The Self-Existence of the Word
In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (1:4–5)
Displaying yet again his Spirit-inspired economy of words, John in these two brief verses summarized the incarnation. Christ, the embodiment of life and the glorious, eternal Light of heaven, entered the sin-darkened world of men, and that world reacted in various ways to Him.
As noted earlier in this chapter, the themes life and Light are common in John’s gospel. Zōē (life) refers to spiritual life as opposed to bios, which describes physical life (cf. 1 John 2:16). Here, as in 5:26, it refers primarily to Christ having life in Himself. Theologians refer to that as aseity, or self-existence. It is clear evidence of Christ’s deity, since only God is self-existent.
This truth of God’s and Christ’s self-existence—having life in themselves—is foundational to our faith. All that is created can be said to be “becoming,” because nothing created is unchanging. It is essential to understand that permanent, eternal, non-changing being or life is distinct from all that is becoming. “Being” is eternal and the source of life for what is “becoming.” That is what distinguishes creatures from the Creator, us from God.
Genesis 1:1 establishes this fundamental reality with the statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Because it is the most important truth in the Bible, it is the one most assaulted. Unbelievers know that to be rid of creation is to be rid of a Creator. And to be rid of God leaves men free to live in whatever way they want, with no judgment.
The whole universe falls into the category of “becoming” because there was a point when it did not exist. Before existence it was the self-existent eternal being—the source of life—God, who is pure, self-existent being, pure life, and never becoming anything. All creation receives its life from outside, from Him, but He derives His life from within Himself, depending on nothing for His life. There was a point when the universe did not exist. There was never a point when God did not exist. He is self-existence, life, “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). He is from everlasting to everlasting. Acts 17:28 rightly says: “In Him we live and move and exist.” We cannot live or move or be without His life. But He has always lived and moved and been.
This is the purest ontological description of God—and to say Jesus is the life is to say the most pure truth about the nature of God that He possesses. And, as in verse 3, He then is the Creator.
While as the Creator Jesus is the source of everything and everyone who lives, the word life in John’s gospel always translates zōē, which John uses for spiritual or eternal life. It is imparted by God’s sovereign grace (6:37, 39, 44, 65; cf. Eph. 2:8) to all those who believe savingly in Jesus Christ (1:12; 3:15–16, 36; 6:40, 47; 20:31; cf. Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9–10; 1 John 5:1, 11–13). It was to impart spiritual life to sinners who “were dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) that Jesus came into the world (10:10; cf. 6:33).
While it is appropriate to make some distinction between life and light, the statement the life was the Light halts any disconnect between the two. In reality, John is writing that life and light cannot be separated. They are essentially the same, with the idea of light emphasizing the manifestation of the divine life. The life was the Light is the same construction as “the Word was God” (v. 1). As God is not separate from the Word, but the same in essence, so life and light share the same essential properties.
The light combines with life in a metaphor for the purpose of clarity and contrast. God’s life is true and holy. Light is that truth and holiness manifest against the darkness of lies and sin. Light and life are linked in this same way in John 8:12, in which Jesus says: “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” The connection between light and life is also clearly made in the Old Testament. Psalm 36:9 says: “For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light.”
“The light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4) is nothing more than the radiating, manifest life of God shining in His Son. Paul specifically says: “God … is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v. 6). So light is God’s life manifest in Christ.
In addition to its connection to life, light carries its own significance, as seen in the contrast between light and darkness, which is a common theme in Scripture. Intellectually, light refers to truth (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 6:23; 2 Cor. 4:4) and darkness to falsehood (Rom. 2:19); morally, light refers to holiness (Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5) and darkness to sin (Prov. 4:19; Isa. 5:20; Acts 26:18). Satan’s kingdom is the “domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13; cf. Luke 22:53; Eph. 6:12), but Jesus is the source of life (11:25; 14:6; cf. Acts 3:15; 1 John 1:1) and the Light that shines in the darkness of the lost world (8:12; 9:5; 12:35–36, 46).
Despite Satan’s frantic, furious assaults on the Light, the darkness did not comprehend it. Katalambanō (comprehend) is better translated “overcome.” Even a small candle can drive the darkness from a room; the brilliant, glorious Light of the Lord Jesus Christ will utterly destroy Satan’s realm of darkness. Since He came into the world, “the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).
The thrust of this verse, then, is not that the darkness failed to understand the truth about Jesus; on the contrary, the forces of darkness know Him all too well. In Matthew 8:29 some demons “cried out [to Jesus], saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?’ ” In Peter’s house in Capernaum, Jesus “cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was” (Mark 1:34). Luke 4:41 records that “demons also were coming out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But rebuking them, He would not allow them to speak, because they knew Him to be the Christ.” In Luke 4:34 a terrified demon pleaded, “Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” The demons not only know the truth about Christ, but they also believe it. “You believe that God is one,” wrote James, “You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19).
It is because they understand with total clarity the judgment that awaits them that Satan and the demons have tried desperately throughout history to kill the life and extinguish the Light. In the Old Testament, Satan tried to destroy Israel, the nation from which the Messiah would come. He also tried to destroy the kingly line from which the Messiah would descend (2 Kings 11:1–2). In the New Testament, he prompted Herod’s futile attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matt. 2:16). At the beginning of His earthly ministry, Satan vainly tried to tempt Jesus to turn aside from the cross (Matt. 4:1–11). Later, he repeated the temptation again through one of His closest followers (Matt. 16:21–23). Even Satan’s seeming triumph at the cross in reality marked his ultimate defeat (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14; cf. 1 John 3:8).
Similarly, unbelievers are eternally lost not because they do not know the truth, but because they reject it:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom. 1:18–21)
(For a further discussion of this point, see the exposition of 1:9–11 in chapter 2 of this volume.)
No one who rejects Christ’s deity can be saved, for He Himself said in John 8:24, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” It is fitting, then, that John opens his gospel, which so strongly emphasizes Christ’s deity (cf. 8:58; 10:28–30; 20:28), with a powerful affirmation of that essential truth.
