Recognizing and embracing the light of the world.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 October

Light is a metaphor for a lot of different things in the bible. Here, it’s life.

John 1.1-13

John 1.1-5 KWL
1 The word’s in the beginning. The word’s with God. The word is God.
2 He’s in the beginning with God. 3 Everything came to be through him.
Nothing that exists came to be without him. 4 What came to be through him, was life.
Life’s the light of humanity. 5 Light shines in darkness, and darkness can’t get hold of it.

In his first chapter, the author of John (probably John bar Zebedee, “the student Jesus loved”) pins a few metaphors on Jesus. We got word. We got light. And later John the baptist uses lamb. (Or ram; it depends on how meek or badass you wanna make Jesus sound.)

The word created life, and the author quickly started calling life “light” Jn 1.4 then said Jesus is the actual light coming into the world. Jn 1.9 In fact later in this gospel, Jesus made this claim about himself twice: "I'm the light of the world." Jn 8.12, 9.5 He comes to give us life. Abundant life in this age; eternal life in the next.

Even though the bible’s not a series of codes for clever Christians to crack, various Christians insist “light” means the same thing everywhere, and manage to mix up “Life’s the light of humanity” in verse 4, with “God is light.” 1Jn 1.5 You know, just like they mix up Jesus-God’s-word with the-bible-God’s-word. They’ll try to mash the “truth” they find in 1 John together with “life” (and let’s not forget way, Jn 14.6) and hit frappé. Any excuse to make the Light as clear as mud.

Oh, I’m not done. Don’t forget the monkey wrench Matthew throws into the mix, where Jesus calls us the light of the world. Mt 5.14 Fortunately most of ’em aren’t gonna go full-bore heretic and claim we’re God. But it does confuse them. I’ve heard the sermons. Jesus also had that idea in mind when he called John the baptist a lamp, giving off light, Jn 5.35 and not even reflected light, as we Christians so often like to describe ourselves as. (“God’s like the sun, and we’re like the moon, reflecting his light…” etc.) Seems God empowers us more than we think.

Still, wanna have fun with a literalist sometime? Show ’em 1.8 and 5.35, then watch ’em flop around a little as they try to figure out why the bible took a left turn on ’em. (“Well, chapter 1 says he wasn't the light, but chapter 5 says he was a light…” Yeah, nice try English-speaker; ancient Greek doesn’t do definite and indefinite articles like that.) After you’ve had your evil fun, point out it’s not a contradiction when we interpret the bible properly, metaphor by metaphor.

Jesus’s light, and ours.

John 1.6-9 KWL
6 A person came who’d been sent by God, named John, 7 who came to testify.
When he testified about the light, everyone might believe because of him.
8 He wasn’t the light, but he’d testify about the light.
9 The actual light, who lights every person, was coming into the world.

In John 1’s metaphor, the author wanted it clear there’s a vast difference between the light of life, i.e. Jesus, and the sort of light John the baptist was. And the sort of light we Christians are. We don’t create life—abundant, infinite life. We might think we do, when we make kids, but obviously we didn’t make it from scratch. Even scientists in a lab don’t make it from scratch. And whatever life we “make,” has limitations, and an expiration date.

John the baptist wasn’t that light. Wasn’t trying to be. His job, which he understood perfectly, was to point to the light and say, “There he is.” It was to get people ready for the light coming into the world. We don’t know, ’cause the gospels don’t say, how long John was prophesying before Jesus showed up. He could’ve started as a teenager, and been preaching 20 years before Jesus finally came to him for baptism. Or it could’ve been a month, and John was surprised and pleased to find his Lord had arrived already. You might realize we Christians now have John’s job: Get people ready for the light’s return. But there’s a bit of a difference, because Jesus gives us life already. We only have to wait for eternal life, but not abundant life.

John was a light, as Jesus said, ’cause he testified to the truth. Jn 5.32-35 So are we, when we do as John did. Light is truth. But that’s a different metaphor than we find in this chapter, so don’t mix ’em up. We have no business saying this light includes that light. Life and truth are related, but not the same. Keep it straight.

Those who embrace, and reject, the light.

John 1.9-13 KWL
9 The actual light, who lights every person, was coming into the world.
10 He’s in the world, and the world came to be through him.
Yet the world doesn’t know him.
11 He came to his own people, and his own people don’t accept him;
12 of those who do accept him, those who put faith in his name,
he gives them power to become God’s children.
13 Not by blood, nor bodily will, nor a man’s will, but generated by God.

The light is in, and created, the kósmos/“universe.” We translate kósmos as “world” instead of outer space, as it’s come to mean, ’cause kósmos is about the known world—assuming we really know the world. It’s not really an exact term, y’know. It’s why Christians tend to use “the world” to mean either

  1. our planet and everything in it
  2. humanity in general, i.e. “God so loved the world”
  3. pagan humanity, i.e. “the world is out to get you”

and other, weirder definitions. Which is why interpreting verse 10 gets tricky. “The world doesn’t know [the light]”—so does that mean the planet as a whole? Humanity? Pagans?

For this passage, Christians tend to switch around. Some of ’em claim “the world” means the planet: The light created and came into the planet, but now the planet doesn’t recognize him. Most Christians teach when God created humanity, he created us perfect, but we fell—we sinned, and sure aren’t perfect anymore. That part, I agree with. But some of us go further: Our fall actually made the whole planet fall. Nature, plants and animals, weather, all of it meant to serve us, but now it’s as sinful as we are, and now it has plagues and poisons and man-eating animals and tornadoes. This doctrine, I have serious doubts about, ’cause it’s not in the bible. These folks assume the globe is in upheaval against God. Really, it’s in upheaval against us: It was created to be tended by perfect people. Not sinners who think it’s disposable, who drive certain species to distinction, pollute unthinkingly, and pretend climate change can’t be real, because every once in a while we still need to put on a jacket. Nature is recoiling from its wayward occupants, and rejecting us like the human body fights a virus. Nature still obeys the creator, y’know, as proven when Jesus stops the weather. We don’t.

Others claim “the world” means humanity. I’ll fall into this camp. God loves humanity and gave us his son. Jn 3.16 Jesus is the lamb of God, who takes away humanity’s sin. Jn 1.29 And we’re to go into all humanity and preach the gospel. Mk 16.15 There’s no point in visiting uninhabited parts of the world for this purpose, much as we might enjoy such a vacation. Nature knows its God. Humanity doesn’t.

This is why John’s next lines, when they narrow “the world” down to “his own people,” are still dealing with the same idea. Everybody doesn’t know the light. In general, the Jews don’t. But many do.

Those who embrace the light.

Christians tend to forget all Jesus’s first followers, all the early Christians, were Jews. And not that small a group, either. Some 3,000 became Christians after Peter’s first sermon. Ac 2.31 Two thousand more joined up after Peter and John cured a beggar. Ac 4.4 And that was just the year 33.

So we can’t apply “his own people don’t accept him” too universally. True, many Jews didn’t become Christian. But many did. Thing is, over time all these Jewish Christians intermarried with all the gentile Christians, and lost track of their Jewish ancestry. No, I’m not one of those kooks who believe the Saxons are the lost tribes of Israel, and therefore the British and Americans and Australians and South Africans are secretly also God’s chosen people; that bit of insanity was invented by white supremacists and still spread by people who totally miss the point of verse 13, “Not by blood, nor bodily will, nor a man’s will, but generated by God.” In God’s kingdom, ancestry isn’t what makes you his kid. We’re saved by his grace, through our faith: Ep 2.8 Believe in him, and he’ll save you.

So while there are those of Jesus’s “own people” who didn’t accept him, plenty totally did accept him. And plenty of foreigners, non-Jews, gentiles, did too. From these two groups, God formed a new people. A new family. God’s kids.

Blood, bodily will, or man’s will: Most commentators figure this refers to biological parents. “Blood” refers to both the parents. “Man’s will” refers to the father, who’s gotta want to make the baby, or at least do the baby-making deed. And “bodily will” refers to the mother—who, let’s be blunt, may not wanna do the baby-making deed, which is why John doesn’t say “woman’s will”: That’s an uncomfortable truth of the harsh, selfish world we live in. But if her body isn’t able to gestate a fetus, a baby ain’t happening.

If people only wanted the nookie and not the baby, there were ancient forms of birth control. Not all that reliable, but they existed. But then, as now, if a baby happened regardless, people in the Roman Empire would commit infanticide. Nowadays we do it before the fetus is viable, so we can have the not-so-plausible deniability that it’s not really human till it’s viable. The Romans thought the same way: If they didn’t want a baby, their custom was to abandon the infants in the woods so animals could have at ’em. (Christians used to rescue them.) Or, if they wanted it over with, they’d just drown ’em in the public baths. Either way, Roman custom still said the kids weren’t legally their father’s kids till the father ritually adopted them, and publicly declared them his heirs.

All this in contrast with God, who not only adopts us, but John goes so far as to say he begets us. We aren’t just some kids who asked to join the family, so God took pity on us. He made us—and with the deliberate intent for us to be in his family. He made everybody for that reason. Not all of us accept him. But those who do, he gladly includes in his family.

Recognizing the light—Jesus—as one of our own, is simply one of the marks of family. When we trust Jesus, we’re family. Family to God, family to one another. Just that simple.

Well… okay, trusting God is really hard sometimes. But the concept is just that simple: Trust Jesus, and you’re in.