The Cosmological Christmas part 2; Life and Light.
When I was 12, my Grandfather died. I remember walking out of a movie cinema in Perth, and one of the staff there walked up to dad and said “excuse me, John Randell?” dad said “yes” the guy continued, “your wife has been trying to reach you.”
Granddad had been suffering for quite some time, so as soon as we heard that people were trying to get in touch (this being slightly before mobile phones,) we knew what it was about. We drove to the hospital and walked in to see Granddad lying there, completely at peace, but also completely absent. This was the first time I had viewed a body. Among of course the grief, what really struck me was how on the surface, everything was the same. Granddad was physically, all there. They were his hands, his face his glasses and so on and yet; he was simply not home.
I cannot explain what life is, what life looks like, I wonder if any of us truly can. Yet this does not stop us from instantly recognising when it is not. It’s like we know when something is crooked because we know what is straight when we see it. We need as it were, some sort of reference point to understand or even recognise life.
When John tries to grapple with the concept of life itself he finds that it is bound up in the Word made flesh.
So before we embark on another journey this time into verses 4 and 5, it’s important to have fresh in mind what we covered last time in verse 1-3.
- John opens by talking about the eternal pre-existence of the Word
- He defines who the second person of the trinity is in terms of his role, and relationship with the father.
- He does all of this in a way that portrays the universal significance of his message
- He joins with Paul in stressing that both the visible and invisible are created in him and therefore under his control.
Lets look at v4-5 but in the context of 1-3:
John 1:1-5 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,1 and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
What does John mean by ‘Life’?
This is actually a really important question for the society we live in right now. By speaking of the ‘life’ as being in the ‘Word’, John answers one of our society’s big questions.
Since ever, the human mind has been terrified of death. But we in the post-enlightenment age have made an entire economical system out of our fear of death. The 16th century saw the dawn of the age of the individual, so it makes sense that its biggest fear is based on that which no individual can ultimately control. Death.
But, John is writing against the ‘un-enlightened’ background of the Old Testament, where life was only a gift from….God. Job 1:21 21 He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Moreover, more than a quarter of all the New Testament references to the word ‘life’ occur in John’s Gospel.
I once studied with a missionary who went to Mozambique caring for starving and abandoned kids. Death is such a present reality there due to disease and lack of good health care that people there have learnt how precious life is.
- While many of us struggle to find meaning, they find meaning in something as simple as their next meal.
- Our society struggles with all its resources and powers to either tame death by developing cures for the incurable while spending the rest on developing the latest weapons technology.
- It tries to ignore death with a multi-billion dollar cosmetic surgery industry while deciding that 80,000 babies a year in Australia alone do not deserve life.
What is true for the individual is also true for societies; what you fear most will consume you, and for human societies left to their own devices, they will eventually one way or another be consumed by…death.
Death. The weak and the powerful, the rich and poor have this in common, their end is the same.
I’m hearing a lot of the buzzword ‘sustainability’ at the moment, in the environmental, economic and philanthropic realm, but the message of scripture is that as commendable and respectable as these efforts by humanity are, they are still at the end of the day…. treading water, because it is all based on the great illusion that we are in control of life.
1 Corinthians 7:31 For the present form of this world is passing away.
A classic movie is; Jurassic Park because it was so ahead of it’s time in what it was trying to say. Towards the end when everything is falling in around them (and people are getting eaten alive by what they created), Richard Attenborough’s character say’s “next time when we have control,” and Laura Dern’s character cuts him off and says “you never had control, that’s the illusion!!”
I know what is straight because I know what is crooked, and I think we can get an idea of what John means when he says John 1:4 in him was life, because I can see what happens to us to when we walk away from him.
Life does not simply exist in its own right, but only in the logos, and is therefore under his control. Every. Single. Time. a society or soul ignores God, it dies, it degrades, it destroys itself.
What does John mean by the light?
That is what true life is, and it is what Christ gives, not just a physical existence, but a life lived in the Light. Remember back in Genesis, what are the first recorded words of God? Genesis 1:3 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”. That is why (being the incarnate word of God) Christ can literally say ‘I am the light of the world.’
When John presents the Logos as the light of all people he is again drawing on the ancient culture and writings that surround him. For example;
- Philo regarded God as light and the archetype of all other kinds of light.
- Like John, the Dead Sea Scrolls dated around 300B.C. also use ‘day’ figuratively with ‘light’ and ‘night’ with darkness.
- Gnostic texts of the 1st century used the metaphors of light and darkness heavily.
- Ancient Greek Philosophers spoke of knowledge as providing light for an individual.
The difference here though is that most ancient uses involved exclusiveness and not inclusiveness. In 1st century thought, one could posses the light of knowledge and thus have an advantage over those still living in the darkness. Hence the religious sect known as Gnosticism, comprised of those who believed that they had the ‘knowledge’ that allowed them to transcend the present world. By the way, they still do. They advertise in our local paper each week!
Into this John breaks in and says; John 1:4 life was the light of all people. In this passage at least, John holds that the life of the Logos is for all. In the same sense that the sun is always shining whether I choose to move indoors and ignore it or not, Christ is, by virtue of him being the source of life, the light which can and does illuminate the human soul.
Or as in the famous words of Augustine “thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” To draw near to this source of life is part of our nature, and the suppression of this desire, the root of all sin.
But light shines regardless of whether there is anything to illuminate, So Christ stands as the light whether individuals would accept him or not, which is really what verse 5 is all about.
Light vs. Dark
John 1:5 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The first thing you may have noticed is that for the first time in the passage, John enters into the present tense; the light shines. I guess what is more surprising is that he then immediately switches back into past tense when he says the darkness did not overcome it.
This is not a grammatical error, so why does John do this? Well it denotes that the light is continually in action and I think this is a kind of a cool thought. What we have here is a bit of a wink and a nudge to all those who are to see, read about, experience and put their trust in ‘the light’ down through the many centuries that are to come.
John, who is probably writing this gospel around 50 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, it aware that his words are as dynamic and life changing the day of the events they describe, and moreover they will continue to be so, 100, 1000, 2000 down the track, John positions himself alongside, not before his reader. It reminds the reader that what they are reading is eternal in nature and closely echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,1 not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
The impact of John’s testimony is intensified when he puts the failure of darkness in a tense which refers to a single decisive point of action in the past. The darkness failed to conquer once and for all, as opposed to the light which shines on.
Also, the verb concerning the failure of the darkness is extraordinarily broad in its meaning. The darkness failed to master, grasp, understand, comprehend, extinguish, overcome or overpower the light. John is covering all the bases here!
John speaks of the victory of the logos in the sense that the darkness, which is clearly a metaphor for evil, has never conquered or extinguished God’s plan to bring the light of life into our world. But he also denotes something more.
Christ himself was born in secret, hidden from a tyrannical ruler bent on exterminating all newborn boys at the time, in what was essentially the first century equivalent of an undercover carpark of a country pub with no grandeur that normally accompanied the birth of a king. John’s original 1st century audience were undergoing persecution from the Roman empire and we today struggle with challenge of sharing the gospel in a world that considers it stupidity and anti-progress.
Hence John is also correct in the sense that the darkness did not understand the light of the logos and still doesn’t, which can be very discouraging. And that is why it is so important that in the world of endless windows, transparency and subjectivity, that we trust in the other great truth; That in Christ and his victory, God has revealed himself as the light of all humanity, and that he is there with us in our mission to disturb the status quo, shine the light in the darkness.
All we need is in him, because in him is life itself and believe me, that, no matter what masks people put on, is the greatest desire of the human heart.
Till next time:)