Jesus Christ is Life
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
In this verse John introduces two of the greatest themes of his narrative. Often at the beginning of an important work of literature or music, a writer or composer will declare a theme and then allow it to recur again and again throughout the book or composition. This is sometimes done through a visual image, as in a Hardy novel. Sometimes it is through a musical motif, as in a Beethoven symphony. Sometimes it is done by means of a word or a concept, as we have here. John’s themes are “light” and “life.” And they occur in such a variety of contexts and so frequently that we need to take some time to examine them at the outset.
In this study we will look at the claim that Jesus is the life of the world. In the next study we will look at the claim that he is the light.
A Prominent Theme
It is quite obvious to any careful reader of the Gospel that the word “life” is an important one, for John speaks often of life in connection with Jesus Christ and of the eternal life that he offered and, indeed, still offers to men and women.
To some extent the Gospel begins and ends with this theme. John begins by declaring, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4). In 20:30–31, he concludes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In John 14:6 Jesus declares that he is the source of life: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 5:40 shows that men will not come to him that they might have life. In John 10:28 Jesus says of those who do come, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” In all, the word “life” occurs more than thirty-five times in the Gospel. And the related verb “to live” increases that total by at least fifteen more instances.
But what does it mean to say that Jesus is the source of life or that he is the life? The first answer to that question is one that takes us back to the opening pages of the Book of Genesis and therefore to the role of the Lord Jesus Christ in giving life to all living things in the world. We have already seen in our previous studies that the writer intends a reference to the first chapters of Genesis in his introductory verses; this is also the case here. “In the beginning” (v. 1) reminds us of the sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The Logos or “Word” of God reminds us of the way in which God spoke in creation: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). In the same way, when John says of the Lord Jesus Christ, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life” (John 1:3, 4), every Bible student should think instantly of the life that went forth out of God to bring life to inanimate matter at the beginning of the creation of the world. In other words, John is saying that our physical life comes from God through the Lord Jesus.
This is suggested in the early chapters of Genesis. For we read that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).
All the terms in this verse from Genesis are important. In the first place, we are told that God formed man of the dust of the earth. Once, in a message on Christ’s statement that we are the salt of the earth, I pointed out that when God does a work in human history he uses common substances or common people so that the glory might be to his name and not to man’s. We see this in his choice of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist, and the disciples to do certain things. We have it stated in 1 Corinthians 1:26–29, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise … so that no one may boast before him.” We have the same principle in the opening chapters of the Bible.
When God formed man, what did he use? Did he use gold, silver, iron, uranium, platinum? No, he used dust—a common substance. But he breathed into it the breath of his life. Thus, even though we may be “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the psalmist says (Ps. 139:14), nevertheless, the glory is God’s and there is nothing in us about which man can boast. “So low is the dust,” writes Donald Grey Barnhouse in Genesis, “that God gave it to the serpent for the food of his curse. Job uses the word twenty times to describe the littleness of man in his misery. It is to dust that all bodies return in death. But we can look up to the Lord in confidence because ‘he knows our frame and he remembers that we are dust’ (Ps. 103:14, rsv).” The writer then adds, “Dust that exalts itself is hateful, but dust that acknowledges its dustiness finds favor in the sight of the Lord.”
There is a lesson for us in the dust; but we must stop our examination of the verse at this point, because for our present exposition of John 1:4 the important term in Genesis 2:7 is “breath.” It is the breath of God that makes the dust live.
What is God’s breath? It is that which goes forth out of his mouth. It is his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and it is associated with his spoken word. When we speak about these three terms in English—breath, Spirit, and word—they seem to be unrelated. But this is not true in the Hebrew language. In Hebrew the same word that is used for Spirit is also used for “breath.” It is the word ruach, which even has a breathy sound. And what is more significant, in Hebrew thought the breath of God or the breath of a man is associated with the person’s spoken words. For a man speaks, as we know, by means of it. When we put these ideas together, we find that God brought forth life in man by speaking the word of life (which John has already identified with Jesus Christ) in such a way that the Spirit of life (which is his Holy Spirit) passes into man and causes him to breathe. In other words, these terms provide an illustration of the role of each member of the Trinity in creation.
The significance of man’s created nature is seen most clearly when he is contrasted with the Lord Jesus Christ. In the great resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15, there is a verse toward the end that says, “ ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (v. 45). In other words, even though we live by the breath of God, we do so only by inhaling. Christ lives by exhaling. Thus, we know that we are his creatures and that he is the Creator.
However, this is only the beginning of our understanding of what John intends by the use of the word “life” in the Gospel. He is speaking of Christ’s role in creation, in one sense. But this is only the groundwork for the spiritual interpretation of the word that he unfolds in the pages of the Gospel. It is true that John speaks of physical life here, but as the book goes on he speaks increasingly of spiritual life. And the point is that just as Jesus is the source of physical life, so is he the source of the spiritual life that we receive when we believe on him.
To appreciate the importance of the gift of spiritual life, we must realize first that apart from it we are dead spiritually. Or you might say, we are as unresponsive to God as was the dust of the earth before God breathed his Spirit into it.
We can say this, of course, because God says it. Take the verses from the second chapter of Ephesians for an example. Here Paul writes to the Christians at Ephesus, reminding them that before God made them alive they were totally dead in everything spiritual and were in rebellion against him. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:1–6).
What a past is described in these verses! And what a condition! In our natural state we can do nothing to improve ourselves spiritually. Apart from Christ no man has ever breathed one breath toward God, nor had one spiritual heartbeat. Man is dead in sin. He needs a new life. That is why we must be born again. Being born again means receiving a new life from God through the Lord Jesus Christ by faith in him.
