Monday, January 16, 2012

The Enlightenment (John 1:9-13, 16-18)

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Western World entered an era known commonly as the Middle Ages. Because of a number of factors, including prolonged periods of warfare, financial crises, corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, and little advance of educational and intellectual developments, this period is often called by some “the Dark Ages.” During the 1400s, there were sparks of renewed interest in science, philosophy, art, and literature. This period, known as the Renaissance, led to the beginnings of an intellectual awakening that would transform Europe and the World. As these radical changes in the spiritual and intellectual climate began to sweep across Europe, a new era dawned. It was called “The Enlightenment.” By the late 1600s, “virtually every European country, and every sphere of life and thought, was affected by it.”[1] During this time period, humanity was supposedly being lifted out of “the darkness of irrationality and superstition that … characterized the Middle Ages.”[2] One of the premier philosophers of the era, Immanuel Kant, said that the enlightenment was “the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy.”[3] The Enlightenment emphasized human reason, therefore the authority of the Bible, and the Christian faith that is built upon the Bible, was deemphasized, if not altogether rejected. The religion of the Enlightenment was atheism, or agnosticism, or agnosticism’s more sophisticated cousin, Deism. Yet, ironically, nearly every major Enlightenment thinker was operating from a worldview that had been strongly influenced by the Bible and Christianity. Enlightenment ideals held sway over the Western World for the better part of 500 years, but it survived on the borrowed capital of Christianity. It was as if the world had awoken to a new way of thinking, but it still had a hangover from being under the influence of Christianity for centuries. By the middle of the twentieth century, the hangover had worn off, the borrowed capital was depleted, and a new day of so-called “Postmodernism” had dawned. The rejection of absolutes, the spurning of authority, and radical moral tolerance came as a shock to the culture as it began to unfold. In reality, however, it was merely the chickens hatched from the Enlightenment’s eggs finally coming home to roost. Thus, from our vantage point, we may look back on these cultural revolutions and see that perhaps their claims were a bit too ambitious. This is not to say that there were not magnificent triumphs in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, for there were. It is to say, however, that the darkness that envelops humanity was not so thoroughly brightened as we may have thought.

The darkness of human existence has a singular cause: sin. Because of sin’s hold on humanity, that which was spoken by God concerning the days of Noah could be said of every era of history. In Genesis 6:5, we read that “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” A few verses later (6:11-12), the effects of man’s sinful condition are spelled out: “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” Into this vast darkness of spiritual, intellectual, and moral corruption, many lights have shown. Reform, renewal, and renaissance has been ignited by many matches throughout time, but they have all been relatively short lived in the grand scheme of things. The darkness would subside for a season, but it was never completely vanquished. In time, the light would be extinguished, and the darkness would set in again. But into humanity’s darkness, over and above all other sources of light, a greater Light has shown. The Apostle John says that there was “the true Light, which coming into the world, enlightens every man” (1:9). The word translated “true” can speak of a genuine or authentic Light, as opposed to false or synthetic forms of light. It can also refer to an ultimate Light, which is greater than all others. Like so many words in John’s Gospel, it is difficult to determine which meaning he has in mind here, and he may well mean both.

What is this true Light that comes into the world? Well, the Light is not a “what”; this Light is a “Who.” He is the One who is described in verses 1-5 as the Word, who was with God in the beginning, and who was God; the Creator of all things; the One in whom there was life, and that life was the Light of men; a Light that shines into the darkness. Though the darkness did not comprehend the Light, neither did the darkness overcome the Light. This Light has come into the world as the Word made flesh (1:14), full of glory, grace, and truth. He is Jesus Christ. He is the true Light that enlightens every man (1:9). Writing some 1500 years before that period of time that we call “the Enlightenment,” the Apostle John declares that there is an ultimate Enlightenment to be experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. Apart from Him, all is varying shades of darkness. And in the verses of our text today, John informs us of how Christ, the true Light, has come into the world to enlighten every man.

