March 3, 2013
The evening news has recently been carrying the story of two courtroom dramas. The first, in Phoenix, is the story of a young woman who killed her lover and claims that she acted in self-defense. The other is the story of the Olympic “blade runner” in South Africa who shot his glamorous girlfriend but claims that he thought she was an intruder in his apartment. In both of those stories, it is very difficult to get to the truth, because there were no eyewitnesses to the killings. The defense can bring in witnesses to testify to basic “good character” of the killers, while the prosecution brings in witnesses to undermine their character. But without any credible witnesses of the killings, the juries are going to have a difficult time deciding the truth.
But what if the case had one witness who was actually sent by God in fulfillment of prophecies written hundreds of years before he arrived on the scene? The other witness, who is the one on trial, shines with a light that is brighter and purer than any other person who has ever lived? With these two exceptional, truthful witnesses, it shouldn’t be very hard to come to a verdict. But when you go into the jury room to deliberate, you are stunned that quite a few reject the testimony of these two sterling witnesses.
That’s the scene that John paints for us in our text. He has already (1:1-5) given us a description of Jesus Christ as the eternal Word, the second member of the trinity, and the creator of all that is. He has said that in Jesus is life and that life was the light of men. But even though that Light shines in the darkness, the darkness did not comprehend (or overpower) it (1:5). This implies the conflict between light and darkness that unfolds in this drama. In chapters 1-4, there is initially belief in Jesus, but in chapters 5-12, there is subsequent unbelief, leading up to His mock trial and crucifixion.
In our text, John introduces the witness of John the Baptist to Jesus (1:6-8) and the witness of Jesus Himself, “the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (1:9). There is more than adequate testimony in Jesus’ favor. But what will the jury decide? While as I said, this plays out throughout the entire story, John shows here that many who should have decided favorably sadly rejected the witness to Jesus Christ, whereas others welcomed the witness by receiving and believing in Him. But John isn’t just reporting a courtroom drama for your entertainment. He wants to draw you into the story and elicit your personal verdict on the witness to Jesus Christ:
God’s witness to His Son, the true Light, demands your verdict of faith in Him.
Our text falls into two parts: In 1:6-9, John shows that God has given adequate witness to His Son. In 1:10-13, he shows that this witness to God’s Son demands a verdict of faith in Him. But in spite of the solid evidence, that verdict isn’t guaranteed. Many of those who should have decided in favor of Jesus did not know Him or receive Him. But those who did are born of God and become His children.
The point of witnesses in a courtroom is to establish the truth beyond a reasonable doubt. As I pointed out in our first study of John, he marshals at least seven witnesses to Jesus Christ (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 90): (1) the Father; (2) Christ Himself; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) Jesus’ works; (5) the Scriptures; (6) John the Baptist; and, (7) a variety of human witnesses, such as the disciples, the Samaritan woman, and the multitude. In our text, we see two of the witnesses: John the Baptist (1:6-8) and Christ Himself (1:9).
John 1:6-8: “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.”
John the Baptist is the only person in human history of whom it is said that he was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41). His birth itself was miraculous, in that his aged parents had previously been unable to conceive. God sent John in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’” Also, in Malachi 3:1a, God said, “‘Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me.”
John’s purpose was clear (John 1:7): “He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him.” (“Through him” refers to John.) Verse 8 clarifies that John himself was not the Light and repeats that his role was to testify about the Light. John may have simply added this to make it crystal clear, or it could be that there were still some in Ephesus in John’s day similar to those whom Paul found there, who held to the baptism of John, but had not believed in Jesus (Acts 19:1-7).
C. H. Dodd (cited by James Boice, The Gospel of John [Zondervan], one-volume ed., p. 49) observes that the apostle John’s three points in 1:6-8 outline the development of the rest of the chapter. First, John the Baptist is not the light (developed in 1:19-28). Second, John was sent to bear witness to the light (1:29-34). Third, John’s aim was that all may believe through him (1:35-51).
Those three points are helpful to keep in mind whenever you have an opportunity to bear witness of Christ. First, the message is not about you. It’s fine to give your testimony, but keep the focus on Christ. Second, tell people who Jesus is. John testified that Jesus is the Lord (1:23). John said that he wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal (1:27). He said of Jesus (1:29), “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He said that Jesus was of higher rank than he (John) because He existed before John, even though John was older than Jesus (1:30). He testified that he saw the Spirit of God descending on Jesus as a dove out of heaven (1:32). He said (1:34), “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” He said (3:30), “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Tell people who Jesus is. Third, seek to bring people to faith in Jesus. Don’t just have a nice discussion and leave it at that. Encourage people to put their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation before it is too late.
