When we think about light, what do we think about? Do we think of the first day of creation, when God made light (Genesis 1:3-5)? Or do we think of the fourth day of creation when God made the sun and the moon (Genesis 1:14-19). Do we think in terms of a day, which can be either bright or dull? Or do we think in terms of light which can be natural or artificial?
Light can mean many things to many people. And depending upon our moods and circumstances, it can mean many things to us too. After all, we can step into it, and we can hide from it. With artificial light, we can switch it on and switch it off; we can turn it down and we can even extinguish it. We can do lots of things with light.
But one of the things that the Apostle John did was to call Jesus by it. But what did John mean by doing so, and what should it mean for us?
B. JESUS IS THE LIGHT
1. Jesus is the Light (9a)
Well in many ways the Apostle John describes Jesus as the Light, because of the essential nature of light. After all, light is the agent that stimulates the receptors in the brain and make things visible. But John goes further than that, because John describes Jesus as “the true light who gives light to all mankind” (9a).
In other words, for John, Jesus was different to everyone else who had gone before. Yes, there had been other lights. There had people who had revealed elements of the truth; there had been people who had shown glimpses of reality; and there had been people who had revealed some light, only to lead people astray. But only Jesus was (and is) the true light. But more than that, only Jesus was able to illuminate all mankind.
Yes, the Word gave (and gives) light to those who believe, but there is an element in which he has also revealed God’s existence and purposes to the rest of mankind as well. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul describes: “From the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they may be, have been clearly discerned, being perceived through the things he has made, so that the ungodly and unrighteous are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Light then, can mean many things. But for the Apostle John it is a word to describe Jesus, because it works in so many ways. As a consequence the Apostle John could then go on to describe what Jesus did, in terms of, how he came to earth and the nature of the light that he brought—revealing sin and pointing people to a relationship with God.
2. Distractions from the Light (6-8)
Now one of the things I have always found most curious, is that in John’s Gospel we have this prologue which is all of eighteen verses long, which, on the surface at least, seems to want to describe the nature and purpose of God’s son, Jesus. And to me that is as it should be. But when we read it, not even half the way through it, in verses 6 to 8, we have a description not of Jesus, but of John the Baptist.
So from the heights of the first five verses of what could have been a magnificent prologue describing Jesus in his fullness, we are faced with three verses that switch our attention away from Jesus, and on to John the Baptist. We have a distraction, and a distraction of the Apostle John’s making. But why?
Well the answer is, we will probably never know. But the inference is that the Apostle John felt that he needed to deal with a problem. And the problem was that despite Jesus coming to earth, and despite him shining his light in the world, not everyone accepted that Jesus was the Messiah.
Indeed, in the Gospel of Luke we have a story of some followers of John the Baptist, who questioned whether it was John who was the Messiah (Luke 3:15). Luke also records in Acts that a Jew named Apollos knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24-26). And later, Paul came across a group of twelve men who only knew John’s teaching (Acts 19:1-7). It’s not surprising, then, to learn that at the time John was writing his Gospel there were still people attached to what they believed was the teaching of the Baptist, and indeed that a movement associated with the Baptist was in the region where this gospel was written.
Of course, yes, the Apostle John could have included his comment about John the Baptist, because he was an old-style prophet who pointed the way to the Messiah. But if that was the case, why didn’t he include some of the other prophets, who also pointed the way? And why did he go to such lengths to describe what John wasn’t—that John wasn’t the light, but only a witness to the light?
The interruption in the flow of describing God’s “Word,” Jesus, then, in what could have been a magnificent prologue, was quite deliberate. And it indicates the purpose of the prologue. Indeed, the prologue was about describing who Jesus was, and then contrasting that with how he was received. And in particular it was about describing the different ways that the Light can be detracted from, covered up and rejected.
3. Rejection of the Light (9b-14)
Which is why, having dealt with “the problem of the followers of John the Baptist,” the Apostle John then continued with the more widespread problem—the more general rejection of the Light of the world.
Jesus may indeed have been the word of God who took on human nature, but that didn’t mean he was received well. Indeed John’s comment is that the response of people in general, was that they wanted nothing to do with him. Even his own people—his fellow Jews—the people who were waiting for the Messiah, and knew the signs to look for, rejected him.
But despite that, and maybe even because of it, the Apostle John was concerned that the good news should not be extinguished from our sight. As a consequence he reiterated that God did indeed become flesh; that Jesus did live among us; and if we open our eyes to him, we can indeed see his glory.
4. A Timely Reminder (15-18)
And so the Apostle John concludes with a reminder of who Jesus was (and is). He comments that Jesus is far superior to John the Baptist; that the new covenant is far superior to the Law of Moses; and only through faith in Jesus can we see God.
In the first five verses of the prologue, then, the Apostle John set the scene. He established Jesus as the Word of God (1) standing with the Father. He described him as the Life (4) referring back to creation, but including the spiritual life even of today. And he described him as the Light (4) revealing all, and showing the way to God. And yet in these verses, 6 to 18, we seem to hit a bump—the bump of reality. Because mixed in what Jesus did, we have described for us people who have gone off track, people who think that they know better, and people who want nothing to do with God’s “Word,” Jesus.
So depending upon whenever we think the Gospel was written—whether in 50 AD, 70 AD or 85 AD, we have a snapshot of the reception that Jesus received in his ministry, and a snapshot of what the church was up against well after the death of Jesus.
Now in a sense, the prologue to John’s Gospel is just like the Nicene Creed that we might still say today. It’s a statement of faith, created because of an underlying problem. It’s just that John makes it far more obvious what that problem was. But then John wanted it to be very clear—people had gone off track, and others had responded to Jesus in a very inappropriate and negative way.
And to me that should ring alarm bells for all of us. Because whilst John’s prologue reminds us that God went to great lengths to come to the rescue of his people, the reality is that people still don’t get it. Furthermore, the inference is that whilst people outside the church might want to block God out or even extinguish the light, people within the church—people who should know better—are at risk of becoming distracted and losing the plot too.
1. Jesus is the Light
And yet, didn’t Jesus come so that we could know God? Didn’t Jesus come to show us the way to God and to save us from the consequences of our sin? Didn’t Jesus come so that we might become children of God? And didn’t Jesus come so that we could receive one blessing after another from our creator?
Well that’s what the Apostle John tells us. And yet what this prologue suggests is that it is so easy to get it wrong.
2. Distractions from the Light
What the Apostle John’s teaching about the followers of John the Baptist indicates, then, is that here will invariably be people who will be distracted away from the Christian faith. There will be people who choose to take a different path, and there will be people who will do so by misunderstanding the teaching of the person that they purport to be following. (Because I’m sure that it wasn’t John the Baptist’s intention to start a new religion all of his own.)
However, even within the church people may get off track. Indeed, they may become so distracted from Jesus’s teaching that they completely lose focus on the Light of the world.
And that certainly happened in New Testament times. And we can thank the Apostle Paul for pointing out one such distraction. Indeed the debate in Corinth was on who was better—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12)—is a good example of where members of the Church can become so focussed on the personalities within it, that they lose sight of the main goal.
Similarly in Thessalonica the church became so distracted by the second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11), that the people became lazy—they stopped pulling their weight. So Paul had to encourage them to get back on track, to become focussed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and to encourage each other in the faith.
It’s very easy for people to become distracted, to lose focus on the person of Jesus. And if you don’t think that either of these things happens today, then I would suggest that you take a look at many of our struggling churches today. Because many of our churches today suffer from we might call “personality disorder”—people in authority (assumed or given) who are pulling one way or another. There are also many people in our churches who are not using their God-given gifts to build up the church community.
The result? Well there is the visible sign of people dictating what the church can and can’t do. There is in-fighting, division, and personality clashes. There are churches that are going nowhere, except down. But the most serious issue of all, is that Jesus’s light is being blocked and distorted, and in some cases is being made totally unrecognisable.
3. Rejection of the Light
And if that weren’t enough, what the Apostle John’s teaching about the reaction of people in general indicates, is that people are constantly looking for ways to cover up the light, turn it down, and even extinguish it. Of course, it’s a common problem outside the church, particularly where people want to mould God in their own image, if they want anything to do with him at all. But it’s also a problem within the church too.
After all, when confronted about church and the need for salvation, the response of people is often to think only in terms of buildings. When confronted with the idea of the need to be faithful in giving to God, the response is often in terms of fundraising. When confronted with the need to care for the poor, the solution is often seen in terms of administering government handouts. And when confronting the people with the need to loosen up the church to embrace the unchurched, the response invariably is for people to dig their heels in.
Both inside and outside the church there is a tendency to extinguish the Light—to reject the Light of the world. Now in a sense that is quite understandable from those who want to reinvent God or extinguish him completely. But in the church it shouldn’t be. Unfortunately my experience within the church has been that churches invariably respond to spiritual issues with worldly responses. And so the church becomes just as guilty, as the general public, of quenching the Light; of reducing, and even extinguishing the Christian faith in its poor responses to serious spiritual issues.
4. A Timely Reminder
As a consequence we need the reminder of the Apostle John’s conclusion. We need to recall why we are here. And we need to let go of all the distractions, and the things that block, extinguish and shade the Light.
We need to expose the light, not extinguish it. And so we need to dismiss any personality cults, we need to stop looking for worldly solutions to spiritual problems, and we need to pull our weight, and be the people of faith that God intended.
Of course that won’t be easy, because there will be a lot of things we will have to unlearn. But what we need to do is let Jesus be the Light; we need to let God lead us into the future; and we need to be willing to go wherever he should take us. But we need to do that, no matter how uncomfortable that might make us.
But what does that mean in practical terms? Well I was heartened the other day when talking to a lady from a different parish—a three-centred parish—but a parish which faces many of the issues I’ve just described. And her solution? Well it is to sell all three centres and start again.
Now may sound like a drastic solution. But she recognised there were far too many vested interests in the church buildings, furniture, styles of worship etc. that prevented the church from growing. Indeed current practices were simply blocking the Light, with the effect that if nothing was done, in the not too distant future, that all three churches would need to be closed. But more importantly, in order to remove all obstacles stopping the Light shining, she was prepared to let go, even of the things that she held dear.
Yes, of course, her solution is drastic. But sometimes drastic measures are required, particularly when we are faced with the two primary issues raised in John’s prologue. Because, firstly, people do go off at tangents (and often because of strong personalities), and they do distract from the Light. And, secondly, people do try to adjust the Light to make God and the church more palatable. And if our role is to do everything we can to ensure that God’s Light shines as brightly in the world as possible, it may mean that we need to let go of the things that we love, in order for God’s Light to shine.
The Apostle John’s prologue, then, whilst it doesn’t deliver the heights that it could have done, nevertheless balances the idea of who Jesus was (and is) with the sobering reminder of how easy it is to get off track. The Apostle John used Light to describe the Messiah, but mixed in with that he showed how easily people are distracted from it, and how easily they corrupt it, dim it, cover it up, and even try to extinguish it.
John’s challenge, then, is that we should not be the ones to either re-direct or obscure the Light; that we should not be the obstacle responsible for diming it. Indeed, we are the ones who should be taking every step to make sure that the Light shines as brightly as it can. But are we up to the challenge?
Posted: 30th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis