Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

14. Jesus and Moses (John 1:6-18)

The prologue to John’s gospel has a strange mystifying feature quite without parallel anywhere else. It is broken up into three separate pieces which alternate with three short sections about the work and character of John the Baptist:

v. 1-5 The Word

v. 6-8 John sent from God.
v.9-14 The Light, the Word made flesh,

v. 15 John’s witness to the people,
v. 16-18 Jesus and Moses.

v. 19ff John’s witness to the rulers.

Either set of three sections reads consecutively with a smoothness which is immediately apparent.

Why John should give the introduction to his gospel this shape is not easy to fathom, but the fact of it is almost self-evident.

The Lamp and the Light

John was not the Light, not the effulgent Glory of the Living God. He was only a lamp, burning and shining (5:35). There is a strange paradox here, for men use a lamp to illuminate what is in the dark; yet John the lamp was God’s way of lighting the path to the Light of the World. And Israel needed it, because they were a people sitting in darkness. But do men need anyone to bear witness to them concerning Him who is the Light of the World? ‘Surely’, says A. T. Robertson, “men can tell light from darkness!” But he adds the immediate comment: “No, that is precisely what men cannot do.”

So John’s assignment from God was to teach men to believe in Jesus as the true Light, the Shekinah Glory of God, who was to be revealed. He came “that all men through him might believe.” But first they needed to learn not to believe in themselves. Accordingly, an essential part of John’s message was: “All flesh .is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” (Is. 40:6). This truth they were wondrous slow to learn. Consequently, even though a man of John’s character must inevitably make a tremendous impression on the people, so that they flocked in their thousands to hear him, his message was either not received at all (by the rulers), or was taken up (by the people) only to be let go again.

Even so, there was a lasting impact on some, for, years later in far-off Ephesus, Paul found a handful of believers who held tenaciously (although in some respects imperfectly) to the teaching of John as it had somehow reached them there (Acts 19:1-7).

For such a reason, doubtless, it was necessary for the writer of the gospel to emphasize: “He was not that Light. . .The true Light, which lighteth every man, was coming into the world.” This RVm reading of John 1:9 is equally possible with the more familiar reading. It is only a matter of re-punctuating the Greek text.

The Type and the True

This reference to Jesus as “the true Light” uses a word which implies, not the true in contrast to the false, but that which is the reality in contrast to type or shadow. Thus the phrase implies that Jesus was the more profound fulfilment of all that was signified by the appearances of the Shekinah Glory to God’s people in the wilderness.

This entire passage (v.6-18) is so shot through with typical allusions to Moses and Israel and the angel of the covenant in the wilderness that it taxes the powers of the expositor to set out the sequence of ideas in a coherent intelligible fashion. The device of parallel columns might help the reader to trace the allusiveness of John’s writing:

John 1
A man sent from God whose name was John.
Moses sent to Israel in bondage to declare God’s impending deliverance (3:10).
To bear witness of the Light.
Moses’ testimony to his encounter with the Angel of the Lord and the Shekinah Glory (3:16).
He was true Light (alethinos, not the typical light)...
The Angel of the Covenant with the Glory of the Lord foreshadowed a greater deliverance (14:19,20).

...which lighteth every (kind of) man that cometh into the world (the New Israel).
A mixed multitude joined Israel in their deliverance (12:38).
He was in the world (of Israel), and that world came into being through him. . .and the world knew him not.
The Angel of the Lord present in the camp of Israel and the means of their deliverance (23:20).
His own received him not.
The murmuring of Israel
As many as received him. . .
The loyalty of the tribe of Lev! (32:26). them gave he power to become the sons of God. . .
The adoption of Lev! as the priestly tribe (32:29)

...even to them that believe
The people believed that God had visited his people (4:31).

...on his name
“My Name is in him” (23:21).
Born, not of blood etc., but of God.
Levi selected, not (then) because of birth qualification but for godliness’ sake (Dt. 33:9,10).
And the Word became (was born) flesh?...
(Here a contrast with the divine nature of the delivering Angel)

... and tabernacled among us...
The Angel and the Shekinah Glory in the Tabernacle (33:9; 40:35).