John 1:9: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” “True” here means genuine as opposed to counterfeit. D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 122, italics his) explains, “Johns point is that the Word who came into the world is the light, the true light, the genuine and ultimate self-disclosure of God to man.”
But we need to sort out a couple of interpretive matters in 1:9. First, does “coming into the world” modify “man,” as in the New King James, “That was the true Light which gives light to every man who comes into the world”? Or, (as with the NASB, ESV, CSB, and NIV) does it refer to the Light coming into the world? Grammatically, it could refer to either. But in this gospel, coming into the world or being sent into the world is repeatedly said with reference to Jesus (6:14; 11:27; 16:28; 18:37). And, the following verses (1:10-11) talk about Jesus being in the world and coming unto His own. So the best way to take it is that Jesus, the Light, comes into the world and enlightens every man.
That’s the other question: How does Jesus’ coming into the world enlighten every man? There are several views. (1) Some argue that this refers to the light of general revelation that God gives through creation (Rom. 1:20). Included in this may be the light of conscience that bears witness of God (Calvin’s view; Rom. 2:14-16). (2) The Quakers say that this refers to an “inner light” that God gives to all people. (3) Some (Augustine) say that “every man” only refers to those who have been born again. (4) Others say that it means that Jesus would “give the light of truth to all whom his ministry would affect, whether in greater or lesser degree” (Merrill Tenney, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 9:31; also, Colin Kruse, John [IVP Academic], p. 67). (5) Wesleyans argue that this verse teaches that God has given all people “prevenient grace,” which gives them to ability to choose or reject salvation. But that view contradicts the many verses that declare fallen man’s inability to choose God (Luke 10:22; John 8:43; Rom. 3:10-18; 8:7-8; 9:16; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4; see Thomas Schreiner, Still Sovereign [Baker], ed. by Thomas Schreiner & Bruce Ware, pp. 229-246).
The best view is that John 1:9 refers to the exposure that light brings when it shines on something. The Greek verb means to shed light upon or to make visible. This isn’t referring to inner illumination, but to the objective revelation or light that came into the world through the incarnation (Carson, p. 124; Schreiner, p. 240). Carson explains (ibid.),
It shines on every man, and divides the race: those who hate the light respond as the world does (1:10): they flee lest their deeds should be exposed by this light (3:19-21). But some receive this revelation (1:12-13), and thereby testify that their deeds have been done through God (3:21). In John’s Gospel it is repeatedly the case that the light shines on all, and forces a distinction (e.g. 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:39-41).
John’s point here is that the witness that comes from the Light (Jesus) demands a response. When the Light exposes the corruption and sin that’s in everyone’s heart, some will react like cockroaches when the light is flipped on: they run for cover to hide their evil deeds. But others welcome the light, knowing that it’s for their healing and good. John goes on to show these opposite responses in 1:10-13):
First, John shows the wrong verdict:
John 1:10-11: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” These verses show the tragedy of sin and the terrible wickedness of the human heart. Sin is utterly irrational. If God loves sinners enough to send His own Son to pay for their sin and offer them eternal life as a free gift, it’s insane for them to scream, “Get out of here! Turn off that light! I love my sin so much that I’m willing to face eternal judgment rather than to receive the right to become God’s child!”
First (1:10) John says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.” As I said in the introductory message, “world” is a key concept in John. He uses it 78 times, often with reference to the evil system that is under Satan, “the ruler of this world” (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). It is hostile both toward Jesus and His followers (7:7; 15:18; 16:20). John heightens the irony here by noting again (as in 1:3) that Jesus made the world and yet, “the world did not know Him.”
Knowing Jesus (or not knowing Him) is another major theme in John. When the Samaritans believe in Jesus through the witness of the woman at the well, they say to her (4:42), “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.” In like fashion, Peter testifies (6:69), “We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” But in 8:19, Jesus says to the hostile Jews, “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.”
Why didn’t the world know its Creator and Savior? One reason is that it is spiritually blind (John 9:39-41; 2 Cor. 4:4). Another reason is that they love their sin (“darkness,” 3:19-21). In many cases, the cause is just indifference. People are immersed in their own things and don’t have the time or desire to know Jesus in a personal, saving way.
Then John heightens the irony of the world not knowing Jesus (1:11): “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” There is a word play in Greek: the first “His own” is neuter and refers to “His own property or home.” The second “His own” is masculine and refers to His fellow Jews, the people of Israel. The two phrases both may refer to Israel, with the first emphasizing that Israel belongs to the Lord as His inheritance (Ps. 78:71), and the second emphasizing that they were His own kinsmen. They should have recognized Jesus as their promised Messiah, prophesied of in their Scriptures. But He wasn’t the kind of Messiah that they envisioned or wanted. They were hoping for a political Messiah who would deliver them from Rome’s power and provide peace and prosperity. They didn’t see their need for a Savior from sin. And so they rejected the true Light who made them and who rightfully owned them.
