Jesus, the light of men

This week the lectionary invites us to ponder thirteen verses from the first chapter of the Gospel according to John (John 1): verses 6-8 and 19-28). In the English Standard Version, the selected verses appear under the headings “The Word Became Flesh” and “The Testimony of John the Baptist.”

In The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, I reflected on eight verses from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark. In that column, I explained the meaning of “gospel.” I outlined what Mark included in his introduction to his gospel, and I challenged you to think about how you would explain the gospel.

Mark begins by pointing out prophecies about John Baptist and Jesus centuries before they appeared. John too mentions John Baptist in his introduction. John however begins very differently. He begins with words which recall the first words of Genesis.

Genesis is the first book of the Bible. It begins “In the beginning …” John pointedly begins his gospel with the words “In the beginning.”

The gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are called “synoptic gospels” because they contain many of the same stories, sometimes in the same sequence.

John’s gospel is quite different.

While the synoptists have Jesus frequently speaking of “the Kingdom of God/Heaven,” John has Jesus speaking of the Kingdom only twice.

While the synoptists recount many of Jesus’ parables, John never uses the word “parable,” though he does include two stories which some interpret as parables. These are the stories of the Good Shepherd and of a woman giving birth (John 10:1-18; John 16:21).

While most of the synoptists’ stories of Jesus are set in Galilee, most of John’s stories of Jesus are set in Jerusalem.

John wrote his gospel after the synoptists had written theirs. John saw no value in repeating what they had written. He saw their work as “data” and his work as “information.” They described events; he drew out the meaning, the theology.[1]

The early church referred to John as a theologian. It named a church and a monastery for “Saint John the Theologian.” It didn’t call any of the synoptists “theologians.”

The synoptists focused on the kingdom. John focused on the king. To them, Jesus’ miracles demonstrated his power. To John, Jesus’ miracles demonstrated who he was.

That’s why the synoptists have no “I AM” sayings, while John has seven: The Bread of Life (6:35); The Light of the World (8:12); The Door (10:9); The Good Shepherd (10:11-14); The Resurrection and The Life (11:25); The Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6); The True Vine (15:1).

Enough about the difference between the synoptists and John. Now for the selections which the lectionary invites us to ponder.

In verses 6-8, John tells us his interpretation of the facts about John Baptist: John Baptist was a man sent from God, to bear witness about “the light of men,” Jesus. The words “bear witness” mean that John Baptist identified Jesus. He identified Jesus not as “man” but as “the light of men.” By this, he signalled that the presence of Jesus’ drove away darkness, confusion, futility.

In verse 9, John adds that Jesus was the “true” light. By this, he signals that what Jesus said endured; was eternal; was cutting. Not sharp today, blunt tomorrow.

After verse 9, John continues, as it were, in a shocked tone, and trembling voice. He says that despite the astonishing ways in which Jesus’ words and works revealed who he was, most people didn’t recognize and honour him.

Even Jesus’ own ethnic group, the Jews, didn’t recognize and honour him. This is especially shocking because they believed themselves to be the ethnic group God had chosen to be the guardians of His word. Because they knew their ancestors had prophesied the coming of persons who said and did what John Baptist and Jesus said and did. And because their preachers reminded them repeatedly of the rabbinic teaching “if a prophet gives a sign and wonder, then one must listen to him.”[2]

John structured his gospel around signs and wonders. He directed his gospel to Jews.[3],[4] He was direct. He was polemic. He charged, provoked, attacked. By his words, he wounded them. Why? Because by itself, the “attract” strategy, the strategy of pulling them in like a magnet, hadn’t worked on them.

A delicious irony drives John in his choice of expressions to describe conversion, moving from darkness to light.

He speaks not of people choosing to become disciples, but of receiving Jesus. He says those who receive Jesus become children of God. He says their new status is so real, so inconceivable, so mind-blowing, that the only way to put it is that people become disciples not by their own choice, but by the choice of God. Let’s not forget that the common lot of the early disciples was beating, mocking, violent death.[5]

As soon as John succeeds in putting his thoughts into words, he gets into an ecstasy. He slips to his knees. He falls. He’s lifted. Into ecstasy. He’s imbued with intense joy. His tone changes to adoration. His expressions become mystical. He says:

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. (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.’”) For from his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14-18)

In our congregation, last Sunday, we lit the candle of Joy.[6] It’s hard to imagine greater joy than John experienced, when he “saw” and “knew” who Jesus was and is, after reviewing all the data about him. May such joy be multiplied this Christmas season. May such joy result in powerful testimonies about Jesus, the king of the Kingdom of God. May such testimonies result in many new members added to our churches.


[1] Paul Rainbow, a Johannine scholar, has pointed out “Alone among the four Evangelists John enjoys the title of “the Theologian.” He’s also noted there’s a “Church of St. John the Theologian near Ephesus” and a “Monastery of St. John the Theologian on … Patmos.”

[2] Bible scholar Leon Morris says, “It was Jewish teaching that if a prophet “gives a sign ‘wt and wonder mwpt, then one must listen to him; but if not, then one need not listen to him.” He cites from Strack and Billerbeck’s Komentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, II, p480.

[3] The same can be said of Matthew.

[4] Tellingly, in the remainder of his prologue (chapter 1), in verses 19-28, John recounts the interrogation of John Baptist by priests and Levites sent “from Jerusalem” by “the Jews.” There’s no uncertainty. John directed his words to “the Jews,” members of his own ethnic group, just like Jesus.

[5] Perhaps the most comprehensive description of such suffering is the testimony of the Apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:24-28,
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” Allusions to suffering – and peace and joy – appear throughout the New Testament.

[6] Many churches continue the centuries-old practice of lighting four candles in the run-up to Christmas. The candles invite us to focus our minds on hope, peace, joy, and love.

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