Skip to main content

Why Foreign Missions? 15. John’s Christological Mission Theology: Mission as the Revelation of Grace and Truth through Jesus Christ

Why Foreign Missions?  15. John’s Christological Mission Theology: Mission as the Revelation of Grace and Truth through Jesus Christ

A second way in which the prologue to John’s Gospel presents the revelation of the Logos or Word is as ‘grace and truth.’[1]  These two terms occur together only in the prologue (Jn. 1.14, 17), whereas the rest of John’s Gospel often uses the single word ‘alētheia,’ ‘truth’ (or the related ‘alēthinos,’ ‘true’).  Indeed, truth is a theme worth exploring along with ‘witness’ and related, forensic notions in John’s Gospel, as +Andrew Lincoln has done.[2]  Here, however, the focus will be on Jesus’ revelation of ‘grace and truth’ in comparison with the revelation of Moses.

The Underlying, Old Testament Phrase for ‘Grace and Truth’

The phrase ‘charis kai alētheia,’ ‘grace and truth,’ is found in Jn. 1.14 and 17.  It is John’s translation of the Hebrew phrase ‘hesed we’emeth,’ found 13 times in the Old Testament (Gen. 24.49; 47.29; Ex. 34.6; Josh. 2.14; 2 Sam. 2.6; 15.20; Ps. 25.10; 61.8; 85.11; 86.15; 89.15; Prov. 3.3; 20.28).  This phrase indicates the devotion and commitment within a deep relationship.  God’s character in his covenant relationship with his people is described with these terms: it is a character that is merciful and faithful. 

Truth.  The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses three words to translate ‘emeth.’  First, and most often, ‘alētheia’ or ‘alēthinos (‘truth’ or ‘true’/’dependable’) is used for ‘emeth’ in the Greek Old Testament, as in John’s Gospel.  Other terms used include ‘dikaiosunē’ (‘righteousness,’ Gen. 24.49), ‘eirēnē,’ (‘peace,’ Ps. 85.11), and ‘pistis’ (‘faithfulness,’ Prov. 3.3).  In this phrase, the word seems to emphasise a virtue: it is a character term.  This is confirmed when its related phrase is considered.

Grace.  Whereas John uses ‘charis’ (‘grace’) to translate the Hebrew word ‘’hesed,’ the Greek Old Testament most often uses ‘eleos,’ ‘mercy/compassion.’  The related Greek word ‘eleēmosunē,’ ‘kind deed,’ is also used (Gen. 47.29; Prov. 3.3; 20.28), with the emphasis falling on the action a compassionate or merciful person might perform for somebody.  Ps. 86.15 uses another, related term, ‘polueleos,’ ‘abundant mercy.’  Only John renders the Hebrew term ‘’hesed’ with ‘charis’ (‘grace’), but it is an appropriate translation and clearly related to ‘mercy.’  According to +Robin Routledge, the Hebrew term ‘’hesed’ is relational and, in its broadest sense, means doing whatever one needs to do in order to keep a relationship.  He says,

By entering into a covenant with his people, God has bound himself to show hesed to them.  This includes, love, loyalty and faithfulness to his covenant promises.  It includes kindness, mercy and grace that bears with, and remains committed to, his people despite their sin, and provides the basis for forgiveness and restoration. [3]

Thus ‘hesed’ it is a covenantal term, used of God’s covenant relationship with his people.  As such, it also relates to what God does to maintain the covenant relationship with his people.  Hesed is

the means by which [the covenant relationship] continues, even though, because of the people’s unfaithfulness, it might properly be terminated.  It thus provides the basis for restoration and the promise of a new covenant (e.g. Jer. 31:3; Hos. 2:18-20).[4]

The phrase, then, has God’s character in a committed, covenant relationship in mind.  It has to do with God’s character as he relates to his people, Israel.  God relates to Israel, even wayward, sinful Israel, with grace, mercy, kindness and with faithfulness and dependability.

God’s Mercy and Faithfulness at Sinai and in the Word

John contrasts Jesus’ revelation of grace and truth to Moses’ revelation of the Law: ‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (Jn. 1.17).  As +Richard Bauckham notes, this statement brings Ex. 34 into focus for John’s prologue:[5]

‘God’s gracious love, central to the identity of the God of Israel, now takes the radically new form of a human life in which the divine self-giving happens.’

The incarnation of Jesus is a revelation of the identity of God in a related way to the revelation that Moses received of God on Mt. Sinai.  As God passes by, Moses hears a small voice reveal who YHWH is:

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,  7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, 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 phrase ‘steadfast love and faithfulness’ in this NRSV translation is the phrase hesed we’emeth’ or, as John might have translated it, ‘charis kai alētheia,’ ‘grace and truth.’  What Moses understood of God’s identity from a voice, the disciples see in the Word that has come into the world: ‘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’ (Jn. 1.14).

