Sermon, September 20, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
This morning we come again to the Gospel of John, and that’s going to be our normal mode of operation for a while. We are going to look again this morning at the prologue to the gospel—last week we spent a great deal talking about how the prologue is one of the ways that John is set apart from the other gospels, why it doesn’t fit in the mold of the synoptics. The entire gospel has a distinct style and focus compared to the others, and that uniqueness is related to John’s stated goal for his gospel. His goal, as he says in chapter 20 of the book, is that the person who reads this, by what John writes, will believe that Jesus is two things, that he is the promised Messiah that Israel had been waiting for these thousands of years, and second, that Jesus was in fact the Son of God.
And so to begin his gospel, he comes right out and says that second point. He tells us, the readers, that Jesus Christ was and is the Son of the Most High, the Son of God, and he refers to him as “the Word.” That was the major point that we dwelled on last week, and if you missed it you’re welcome to head to the website and read and hear all of the things that were said pertaining to that, but I do hope that you came away from that reminded, further convinced, and confident that Jesus is in fact, as John says, the Son of God. And that study was primarily drawn out of the first three verses of John. In verse four we switch gears a little bit as John introduces to us another metaphor that he plans to elaborate on as the book unfolds. Because it still works as a complete unit, let’s read the entire prologue and not just the verses listed in your bulletin. So read along with me now, the first 18 verses of John’s gospel. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.
The Word of the Lord.
Did you hear it, the new metaphor? I hope so. It’s a word that John uses 7 times here in the opening verses of the gospel, and then returns to another 13 times throughout the book. He says that Jesus is the light, even more, the true light, as he refers to Christ in verse 9. And the first time he mentions it is right there in verse 4, saying, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” These are fun word chains that John builds here, very effective rhetoric: “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.” Life, life-light, light-darkness, darkness, etc.
So Christ is seen as light. And since God is giving these words to John to use, he means them. In chapter 8, Jesus will use this metaphor himself, saying “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And there is an opposite pair to this metaphor as well, isn’t there, we talk of light, and we also talk of darkness. And what do these opposites represent, well, quite simply Light=Life, and therefore Darkness=Death.
So it’s our task to make sense of this comparison, what is Christ trying to teach us about himself by the use of this word “light?” Well, first of all, light and life are clearly linked together in our entire experience. When God set out to create the world, the first thing he created was light, and it is the opposite of darkness. It is light that sustains us. Light really is everything.
I was thinking a little bit about this and hearkening back to my days as an engineering major, before I “saw the light” and went into music. But we often have a very narrow view of light. Because it’s there for us, literally, to see, we tend to focus on visible light. The light that makes this room visible to you and me, the sun that lights the outdoors, the light that travels such great distances from faraway stars, etc. It’s no surprise that we think easily of light. But if you’ve taken chemistry or astronomy, you learn right away that it’s important to have a broader view of light than that, because visible light is only a sliver of the entire spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, which is all the waves invisibly flying around us at the speed of light. On the one side of the spectrum, at lower hertz than visible light there are radio waves, microwaves, and infrared, all of which we’ve heard of before, and use on a daily basis. Then all those rays with shorter wavelengths than visible light – we go outside and get burned by ultraviolet rays, get examined with x-rays, and, well, try to stay away from gamma rays. All of these are forms of light, whether we can see them or not, and they hold the universe together.
And how are all of these waves produced? When atoms—all the matter surrounding us—when they absorb energy, when energy is given to them, the atoms respond by emitting electromagnetic energy. You flip a switch on the wall and pump electricity into a filament made of a certain kind of atom, and it responds by lighting up, producing light. I know this is a little dense, and John didn’t know any of these details when he wrote those words, but the metaphor of Christ as light and life gets more profound the more we know about the science. Basically, you fill an atom with life, with energy, and it produces light.
I have this picture of the creation of the universe in my head, how God did it, and I guess we won’t know all of the answers until we’re all together in heaven, but I’ve always wondered about that phrase in verse 2, when it says that the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. It sounds like God created the heavens and the earth before he says “let there be light,” but there is no life in it. It is formless, it is void. Perhaps what the Spirit was doing was hovering over a massive pile of raw materials, matter, atoms that God just hadn’t breathed any life into yet. And then God says let there be light, and the matter was suddenly filled with energy, filled with life, and produced all manner of light. I don’t know, it could be he woke up all of the matter he’d created in an instant, like we flip on a light switch.
So to it is for the Christian, is it not? John says it right here, that life was the light of men. We have no light apart from Christ. There is no spiritual life in us without the light that is Christ in us, is there not? What a beautiful image—just like the entire universe of matter is awakened with the infusion of energy, producing a spectrum of light we can’t comprehend, so too does Christ’s light burst forth from us when he awakens us.
