One of the more challenging aspects of interpreting the First Epistle of John is understanding who John is writing against. Since this information is not plainly disclosed by the Apostle, Christians use clues both from the letter’s content and from what we know of its historical context to reconstruct likely scenarios which offer deeper understanding of the letter’s purpose and message. The most plausible and widely-received of these interpretive guesses are neatly divided into two general assumptions: either John was addressing a prototypical form of the Gnostic heresy or John was addressing a sort of Judaizing influence.
Both reconstructions have much to commend them as well as a number of difficulties that frustrate their sustainability. Coherently and competently arguing for any position on the matter would require commentary length analysis of historical questions and thematic features throughout the letter. Our purpose here is only to offer a single (albeit a highly significant, if not central) piece of the puzzle: we will show that the Johannine figure of “light” in the Epistle is an eschatologically-loaded expression which has, at the fore, New Covenant significance. In doing so, we imply that the Johannine dualism between darkness and light is primarily to be read as a contrast between the covenant of Moses and the covenant of Christ. We will do this by accounting for light as it used by John outside of the First Epistle: in the Gospel and in the Apocalypse. Because John’s first usage of light (in the Gospel Prologue) draws upon the creation account in Genesis, we will attend to the significance of light in that passage as well. Finally, we will apply our reading of light to the tricky issue of identifying John’s opponents in the First Epistle.
Light in Genesis
Genesis is a story of worlds and stories. It is a story of worlds because the creation week depicts the establishment of domains and the establishment of dwellers. It is a story of stories because the creation week depicts God’s creative process as a purposed movement from an alpha stage to an omega stage, from protology to eschatology, from the first day of the week to the Sabbatical finale.
On day one, a realm of darkness divided from light is created, and three days later (on day four) God fills it with sun, moon, and stars. On day two, a realm of waters above divided from waters below is created, and three days later (on day five) God fills it with birds and fish (respectively). On day three, a realm of waters divided from land is created, and three days later (on day six) God fills it with land animals and man. This divine making takes existing stuff, breaks it up and reorganizes it, yielding a new world which is subsequently filled three days later. These three worlds (dark/light, sky-waters/low-waters, and water/land) taken together form the different levels of a single three-story world with a ceiling-firmament above, land-pillars in the middle, and water below, establishing what might be best described as a “house” for Yahweh. God creates a world for himself out of worlds for his creatures. He builds them a house, and then they move in. He builds himself a house and then he moves in. Yahweh’s house is a mansion with many rooms.
Light plays an interesting role in this narrative. First, light isn’t first – it’s second. In Genesis i, 2 we read that before there was light there was darkness. The first act of the creation week was a movement from darkness to light. Darkness and light continue to play a vital role in the creation week, individuated and given correlative identities essential for marking out time. The first day, itself an eschatological development out of darkness, establishes the grounds by which every other day occurred. The creation of light is essential to creation.
It is worth noting that it is specifically light which is judged “good” – not darkness. We are left wondering what to make of the darkness until the very last verse of the chapter where we find that the entire prelapsarian creation – which includes darkness – is good. This is instructive. While there is no evil intrinsic to darkness, it is created in order to give way to the superior glory of light.
So the Creation narrative is a procession of better things out of good things. Darkness yields to light, and out of this first day proceeds the rest of creation. The creation itself, measured in differences between darkness and light is inherently eschatological, each day bringing forth the consummate glory of the previous day, first forming three domains, and then filling those three domains with life, finally bringing forth a domain where the glory of the Lord will rest.
Light in the Gospel of John
The Theologian’s Gospel can soundly be read as a polemic against the Jews for their rejection of the Messiah. This reading is difficult to challenge considering this Gospel’s reputation for “anti-semitism.” As such, John draws upon a slew of Old Testament motifs to illustrate the “Christ-ness” of Christ, and cast doubt upon doubters. One of the primary motifs he employs is Christ as “light.” (Curiously, Christ is no longer called “the light” after the Book of Signs.) Here we will examine only two significant examples – The Prologue and the Healing of the Man Born Blind – but it’s worth mentioning that “light” shows up in seven chapters, and it could even be considered the dominant motif (of at least the first twelve chapters) of John’s Gospel if one grouped “light” with the references to “glory,” “sight,” “the Spirit,” and “anointing” as the multiple properties of the shekinah glory-cloud and all its tabernacular fullness.
