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Light Shines in Darkness

Recently I was reading John 1:1-18 with some international students who knew next to nothing about Christianity.  I was bracing myself for all sorts of questions about the trinity and the incarnation.  Actually they understood these quite easily. (After all how difficult is the sentence "God is a loving relationship of three Persons" or "the Word became flesh" - these concepts are only difficult if you're committed to a whole other raft of theistic suppositions!).  Here is what they really struggled with:

The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it

Now one issue is the translation of the word for "understood".  katelaben could be translated 'lay hold of', 'take possession of' or in the cognitive sense of "understand" as the NIV has it.  Perhaps the English word "grasp" straddles these meanings nicely?  "The darkness has not grasped the light."

But however you translate it, you have this conceptual riddle: if light shines how come there's darkness?? 

Well there might be some reasonable explanations like, maybe the Light is not very strong.  Well no, the Light is Jesus Christ - the Light of the cosmos! (v9-10). 

Ok, well perhaps the Light is not shining in the right place?  No - the Light shines directly in the darkness, the darkness that is humanity in its unbelief  (v4-5). 

Hmm, well maybe the Light only shines on some but not on others, leaving the darkness unenlightened?  No, "the true Light gives light to every man." (v9). 

This is the riddle:  the Light really shines and shines directly into the darkness.  John even says the Light enlightens every man.  Yet the darkness remains.  Somehow the darkness does not receive the omnipotent Light of the cosmos.

These international students were stumped.  And actually so was I.  This should have struck me many times, but it took their fresh pairs of eyes to see what is really a very great question:  How can omnipotent Light shine and darkness remain?

If this doesn't strike us, it really should.  And we must resist the urge to smoothe the problem away.  The text does not let us off the hook - either saying "He doesn't really shine" or "It's not real darkness."  No, He really shines and there's really darkness.

In fact this has been a riddle from day one.  Literally. 

3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light "day", and the darkness He called "night". And there was evening, and there was morning--the first day.

Though verse 2 told us of 'darkness' and 'the deep' (abyss), the Word of God brings a triumphant light.  Yet this light does not extinguish the darkness.  Instead there is a separation of light and darkness.  How strange!  We think of light swallowing up darkness - illuminating it, removing it.  Yet what we see is two realms separated.  The light is clearly superior but the darkness is not obliterated.

Recently 2 Corinthians 5 has come up on two blogs I read regularly - Baxter's Ongoing Thoughts and Halden's Inhabitatio Dei.  In particular the emphasis has been on the fact that "God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ." (2 Cor 5:19).   I heartily agree.  But I took issue with what I see to be the loss of any category for ongoing darkness/alienation/separation.  Paul goes on in the next verse to explain his ministry of reconciliation - he urges people "Be reconciled to God."  Paul goes around this (in one sense) reconciled world and urges people (with a passive imperative - interesting grammar no?!) to be reconciled.  Why?  Because the light shines but (somehow!) darkness remains.

And this makes the darkness not less outrageous but more.  The sin of those in the dark is not that they haven't had the light or not pilgrimmaged towards it.  Their sin is that they are being enlightened minute by minute and yet walk in darkness.  Think of Paul in the Areopagus - he tells the Athenians that they live and move and have their being in God - He is not far from them at all!!! (v27-28).  And yet they must repent (v30-31) because judgement is coming.  This is the great problem - not that they have sinned against a 'god over there.'  Rather, they have rejected the God in Whom is their very life.  The light is shining, they are (in one sense) living in God.  And yet this makes their darkness all the more appalling.

How can we be godless, given how God has lifted the whole creation to Himself in Christ?  How can we shout our 'No' to God given His omnipotent 'Yes' in Christ?  This is an outrageous conceptual problem.  But it is, even more, an outrageous moral problem.  It must not be rationalized or wished away.  God really was reconciling the world to Himself on the cross.  He really has said Yes to all creation. The true Light really does enlighten everyone.  Yet somehow humans remain godless, they shout their defiant 'no', they love and remain in and perpetuate the darkness.

Sin is insanity. There simply is nothing reasonable about it.  We must remember this as we go about our ministry of reconciliation.  (2 Cor 5:18-20).  At the most fundamental level, there's nothing credible about unbelief.  Let's not conduct our evangelism as though there is.

We are to urge the people of this reconciled world to be reconciled. How can they not be!?  That should be the flavour of our evangelism.  How can you not be enlightened by Him who is shining with Almighty power??  That urgency and incredulity and insistence and even moral outrage should characterize our ministry.  Christ shines - how can you not be enlightened??  Christ is given to you - how can you not receive Him??  Christ has reconciled the world - how can you not be reconciled??


