Text: John 1:1-18
Christmas is a story of enlightenment. This concept presupposes a situation of darkness, a need for new light. The secular world is familiar with this idea, but its take on the story tends to be all about education. Much like Prometheus bringing down fire from the gods, they say that human race is slowly being elevated through the accumulation of knowledge. The darkness was ignorance, and the light is progress. There are some parallels with this and the Christian gospel, but on the basic level Christianity is something very different. It tells a story of an original light— righteousness and communion with God— which was lost through man’s sin, the misuse of his will. This original light is brought back, not by man or some intermediary between God and man, but by God himself, through the person of His divine Son, Jesus. We find out that Jesus’ light is not a new light at all, but rather the old light, the original light of God which made all things. And it is because Jesus is the light of creation that he can also be the light of recreation, which is what He has come to do. Salvation means that Jesus came to make us new.
Jesus is God Come into the World
John’s prologue is clear that Jesus is God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” In the Jewish mindset, there is no other creator than God. “The world was made through him.” Jesus is also said to be light, and not just any light, but the light that gives life to men. And Jesus doesn’t only give earthly life. He gives eternal life, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” He makes men, and then he makes men children of God.
It might be too obvious to say that, on Christmas, Jesus came into the world. But since John began by teaching us that Jesus is God, this means something profound. When Jesus came into the world, God came into the world. On Christmas we celebrate the incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (vs. 14). And this means that the creator came into His creation. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him” (vs. 10).
This is a favorite emphasis of Christian theology, the paradox of the God become man. St. Augustine put it this way:
He who before all ages and without a beginning… saw fit in these latter days to be the Son of man; and He, who was born of the Father but not made by the Father, was made in the mother whom He had made, that He might sometime be born here on earth of her who could never have been anywhere except through Him.
Writing much later, John Donne expressed the same sentiment. Describing the Virgin Mary, he said:
Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
This paradox truly is astounding. The Christian religion proclaims that God became man. Our creator came into this world as one of us. The Word became flesh.
Two Responses to His Coming
But John’s prologue adds one more thing all of this. He doesn’t stop at Christ’s coming into the world, but rather he goes on to speak of the two responses to that coming. These are reception and rejection. Though Jesus was light, he came into darkness. “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (vs. 5). The term “comprehend” can also mean “to overcome” and is sometimes translated that way, but at its most basic root it means “to lay hold of.” Verse 11 says, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” And so the point is rejection. The darkness did not lay hold of Jesus in faith. Instead, it attempted to lay hold of him in violence, as it eventually put him to death.
Thus the first response to Christ’s coming was actually rejection. His people denied Him, and the darkness fought against Him. As John puts it two chapters later, “This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). When goodness and light came into the midst of evil and darkness, the result was conflict, rejection, and the cross. We might say that Jesus shines light on the solution, salvation from sin, but he also shines light on the problem, which is that we are sinners! And this part of the Christmas message, the problem, is a far less popular part of the message.
But, importantly, rejection was not the only response to Christmas. There were those who did receive Him. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (vs. 12). Here the opposite action is taking place. Instead of “not comprehending” or “not receiving,” these people are said to have received Jesus. They were those who “believed in His name.” And those who believed in the name of the Word of God were then able to see God. “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (vs. 14). “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (vs. 18). Faith in Jesus gives a revelation of God.
The New Birth
So we can see the two responses. The first is rejection and disbelief. The second is reception and faith. Those who were evil rejected Christ, but those who believed saw God in Him. The obvious and pressing question then is this— What accounts for the difference in reception? Why do some people reject Jesus and others believe in him?
We might be tempted to answer simply that the difference is ethical. The good people receive Christ, because they are good, those who are evil reject Him, because they are evil. This is a rather simple and instinctive answer, but the problem is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The Bible is clear that on the deepest level, all men are sinners. While there is a difference between the externally good and the externally evil, we are all, when forced to face the reality of our true selves, evil in our hearts. If freed from all constraints, we would always choose selfishness over charity, personal gain over grace, and self-worship over devotion to God.
You may be thinking of various exceptions to this statement, that perhaps I have put it too starkly. And I grant you that we almost never act consistently with our basest desires. We are always conflicted, bearing that original image of God with its abiding memory of righteousness. Our consciences keep us in line. But the Bible gets down to the bottom line when it puts it this way:
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
And so the difference between rejecting Christ and receiving Him cannot be located in human morality. Every person who believes in Jesus was, at first, a sinner with a hard heart opposed to him. In fact, Christ’s “own,” to whom He came, are also called “the darkness.” Christ came for sinners, and it was sinners that He found when He came!
The difference is somewhere else, and we find it in John 1:13. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” This is the teaching of the new birth. It is only those who are born again who believe in the name of Christ. Only they who are born of God can die to their sins, because, through the power of the Spirit of God, they are resurrected to new life.
This means that Christmas must lead us to Easter. The darkness could not overcome the light, and Jesus rose from the dead bringing eternal light once and for all. Therefore we must die to ourselves and be born again in Christ. This is the message Jesus teaches Nicodemus and it is the message he gives us. We love the idea of light coming into the darkness, but do we believe that we are the darkness? No, we cannot believe that until the Light changes us, and when the Light changes us, he also brings us from darkness to Light.
Christmas is a time to celebrate the light of God breaking into the world. But it must also be a time when the light of God breaks into our hearts. Jesus must light the darkness, but He must also light our darkness so that we may behold the glory of God. Trust in Him and believe in His name, so that you may be given the right to become children of God.
Let us pray. Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; And Grant that the same light poured upon us in Thine Incarnate Word may be enkindled in our hearts and shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.