...full of grace and truth. . .
“He will not pardon your transgressions” (23:21).
“Now if thou wilt forgive their sin-” (32:32).

. . .and we beheld his glory. . .
The pillar of cloud and fire over the Tabernacle in the camp (Num. 10:34) (and see also Lev. 9:22,23). of the only begotten of the Father
(Here again a contrast-the Angel a “son of God”).
And of his fulness have all we received. . .and grace (true forgiveness) instead of grace (the typical forgiveness under the Law)
“The Tabernacle was f?//ed with the Glory of the Lord” (40:36).
Grace and truth (true forgiveness) come by Jesus Christ.
The Law was given (idiom: appointed) through Moses.
No man (not even Moses) hath seen God at any time...
“Show me thy Glory ...Thou canst not see my face ... no man shall see me, and live” (33:18,20).

...the only begotten, which is in the bosom of the Father ... he hath declared him.
Contrast Moses hidden in a cleft of the rock (33:22).

God made known through Moses in type and shadow.

The mission of John the Baptist is introduced with emphasis and exactness: “a man sent from God.” The Greek phrase implies: “from beside God”. Yet no one, except Mormons with their peculiar “personal-pre-existence” doctrine, believes that John came down from heaven. This is a particularly clear and useful instance of the characteristic Johannine idiom which, through being so often disregarded, has led to the Athanasian doctrine of Christ’s personal pre-existence in heaven.

Other examples, which no more prove the pre-existence of Christ than this passage (1:6) proves a pre-existence of John, are these:

  1. “I came out from God . . . from the Father” (16:27,28).
  2. “I am from him” (7:29).
  3. “The only begotten of (from) the Father” (1:14)
  4. “Whatsoever things thou hast given me are of thee” (17:7-same construction).
  5. “I came out from thee” (17:8-the same again).
All of these, and more, use the same form of words, but orthodox theologians disregard the true meaning of the idiom because they want to.

The writer is nevertheless careful to omit the definite article, as at the end of verse 1 — not para tou theou, but para theou. Thus, in yet another way, he warns his reader away from assuming that the Baptist or his Lord made a personal descent from heaven. Compare Peter’s phrase: “holy men of God (para theou)” (2 Pet. 1:21), an exact parallel to the examples already cited.

John’s function, as repeated again and again in this first chapter, was that of witness to Christ.

His message concerning repentance and baptism has relatively meagre mention. John himself was “not that Light”. Always, in all four gospels, this contrast between John and Jesus is insisted on. The Baptist’s preaching was “in order that all men through him might believe.”

This admirably chosen preposition is given excellent force in the rest of this chapter. Priests and Levites from Jerusalem are bidden look away to one greater than John. And his imperative: “Behold the Lamb of God”, spoken to his own disciples, lost him their loyalty (v.36, 37), as he intended it should (cp. also 1 Cor. 3:5).

But “all men” did not and do not believe. It is simply not true that “he (the true Light) lighteth every man.” There are but few who want or can appreciate the illumination Christ brings. Again there is need to appreciate the force of John’s idiom (and it is not only his), that instead of “all” carrying the usual sense of “all without any exception”, it is not infrequently used to mean “all without distinction, all kinds of men”.

For instance:

  1. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples” (13:35).
  2. “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me” (12:32).
  3. “All the people came unto him (in the temple)” (8:2).
So the meaning here (in 1:7,9) is that the gospel is not for Pharisees and scribes only, but for publicans and harlots also; not confined to Israel, but for all manner of Gentiles—barbarian, Scythian, bond and free: “that whosoever believeth in me should not abide in darkness” (12:46) The Light of God’s Shekinah was not meant for Israel only (Is. 49:6).

