My wife and I took two of our grandchildren out for a walk the other night. It’s winter here in the USA, and it gets dark enough for Christmas lights to show well. So, we took Jeffrey and Elena on a tour of our neighbourhood. Most of the houses are decorated with lights, and some also have inflatable characters from the latest children’s films, or old favourites: nothing says Happy Christmas like a Yoda and a wookie. There were lots of Santas, elves, and snowmen. Interestingly, we haven’t noticed many Christmas decorations here that actually refer to the birth of Christ.
But we do notice the lights. There are lights strung up on trees inside the houses, and lights strung up all over the external walls of the houses. There are incandescent bulbs, LED lights, and it looks like something new I hadn’t noticed before: lights projected onto walls. The particular city we live in also has a “Grand Illumination” night Christmas celebration every year, featuring fireworks.
I like light as a symbol for Christmas. It reminds me of a very special verse of scripture, the very verse I had planned on exploring as part of a series examining the theme of “life” in John’s Gospel. That verse is John 1:4.
ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν, καὶ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶϛ τῶν ἀνθρώπων·
A modern version translates this verse “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men.”1 What a wonderful statement… but what does it mean?
Even before we get to that question, we need to establish whether the verse 4 that we are reading is being rendered correctly. There is an alternative textual tradition that takes the final words of verse 3 as the beginning of the sentence. Some would argue in favour of this alternative because John is not in the habit of beginning his sentences with prepositions. If that alternative is correct, the verse should begin “What has appeared in him was life”2, or “What has come into being in him was life.”3 But most translations reject that alternative, siding with the majority of extant Greek manuscripts, and also seeking to avoid the implication that Christ’s life might have begun at his birth in Bethlehem. For our purposes, the majority rendering will suffice.
But what was John implying when he said that Christ, the Word (verse 1) had life in him? Some scholars merely point out that “life” and “light” are themes throughout John’s Gospel, and imply that John introduces the themes by this statement.4 The meaning of these terms as applied to Jesus would become apparent only after reading the Gospel in its entirety.
Some suggest that John already has a particular concept in mind. Tenney suggests that it is some sort of “dynamic principle” that leads to salvation.5 Anderson claims that the life is the new identity believers can have in Christ.6 But Martin Luther used this verse to warn people about getting too mystical about their relationship with God. He was anxious “to warn men “to abstain from the curious searching of God’s majesty.”… Not by such searching, but by becoming acquainted with Jesus Christ, would he teach us to expect the true knowledge of God; and this counsel is altogether in the spirit of the words, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.””7 For Luther, it was Jesus’ personal life itself which is our light.
But other scholars see John characterizes the whole of his ministry as one of bestowing life,” and demonstrates it by raising people from the dead.8 Jesus is the new tree of life, showing God as the source for sustenance and survival.9 The life he offers is more than a mere spiritual vitality, or a different quality of life. The life he offers is a resurrection unto immortality.
We conditionalists stand up and cheer when biblical scholars start talking like this. We cannot bear it when people consistently take simple terms like “life” and give them obscure meanings. But we have to read the whole verse. If the life that Christ offers is resurrection life, how is that life a “light” for humanity?
Beardsley asserts that “darkness represents a lack of knowledge of God while light represents information about God.”10 Others speak of this light as a more ambiguous revelation of God.11 Others see it as an even less specific illumination of the heart.12 As we continue to investigate what John says about Jesus in his Gospel, we hope to remove some of those generalities, and get to specifics.
But for now, it would do us well to remember that this is not the first time the Holy Spirit has talked about light and life in the same context. In his prayer of confession concerning intermarriage, Ezra praised God for giving the Israelites “new light and life” to their eyes.13 They finally realized that repentance was their only chance at preserving the people of God for the plans of God. Job referred to “light” and “life” as essentially synonymous.14 For the psalmist, stumbling feet were heading to death, but God’s light allowed him to “walk before God in the light of life.”15 And in Proverbs, God’s commands and corrections expose darkness and lead to life.16 So, it looks like the typical idea in scripture is that darkness is lack of revelation from God, or lack of obedience to that revelation, resulting in darkness and death.
…Except for Isaiah 9:2. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness.”17 That light is not merely revelation or illumination. It is a child who will be born, a Son who will be given.18 So, already in scripture, the concept exists of a coming light in the form of a person: a gift from God who will bring life to his dying people, and deliver them from darkness and death.
At Christmas, we celebrate that life, and that light. So, drag out the Christmas lights, and decorate. Let the world know that life is in Jesus Christ, and his life can be our light. May you and your family be blessed with a brilliant Christmas.
1John 1:4 CSB.
2Herman N. Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John: A Theological Commentary. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.1997), 37.
3Benjamin Wirt Farley, In Praise of Virtue: An Exploration of the Biblical Virtues in a Christian Context. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.1995), 96.
4William,Barclay, ed. The Gospel of John. Rev. ed. The Daily Study Bible Series. — (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1975), 49. “Life and light are two of the great basic words on which the Fourth Gospel is built up.” David Walls and Max Anders. Holman New Testament Commentary. Vol. Vol. 11, I & Ii Peter, I, Ii & Iii John, Jude (Nashville: Broadman & Holman,1999), 156. “ In a number of places, Jesus referred to himself as light (John 9:5; 12:35–36,46). John 8:12 gives his most direct statement: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Light is a picture of truth, knowledge, and righteousness, while darkness is a picture of falsehood…”
5Merrill C.Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief: An Analytic Study of the Text. 2nd ed. The New London Commentary on the New Testament. (London etc.: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1954), 215. “The way was a means of reaching the Father; the truth defined the righteous standards of the way; the life bespoke the dynamic which could make attainment possible. All through the Gospel of John life describes the principle of spiritual vitality that originates with God and that lifts men out of sin to Himself.”
6Neil T. Anderson, The Daily Discipler. (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books,2005.), 44.
7John McLeod Campbell, James Torrance, and Jock Stein. The Nature of the Atonement. (Edinburgh: Handsel Press.1996), 66.
8Michael Knowles and Paul Scott Wilson. Of Seeds and the People of God: Preaching As Parable, Crucifixion, and Testimony. (Eugene: Wipf and Stock. 2015), 92.
9Eric Brown, Destiny for God’s Child: God’s Purpose for Creating Man and Man’s Responsibility to God. (Longwood, Fla.: Xulon Press, 2003), 79.
10Eldred L. Beardsley, That They May Know: Is Your Personal Theology Correct? (Tate Publishing, 2008), 26.
11Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Let Me See Thy Glory: A Study of the Attributes of God. (Biblical Studies Press, 2002), 183. Rose Publishing. Names of Jesus. (Rose Publishing, 2013), n.p.
12Simon Gibson, Today. (Inspirational Press, 2010), 122. “People often talk of ‘seeing things in a different light’ to describe experiences that lead them to change their viewpoint. As the true Light, Jesus Christ is the only one who can illuminate your heart and mind with all truth.” John Marsh, Saint John. Westminster Pelican Commentaries. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978.), 104 (quoted from Frank O’Hara, Jesus Christ After Two Thousand Years : The Definitive Interpretation of His Personality. (Wipf & Stock, 2013), 7.
14Job 3:20 “Why is light given to one burdened with grief, and life to those whose existence is bitter.”; 33:30 “in order to turn him back from the Pit, so he may shine with the light of life.”
16Proverbs 6:23; 20:27.