John 1:17 and Rom. 3:28: Two-faced scriptures on law and grace?

Some say that the Torah or “Old Testament” is irrelevant, obsolete (or whatever adjective to use) for believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as Savior and often cite certain Bible passages to bolster that claim: The Old Testament was then, the “New Testament” is now.

A recent video teaching in Sean Hilton’s Be a Berean video series — “Mystery of Double-Minded Scriptures on Grace and Law” — compared about two dozen such passages with even more passages from the New Testament that seem to say the opposite.

This session we are looking at these passages in particular: John 1:17 and Rom. 3:28. One of the purposes of this series is to spark conversation with family, friends to find out what the Bible is really tell us. Has the Bible been skewed to say what it doesn’t?

John 1:17: law of Moses vs. grace and truth of Yeshua

“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17 KJV)
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17 NIV, ESV)
“For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17 NASB)

Some take this to mean there is a tension between the continued relevance and importance of the Torah to the live of a believer in Yeshua as God’s Messiah. But people are looking a this verse out of context.

To get the context, let’s look at John 1:16:

“For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” (John 1:16 NASB)

Different English translations have different versions of this verse. Why? As scholar J.K. McKee explains it:

In v. 16, the Greek phrase χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος charin anti charitos ― “grace for grace” (KJV), “grace in place of grace already given” (NIV), “grace upon grace” (ESV, NASB) ― has set the stage for diverging views on v. 17: “a selection of interpreters conclud[e] that one revelation of God’s grace has been replaced by a further revelation.”

Charin is the Greek word for grace, it’s the root of our English word charity. The preposition after charin is anti. Anti is used in English as meaning against something, such as anti-Christ, anti-establishment. But in ancient common Greek, it is commonly seen as an exchange of one thing for another, one thing succeeding another or instead of something. So, to be superliteral, the phrase charin anti charitos, means “grace instead of grace.”

There’s grace from God before Yeshua arrived and grace with His arrival. So those who take a low view of Torah for Yeshua believers go to John 1:17 and see that the first act of grace God gave the world was His Law and then the grace and truth, embodied in Yeshua, came later. The argument goes that one is a replacement or an “instead of” for the other: Yeshua instead of Torah; Torah left, and grace and truth through Yeshua came.

In the first century B.C. writings of Jewish philosopher Philo, he talks about how God’s mercy came down. He uses the Greek phrases charin and anti charitos, but Philo talks about it as a succession: God gave a first gift and then a second gift. That is why more modern English translations interpret John 1:17 as “grace upon grace.” God gave us good stuff  then more good stuff.

There is a chiasm in John 1. That is a structure of poetry, in which the entire passage in which the first part matches the last part. You have a pairing of ideas that go from the top down and the bottom up until they reach a unique point in the middle. There are a number of chiasms in the gospel of John. John 1:1-18 are a chaiastic structure.

In the chiasmus of John 1:16–18 are linked to John 1:1–5: God has been removing darkness from the  world since the beginning, and the full removal of the darkness on the character of God has been removed with the arrival of Yeshua and the Spirit of God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (John 1:1–5 NASB)

Instead of instead of or opposition between law and grace, you have a progression of God’s mercy.

Another challenge comes from the KJV/NKJV addition of the contrasting conjunction but in John 1:17. The Greek language has several words that could be translated into English as either, and or but, such as the Greek words de, kai, or alla. None of these Greek words is in the original Greek text. The word but has been stricken from modern English translations of John 1:17 because it is not the original text.

Rom. 3:28: ‘works of the law’

The next verse we will consider is Rom. 3:28:

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Rom 3:28  KJV)

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Rom 3:28  NIV)

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom 3:28 ESV)

The word the is added by English translators, because the Greek phrase literally is “works of law.” (The only Apostolic use of the Greek phrase with the equivalent of the in English is Rom. 2:15.) The question is works of what law?

The English word justification means “not guilty” or “declared not guilty.” How is one declared not guilty? You will see in the Torah and the writings of the Apostles that this comes through trust in God, i.e. faith. That is the message of the entire scripture, going all the way back to Abraham, when God declared Abraham righteous because he trusted God’s promise of a son, who would be a blessing to all the nations. That trust was tested.  Abraham’s trust in God brought him to the point where his promise was taken away from him and then restored.

If it’s clear that we are justified by trust in God, faith in God, when what are the works of law? We know much more about this phrase thanks to recent translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which started coming out in the 1990s. It is in the document called 4QMMT. It is the Dead Sea Scrolls’ “righteousness document” written in Hebrew. The Hebrew phrase מעשי התורה ma’asei haTorah is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek phrase ἔργων νόμου ergon nomou, or “works of law.”

In the first century A.D., there were certain “works of law” that were Jewish badges of community inclusion (separation from goyim (gentiles), methods for Shabbat observance, circumcision). Many of these “works of law” were very nit-picking and were used to discern insiders vs. outsiders.

Document 4QMMT gave biblical scholars a new perspective on Paul’s writings because this was an independent source using similar terminology to Paul that can help us understand Paul’s worldview better.

Paul uses the phrase “works of [the] law” eight times in his writings (Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Rom. 3:20, 28).