Yet another problem phrase underlines this basic truth. “He was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” It is fashionable nowadays to insist on the RVm reading: “The true Light, which lighteth every man, was coming into the world.” But for three reasons this may safely be treated as inferior:

  1. The order of the words in the Greek text.
  2. John Lighfoot’s demonstration that “every man coming into the world” was a much used rabbinic expression for “every kind of person”.
  3. The very emphatic past continuous verb is utterly inappropriate with reference to Jesus (and the next three verses require reference to Jesus).
A triple mention of “the world” (kosmos) now introduces another Johannine idiom. Here, as with “all”, there is no universalism, but instead a very limited meaning: the Jewish world. This can bequickly demonstrated by examples:

  1. “Behold, the world is gone out after him”, wailed certain Pharisees after the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12:19). At that time the wide world did not even know that Jesus existed,
  2. “Show thyself to the world” (7:4), jeered his brothers as they urged him to get busy with a big appeal at the Feast of Tabernacles.
  3. “This is the condemnation (of Jewry), that light is come into the world, and men (Jews) loved darkness rather than light” (3:19).
  4. Other examples: Jn. 1:29; 8:26; 15:19; 17:14.
And now yet another idiom: “The world was made by him”-literally: “The kosmos became through him.” In what sense was the Jewish world made through Christ?

There is special need here to appreciate the full efficacy of the redeeming work of Christ—that the forgiveness of sins, even for those who lived and died B.C., is through Christ, and only through him. His sacrifice is as efficacious to cover the sin of Noah, Daniel and Job-yes, and of Adam and Eve-as it is today to wash away the sins of one about to be baptized into his Name.

Consider four very significant passages:

  1. ‘Jesus Christ, whom God set forth (RVm: purposed) to be a propitiatory sacrifice through faith in his blood, to declare his (God’s) righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God” (Rom. 3: 25).
  2. “And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15).
  3. “And many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection...” (Mt. 27:52,53). The evident intention here is to stress that the death and resurrection of Jesus were efficacious to raise from the dead even those who died before he did.
  4. Genesis 3:15 is careful to emphasize that the Seed of the woman crushes not just the seed of the serpent but the head of the serpent itself. Right back to its fountain-head sin is overcome through Christ. Even Adam and Eve have their sin forgiven because of their declared faith in him, the promised Seed (3:20,21; 4:1).
It is in this vitally important sense that the world of Israel was made (came into being) through Christ. Apart from him that crucial covenant sacrifice offered at Sinai, when the people were consecrated to their God, had no meaning. The sequence there, in Exodus 24, needs to be considered. Israel was shut out from the presence of God. Bounds were set around the mount where He manifested Himself. Then came the building of an altar and the offering of the covenant-sacrifice. The blood was sprinkled on both altar and people. At the same time all gave their assent to the book of the Covenant. And then, only then, could the representatives of the nation ascend into the mount and eat a meal of fellowship in the very presence of the Glory of God (Ex. 24:4-11). But except there had been some rudimentary understanding of what lay behind the covenant-sacrifice, that shedding of blood would have been of no real value whatever.


All this and all similar significant transactions in later days lie behind John’s trenchant phrase: “the world was made by him”. Yet with what mordant sadness does he go on to record: “and the world knew him not.” This is repeated: “He came unto his own—his own Land and Holy City, his own Temple, his own inheritance as Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of God—and his own people received him not.” How this is underlined by John’s dramatic use of the same word “received”. “And they took Jesus/and led him away” (19:16, cp. also Lk. 20:14,15). They received him, but only to crucify him!

But whilst the nation as a whole turned its back on the Son of God, there were those, a faithful remnant, who did receive him.

Sons of God - New Born

“And whosoever received him (even them that believe and go on believing in his name), to them gave he authority, warrant, sanction to become sons of God” (v.12)

Gentiles, called by the gospel, especially needed this authentication of their new status as sons of God. Jews were confident that they already had this status, yet in truth they needed the same authorization.

The ‘Name” to be believed in makes a profitable investigation, worthy of the attention of any Bible student. Is it the Divine Name declared at Sinai (Ex. 34:6), the fulness of which is expressed in the Son of God? Or is it his name Jesus Christ, the Saviour from sin, and the promised King? Or is it his name Son of God which calls men to become sons of God? (cp. Is. 56:5). Whichever it is, the ideas inevitably overlap.

These who are sons of God through believing necessarily experience a New Birth. No man born and living in a completely natural way can be a son of God. He must be born “not of bloods, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (v.13). The first and third expressions in this triad allude to the mother and father in a normal begettal, and they are united by “the will of the flesh”, which applies to both.

Attempts have been made to use these words as a proof-text of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, which is not otherwise taught explicitly in John’s gospel. It is true that a very few manuscripts and some of the earliest of the Fathers read: “which was born”, with reference to Jesus. But the mass of evidence the other way is not to be set aside. Yet is is easy to see how this changed reading came about. The early church had the wit to see that what is true of the redeemed must also be true of the Redeemer. Almost certainly John had this in mind when he wrote the words. So, less directly, it is valid to see an implication of the Virgin Birth of Jesus in these words. Later (3:3,4) the apostle was to record, with evident satisfaction, the Lord’s personal teaching how a man is to be born again—from above, and not by the will of the flesh (cp. also 1 Pet. 1:23).

The Word born “flesh”

The hint which John has just given concerning the Virgin Birth of Jesus is accompanied by a needful corrective of extreme or mistaken views concerning his nature. His was “the glory from the only begotten of the Father”, truly; nevertheless the Word was born “flesh”, that is (according to the very common usage of the New Testament) with ordinary human nature, sharing the fallen nature of Adam with all its propensities to evil, yet-the marvel of it!-always living a God-ward life: “the Word was with God”! Here was God manifest in flesh (and not stone; Ex. 34:4), so that the prophet seeing this before, and marvelling at it, could exclaim: “Behold, your God!” (Is. 40:5-9).

This Word of God “tabernacled” among us. Once again, like the True Light, the figure is that of Israel in the wilderness: “we beheld his Glory. . .full of grace and truth”. Here John’s hendiadys is equivalent to “true grace”; and since in so many places “grace” is the inspired Scripture’s way of alluding to undeserved forgiveness from God (Study 12) the allusion may be traced with confidence to the Shekinah Glory of God shining forth from above the Mercy Seat in the Tabernacle and thus signifying the forgiveness which God extended to His people on their Day of Atonement. Typically this was enacted in a Tabernacle which shared the punishment of God’s people in the wilderness. Its outward appearance was goat’s hair, a fitting symbol of the unattractive character of human nature. In the spiritual reality the heavenly Glory found expression in one who was born flesh. There was no beauty that they should desire him. Yet in him, and only in him, was the true forgiveness possible. He was “full of grace and truth”.

The Glory of the Lord

The apostle’s commentary on this message of John uses language appropriate to the same idea. Indeed apart from allusion to the Shekinah Glory it is difficult to interpret without falling into unhelpful vagueness: “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (v.16). When, almost a year after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Tabernacle was completed and consecrated, “the glory of the Lord fil/edthe tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34,36,38). It is this word “filled” which the apostle picked up in order to expound it out of his own personal experience. Jesus had shown himself to be the Sanctuary of God filled with the Holy Spirit; and just as the priests were unable to enter the Tabernacle until the glory lifted from within to above it, so also the ensuing ministry of the apostles (note that plural pronoun “we”) could not take up where Jesus left off until the ascension of the Lord and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

“Grace for Grace”

Similarly, the vague mysterious expression “grace for (that is, instead of) grace” now falls into place, the two main ideas associated with “grace” in the NT. are the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Study 12). Both of these meanings make very good sense in this place. In Christ there is true forgiveness of sins, as against that which is typically foreshadowed through the sacrifices of the Tabernacle. Also, over against the Glory of God in the Tabernacle and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on Moses’ seventy helpers (Num 11:24ff), there is the glorifying or Jesus offer his resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Moses and Christ

The emphasis on Christ as the fulfilment of all that the Mosiac system was intended to teach is now stated more explicitly: “The law was given (a Hebraism for “appointed”) through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Here, as already suggested, “grace and truth” may be a hendiadys for “true grace”, that is “true forgiveness of sins”, in contrast to the typical teaching about this through the sacrifices under the Law (cp. “in spirit and in truth”; 4:23).

