I think this deceptively simple sentence is way too easy to skip over. People usually do nothing with it beyond equating “darkness” with those who refuse Christ, who reject his divinity, who are either too dense or too given to sinfulness to recognize the light of God when it’s shining right before them. It too readily becomes a dismissive condemnation of “them.” Those people. The ones who don’t get it. The wrong/blind/pitiable nonbelievers. Too often the meaning of the sentence is reduced to “They who live in darkness do not understand the light of Christ.”
Yawn. Boring. We can do better.
I think the key to unlocking the richer intent of John 1:5 is found in the way it radically changes from the tense of what proceeded it. Look at John 1:3-5:
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
See? The third and fourth sentences are all about the past: ” … all things were made … nothing was made …. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” You would naturally expect the sentence following those to read, “The light shone in the darkness, but the darkness did not understand it.”
But it doesn’t stay in the past. Instead it says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” We are thus jumped from relative time to absolute, ever-present time. We go, in other words, from linear, human time (what the Greeks called chronos) to God’s time (known as kairos). (A nice little essay discussing the contrasting concepts of time represented by the words chronos and kairos is here.)
Even more dramatic than that: precisely half-way through John 1:5, the sentence switches from passive mode (“The light shone in the darkness”) to active (” … the darkness has not undersood it.”).And there you have it. In five short sentences we are shot with startling speed from the extremely general and abstract (“In the beginning …”) to the very core of our being. It’s breathtaking. And I think it’s meant to be literally that: the final half of John 1:5 is the tip of the traveling arrow formed by the whole of John 1:1-5. It is meant, finally and purposefully, to break through your skin, rip through your bones, and lodge directly in your heart.
What’s also fascinating about the second half of John 1:5 is its declaration of failure. It doesn’t say that so far the darkness hasn’t understood the light. It doesn’t say the darkness has generally failed to understand the light. It doesn’t say some of the darkness has been illuminated. It’s very clear: the darkness has not understood it. It has never understood it. Never. Not then. Not now. And very possibly, John is saying, not ever.
“The darkness has not understood it” is one of the most melancholy, human utterances in the Bible. It reminds us that the Book of John was written by a man who watched his dear and most precious friend—his spiritual mentor, his master, the Great Healer, the man he knew to be God bodily incarnated—beaten, flayed, nailed to a cross and left to die.
I think in John 1:5 the Beloved Disciple is telling us a good deal more than that others don’t understand the light. I think he’s telling us that we don’t, either.
It’s not the utterance of a defeatist, by any means. Of all people, John the Evangelist knows and believes in the living reality, through the Holy Spirit, of Jesus the Christ. But I do think it’s instructive to hear as at least part of what John is telling us at John 1:5 that we should never assume that we, either, have grasped the totality of the meaning or intent of God. I think he’s telling us that we cannot. I think John is reminding us that for as long as we remain on earth, our darkness remains with us. He’s trying to tell us why we will always need what Jesus so valiantly, and freely, offered.