A Message on John 1:9-13

The true light, which enlightens all men, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:9-13).

In the opening verses to his Gospel, the apostle John gives us some of the most well-known verses in Scripture. And though they are well-known by themselves, they point to a text that is even more well-known, namely the first verses of the Scriptures found in Genesis 1. And what I believe the apostle is doing in writing these verses is that he is giving us a commentary upon the Genesis 1 account of the Creation in light of the revealed Person of Jesus Christ. And I say commentary and not revelation, because what the apostle is saying is not something that is new, but it is something that is seen more clearly in Jesus Christ.

To explain what I mean, let’s consider the first verses of the Genesis account in light of John 1. In Genesis 1, Moses writes, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). One thing I love about this text is the way by which the Holy Spirit had revealed it to Moses. For the phrase, “In the beginning” (which has been argued by non-Christian Jewish scholars before and after the coming of Christ), is a purposely ambiguous phrase in the Hebrew. For while it does convey the meaning of “In the beginning,” the same words are used later in the book of Genesis to refer to Jacob’s firstborn son, Reuben. These Jewish scholars, ironically, have shown that these first words in Genesis can be alternately rendered, “Through the Firstborn, God created the heavens and the earth.” Now, granting that is true and granting what the apostle Paul has written elsewhere concerning Jesus Christ, namely that he is the Firstborn of all creation, we have in the Genesis account precisely what the apostle John is saying in his Gospel, namely, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3).

Furthermore, what is interesting is what the apostle John calls Jesus Christ in his preincarnate state, namely “the Word”. For when we consider how God created the heavens and earth, how did he do it? He spoke it into being. He used Words. (e.g. God said, let there be light, and there was light). Now does this mean that God said some magic words and that things magically popped into existence? Well considering John’s argument, I would say that is probably not a full understanding of what really happened. What is likely the proper understanding is that which can be seen in the Gospels, namely that God the Father decrees something and the Son carries out the will of the Father. And just as Jesus Christ when on this earth did everything in submission to the will of the Father, so too at the Creation the Father willed something to take place and the Son carried out his Father’s will. And so, when the Father willed that the universe and all that is in it be created, the Son, the Word, carried out the will of the Father, and thus through the Son all things were created.

The apostle goes on to say: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” In other words, in the Son–in Jesus Christ–everything that has life and being has it through him alone. The apostle Paul makes a more precise statement in his letter to the Colossians, writing: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” “In Jesus Christ all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17). In other words, if there is something that exists and maintains its existence, it is because Jesus Christ created it and holds its together. The apostle to the Hebrews says also, “Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds everything by the word of his power.”

Now, an interesting and geeky side-note concerning this reality, namely that Jesus Christ holds all things together by the Word of his Power is a theory in secular physics called the God Particle. Scientists have observed fascinating things at the molecular level, but the one thing that they cannot and have not figured out is why all these things hold together and do not fly out of control. Therefore, many have guessed that there is some yet undiscovered part of atoms (that which they call the God Particle) that has mass or weight, because mass (the same thing that causes gravity) is supposedly the force that holds all things together. And yet they have not found this particle. I doubt that they ever will find this supposed God Particle because this particle does not exist, because I believe what the apostle Paul says is true, namely that it is Jesus Christ (not some particle) who upholds everything by the Word of his Power, even every single atom in the Universe. That, brothers, is the greatness and the vastness and almightiness of the God we serve.

Therefore in this text, before John tells his account of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, he wants us to understand who Jesus is and who he has always been. Before he shows us that Jesus is the carpenter’s son, the man who turned water into wine, the man who beckoned children to come to him, and the man who died upon the cross, John wants us to know that this Jesus Christ is the God of the universe. And John wants us to know that Jesus is not a God who is like a watchmaker who created the world and spun it into self-existence, but he is the God who created all things and in him all things have life and existence, and, if he so pleased, he could let all things go and they would be annihilated into absolute nothingness. In him is life, and without him there is no life.

Now this life of which the apostle speaks, namely “In him was life, and the life was the light of men,” points to a life that is more than just purely existing. This life of which the apostle speaks is a life that is a light to men. Now, we know what the apostle is speaking of, and we’ll see that more clearly in our verses, that this life, this light of men, is what the apostle Paul calls in his second letter to the Corinthian church, “The light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2Cor. 4:4). In other words, this life is not simply breathing, but it is coming to the Father as his friend and his child and not as his enemy. The apostle John writes later the words of Christ, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to Father except through me” (John 14:6). And so Jesus Christ, being the life that holds all things together by the Word of his power, is also the life that is the light of men whereby men come to Father as justified and not condemned.

