The human dilemma cannot be solved by human efforts; for when we observe the world around us, or the world at any point in history, we find disaster. In the place of grace we find indifference, animosity, and even cruelty; and in the place of truth we find deception and confusion. The Bible describes the spiritual condition of the unbelievers in the world as dead in trespasses and sins, and walking in darkness, that is, ignorant of the truth and living in sin and despair. Darkness in the Bible signifies life in sin away from God; and death is its punishment. If the world is spiritually dead and enveloped in spiritual darkness, it cannot possibly find spiritual life and light -- apart from a work of sovereign grace.
And so the good news of the gospel is that God entered the human race, breathed life into believing human beings by his Spirit, and transferred them into his marvelous light. Thus, they are alive in him, walking in the light, and looking for the glorious appearance of the one who is the light and the life. The Nicene Creed focuses on the nature of the Son in this great incarnation by affirming that he is
“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven … .”
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we have these truths clearly stated. There are four parts of the teaching developed here: the nature of the Word, the witness of the Word, the regeneration by the Word, and the revelation from the Word.
The first five verses of the chapter describe our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of life and light -- the very antithesis of the spiritual condition of the world.
What strikes you first is the fact that he is called the “Word.” It is the Greek term logos. What is clear from this is that “Word” describes Jesus as the one who completely reveals the Father (see v. 18). He is the full expression of the Godhead, the Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, indicating he is the complete revelation). He is the first word of creation, and the last word of Revelation.
But there is more, much more, here, and we shall only begin to uncover it. Throughout the Old Testament God was described frequently in human terms (we call those expressions anthropomorphisms, from the Greek words for “man” and “form,” meaning God is described in human terms). The writers described God as if he had hands and feet, or ears and eyes; he was said to laugh, ridicule, turn his back, come down for a closer look, and all kinds of all too human descriptions. They were figures of speech to communicate what God is like on our terms so that we could understand. These were the words used to describe God. But in the fulness of the time God sent his Son into the world to reveal God fully, and all those “words” became literally and historically true: God did come down to earth, and as Jesus he did have ears and eyes and hands and feet--he lived out the revelation of God and so is called the “incarnate Word,” the revelation of God in human flesh. In this he not only fulfilled Scripture but became the culmination of all revelation (Heb.1:1,2).
John offers three descriptions of the Word. First, he was in the beginning. Actually, the article “the” is not present in the text; it simply has “in beginning.” So before anything else, before the creation in Genesis even, the Son of God was there. He is beyond time; he is eternal. Second, John says he was with God. The idea of “with” is that the Son had a close and intimate existence with God the Father. Before time began the Father and Son were together as one, a relationship that is unparalleled in existence. And third, John says he was God. This does not mean that the Son was a divine creature, a heavenly creature, a lesser god (among many), a former creation who became a deity--no, it simply declares that he was God, equal with the Father and the Spirit. So the passage opens by declaring that Jesus Christ is both divine and eternal.
If verses 1 and 2 describe the nature of the Word, verse 3 describes his power. He created everything that exists. This idea is taught in Psalm 33:6-9, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 1:2. So the Word reveals the Father, but the initial revelation of the Father is the creation, for the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19).
We have seen that God the Father is the creator; now we learn that was all done by the Son. We cannot sort out all the distinctions here, but in general it should be noted that every work of God involves the entire Godhead, for while there are three persons in the Godhead there is one God. For every work, the Father decrees it, the Son does it, and the Spirit enables it to be done. So the Bible will mention at different times the work of God in different terms. The Son, in this place, is declared to be the active agent of creation. Nothing exists that was not made by him. But it came from the Father’s decree; and it was accomplished through the Spirit’s hovering over the deep and preparing for creation (Gen. 1:2).