There are two applications for us: First, make sure that you’re not rejecting the true Light in spite of the solid testimony that He is the eternal Word in human flesh. It’s easy to be disappointed with Jesus because He didn’t give you quick relief from all your problems. It’s a short step from there to turning your back on Him altogether. Second, don’t be surprised when people do not respond positively to your witness for Christ. People still love the darkness because their deeds are evil. But, not all reject Him:
John 1:12-13: “ But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” These verses state the purpose for which this Gospel was written and thus form an inclusio (like “bookends”) with 20:30-31. They also strike the balance between human responsibility (we must receive Christ by believing in His name) and divine sovereignty (those who believe in Him were not born of human decision, but of God).
To receive Christ is the opposite of not knowing Him and rejecting Him (1:10-11). It means to welcome Him into your life. John further defines it as believing in His name. “His name” refers to all that Jesus is in His person as the eternal Word made flesh. It refers to all that He did by dying on the cross as the substitute for your sins. Believing in His name means that you stop relying on your own merits and works as the way to approach God and instead you rely totally on what Jesus did for you on the cross. It means that when you stand before God, your only hope for heaven is not your good works, but rather that Jesus died for your sins and you are trusting in Him alone.
Often when you share the gospel with people from a Roman Catholic background, they will tell you that they have received Christ, because they think that they are receiving Christ when they eat the communion wafer. But when you question them on why God should let them into heaven, they will say that they have gone to Mass and confession, they have lived a good life, etc. So you need to make it clear to them that receiving Christ means to rely on Him totally as the payment for their sins. Taking communion or going to mass or doing penance can never qualify us for heaven.
John says that when we receive Christ or believe in Him, He gives us the right or authority to become children of God. The “right” means a legitimate claim, much like a birth certificate proves that you are the child of your natural father. The fact that those who believe “become children of God” means that all people are not God’s children by natural birth. To become God’s child requires a spiritual new birth (1:13; 3:1-8).
Maybe you’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to be the child of a wealthy family, where you could have everything you ever wanted. Or maybe you never had parents who loved you and you wish that you could have been born into a family where you were loved and cared for. We get all of that and more as God’s children! In 1 John 3:1, the apostle exclaims, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.” What a wonderful privilege!
Verse 13 describes those in verse 12 who believe in Jesus and become His children. They were born, but it was not a natural birth. “Blood” (lit., “bloods”) refers to human ancestry. “The will of the flesh” refers to the decision of human parents to have a child. “The will of man” refers to human willpower. John probably piles up these phrases to counter the Jewish pride of race (Morris, p. 101). Ed Blum explains (The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament [Victor Books], ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy Zuck, p. 272), ““The birth of a child of God is not a natural birth; it is a supernatural work of God in regeneration. A person welcomes Jesus and responds in faith and obedience to Him, but the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit is ‘the cause’ of regeneration (3:5-8).” Just as we had nothing to do with our physical birth, so we had nothing to do with our spiritual birth. We can’t take credit for it. We can’t boast in our wise decision to believe in Christ. All glory must go to God.
The question comes up, “Do we first believe and then are born again, or are we born again and then believe?” They both happen at the same instant, and so it’s a question of logical, not chronological, order. The clearest verse for answering the question is 1 John 5:1, which is literally translated, “Whoever believes [present tense] that Jesus is the Christ has been born [perfect tense] of God.” In other words, believing in Christ is evidence that God has given you new life through the new birth. John Stott comments on that verse and its verb tenses (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 172), “It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth. Our present, continuing activity of believing is the result, and therefore the evidence, of our past experience of new birth by which we became and remain God’s children.”
There is a mystery here that we can’t fully resolve. Suffice it to say that your responsibility is to believe in Christ for salvation and to urge others to believe in Christ. But whenever we believe in Christ, we can’t take credit for our faith or our wise decision. All we can say is, “If God had not graciously chosen me and imparted new life to me, I would still be in my sin. All glory goes to Him!” (See 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Eph. 2:1-10; Acts 13:48.)
So now you’ve heard the witnesses. John has testified that Jesus is the Light. Jesus Himself shines as the true Light. It’s time for your verdict. Will you ignore Him as you pursue your own agenda? Will you flat out reject Him because He confronts your pride? Or, will you receive Him by believing in His name so that you become His child, born of God?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation