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Part 24

28 Jul 2021

John 1:4-18

As we come out of those incredible opening stanzas of John 1:1-3 with all that they imply, we come full noise into hot theological water, very deep stuff indeed, which will require a good deal of thinking through, so, here goes…

In verse 4 we are told that “in him (the Word) was life, and the life was the light of men”.

Here in vs 4, John introduces two themes that he will return to again and again throughout his writing, that of light and life.

Light and life are here synonymous, the life was the light of men. Light and life go together and are is to be found in the Word. In reading these words I can’t help but be reminded of John 5:26.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself”.

The Word, of course, is Christ Jesus. He has life in himself, or more particularly, he Himself is life, and the life that is to be found in Him is the light of men.

In verse 5 John introduces a direct contrast between light and darkness.

 “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The themes of light and darkness are contrasted repeatedly throughout John’s Gospel, the darkness being set over and against the light. This is no accident. If light is synonymous with life, then darkness is synonymous with death.

The light that is the Word of God shines in the darkness of a world of sin and death; however, the darkness did not overcome the light. It has not won the day and had the last say. Death has not triumphed over life, over the Word, over Jesus the Word made flesh (vs14).

In light of Jesus’ public execution and death, this is an important point for John to make. Death did not have the final say over Christ, it is in fact the light that overcame darkness and death.

This is especially important given John’s stated aim in writing his account of the Gospel, found in chapter 20:31.

“…but these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name”.

How could you or I have life in his name if darkness and death had overcome Him? But if He had life in Himself and His life was not overcome by the darkness, then in receiving Him we receive the light that overcame darkness. We receive life that will not be overcome in our death just as it was not in His. Good news!

It’s in verse 7 that the theological waters begin to get choppy.

John tells us that the Baptiser came

“…to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.”

The first issue to get out of the way here is to note that the “him” at the end of the verse refers to Jesus - the light, rather than to John the Baptist.

The question that causes the theological chop here is centred on the issue of how we are to understand the word “all” in the context of this passage. Is it;

  1. All, as in all who believe. In other words, all who eventually come to believe will do so through (because of) the light.
  2. All, as in people of every nation, tribe, tongue, and people group are able to believe through the light, as opposed to the light only being given to the nation of Israel.
  3. All, as in all people, everyone and anyone may believe. In other words, because of the work of the light, it is now made possible for every single human being to come to believe.

People who come from a reformed theological position will interpret this as either one (or both) options one and two. Those who are more Arminian in their understanding will likely lean towards the third, a position often called Prevenient Grace.

Prevenient Grace is the view that God’s grace through Christ is necessary for salvation, but that what this accomplishes, in effect, is to make it possible for every single human being to come to a knowledge of the Gospel and saving faith in Christ.

Gods grace effectively sweeps away the fog of sin that has darkened our understanding  which has prevented everyone form coming to know Him, so that every single person is freed to make the choice of their own volition to either accept or reject God’s gift of salvation.

Now, which of these three options we are to take from this passage is up for debate, however, we must arrive at our decision based on which of these options best fits within the context of this passage within John’s Gospel, the Gospel According to John as an entire work, the writings of John more broadly, and within the whole council of God provided to us in Scripture. So we will need to hold on to that question as we go on through the passage.

The plot thickens in verse 9.

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

In what way are we to understand that the true light enlightens everyone?

Well, I think there’re many facets that we could draw upon in answering that question.

To begin with, I think it fair to say that the true light enlightens everyone by giving them life.

Remember, John is using the idiom of light in relationship to life. The true light is the Word of God. God is the creator of all that has come to exist. All who have received life have received it from God, from the Word. God is the source of all life.

In this sense, the true light has enlightened everyone because everyone has received life from Him.

While I think that this is true, and that we can certainly take this meaning for the context of the passage, I think that there is more that can be said, after all, John is not using the term light to refer to life generally but the specific life that overcomes the darkness, the life that is found in and comes from the Word (but more on that a little later).

Another idea that is worth mentioning here is the idea that the true light enlightens everyone in the sense of providing knowledge and truth.

There is an old adage that is worthy of repeating, and it is this, all truth is Gods truth, regardless of where it may be found. This idea has its origins with Augustine but has also been picked up by other influential thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and more recently Abraham Kuyper.

There is a certain logic (logos, see last weeks instalment) and rationality to creation. It is orderly, and as such, truth about the creation can be rationally discerned.

