Preaching Date: December 8, 2002
Key Sentence: No one can afford to ignore the light that came at Christmas.
I. The Witness to the Light (John 1:6-8)
II. The Light Sent and Rejected (John 1:9-11)
III. The Light Received and Believed (John 1:12-13)
What book, beside the Bible, would you take with you to a desert island? For many years Ive answered that question with The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, two novels of World War II by Herman Wouk. They do a better job at conveying the history of that global catastrophe than any history book Ive read. One of the things Wouk writes about, of course, is the Holocaust, the systematic genocide of the Jews by Hitlers Nazis. Wouk has one insight into this subject that amazes me every time I read the books. Its what he calls the will not to believe or the will to disbelieve. By this he means that even when faced with overwhelming, eye-witness evidence, many will still deny a truth that embarrasses or convicts them.
The Germans made only modest attempts to hide the holocaust. Hitler had written in Mein Kampf that the Jews needed to be wiped out, at least in Europe. He had passed law after law restricting the rights of the Jews to own property and have jobs. After the conquest of Poland he had openly herded the Polish Jews into ghettos to serve as slave labor. Then he had begun shipping them to the East for special handling. Contrary to what you might think, even the death camps at Auchwitz and Treblinka and other places were not particularly secret. Many Jews had escaped from these places with tales of genocide. Some even had photographic evidence of mass graves and machine guns, of death chambers and crematoriums. But the will not to believe was strong. Most people could not conceive of senseless murder on such a scale. The Allies at first dismissed these accounts as British or Jewish propaganda. Then they took the attitude that there was nothing they could do to help but win the war.
Toward the end of the war, when the death camps were being exposed, the response of the Germans who lived in nearby villages and towns was the same. All of them swore that despite the trains rolling in full day and night, then rolling out empty, despite the sickening smell of the columns of smoke, despite the abundant rumors, they didnt know what was going on in there. They had the will to disbelieve.
Sometimes human nature will deny all evidence and every witness to hang on to a cherished misconception or falsehood. That has often been true, as in the case of the Holocaust, when the human mind is confronted with evil beyond imagining. Unfortunately, for many it has also been true when confronted with truth that would have done them great good, even truth that would have set them free. God has often given overwhelming evidence of his love and had men ignore and reject it. In the ultimate case, God sent his own Son into the world to be its light and its salvation, and most men rejected him. God provided spectacular evidence and many witnesses to show that this light was the life of men, yet many walked away from the light to remain in darkness. But no one can afford to ignore the light that came at Christmas
Last week we saw that Word existed with God before all time. He was the co-laborer with God in creating all things, and the one who brought the world life and light. Today we will see that out of his great desire that men and women and children come to the light, God also sent witnesses to the light, to testify that it was the true light. Yet even then there are some with a will to disbelieve so strong that they are not willing to receive the light, even for the sake of becoming children of God. But given the benefit of belief, no one can afford to ignore the light that came at Christmas.
I. The Witness to the Light (John 1:6-8)
John 1:6-8 tells us that God sent a witness to the light. John 1:6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
This is the first of two brief narrative sections in Johns prologue. They remind the reader that the author is not concerned only with timeless truths, but also with how these truths are anchored in human history. In all the Gospels the record of Jesus public ministry is introduced by the ministry of John the Baptist. In the Gospel of Luke, for example, even the Christmas narratives include not one baby, but two. Jesus was born to Mary six months after a baby was born to her cousin Elizabeth - that baby was John the Baptist. His father, Zechariah told him at birth that You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him. John was the forerunner, the last Old Testament prophet, the one who pointed at Jesus and called him The lamb of God.
In this Gospel John is never identified as the Baptist. Our author distinguishes other figures who have the same name, but he doesnt need to identify John as the Baptist because he never mentions the only other John in Jesus circle, John the son of Zebedee, the brother of James. The traditional explanation for this silence is still the best: John was the author of this Gospel, and preferred not to mention himself.
The John he does mention, John the Baptist, was sent from God to bear witness to the light. He gave testimony, as if in a courtroom, to the truth about Jesus. Witness is another of the key words in this Gospel. There are a total of eight witnesses in John to the unique person and work of Jesus. Let me run through them quickly: they show the lengths God went to in trying to counter the will to disbelieve.
The first witness to Jesus is John the Baptist, who came to testify concerning the light, so that all men might believe. We see his witness in chapter 1, where he calls Jesus the Lamb of God, baptizes him and points his disciples to him. We see it in chapter 3, where he tells the people that he must decrease, and Jesus must increase; in chapter 5, where Jesus says John testified of me. and in chapter 10 where the people recognize that everything John said about Jesus was true. If Jesus was on trial in mens hearts and minds, John was a character witness on his behalf.
But John was by no means the only witness. The next one we notice is God the Father himself. Jesus says in John 5:37 The Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. This testimony or witness is often inward, a conviction in the hearts of men that Jesus was truly from God. Barclay says The power that always brings our eyes back to Christ, the inner voice which tells us that this Jesus is none other than the Savior of the world is the witness of God within our souls. But God also gave an outward public witness to Jesus. For example he spoke at Jesus baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration saying This is my beloved Son.
The Son also testifies to himself. John 8:18 I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me. What did Jesus say about himself? That he was the light, and the way, and the truth and the resurrection, and the life. He claimed to be the Son of God and one with the Father. If his life and character hadnt backed up those claims, if he hadnt displayed a shockingly new kind of life, his words would have been dismissed or he would have been branded a madman. But there was something about Jesus that bore witness that his claims were true.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all witness that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus says of the Spirit: He will bear witness of me, John 15:26. In the days after Pentecost the Spirit got to work in the hearts of men, bringing conviction, and enabling men to recognize the truth about Jesus when they heard it. That work continues today.
Most often the Spirit works in the hearts of men and women through the next witness, the witness of Scripture. In John 5:39 Jesus says You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me. All through the history of Israel men had longed for the day when Gods Messiah would come. The prophets had pictured him and described him in many ways. In Jesus, all these prophecies and longings were fulfilled, so that you and I have a record not only of the promises but of Jesus great fulfillment.
We have a record of what he did and who he touched. His works testified to who he was. In John 5:36 Jesus says The testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works that I do testify about Me. We shouldnt limit these works to simply his miracles. His master work was the life he lived, and that spoke volumes about who he was, and about his relationship to the Father. His works of love, compassion, forgiveness, service and caring showed that he was in God and God in Him.
Those who saw this became additional witnesses. The classic case is the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4. Jesus simply talks with her and offers her the water of life. Later she goes and talks with the people of the town, and John reports that Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony. People who encounter Jesus testify to what he has done for their souls.
Finally, there is the witness of the disciples themselves, and among them the author of this book. Jesus told the disciples that they would bear witness, because they had been with him from the beginning. At the end of this Gospel the author says that he has written these things that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. The whole purpose of this Gospel is to be a testimony to who Jesus is, what he has done and what he offers.
II. The Light Sent and Rejected (John 1:9-11)
So John the Baptist was sent to be a witness to the light, the first of many. But how do people react to his testimony? How do people react to Jesus? The prologue to John briefs us in on the fact that many will not receive the light. John 1:9-11 9The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
John has already established in verse 5 that the Word was life, the light of men that shines in the darkness. Now he says again that this light comes into the world to shine among men. By this he means, simply that Jesus was coming, and in fact had already come. He calls Jesus the true light or the genuine light, and he uses the same adjective later to describe Jesus as the genuine bread from heaven and genuine vine. Others may come and claim to be the light, the bread, the vine, but Johns purpose is to show us the real thing, the genuine article - Jesus.