There were communities throughout the Jewish world trying to work out their own “works of law.” The book of Galatians discusses the issue of circumcision very deeply, for example. During the time of the Maccabees, the Greeks forbade any “works of law” such as celebrating Shabbat, circumcision, etc. After the Greeks were thrown out, these works of law were a profound source of Jewish identity. You see later in the time of Roman occupation, these works of law could also land you in serious jeopardy.

Whether it’s the Essenes, the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, they all had their own ma’asei haTorah. You even see it show up in the Gospels. For example, there were those who fasted twice a week, but some fasted on Tuesdays and Thursdays and some fasted on Mondays and Wednesday and each group would look down on the other.

There’s a subtext that you have to understand what was happening when these letters were written. You are looking at someone else’s mail, and you only see one side of the story.

You are justified by your trust in God and His Messiah, not by your denomination’s ma’asei haTorah.

These different Jewish sects condemned other sects to damnation if they differed in this small matters.

When you speak to other believers, these are not “trump cards” to beat them over the head with or use them as a “gotcha”? If you are dealing with people who are weaker in faith, don’t use your knowledge as a weapon to make them feel bad or oppress them. We are not to condemn someone, not to “win an argument” but to show them what God is doing.

What God is doing here is grace upon grace. God gave us a profound gift to humanity in the Torah, showing us what is right and wrong. He kept revealing Himself to us through the prophets. He also gave us life lessons through the exiles and culminated in His Son.

The point of this ma’asei haTorah discussion is to ask what is God going to respond to? God responds to your heart and your walk. He doesn’t respond to those who treat Him and His Torah like a lucky charm. What is your approach to God?

Circumcision is only helpful if it’s a part of your heart connection to God. If you think it’s a magic charm, you are kidding yourself and mutilating your flesh. You are getting an operation for no good reason.

If keeping the Shabbat is not connecting you to God and your neighbor and helping you connect God to the world, you are just wasting 24 hours you can use doing something else.

If you think that using God like a magic charm is going to get His attention, you are wasting your time. The starting point is to trust in God. Once you have been declared “not guilty” what do you do from there? That is where the ma’asei haTorah can step in to help you walk with God.

Acts 15 is an outgrowth of Acts 10. The question of what hurdles believers from the nations had to clear before joining the Body of Christ was answered in Acts 15: Four basic rules followed by a lifetime of Spirit-filled learning from God’s Word (Acts 15:21).

When you read Paul’s letters, you read about one group using ma’asei haTorah as a tool of oppression and using them to decide who is in the Kingdom and who is not.

If you perform a ma’asei haTorah because someone else commands you to do so, that is a problem. They can be beneficial but if you are using them as a way to separate yourself from others, using them as a hammer to hit others on the head, that is a problem.

Another thing to keep in mind, when people bring up verses from Corinthians, Colossians, Ephesians, Galatians, etc., the culmination of Paul’s teaching ministry is the book of Romans. It was one of the last letters he wrote and he takes the time to complete all his thoughts and teachings that were in different pieces of his other letters.

Note that Paul repeatedly clarifies his position related to the Torah for believers in Yeshua:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1–2 ESV)

“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom. 6:15 ESV)

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7:7 ESV)

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Rom. 7:25 ESV)

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” (Rom. 8:7 ESV)

He had to respond to the repeated false accusations that he was teaching his students that they didn’t have to listen to Moses anymore. He not only had to defend himself against his accusation when he appeared before the brethren in Acts 21, but he also confronted the issue when he appeared before the Roman governors Felix and Festus.

And this confirms that Paul was a devoted emissary of Yeshua, Who at the beginning of the “Sermon of the Mount” emphatically clarified His corrections of the teachings of the day:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:17–20)

The word that is translated as “fulfill” is the Greek word πληρόω plēroō (G4137) which means “to make full” or “to fill up.” It can also mean “to render full” or “to complete. We think making something complete to mean that it’s over, but the Hebrew understanding of the term is to make something perfect. Some assert from the meaning to complete that Yeshua didn’t abolish the Law but just render it obsolete. Yet, this doesn’t fit with other uses of the word.

“Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’ But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill [πληρόω] all righteousness.’ ” (Matt. 3:13–15)

If pleroo means to end something, then in Matt. 3:15, Yokhanan and Yeshua were bringing the rite of baptism to an end. Did Yeshua make righteousness obsolete? Did Yeshua make the symbol of baptism irrelevant? No. What it really means that the rite of baptism has a more complete meaning.

One of the ma’asei haTorah that the Pharisees brought into the world is to bring many of the rituals the priests performed in the temple were brought into the homes. Yeshua says that He is the one who makes the mikvah, the baptism and the washing complete. He is the one who washes sin and impurity away.

A good lesson about the ma’asei haTorah is that if they are getting between you and God or between you and your fellow believers, you need to examine yourself and see if you are preaching a different gospel. We don’t want to ask “Did God really say?” as the serpent asked Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:1)?

There is no longer old vs. new. The entire Bible is a witness of God, who He is. It’s not Fearsome Father vs. Gentle Jesus. Rather, the entire testament is a witness of God’s character.

Speaker: Jeff. Summary: Tammy.

Banner Image: Yeshua attends Shabbat services in the Nazareth Synagogue, reading from the Isaiah scroll. Photo from via the Lumo Project at

Recent posts in Apostolic Writings

Recent posts in Discussions

What do you think about this?