Scholars tell us that “chesed v’emet” in this passage and others like it is a hendiadys or “a word pair [used] to express a single concept” (Nahum Sarna; JPS Torah commentary). In this view the phrase means “covenant faithfulness,” “true kindness,” or, as the NJPS translates it, “kindness and faithfulness.” Sarna comments, “The combination of terms expresses God’s absolute and eternal dependability in dispensing His benefactions.”
Accordingly, Yochanan is saying that the Torah comes through Moses, but the character that Torah seeks to develop, the character that reflects God’s own character, comes through Yeshua the Messiah. Chesed v’emet—grace and truth—doesn’t replace Torah, of course, but describes a consistent character of active kindness that Torah is to form in us. This character is embodied fully in Messiah Yeshua, the living Torah.
In this reading, the two terms reinforce each other, but we can also think of them as contrasting with each other. Usually a hendiadys takes two opposite terms to express a single broad concept. Thus “day and night” means “all the time” (or 24/7 as we’d say nowadays), and “good and evil,” as in the story of Garden of Eden, means “everything.” The two terms of a hendiadys remain opposites, however, and there’s something important to learn from that in the case of chesed and emet.
In real life some folks may be very truthful, but not very kind or loving. Others might be so kind and loving that they’re not always truthful. After all, it’s hard to be kind and truthful at the same time; to tell someone the truth, or to stand firm for an unpopular truth, in a kind way. As the old saying goes, “the truth hurts,” and because of this it can seem unkind. How do you tell people in a kind way that their efforts are misdirected, that their work isn’t up to par, or that their judgment in some important matter is questionable? But mussar recognizes that all the middot can be overdone. Chesed v’emet, opposite though they might be, need each other to reach fulfillment.
And that might be just the point—that God is able to combine ultimate chesed and ultimate truth without compromising either. Those who emulate God through mussar will work on combining both, on “speaking the truth in love,” as Rav Shaul directs us (Eph. 4:15). Either chesed or truth alone can become imbalanced. Yeshua embodies the balance, and mussar directs us to work on that balance too if we want to follow him.