The Scottish preacher Andrew MacLaren said this is the most profound page in the entire New Testament – and he is right. It is also the most controversial and the source of most Christian heresies in the early church. What you think about this one page pretty much defines what you believe about Jesus, God, and the Gospel. That is why it is so important not to read it as an isolated page but as part of the whole of Scripture. It is the same Jesus as in Matthew, Mark and Luke but intended for a different audience.
100 years after the death of Christ the Gospel had migrated from being from the possession of a small number of Jews to being mostly Gentile. It began as Jewish and so the earliest believers understood the roots and words that tied the Gospel to the Jews, their traditions and history. So, Matthew, Mark and Luke used Jewish categories of thought and Jewish literary forms. But the challenge of John was how to present the Gospel to a Greek world with no knowledge or familiarity with the Jewish roots. The problem was how to present Christianity and Christ in such a way that a Greek would understand. Where would you begin?
The challenge is not unlike today in a world that recognizes very little of our insider language and ideas about Christianity that seem so natural to us. When I read the roadside signs between here and Dallas that say, “Turn from you sins. Repent. Accept the blood of Christ and be saved” I realize how much of that is coherent only to insiders but incomprehensible to so many. In a way, we are the Jews living in a Greek world. How do we communicate the truth of Christ to a world that has no understanding of what we take for granted. How do we deal with the same challenge as John by presenting the truth in new words without corrupting or distorting it?
But it was not just an unbelieving Greek world to which John was writing. It was to a world that was filled now with Christian heresies. His challenge was not only to present the whole Gospel to pagans but to Christians caught up in heresies.
What are just a few of the heresies that were circulating in the early Church concerning Jesus?
Adoptionism taught that Jesus was born a mortal but was supremely good and therefore was adopted by God and made divine.
Docetism taught that Jesus’ physical body was an illusion and he only appeared to be born and crucified.
Arianism taught that Jesus was not divine and not one with the Father in the literal sense but he was created by the Father like the rest of creation.
Gnosticism taught that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by a lesser god.
Manicheism describes the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.
That simple word – logos – contains almost the whole of the book of John. It is not simply the word of God that when spoken brought everything that is into being. “And God said…”
When a Greek saw the word “logos” it meant the world had order and reason. It meant there was something more than chaos because there was a mind behind the universe. Johannes Kepler, the 17th century mathematician, astronomer and discoverer of the planetary laws of motion put it this way: “Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God… by thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” That is what John is saying about Jesus – through Him we can know what God is thinking.
Finally, the Word not only created what is and is not only the way God expresses his thoughts but it became flesh and (as The Message puts it) “moved into the neighborhood. I’ve told you before about our visit to a ministry in Lima, Peru called “Word Made Flesh” that works with street kids because they believe the word has to move into the neighborhood. Of course, that does not mean we have to pick the worst neighborhoods. We can be the word made flesh wherever we are. We can be grace and truth in a world filled with lies, conspiracies and violence. Light doesn’t need to be a flashbulb or a laser. We can be the light that dawns in our world. We’ve all been awake at one time or another before dawn and seen the world go from darkness to light. It’s gradual. We can be like that in our worlds.
Someone once told me that “ultimately, Truth is a person.” That does not mean that Truth is reduced to my personality or yours but it means God packaged everything that is true about Him and about all of creation in the form of a person so He could be known. He was fully God and fully man. He is all we can know about God. There is nothing left to reveal. Remember what Paul says in Colossians 1:15-20: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He holds all of creation together. There is a force in nature called the “strong force” and it is only by releasing the power of that binding force that nuclear explosions are possible. Jesus is that strong force that moment by moment holds all of creation together and keeps it from destruction. He keeps what he created.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” This is not darkness in the sense that the world is completely evil – like the Manicheans would teach. It is not what the Gnostics would say about the material world being completely evil. All we have known is darkness but that is not saying the world is evil. It is saying darkness cannot comprehend light just as deafness cannot comprehend sound.
Some of you studied the allegory of Plato’s Cave taught by Socrates. In it, there are men chained in place staring at a blank wall. “Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire that casts shadows of objects on the wall in front of them. The prisoners cannot see the fire or the real objects – only the shadows that they take to be real. They think the shadows are reality.
One of the men is released and taken to the surface where after a time of adjusting his eyes he sees real objects that have only been shadows in the darkness of his cave. He sees light for what it is. That which allows him to see reality – not shadows.
Socrates then asks:
“Wouldn’t he remember his first home, what passed for wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners, and consider himself happy and them pitiable? Moreover, were he to return there, wouldn’t he be rather bad at their game, no longer being accustomed to the darkness? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release and lead them up, wouldn’t they kill him?” The prisoners, ignorant of the world behind them, would see the freed man with his corrupted eyes and be afraid of anything but what they already know.”
Here is how Ray Stedman put it: “We do not know the answers. We are like children lost in a dark wood, feeling around, hoping to recognize something. We do not even know what we have run up against. We are like men in a dark room, bumping into furniture, not knowing what we are running into; we grope around, feeling things to see if we can understand where we are. Here is the first hint in this gospel of the struggle between belief and unbelief in the world. John has said that Jesus is the light of men; i.e., Jesus is the source of understanding of reality. He is the basis of the knowledge of truth. We live in a confused, and confusing, world that has little understanding of reality. John declares that it is only in the light of Jesus that men begin to see things the way they are — to see life the way God sees it, which is the way life really is.”
The witness of John
“There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”
One writer has said that the reason Jesus needed a witness that came before him was to “step down” the intensity of the light and make people ready for it when he came. If you have traveled outside the country you know you need to take an electrical converter with you to step down 220 voltage outlets to 120. Otherwise, you burn out your appliance. I’ve done that and now I am never without a converter kit. John was something like that. He came to prepare people for 220. Otherwise, they would have been blinded by the light of God.
Jesus did not come as a celebrity or someone who looked the part of God. That is part of the reason the world did not recognize him then or now. We still want more than grace and truth. We want heroics over humility and success over sacrifice. We want what we call a Christian culture but not Christ. We still, like the disciples, want to rule. Instead, as Paul says in Philippians 2:5-8: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!
Finally, John clarifies the fact that John the Witness is not the light because there were many in the early church who had never heard of the baptism of Jesus and the receiving of the Holy Spirit – only the baptism of John: the baptism of repentance and purification. Paul meets them in Ephesus in Acts 19:1-7: “While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.”
Ironically, the following of John was one of the heresies of the early church.
“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet, to all who received him to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Some did recognize him so it’s not fair to say that the whole world was and is blind. Nicodemus, the blind man, the Samaritan woman at the well and others. Of course, it was not those who should have because they were blinded by their own expectations of who he would be and kept from understanding due to their own blinders and categories. The same is true today. It is often those who know the most who find it hardest to accept the simplicity and surprising grace of the Gospel. They prefer either the baptism of John – continuously repenting and trying harder – or the Law or continuing in their blindness.
“But to those who receive he gives the right to become.” Again, I like the way Ray Stedman puts it.
“That growth takes a long time. It is a process. It does not happen overnight. You do not suddenly, by magic, become a new creature. It takes place gradually, like a baby grows. God has designed it so. But the promise is that to those who have begun they will stand at last like him, sons of God, “to them gave he power to become the sons of God.”
Are you not encouraged by the fact that John puts it that way, “the power to become”? That is what God gives. He does not wave a magical wand over us and suddenly make us all perfect specimens of faith . Sometimes it is a difficult struggle. We resist maturity. We still want magic and miracles. Some are late bloomers. Some have more to overcome. Some need more light.
As Paul says in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” We are being transformed but we are not there yet. We are becoming children of God.
What better place than here to read John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
C.S. Lewis wrote: A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
“Who is Jesus?” is the most important question in the world then. He is God. He is the Word. He is the light of the world. He is the source of all life and by him the whole creation is held together until that time when he creates a new heaven and a new earth.
It’s not likely that any of us will change the world this week but we can be examples of grace and truth – light dawning in a darkened world. The old saying is still true: better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.