This true light has come to the world. This is the Greek word kosmos, which we think of as the physical universe. But in Scripture, especially John, kosmos is associated with the world of men God created and which has fallen. Only a few of Johns fifty-seven uses of this word are neutral rather than negative. At the end of the Gospel the world in one usage is simply a big place that can hold a lot of books. But more often there is an implication that the world is not a good place. The world is a place in trouble, and Jesus is sent to be the rescuer. When John tells us that God loves the world in John 3:16, this is not an endorsement of the world but testimony to Gods love, admirable not because the world is so big but because the world is so bad.
This true light, John says, comes into a world that desperately needs him to give light to every man. Unitarians and Universalists use this to prove that everyone will be saved by the light that they have, some kind of inward light. But that ignores the next verse which says that some rejected the light. John is not talking here about any kind of inward revelation, though he does occasionally use light that way. Instead he is talking about the objective and recorded and historical revelation of Jesus. The truth of his incarnation shines on every man and divides the race: those who hate the light respond according to verses 10 and 11, those who receive the light according to verses 12 and 13. No one can really ignore the light of Jesus. The light shines on everyone and forces a distinction and a decision.
Verse 9 says that the light was coming into the world, but in verse 10 the tense changes and we find that he was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not receive him. The world reject the arrival of its king. One of my favorite childrens stories is called The King at the Door. The king shows up a roadside inn, but the inn-keeper and the others wont believe he is the king. Only a little boy believes - and at the storys end only the little boy goes to the palace. This is how it was for Jesus - he was not only the sovereign over this world but the creator of this world and yet when he came to the world no one, or at least very few, recognized him for who he really was. The word recognize means to know. They didnt know him, in the sense Scripture uses that term, where knowledge is a personal knowledge created by a personal relationship.
Verse 11 amplifies this: He came to his own place and those who were his own people did not receive him. A commentator I read said this is the saddest verse in Scripture. The Word came in personal self-disclosure to his own home and his own people and they rejected him. Of course, since the Word created everyone, there is a sense in which all people are his own people. But in light of the rest of the Gospel, the people mentioned here are probably the Jewish people, Jesus physical ancestors. Christmas didnt happen in Rome or in Greece or in Egypt or in England, but in Palestine, in the land of Israel and among the people God had chosen. It was to the people of Israel God had revealed himself as the creator, the one true God, the compassionate one who is also passionate about his holiness. He calls them his own people, his possession, his bride, his portion. So when Jesus came he ought to have been welcomed with open arms as the fulfillment of Gods promises; the door should have been wide open to him. Instead he was welcomed with hate, rejection and murder. The people should have believed - but the will to disbelieve is strong.
This tragedy is not limited to the people of Israel, is it? There have been countless people through the centuries, and there are countless people today who have had the opportunity to welcome and receive Jesus, to believe in Him, and have not done so. People have grown up in churches and yet rejected the Good News they have heard from birth. People in some extremity of their lives have been offered rescue through Jesus, but have scorned that offer. People have been so wrapped up in the world that the light of Jesus has been ignored in the pursuit of other goals or other pleasures. The tragedy of Jesus extending his hand to people prepared to receive him and being rejected is unfortunately, timeless. Some of you here have seen the light and turned away to play in the dark. Hes come and youve not received him.
III. The Light Received and Believed (John 1:12-13)
Verses 10 and 11 would be grim indeed if verses 12 and 13 didnt immediately soften the sweeping rejection of the Word by indicating that, as in Old Testament times, there remains a believing remnant. John 1:12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- 13children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.
The Good News of this Gospel, the good news of Christmas, and the testimony of every witness to Jesus, is that those who receive him by believing in his name become children of God. The key word is believe. Believing in Jesus is how John talks about salvation, and it is the overwhelming theme of John. The Greek word pisteuo is used eighty five times in John, more than any of the other theme words we have noticed in the last two weeks. Lets look forward real quickly to a few of the key uses of this word: John 3:16 - the most famous verse in the Bible. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 5:24 I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. John 11:25 Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. John 12:46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. John 20:31 gives us the purpose of this Gospel: These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. No wonder a recent commentary called John the gospel of belief. The will to disbelieve is strong, but the call of the Gospel is to believe.
