Bill McFarland

September 11, 2005


Most of us are aware that the beginnings of anything are extremely important.  If it is a relationship, we all are concerned about making a good first impression.  We know that impression may last.  If it is a speech, we want to try to have a good introduction to gain attention and to state the propositions that are going to be communicated.  If it is a great piece of music, especially in the classical sense, the opening lines will lay down the themes that are going to be repeated and elaborated upon throughout the piece.

And in the gospel of John it certainly is true that the opening lines lay down two great themes of which he is going to try to convince.  John emphasizes life and light, and that these things are in the world through Jesus Christ.  In this gospel record, life is emphasized in some vivid ways.  Jesus talked about streams of water of life.  He said that he was the bread of life.  He talked about laying down his life so that he could take it again.  He said that he had come that we might have life and have it abundantly.  It is pretty clear what he is emphasizing in these statements.  He wants us to know real life and to be able to have eternal life through him.

The other theme that he emphasized is light.  That light is the light that the world so badly needs.  Jesus will claim to be the light of the world.  He will present himself as being the one who provides the light that makes it possible for us not to walk in darkness any more.  Jesus will show that our choices boil down to either loving the light or so hating the light that we will try to destroy it.  This morning as we read these opening lines of John’s account, will you notice the emphases on Jesus as the light of the world?

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 any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, 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 1:1-13)

I want to suggest to you that in John 1:4-5 the plot of the gospel of John is laid down before us: the idea that there is life in Jesus, that that life is the light of men, that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  That really is the point of this great part of the New Testament. 

The Light

Why would Jesus be spoken of as light in this way?  Why would he say, “I am the light of the world?”  Why would John claim that in him the light of men shines?  It is interesting to observe what happens in John 7 and 8.  Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Tabernacles, as it was called.  It is also sometimes called the Feast of Booths.  This was a time when the people of Israel were to remember those years in which they wandered in the wilderness, where they had no permanent home but where they dwelled in little booths or tabernacles that they constructed out of branches.  During that period of time God had been with them and provided for them, and his presence in their camp was made clear for everybody to understand.

During the time of Jesus, in the temple area on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles, as the day drew to an end and as darkness began to descend over the temple area, people would pack into the area known as the Court of the Women, the place where everybody could come.  When darkness had completely descended, four great candelabras were brought out into that court, and each one of these candelabras had a big bowl for the oil so that the light could be great.  Just when the darkness had completely fallen, four young men (descendants of the priests) would come out and light them.  The light is said to have so flooded the area that there wasn’t a street or a house in all of Jerusalem which was not brightened by that light. 

That was the practice of the people to help them remember some great truths.  They were to remember first that, during their journeys through the wilderness, always by day the pillar of cloud was with them and by night the pillar of fire.  If they needed protected, the pillar of fire stood between them and their enemies.  If the camp needed to be moved, the pillar of cloud went before them.  It was a way of saying, “We are God’s people, and he is present with us.”  When they went to the Feast of the Tabernacles and lighted those lights, it was a way of being reminded of that fact.  Remember also that later on in the history of Israel as the tabernacle was constructed and later even as the temple was built, when the veil was hung between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place and inside the Most Holy Place, there was the Ark of the Covenant placed with the mercy seat over the top of it and the wings of the cherubims spread out over that mercy seat, then the glory of God descended.  There was a cloud with such shining glory that it might have looked as if the sun were shining through it, and it abode there above the mercy seat.  It was a way of saying that the glory of God is present in the midst of this people.  And then as years went by and as the prophets began to make great promises about God’s purposes for dealing with the sin of mankind, the prophets used the picture of light to communicate the truth.  For example, in Isaiah 9 it said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”  The prophet explained, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” 

On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles that year, that feast that had started with the lighting of those four big lamps, Jesus stood before the crowds of people and he cried out, “I am the light of the world.”  Can you see what kind of lesson would have been taught, what kind of point he was emphasizing, what kind of claim he was making?  When he said, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but would have the light of life,” his people knew what he was saying.  That is the reason they were not able to respond with a ho-hum attitude.  They either were for it or against it.  There couldn’t be any other way of responding to that statement.