Now, the fact that the universe has a certain logic to it, is highly ordered, and can be rationally understood is not what you would expect had the universe come about by chance, time, and the random forces of chaos.

These facts about creation point beyond themselves to suggest an intelligence that lies behind creation and gives us something of the nature of its designer.

Whoever created this universe must be a being possessed of a rational, intelligent, and well ordered mind. Furthermore, whoever created this universe must exist outside the bounds of the universe, being therefore outside of time and being nonmaterial.

So we can go from our observations of nature to discerning something of the nature and power of her creator (Romans 1:19-20).

To build upon this a little, we can say that, not only can we discern something of the divine nature and power of the creator through what has been made, but in fact, that all creation is in some way revealing to us who the Creator is. Think of Psalm 19 for example.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day after day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.”

The whole universe and everything in it is proclaiming the glory of God and testifying to the truth of who He is.

Although we can’t come to a saving faith through what God has revealed about Himself through creation, enough has been revealed so that Paul is able to declare in Romans 1:20 that all human beings are without excuse.

As long as we dwell in the universe that God has made, we cannot escape the truth that God has revealed. In fact, we can take this a step further. Because Human Beings are made in the image and likeness of God, made to be like Him in certain ways so as to facilitate our relationship to Him, and made in His image to reflect His character and nature to Him, to each other, and to all of creation, then we ourselves are in some way a revelation of who God is.

In order to escape Gods truth, we would not only have to escape Gods creation in terms of the universe and the natural world, but, because we ourselves are a revelation of God, we would have to escape ourselves, escape our humanness, escape the logic of what we are as human beings including our fundamental design and purpose. That is well worth pondering given certain aspects of the cultural war that is currently raging around us.

For these reasons it can be said that the true light enlightens everyone, because we can discern truth about God, about creation, and about ourselves through what has been made in its essential nature. We can know these things because God has made revelation of these truths.

That being said, there is revelation here that is specific to the ‘true light’, a far more specific knowledge by which He enlightens us, and that is the specific truth and knowledge of the Father that only comes through the Son in whom He has made Himself known.

In verse 18 of John 1 we read that

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Fathers side, he has made him known.”

Firstly, before we move on, take a moment to appreciate the claim to divinity that is being made with regards to Jesus. The one who is at the side of God the Father is being referred to as God. This same one makes the Father known.

This passage reminds me of Hebrews 1:8-9

“But of the Son he (the Father) says ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’”

Again, see the clear statement here that the Son is in fact God.

Another passage that springs to mind is also found in Hebrews, this time in 2:12 (also Psalm 23:22-25).

“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

Compare those two passages with John 14:9;

“If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”

John 17:6;

“I have manifested your name to the people.”

and John 17:26

“I have made known to them your name.”

The Son, the true light that enlightens all people, enlightens us because He brings specific knowledge and truth about who the Father is.

“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”

1 John 5:20

As we move into verse 10, it is worth reminding ourselves of the three options that arose from our reading of verse 7, and the question of which of these three options best fits within the rest of the passage, the rest of the Gospel according to John, the writings of John as a whole, and the whole council of God given us in Scripture.

For me, as I read vs 10-13, option 3, that of Prevenient Grace, is ruled out.

How so?

Well firstly, notice that in verse 10 we are told that the world did not know Him, and in verse 11 that His own people did not receive Him. In other words, despite the enlightening that comes from the true light that enlightens everyone in verse 9, in verse 10 we are told that not everyone knew the light (came to the knowledge of Him), and in verse 11 that His own people did not receive Him (came into relationship with Him). So whatever we make of verse 9, we can’t read it in terms of the knowledge with which everyone is enlightened being a knowledge of saving faith.

Further, we need to ask how the word world is being used here.

When reading ‘the world did not know him’ in verse 10 our first instinct (certainly mine) would be to interpret ‘world’ as to mean everyone in the world. However, as we see in verse 12 some did believe and receive Him.

From those two verses we derive two categories of people, the world, those who did not know/receive Christ, and those that are called the children of God in verse 12, those that did receive Him.

Now, however we understand how that comes to pass, what we can say with all certainty is that the word ‘world’ in this context does not mean ‘all people everywhere’. This should give us pause for thought when interpreting other instances where we come across the word world in John’s writing.

If the way John uses the word world here goes against our first instinct to understand it to mean ‘all people’, then perhaps we should also be willing to consider that the word ‘all’ in verse 7 could mean something other than ‘all people everywhere’.

So, why did the world not come to know Him or receive Him? The answer is found in chapter 3 verses 19-20.

“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deed be exposed.”

See how John tells us that the people of the world loved darkness? It means that their affections were ever inclined towards darkness, they longed for and desired darkness, their hearts (the seat of who they are) were ever inclined towards darkness.

Jesus tells us that it is out of the heart that all the issues of life flow, and those include all kinds of evil (Matt 15:19). People’s hearts were inclined towards darkness, and as a result, their deeds are evil. Evil hearts lead to evil deeds, which in turn inclines us towards more evil and darkness in order to conceal the reality and depth of our wickedness.

They loved darkness. We have already seen the theme of light and darkness play out in Johns Gospel. Light is synonymous with life and truth, darkness is synonymous with sin and death.

The world loved darkness, sin, and death over the light, truth, and life.

Who is it then that does these evil deeds which flow out of their wicked hearts which are ever inclined towards evil? Every single human being.

“The imagination of mans heart is wickedness from his youth.”

Gen 8:21

“…there is not a just man upon the earth that does good and sins not.”

Ecclesiastes 7:20

“No one is good except one -God.”

Matt 19:17 

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Romans 3:23

The scripture is clear, all have sinned, therefore all have performed evil deeds, and as a result all people love darkness rather than light.

If this is the case, then how do some receive Him? How can this inclination of the heart towards and affection for darkness, sin, and death be overcome?

If we read verses 12 and 13 (and I would recommend doing so alongside chapter 3 verses 3-8) then the answer becomes clear. We must be born again.

This new birth, we are told, is not a birth after blood, in other words, not after natural decent, parentage, lineage, tribe, people group, ethnicity, DNA or other such things. Nor is it a birth that comes by the will of the flesh, the twisted sinful nature of human beings (see also 3:6). Nor is it by the will of man… pause.

In part 13 of our journey together I asked the question ‘are the flesh and the will the same thing, or is the will product of the flesh?’ It would seem that John is telling us that there is a difference between the flesh and the will. What could that difference be?

I’m not going to hang my hat on this one, but it seems to me that the flesh is our twisted sinful human nature and that the will is the seat of our desires. The will, through our affections, our desires, follows the agenda set by the flesh, which is hostile to God.

Now, where were we? Not by the will of man…

If option 3 (Prevenient Grace) was correct, then we would have to choose to receive the light, which would first require that we desire to receive Him. However, our desires are the product of our will which is subject to the flesh and as such is hostile to God.

We do not naturally desire after or will to embrace God. Our minds are committed to evil and darkness which are the product of our selfish sinful desires, the product of our will the inclination of which is set by the flesh (Romans 8:7, Col 1:21).

To choose to receive the light would, by definition, require an act of the will, however, our will is the very thing that needs re-ordered so that we can desire after the things of God in the first place.

It seems to me that the option of Prevenient Grace can’t be accepted, because to choose to receive the light would require an act of the will in order that we can be born again, however verse 13 specifically tells us that the children of God are not born by the will of man, not born as a result of an act of mans will.

As such, it seems to me, that option 3, that of Prevenient Grace, cannot be the intention of John for our understanding of verse 7.

The children of God are born by an act of His will. He wills it, we are born again receiving a new nature, a new will, which means new desires which in turn result in new actions. As Paul puts it in Philippians 2:12-13 

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”.

Work out in this context means to out work through your actions, through your manner of life, and particularly in your obedience to God.

“for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Our will, our desire to please God through our actions is itself a work of God in us. It is a desire given to us by an act of His will not ours.

Why is any of this important to our discussion regarding the flesh?

It is important because it highlights the true nature and severity of the predicament in which we find ourselves. We are imprisoned by the flesh, held captive by our sin, which is not simply a question of our actions, our sin is the twisting and distorting of the very nature and essence of what we are as human beings.

We are dead in our trespasses and sins, and alienated from the life of God. No act of human will can bring about our salvation. No amount of behavioural modification can change what we are. We cannot rescue ourselves from ourselves, we need someone to step in, to take action on our behalf.

We need to be born again and made new in order to be set free from our sin and captivity.

This is not something we can achieve for ourselves. We can no more overcome the flesh by an act of the flesh and the flesh twisted will than a dead person can resurrect themselves.

Only the new birth that comes by the will of God can set us free from our captivity, and only by the power of God that comes by the Spirit of God can we overcome the flesh after receiving life through the true light that is Jesus the Messiah.

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