), to be God’s bride. Then Yahweh decides to move from the top of the mountain to dwell with the newly covenanted Israelites. Plans for a honeymoon suite are drawn in exquisite detail. While one man, Moses, was receiving these architectural drawings for the dwelling of God, Israel shockingly falls. “They exchanged the glory of God for an image of an ox that eats grass” (Ps 106.20). The covenant of love is seemingly shattered. Yahweh responds as any lover would, God was hurt. The pain of betrayal is among the deepest. That is the first thirty-three chapters of Exodus. In this chapter we are left hanging: will God, in all God’s glory, still dwell with us.

Moses insists no angel will do. The mere presence of an angel will not mark Israel as God’s treasured possession.  No. Instead Moses insists (yes, he insists!) that Yahweh forgive Israel and that God fulfill the goal of the Exodus, that is dwell with them. It is divine dwelling that would be the distinctive mark of the people of Israel (Ex 33.16).

God declares to Moses, “I will do the very thing you ask.” Yahweh has forgiven Israel and God will tabernacle, dwell with, Israel. The glory of the Lord will dwell with Israel. It is at this moment that Moses prays, “Show me your glory” (Ex 33.17).  But God tells Moses that he will make his goodness, the glory, pass before him as he utters his name, but he cannot see his face for Moses would perish (Ex 33.19-23).  When Yahweh’s glory is revealed, the words Moses hears are grace and truth.

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
abounding in/full of
hesed and ‘emeth”
(Exodus 34.6)

Moses fell on his face in worship at the revelation of the glory of the Lord. Yahweh graciously renews the covenant (34.10ff). The honeymoon suite is constructed and “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” and even “Moses was unable to enter the tent” (Ex 40.34-38). The climax of Exodus is God’s glory tabernacling with Israel. But even Moses could not see the face, the essence, of God.

The God Creed and John

The self-revelation of Yahweh – grace and truth – is all the more astonishing against the backdrop of Israel’s (our) gross infidelity to the God who not only rescued Israel but brought them into the covenant of love. This revelation though, which I was completely unaware of growing up, thunders throughout the biblical story nearly forty times. See my article Exodus 34: The Pulse of the Bible.[1] It appears in the Torah, the Prophets, and the Psalms. To this day the declaration of Yahweh is known as the Thirteen Attributes in Judaism. This is who and what God claims to be.

“The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in hesed …” (Num 14.18)

“All the paths of the LORD,
are hesed and ‘emeth” (Ps 25.10)

“God will send forth his
hesed and ‘emeth” (Ps 57.3)

hesed and ‘emeth will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss” (Ps 85.10)

“But you are a God ready to forgive,
gracious and merciful,
slow to anger,
abounding in hesed,
and you did not forsake us” (Neh 9.17)

We can multiply these examples. God’s name, hesed and ‘emethgrace and truth, is God’s glory revealed. Grace and Truth are the central “Old Testament” designations for the God of Israel. John quotes it, he is not contrasting Jesus with it. Rather John is claiming Jesus is it.

Some one might object to Exodus 34.6 being the source of John’s “grace and truth” on the basis that the Septuagint does not use charis (grace) but eleos (mercy).  But the argument is not forceful.  The closer the Greek translation of the Septuagint gets to the time of the first century we find charis indeed as the translation for hesed.  We find this in Esther 2.9 and Sirach 7:33 and 10.17.  In rival Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures such as Symmachus and Theodotion hesed is rendered as charis.[2] In his study of this text, New Testament scholar A. T. Hanson concluded that grace and truth is “a perfectly reasonable rendering of the Hebrew phrase” that John likely translated himself directly from Hebrew.  New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce offers this comment on our text,

“These last words spell out the goodness which is God’s surpassing glory. But the Greek words of John 1:14, translated ‘full of grace (charis) and truth’ (aletheia), are readily recognizable as a rendering of the last phrase of Ex. 34:6, ‘abounding in steadfast love (Heb, hesed) and faithfulness’ (Heb, ‘emeh). The glory seen in the incarnate Word was the glory revealed to Moses when the name of Yahweh was sounded in his ears.”[3]

Moses Heard, We Have Seen

What Moses experienced on Mount Sinai was astounding. John does not in any way diminish what happened there. It was the revelation of God in glory, a glory that was to intense for even Moses. John is not anti-Moses, not even a little. John would even claim later that we will sing the Song of Moses and the Lamb in eternity (Revelation 15.3). What, then, is John doing?

Moses did experience a theophany of the God of Israel. But what he experienced was not simply a matter of seeing God’s beauty or God’s glory. What Moses heard was a description not of what God looks like but of who God is. This vocalization of the name – the glory – of God so overwhelmed Moses that he fell to his face in worship (Ex 34.8). John declares that the words Moses heard on the mountain, we have seen. The word spoken to Moses has become flesh and now tabernacles with us. Jesus is the grace and truth, the word, spoken to Moses. Jesus is Exodus 34.6 in three-dimensional space and time. Jesus is the incarnation of the revelation of God’s glory to Moses.

John tells his story of Jesus not as the repudiation of the Exodus but as the pinnacle of it. The goal of Exodus is reached in the tabernacling of grace and truth, the very glory of God, in a Jewish man from Nazareth. As Moses bowed before the glory of the Lord in worship, John’s Gospel will suggest we do too.

What a fresh look the New Testament takes when we read it through the lens of the Scriptures used by the first followers of the Messiah, we call them the “Old Testament.” I am glad I discovered the God Creed (Ex 34.6) many years ago, now I am delighted to see how John uses it to tell the story of the King of Kings.[4]

[1] See the outstanding and very accessible work by Harold Shank, Listening to His Heartbeat (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2009), 200-203.

[2] See the articles by J. A. Montgomery, ‘Hebrew Hesed and Greek Charis,” Harvard Theological Review 32 (1939), 97-107; A.T. Hanson, “John I.14-18 and Exodus XXXIV,” New Testament Studies 23 (1976), 90-101. John Ronning has argued that the Jewish Targums actually make John’s use of Exodus 34.6 even more conclusive, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 62-69.

[3] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 42.

[4] The literature on Exodus 34.6 and John is extensive. In addition to sources already mentioned see as examples: Lester J. Kuyper, “Grace and Truth: An Old Testament Description of God, and its Use in the Johannine Gospel,” Interpretation 18 (1964), 3-19; Dirk G. van der Merwe, “Old Testament Spirituality in the Gospel of John,” Verbum et Ecclesia 35 (2014), 1-9; H. Mowley, “John 1.14-18 in the Light of Exodus 33.7-34.35,” Expository Times 95 (1984), 135-137.  An excellent book length study is Michael P. Knowles, The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in our Midst (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).

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