I. In Christ, we are enlightened with true love (vv11-13).   

If you listen to the so-called “New Atheists,” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, you will hear about how religion in general, and in some cases Christianity in particular, has ruined the world. Christopher Hitchens was one of the leading spokesmen of the “New Atheism” movement until his death a month ago today. Hitchens once stated that he believed that “the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”[4] According to the majority of those in the “New Atheism” camp, the world would be better if there had never been such a thing as the Christian Church. Yet, these atheists do not spend much time discussing the contributions that the Christian Church has made to the common good of the world over the last 2,000 years. Around the world, it has been the Church of Jesus Christ that has led the way in the establishment of schools, hospitals, and other community agencies and institutions that exist to make the world a better place. And the motive of it all was to demonstrate in a tangible way to the world that God loves human beings. One of the areas in which Christians have worked most tirelessly is in the care of orphans. In the late 1800s, Charles Loring Brace wrote about the practice of infanticide, the trafficking of orphans into slavery and prostitution, the use of orphans in ritual sacrifices, and other unthinkable horrors that had existed almost universally in the world prior to the establishment of the Christian Church. But he also notes how the followers of Jesus began almost immediately to make a difference in how the world viewed and treated orphans.[5] I was recently talking to a man who had been involved in missionary work in India, and he was telling me about practices that still were rampant there: the killing of babies because a family could not afford to raise them or because they had a daughter instead of a son, and atrocities such as this. But he was telling me that Christians were establishing “drop-off sites” in the major cities of India where families could simply hand their children over to be cared for by Christian people. Now, why have Christians been so active in the work of orphan care in the world throughout history? Because we believe that our Gospel is about a Father’s love for spiritual orphans. Adoption is essential to our theology.

The Apostle John writes here that Christ came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. Obviously, he is referring to the Jewish people here. Now, it would be a mistake to say that Jesus was rejected altogether by the Jews. Most of His earliest followers were Jews. In fact, the book of Acts describes the stir that was created in the church when Jewish Christians were unsure about what to do with Gentiles who wanted to follow this Jewish Messiah. But, John’s point here is that, by and large, the nation of Israel rejected Jesus. Of course, if we read the Old Testament prophets carefully, we will observe that they were not thoroughgoing orthodox believers in the God of the Hebrew Scriptures before Christ came. Time and time again, the prophets rebuke the nation for the rejection of the Lord. A stream of biblical teaching flows through the Old Testament and into the New concerning the idea of a believing remnant. Both before and after the coming of Christ, the number of Jewish people who were truly committed to the covenant-making God of Scripture was a small percentage of the whole nation. Therefore, it was not astounding really that His own received Him not; the astounding thing is what God did for those who did receive Jesus Christ.

Verse 12 begins with one of my favorite words in the Bible: “But.” Jesus was rejected by the vast majority of the Jewish nation, BUT, “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God.” There is a sentimental way of looking at the human race and thinking that everyone is a child of God. That is true in a very limited sense—in the sense that God created the human race. But if humanity began as God’s children, like the prodigal son, we have run away from our Father in rebellion and joined ourselves to another father. Jesus referred to those who opposed Him in John 8:44 as children of the devil. Paul referred to lost humanity in Ephesians 2:2 as “sons of disobedience.” In this sense, as it pertains to our relationship with the Heavenly Father, we are born as spiritual orphans. But in Jesus Christ, God has made away for us to be adopted as His children.

You have to understand how revolutionary it was for Jesus to come into the world speaking about God as His Father, and about the potential for people like you and me to address God as Our Father. This kind of language was extraordinarily rare, even in the writings of the Jews. But Jesus had come to bring enlightenment to humanity regarding true love. Here was a God who loves the human race so much that He has made a way for sinful rebels to be united to Himself in a relationship that surpasses that of any parent and child. He becomes a Father to those who receive the Lord Jesus, to those who believe in His name. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, but God has an innumerable multitude of adopted sons and daughters. We have not merely been adopted into His family through some judicial paperwork process; He has chosen to grant to those who believe a totally new birth. John says that those who receive Jesus and experience this adoption have been born, “not of blood.” Jewish traditionalists believed that they could experience the favor of God because they were the biological descendants of Abraham. But John says here that God’s children are not born of blood; and they are not born “of the will of the flesh.” It was not some sensual desire that brought this new birth to pass. And it was not the “will of man,” as if you chose yourself, or someone else chose for you to experience this birth. You experienced this new birth because it was the will of God. He chose you for Himself and adopted you to be His child through your reception of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of your life. This is what Jesus was referring to when He told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7).

As I look around the room today, I confess, I have never known most of your earthly fathers. You might have had a good one, and praise God if you did. But you might have had a terrible earthly father. In fact, you may suffer from things from day to day that could be directly attributed to the absence of a father in your life, or to the presence of a horrible father. But I want to tell you, on the authority of God’s Word, that there is a greater Father that you can know. Where your earthly father was weak, this Father is strong! If your earthly father was great, this one is greater still. In fact, the greatest thing a father can do for his child is to teach them that there is a greater Father whom they need to know. God desires to be your Father, and He has promised to be your Father and to make you His child if you receive Jesus, believing in His name. This is true love. John will go on to write in his first epistle, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God; and such we are” (1 John 3:1). Jesus is the true Light that has come into the world to enlighten us. And He has enlightened us by true love.