Alternatively, “grace and truth” may be the New Testament equivalent of the familiar Old Testament phrase “mercy and truth” which in every one of its occurrences refers to the covenants made by God with Abraham and with David. In that case the meaning is: “The law was revealed to Moses, but-greater than-that-Jesus Christ has brought the fulfilment of the Promises.”

This contrast is now summed up in a powerful allusion to Moses’ experience of seeing a veiled manifestation of the Glory of God whilst he was hidden in a cleft of the rock (Ex. 33:22). “No man hath seen (and goes on seeing) God at any time”, not even Moses/ for the theophany he beheld was specifically limited (v.22, 23). When the covenant was made at Sinai a theophany was not only heard but also seen (Ex. 24:10,11); but that was only transitory. But Jesus, the only begotten Son (contrast v.12), at the time of John’s writing had ascended into “the bosom of the Father.” John, the beloved disciple, had himself lain in Jesus’ bosom! (Jn. 13:23). Therefore who better qualified than he to “declare” Jesus? And Jesus being permanently so much more intimate with the Father than Moses ever was, what was the magnitude of the revelation of God which he could “declare”? (Mt. 11:27). The idea makes a wonderful climax to the build-up of allusions in this prologue.

Men used to talk (and still do) about the subtle philosophical ideas woven into this opening section of John’s gospel. All that is so much unmitigated rubbish. The first qualification for a proper understanding of this preliminary enunciation of the theme of the fourth gospel is an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament. It cannot be too strongly stressed that a sound appreciation of John’s gospel depends, most of all, on a clear recognition of the way in which, from start to finish, it sets Moses and Christ side by side, both for the sake of contrast and also to put beyond all argument that Jesus is greater than Moses; he is the fulfilment of all that Moses stood for.

In the last few years before the apostles passed off the scene one of the most serious problems they had to cope with was created by the intensive “counter-reformation” mounted by Judaism against Christianity (see: “The Jewish Plot”, by H.A.W.) It lured (or browbeat) many Jewish believers back to Moses and the synagogue. John’s gospel and epistles such as Colossians and Hebrews were written with the express purpose of stemming that drift. Hence John’s enunciation of the main theme of his gospel.

Notes: John 1:6-18

His own. In John, only here and 10:12; 19:27.

Received is explained in v. 12 as meaning “believed on his name”. For a vivid picture of this rejection, see Lk. 20:15.
Blood. This word is plural, appropriate with reference to a human mother. If singular, ‘not of blood” would be an untrue statement, for all true believers are new-born out of the blood of Christ. Man. The common NT. word for “husband”.
Among us ... we behold. The pronouns seem to indicate other apostles reinforcing the testimony of John; cp. 21:24; 1 Jn. 1:1,2; contrast 20:29.

We beheld. In the wilderness, the Glory was seen specially in the time of sacrifice; Lev. 9:22,23.

His glory, in (a) his miracles; 2:11; 11:4,23,40; 12:37-43; (b) in Transfiguration; Lk. 9:32-35.

The rabbis commonly said that the Second Temple lacked five things:
1. Ark (the mercy seat was known as the D’varah, the place of the Word).
2. The Glory (Shekinah has a close link with the word ’tabernacled’ here).
3. The spirit of prophecy; v.17 v 17
4. Urim and Thummim; v.18.
5. The divine fire.

As of the only begotten. Cp. the parental joy and great feast at the weaning of Isaac; Gen. 21:8. Equivalent to this detail in John is the mention in Mt, Mk, Lk. that at the Lord’s baptism the heavens opened.

Bare witness. Gk. present tense. Long after his death John’s witness still continued.

And cried. A technical term for the work of a prophet; 7:13; Rom. 9:27; and rabbinic usage.

He was before me. Why not ‘is’?
These are, of course, the comments of the apostle, not the words of the Baptist.
Which. Gk: ho On. Thus, very subtly, John intimates that the Divine Name (Ex. 3:14 LXX) now belongs to Jesus also (Ph. 2:9 RV; Rom. 9:5 Gk.); cp. also Jn. 3:13,31 Gk.

Previous Index Next