One might add here, however, that when the Bible declares that all men are dead spiritually, it does not imply that all are in an identical state of corruption. In his book, In the Heavenlies, Harry A. Ironside points to three instances in the life of Christ that illustrate clearly what the Bible is saying. He writes, “The beautiful little maid, the daughter of Jairus, had been dead only a few minutes when the blessed Lord reached her father’s house, but she was dead, she was lifeless. Fair to look upon, lovely and sweet, no doubt, in the eyes of her beloved parents, like a beautiful marble statue, but although there was not the corruption that there might have been, she was dead nevertheless. Turn over to Luke’s gospel and you find that as the blessed Lord came to the village of Nain they were carrying a young man out to bury him. He was dead. Dead perhaps a day or two. … This young man was dead longer than the little maid, but life was just as truly extinct in her case as in his. Then you have the blessed Lord at the grave of Lazarus. The sisters told Him not to roll the stone away, for their brother had been dead four days and would already be offensive. Corruption had set in, but the Lord Jesus brought new life to that man” as well as to the others. In the same way, we are all genuinely dead apart from the life-giving Spirit of Jesus Christ. There may be degrees of corruption so that relatively speaking some men are far less offensive than others. But all men are dead spiritually. All need the divine life.
Where does it come from? It comes from Jesus Christ. He is the life of the world. Because we were dead in our sins, God sent Jesus Christ to give us new life. Because we were guilty of sin, God sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins by bearing them in his own body on the tree.
There are two more truths that should be noticed before concluding this study. First, the life that God gives through Jesus Christ is not merely an earthly life or a life of such quality that it can be lost, but eternal life. It can never be lost. Thus the life that we receive from God in the moment of our belief in Jesus Christ is the same life that we will be living with God in eternity in what we would call unending millions of years from now.
What is eternal life? It is life without end, the life of God. If it could be lost, as some persons think is the case, then it would not be eternal life. For instance, what would eternal life be if it could be lost at the end of one million years? It would not be eternal life. It would be one-million-years life. But if God said that it was going to last for one million years, then it could not be lost before the expiration of that period. If God said that he was going to give us one-thousand-years life, then the life could not be lost before the end of one thousand years. If he said that it was one hundred-years life, it could not be lost before one hundred years had expired. But we thank God that he has not given us merely one-hundred-, one-thousand-, or even one-million-years life. He has given us eternal life. It is truly eternal or everlasting. Thus, the apostle John writes, “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11).
The second truth is that God has not only given us eternal life (which no one can take from us); he has also given us a life that is meant to be abundant even in our present circumstances. The Lord Jesus Christ once said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
It is unfortunate that many Christians, though they have eternal life, nevertheless do not have life abundantly. This was not meant to be. Instead of living a miserable life and always complaining, Christians are meant to live lives of such joy and exuberance that their lives will be a blessing to others.
There is a magnificent picture of this abundant life in the first verses of the beloved Twenty-third Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:1–3). I believe that the reason this psalm has been so beloved by Christians throughout all the ages of church history is that it sets forth as something quite practical the abundant life that is ours because of God’s care for us. We know that we were once sheep that were lost. Even now we wander away from Christ’s fold. But still we are his, and we know that the abundant life is ours whenever we will leave our wandering and lie down in the company of our Shepherd.
Did you know that a sheep will not eat or drink when it is lying down? Most people have never heard this. But it is a fact, and it gives special meaning to the phrase, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” If a sheep is lying down, even in the greenest of pastures and even with the most tender morsel of grass within an inch of its nose, the sheep will not eat the grass. Instead, if it is hungry, it will scramble to its feet, bend over, and then eat the morsel that was much easier to reach before. Thus, when the psalm tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ, our Shepherd, makes us lie down in green pastures, it means that he is able to satisfy us so completely that we cannot possibly yearn for anything more.
Oh, the joys of living out the abundant life of Christ! They are the joys of increasingly finding him to be the bread of life that satisfies all our hunger and the water of life that quenches our deepest thirst.
The Light of the World
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
Several years ago an old woman in the bush country of southern Rhodesia in Africa said to a missionary, “You have brought us the light, but we don’t seem to want it. You have brought us the light, but we still walk in darkness.” She was speaking only of the life she knew in Africa. But her words aptly describe the reaction of people everywhere to the light of Jesus Christ when he first shone upon the world. He was the light of the world. In one sense he had always been the light of the world. Yet, when he appeared the world rejected him because it preferred darkness.
This great image—the image of Christ as the light of the world—is the second theme that John the evangelist introduces in the fourth and fifth verses of his opening chapter. Later we are told quite pointedly by Jesus, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Here we read, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
God is Light
What does John mean when he declares that Jesus Christ is the light of men? By this title, Jesus is revealed as the One who knows God the Father and who makes him known. Light is a universal image for the illumination of the mind through understanding. Before Christ came into the world, the world was in darkness. The world did not know God. Christ came. His light shone before men. Then men had light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
The context for the significance of this image lies in the fact that God is pictured as light throughout the Old and New Testaments. David writes in one psalm, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps. 27:1). Psalm 36:9 says, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” Another psalm says: “Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent” (Ps. 104:1–2). John writes, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
God is light! We recognize this truth personally every time we sing some of our most beautiful hymns:
Eternal light! Eternal light!
How pure the soul must be
When, placed within Thy searching light,
It shrinks not, but with calm delight
Can live, and look on Thee!
Or this great hymn by Walter Chalmers Smith:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
How perfect the image seems to be! And how appropriate as a term for the One who makes the Father known! E. M. Blaiklock, former professor of classics at Auckland University in New Zealand, makes these comments: “God is light. The image is satisfyingly complete. Light penetrates the unimaginable depths of space, far beyond the limits of human vision. In all the vastness of the great globe of vanished millennia into which the telescope can probe, the gleaming galaxies float, or tell in light how once they floated, when the effulgence which we see today began its endless journey.
“Without light there is no vision, no view of reality, no confident journeying, no growth save of chill and evil things, no health, no life. The hand shrinks from the cold and slimy life which survives sluggishly in dark caves. When some plant of the open day strikes root in such places, it becomes a pale and flaccid thing distorted beyond recognition, as it reaches for a gleam through some chink or crevice in the rock.