The story of God’s self-revelation in Ex. 34 is the culmination of a profound lesson in divine identity.  Moses first received the Ten Commandments from God even while Israel was breaking the first two commandments at the foot of the mountain.  Moses consequently broke the stones on which the commandments were written.  God then permitted Moses to receive the commandments again, and it is at this point in the narrative that God gives a further revelation of himself to Moses.  He is not only the God of the Ten Commandments, the Law.  He is also the God who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in grace and truth in his relationships even as he holds people accountable for their sins.

The revelation of God’s identity in Ex. 34 goes beyond the covenant relationship he has with Israel.  From John’s perspective, at least, the covenant is not so much the basis for hesed as ‘grace and truth’ are the basis for what God does, and what he does is not merely for his covenant people but also what he does for the world.  God’s ‘grace and truth’ is the basis for mission that includes both Jews and Gentiles.  Those who receive Jesus, whether Jews or Gentiles, are given power to become God’s children:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  14 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. Thus, whereas hesed we’emeth might be the basis for God’s relationship to his covenant people in the Old Testament, in John ‘grace and truth’ is the identity of God that makes universal mission possible (foreign mission beyond Israel, the covenant people) (Jn. 1.10-14).

Thus, whereas hesed we’emeth might be the basis for God’s relationship to his covenant people in the Old Testament, in John ‘grace and truth’ is the divine identity that makes universal mission possible (foreign mission beyond Israel, the covenant people).  This grace and truth is both revealed and worked in the incarnate Word of God.

Conclusions: Some Missiological Reflections

Several points can be noted for missions from this study.

First, mission can be defined as ‘revealing divine identity,’ making God known.

Second, God makes himself known through his covenant relationship with his people.  This involves both God’s commandments (the Law) and his gracious commitments to his sinful, covenant people (grace and truth).

Third, both dimensions of God’s identity--commandments and grace and truth—were made known to Israel through Moses.  We err when we see Judaism as a works righteousness religion or all about law without seeing in it the grace of God, his commitment to his covenant people.  Yet John sees a deeper revelation of grace and truth in Jesus Christ than what was revealed to Moses.  It is now a revelation in Jesus, the incarnation of grace and truth.  He is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1.29).  He is the one who reveals God’s glory in graciously raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn. 11.4, 40).  He is the one whose hour of death reveals divine glory (Jn. 12.23-28—here both Jesus’ and the Father’s glory are revealed in Jesus’ death), the ‘depth’ of a God who is full of grace and truth.

Fourth, by moving from revelation in law for the people of Israel to revelation of God’s ‘grace and truth,’ divine revelation expands from being a revelation for Israel to being a revelation for all people.  As Jesus says to the Samaritan woman,

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (Jn. 4.21-24, italics mine).

Jesus’ ‘hour’ in John’s Gospel is the hour of his death, and this hour is the hour that worship on Mt. Gerizim for the Samaritans or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem for the Jews is superseded by worship of Jesus, the new ‘temple’ (Jn. 2.19-22).  Worship of Jesus is a worship in Spirit and truth.

Fifth, this redirecting of worship to Jesus is not a simple replacement of revelation in the Old Testament but a development of it.  There is continuity and development between the ‘old covenant’ and the ‘new covenant.’  This development is more than just a clearer vision of God’s ‘grace and truth.’[6]  It is also a crucial working of God’s grace and truth in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross for the sins of the world (Jn. 1.29). 

Sixth, Jesus’ revelation of divine identity, his being ‘grace and truth,’ is a basis for mission to ‘the Jews’ and to ‘the world’ in John’s Gospel.  Universal mission is based in God’s identity as ‘grace and truth,’ revealed in the incarnate Word that has come to Jews and to the world.  Remarkably, this goes beyond God doing whatever he needs to do to maintain covenant relationship with his people, as in the Old Testament.  God’s grace and truth actually redefines God’s people as those who receive Jesus, God’s grace and truth.  Those who receive him are now the children of God.

[1] The first way considered (in the previous study) was the Logos as light and life.  The third way, to be considered next, is the Logos as a revelation of God the Father.
[2] Andrew Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).
[3] Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 109.  Routledge gives as an example Ps. 106.45, which relates ‘covenant’ (Hebrew: berith) to hesed.  ‘Here covenant, which God has not forgotten, provides the basis for hesed’ (n. 95).
[4] R. Routledge, Old Testament Theology, p. 109.
[5] Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), p. 74.
[6] John’s prologue states, ‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn. 1.16).  ‘Grace upon grace’ could be understood, as in this translation, as an abundant outpouring of God’s grace.  The phrase ‘grace upon grace’ is a translation of the Greek, ‘charis anti charis,’ which could also be translated as ‘grace instead of grace.’  If this translation were taken with the next verse’s reference to the law being given through Moses but grace and truth being given through Jesus Christ, the idea could be that Moses’ revelation in the Law was a revelation of grace but Jesus’ revelation was even more so.  Is the contrast one of law vs. grace or grace in the law vs. grace in Jesus?  Either way, John sees continuity between Ex. 34 and Jesus’ revelation.