For an example of what preaching like this might sound like - here's an evangelistic Christmas carol talk on Isaiah 9. The concluding challenge in particular is shaped by these kinds of thoughts.


0 thoughts on “Light Shines in Darkness

  1. jacky

    hey glen!

    congrats on all the ordination news in the previous posts!

    speaking of this one, if i understand you correctly, is this one of those 'antinomies' which JI Packer coined? (i.e. paradoxes that aren't really paradoxes... OK maybe that didn't really help... like God's sovereignty and human choice/responsibility)

    if i understand you correctly.. it is like how God breathes life into 'adam in Genesis, the holy spirit is striving in men but not dwelling in them.. in Him ALL people have sustained life (let alone most beasts and creatures), but it is the non-Christians who continue to refuse to profess his name and take up their cross, so unlike us they are not a continually 'reconciled' or 'recreated' creature (spiritually speaking) because they are not given the holy spirit as a seal and for sanctification... but they DO have the holy spirit sustaining their life and the whole creation is held together in and through Jesus Christ.

    so in one sense the whole light is beaming in their lives, the light is actually SUSTAINING their lives (hence the 'In Him we having our being'), but there is still darkness in their hearts ACTIVELY refusing the very light which is already in them, sustaining them, and reconciling the world to Him..

  2. Will

    i just listened to the sermon. good work! i see you changed the words of the jingle bells song - i am guessing you figured the brits wouldn't have heard of the holden.

  3. Dev

    it's like measuring the severity of sin not by its appearance, but rather by the punishment it warrants - the death of God

    this darkness is somehow permanent as well.. since it then is cast outside of the light

  4. Otepoti

    Hi Glen,

    What are the arguments in favour of the rarer translation "And the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out"?

    I always remember it this way, and it makes the useful point that the world's darkness, far from being just the absence of light, is a positive and evil (though ultimately weaker) force.

    I connect it with Eph 6:12, "For our struggle is [...]against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

    ("Otepoti" is the Maori name of my home town, Dunedin. )

  5. glenscriv

    Hi Jacky, I haven't read Packer directly on this but 'antinomy' sounds like the kinda thing I'm saying. I think this is one of the key tensions in our theology that we mustn't rationalize away. All sorts of theologies go wrong when they take the 'logic' of only one side of this truth and develop a trajectory that leads way off the biblical path (to universalism for instance). Your focus on the Spirit is very apt. I was reading John 16 this morning - He convicts the world of not believing in Christ - the essence of sin. (v9). And don't forget Acts 7:51 "You always resist the Holy Spirit." It is not just a resistance of their creational/providential sustaining, but a resistance of the reconciling work of Christ (cf John 16). It's not just that God has brought them to stage one (creation) and expects them to travel themselves to stage two (salvation). Nor is it that God has them at stage one and doesn't want them to be at stage two. It's that the omnipotent energies of God the Spirit are urging, convicting, cajoling, striving with them to be the stage two people God the Son has died to make them. Luke 7:30 should shock us to the core: "The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves." The almighty purposes of God rejected by the darkness - absurd, incomprehensible but at the bottom of it all... reprehensible.

    Hi Will, gotta learn the lingo if you're going to be a missionary to the dark continent!

    Hi Dev, you're right it makes you think so much deeper about the severity of sin. It's putting nails through the wide-open arms of Jesus.

    Hi Jocelyn, the ESV has "the darkness has not overcome it." I think within John that's how katelaben is used. It's the word used for the woman "caught" in adultery. And then Jesus uses it again in chapter 12:35 - "walk by the light before the darkness 'overtakes' you." So the translation you remember is probably very close to the intention here.

    I think we want to hold onto a sense in which darkness is a lack, an absense, the opposite of a thing - a no-thing. So I might quibble semantically with calling it a 'positive... force.' Darkness is the absence of light - it's being is parasitic upon the being of light and is in fact a negation of the positive thing that is light. The fact that darkness should ever threaten light should seem absurd to our thinking. Surely when light meets darkness the only party threatened would be darkness?? But actually in the gospel the Light enters into the darkness and, on the cross, is engulfed by the darkness, only to burst out in glorious light in the resurrection - dispelling the darkness of death and sin.

    I like the link with Eph 6 - we now clothe ourselves in the victory of Jesus over this dark world. See a parallel concept in Rom 13:

    12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

  6. Milton Stanley

    Your essay reminds me of the scene in The Last Battle in which a group of dwarfs are sitting together on a sunlight field but, because they expected darkness, can see no light.