“But light, like God, exists by itself, apart from that which it illuminates. … Light on earth is a medium, a means by which we see this and that object. It picks up and reveals the loveliness of shape and color. But light exists by itself and apart from that which it gilds and glorifies. It is an environment, a condition, a wonder which fills and floods the whole immensity of space.”
Blaiklock is right. The image is rich, and it is totally appropriate to describe the Lord Jesus Christ. God the Father is light. So also is Christ the Son. He is the image of the invisible God, the One who fills all in all. In him we see and know the Father.
Light and Darkness
The image also teaches that by his coming into the world Jesus exposed the works of darkness. For he shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not like it. B. F. Westcott, in The Revelation of the Father, has written, “The light which reveals the world does not make the darkness, but it makes the darkness felt. If the sun is hidden, all is shadow, though we call that shadow only which is contrasted with the sunlight; for the contrast seems to intensify that which is, however, left just what it was before. And this is what Christ has done by his coming. He stands before the world in perfect purity, and we must feel as men could not feel before he came, the imperfection, the impurity of the world. The line of separation is drawn forever, and the conscience of men acknowledges that it is rightly drawn. Whether we know it or not the light which streams from Christ is ever opening the way to a clearer distinction between good and evil. His coming is a judgment. The light and the darkness are not blended in him, as they are in us, so that opinion can be doubtful.”
The coming of Jesus into the world exposed the world’s darkness, even where men thought they had most light. When I was very young I spent a number of summers at a Christian camp in Canada. At this camp during the course of each summer my friends and I took several camping trips. The trips were fun, as I remember, but the sleeping conditions were not. The ground was hard. Often it was damp and cold. Sometimes it rained. I remember often lying awake for most of the night talking or fooling around with the other campers. During a particularly long night we would play with our flashlights. We would shine them in one another’s eyes, and the game was to see which was the brightest. Generally, the one with the brightest reflector or the largest number of batteries won. Of course, the game could be played only in the dark, for eventually the sun came up, and after that the differences between the flashlights faded into insignificance by comparison to the strong light of the sun.
That is the experience people have when they come face-to-face with Jesus Christ. So long as we live in the darkness of this world you and I are able to compare the relative merits of human goodness or righteousness. We are able to see the difference between a three-battery character, a two-battery character, and one whose battery has almost gone out. We rate men accordingly. But all these distinctions fade away in the presence of the white light of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. His coming reveals the profundity of the darkness.
What is your reaction to that? It can be one of two things. You can hate Christ for it, as many people have done. You can try to get rid of his presence in your life. This is what John implies when he says that the darkness did not overcome the light. He could not say that unless the darkness had tried to overcome it. You can do that. Or you can do what God wants you to do. You can say, “Lord, I see now that my own good works are far from perfect. In fact, they seem quite dark, almost nonexistent, by comparison with your righteousness. I realize that they will never take me to heaven. But you have the goodness which I do not have, and you have promised to give it to all who will believe on your Son and receive him as Savior. That is what I do now. I trust you to remove my sin and accept me as your child forever.”
If you will say that, God will do as he has promised. For this is the reason why the Lord Jesus Christ came. We are told, “God made him [Jesus Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
The third important point to note in studying this image is the fact that the light of the Lord Jesus Christ has not been overcome by the darkness. In fact, John says, “The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (Phillips).
The word that occurs most prominently in the second part of this verse—the word that is translated “comprehend” in the King James Version of the Bible and is translated as “put it out” by Phillips in the paraphrase that I have just quoted—is a word with at least three meanings. Thus, there has been a wide diversity of interpretations of the verse by translators. On the most literal level the word means “to seize” or “to apprehend,” whether physically (as in John 8:4, where the scribes and the Pharisees claimed that they had seized the woman taken in adultery), or intellectually, in which case it would mean “to understand.” This is the interpretation given to the verse by the King James translators, who rendered the verse, “and the darkness comprehended it not,” as well as by the Latin Vulgate that says, “tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.”
However, the word can also mean “to overtake” and, thus, by extension “to overtake in pursuit” or “to overcome.” This is the clear meaning of the verb in the only other place where it occurs in John’s Gospel—John 12:35—where we read, “Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you.” In this sense the word passed into the sports vocabulary of antiquity and was used when a wrestler was said to have “taken down” his opponent. This is the meaning adopted by Williams, who says that the darkness “never overpowered” the light, and by the New Scofield Bible and the Revised Standard Version, which use the verb “overcome.”
All these translations are right. The darkness certainly did not understand the light. It did not overcome it. And yet, there is another meaning of the word that I believe comes even closer to John’s true meaning and is more appropriate. It is “to quench,” “to extinguish,” or “to eclipse,” the concepts employed by J. B. Phillips and the New English Bible. Thus, to use the terms of astronomy, which may certainly be involved here, we can say that God’s light is shining in the darkness and that it has never been eclipsed.
We do not see this on earth in the unending natural cycles of light and darkness. Here darkness always overcomes light. You can be in the gloomiest country on earth, or the brightest, and night will always follow upon day. It can be retarded by artificial means, but night comes eventually. I have often noticed how long daylight lasts on evening flights to this country from one of the European capitals. The flights take only six or seven hours, and there is a gain of three hours in flying the 3,000 miles from east to west. The planes fly high, and one can follow the sun for a greater distance over the horizon. On such a flight dusk lingers for almost four hours. Yet the night comes at last, and the plane eventually settles into the blackness that shrouds the eastern seaboard of the United States.
What the physical darkness does each evening, spiritual darkness tried without success to do in the case of Jesus Christ. He simply overcame it. One man who learned this truth rather late in life is Malcolm Muggeridge, England’s well-known satirist and social critic. In his words, “Having seen this other light [the light of God revealed in Jesus Christ], I turn to it, striving and growing toward it as plants do toward the sun. … Though, in terms of history, the darkness falls, blacking out us and our world, You have overcome history. You came as light into the world in order that whoever believed in You should not remain in darkness. Your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Nor ever will.”
