Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 4
Dr. Allen Mawhinney is professor of New Testament at the RTS campus in Orlando. Mawhinney received B.D. and Th.M. degrees from Westminster Seminary and a Ph.D. from Baylor University. A former pastor and college professor, he has also served as academic dean of Westminster Seminary in California and on the board of Covenant College.
How can you possibly introduce the story of Jesus? Imagine John the Apostle. There he is in front of his word processor, and his printer has just finished printing out all his gospel. All the gospel that is, except for the introduction (John 1:1-18). How do you introduce one of the masterpieces of the world of literature? How do you succinctly grab peoples’ attention so they just won’t be able to put this book down?
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John wrote the most marvelous introduction imaginable, summing up in eighteen verses the good news about Jesus. Short, powerful, to the point; and yet intriguing, leaving just enough unanswered questions to draw the reader on into the story itself.
And what the prologue (1:1-18) does, the first paragraph (1:1-5) does in miniature. “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Divine Word (whom we later find out is Jesus himself, 1:14) has come into the world that he made (1:3). His light is shining in this dark world and the darkness did not put out the light (1:5).
Why did the Holy Spirit move John to introduce the gospel with these words? Because they are at the heart of the Christmas message. They are that flaming brand which is at the center of the raging fire of the gospel. They are the foundation of the Christian’s hope. Listen again to the climax – the punchline of that first paragraph of John’s introduction. “The Light is shining in the darkness and the darkness did not put it out.”
Although some modern versions have followed the old King James Version (“comprehended it not”), a better understanding is given when the last clause is translated “did not overcome it,” “did not put it out,” or “did not extinguish it.” The Greek word which John used is something like our English word “grasp.” Sometimes it means to grasp something mentally. (“Oh, now I grasp what you’re saying.”) Other times it means to grasp something physically. (“Grasp the pencil firmly in your hand.”) Sometimes it can even mean to grasp physically with great force, “to seize”, “to overtake,” or “to overpower.” This is the way John uses it in verse five.
Nowhere in his gospel does John paint for us a picture of the darkness trying “to understand” the light. The powers of darkness, the wicked forces of Satan, those evil doers who are blind leaders of the blind, never really try to learn from Jesus. Darkness and light are enemies; they can’t coexist. When the light comes, the darkness will either disappear or put it out. There is no compromise. Jesus is the Light of the World and the men or women who follow the Light of the World will not ever walk in darkness. In complete contrast to the darkness of this world, they will have the light of life (8:12).
In fact, that is the purpose of Christmas, the reason that Jesus came into the world: that the one who believes in Him might not continue to live in darkness (12:46). Jesus knew that He was engaged in a great battle with the powers of darkness, but sometimes His disciples didn’t seem to be as tuned in to that fact as Jesus wanted them to be. On those occasions He had to warn them about the threat of darkness; once He used the same word as in John 1:5. “The Light will be among you for a little longer. Walk as you have the Light, in order that the darkness may not overtake you”. (12:38) In order that the darkness may not seize you! In order that the darkness may not overcome you!
Jesus doesn’t talk about the darkness trying to understand Him and his ministry. From beginning to end the darkness is determined to extinguish the Light of the World. It is this same picture of conflict which the Holy Spirit moved John to use in the fifth verse of the gospel to introduce this book of good news about Jesus. “The Light is shining in the darkness and the darkness did not put it out.”
Notice carefully, however, John did not just say, “The Light is shining in the darkness and the Light and darkness are in violent conflict.” Of course, that is true; and it is a part of John’s message. But John goes much further. He doesn’t just tell us about a conflict. He tells about a conquest! The gospel he is introducing is not a story about victims. It is the story of a Victor!
John wrote his gospel late in the first century (possibly as late as A.D. 90). He had been preaching, teaching, evangelizing, and counseling for 50 or 60 years since Jesus’ death and resurrection. How many times had he seen the lame leap, healed in the name of Jesus Christ (as he had according to Acts 3:1-8)? How many times had he heard the praises of God filling the air as people rejoiced in victory (Acts 3:9)? How many times in 50 years had John defied the powers of darkness and boldly proclaimed the good news about Jesus (Acts 4:19, 20)?
John had seen the crowds surround Jesus. He had seen the transfiguration of the Lord of glory. He had leaned back on Jesus as they reclined at the Last Supper (John 21:20). Did he feel our Savior’s physical reaction as Jesus let the traitor Judas know that he was aware that the most diabolical plot in history had been put in motion? John had a front row seat at the table, in the garden of Gethsemene, and at the cross. He saw Satan’s power unleashed in all its fury. He saw the darkness of Judas’ personal treachery. He learned the ease with which he himself failed to watch in prayer (Mark 14:32-42) and the ease with which he like all others left Jesus standing alone (Mark 14:50). It was probably John (the unnamed, beloved disciple) who gained access to the court of the high priest and saw the righteous Judge subjected to a mockery of justice. The Prince of Darkness was taking no chances that this righteous man might be set free, and John saw it all.
John saw the apparent victory of the Satanic host at the crucifixion. Had the Light of the World been extinguished? Darkness covered the land (Matt. 27:45). Oh how the tunnels of hell must have echoed with shouts of glee!
But the joy of those shouts was short lived. The sunrise of Easter morning did not just dispel the darkness of the Palestinian night. The Rising Son of Easter drove back the shadows of sin and death and hell and Satan himself. The Light had not been extinguished!
Soon John was to see the raging fire of the gospel begin its supernatural spread across the Mediterranean World. Beginning in that small dusty corner of the Roman Empire the light was carried (or maybe better, the Light carried its bearers) into Antioch and Crete, then into Asia Minor, next into Macedonia, Greece, Italy, Gaul and Spain! And on the southern coast the brilliant rays of the gospel spread to Egypt and across North Africa!
Everywhere the Light began to shine, the darkness was driven away. In his first epistle John wrote, “I am writing to you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” (1 Jn. 2:8). The same John recorded for us his vision of the glorified victorious Son of Man whose “face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance” who stands in the middle of his church protecting and guiding it (Revelation 1:12-18, especially verse 16).
It is thrilling to read Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians and other books of the New Testament which were written in the heat of the earliest expansion of the gospel. In some senses, however, it is an even greater thrill to read the writings of John, written closer to the end of the first century. John had seen it all. He had been a part of it. The beloved disciple had preached the message for years. Then, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God, he was led to put it down on paper.
What is the message of the gospel? What is the Christmas message of which the bright star guiding the Magi was only a foretaste? In a nutshell, the story of the Gospel, the story of Jesus, is that, “The Light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not put it out.” The devil tried his best, but he failed and his darkness is passing away. And now instead of the Light slowly flickering and burning out, it has grown into a raging fire which will never die until it becomes a part of that glorious kingdom of the new heavens and the new earth which has no need for a sun or moon to shine, because “the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Revelation 21:23). Praise God! The Light is shining!