Darkness Has Not Overcome

Now notice in John 1:5 the point John is making with this truth.  “The light shines (not has shined) in the darkness and the darkness has not (not does not) overcome it.”  The words in this passage of scripture are so meaningful that they have been difficult to put into a simple translation.  If you will notice, the key term here is the one that in this version is translated “overcome.”  It is a word that means “to lay hold of,” and it can mean either to grasp something with your mind or to lay hold of it in a more physical sense by force with the idea of overwhelming or overcoming it.  Notice that the King James Version and the New American Standard as well as the NIV will translate this phrase with something like, “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not comprehended it (or understood it).”  There the idea is to grasp it with the mind.  The American Standard Version and some paraphrases will say, “But the darkness has not apprehended it.”  In other words, it has not accepted it, appreciated it or taken hold of it.  And then the English Standard version, and some of the other translations in a footnote, will have it as it is here: “The darkness did not overcome it.” 

Here is what I want us to understand.  Each of these three ideas is possible as a proper form of translation, and each of them are true in a certain way.  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not understand the light.”  That certainly is true.  In John’s gospel it is pretty clear that there is a realm of darkness in which people may live where there is such a mindset that it cannot grasp the truth that Jesus is trying to get across.  They will murmur and complain and argue with it, but they will not understand it.  Secondly, it is also true that the darkness did not appropriate the light that Jesus brought and offered.  These were people who did not acknowledge him as being who he claimed to be, verse 10 says.  They did not welcome him, verse 11 says.  But then notice that it is also true that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome the light.  The darkness hated the light.  It tried to over power the light and to destroy it, but the light still shines in the darkness. 

Now all of these are true, but this last one best fits the thought that John is laying down.  This book is about the conflict between Jesus and his enemies, between light and darkness, between the claims of God and the denial of God’s enemies.  Brother McCord translates this, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not put it out.”  One commentator says that more probably John is stating that the light has been shining and still is shining, and never has the darkness been able to obliterate it.  That is the point being made here.  Another writer says that “the reading ‘overcome’ is preferable, and then he says, “The continual resistance of the light to darkness and the inability of darkness to triumph in spite of the utmost that that hatred and unbelief can do is the chief theme of John.” 

The Light of Life

It is an important truth in our lives.  Think with me about some ways in which this point is true.  The light shines and the darkness has not, nor will it ever be able to, put the light out or to overcome the light.

First, John teaches us that Jesus shines the light of truth into the darkness of chaos and confusion.  Who knows how many conflicting opinions, philosophies, or theories there were at work in the world in which Jesus lived?  Who knows, for that matter, how many competing ideas there are in the world in which we live?  In Jesus’ day, when he made that claim in John 8:12, it is interesting that all the rest of the chapter is taken up in noticing how people responded to him.  There follows a conversation in which his opponents question, murmur, ridicule, argue and finally reject Jesus and what he said.  But what Jesus said still had a tone of authority and the ring of truth about it so that it convicted the hearers.  In John 12, the connection between light and truth is something you can’t miss.  In 12:46 the Lord says, “I have come into the world as light so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.  If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him or I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.  The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge.  The word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.” 

The authority of Jesus’ revealed truth is the light that is being spoken of.  Were there people then who rejected the truth that Jesus taught?  Were there people who would not submit to the demands that he made?  Were there people who found his claims and his ideas to be ridiculous?  Yes, there were!  Are there now?  Yes!  But opposition and rejection has never been able to nullify the truth of Jesus.  His authority, the convicting call of the truth that he spoke, is still alive.  The fact that some people did not believe it did not change the fact that it was believable and that it deserved to be believed.

Secondly, Jesus shines the light of moral order into the darkness of evil.  Sometimes we watch the evening news and conclude that we are living in the worst time that ever has been morally.  If any of you have ever read the history of the Roman times in which Jesus lived, you surely realize that is not true.  We may be imitating them in some way, but we are not doing anything they did not think of or do first.  In John 3:19-21, John says, “And this is the judgment.  The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deeds should be exposed.  But whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”  There is the idea of moral light or darkness.  What John says is that we ought to hold up our words and our deeds and our attitudes to the light of what Jesus did for us on the cross, and we ought to evaluate the way we are living in the light that shines from there.  In the light that we have remembered this morning, how do our words and actions and deeds look in view of what Jesus has taught and done? 

