6. Words and Phrases; Uniting or Dividing
John 1:9-13 “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 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.”
Let’s look at the words and phrases in this passage:
“Light”. Greek “phos”, from which we get phosphoresce. Something that blazes into light. This is not a light bulb but a torch, a flame that burns. “The true burning flame, which gives light to everyone, was coming.”
“World”. Greek “kosmos”. Everything that exists. He came into the “kosmos” that He had made. He was in the “kosmos” but the “kosmos” didn’t know Him. Again He came to everyone. Actually into all that He had created. Everything that exists. The Cosmos didn’t know it’s Creator. Much of it still doesn’t.
“His own”. Greek “idios”. Belonging to Him. This is in contrast to “kosmos”, it is not the whole world. This is His people, referring here to the Israelite nation. He came to His very own. They are not accused of not knowing Him, but not receiving Him.
“Receive” 1. Greek “paralambano”. To bring near to oneself. He came close to His own (the Jews) but they did not receive Him. They didn’t come close to Him.
“Receive” 2. Greek “lambano”. To purposefully take, to lay hold of. The same word that describes what Jesus did when He took the scroll from the hand of God in Revelation 5: 7. “To all who did receive Him”. We don’t just need to draw close to all that Jesus is, we need to lay hold of Him, to bring Him right into the center of our lives and not let Him go.
“Believe”. Greek “pisteuo”. Put your trust in. This is not just academic understanding, or intellectual acknowledgement of some truth. This is the bridge you are going to cross the ravine of life on, putting all your weight upon it. There might be other bridges and you can’t see the end of any of them. Some look more stable, some are swaying in the wind. But you choose to put your trust in this one, which means that you don’t just choose it, but you walk out onto it and risk everything by trusting that this one bridge will get you safely to where you want to go.
“To all who receive Him and believe in His Name” means all who lay hold of Him and put all their hope in Him. Those are the people who are given a special, eternal right.
“Right”. Greek “exousia”. Privilege, delegated privilege, a privilege that is given to us. A privilege that only God can give.
“The right to become children”
“Children”. Greek “teknon”. This is not gender specific (like sons), it is children. It could mean sons or daughters.
John never uses the phrase “son (huios) of God” or “sons of God” to describe who we are in Christ. He always, in all his writings, refers to us as children of God.
1 John 3:1 “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children (teknon) of God; and so we are.”
The only time John calls us “sons” is when he uses the phrase in John 12:36 and even here is he is not referring directly to our relationship with God as our Father, but rather with the light.
“While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons (huios) of light.”
Paul, by contrast uses children (teknon) of God and sons (huios) of God almost interchangeably. In Romans 8 alone he uses both phrases in consecutive verses:
• “sons of God” (huios) in Romans 8:14, 15, 19 & 23
• “children of God” (teknon) in Romans 8: 16, 17 & 21.
In contrast, John uses the phrase Son of God to refer to Christ alone. It seems to be another way he sets Jesus apart in His relationship with God. We may become the children of God, but He is the Son of God.
Paul, who, by the same Holy Spirit, appears to want to emphasise the wonder and glory of who we are in Christ, is more comfortable interchanging the two titles. We are children of God but we also have the particularly privileges that would have been afforded to sons and therefore co-heirs, in Paul’s culture at the time of his writing.
“Children of God, born”
“Born”. Greek “gennao”. Not like the act of our coming into the world, our birth, when we were born. But the initial bringing into being, the procreation, where we came from and how we were formed in the heart of our Father in heaven. In this case the father’s will in bringing us into his family. It is the word we get genealogy from.
“Not of Blood”. Greek “ou ex haima”. Children of God are not born simply of blood, the make up of genes and DNA.
“Nor of the Flesh”. Greek “oude ex sarx”. Children of God are not born of the passions of the flesh like a human birth.
“Nor of the will of man”. Greek “oude ex thelema aner”. Children of God are not born into God’s family of their own will. We can’t make it happen ourselves. This is not something any man or woman can do by themselves.
