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Full of grace and truth: bible study on John 1:14-18.

Hans Ucko is programme secretary for inter-religious relations and dialogue with the World Council of Churches. This Bible study reflects much that the author has learned from his friend Rev. Dr Goran Larsson, former director at the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem, to whom he wishes to acknowledge his gratitude for his insights and erudition.
 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his
 glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.
 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said,
 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before
 me.'") 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
 1:14-18)

 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a
 God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast
 love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth
 generation, (1) forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet
 by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the
 parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third
 and the fourth generation." (Ex. 34:6-7)


The assembly theme, "God, in Your Grace, Transform the World", is a prayer recognizing that God with mercy changes the world to something better; it is a prayer for a genuine tikkun olam, a mending of creation and the long-awaited ushering in of justice, peace and human dignity. The transformation of the world needs to be all-inclusive; it is a transformation of unjust structures and individual inclinations, of the world out there and the world inside us. The churches and the religious institutions are not exempt. The prayer cannot imply that we shrink from our calling and ask God to do the transformation. We need to be open for transformation ourselves in relation to the world and to the other, seeing the world and the other with grace.

Today's Bible study invites a closer look at John 1:14-18 and focuses on the word "grace". The text is well known. The words are dense with meaning. The language is liturgical: "The Word became flesh and lived 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 ... No one has ever seen God." Coming from a "high church" tradition, the Church of Sweden, and having been ordained in this church; my relationship to the words "the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" seem very concrete. I have read the words of consecration in the eucharist, I have lifted up the bread and the wine, and I kneel and whisper to myself, "The Word became flesh and lived among us. His glory is full of grace and truth."

Pitfalls of translation

We need, however, to recognize that the text has also been used to support another reading, justifying a polarization between the Law of Moses and the grace and truth of Christ. The word grace appears plenty of times in these few verses: "full of grace and truth", we have received "grace upon grace", "grace and truth" came through Jesus Christ. In verse 17 we read: "The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." This is the reading as interpreted by the NRSV. There are two sentences here: the law through Moses, grace and truth through Christ. I do not think I am jumping to conclusions when I say that many will hear a "but" between these two sentences. There is no "but" in the Greek original, but we hear a "but". The law was indeed given through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. The NRSV version and many other translations which do not have the "but" may reflect in their translation the last fifty years of Jewish-Christian dialogue. It does away with a reading that for centuries provided a polarization read into the verse: there was law but then there was grace and truth. The "but"-translation reflects a Christian theology of supercession, or the replacement of Judaism. Up to a point, the old covenant was valid, but not any more. We have something that is much more. One may be willing to give some crumbs of recognition to Moses, but he is henceforth passe. We all know it from our own context. We do the same, when we want to badmouth someone and we feel we cannot do it just like that. So we say, "Well, he is a nice guy, but ..." and then we go on with the real thing, the badmouthing. The preface was only to create the space for badmouthing. So we say: "The law was given, but grace and truth is much better." Allow me to read a couple of these translations to make my point that this verse was understood to support a polarization between old and new, law and gospel, law and merit on one side and grace and truth on the other, between Judaism and Christianity.

This is how the verse has been and continues to be interpreted through various Bible translations, and through these taught in Christian education and homiletics:

* For the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ (NASB).

* We got the basics from Moses, and then this exuberant giving and receiving. This endless knowing and understanding - all this came through Jesus, the Messiah (The Message).

* While the law was given through Moses, grace unearned, undeserved favour and spiritual blessing and truth came through Jesus Christ (Amplified Bible).

* For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (King James Version).

* The law was given through Moses, but loving and truth came through Jesus Christ (New Life Version).

* The law was given by Moses, but Jesus Christ brought us undeserved kindness and truth (Contemporary English Version).

* For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (New King James Version).

* For the law was given by Moses; but grace and truth is made by Jesus Christ (Wycliffe).

* Moses gave us the law. Jesus Christ has given us grace and truth (New International Readers Version).

All these readings portray the situation as if grace and truth did not exist before Christ. We must therefore be grateful to the NRSV and other translations trying to do away with a polarization that is not present in the Greek, but which grows out of a Christian theology, which saw the church supersede Judaism. Christian theology influenced the Bible translation. This theology is not so easy to do away with. There are quite a few who while reading the NRSV still insert a mental "but" to express the contrast between "the law" and "grace and truth". The theological thinking goes like this: Before they knew only the God of the Old Testament, but now in the New Testament, we have grace and truth. Or if one is more cautious, one will say that grace and truth may have been there but they were not known before the coming of Christ. In the vein of a necessary transformation, we need to be vigilant so as not to perpetuate such polarized readings.

Let us enter the text. The verses 14-18 are a typical Jewish Midrash, i.e. a commentary on scripture, the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, as there was at this time no other scripture. John is first of all fully rooted in the Jewish tradition of keeping the name of God holy, cautious not to utter it in vain and therefore as in this case to use other ways of saying God without mentioning the name. Here he uses divinum passivum, the divine passive. John says, "The law was given." We can begin guessing which text John is referring to because of the emphasis John puts on the words "grace and truth", in Hebrew hesed we-emeth. The text John refers to is the text before us, Exodus 34:6-7. The context of the text is God giving Torah to the Jews. The LORD passed before him, and he proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness [literally vrav hesed we-emeth, nozer hesed la-alafim], full of grace and truth, keeping grace for thousands.

John knows this text; it is a well-known text; it is a summary of the scriptures, just as we may call John 3:16 a summary of the Bible. The words are written on arks in synagogues that give shelter to the Torah scrolls and on the curtain covering the ark. It is such an important text because the people of Israel realize that God is really a God full of hesed. This is the second time the people receive the law. There has already been the story featuring the golden calf. No one would be surprised if there were consequences for the people having attributed to the golden calf the gift of liberation out of bondage, if God judged the people, "visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation". But the measure of God's hesed is proved to be more than the measure of God's judgment. There is a Midrash to the story of Moses receiving the Torah. Moses saw how God wrote the words "vrav hesed", full of grace, in the Torah, and asked: "Does this mean that you have patience with the pious?" But God answered, "No, with sinners also am I long-suffering:" "What!" exclaimed Moses. "Let the sinners perish!" God said no more, but when Moses later, upon seeing how the people defected to the golden calf, implored God's mercy, begging God to forgive the sin of the people of Israel, God answered Moses, "Didn't you tell me not to have patience with sinners and to destroy them?" "Yes," said Moses, "but didn't you say that you were long-suffering with sinners also? So, let now the patience of the Lord be great according to your own words." The measure of judgment is three or four generations long, but the measure of grace is one thousand generations.

Grace beyond measure

Hesed is a very graphic word. It is that part of an overfull measure which is on top of the measure itself. When you go shopping and the salesperson appreciates the customer, he might give you hesed, i.e. he heaps something on top, instead of one kilo, you get a little extra. You won't have to pay for it. It is the cup which flows over (Ps. 23:5) or it is a "good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, (which) will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38).

The Exodus text overflows with hesed: vrav hesed we-emeth, nozer hesed la-alafim. The Jewish tradition is convinced that there are no redundant words in the scriptures. There must thus be a reason for the repetition of the word hesed. God has graced the people with a renewal of the covenant but there is more hesed to come. God keeps, stores, holds in God's hands more hesed, hesed for the future. The thousands are in view, the coming generations, all the nations. It is the same when God blesses Abraham. Abraham is not blessed for the sake of Abraham. He is blessed because God has someone in sight beyond Abraham. Or as in Exodus (19:5), God addresses the people, "You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, because the whole earth is mine." The whole earth is the ultimate concern of God.

John knows that "the law indeed was given through Moses". He now refers to the Exodus text by recalling the catchword for the whole verse: grace and truth, hesed we-emeth. The grace kept in store is, as John tells the story about "the Word became flesh and lived among us", pouring out over the thousand. This is the time of the ingathering of the gentiles, the gentiles are coming to join the kingdom of priests and a holy nation, they are joining the people, once taken out of Egypt, graced in spite of the golden calf, renewed in covenant. God, full of grace and truth, which is truth to be trusted, is keeping grace for the thousands. Now is the time. This is the moment of truth, not as an objective truth, but as a truth that John has experienced in his heart. It is like when you yourself are moved beyond your own confines. You are full of awe. This is not the time for metaphysical inflation. But it is a conviction based on a passionate commitment to goodness and the goodness of being. There is no contrast, no "but" involved, no polarization between the old and the new, no discarding one for the other. The law was given as a sign of grace, and now the grace stored is poured out.

Keeping the faith

There is additional support for my suggestion that God has shown grace to the people of Israel and has stored grace for the thousand, and that John refers to this in the text before us. If we open any Torah scroll and read the verse of Exodus 34:7, where the first Hebrew word is nozer, the one who keeps, we shall see it. The first letter is the letter nun, the equivalent of an N. This letter is written in a way that differs from how one usually would write it. The letter nun is here much bigger than any other of the letters; it is therefore called a nun rabbati, a big N, which goes beyond what a capital N would look like. You would find the same in every Torah scroll.
 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]

 The Hebrew text of Exodus 34:7a, "nozer hesed la'alafim" or "keeping
 faith (or 'steadfast love') for thousands". The initial Hebrew
 letter (reading right to left) is traditionally printed in a larger
 size than the surrounding text in order to emphasize God's
 graciousness.


The sofer, the scribe, wanted to make the reader observant; please note, this is a secret I am telling you. Grace is being kept in store for the future. And this future is now, says John. And God kept it in store for this time. Let us read Matthew 2:23 in this light: "There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He will be called a Nazorean.'" The root is the same, NZR. Jesus is a notzri, someone from Nazareth, a place, which makes us remember the Hebrew words nozer hesed la-alafim, keeping grace for thousands. Exegetes will say, "But surely, Nazareth is related to the word netzer, as in the words of Isaiah 11:1, 'A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.'" This is also possible, but does not prevent us from discovering how the root form of one word can have a pluriform use.

The Hebrew scriptures and the Jewish tradition welcome such readings. There is in fact space for plurality in reading and interpreting Hebrew scriptures. There is not only one reading allowed. There are at least seventy possibilities, because one believed that there would be seventy different nations living in the world. Each of them had his or her face. The text, it is said, has seventy faces, seventy panim. Every nation has its own understanding of the text. There is nothing to worry about in this. It is as normal as it is that in a company of two Jews there will be three opinions. It is quite normal and it should be like this. A plurality of views can only enrich us. The Midrash says that Moses, when receiving the Torah, saw that God was occupied ornamenting the letters in which the Torah was written. He made little crown-like decorations on the letters. Moses looked on without saying a word. God then said to him, "In your home, do not people know the greeting of peace?" Moses replied, "Should a servant address his master?" God said to Moses, "You could at least have wished me success in my labour." Then Moses inquired as to the significance of the crowns upon the letters, and was answered, "There will some day be a man called Akiva, who will interpret every dot of these letters." Moses said to God, "Could I see him?" And Moses was sent into the future, into a synagogue where Akiva was teaching the Torah. But Moses was not able to follow the discussions. Suddenly a disciple of Akiva asked the rabbi, "How do you know all this?" Akiva answered, "This was given to Moses on Mount Sinai." Moses was surprised but content. He realized that the Torah would become the source of enrichment, even in ways that he never imagined.

Songs of Moses and the Lamb

One of the greatest examples of plurality, and not of polarizing contrast, not of a "but" for disparaging the other but in tension and as an indication of God's grace and truth, is the final demonstration of plurality in the Bible. In Revelations 15:3 we read,
 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and
 those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of
 its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in
 their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God,
 and the song of the Lamb: "Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord
 God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!
 Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are
 holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your
 judgments have been revealed."


They sing the song of Moses; they sing the song of the Lamb. And both songs go together. One is not silencing the other. They both have a song to sing.

It seems to me that this is an indication of what amazing grace is all about. There is room for the other, there is room for plurality, and God enjoys listening to them all as they worship before God. And all the people said, Amen.

(1) Literally: full of grace and truth, keeping grace for thousands.
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Author:Ucko, Hans
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:3163
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