“John testified about Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me. 16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”
This is another beloved passage by man, and specifically, v. 16. Sometimes, you’ll even just see the phrase, “grace upon grace,” painted on a wall, and stitched into a pillow.
When something good happens to a person in life, or they experience the kindness of the Lord, they might include this verse on a social media post.
Usually, it’s the idea that grace is overflowing, and it keeps washing over the Christian like tidal waves. Or grace is being showered down from heaven upon the Christian.
While in one sense that is true, that is not what this verse means.
So in order to understand it, we have to do a little bit of grammar. It all hinges on the meaning of the preposition, here, that is often translated as“upon,” in this phrase, “grace upon grace.” It’s the preposition “anti” in the Greek. The question is: what does the preposition mean? Because when you determine the function of the proposition it will determine the meaning of the phrase “grace upon grace.”
Possible meanings of “anti:”
- First, anti could mean, “corresponds to.”
So in the case of the verse, it could mean something like the grace that a Christian receives corresponds to the grace of Christ.
The challenge with this interpretation is it makes very little sense in the context-- which we don’t have time to develop.
Further, it is a very rare use of the preposition, and it is only used that way when it is combined with a verb to make a compound verb. And here, it stands alone.
- Second, anti could mean “in return for.”
This is the idea of exchange.
In this case, one grace is given in return for another.
The problem, here, is that this would make the exchange a quid pro quo-- which is alien to the very idea of grace in the NT.
Augustine took this position, and got around the quid pro quo idea by saying that we live in the grace of faith, and then exchange that grace of faith for the grace of immortality (i.e., eternal life).
Again, that doesn’t really make the idea of quid pro quo go away.
- Third, anti could mean “upon” or “in addition to.”
This, of course, is the idea of addition, and is the way that many people understand the verse.
It’s the idea that grace comes to us like presents piling up under a Christmas tree. We get grace upon grace, or more grace in addition to our present grace. It is a never ending and overflowing grace. As the days come and go, new waves of grace just keep flowing upon the shore.
The problem is that this is almost never what the preposition anti means. In fact, if John wanted to communicate this idea, he would not have used anti, but epi.
And so, because he uses anti instead of epi, the idea of a superabundance of grace coming upon the Christian is simply not what John is talking about.
- A fourth view is that anti means “instead of” or “in the place of.”
This is far and away the most common usage of the proposition.
In other words, John is saying that grace has come to the Christian instead of grace.
Now, that sounds strange, but it makes sense when you look at the surrounding verses.
There is a parallel taking place between v.16 and v.17.
Further, v. 17 begins with the word “for,” which shows that v. 17 is giving the reason (or explaining) how grace has come instead of grace.
John 1:17 - “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”
So, here we have a contrast between “the Law coming through Moses,” and “grace and truth coming through Jesus Christ.” Since v. 17 is connected to v. 16, you now understand that a parallel is taking place.
In other words, the first grace is the Law which came through Moses, but the second grace is this idea of grace and truth coming through Jesus Christ.
So that first grace of the Law, was replaced by the second grace of Jesus Christ.
In other words, it’s not grace upon grace (like presents piling up everyday under the Christmas tree). But rather, grace instead of grace, where Jesus Christ has taken the place of the Law.
And that is by far the purest understanding of the preposition anti.
So what’s the takeaway?
- First, this helps shape our perspective of the Law.
We typically view the Law as bad or evil. But here, John calls it grace.
Perhaps this makes sense of why David says over and over again that He delights in the Law of God (e.g., Psalm 1).
Israel and the OT saints viewed the Law as grace. It was an incredible gift of God to His people. The nation corrupted that Law, and built all kinds of regulations around that Law, turning it into legalism. In the ancient days of the nation, it was a pure delight and viewed as a profound grace.
- Second, Jesus Christ has not replaced the Law, as much as He has fulfilled the Law.
Remember, this final use of anti is not exchange (in a quid pro quo sense), but rather a replacement (or substitution).
In other Jesus, became that Law for us. He embodies that Law, in our place. So, in one sense, while the Law was grace, it could not save. Rather, it only revealed guilt, and therefore condemned.
So this second grace (which is Jesus Christ), He now becomes that Law-keeper, and embodies all that the Law demanded.
If we are in Christ (the second grace), we are in perfect conformity to Law (the first grace).
In this sense, we have received the fullness of grace (beginning of v. 16), because we are, therefore, perfectly keeping the Law, but only because of Jesus Christ.
So in one sense, we’re sorry that this verse does not mean what most think it means. But I would also say that the actual meaning, when properly understood, is far richer and, therefore, far better news.
In Jesus Christ we have received permanent saving grace, where that first grace (which was the giving of Law) could not save, but only reveal and condemn.