“You are the Light”
In order to see the full teaching of the Gospel of John about light, we need to add to these truths that there is a sense in which in our day Jesus is no longer the light of the world directly but is so only as his light is reflected to the world by Christians. It is true that John uses the present tense in describing Christ’s light—“the light shines in the darkness”—but John would be the first to say that Christ shines in our day only through Christians (cf. 1 John 2:7–11). Thus, when Jesus was in the world he said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” But when he turned to those who had believed on him, he said, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). He did not mean that they were to glow in their own right like fireflies. Rather, they were to be kindled lights, like John the Baptist, whom Jesus termed a “lamp that burned and gave light” (John 5:35).
To those who did not believe he said, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you” (12:35).
Do you see what Christ is saying? He is saying that today Christians are the light of the world. But they can be the light of the world only because he is their light and they reflect him. It is as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Do men see Christ in you? They will not find him in the world today—not in the world’s literature, culture, or pastimes. They will see him only as you look to Jesus, as he increasingly becomes your light, and as he is reflected from your life to others.
Is Jesus your light? He is if he does for you what light always does when it issues forth from the Father. First, it puts confusion to flight. This is the picture that we have in the opening chapter of Genesis where we are told how God moved upon the formless void that existed before the world began and said, “Let there be light.” The light of God dispelled the darkness and brought forth life and order. If Jesus is the light of your life, he also dispels the darkness and places your life in order.
Second, the light of Jesus Christ is revealing. That is, it penetrates the darkness and shows us what has always been there. If the light of the Lord Jesus has had this effect in you, then you will not be playing the part of the hypocrite. You will have seen your heart. You will have been able to say with Isaiah, “Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5); or with Peter, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8); or with Paul, “I am the worst” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
Finally, if Christ is your light, you will have guidance in the midst of darkness and, with the guidance of God, true liberty.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Jesus the Life
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4–5)
One of my children recently asked, “Daddy, how long until Christmas?” I replied, “Why are you so eager for Christmas?” “Because I love to get presents!” he said. I am not old enough yet that I do not look forward to Christmas presents. But the things I love best about the Christmas season are the decorations, and especially the Christmas tree. I look forward to turning out all the lights, and then plugging in the strands of lights draped around the tree. Light shines forth, chasing away the darkness. And I hear in my mind the words at the beginning of John’s Gospel, speaking of Christ: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:4).
It is common for New Testament books to preview their main themes in the introductory verses. The prologue that begins John is probably the most elaborate of them all (John 1:1–18). It presents the themes that will be important to John’s portrait of Christ and God’s purpose for sending him into the world. Three of these themes are gathered together in John 1:4–5; together they offer a useful summary of John’s message and of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Him Was Life
The first of these theme-words appears in John 1:4, “In him was life.” The word life appears thirty-six times in the Gospel of John, far more than any other New Testament book. It is one of John’s most important themes. The preceding verses say that “the Word was with God” and “was God,” and that “all things were made through him” (1:1–3). The second person of the Godhead, the “Word,” who is the subject of this Gospel, is the source of all life in this universe. Not only does he possess life, but life itself is found in him and comes through him. Jesus said, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26).
All life is in Christ, including physical or biological life, but John is especially referring to spiritual life. The expression that he often uses is eternal life. John 3:16 proclaims that God loved the world and sent his Son, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We should think of eternal life not merely in terms of its quantity, but also in terms of its quality. It is the life that God has, lived in us now. It is not the prolonging of our earthly kind of life, but the heavenly life that begins in us the moment we believe on Jesus, and it never ends. Unending millions of years from now, the life that is of God will still be ours in and through Christ.
According to John, the opposite of eternal life is not mere death, but eternal condemnation. He said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). So to receive eternal life is to be saved from God’s holy judgment and enter into Christ’s eternal reign of glory.
People think that turning to Jesus will take all the fun out of life. But when you come to Jesus, your capacity for joy is vastly increased. Sin only deadens us and saps our life, whereas Christ fills us with wonder and purpose. G. Campbell Morgan tells of meeting as a boy an older man who had been converted to Christ through the ministry of his father. A few days after the man’s conversion, Morgan encountered him in a garden. He was holding something small and gazing into his hand with wonder. Morgan asked him what it was, and with a voice filled with awe the man showed him a leaf that had fallen from a tree. “The beauty of God,” he exclaimed. He had been awakened to the wonder of life! Contrast that with the experience of Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution. He turned his back on God and committed himself to secular humanism. His biography reveals that in so doing he lost his taste for life. As Darwin grew older, he admitted that he could no longer get anything out of poetry, music, or art. Life lost its flavor, and he lived out his days in a world without wonder or joy. Apart from Christ, joy is at its best dependent on happy circumstances. For the Christian, however, joy is the inward result of the Holy Spirit’s blessing; Paul wrote: “For the kingdom of God is … a matter of … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
This is what John wants us to see in Christ: “In him was life.” Are you really living? Do you feel that your life matters for something important? Are you excited about things, or just keeping occupied? Jesus has life to give to those who trust in him. “I came that they may have life,” he said, “and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
We should observe the link between this verse and the preceding ones, that is, between Jesus as the Word and Jesus as the Life. It is through God’s Word that Christ’s life comes into us. This means that if you want to be green and growing—if you want to be flourishing with spiritual life—then you need to be drinking from God’s Word. Psalm 1 speaks of the “blessed … man,” whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Ps. 1:2–3).
Perhaps the prime example of God’s Word’s bringing spiritual life is the conversion of St. Augustine, the great theologian of the early church. Augustine had a brilliant mind, but was an ungodly youth. His Christian mother, Monica, was burdened for his salvation, and his lifestyle broke her heart. As Augustine grew older, bouncing from philosophy to philosophy and indulging himself in sin, he began thinking about Christianity, even listening to the famous preacher Ambrose of Milan. But that did not bring him to life until he turned to the Bible. As he tells it in his Confessions, Augustine was seated on a bench, grieving for the deadness of his soul, when he heard youthful voices from over a nearby fence. They were singing a child’s song with the words “tolle lege, tolle lege”—that is, “take up and read, take up and read.” Augustine fetched a book of Paul’s letters that he had with him, opened it, and read Romans 13:13–14: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Reading those words, he was converted, turned from his sins, and began his new life as a Christian. Just as Christ is the Word and then the Life, it was by the Word that new life came into Augustine. “Instantly,” he recalled, “with the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of confidence now darted into my heart, all the darkness of doubting vanished away.”