“But of God”. Greek “ex theos”. Of God. When we become children of God we are born of His blood, not ours, of His DNA, not ours, of His will, not ours.
Here is the dilemma, wrestled through by theologians for centuries and splitting the reformation church with terrible consequences that persist to this day. John has come as a witness to the light “that all may believe” (John 1:7). The true light gives light to “everyone” (John 1:9). The scope of the gospel appears to be universal. The good news that we can become children of God is for everyone.
To all who did receive, lay hold, of Him. To all who believed, put their whole trust in, His name. Again the scope of the gospel seems universal and it appears to be left to the choice of the individual as to whether they want to respond to it or not. Anyone who responds to the good news of Jesus by receiving and believing in Him is then given the right to become God’s child.
But then it is clear that we are not born into God’s family and community by blood, or the flesh or our own will, but only by the will of God. This clearly indicates that the choice of who becomes part of God’s family is God’s alone and not our personal choice after all.
Salvation. Is it our choice or God’s choice? John appears to state both as truths.
Is it overly simplistic to interpret these verses to mean the following?
• Universal reach (UR). The gospel is universal. It is good news for everyone. Therefore it must be preached to everyone, without partiality, as if all have the same opportunity to receive and believe and be saved.
• Personal responsibility (PR). The choice is personal. It is our personal responsibility to respond to Jesus. We must make a personal response to the gospel that includes laying hold of and putting our full trust in the person of Jesus Christ in order to come into life and the light.
• Divine right (DR). Heavenly adoption is Divine. God alone chooses who is part of His family. It is only God who has the authority to adopt someone into His family and community. We do not somehow elbow our way in because we say a prayer of salvation that God must respond to. We cannot strong arm God into adopting us, even using the cross as a crowbar to prize His grace open. We have no rights in this process. He chooses who He adopts. And He chooses to adopt those who receive the Logos, the Life and the Light (laying hold of the truth of Jesus as a life changing revelation) and who believe in His name (putting their whole lives into His hands and walking out that trust daily in relationship with Jesus and submission to Jesus).
• We respond to Jesus and God chooses us.
We will discover later in the book that, whilst this may be a helpful distinction now as a first step in seeking to understand a much deeper and more profound mystery, it does not in any way comprehensively explain the process of salvation. We later discover, for instance, that no one comes to Jesus (obviously necessary in order to truly believe and receive Him) unless the Father draws them in the first place.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44).
However, for now, John wants us to understand that whilst God’s heart is for everyone to receive the life offered in Jesus, there is both a personal responsibility in us responding to Him and a Divine right in God choosing us.
• Universal reach (UR)
• Personal responsibility (PR)
• Divine right (DR)
If you have read enough and don’t want to go further, please keep going, at least to the end of this chapter. You may think my interpretations shallow, uneducated, unclear, inaccurate or just plain wrong. You may well be right, but again, please keep reading. Please bear in mind that I am not trying to provide a comprehensive understanding of the process of becoming one of God’s children, I am just looking to interpret and respond to the text that is before us in John 1. The point of this chapter is not actually to try and explain the mysteries of God in salvation at all. Many many more learned and godly saints have tried over 2000 years to do that and they still have not been able to come to a conclusion that satisfies, or is able to unite, all true Jesus followers.
We absolutely must not lose focus on the big picture that the Holy Spirit, through John, is laying out for us here. This is meant to awe us. We must not lose the incredible wonder of what God has done by overly exerting ourselves in trying to define the mechanics of how it all happens.
The purpose of the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel is to bring us to life and light through the good news of Jesus. This wonderful new life as a child of God is not individual but it is an entrance into God’s corporate world, His own community, His family.
This gospel is meant to unite us in Him, otherwise we are not living the fulness of life that He has for us and we are certainly not being the light in the world that He means us to be, or that the world needs. If we so focus on defining how it all happens that we lose the unity and community for which it happens, surely we have missed the point of the gospel. Have we not strained a gnat and swallowed a camel?