Now, as you read Genesis 1 carefully you will notice that the predominant theme is that the means or creation was the spoken word of God. “And God said” occurs ten times (which the teachers of Israel observed paralleled the ten commandments for humans). As God commanded nature and all forms of life, the different parts of creation came into existence or took form. John is telling us that the living Word, Jesus Christ, spoke the creative word in Genesis. In fact, there is also a subtle word play in Genesis that brings out this connection: in Hebrew “let there be” (yehi) is the shortened spelling of the verb “to be” which in the longer spelling is the holy name “Yahweh,” which the LORD interpreted to Moses to mean “I AM.” So John indicates that the Word of God created everything; and in Genesis the I AM was the One who said “Let there be,” and “there was.”
Now John turns to Jesus’ mission. One of the major themes in the book is that Jesus is the life: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”; “I came that they might have life”; “I am the resurrection and the life” (see, for example, John 5:26, 6:57, 10:10, 14:6). Not only did the Son of God create life, he holds it together by his powerful word (Heb. 1:2), and he is able to give it again if we should die (John 11). He is life, in the fullest sense of the term. There is no life without him.
This life, Jesus Christ, is the light of all humankind. Recall that the light was the first thing created in Genesis--“Let there be light.” Its purpose was to dispel the darkness that covered the earth. And so light became a symbol of God, his nature, his reign over the earth. Those who remained in darkness, meaning sin, oppression, war, and gloom, Isaiah predicted, would see a great light (Isa. 9:2) in the region of Galilee of the nations. Jesus came preaching in Galilee, announcing, “I am the light of the world.” Light represents life and understanding, or the truth. He came to reveal the Father, and by so doing guide people in the way of righteousness.
But even though the Word is life and light, that light, that truth, was not “apprehended” by people who are in darkness. The term conveys to us that those who are in sin and unbelief neither understand nor receive the truth, They cannot, for light and darkness are mutually exclusive. Darkness cannot apprehend the light, meaning, sinners cannot receive Jesus and remain in sin. Light invades and destroys darkness; when Jesus enters a life, that life is transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. But darkness itself cannot apprehend the truth. T. S. Eliot in “Ash Wednesday” writes:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
O my people, what have I done to thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and
deny the voice.
So the Word is the light that shines in darkness; but the darkness does not apprehend it--not without the grace of God.
The discussion now turns to the witness of John the Baptist. Verse 6 introduces him: “There was a man sent from God.” Even the witness to the light was sent from God, so thorough was the preparation for the revelation of the incarnation.
Then, in verses 7 and 8 he describes his mission: he came as a witness (the word is martyr) to the light. The witness points to Christ, and Christ reveals the Father. So how do people get to God? --through Jesus Christ. And where do they find Jesus Christ? --witnesses point to him. The darkness, that is, the unbelieving world, needs someone to guide them to the light. Today, all Christians are to be witnesses. But as the prophets would say, woe to the witnesses who do not point people to the light.
John the Baptist, verse 8 clarifies, was not the light. This is repeated in verses 19-33 where he himself disclaimed, saying, “I am not the Messiah.” What was he then? A voice. He was a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare a way for the Lord, as the prophets had foretold (Isa. 40). All too often today many witnesses blur the distinction, and make themselves lights to be followed, make themselves the center of their ministry or their church. Witnesses, whether ministers or not, have to say clearly, “I am not the light!” “I am a witness to the light.” I am a voice. “He is the one you should follow.”
John was not the light. There was a true light coming into the world, and that was Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. When the text says that the true light illumines everyone, it does not mean that everyone will be converted and enter heaven’s kingdom. That is clear from the Bible as a whole, and from Jesus’ preaching as well (“repent, or you shall perish”). What is meant here is clarified by the work that the Holy Spirit does today, continuing what Jesus began (according to Acts): he convicts the world in respect of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit works in the earth with this ministry so that everyone receives some degree of light, some knowledge and some conviction; how they respond to the light they receive will determine whether or not God sends them more light (see the story of Cornelius in Acts). Well, this is what Jesus did when he walked on earth--he revealed the will of the Father and called people to repentance--and it is what he continues to do today through the Holy Spirit.
The sad report of verse 10 is that the world did not know him (compare Isaiah 1:3). When Jesus came into the world, that world was so blinded by sin that it did not recognize who he truly was. It still does not, even though most people know something about Jesus.
