Bob Woods tells the story of a couple who took their son, 11, and daughter, 7, to Carlsbad Caverns. As always, when the tour reached the deepest point in the cavern, the guide turned off all the lights to dramatize how completely dark and silent it is below the earth's surface. The little girl, suddenly enveloped in utter darkness, was frightened and began to cry. Immediately was heard the voice of her brother: "Don't cry. Somebody here knows how to turn on the lights." In a real sense, that is the message of the gospel: light is available, even when darkness seems overwhelming.[i]
This word, gospel, means “Good News.” To someone overwhelmed by darkness, turning on the light is very good news. To a world trapped in darkness, Jesus is that light. This article marks the beginning of an epic journey in which we explore the light of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The books about Jesus written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all called synoptic gospels because they make an effort to tell the Lord’s story in the order that each event happened. But the John’s gospel takes a different approach. Rather than designing his book to give a blow-by-blow account, John tells stories that make spiritual points about Jesus. Different from the other writers, John’s Jesus tells no parables and performs only seven miracles. John uses these miracles, and the arrangement of his narrative, to make theological statements about Jesus’ divinity and mission. John’s writing also tends toward a more mystical spirituality than the other gospels. While scholars debate whether the author was the actual apostle John, or a later community that developed around that disciple’s teaching, for the purpose of these articles we will simply refer to the writer as “John.” John actually states the purpose of his own book as follows: The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name (Jn 20:30-31[ii]).
John begins his book with a song that became famous in the early church as “The Hymn to the Logos.” Verses 1-5 say:
In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.
Even though Christians refer to the Bible as The Word or The Word of God, John is not referring to the Bible here—The Bible didn’t even yet exist in its current form. For John, The Word is Christ. Though the traditional translation for logos is word, it can also be translated as an accounting, command, saying, statement, cause, or reason. I’m going to step out on a limb and paraphrase it as authority. Yes, Greek scholars will say that word is exousia and not logos, but Word falls far short, and command has too much sense of Old Testament Law. For me, authority expresses not only the fact that God spoke the world into being with words, but that God had the power to command it. Everything Jesus did, both in the act of creation and also in flesh, He did with the authority of God. That authority “became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son (v. 14).”
Jesus isn’t just the authority of God that came to life in human flesh. He doesn’t just have life. Even greater than that, Jesus is life itself. Everything that lives, lives because of the life that Christ gives. Just as He gives life to our bodies, Jesus also gives light to our souls. Verses 12-13 say, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” All creatures are given physical life and light, but God gives eternal life and light to those who turn to the Word.
There are a lot of translations for the final phrase of verse 5 that says that darkness “can never extinguish [the light] (NLT); did not comprehend it (NASB); has never put it out (ISV); has not mastered it (NET); did not overcome it (HCSB); did not perceive it (YLT).” The Greek word in question is κατέλαβεν (katelaben). It means, literally, to aggressively take hold of, to seize with eager self-interest, to overtake, or apprehend, or make one's own. For that reason, I probably prefer the NET for this verse. No matter how much it tries, the darkness can never grasp the light of Christ. It can't grasp him intellectually. It can't fathom His beauty. It can't lay hold of him to control Him. It can't defeat Him. Darkness cannot dominate the light.
In the legends and histories of many cultures there are stories of emperors who don the clothing of peasants in order to walk among the common people, bestowing gifts and blessings. John begins his gospel by portraying Jesus in this way. Jesus is the authority of God, made flesh, and walking among us. Verses 16-17 say, “From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.” As we begin our walk through the Gospel of John, we celebrate the love of God who not only created the world but cared enough to visit it and bring his light. Shedding light on the problem of sin, Jesus loved us enough to offer his eternal life to all who will receive it. “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us (v. 18).” I pray that as we embark on this journey together through the Gospel of John, that Christ would reveal God to you as well.
[i] Bob Woods, Pulpit Digest. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/g/gospel.htm. September 9, 2016.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NLT.