In the end is the Holy Spirit more concerned that we feel secure in our own interpretations of the mechanics of this gospel, even if that security divides us? Or is He more concerned that we discover the truth of this gospel in such a way that we can live in the light together as His family, in His Oneness as He is One, and in so doing, provide together the brightest light possible for a world that is still desperately cloaked in darkness?
What is clear is that it is God’s right to decide who is in His family.
The other siblings don’t get to choose who is in the family, the Father does. It is His will that dictates who becomes part of His family and it is the Son’s privilege to extend the full rights of adoption to those children.
I have a sneaking suspicion that I may be surprised by who I meet in eternity. Each one will have had to receive and believe in Jesus, but they may not have done that in a way that I am familiar or even comfortable with. For sure, many of them will disagree with my beliefs on many things, from how it began in Genesis to when it all ends in Revelation. If we are still aware of those differences then, we will probably laugh about them together.
“You know what I used to believe? I was so convinced that ____________ (fill in the blank) was true that I wasn’t even sure if you were a Christian or not. I’m so sorry, that was so arrogant of me.”
“Don’t worry (insert warm hug here), I thought people like you were ____________ (fill in the blank again). When I first saw you here I had to do a double take. Then in an instant my spiritual eyes were opened and I understood fully for the first time and, guess what? You were right all the time!”
“Maybe on that particular issue, but you were so right on so many of the others.”
“Just think, we lived next door to each other all these years and didn’t know we were family.”
It is a tragic pity for our sakes and the sake of a world who desperately needs to see the children of God truly living as one family together, that we cannot laugh about them together here and now.
“But to all who did receive Him (Jesus), who believed in His name, He (Jesus) 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.” (John 1:12-13)
Ask the Holy Spirit: “Lord, where do my beliefs hurt your family rather than heal them? Am I committed to Your glory shining brightly through the diversity in harmony of all that You are in and through Your family? Or am I am more committed to holding fast to what I believe to be true, at the expense of Your glory in the wider Church?”
If we miss the point here in the first chapter, John is going to return to it with much greater force at the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. John, the apostle of love, is determined that we don’t miss it. He knows that if the church doesn’t get this, then much of the church will continue to be divided, emaciated, power-little, light-little and life-little.
The world needs more than that.
The Father and His glorious Son deserve better than that.
They will have better than that, because in the end Their will is going to prevail over everyone else’s, even the most entrenched of us.
Let’s leave this chapter with a wonderful apostolic prayer which reveals both the heart of God and the hope of the nations. This is what Paul prays after he has laid out his theology of the oneness that Jesus has secured for His family, the Church, on the cross:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, (there might be many different “families” of God’s children, that are defined by their own spiritual genetics, but they all have the same Father) that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, (more important than being rooted and grounded in our particular brand of theological understanding, the spiritual genetics that define the particular “family” that we belong to) may have strength to comprehend with all the saints (note that phrase – this comprehension of all surpassing love does not happen in isolation or in one part of the family of God but only when it is comprehended together with “all the saints”, we need all of us to truly understand and fully experience God’s love) what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (there is no fulness of God in the church without a fuller understanding of how widely embracing the love of God really is and we can’t understand that unless we do it with an appreciation for all the saints and the one Father, Savior and Spirit we all share).
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, (because we most certainly cannot bring this level of love and unity to the church ourselves, two thousand years of church history should have taught us that) according to the power at work within us, (there is, however, a power at work in the children of God that can bring about the love and unity Paul is praying for, but it is God that both authors and executes the plan through us) to him be glory in the church (the sort of glory that Jesus died for, that Paul has already unpacked for us in the previous two chapters of Ephesians) and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:14-21)
Introduction: A Life Worth Living
These chapters are meant to be an invitation to a life that is really worth living. Hopefully there is something here for everybody, whether you are searching for meaning and purpose in life, or have found that purpose but want to deepen your relationship with God.
As they are meant to unpack John’s message, they follow verse by verse through John’s Gospel. However, they are not meant to be a comprehensive commentary on the book of John. There are many others more skilled and qualified to do that. It is, however, an attempt to get to the heart of this gospel.
The purpose for writing is twofold. Firstly I am writing, as was the Apostle John, out of a pastors heart. Put simply, that means out of a heart of love and care for people, a heart that wants to see family, friends and neighbours healthy and flourishing in life. Secondly, this is a prophetic hearts cry. After over thirty years of living and serving in the church, both as a volunteer and as a paid staff member, I believe that there is more that God has for us and that the keys to that “more” are hidden in plain sight for us here in John’s Gospel. So, like a prophet, these chapters are meant to awaken and inspire people to the fulness of life that God has for them.
It is a pastoral encouragement because John’s gospel was such a huge encouragement to me during a dark and difficult time of my life and I want to pass on that encouragement to others. It was John’s gospel that brought me out of my darkness. I spent months reading and meditating on the first chapter alone. This was partly because I could only read small amounts at a time. But it was also because each verse had so much meaning for me.
It is a prophetic hearts cry because I believe the message of this gospel needs to be understood and embraced afresh in our days if we are to experience the fullness of the life that God wants to give to each of us as His children.
It is a mistake to believe that John wrote the gospel simply to convince people of who Jesus is, so that they may be “saved”. The Holy Spirit, through John, is offering us so much more than just having our sins washed away (although that would be wonderful if it was all the gospel promised us). The heart of God beats through these chapters as it does through the apostle of love who wrote them and He is offering us much more than salvation from sins, He is offering us life. Life in all it’s fulness.
John 20:30-31 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so 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 word “life” (Greek “zoe”) in all its contexts appears in Matthew’s Gospel 7 times, Mark’s Gospel 4 times and Luke’s Gospel 5 times. But John uses the word 36 times throughout his Gospel. He uses it 24 times between chapters three to six alone. That’s how important it is to him.
He wants us to know not only that real life is available in Jesus but what that life looks like. He wants us to know that this life is not an individual life. We cannot experience the fullness of what He has to give us just by ourselves. That is why John’s gospel account from beginning to end is not just about Jesus (though He is the central and all encompassing theme that holds it all together) but it is also about people, very real people. Failing disciples, earnest Pharisees, broken Samaritans and blind beggars, close friends and strangers from other lands, all opportunities to experience and share in the fulness of God’s life that is offered to us through Jesus. His life brings light to everyone, even those like Pilate who weren’t ready to receive Him.
The gospel ends with some beautiful insights into the lives of the people who were closest to Him. The life that they had through Jesus was experienced in real life with each other too.
If we read any of John’s New Testament writings and come away in love and relationship with Jesus, that is a primary objective in writing them. If we come out of reading these books not growing in deep loving relationships with real people (churched and unchurched) then we are not getting the point. Love for Jesus is meant to be fully experienced in loving relationships with others.
These relationships are not just an end in themselves, but they are brought together by God for a purpose. Again, we can’t fully live out our life’s purpose on our own. God has hand crafted each one of us for a reason and He wants us to work out and walk out His will for our lives in relationships with those He joins us to.
This is John’s purpose. He is offering us life, life in all it’s fulness. That life is worked out in Christ-centred relationships on Christ-like mission together. The world needs to see this life. But many in the church also need to see this life. There is more life available to us than most of us in the Western Church are probably experiencing. John’s gospel is as relevant now as it was to the early Christians, maybe more so because of the splintered history of the last 2000 years of the church.
It is a message that we need to grasp afresh and practically work out where we live, if the world is to see all that there is in Jesus for them. It is vital for the cause of world mission.
That is why these chapters are a prophetic heart’s cry as well as a pastoral encouragement. May the Lord use it to reveal more of who He is for us to wonder at and more of His ways for us to walk in.
It all starts with God. It always does.