Despite these positive statements about Jesus Christ, the apostle John highlights two problems that exist in the world in these verses. The first is seen in the need of the life which is the light of men. In other words, something happened in time that made it so that men needed a Light that would grant them life. We know well what that was, namely Adam eating the forbidden fruit of the tree and plummeting the whole human race into sin and darkness and to judgment. A second problem is seen in v. 5, namely that “The light shines in the darkness (i.e. the darkness of men’s hearts and understanding), and the darkness has not comprehended it, has not understood it, had not perceived it.” In other words, the light has existed and it has been shining into the darkness that was created by sin, yet the darkness, namely those who lived in darkness, did not see it or understand it. And it is in this context that we come to our verses tonight.

The true light, which enlightens all men, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:9-13).

Now, this is a very deep and rich text, and so I am going to try to the best of my ability to unpack what the apostle through the Holy Spirit is saying in it. And because of its depth, we’re going to pay special attention to the different nouns and verb tenses that the apostle uses to compose it.

The apostle begins with what I believe is an introductory statement to this section. He begins saying, “The true light (which we know from v. 4 is the life of men, i.e. Jesus Christ and his Gospel) which enlightens all men, was coming into the world.” Now I believe it is an introductory statement because he clarifies everything that he is saying in this verse in the verses that follow. In the later verses, he clarifies what this “enlightenment” is, he clarifies what this “all men” is, and he clarifies what he means by saying that this light “was coming into the world.” Among these things, I think we can see from the text that the chief idea of this text is the nature of the enlightenment of this True Light, and everything else in the text hinges upon that enlightenment.

When we think upon the word “enlightenment” and what enlightenment is, we find that it has multiple meanings. First, enlightenment can have the idea an internal enlightenment, of a mental or spiritual type, whereby men understand things more clearly. What comes to mind is what we call the Age of Enlightenment which is called thus because it was supposedly a transition in human history from the Dark Ages of a lack of understanding to the Age of Science and Reason and Knowledge. Now, whether that is true or not in history can be debated, but that is one way which we understand the term. Another way is external enlightenment, like that of a light bulb enlightening a room, where light shines in and fills a room and has nothing to do with human perception. If a blind man were to walk into a room enlightened by a light bulb, the room would be no less enlightened simply because he could not perceive it. The light is there, he just does not have the ability to see it.

The apostle John, I believe uses both senses of this term, i.e. both external enlightenment and internal enlightenment. First, in these verses we see the external enlightenment of Jesus Christ. In v. 10, he writes, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” Now, to understand what the apostle is saying, I think it would be helpful to understand what he means by the terms that he uses. First, by using “world” I believe he is meaning to convey the notion of “all nations” or “Gentiles” because of the context here (“world” being set against “he came to his own people” in the next verse) and the way that John uses it in the rest of his Gospel. For example in John 3:16 which clearly parallels Psalm 2, the psalmist writes, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you, ask of me and I will give you the nations as your inheritance and the ends of the earth your possession … Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled; blessed are all who take refuge in him,” and later the Pharisees say, “Look the world has gone after him,” when they see that even the Greeks are seeking Jesus.” So, what does it mean that he was (past tense) in the world before his incarnation and the peoples did not know him? Well, I think John is saying what the apostle Paul says in Romans 1, namely:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God his plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made, so they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in there thinking and there foolish hearts were darkened (Rm. 1:18-21).

In other words, the state of existence of all men is such that they know God and yet do not know God. For the way that sin has so corrupted the world makes it so that everyone who is born of the seed of Adam can perceive God in the things that have been created since Jesus Christ is stamped upon everything that has been made, and yet they do not know him and therefore rebel against him and their foolish hearts are darkened. As Charles Spurgeon has rightly said, “The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.” Those in the world think that they are wise, but in reality they are fools, and they exchange the glory of the immortal God for idols and are therefore hardened. For this reason, everyone is without excuse, for as the apostle writes later, “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”

