John 1:4 reads, “In him [that is, in the Word—in Jesus Christ the creator of the universe, who was with God and was God—in him] was life.” In him was life. Therefore, in the beginning, before there was anything else but God, there was life. This has two huge implications.
Ultimate Reality Is Personal
First, ultimate reality is living. Ultimate reality is alive. Original reality, ultimate reality, absolute reality is a living person. How can I help you see and feel the wonder of this?
If your child—say, four or five years old—asks, “Where did God come from?” you will answer, perhaps, “God didn’t come from anywhere. He was always there. He never had a beginning. He was there before anything else was there. He made everything else. There wasn’t anything before God.”
Then your child will ask, “But how did he get to be the way he is?” And you will say, “He just is the way he is. He didn’t get to be that way. He’s always been what he is. Nobody made him the way he is. No force or power made him what he is. He has been what he is forever and ever and ever and ever. He just is. That’s what it means to be God.”
And one of the things God is is Life. He is alive. He is a living person. Not a human person. But a divine person. Alive—doing something like thinking and feeling for all eternity. As far back as you can go in eternity, forever and ever and ever and ever, there is one changeless reality—life. Divine, personal life. Ultimate reality, absolute reality, original reality is alive. In him was life.
Life Gave Rise to Matter
The another implication is that physical matter did not give rise to life. Life gave rise to matter. Once there was only life and no matter. Then that personal life created matter, and there was both life and matter.
Here is the great division between the atheistic worldview and the Christian worldview: For the atheists, everything begins with inanimate matter and energy. It’s just there. Since there was nothing there before to make it what it is, it could have been anything. It could have been Life. But atheists choose to believe that in the beginning was matter and energy. They don’t know this. They guess. They say that impersonal matter and impersonal energy are original. They are absolute. They are ultimate.
Then for billions of years, with no creator, no intelligence, no design, no purpose, no plan, there emerges from mindless, lifeless, random matter and energy not only the irreducible complexities of interdependent biological structures, but also this glorious thing called living personhood. That’s their account of life.
No “Ordinary” Humans
For Christians, it’s the other way around: First there was life, then there was physical matter and energy. First, there was living personhood. Then there was matter and energy. In the beginning was the Word, and in him was life.
Wherever you turn on this planet and see a living person, you are seeing an image of absolute reality, ultimate reality, original reality—the Word, who was with God and was God, and was Life. You have never met an ordinary human being. There are none. They are all extraordinary. They are all amazing.
And they are all dead.
What John Means: Spiritual Life
Which is why everything we have said so far is not John’s main point when he writes in verse 4: “In him was life.” The life John has in view mainly is new life, spiritual life, saving life, the gift of eternal life, the opposite of spiritual death now and final condemnation later. That’s mainly what John means. The other is true (see John 5:26). But mainly he has in view the life that we do not have even though we are physically alive.
Listen to John 5:24. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). In other words, apart from believing in Jesus, we are all dead. In order to live forever and not “come into judgment,” we need the gift of life. That life is in Jesus.
Union with Jesus Is Everything
Here’s 1 John 5:11–12: “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” In him was life. So if you have him, you have life. If you reject him, you reject life. John 5:40: “You refuse to come to me that you may have life.” John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:28: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
So I think it is clear that when John says in John 1:4, “In him was life,” he means spiritual life, eternal life, life that saves from judgment. If you have the Son, if you have Jesus—if he is in you and you are in him—life is in you, and you are in life. You have life forever. Vital union with Jesus is everything.
“Seeing They Do Not See”
But why does John say in John 1:4, “The life was the light of men”? Because we don’t really know what spiritual death and life are until we relate them to light and darkness and blindness.
Most of the people you see at the mall or at work look alive. If you tell them they are dead, they will think you’ve lost your mind. But if you substitute spiritual blindness and darkness for deadness, then you start to see what John means. People aren’t dead because they can’t walk or talk or think or feel or even see with physical eyes. They are dead because “seeing they do not see” (Matthew 13:13).
New Life Brings Light
They don’t see Jesus as supremely valuable. They don’t see his sacrifice as precious. They don’t see his fellowship as their greatest treasure. They are blind to these things. They walk in darkness. They are spiritually dead to these greatest of all realities. If they are going to see these things and receive them, they must have life. Life will make seeing possible.
So John says in verse 4, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” New life brings light. New life makes seeing possible. When death is replaced with life, darkness is replaced with light. In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” That’s what we are talking about: the light of life—the light that comes with new life. When you receive Jesus, you receive life. And when you receive life, you receive light. We will come back in a moment to the question Are these sequential or simultaneous?
The Darkness Did Not Grasp the Light
Now we come to verse 5. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John is talking about the coming of Jesus into this world. That will be plain in verses 10–11. And coming into this world of ours is coming into darkness. We are all dead and blind. That’s the condition of the entire world of mankind. Until we have Christ, we have not passed from death to life (John 5:24).