John is using the word “world” in a couple of ways. First, it is a place: Jesus came into the world, a place that was made by him. Second, it refers to the present evil system and members of Satan’s domain--“the world (people) knew him not.” Verse 11 makes the point again; and John 12:37 explains that they simply did not believe in him, so they could never truly know him.
Those who respond to the light by faith, that is, those who believe in Jesus Christ, are given the authority to become the children of God. This is a different word than that which is used to describe God’s own Son. We enter the family of God by faith in Jesus; and when we do God imparts to us light and life, that is, spiritual understanding and eternal life. If we try to gain all the understanding before entering the kingdom by faith, we will never enter. We have to respond to the amount of light given to us with faith before we receive more.
John explains that becoming a child of God is not a natural process (v. 13). This is a spiritual birth (read John 3 about Nicodemus). It is not a physical birth (“not of blood”), nor is it even by human decision (“not of the will of the flesh”), nor of a father (“not of the will of man”). It is a spiritual birth, a new birth, what the Bible calls regeneration. And while many professing Christians prefer not to talk about being “born again” or about the “new birth,” (as if it was some strange expression from the fundamentalist circles) Jesus did, and he said that was the only way anyone was ever going to get into heaven.
Regeneration is the divinely mysterious act by which the Word enters the human spirit, raises that person from spiritual death (alienation from God) and spiritual darkness (ignorance of God), and gives that person spiritual life (union with God forever) and spiritual understanding (illumination by the Spirit through the written word). It is a work of God; but from our perspective it happens when we by faith accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. There is no salvation, no eternal life, no acceptance with God, without this spiritual transformation.
Regeneration is not a process throughout life: there is a point in our life when we pass from death to life, from darkness to light, from being separated from God to being accepted by God. It will take the rest of our lives to work it out in every area of our lives, and to learn more and more, but regeneration itself refers to when we are born into the family of God--it is our salvation.
So the first part of his coming into the world was to bring light to all. The second part of the mission of Jesus was to reveal the Father; and this is done simultaneously with illumination and regeneration in many cases. But in general it happened at the incarnation.
Here, then, is the basic passage for the doctrine of incarnation (carn, “flesh,” into flesh). The text says that the Word took to himself flesh and “tabernacled” among us--pitched his tent. The background, of course, is the Israelite experience in the wilderness with their tabernacle or tent of meeting. Once Israel put up the tent, the glory of the LORD entered it and dwelt among them, concealed from their view by the tenting. That brilliant, luminous cloud that had represented God’s presence through the wilderness now was dwelling in the holy of holies. John is saying that the flesh of Jesus is like that tent, both enabling the glorious Lord to dwell among his people and concealing his glory from their view. Jesus, then, is the same LORD of glory in the Old Testament who dwelt among people; but now that dwelling is more fully expressed in the incarnation.
John says that they saw his glory. I think that in the fullest sense this is referring to the transfiguration (Matt. 17) where John and the two other disciples saw the glory transform the appearance of Jesus (see also Rev. 1). But it also means that they witnessed the unique splendor of the life and work of Jesus in their midst. They saw the miracles, heard the teachings, witnessed the death, and celebrated the resurrection appearances. The glory they saw was the glory of the only begotten of the Father, and the resurrection declared that once and for all.
The glory that John describes was “full of grace and truth.” We see so little grace or truth today--it is a struggle to maintain either, or both. Some folks you meet may be very gracious, but at the cost of the truth; others may hold fast to the truth, but exhibit not an ounce of grace or compassion. Jesus not only had a perfect balance of grace and truth, but a full measure of each. He was unique in this, but then he is unique--he is the living Word, the glorious God who provides life and light to us. And the only way the human dilemma could ever be resolved was for God himself to come into this world and tabernacle among people for the expressed purpose of bringing life and light to the world.
John prefaces his remarks to remind us that Jesus is the pre-existing Word. He was younger than John the Baptist, but preceded him as well. In the proper time God brought grace and truth to mankind in the person of his Son, Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of glory. Apart from the ministry of the Son of God in this world, there is no salvation, no hope, no light or life. But because Jesus is the Lord of glory, he has redeemed us, and we worship him.