We’ve talked before about how there is no such thing as a Christian that doesn’t produce fruit. There is no such thing as a Christian that doesn’t bear the fruit of being a Christian. Because a Christian that is energized by Christ, who is absorbing the spiritual life from Christ—like the filament absorbing the electricity to keep the metaphor going—a Christian will burst into light. God will produce fruit in the people he’s chosen to give the light to.
This goes one level deeper then, keep thinking about the filament again. What is that filament in a lightbulb without the energy? It is nothing, it certainly doesn’t shine, doesn’t shine of its own accord, does it? How does it shine, then? It is taken, by an intelligent, creative being, placed in the environment of a vacuum, hooked up to some wires, and then, that same intelligent, creative being flips a switch. Does the filament choose whether or not to accept the energy being pumped through it? Does the filament choose whether or not to produce the light that it naturally will while absorbing that energy? Of course not. In this situation, the filament in a bulb is entirely passive. It was the intention, will, and care of a person that made that bulb shine, whether the bulb wanted to or not. I think we’re on to something. So too is the Christian in an ultimate sense, entirely passive in his salvation. We experience conversion, as an emotional realization, a logical realization, usually a combination of the two, but I’ll say it again, thank God it’s not actually up to you and me. If God chose to shine the light of Christ through you, he will.
We’ve sung it a thousand times, but it actually doesn’t reflect the best theology, does it? “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” That song is full of you talking about what you are going to “let” the light do, when you thankfully are not responsible for “letting” the light of Christ do anything. God chose you to be his, and he flips the switch. That’s why there can be no Christian without fruit. No light without the light of Christ.
So light is life, an excellent metaphor. But what else is light? We examined it from a scientific angle, but what about the practical side? What does light do, in a practical sense? Light makes things known, light reveals things. We had a sermon a few weeks back about “dwelling in the shadow of the Most High,” and made the point that shadows are often scary places—there aren’t a lot of positive connotations that we get from shadows. They hide threats, they make things unclear, they muddle things and hide them.
This is built into our language through idioms, isn’t it? Oh, I was totally in the dark about that! Things we can’t understand are dim and dull, my memory is a little what? Foggy. But on the flip side, hey, could you shed a little light on that? Oh, now I’ve seen the light! We call intellectually gifted children “bright.” When we understand something, suddenly we’ve “cleared the clouds or the cobwebs away.” Light makes things known. Light reveals things. And what was Christ coming to reveal but the Father. Right here at the end of the prologue, that is made clear in verse 18: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” And later in John 14, Jesus says, “no one comes to the Father but by me,” and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Christ is the light that reveals the Father. Reveals his will, reveals his plan of salvation, reveals his holiness and his many attributes. Christ makes the Father known to us. This is such a gift to us in John that supports the theology gleaned from throughout the other gospels. Don’t listen to anyone that tells you there is any other way to the Father, any other way to God. John is writing about what he calls “the true light.” Not a good light or even a great light, the true light, the only real light. The light from which all other light is derived.
And John goes on to drive that point home in verses 6-8, where he makes sure that everyone reading knows that John the Baptist was there not to be a light, even a lesser light, he was there to point to the true light. At the time of this writing there was already heresy popping up that too greatly venerated John the Baptist, some people boasting that they’d been baptized by John the Baptist himself, and that was some sort of super-Christian status, so that might be one of the reasons John inserted such an emphatic statement, just so you don’t misunderstand: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
Thus ends our discussion of the nature of light, and we turn with John to verse 9, where we finally get to Christmas in this fourth gospel, and it is of course presented quite differently than in the other gospels. Where the accounts in Luke and Matthew have rejoicing, celebration, and wonder, this one dispenses with the party and comes with a warning. Listen:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
Good so far, there is the extent of the party!
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
Uh oh. He hinted at this already in verse 5 when he said that “the darkness has not overcome it.” That could actually be translated a little more precisely as “the darkness has not apprehended, or taken hold of it, the light.” Here John goes on, and it is a statement of warning. The light came, and the people to whom the light should have been the most obvious, they did not receive him.
He created the world, but the world didn’t see him. Imagine you were at Disneyworld, this amazing amusement park the likes of which the world had never before seen. A world unto itself, in a way. I haven’t been, but from what I’ve seen, it is incredible the alternate realities that have been created within that world, in what was a really uninteresting, flat part of Florida. Imagine you’re walking in that world and you happen upon Walt Disney himself, the creator of this world. Do you think you might want to meet him? Do you think if he walked over to you and wanted to sit down and have coffee and tell you all the ins and outs of that world you wouldn’t take him up on it? I think I might.
But the world did not know him. And it gets worse. He came to his own, the chosen people that he’d brought out of Egypt, given the Law, cared for in the desert, miraculously sustained for years in the wilderness, led a conquest of Canaan for them—he came to these people, and it doesn’t say they didn’t know him like it said of the world, it says they didn’t receive him.