So Jesus comes into this darkness as the light of the world. The light of life has come into the world. And John says, “The darkness has not overcome it.” That’s the ESV. The NIV, NASB, and KJV all translate “overcome” differently, namely, “comprehend” or “understand.” “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” Just like our English word grasp can have these two meanings, so can the Greek word here (katalambano). The darkness did not grasp the light, that is, snatch it and remove it (see John 12:35). And the darkness did not grasp the light, that is, understand it. John may well have meant both.
The Only Remedy
But verses 10–11 show us where the focus really is when Jesus comes into the darkened world. Verse 10: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him”—I think that corresponds with verse 5, “the darkness has not understood it.” Verse 11: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
So the true light is coming into the world—the world that he made and the people that he chose. I suspect John has in view here the whole world of human beings and the people of Israel in particular. The world belongs to Jesus. He made it. Israel belongs doubly to Jesus. He made them and chose them in the call of Abraham. When verse 9 says that this light coming into the world “enlightens everyone,” I think it means, that Christ’s light-giving life is offered to all as the only remedy. It’s the same as if a doctor said, “This flu vaccine works for every one.” We would know he means everyone who takes it. So in verse 9, “the true light enlightens everyone”—that is everyone who receives it.
How Does the Light Triumph?
Which brings us then to the question: What does God do to keep the darkness from overcoming the light? How does the light triumph in a world where everyone is dead and blind?
Verses 12–13 give the answer: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” He came to the world, he came to his own, and they did not receive him. They were dead and blind to who he was. But some received him. Some believed. Who?
The New Birth
The ones who were “born of God.” Not of blood. Not of the will of the flesh. Not of the will of man. But of God. And when they were born, they were alive. They received life. They believed. They received him. And they became children of God.
God’s answer to the deadness and blindness and darkness of the world is the new birth. Do you remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3—“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”? You can’t see it. And so you can’t receive it. And so you can’t enter it. Everything hangs on being born again. Because without this, we are dead and blind. God’s remedy? Send Jesus into the world as the light of life to lay down his life for us (John 10:15; 15:13), and then cause people to be born again so they can see him and receive him.
Seeing Happens Instantly
Now if we return to the question of temporal sequence that I raised earlier, what’s the answer? There’s new birth and life. There’s new sight. There’s new faith or receiving Jesus. Are these sequential in time? I don’t think so. If my eyes are closed, as in death and blindness, then suddenly my eyes are opened, seeing happens instantly. Receiving light happens simultaneously with the opening. There’s no lapse of time between the eye being opened and the light coming in. The meaning of the eye being opened is that light comes in. They are simultaneous.
That’s the way the new birth works. It imparts life. And the meaning of that life is that it sees. But be careful. Verse 4 says, “In him is life.” Life is never disconnected from Christ. Whoever has the Son has life (1 John 5:11). How do we have the Son? We “receive him.” Verse 12: “But to all who did receive him . . .” That is, we believe on him: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name . . .”
Three Simultaneous Events
So now we have three events that happen at the same time: new birth, new sight, new faith. In a sense, they are all talking about the same thing from different sides. So here is how you became a child of God (or may become one): We were dead and blind. As far as we were concerned, Christ was boring, unattractive, or just a good man; but he was not the light of life, not our Savior or Treasure. We were blind and dead to all this.
Then God sovereignly and graciously caused us to be born again. That is, he gave us life. But verse 4 says that life is in his Son. So the way God gave us life was by uniting us to Christ. There is no saving life apart from Christ. So in the new birth, God unites us to Christ who is our life.
Now that’s all beneath our consciousness. The way we experience this event is that in the very act of coming alive, our eyes are opened, we see Christ for who he really is, and we receive him consciously. His glory streams into our hearts. We call this faith. From another side, we call it new birth. From another, we call it seeing with new eyes. And from another, we call it union with Christ. Now we have life—eternal life. There are no time gaps in all of this. Opening our spiritual eyes, seeing the glory of Christ, and receiving him—these all happen simultaneously.
Look to the Lamb
The reason this is important is this: It teaches us that when Jesus commands us to believe on him for eternal life (John 3:15–16, 36; 11:25), we don’t wait for a separate experience called the new birth before we believe, and we don’t rush ahead to believe as though we could do it without the new birth. Instead, we look steadfastly at Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36) who laid down his life for us (John 10:15); and we realize that the willingness to receive him rising in our hearts is a gift of God, and we believe, and in that very believing are born again.
And if you are wondering why I skipped verse 6–8 about John the Baptist, and why those verses are there, there is a reason. We will take it up next time. But for now, focus on this: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Only in Jesus is there eternal life. Because only through him can our deadness be replaced with life and our blindness be replaced with light. Come to him. Believe on him. Receive him. And he will be your life—your everlasting joy.