The Light Shining
This is the very connection that John makes, that the life in Christ comes as a light shining in the darkness. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:4–5). Light is another of John’s great themes. The first recorded words of God are: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Light is an image that everyone understands, and it conveys a rich array of meaning.
The first thing light does is to reveal. When you walk into a dark room, you turn on the light in order to see. This is what Isaiah prophesied about the coming of Jesus: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isa. 9:2). Man was living in a spiritual darkness, ignorant about God and living in superstition. So Jesus came to reveal God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he announced (John 14:9). James Montgomery Boice comments, “Jesus is revealed as the One who knows God the Father and who makes him known.… Before Christ came into the world, the world was in darkness. The world did not know God. Christ came. His light shone before men. Then men had light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Do you know God? Do you know what God is like? Jesus came to reveal God to you. Do you know God by personal acquaintance, by his presence within your spirit? Jesus came also to bring us into fellowship with God as worshipers in spirit and in truth.
Light not only reveals, but also warms. To “walk in the darkness” is to walk in sin and moral depravity, but the light of Christ warms the heart so that it is changed. This spiritual transformation is what Jesus meant in John 12:46, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”
The evangelist Harry Ironside was once preaching outdoors in San Francisco when a famous atheist approached and handed him a card. It read, “Sir, I challenge you to debate with me the question, ‘Agnosticism versus Christianity’ in the Academy of Science Hall next Sunday afternoon at four o’clock.” Ironside read the card aloud and replied:
I am very much interested in this challenge.… Therefore I will be glad to agree to this debate on the following conditions, namely, in order to prove that Mr. —— has something worth fighting for and worth debating about, he will promise to bring with him to the hall next Sunday two people[:] … one man who was for years what we commonly call a “down-and-outer” … a man who for years was under the power of evil habits from which he could not deliver himself, but who on some occasion … heard the glorification of agnosticism and his denunciations of the Bible and Christianity, and whose heart and mind as he listened to such an address were so deeply stirred that he went away from that meeting saying, “Hence-forth, I too am an agnostic!” And as a result of imbibing that particular philosophy found that a new power had come into his life. The sins he once loved, he now hates, and righteousness and goodness are now the ideals of his life … all because he is an agnostic.
Ironside likewise asked the atheist to bring a woman who had similarly been delivered from corrupt living by the power of unbelief.
Then Ironside turned to his side of the bargain. “I will bring with me at the very least 100 men and women who for years lived in just such sinful degradation as I have tried to depict, but who have been gloriously saved through believing the gospel which you ridicule. I will have these men and women with me on the platform as witnesses to the miraculous saving power of Jesus Christ and as present-day proof of the truth of the Bible.” At this, the atheist walked away, for while Ironside could easily produce a hundred men and women transformed by the light of Jesus Christ, the secular debater could not provide even one who had been changed for the better by his philosophy. Ironside’s point was not that no one can be ethical as an unbeliever, but rather that the light of Christ possesses a life-transforming power that atheism does not.
Third, light not only reveals and warms, but also guides. We think of the glory cloud of light that guided Israel through the desert during the exodus. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Likewise, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). If you come to Jesus Christ in faith and follow as his disciple, he will be a light to guide you “in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3).
Fourth, light conveys and stimulates life. If you want a plant to grow, you place it in the sunshine. Likewise, you will grow upward as the light of Christ’s Word shines in you. David sang about how God’s Word is “like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,” which “makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2 Sam. 23:4). In the beginning, as we have seen, God’s first creative word was: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Today, Christ’s light shines with the power of his life through his Word.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). This great verse also summarizes what it means for us to be Christlike. Jesus wants you to be a lamp that reflects his light in the world. He wants you to reveal God to those around you; he wants you to warm others so that they will seek after truth and love; he wants you to be a guide to others; and he wants his light shining in and through you to bring others to life. He urged: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Darkness against the Light
The third image that John uses is darkness. John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Darkness is the opposite of light. If light stands for the knowledge of God, darkness represents the spiritual ignorance in which the world is perishing. If light stands for warmth and goodness, then the darkened world is that which is enslaved in sin and evil. If the light leads us in good paths, darkness is the realm of the lost and blind. If light brings life, then darkness is the realm of death.
Darkness not only differs from light but is opposed to it. The coming of Christ as the light thus met the opposition of the darkened world. Jesus explained, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Nothing has ever condemned this world more roundly than its response to the coming of Jesus Christ. If people tell you that the world or the human race is basically good, remind them what it did to Jesus. He came without any sin, healing and teaching the way to God. He was a light shining in the darkness. But for that very reason the world hated him. The hypocritical Pharisees resented him for exposing their legalism. The priests and scribes envied his popularity. The power-hungry Romans thought him a threat to their military domination. And it wasn’t just the elite, for the ordinary people also called out for Jesus’ blood: “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” they demanded of Pontius Pilate (19:15). When God’s Son came into the world, the world nailed him to the cross—the cruelest form of execution they could possibly devise—to suffer and die. People today similarly despise Jesus; for all their supposed admiration, they refuse his claim to be Savior and Lord and resent his holy example that exposes their sin.