John, later on in his life, applied this.  He said in I John 1:5 and following, “This is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sins.”  Paul uses exactly the same illustration in Ephesians 5 to say that we are children of light and that because we are children of light, we ought to be walking in the light and not having anything to do with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather reproving.  What are the unfruitful works of darkness?  Paul named them beginning in Ephesians 5:3.  He said, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.  For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”  What he is saying is that these things, when the light shines, are seen for what they are, and people turn from them and repent and leave that lifestyle to pursue one which is morally upright.

In the third place, Jesus shines the light of love into the darkness of hate; the light of truth into a world of confusion, the light of uprightness into a world of moral disorder, but also the light of love into the darkness of hate.  In John 12 again at verse 32, when Jesus talks about how if he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all men unto himself, John says he is talking about the manner in which he would die.  The people didn’t understand that, so Jesus explained in verse 35, “The light is among you for a little while longer.  Walk while you have the light lest darkness overtake you.  The one who walks in darkness does not know where he is going.”  His statements are saying, “Here’s the way people ought to live.”  He is still talking about his being lifted up from the earth.  Here’s the light!  Here’s the unselfishness; here’s the willingness to sacrifice; here’s the devotion to something greater than self which human beings ought to imitate or display in their lives.  When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, what do you see?  Before him there is abuse, with the hitting and the spitting and the insulting.  There is mockery and reviling; there is hateful ill-will all around the cross.  But what about on the cross?  There is dignity, love and forgiveness, and those people might try to destroy him and to wipe him out, but they could not overcome his love.  They could not make him not love them any more. 

In I John 2:9-11, John says to us, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.  Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.  But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and he walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”  Into the darkness of hate Jesus shines the light of love.

And then, Jesus shines the light of hope into the darkness of despair.  In John 9 there is a story of a man who was born blind.  The only way he lived was to sit along the way and beg people to help him, to give him something, to provide for him.  Jesus came to that man, according to John 9:5 and said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  Remember then that he anointed that man’s eyes and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.  He went and washed and came back seeing.  There is hope in the midst of hopelessness!

It is interesting to me in reading John how John uses the darkness sometimes as a symbol to teach us this need for the light of hope.  In John 6:17 the disciples are caught in a terrible tempest and the danger is all around.  John says, “It was dark.”  But Jesus came through.  In John 13:30 Judas went out to do the ugly work of betraying him and John says when he went out “it was night,” the hour of darkness.  In John 20:1 Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early on the first day of the week and the Bible says “it was still dark.”  There is darkness in the world, and it can make things look hopeless.  When Mary got there, the stone was rolled away.  When Jesus came, he calmed the storm.  When Judas betrayed him, Jesus still overcame all of that. 

The light of life means there is truth in this world, there is uprightness in this world, there is love in this world, and there is victory over darkness in this world.  All of that together is meant to give us hope.  The light shines in the darkness.  The darkness has not overcome it.

Four years ago today there was an awful terror attack on our country.  I remember us meeting as a congregation that Wednesday night after what happened on Monday and we prayed about it.  We were all broken-hearted over it.  There is darkness but it hasn’t overcome the light of who Jesus is and what he taught. 

Nearly two weeks ago a natural disaster struck our country.  Last Sunday night we met and prayed about that.  Some of you are helping with it in wonderful ways.  We thank you for that.  But the darkness of despair does not overcome the light that shines. 

Some of us present have personal issues or sins even in our lives.  There are things that need to be dealt with.  Through the gospel we hold up the word of life and we ask people to see what Jesus Christ can do in their lives through forgiveness.  In the passage we read earlier, it says that to those who believe in his name he gives the right to become children of God.  We can repent and confess our faith in Jesus and be baptized into him and he will make us a member of his family.  As members of his family, we need to be walking in the light of his holy love and he will go on cleansing us.  Maybe there is something that you need to do in response to the gospel today and if we can help you with that, would you not come while we stand and sing?