Beginning “in the beginning,” John begins the Gospel with the beginning of the Torah (the beginning of Genesis, the beginning of the world), analogizing his own message with “the foundation of Israelite religion: God’s creation of heaven and earth.” Herman Ridderbos comments, “All that now follows in the Gospel has to be understood from the perspective of that ‘beginning’: It arises from that beginning, and that beginning is its deepest and most essential Sitz im Leben.” And if that’s true, then “light” has to be understood from the perspective of that beginning – which means light, here, is not merely borrowing from generic religious light imagery – rather, this light is creation-light, light from the beginning.
The Prologue chiastically frames the mission of the Incarnate Christ (“the true light”) with the ministry of the Baptist, a ministry designed merely to prepare the way for the light. (v. 6-15) This, in turn, is framed by the light of creation matched with the final revelation of Jesus Christ. (v. 1-5 and 16-18, respectively) The light, John writes, overcomes the darkness. (v. 5) Jesus Christ, likewise, supersedes Moses. (v. 17) In i, 11 John tells us, at the center of the chiastic Prologue, that “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” John tells this story throughout the Gospel: The light was sent into the darkness of Moses’ people, but the people did not receive him.
The Messiah heals blind people, especially Jewish people. The Jews have known this since the days of Isaiah. John knows this, too – which is why he describes the healing of the man born blind in terms of light and darkness. Jesus, as usual, identifies himself as the light of the world (ix, 5), then miraculously restores vision to a Jew. (ix, 6-7) When the enlightened man suggests that the Jewish Pharisees become disciples of Jesus they retort that they are disciples of Moses. (ix, 27-29) So Jesus, the light, consigns the Pharasaic Jews to their shadowy unrepentant blindness. (ix, 39-41)
Light in the Apocalypse
Light shows up most prominently in xxi-xxii, 5 of Revelation, the portion of the Apocalypse that describes the New Creation and the Church made perfect. As this work is regarded the arch-eschatological book of the Bible, it would be difficult not to perceive the eschatological pregnancy of light throughout Scripture, or at least in the Johannine corpus.
Chapter xxi cues us right away that creation is in view – a new creation, one which sprouts forth in the wake of a passing old creation. John tells us that the heavens above, the earth below, and the waters of the sea – that is, the cosmological house of old – has given way to a new cosmos, one in which God dwells among his people in a fullness that exceeds Eden, that exceeds the pillar of light in the wilderness, that exceeds the sanctification of the Exodus Tabernacle, that exceeds the indwelling of Solomon’s temple – that even exceeds the great outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The new creation takes the form of a renewed Jerusalem, a holy city descending from heaven, a point having more to do with a covenant community than architectural structures. This connection between creation and covenant is wholly consistent with the covenantal patterns of Scripture. In every administration of the Covenant of Grace, in Noah, in Abraham, in Moses, David, and even in Christ, Yahweh is understood to be re-creating, working again with the cosmos, to build a house for his name. Covenantal reconstruction always involves cosmological destruction and renewal. That the holy city to come is specifically named new “Jerusalem” highlights the destruction of old Jerusalem, (v. 1-2) that is to say the Mosaic order – which is to say, the end of Moses is the end of the world.
Curiosity of curiosities, there is no temple in the New Jerusalem. (xxi, 22) John notes this and just as quickly notes that there is no need for light. (xxi, 23) The Lamb, Christ, is the embodied eternal replacement/fulfillment of both. Here, John pulls together temple, light, glory, lamp, and eschatology into the singular entity of the Lamb. Christ the Lamb exceeds in every way the dim light of the Jerusalem-Temple, eternally bringing an end to the darkness of old, reflecting the glory of God more purely and perfectly than every type because he is God (with us).
