The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
If you look at a half dozen translations of John 1.5 you will see there is debate over how to interpret it. Some translations, instead of using the concept for “overcome”, express the concept of, “comprehend”. Either way, the metaphor expresses that the incarnate Jesus entered an unwelcoming world. He also suggests that the world is generally a place of darkness. It is in many ways an unwelcoming place to all its inhabitants. But here John is focusing on its enmity towards Jesus.
There is a profound irony to this situation. God created the world but the world turned its back on him. Whatever our world possesses—the air we breathe, the plants that provide food, the water we drink, the other humans that support us, our intelligence, our physical capacities, our very lives—God has given to us. But many neither thank him or trust him or love him…or even acknowledge his existence.
This was Jesus’ experience when he was born into the world. When King Herod learned that the magi were en route to find a king, he thought only about protecting his own throne. He ordered the murder of all the boys two years old or younger in the region of Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt in order to preserve their young son’s life. What had the young boy done? His “fault” was that the magi, reading the stars and knowledgeable of Old Testament prophecies, were sure of the birth of the “king of the Jews”. Interestingly, their intent was to worship the child, indicating their conviction that Jesus was something greater than an ordinary king.
Herod, king of the Jews at the time, was not a king in service to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was “religious” enough to believe there was a good chance the magi were on to something. He believed to the extend that he was willing to sacrifice dozens of boys. You can imagine the bitter anger this engendered among those who lived in the region of Bethlehem. But he considered it worth the price. On the other hand, he clearly did not pause to think of the implications of the visit of the magi. Shouldn’t he have wondered about the prophecy coming from the book of Micah? Shouldn’t he have wondered whether Jesus had actually been sent from the God? Here is the king of the Jews, seeking his own (short-sighted) interests, while seeking to subvert the will of God. No wonder there was a need for a replacement king.
So the Jewish civic response to Jesus was adversarial to the extreme. But, of course, the Jews didn’t really run their own country. The world Jesus was born into was doubly politically hostile, given that Israel was occupied and controlled by Rome. The Romans were tolerant of Jewish sub-administration as long as the Jews paid their taxes and remained peaceful. The Jews were not always peaceful, though, and when they were not, the Romans responded with brutal suppression. Their favorite tool for suppression: execution via crucifixion. The horrifying display reminded conquered peoples that rebellion would be met with a merciless response. But it wasn’t the bloody Romans who stood in greatest opposition to Jesus. Rome’s attitude, if it could have been bothered to have an attitude towards him, was apathy. Not so the Jewish religious leaders.
Jesus was generally well received by the populace of Israel. And why not? Jesus was a brilliant teacher who spoke with authority, unlike the teachers of the law, who presented scriptures by means of various scholarly interpretations. But more impressively, Jesus worked many miracles among the people, healing the sick and the lame, driving out demons, calming a storm, providing food for many in remote locations, and even raising a few from the dead. But the religious leaders never took to Jesus, no matter what wonderful deeds he did. Jesus was partly responsible for this, of course, since he openly called them such names as “white-washed tombs”, “brood of viper”, and “hypocrites”. Israel was supposed to have been the light. It is too small 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 49.6. But Israel did not do its job. The religious leaders rewrote their job description as those responsible for providing regulations for living. In return they expected power, prestige, and comfortable living (which they were successful in obtaining). They were very much into the religion business but, like Herod, had marginalized God himself.
As far as they were concerned, Jesus was merely a trouble-maker who threatened their control over the people. Instead of being excited about Jesus’ miracles, instead of seeing them as a sign of God at work in their midst, they found the miracles threatening. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, that was the last straw. Since Lazarus was raised, Jesus had to die. From that moment it was only a question of how and when. The how and when were, briefly put, a secret arrest; followed by a secret show trial; followed by a threat to the Roman governor, Pilate, to make sure he cooperated; followed by Pilate’s capitulation; and concluded by Jesus’ crucifixion.
Considering this hostile earthly reception, it’s not difficult to see how some deem, “the darkness did not comprehend” the right interpretation, while others lean toward “the darkness did not overcome”. Neither Herod, nor the Romans, nor the Jewish religious leaders recognized who Jesus was. This is not to say they shouldn’t have recognized him. Herod and the religious leaders certainly should have.
It is a theme in the Gospels is that Jesus was not recognized, not for lack of transparency, but because of the vested interests of those he encountered. The human capacity to deflect and reject truth is astonishing. Our failure to recognize truth is rarely due to it being too difficult to understand; our failure is almost always due to its inconvenience. Truth will often demand that we release something precious to ourselves, whether possessions, position, power, prestige, pleasure, or pride. When we have something we wish to preserve we can become extremely clever, even fooling ourselves into believing our convoluted counter-arguments. We make ourselves blind.
One of the most startling biblical examples of this took place at the stoning of Stephen. Stephen was testifying to the high priest and others about Jesus after Jesus had risen from the dead. The things he said put the listeners into a rage. Finally, they cried out in a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. – Acts 7.57,58. When we don’t like something enough, we will “cancel” it one way or another. Failure to understand something or someone is often coupled with a violent negative reaction. This was certainly the case with Jesus.
From this perspective the “comprehend” version tends to melt into the “overcome” version. Jesus confronted the darkness and it appears as though the darkness won the battle. Jesus was crucified. The religious leaders successfully rid Jerusalem of the Galilean troublemaker once and for all. Or did they? John is saying, first of all and most importantly, this Jesus rose from the dead. You can’t kill God.
He is also saying, and we shall see this later, that it was God’s will that Jesus should die, for this was his means of bringing about his perfect victory. The very blow the darkness believed brought victory was the blow that brought defeat. Not only did Jesus rise from the dead, he made provision for all his disciples, then and those to come, to rise with him.
That was it. John had said it all by verse five of his Gospel. But it was merely a brief summary. Now John is ready to introduce us to another John—John the Baptist. He will use his introduction to John to further clarify for us who this Jesus is.