The problem with that Disney metaphor is that in that scenario I wasn’t looking for Walt Disney! These chosen people of God had been scouring countless lines of prophesy, reading and memorizing all of the signs of the coming Messiah for whom they’d been waiting for generations. They had all of the blessings of God, but they didn’t receive him. In fact they killed him. Why? Because they had, as we are always wont to do, had constructed for themselves in their minds and in their traditions, an idea of what they wanted the Messiah to be and not what he actually was.
We look at the Pharisees in the gospels, and we kind of see them as the bad guys. They are the placeholders for all of the Jews that John is talking about, the ones that he refers to as “his own.” They had the law, they had the prophesy, they had the entire old testament, and they’d been studying it for hundreds of years. The last prophesy in the Old Testament, Malachi, was already 400 years old! Ten generations of Jews studying the Old Testament, looking for the Messiah. They should have been the first to recognize the Messiah, but they didn’t, because they’d been building a picture of the Messiah that fit what they wanted him to be.
With that in mind, I find something contemporary to us today absolutely puzzling. Do you know what we, in this room are equated with in liberal Christian circles? We are constantly compared to the Pharisees—we are seen by the liberal movement in the church as Pharisaical, because we do not accept the softening of moral standards, because we aren’t willing to abandon clear instruction in the bible on sin, aren’t willing to throw away a literal interpretation of what the bible says in favor of some nuanced, culture-approved version of things. That’s why we’re referred to as modern day Pharisees, because liberal Christians believe we have placed extra-biblical rules on Christians, just like the Pharisees did.
It’s puzzling to me because the converse is actually true. It is the liberal Christian who has constructed for themselves a Jesus that they are comfortable with, a Jesus that won’t tell themselves or their friend that they are sinning and they should repent and sin no more. That is the Pharisee, is it not? John says here that Jesus Christ came to his own, the ones that should have recognized him so clearly, and they did not receive him. Our culture doesn’t want a Jesus that says the things that he says, that calls things sin that we don’t want him to. Remember it isn’t just the words recorded in the gospels that Jesus is saying, it is the every word of the bible, all of that is Jesus speaking. So as I’ve said before, and we need to constantly be reminded: everything is what God says it is, whether we want to believe it or not, whether it makes us comfortable or not. Sin is what God says it is. Gender and sexuality is what God says it is. Salvation works how God says it does. Everything actually is what it is whether we believe it or not. The color blue does not cease to actually be blue if I call it yellow, even if I feel in the deepest part of me that that color is yellow, it will not actually be yellow. We can’t say this enough.
So there is a clear warning here—don’t create for yourself a counterfeit Christianity. We see as the story how that worked out for the Pharisees, as they had created their counterfeit Messiah. They didn’t want to see the light, they wanted to see the light through their own filtered glasses.
So, Jesus is the light, the source of all life. Don’t think that you can define that light any other way than how it is actually shining—we are witnesses to the light as it is. And then there is good news. The good news extends from verse 12 through the end of the prologue. What is that good news? Verse 12:
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
The light came into the world to save people. John is laying out several themes that we’re going to see come back in the stories he is about to relay. Jesus came to give people the right to become children of God, to be born again. And just in case the structure of the sentence made you think that the believing that leads to being born again is something from within, from inside of man, think again. All who did receive him, all who believed in his name, it was his doing that made that happen. John makes it clear in verse 13. Whose will was it that led to this being born again for the children of God? Not the will of the flesh (we know where that gets you)! Not the will of man (which gets you to the same place)! No, it was the will of God. Plain as day. A wonderful confirmation of the faith-alone, Reformed view of salvation.
And that is good news! It’s great news! He came to build his family, to shine light into the world and call his people. There is one more thing about light, and that is you can’t see it unless you open your eyes. You may be bathed in light, but unless your eyes are open you can’t see it. Can you open your eyes? No, but there is one who can. It’s no accident that one of the most powerful stories in John is about Christ opening the eyes of a blind man. John doesn’t say, “people, open your eyes!” he says, “let me tell you about the one who opens eyes.”
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Christ came to be the true light, his glory, shining in the darkness, and he came to open our eyes so that we can see the Father as he is, not as we want him to be, because what we would want him to be would and is always something lesser than he is. God’s truth does not give us shackles, it sets us free. We bring nothing but filthy rags, and the light shining on them makes that obvious. But Christ came to take those away and to give you new life, a new birth, from above and not below.
I’ll close with a few comforting words from Psalm 146:
Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
Amen. Let’s pray
Heavenly Father, thank you for this word today. Thank you for the Word, the Word became flesh, your Son, Jesus Christ. Thank you for filling this world with the light of his glory, the light of his grace. Open our eyes to see him, and through him see you. Open the eyes of the lost this morning, that your Word may go out in power today as the rains water the earth, and we know that Word will not return empty, but he came to call his own, to gather his people to himself. Use us, Lord, to be your instruments in the world, to open the eyes of the blind, that they may believe and live. In the mighty name of the everlasting Word, Jesus Christ, amen.