Light in the Apostle's First Epistle
In no other writing can we find light playing so central a role as in John’s First Epistle. The apostle writes bluntly: “God is light.” (i, 5) This summarizes the Gospel message for John, and properly, as gospel, this message underpins the central burden of John’s plea that his “children” would walk in the light. So understanding the force of the rhetoric, “God is light,” is plainly vital to reading the Epistle.
The first verse of the first chapter echoes the first verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which in turn echoes the first verse of the first chapter of Genesis. This raises the question: To which beginning is John referring, the Creation narrative or the beginning of the Gospel? This is a false question. It fails to understand that John’s use of “beginning” in his Gospel identifies the beginning of Christ’s ministry as a new recapitulation of the original creation. As Peter Leithart comments, “By alluding to the ‘beginning’ of Genesis 1, [John] wants emphasize that the incarnation of the Word is the beginning of a new beginning. It’s the beginning of a new creation story.” At the get go, John’s light is the light of creation, eschatological light.
John proclaims the gospel of light so that his audience may have a fellowship with the apostles (i, 3) – which, in turn, is a fellowship with Jesus Christ (ii, 1) – which, in turn, is a fellowship with the Father. (i, 3) Bound up with the matter of walking in the light are questions of fellowship. To walk in the light is to walk in fellowship with the Christ of the apostles which is to have fellowship with the Father. Walking in darkness, then, must indicate the opposite: the golden chain of fellowship has been broken. And as Johannine light is the eschatological light of creation, questions of light and darkness must be questions of eschatological fellowship.
The First Epistle of John – if we read “light” along Johannine lines, and if we read the message that “God is light” as central to the Epistles’ message – addresses a problem of fellowship that flies in the face of eschatological-historical circumstances which John takes for granted. If this is true, then all questions of fellowship, atonement, knowledge, truth, love, antichrists, teaching, sin, righteousness, and idolatry – all important loci of John’s discussion – must be interpreted under a rubric which does justice to the Johannine eschatology that unifies the diverse subject matter into a (presumably) coherent message.
Light, Eschatology, and Hermeneutics
There are a number of reasons to doubt that John’s First Epistle is written to address the spread of Gnosticism. Chiefly, were it not for the input of extracanonical literature, you could not have guessed it. (This argument may sound “biblicist” in slant but the careful reader will detect our subtlety.) Given the course of revelation, given the history that springs forth as inspiration progresses from covenant to covenant, there is a final Christian witness. This fact is the heart of what is called “redemptive-historical interpretation” and, assuming its essential truth, we believe a certain overarching history can be discerned by means of Scripture alone. This is not to undermine the unquestionable dialectic between natural revelation (archaeology, patristic studies, etc.) and special revelation (Holy Writ, etc.), but only to insist that the nature of God’s speech is such that it creates its own context. A convincing case that John the Elder wrote at great pains to defeat the Hellenistic “Gnostics” requires demonstrating that this state-of-affairs fits better in redemptive-historical context than a story about Jews and apostasy. That this is so is hardly obvious.
Rather, given John’s penchant for incorporating eschatology so heavily into his primary letter, one wonders why it is not more obvious (even if undemonstrated in other respects) that Judaizers are in view. After all, the Elder points us to that new creation that has already happened (i, 1-3), the bearable light-ness of God (i, 5-7), an inaugurated eschatological state of fellowship between God, his people, and each other (ii, 8-11), marking the end of a world of darkness which we must not love since it is passing away (ii, 15-17). Indeed, he writes that this is the last hour, the hour of antichrists (ii, 18). Perhaps, the decision to detect something other than Judaism, here, stems from forgetting the connotative import of the “christ” in “anti-christs.”