  7. glenscriv

    Good image!

    "But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" (Matt 6:23)

    Thanks for coming by Milton.

  8. The Orange Mailman

    Ahhh, but here's the rub, Glen. We are all born in that darkness, in unbelief. We are all unconvinced of God and must be convinced, convicted, and enlightened at some point in time by the true light or we stand without hope. To come up with an explanation for my own dark heart, my own unbelief, and my own sinfulness before Christ's light shined in my heart in next to impossible. It's simply the reality I was born into.

    How do I define sin and darkness during a time when I knew nothing of the light? Now that the light has shone in my heart, now I have somewhat of a standard to compare to, but still no explanation for the darkness. It simply was.

    And there was time when the light shone in my heart, yet I refused to believe. How could that be? It is unfathomable from a completely theological point of view, but reality from my own dark heart's point of view during that time. It seems to boil down to that men loved darkness more than light, John 3:19. The love that mankind has for darkness cannot comprehend this light. Our sinful natures cannot comprehend the Creator who is full of light.

    And how do you explain that God commanded the light to shine out of darkness? The origination point for the light is from the darkness II Corinthians 4:6. Our understanding of how God shines His light into our hearts could be that we stand on the dark side of the wall, and God stands on the side of the wall with light. God shines from one side of the wall over onto our side of the wall to show us the way. But that's not how it is at all. Our hearts are completely dark and God shines His light from the midst of that darkness.

    There is much here to make us feel inadequate for an explanation.

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  9. glenscriv

    Indeed Orange. As I see it we're both thinking aloud around the very same issues:

    * we are born in darkness
    * yet the light is shining
    * yet we remain groping in the dark
    * at some point we see/receive/enter the light that had been shining on us even when we were blind to it
    * this is all God's work
    * and at the same time - it is we who need to repent (God *has* been shining the whole time)

    When you put all those affirmations together I think you get something like your comment or my post. Or do you think that we're saying different things?


  10. The Orange Mailman

    Same things. Only yours seemed to be a theological treatise. I felt it lacked a personal connection. So I put myself in the center of what you were saying. My own testimony, and I'm sure many others, can testify to the reality of this darkness without being able to explain theologically how it works.

    Have fun and keep thinking out loud - Psalm 116:10

    -The Orange Mailman

  11. amanda

    Where there is light shaddows are cast...darknes is always in the dark that is why it cant grasp the light...

  12. cyp

    If you translate the text as understand , it simply means that some people did not want to accept the light. The other meanning is "the light shinnes in the darkness, and the darkness has no power over it". The light in both cases is of course Christ, but in the second it states a couple of things:
    1.the darkness is seen as something that is not benign, but something you have to fight constantly against. A candel consumes itself while producing light, and in the end is extinquished by the lack of full.
    2.Unlike the candel light Christ is the true light that cannot be extinquished. The darkness of sins could not control Christ, and death and hell could not hold Him in their grasp. More than that he was able to release from the hold of hell many people. And so that we may believe in the truth of His conquest over death,sin and hell many saints were resurected when Christ died.
    3. Many said :if the light shines how come there is still darkness? Well, God does not force anyone to accept Him, He just calls us to come to His love. Our lives are just like when Peter saw Christ coming on the waters to them and said:"If you are Jesus then tell command me to come to you on the water!". Jesus simply replied:"Come!". As long as Peter looked only at the light, looked only at Christ he was able to walk on water,but when he looked away from the light he became afraid and started sinking. The most important part is though what happened after. He cried :"God help me, I have no power to resist anymore!". And Christ did not wait for a second cry but hurried to grab his hand and pull him up. That is what we must do when we feel swallowed by the seea of the world, by sins and darkness. Just ask for God's help. He will not refuse us if you are truthfull and if you trust in Him. The main reason Christ tells Peter:"Oh, you of little faith why have you doubted?" is to show us that no matter how desperate the situation may be , not to dispaire, but to trust God and ask for help. Because in another place it is said:"You (as humans) cannot do anything Me(without God's help)!But was is impossible for humans is not impossible for God!"
    And an apostle rightfully justifies this by saying that we not fight only with our own nature, but with the demons that exist all around us. And that without God we cannot ever win.

    May God help us all keep the light inside our souls, and never let the candle extinguis. And even if the light dies in us let us light it again as a vers tells us: No matter how many times you fall, rise again from your mistakes and seek forgiveness for God. He is alwasys there to help us stand up again.

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