Previously we saw Jesus described as the eternal Word, the very message of God. In Jesus is life and that life is the light for all people. John came as a witness to the light and we noted the shocking nature of needing someone to witness to the light. The only people who need a witness to the light are the blind, those who cannot see. The world cannot see and John was appointed by God to be a witness to the light. John was not the light, but came as a witness so that all could believe in Jesus through John’s testimony.
The True Light (1:9)
Jesus is the true light. Jesus was already called the light back in verse 5. However, the author wants to emphasize that Jesus is the genuine light. The word translated “true” is used 28 times in the New Testament, 23 of those times occur in this gospel. The word refers to what is real and genuine. The author is implying a contrast between what is falsely described or falsely offered as the light. There are many things that are portrayed to the world as light, that is, the thing that will bring enlightenment, deliverance, freedom, or release. Philosophy has been touted to be the light. Various religions and teachings have tried to claim to be the light. Opinions are not the light. Our thoughts are not the light. Our words are not the light. There were many false Messiahs through the centuries claiming to be the light. There are so many claims to giving light to the soul, but Jesus is the true light.
He is the true light that enlightens every person. Everyone has opportunity to be enlightened by the light. The light did not shine to just a few. The light shined to the whole world. The light is not limited. This is true about light. It is not possible to turn on the light in this room just for me and it not shine for you also. Listen to the words of Isaiah as the servant recounts what the Lord told him:
And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:5–6 ESV) Jesus is this light. He is the true light to restore Israel and act as a beacon to the nations so that the salvation of the Lord may reach the ends of the earth. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Messianic expectation of “the coming one.” He is the one who was coming into the world.
Rejection of the Light (1:10-11)
Jesus was the light and he was living in the world. He was living in the world that he created among the people he made. Remember that there was not anything made that was made (1:3). He was in the world he created but the world did not know him. What irony! What sorrow! How could this be? Verse 10 announces the tragedy of the human situation. He came to his own creation. They should have known him! He came to his own people, but they did not receive him. He came to the very people who God adopted as his own possession, the Jewish people, but they did not recognize him, know him, or receive him. This was the message of the apostles throughout their ministry, as seen in the very first recorded sermon.
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22–23 ESV) Israel rejected its Messiah. Israel rejected the light. Israel rejected its Maker. He came to his own and his own did not receive him.
Receiving the Light (1:12-13)
But it the midst of this sorrowful, condemning statement which leads one to think that all hope is lost, there is yet a glimmer of hope offered. Not everyone rejected the light. Some went against the trend of rejection by receiving him. Verse 12 begins, “But to all who did receive him.” The world’s hatred of God and rejection of Christ cannot overrule or thwart God’s plan. Some will receive him. Sometimes we ask the question why God would create humans knowing that they would reject him and sin. Perhaps this is part of the answer. God knew that after sending his Son to redeem us from sin that some would receive him. John explains what it means to receive him. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name…” Believing in his name is what it means to receive him. As we study through this gospel it will become apparent that believing does not mean some sort of intellectual acknowledgement of his claims. Receiving Jesus means that he is the ground of our salvation. Jesus is the foundation of our hope. It is his righteousness, his perfection, and his love that is credited toward us before the Father. Consider the contrasting statements in this paragraph. His own did not receive him. What did they do? They did not accept him as the means of access to the Father. They did not believe that through him was light and life. They did not surrender their lives to follow him. Those who did receive did accept him as the means of access to the Father. They do believe that through Jesus is light and life. They did surrender their lives to follow Jesus because they accepted him as the Savior and put their hope and trust in him.
Notice what amazing event happens. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” This is fascinating! The end of the story is not tragic rejection, but the grace of acceptance. To those who believe Jesus gave the right to become children of God. The word “right” can also be understood as “freedom” or “authority.” They were given the freedom or the authority to become God’s children. Divine authorization is given to them to become what no human effort could accomplish: becoming God’s children. Only God can do this. We cannot authorize ourselves to become God’s children. We have no right to be his children. We are in the darkness. We have been blinded by the god of this world. We are full of sin. We have no rights. We have no freedom for we are enslaved to sin. We have no authority for anything before God. We are like the prodigal son who recognizes that he has no right to be a child of the father any longer. To those who receive him Jesus gives the right and privilege to become God’s covenant people, a privilege lost by the Messiah’s own people. There is a change of status that occurs. That is why John says “the right to become” not “the right to be.” We are moving from darkness to light. The author of this gospel will describe this change as passing from death to life (John 5:24). We have been given the privilege to become the covenant people of God. Jesus has granted the authority to belong as his children.
Verse 13 emphasizes this truth that we have no right or authority to be his children. John describes how we become children of God. Notice there are three negatives to make sure we fully understand what it means to be born of God. We are born not of blood. This right does not come by blood lineage. Being born a Jew does not give this right. Being a physical descendant of Abraham does not provide the authority to be a child of God. There is no hope or rights by tracing your lineage. The Jews thought that by tracing their lineage to Abraham that they were children of God (Luke 3:8). The apostle John announces that this is not the case. We are born not of the will of the flesh. Further, the works of the flesh do not bring the right to be a child of God. None of our external efforts can cause this to happen. The Jews believed that their various external works brought them into a relationship with God. They believed that the works of the flesh, like circumcision and the keeping of various ceremonial laws like eating clean and avoiding unclean foods, placed them in this covenant relationship. But there is no act that we can take that authorizes us to become children of God. We are lost in our sins. We are in the darkness. We are dead in our sins and trespasses. We are outside the covenant because we are violators. We are born not of the will of man. It does not matter how much you want to be in a relationship with Jesus. You could want to be a child all you want, but you have a problem. You still have a sin problem. Desire does not overcome our sins. You can be as good as you want to be, try as hard as you can, want to be with God but your condition before God does not change. The problem of sin remains the same.
We are born of God. This is God’s doing. God has done through Jesus what no one could do. We needed help and that is why the Light was sent into the world. Only the blood of Jesus is able to move us from the status of dead in our sins to children of God. Our heritage does not move us from death to life. Our desire does not move us from being dead in our sins to being children of God. No system of works can change our state before God. The concept of being “born of God” is an important theme is John’s writings. The phrase “born of God” is found nine times in John’s epistle. In this gospel, John will explore the idea of being born of God more thoroughly in chapter 3 when Jesus speaks with Nicodemus. Being born of God is the way to transition from darkness to light, from death to life, from dead in sins to children of God. Receiving Jesus is the only way to become children of God. Jesus is the true light. By his will and his life it is possible for us to become children of God. But we must receive him, which means that we surrender our lives to follow him because he is the foundation of our faith, our hope, and our very lives. Since we are born of God, notice what John says in his letter about how such people live.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. (1 John 5:1 ESV)
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:9 ESV)
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7 ESV)
Knowing what God has done for us through his Son leads us to no longer practice sin, love each other, and strive to live up to great privilege of being his children.