Perhaps it stems from forgetting that John the Elder is also John the Jew. As such, we would do well to remind ourselves one more time that “Christ” (“Messiah”) is not a surname – it’s a vocational title. Calling Jesus “the Christ” signals the convergence of (at least) several Jewish themes of Davidic kingship, prophecy, and Temple, all of these comprehended in terms of the final stage of history. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that disciples of the Christ-Messiah came to be named after him, implicitly sharing in his calling (Acts xi, 26). Beyond this, though, two meanings emerge which should be here considered: the literal rendering which denotes anointing with oil and the much grander meaning which refers to the role of the eschatological Sabbath-Spirit. In calling Jesus “the Christ,” John tells us that Jesus is the one on whom the Spirit rests (John i, 29-34), explicitly linking oil and Spirit with messianism.
This shines some light on John’s discourse on antichrists, in which he links the themes of anointing, Spirit, and confessing Jesus as the Messiah (I John ii, 18-27). Literally, “antichrist” means an “adversary of Christ,” and John describes this adversary as a liar who “denies that Jesus is the Christ,” a denial of the Father and Son (v. 22) (a denial of both because denying the Son implies denial of the Father, v. 23). If the adversary of Christ is the one who denies that he is Christ, then we are pressed to wonder who would do such a thing? We are inclined to think that only those for whom “Messiah” carries substantial meaning (meaning pregnant with the oil and Spirit of which and to whom John refers) can take serious issue with the confession that Jesus of Nazareth is that person. In short, only the people who are promised messiah can deny messiah: Jews. And unsurprisingly, this is exactly what we see in chapter viii of John’s Gospel. Jesus announces that he is the “Light of the World” to the Jews and that to know him is to know his Father (v. 12-16). They deny that Jesus is who he says he is and he denies them the Father.
This isn’t the end of the story. It would be reckless to suggest that all relationships between the Johannine texts and Gnosticism (prototypical or otherwise) are imagined. Historically, a number of Fathers drew from the Johannine Epistles to combat the Gnostics, the Docetists, and the Cerinthians, especially with regard for their heretical Christologies. In fact, Eusebius and Irenaeus name Cerinthus as an actual contemporary and opponent of John. This shows us that the error John confronts in the Epistles bears significant analogy to the error of the Gnostics and their first-century predecessors. It does not follow, however, that John’s opponents are therefore not Judaizers. Rather, given the internal evidence that John is dealing with Judaizing, it follows that the error of the proto-Gnostics significant analogy to the error of the Judaizers. That is to say, the overlap of Judaism and Gnosticism may be larger than we are used to accepting. Peter J. Leithart, from the viewpoint that proto-gnosticism could better be described as either a “Judaizing Gnosticism” or a “gnosticizing Judaism,” has outlined these similarities in his commentary, From Behind the Veil. Reading the Apostle’s light/dark dualism in terms of covenantal progression from old to new, he sees that Judaizing and “Gnosticism [arise] from the same set of fears and desires.” Judaizing flees from the God who comes as man, preferring instead the mediation of angels that marks out the Old Covenant order. Gnosticism, too, prefers the god who is far off, the mediated god. Leithart notes, the Old Covenant functioned by mystery and hiddenness, noting especially the veiled Most Holy Place, and the privileged nature of God’s will to which only priests and prophets had access. In the age of the Gospel, the veil is torn, and the mystery of Christ was revealed to the whole world. “All that was in shadows is brought to the light. Judaizing attempts to maintain the age of secrecy that Jesus brought to an end; so does Gnosticism.”
Both Judaizing and Gnosticism deny “that God emerged from the twilight and shone like the Sun in visible, audible tangible flesh.” Thus, when John the elder wrote to the elect lady in exile, he wrote what would bring the Church through some of its “darkest” errors. In telling the tale of humanity growing from Adam to Christ, Douglas H. Knight has written, “In the first place sin is childishness.” Judaizing and Gnosticism both manifest that latent sinfulness that Christ has yet to purge from the whole world, that tendency to shy from the maturity that we are given in Christ. In the First Epistle of John, though, the Apostle recounts the whole of redemptive history, and assures us that we share in that same Spirit of Light which rests on the Son.
Monday, April 19, 2010
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