Now the problem that is in the world because of Adam’s transgression is so great and so pervasive that it not only covers the Gentiles in darkness, but it also covers the Jews. The apostle John writes in the next verse, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” So we see in the flow of the text that the apostle John is saying that the natural state of man in Adam is such that the Gentiles who saw Christ clearly in the creation did not see him, and even his own people, the Jews, to whom he had given the law through Moses did not receive him but rejected him. In Matthew’s Gospel, the apostle quotes Christ quoting Isaiah concerning the Jews, saying, “Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear” (Mt. 13:13). In other words, though they had the law and, as Christ said, the law’s chief purpose was to testify about him, yet those who had the law, even the Pharisees who had memorized it, did not see or receive Christ. In other words, the law by itself can never save a soul. It’s for this reason that the apostle John writes a few verses later, “The law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The apostle Paul in Romans addresses the same issue in chapter 3, considering the advantage that the Jew might have over the Gentile. His final conclusion is this: “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all, for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin. As it is written, ‘None is righteous, no not one. No one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless. No one does good, not even one'” (Rm. 3:9-12). Now if this is the state of everyone, namely that none is righteous, no one understands, and no one seeks for God, then what hope is there for any man?

The hope is in Jesus Christ and the second form of enlightenment. For all have received the first form of enlightenment, the external form, whether in the created world or in the law, yet all that enlightenment is able to do is to condemn men, for as we have already seen in the Romans, “All who live apart from the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rm. 2:12). When it boils down to it, it is just as the apostle Paul says in the preceding verse, God shows no partiality between men (cf. Rm. 2:11).

Therefore the only hope that men have is not in the revelation in created things or in the law, but it is in the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit of God. We see this in the following verse. The apostle begins that verse, saying, “Now to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to be children of God.” The problem is, as we have already seen, is that the Gentiles did not know him and the Jews did not receive him, and, as the apostle Paul says, “No one understands, no one seeks for God.” So, then, what good is this declaration if no one, not even Jesus’ own people are going to receive him? The good comes in the latter part of the verse. He writes, “Who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. Concerning this same matter, Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3:8, “You must be born again (or, alternately translated, you must be born from above). The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In other words, the hope that there will be those who believe in Jesus, that there will be those in a world where there is darkness that does not comprehend Jesus Christ or receives him, is being born again, being given new life from God. And as John has said before, Jesus Christ gives life, and that life is the light of men.

And this being born of God, this impartation of new life, is not accomplished by blood, or by the will of the flesh, or by the will of man, but it is accomplished by the will of God. In other words, this understanding that gives us the ability to believe in Jesus and to receive him–we who were of those do not understand and who do not seek for God–is not accomplished by our bloodline or our genealogy, it is not accomplished by the works of our flesh, and it is not accomplished by our wills, but it accomplished by God and his will alone. The apostle Paul says this same thing in his letter to Romans, saying “Not all Israel is Israel” or in other words, not everyone who is of the physical bloodline of Abraham are God’s people, and later in that same chapter, “So then salvation depends not human will or exertion but on God who has mercy.” John the Baptist says the same thing to the Jews, “Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Mt. 3:9).

When we think about it, how could salvation be any other way? For if what the Scriptures say is true about our condition, namely that we are all naturally under sin because of Adam and our state in Adam is such that we are dead in our trespasses and are naturally blind to who Jesus Christ is, whether we have his Word and law or not, how could our salvation that is based upon believing in and receiving Jesus Christ not be anything less than a New Creation? The apostle Paul picks up this very idea in his second letter to the Corinthians. Answering the questions why he doesn’t peddle the Gospel as a salesman, why he doesn’t leave out the hard parts of God’s Word, or why he doesn’t dim the lights and play soft music at the end of a sermon, he writes, “And even if our Gospel is veiled (not seen) it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor. 4:3-6).

So in this, we are brought back to John 1 and the Word through whom everything was created. For the same Jesus Christ who created the heavens and the earth is the same Jesus Christ who says, “Let light shine out of darkness” in our hearts. For as the apostle John as shown, and others like him, the chief problem in the world is not that people haven’t heard of Jesus Christ, but it is that they haven’t heard Jesus Christ. Everyone in the world to some extent, no matter who they are or where they’re from, has heard and seen Jesus Christ. And yet by themselves they are all deaf and blind. The apostle Paul picks us this very topic concerning the unbelieving Jews in Romans 10, saying: “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the earth” (Rm. 10:18). Here Paul quotes Psalm 19, which argues the same thing that John and Paul argue in their writings, namely that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork; Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge; Yet there is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard” (Ps. 19:1-3). And so the chief problem, as the apostle Paul argues, is not that there is no faith, but it is that there is no hearing, for which reason he says in the preceding verse, “So faith comes from hearing, but hearing by the Word of Christ” (Rm. 10:17). In other words, our faith comes from us hearing the Lord and his Gospel, but where does our hearing come from? Our hearing comes from the Word of Christ. The very same Word that spoke the worlds into existence is the same Word who speaks our hearing into existence. As John records Christ later as saying to the Jews:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice…” So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:14-16, 24-27).