But what does it mean to believe in his name? Certainly it means more than just believing that there was somebody named Jesus. Biblically a name is more than a label: it indicates the character of the person named; it indicates the person himself. For instance, in Psalm 9:10 the psalmist says Those who know Your name will put their trust in You, O Lord. Clearly this does not mean that those who know God is called Yahweh will trust him; it means that those who know Gods character and Gods nature will be ready to trust him for everything. And those who have seen Jesus know what God is like - putting your trust in the name of Jesus is the same as putting your trust in God. If I believe what Jesus said, believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead, then I believe in his name, and I have the privilege of becoming a child of God.
The core issue is believing. In the Gospel of John everything else is just explanation of that core issue. Here we are told that we receive Jesus by believing in Jesus. Receiving is not the central metaphor for salvation - it is only used once. But receiving Christ or welcoming Christ is a good picture of faith. The candy cane thing I did at childrens corner shows that the gift of salvation, the gift of becoming children of God must be received. God will not force it on you - you must reach out for it.
To the people who received him by believing, the Word gave the right, the privilege of becoming children of God. In John the believer becomes a child of God, but only Jesus is the Son of God. John makes a clear distinction between what Christ is and what we become in Christ. Still, its an incredible privilege that by faith we become part of the family that includes God as Father and Christ as his Son and our brother.
We are adopted into Gods family, and John will tell us that this means we have forgiveness, eternal life and freedom. We have the authority of privileged children. We bear the family name and hopefully we wear the family resemblance. The story is often told of a time shortly after the Civil War when a confederate soldier who had lost all his property sat in despair outside the White House. A young boy came along and the soldier told him how he had tried repeatedly to get into the White House to appeal to President Lincoln. The young boy, who turned out to be Tad Lincoln lead him boldly past the guards and right into his fathers office, where the soldier made his appeal. Now normally that story is told to show how Jesus the Son brings us before the Father as we pray. But I think it also illustrates the right and privilege we have as sons and daughters of God to go boldly into our Fathers throne room because, through Jesus, we have been made his children.
We become children of God by faith. It is not by works or merit, it is by faith and by the grace of God alone that we become what we are in Christ. John says this in his own particular way in verse 13 when he says that we are not born of natural descent or of human decision or of a husbands will, but born of God. This is another theme well see later in the Gospel - in chapter 3 when Jesus talks to Nicodemus and says you must be born again through the Holy Spirit, and in chapter 8 where Jesus teaches that physical descent from Abraham means nothing. Spiritual birth, unlike physical birth, is never the result of human choices and human actions. Faith is a gift from God and new birth, spiritual rebirth is something only God can do.
So what have we said? That the true light came into the world at Christmas, and witness after witness, beginning with John the Baptist, testified that he was the way, the truth and the life. But when this light came to the people God had made his own treasured possession, they rejected him, they would not receive him. The will to disbelieve was strong. Nevertheless, some did receive him by believing on his name, and they became his people, children of God not by descent but by grace.
The million dollar question, of course, is what group are you in? There are still those who see the light that is born at Christmas, who hear the message of salvation through faith and who reject it, whose will to disbelieve is strong, despite all this evidence. There are some who dont feel the need, dont feel the weight of their sin, arent burdened by their separation from God. Or maybe they once felt these things in some degree, but they have anaesthetized themselves to it by pursuing pleasure or by trying to live like good people, or by belittling those who do believe, or by convincing themselves that they really are believers because they like believers and hang around with believers. All of these alternatives are simply a cover up for the rejection of the light, because becoming a child of God only happens by personal faith in Jesus Christ. It happens to those who receive him, to those who believe in his name. You cant afford to ignore the true light that came at Christmas.