II. In Christ we are enlightened by true grace (vv16-17)

When I was a kid, I can remember getting a new toy for Christmas, and opening the box to find those dreaded words that every child of my generation feared reading: “Batteries Not Included.” Back in those days, that was a tragedy, because the stores were all closed on Christmas Day. I would have to wait a whole day or two before I could get the batteries for my new toy so I could play with it. Here I’d been given this great gift, but I didn’t have what I needed to power it up and enjoy it! The best gifts were those that my parents had already opened and put the batteries in before I opened it up, so it was good to go!

John says in verse 16 that we have received, from the overflowing fullness of Jesus, grace upon grace. There’s a lot of ink spilled among the commentators as to what this expression means. The most popular view is that it means something like, “never-ending grace,” and theologically that is true. We receive one gift of God’s grace on top of another in Jesus. That is absolutely true. But I don’t think it is what this phrase means. To understand this phrase, we have to see the words that follow it. The very next word is “For.” That is a conjunction that connects these two verses, and it functions to supply a reason. We have received grace upon grace “for” or “because,” the gift of grace that humanity had received before Jesus was a great gift, but it was like a toy without the batteries. That gift was given through Moses, and it was God’s law. God’s law was a glorious and gracious gift! God’s law declared the true picture of holiness and righteousness. The law said, “This is what God requires of us.” God did not have to declare this to humanity. He could have said, “Do you want to know what kind of God I am and how you can go about pleasing Me? Figure it out for yourself, because I’m not telling you.” But He didn’t say that. In His grace, He gave the Law to the people through Moses. But although the Law declared what righteousness looked like, it did not have the power to make a person righteous. The Law was given to a people who had already violated it at virtually every point. The Law, thus, functions like a mirror. When you wake up in the morning, you go and look in the mirror and you say, “Oh my goodness! Look at my hair! Did someone attack my head with an egg-beater while I was asleep, or what?” The mirror tells you that you need some help. But you don’t fix your hair by rubbing your head on the mirror. The mirror tells you that you need something else to fix the problem, so you reach for the comb and the brush, and the gel and the hairspray, and so on. Thank God for the mirror, because you need it. But you need something more than the mirror.

So, we have this gift of grace in the Law that came through Moses. But in Jesus Christ, we have received grace upon grace. We have the Law, but now, through Jesus Christ, God has revealed grace and truth. The Law tells us what righteousness looks like, and it tells us that we don’t have it. It serves to condemn us because it tells us in every line that we are sinners. But it can’t fix us. What can fix us? The grace and truth of Jesus Christ! In Him, we discover true grace: grace that can remove our sin and impart to us the righteousness that we desperately need and which we desperately lack!

The Law tells us that sin requires death and the shedding of sacrificial blood. The Good News of Jesus tells us that Jesus died and shed His own blood as our sacrifice. The Law tells us that we must be absolutely, completely, perfectly, sinless and righteous to be accepted by God. The Good News of Jesus tells us that the righteousness of His sinless life can be credited to us by faith. The Law tells us that sinners must be cut off to perish apart from the presence of a holy God. The Good News of Jesus tells us that sinners can be forgiven in Him, and accepted before God because of His righteousness, and granted eternal life with Him in heaven! The Law says, “Try as you may, you can never earn this.” The Good News of Jesus says, “You don’t have to. God has given you a gift you do not deserve.” All you have to do is receive Him and believe in His name. Moreover, when we receive Christ, we also receive the Holy Spirit, who indwells us to empower us to live out the righteousness that God has given us through faith in Jesus. This is grace, and it is grace upon grace. It is true grace, and we have been enlightened by it.

III. In Christ, we are enlightened by true truth.

The quest of the Enlightenment Era was to discover the truth of that could be known with absolute certainty. Those things that could be investigated with human reason were considered to be real truth. Those things that pertained to religious belief were consigned to the realm of faith, and were considered beyond the categories of truth and falsehood. But are all matters of faith really beyond knowing with absolute certainty? Must we reject all ideas of religion in one fell swoop, or are there some religious claims that can be tested and validated? Of course, Postmodernism came along and said, essentially, “Who cares? There aren’t any truths that can be known with absolute certainty anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.” If the Enlightenment was characterized by unfounded optimism, Postmodernism is perhaps characterized by unfounded pessimism. God’s Word stands against them both and declares that there is a true truth that can be known, and foundational to it all is the truth about who God is.

In verse 10, John says concerning Jesus Christ, the true Light, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him.” The two major belief systems of the Enlightenment Era are hereby challenged. One is naturalism, which says that there was no creation, just a random process of evolution by which the eternally existent particles of mass in the universe have rearranged themselves from one form into another. John says, rather, “No, the world was made through Him,” through Christ, the true Light. The other prominent belief of the Enlightenment Era was Deism, which said essentially, “There might be a God out there, but if there is, He is not concerned or at work with the goings on of the world.” Again John objects. “No,” he says, “He was in the world.” The problem was not that God was absent or that He was not at work. The problem is that the world “did not know Him.”

Twenty years ago this year, I came to faith in Christ after being a committed atheist for several years of my life. Christians would attempt to witness to me, and my response was always the same. “If God is there, why doesn’t He make Himself more evident? I can’t see Him, I can’t see any reason to believe in Him. If He wants me to believe in Him, He needs to do a better job making Himself known to me.” Little did I know that I was actually using a very sophisticated philosophical argument known as Deus Abscondus, “the hiddenness of God.” I chuckle when I read that argument in philosophical writings, because I think, “This guy is a well educated scholar, and he believes what I believed when I was an ignorant teenager!” Apart from the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, I cannot really explain how all that came crashing down on Friday, July 31, 1992, as I read these words in 1 Samuel 3:7: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor had the word of the Lord yet been revealed to him.” I suddenly and inexplicably realized that it wasn’t that God wasn’t there, it was that I did not know Him. That very day, I gave my life to Jesus Christ.

Look around at the world today. Last year, I had the opportunity to see two amazing products of God’s creative handiwork: the soaring peaks of the Himalayas and the unfathomable expanse of the Grand Canyon. I gazed in awe at those things, and wondered how anyone could doubt that “He made the world.” But as we look at the world, we also see all kinds of atrocities. Human trafficking, rampant violence and terrorism, the holocaust of abortion, and on and on we could go. What’s the problem? Is it that God is not here? No. The problem is that the world doesn’t know Him. And how can anyone know Him anyway? After all, John says here in verse 18 that no one has seen God at any time. In the Old Testament, when people encountered God in a personal way, they did not see the fullness of His person. Moses saw God in a way that no one else ever did, yet He only saw the backside of His glory. No one ever saw Him at any time. But then came Jesus, the true Light, into the world, and He came to enlighten us with true truth about who God is.

Look at verse 18: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” There is so much to comprehend in this singular verse that we can barely scratch the surface of it! The only person prior to the coming of Christ into the world who had ever seen God was God Himself. And John is explaining to us in the best human words available that within the singular God of the universe, there is the person of the Father, and the person of the only begotten Son, who is Himself God. For eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have existed in perfect divine fellowship as the three Persons of the Triune Godhead. And when the Son came into the world, He explained God to humanity. I love the Greek word that is translated explained here. It is the word from which we get one of my favorite English words: exegesis. Every week, I spend many hours in my study in the task of exegesis. When we exegete something, we bring forth the truth of it to put it on display. That is what we do when we study the Bible properly; we bring forth the fullness of its truth. And John says that the Lord Jesus has exegeted God for us. He has demonstrated to us the true truth about the God who is there, the God who created the world, and the God whom we could never know apart from Jesus. No, no one ever saw God. No one, that is, until Jesus came. After three years of being with Jesus every day, at the Last Supper, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” In other words, he was saying, “Jesus, you have been with us for three years, and now you are telling us that you are going to die. Before you die, please do this one thing for us, it is all we ask. Show us God!” And Jesus said to Him, “Have I been so long with you and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me?” Jesus was saying to Philip, “Do you want to see God? Take a good long look at Me.”

Jesus is the true Light. He has come into the world to enlighten every man. He has enlightened us by true love and shown us that there is a God who adopts all who believe in Jesus to become His sons and daughters as He becomes a Father to us. He has enlightened us by true grace, showing us that there is a way for sinners to be reconciled to a holy God through His life, death and resurrection. And He has enlightened us by true truth. How can you know God? How can you find Him or see Him? I tell you that unless you find Him, see Him, and know Him through the Lord Jesus Christ, you will not find, see, or know Him in any other way! Christ is the true Light and He has enlightened every man. Why then are so many still in darkness? Well, many have not heard, and those of us who have must take the message to them. But others have heard; the Light has shone upon them. But they have not received the Light. Jesus says in John 3:19, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light.” Does that describe you? Have you shunned the Light of Christ because you love darkness so much? God’s Word beckons you today to open your eyes to the Light of Christ! Come out of the darkness and into His Light! Those who have received the Light of Christ have experienced the love of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the truth of God. In this true Enlightenment, you become, as the Apostle Peter says, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

[1] M. J. Inwood, “Enlightenment” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (ed. Ted Honderich; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 236.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Quoted in Ibid.
[4] Quoted in Albert Mohler, “Learning From Christopher Hitchens: Lessons Evangelicals Must Not Miss.” Accessed January 12, 2012.
[5] Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1872), Kindle edition. 

No comments: