The relationship that exists between the 3 Synoptics is helpful for understanding them contextually, politically and theologically. John, however, remains something of an enigma, as much for us today as it was for the original readers. And this being my second time working through this Gospel in the last 3 years, the sheer complexity of this book still manages to amaze me.
One of the questions I have been asking this time around is this. If I could narrow John’s Gospel down to one thing, one big idea, what would that be. And that one thing that I came away with was this:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
– John 1:5
What strikes me about this one big idea is how present this message really is. How timeless it feels. In a book that feels incredibly engaged with the activity of looking backwards, it is this single message that offers us the foundation in which to look forward out of our own places of darkness. The light shines now in the midst of our present circumstance, and the darkness, no matter how overwhelming it might feel in this present moment, has not overcome it. And how do we know this? How does John know this? And we can know this because this light, the true light that John says was given in order to “enlighten everyone” (1:8), existed before all things were made (1:3), even before John himself knew who or what the light was, and long before we could even consider the nature of this light in the midst of our own darkness.
And this single message rings clear in the midst of the passive voice that dominates the opening chapters of John’s Gospel.
“In the beginning”… all things “were” made through Him, and the life “was” the light of men. To which John centres our focus on the truth that there “was” a man sent from God (John) to help us know the light, for the law “was” given through Moses, but grace and truth “came” through Jesus, the one who “has” been (again, past tense) made known as the light that shines into our present circumstance. Jesus is then the one who forms and informs the “testimony of John” that sets up the rest of this book in 1:19. Or perhaps more to the point, forming and informing a key concern of John in defining the nature of exactly “who” this light is and “how” it is that He shines His light into the world, particularly into his own context and the persisting disagreements surrounding Jesus’ earthly existence and the truth of His divine nature that dominated the communities that made up Johns initial audience
And even though the author uses more figurative and symbolic language than the language that we find in the synoptics, the Gospel according to John is very clear about the who and the how of Jesus’ nature as the light. Packaged between the “sign” narratives, which are visually and imaginatively intended to “manifest His glory” or “exalt” Jesus above “all” things, John is quick to offer his hearers this unequivocal statement, words He expects and hopes can set these disagreements to rest:
“He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth belongs to the earth.”
– John 3:31
For John, the joy of his testimony is complete (3:29) only when the voice and ministry of Jesus becomes louder and more prominent than his own. And the way he imagines the voice of Jesus “increasing” in his own life is by engaging in the practice of looking backwards, of reflecting on and remembering the ways in which Jesus has been speaking into this world, our world, since the dawn of Creation. By remembering that He (the one who is the light) who comes after me (who is shaping the promise of my future) ranks before me because He “was” before me” (1:15). Thus for John, Jesus is above all things primarily because He is the source of all things, something only one who is from above can be. To which the word “all” that we encounter throughout these opening chapters intends to call each of us to the same practice and the same consideration.
Which brings me to three final take aways from all of this as I begin this next journey in the Gospel of John:
First, the Gospel of John is speaking to anyone familiar with the darkness, which John seems to suggest would be all of us.
Second, the Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John desires to breathe hope into the darkness and to give light into the places in which we are finding it hard to see.
Third, the way we allow Jesus to breath hope into our lives, the way we come to know and see Jesus more clearly, is through the practice of reflecting and remembering.
As I prepare myself to engage more fully with the “testimony of John”, the fruit of his own reflecting process, the challenge I find for myself is to continue my own path of remembering, a practice that motivated me to start this blog nearly 2 years ago. And as I remember, I also pray. I pray that the spirit that I encountered in these opening pages of John, the spirit that moved and gave voice to all of creation, will be the same spirit opens my eyes and my heart to new truths and new conviction, to greater “enlightenment” if you will, to borrow from the ESV translation. And may these truths and these convictions be not only the light to my darkness, but a light that I am able to share with the world around me as well.