Now these are some deep truths that go beyond what we typically call the simple proclamation of the Gospel. They are a behind-the-scenes look at the Gospel that God has revealed to us through his Holy Spirit. And we are not given these things so that we can see around with a cup of coffee and debate things, but they are meant to transform our lives. How does this teaching do this?

1. First, these things make us thankful people. In fact it should make us the most thankful people in the world. For if we understand that everything that we have in this life that is good is a gift of God, we should be thankful to God. Moreover, if we understand who we are, namely that we are wretched sinners who deserve nothing good but deserve nothing but death and evil, the very fact that we are still breathing is cause enough to thank God for the rest of our days. But even more than that, if we understand that our sin has afforded for us an eternity in hell and that we in ourselves could find no real escape from this hell, then the fact that Jesus Christ has shown himself to us by his power and the Father’s good pleasure and not only has saved us from judgment but has brought us into the family of God so that we are not only his children but we share in his Inheritance, well, brothers, that is life-changing.

2. Second, these things should make us humble people. Several times in their writings, the apostles talk about salvation in Jesus Christ and say immediately that because of this salvation all boasting is removed. In other words, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was designed by God in such a way that saved men would have no grounds to boast in themselves. One of my favorite expressions of this is at the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1Cor. 1:26-31).

Therefore, let us understand these things and boast in nothing except in Jesus Christ.

3. Third, these things should make us understand that no one is too far from God. No one. For if what the apostle argues is true, namely that there is no difference between the Jew who has the law of Moses and the Gentile who does not have it because they are both under sin, then we have no basis to judge whether or not someone is closer to believing the Gospel than someone else. There are no degrees of salvation–a person is either in Christ or he is not, and God, if he so pleases, can remove the veil of blindness from anyone he pleases.

I’ve heard a lot of people quote from 1 Timothy 2, but it’s not usually with the purpose I believe the apostle Paul is writing it. He says:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time (1Tim. 2:1-5).

Well to skip any potential theological debate and jump directly into what Paul is writing here, what is he saying? Well, chiefly he is telling Timothy to tell the church to pray, to intercede, and to give thanks for all people, even those whom he describes as “kings and all who are in high places.” Why does he tell them this? Well, as hard as it may be to understand, it is possible that the Christians in Paul’s day lived under such a terrible government that it would make them not want to pray for, to intercede for, and to give thanks for their political leaders. Even more, not too long after Paul writes this letter, the greatest persecutor in the history of the church, Caesar Nero, would take the throne in Rome, and would kill thousands of Christians, crucifying them and feeding them to lions as Romans cheered in the Coliseum, and whose name in Hebrew just happens to add up to 666. But that is neither here nor there. Yet despite all this persecution and despite the wickedness of the kings and leaders, Paul urges the church to pray for them? Why? Because, first, he wanted Christians to treat their leaders in such a way that the church could “live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Secondly, they were to pray because God can save anyone. And while it can be argued that God does prefer to save the weak and the foolish and the nothings for the purpose of shaming the strong, the wise, and the somethings, God is not above saving anyone (cf. 1Cor. 1:27-29).

Therefore, when it comes to the grace of God, there is no lost cause on our side of the matter. For as the apostle Paul writes, “God has consigned all to disobedience [both Jews and Greeks], so that he might have mercy on all” (Rm. 11:32). Therefore, the nice lady who bakes pies for her neighbors and helps at the soup kitchen because she’s a Jehovah’s Witness is sitting in the exact same boat as the lesbian woman who volunteers at the Planned Parenthood clinic in San Francisco. Both are under sin, and both deny that Jesus Christ is the God of the universe because they are both dead, blind, and deaf to him and his Gospel. Therefore there is no prayer for any person’s soul that is prayed in vain, there is no preaching of the Gospel that is preached in vain, and there is no tear shed for a lost loved one that is shed in vain. No one is beyond the reach of the saving hand of God, for our God is not only a savior, but he is an Almighty Savior.

Categories: Theology

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