17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
In the preceding verses, John presented Christ as “full of grace and truth” (v. 14), and pointed out that “of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (v. 16). Christ, in whom the fullness of grace dwelt, has come to this world to give grace to those who are in need of grace. He supplies grace to all those who trust Him.
Today’s verse gives us further understanding about the condescension of Christ as the provider of grace for all who are in need of grace. The first word in verse 17, “for” (hóti), is a demonstrative conjunction, explaining how Christ’s fullness of grace benefits those who are in need of grace.
It was for the purpose of bringing man to the fullness of God’s grace that “the law was given by Moses”. In other words, the law of God (given through Moses) makes men realise that not only are they sinners, they are also not able to escape His just condemnation without divine grace. Thus, God’s law leads us to Christ so that we may find God’s grace and truth for our salvation. We are today reminded by the law of Moses that we are condemned sinners, as people were in the Old Testament times. Thus, the law causes us to look to Christ for grace. He then shows us the true way of salvation, which He has accomplished through His death on the cross.
Though Moses was a great prophet of Israel by whom the law was given, he could only make the people realise their need for God’s grace. He couldn’t give them the grace. So by the law, he pointed them to their need of grace which Christ alone can provide. Thus Christ is presented here as infinitely greater than and superior to Moses, who was one of Israel’s greatest prophets and one of the greatest men in biblical history.
Some argue that this verse teaches that the law was contrary to God’s grace. Some even wrongly claim that there was no grace of God in the Old Testament. Such ideas are not even implied in this verse. Rather, it tells us that the law was “given” (an act of God’s grace) to direct the Old Testament people to look towards God’s grace in Christ, who was promised to them (e.g. Isaiah 53). The truth that Christ is God’s gracious provision for their salvation, was symbolically presented in the blood sacrifices of the animals. Christ was indeed the actual provision of God’s grace for man’s salvation in the Old Testament, as it is so today to all those who repent of their sins and turn to Him by faith.