Bible Book List
John 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources » Commentaries » John » Chapter 1 » exegesis

The Light Came into the World

Using the image of light John now describes the incarnation in more detail, but he still does not refer to it explicitly. Nothing in this section, as in the last, need refer to a distinct person at all. Throughout there are analogies to what is said of Wisdom in the wisdom literature. Wisdom was God's agent at creation (Prov 3:19-20; 8:22-31), has come down to earth seeking those who will give heed (Prov 1:20-21; 8:1-11), is rejected by some (Prov 1:22-33; 8:36) and is received by others whom she enables to receive life and favor from the Lord (Prov 3:13-18; 8:35). Thus, John is working with what would be familiar from Judaism to establish the context for appreciating the radically new thing that has occurred in Jesus.

This section begins with the ministry of John the Baptist (Jn 1:6-8), as in the Synoptics. The Baptist is presented in very exalted terms, for the language of being sent from God is also used of Jesus (16:27) and the Holy Spirit (15:26). But John's own identity is not dwelt on, other than to insist that he himself was not the light (1:8). He is described solely in terms of his mission to testify concerning that light (v. 7), a point that will be developed later (vv. 19-28). This mission is universal; it is that all might believe. What is in view, therefore, is not just John's preaching to the Jews who went out to hear him, but the witness he continues to have through his place in the proclamation of the story of Jesus (cf. vv. 15, 31).

This universality is also reflected in the cry in verse 9 concerning the coming of the light that gives light to every man. The phrase coming into the world could refer to the people rather than the light (see NIV margin), but since the focus of the passage is on the coming of the light the NIV text is probably correct. If so, it could be translated "This was the true light that enlightens everyone by coming into the world" (cf. v. 4). In any case, here we have the universal significance of the light for every individual, an important theme in this Gospel and a controversial one. The light of Jesus is as universal as the light of creation. He did not come merely to some Gnostic elite, nor did he come to a single nation or culture. This light is the Word that became flesh in a given time and place. At the heart of Christianity is the so-called scandal of particularity. People of all cultures and times are to receive the light that shines in this first-century Jew--he who has been given authority over all people (17:2). This does not mean the light of God is not manifested to some degree throughout the world's religions and philosophies. But even such light is derived from the one who became incarnate in Israel. Indeed, it is only by his light that we can recognize what is genuine light elsewhere. This is something of what it means that the true light has come. The word true means for John, in part, that which is really real, that which is genuine. John's own example in this Gospel encourages us to recognize that which is of the truth from whatever quarter. But among all the claims to wisdom, revelation and truth, John is claiming that in Jesus we have received the real thing, the truth from which all truth flows and the criterion for recognizing truth wherever it may be found.

God is working out his salvation through one nation, and specifically one person within that nation, but his is a universal salvation. This light shines on everyone (v. 9). The tragedy is the mixed response he gets, for some "wilfully close the eyes of their mind" (Chrysostom In John 8.1). This light was in the world (v. 10), probably referring to the incarnation, since that is the focus of the context. The world in this Gospel usually refers to those who oppose God, but here it is used first of the created order before shifting to a negative sense: the world did not recognize him. When the author appeared in his own story he was not recognized, not even by his own (v. 11), that is, those who knew him not just through the general revelation of creation but through the special revelation of covenant. The Old Testament, especially throughout the Prophets, witnesses to such rejection of God as the common human response. Thus an old familiar pattern is repeated, though the identity of this messenger makes this rejection especially shocking.

Why do some believe and others do not? John has two answers, and they are both found in verses 12-13. If we had only verse 12 the answer would be human response, for it says that after they receive and believe they are given the right to become children of God. The word right (exousia) may be misleading since it suggests a legal claim. Exousia can also mean "power" or "authority." The imagery of coming alive as God's children suggests the focus here is on the power that produces divine life. But it is a power that must be exercised by the person--John does not say "he made them children of God" but "he gave them power to become children of God" (cf. Chrysostom In John 10.2).

On the other hand, if we had only verse 13 the answer would be divine initiative. The general meaning of this verse is clear enough, though the imagery taken from physical childbirth is obscure. Natural descent is literally "of bloods" (ex haimaton). The NIV seems to sug-gest the reference is to lineage (cf. Carson 1991:126), but this usage is extremely rare in Jewish material. More likely, the reference is to the physical contribution of the woman, or of both parents, which is matched with the third expression that refers to the will or desire of the husband. In other words, the begetting of children of God depends on neither human material nor planning. It is Christ's blood and the Father's will that produce children of God (Jn 6:37-40, 53-57). These two elements--human material and planning--are the bookends for the middle expression, which is literally "nor of the will of the flesh." "`Flesh' here is not a wicked principle opposed to God. Rather, it is the sphere of the natural, the powerless, the superficial, opposed to `spirit,' which is the sphere of the heavenly and the real (iii 6, vi 63, viii 15)" (Brown 1966:12). This middle term thus conveys the key point of the verse: This birth owes nothing to the natural sphere of life. The other two images express this thought through reference to childbirth in particular.

So the question of why some believe and others do not is answered by another of John's antinomies. There is no doubt that God's gracious sovereign initiative comes first, for he is the source of all life and it is only by his grace that any life occurs and abides at all. The right (or power) to become children of God must be given by God. The images of verse 13 rule out any role for human power or authority in the process of becoming a child of God. But unlike in natural birth the one being born of God does play a part; this life is not forced on the believer but must be received. Those who are receptive to the Son are offered the gift of becoming children of God themselves.

Throughout this Gospel John will show examples of this receptivity and its opposite. He does not, however, address the further question of why some have receptive hearts and some do not. But by holding fast to these two foci of divine sovereignty and human responsibility John avoids two views common in his day and ours, namely, a fatalistic determinism in which one is an automaton and a merit theology in which one earns or deserves eternal life (cf. further Carson 1981).

On the human side everything depends on one's response to the light who has come. Receiving him is described as believing in his name (1:12), a very striking expression that occurs only in John and 1 John (2:23; 3:18; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13). For most ancient peoples, "the name is inextricably bound up with the person" (Bietenhard 1976:648). The name is a point of contact between the person and those around, as when we refer to one's name, colloquially, as a "handle." For the ancients this contact goes below the surface, for the name reveals something of who the person actually is. Therefore changing a name means changing one's identity (cf. Jn 1:42). In the Old Testament this tight connection between the name and the person is especially important for God's revelation of himself (Bietenhard 1976:649-50). Indeed, a major element in Israel's claim to know God is the fact that they have received the revelation of his name (Ex 3:13-15). This idea is picked up in John's Gospel (cf. Bietenhard 1976:653) when it is said Jesus has come in order to reveal the Father's name (17:26; completely obscured in the NIV). In Jesus we see the revelation of God himself, for the Father has given his own name to Jesus (17:11-12). God's giving of his name to Jesus continues the theme that the Father has given the Son the divine prerogatives of life-giving and judgment (5:19-30). In this way the "name" is a summary of the gospel itself, and so the missionaries from the later Johannine community go forth "for the sake of the Name" (3 Jn 7).

In our text, therefore, to believe in Jesus' name "implies the acceptance of Jesus to the full extent of his self-revelation" (Schnackenburg 1980a:263), including, especially, his deity. This belief developed slowly among the disciples as Jesus' self-revelation and his revelation of the Father unfolded during his ministry. They apply many exalted titles to Jesus during the first days of their discipleship (Jn 1:41-49), but their belief remains immature until the revelation has been given in its fullness in the cross, resurrection and ascension and until the Spirit comes to guide them into all truth.

Becoming children of God means we begin to share his divine life, without ceasing to be creatures. Believing in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, enables us to have "life in his name" (20:31). Given the significance of the "name," it is clear that "life in his name" is another way of referring to being a child of God because it means sharing in the divine life (cf. 6:40) and reflecting God's character. Thus the revelation of God in Jesus includes a revelation of the type of life we are offered as members of his family.

The story will make clear that believing is not just an intellectual assent to some ideas but a relationship of discipleship to Jesus in which we trust and obey his revelation and receive his ongoing presence through the Spirit.

Previous commentary:
John Presents the Revelation in a Nutshell

Next commentary:
The Word Became Flesh

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.