What about you? Do you ever notice how nervous you are when a police car drives behind you? Why? Because you are conscious of guilt. This is why people are unnerved to face the light of Jesus as it shines in Scripture, and why they flee his light for the more comfortable darkness. His light shows our darkness for what it is. Will you turn away from that light, scurrying into spiritual shadows? Or will you worship the glory it reveals, humbly confess the darkness it exposes in you, and come into the light of Christ to receive life and salvation? It is only when we humble ourselves before God, admit our need for his grace, and realize that Jesus came to help and save us that we no longer flee. When our car is broken down at night, we welcome the arrival of a police officer. Similarly, when you realize your need of God’s mercy, and how willing he is to save you, then you will welcome the light of Christ into your heart. But whether you accept him or not, realize that you will never put out his light, and for all eternity that light will shine either in you with life or upon you so that you will never escape God’s condemnation of judgment and death.
John uses a word at the end of verse 5 (katalambano) that can be taken in a number of ways. Some translations render it as comprehend: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not comprehended [or understood] it” (see kjv, niv, nasb). That is a possible translation, though I think it unlikely because darkness does not seek to understand light but to oppose it. Another way it can be rendered is to extinguish, as in snuffing out a flame. This is the sense given in the English Standard Version: “the darkness has not overcome it.” Leon Morris explains, “The light and the darkness came into bitter and decisive conflict and the darkness could not prevail.”
At one point Jesus’ opponents formed a mob to stone him, but he walked right through them (Luke 4:29–30). They sent soldiers to arrest him, but they were too awed by him (John 7:45–46). They nailed him to a cross, but he saved the thief hanging next to him (Luke 23:42–43). Finally, as the dark storm clouds of God’s wrath fell on him for our sins, Jesus died, and they laid him in the pitch-black darkness of the cold tomb. But Jesus rose from the grave; even the darkness of death was unable to overcome him. He ascended into heaven, and though the world has tried to snuff out the light of Christ, it shines all the more brightly still. When John wrote this Gospel, “fifty years of opposition and persecution … had not extinguished the light of Christ in the gospel. Since then, two millennia have passed by and the light still shines.”
The world cannot overcome the light of Christ, but how often his own people neglect it. Are you seeking to grow in grace through the light that shines in God’s Word? Are you walking in the light? In other words, are you living in conscious fellowship with Jesus, obeying his Word, living in step with his Holy Spirit, and enjoying his blessings of righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom. 14:17)? Walking in the light of Christ is the only way to live in the power of his salvation. You will never get rid of the darkness within you by trying to remove it yourself or by following some man-made program of life improvement. You don’t take a bucket into a basement to bail out the darkness; you turn on the light and the light chases it away. John writes in his first epistle: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Therefore, I say to you what the children sang to St. Augustine: tolle lege, tolle lege, take up and read God’s Word of salvation for you. Turn on the light of Christ in your heart; especially in the darkest places, let the truth and the warmth of God’s Word shine as it reveals the glory and grace of God to your soul, and you will be guided into life more abundant in Christ.
The Light of Christ
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4–5). These are great themes that we will encounter all through John’s Gospel: life, light, and darkness. But remember that John is really pointing to Jesus. What matters in life, then, is not what we are and have been, not what others have done, not what challenges or trials the future might hold. What matters is that Christ has life through his light that shines in the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
One man who learned this great truth was John L. Girardeau. A college student in 1840, he was lost in the great darkness of his deep awareness of unworthiness and sin. His biography tells us:
He had just entered college when a gloom like that of eternal night fell upon his soul. His conscience pointed to his sinful nature, the unbearable holiness of God, and the flaming bar of judgment.… The lurid glare of an eternal hell was ever before his fervid imagination. His case seemed hopeless. He was afraid to put out his light at night lest the darkness should never end.… He had no appetite for food. He could not study. No earthly thing interested him.… In vain did he strive to make peace with God; he wept over the consequences of his sins, but there was no sense of pardon; he tried to repent and reform, but there was no peace; he strove to make covenants and agreements with God, but the earth was iron and the heavens were brass. One beautiful morning while on his knees begging for mercy, it occurred to him that he had already done everything that it was possible for him to do, and that all of these things had availed him nothing. He would, therefore, just surrender himself to Jesus and leave the case in his hands. This was faith. Instantly the Holy Spirit assured him that he was accepted in Christ, that his sins were forgiven, and that God loved him with an everlasting love.
That is the way to life and light: to cease trusting in yourself or in anything else of this world that might commend you to God, and surrender your case into the hands of Jesus. “I have come into the world as light,” he said, “so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). That light is still shining, and through him you can have life everlasting, life abundant, life in Christ. “These are written,” says John, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
4. In him was life. Hitherto he has taught us, that by the Speech of God all things were created. He now attributes to him, in the same manner, the preservation of those things which had been created; as if he had said, that in the creation of the world there was not merely displayed a sudden exercise of his power, which soon passed away, but that it is manifested in the steady and regular order of nature, as he is said to uphold all things by the word or will of his power, (Heb. 1:3.) This life may be extended either to inanimate creatures, (which live after their own manner, though they are devoid of feeling,) or may be explained in reference to living creatures alone. It is of little consequence which you choose; for the simple meaning is, that the Speech of God was not only the source of life to all the creatures, so that those which were not began to be, but that his life-giving power causes them to remain in their condition; for were it not that his continued inspiration gives vigour to the world, every thing that lives would immediately decay, or be reduced to nothing. In a word, what Paul ascribes to God, that in him we are, and move, and live, (Acts 17:28,) John declares to be accomplished by the gracious agency of the Speech; so that it is God who gives us life, but it is by the eternal Speech.
The life was the light of men. The other interpretations, which do not accord with the meaning of the Evangelist, I intentionally pass by. He speaks here, in my opinion, of that part of life in which men excel other animals; and informs us that the life which was bestowed on men was not of an ordinary description, but was united to the light of understanding. He separates man from the rank of other creatures; because we perceive more readily the power of God by feeling it in us than by beholding it at a distance. Thus Paul charges us not to seek God at a distance, because he makes himself to be felt within us, (Acts 17:27.) After having presented a general exhibition of the kindness of Christ, in order to induce men to take a nearer view of it, he points out what has been bestowed peculiarly on themselves; namely, that they were not created like the beasts, but having been endued with reason, they had obtained a higher rank. As it is not in vain that God imparts his light to their minds, it follows that the purpose for which they were created was, that they might acknowledge Him who is the Author of so excellent a blessing. And since this light, of which the Speech was the source, has been conveyed from him to us, it ought to serve as a mirror, in which we may clearly behold the divine power of the Speech.
5. And the light shineth in darkness. It might be objected, that the passages of Scripture in which men are called blind are so numerous, and that the blindness for which they are condemned is but too well known. For in all their reasoning faculties they miserably fail. How comes it that there are so many labyrinths of errors in the world, but because men, by their own guidance, are led only to vanity and lies? But if no light appears in men, that testimony of the divinity of Christ, which the Evangelist lately mentioned, is destroyed; for that is the third step, as I have said, that in the life of men there is something more excellent than motion and breathing. The Evangelist anticipates this question, and first of all lays down this caution, that the light which was originally bestowed on men must not be estimated by their present condition; because in this corrupted and degenerate nature light has been turned into darkness. And yet he affirms that the light of understanding is not wholly extinguished; for, amidst the thick darkness of the human mind, some remaining sparks of the brightness still shine.
My readers now understand that this sentence contains two clauses; for he says that men are now widely distant from that perfectly holy nature with which they were originally endued; because their understanding, which ought to have shed light in every direction, has been plunged in darkness, and is wretchedly blinded; and that thus the glory of Christ may be said to be darkened amidst this corruption of nature. But, on the other hand, the Evangelist maintains that, in the midst of the darkness, there are still some remains of light, which show in some degree the divine power of Christ. The Evangelist admits, therefore, that the mind of man is blinded; so that it may justly be pronounced to be covered with darkness. For he might have used a milder term, and might have said that the light is dark or cloudy; but he chose to state more distinctly how wretched our condition has become since the fall of the first man. The statement that the light shineth in darkness is not at all intended for the commendation of depraved nature, but rather for taking away every excuse for ignorance.
And the darkness did not comprehend it. Although by that small measure of light which still remains in us, the Son of God has always invited men to himself, yet the Evangelist says that this was attended by no advantage, because seeing, they did not see, (Matth. 13:13.) For since man lost the favour of God, his mind is so completely overwhelmed by the thraldom of ignorance, that any portion of light which remains in it is quenched and useless. This is daily proved by experience; for all who are not regenerated by the Spirit of God possess some reason, and this is an undeniable proof that man was made not only to breathe, but to have understanding. But by that guidance of their reason they do not come to God, and do not even approach to him; so that all their understanding is nothing else than mere vanity. Hence it follows that there is no hope of the salvation of men, unless God grant new aid; for though the Son of God sheds his light upon them, they are so dull that they do not comprehend whence that light proceeds, but are carried away by foolish and wicked imaginations to absolute madness.
The light which still dwells in corrupt nature consists chiefly of two parts; for, first, all men naturally possess some seed of religion; and, secondly, the distinction between good and evil is engraven on their consciences. But what are the fruits that ultimately spring from it, except that religion degenerates into a thousand monsters of superstition, and conscience perverts every decision, so as to confound vice with virtue? In short, natural reason never will direct men to Christ; and as to their being endued with prudence for regulating their lives, or born to cultivate the liberal arts and sciences, all this passes away without yielding any advantage.
It ought to be understood that the Evangelist speaks of natural gifts only, and does not as yet say any thing about the grace of regeneration. For there are two distinct powers which belong to the Son of God: the first, which is manifested in the structure of the world and the order of nature; and the second, by which he renews and restores fallen nature. As he is the eternal Speech of God, by him the world was made; by his power all things continue to possess the life which they once received; man especially was endued with an extraordinary gift of understanding; and though by his revolt he lost the light of understanding, yet he still sees and understands, so that what he naturally possesses from the grace of the Son of God is not entirely destroyed. But since by his stupidity and perverseness he darkens the light which still dwells in him, it remains that a new office be undertaken by the Son of God, the office of Mediator, to renew, by the Spirit of regeneration, man who had been ruined. Those persons, therefore, reason absurdly and inconclusively, who refer this light, which the Evangelist mentions, to the gospel and the doctrine of salvation.
4 “Life” (zōē, GK 2437) is one of John’s favorite words. Almost half of the 134 occurrences of the word in the NT are found in his writings (thirty-six in the gospel, thirteen in his first epistle, and fifteen in Revelation). In contrast to another Greek word for life (bios, GK 1050), which occurs eleven times in the NT and normally refers to everyday life, zōē refers most often to the supernatural life that belongs to God and that the believer now shares through faith in Christ. Life is an essential attribute of God. In the course of his gospel, John will point out that God in his relationship to the believer is both the “bread of life” (6:35) and the “light of life” (8:12). He supplies the “water of life” (“living water,” 4:10), and his words are “spirit and … life” (6:63).
The life that was in the Son is said to be “the light of men.” It enables people to see that God is at work in the world. Lindars, 86, notes that it includes “the widest range of man’s intellectual apprehension of God and his purposes.” Life as “the light of men” makes revelation possible. Life and light are frequently associated in the OT (e.g., Ps 36:9).
5 The light “continues to shine” (Williams) in the darkness, but the darkness is unable to grasp its meaning or to put it out. The darkness about which John writes refers to the condition of the fallen race. It is personified as an active agent over against the light of Christ. The Greek katalambanō (GK 2898) means “to seize” or “to grasp.” If the action implied is physical, the verse means that the darkness did not “overcome” or “extinguish” the light (so RSV). If it is understood in the sense of a grasping with the mind, it means that the darkness did not “understand”—or perhaps “accept”—the light. There is no reason to limit interpretation to one or the other. When the life, which was in the Word, manifested itself as light, the world in darkness neither accepted it (cf. v. 11) nor was able to put it out (ch. 20). The Living Bible translates, “His life is the light that shines through the darkness—and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 21–24). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 38–49). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Phillips, R. D. (2014). John. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., Vol. 1, pp. 15–24). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on the Gospel according to John (Vol. 1, pp. 31–34). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 369). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.