John 1:5: The Archer’s Grief

Today we’re considering John 1:5, which reads: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

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.

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  • ric booth

    I love how John captures this chronos and kairos distinctions (3:16 is the classic I think). My theory is in God-time, the first thing he does after creation is go to the cross. The he comes into the garden to confront Adam and Eve (and me)…

    Thanks John.

  • Mike (FVThinker) Bur

    Hey!! I said that you were 'not wrong'. That should be affirming!! :-)

  • Lynn

    "…The final half of John 1:5 is the tip of the traveling arrow formed by the whole of John 1:1-5. It’s meant, finally and purposefully, to break through your skin, rip through your bones, and lodge in your heart."

    A similar invasive thrust is portrayed in Hebrews 4:12.

    Powerful insight John, skillfully descriptive. Wow. I also appreciated the link that discussed the concepts of time.

  • Greta Sheppard

    Amazing, John……I spoke on John 1:5 this morning

    Your observations are right on. However, in the margin of my bible the word 'comprehend' is interpreted as could not 'overcome' the darkness. Is there anything anywhere to prove that darkness can ever 'put out' (as in 'snuff out') light?

  • skerrib

    I like that a lot. Man, how often am I reading a verse or listening to a message thinking about all the people I wish were listening at the moment…when God's sitting next to me, quite possibly chuckling just a little bit, going "Skerrib, come on, I'm talking to you, you know."

  • FreetoBe

    New Revised Standard uses overcome, as does ESV, and Holman. Most others use a form of understand/comprehend.

    Interesting study, John.

  • Sara @ Mom-Me

    If you've never read The Parable of Joy. Reflections on the Wisdom of the Book of John by Michael Card, I would definitely recommend it. He, too, has a fascinating view of the first few verses of John and how it lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. He emphasizes the motif of misunderstanding that becomes apparent through Jesus' life.

  • John Shore

    Skerrib: Very nice. Thank you.

    Lynn: Thank you. (Folks: Here’s Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.)

    Greta: You’re exactly right; the genius of the word John uses for “comprehend” there is that it has three connotations: to grasp; to overpower/overcome; and to understand. Each, of course, is purposefully apropos. But you see what a distinctly different sentence it is if you switch out “understand,” or “comprehend” for “overcome.” Whole new thought. What translation of the Bible uses “overcome” right there?

  • John Shore

    And Ric: Nice idea! Very good. I love it.

  • wineymomma

    Once again you find the words that have been eluding me. When engaging in discussions of religion I am often confronted by people who really "know" how to use the word….if they only realized that "we should never assume that we, either, have grasped the totality of the meaning or intent of God."


  • Darya

    As someone who really doesn’t consider herself a Christian ( recovering-alcoholic-transgendered-buddhist,I guess? ), I’m pleased whenever someone points to something mystic and spiritually stimulating in a book that can read like the Palestine penal and health code circa 300 B.C.

    I think it’s very much the nature of life that we are “the darkness”, and we misinterpret or dismiss messages communicated by teachers like Jesus. Thanks for reminding me that we are always being taught.

  • Natalie Jones Is Tired

    I’ve never thought of this verse that way. I never thought that darkness could refer to sin and why Jesus died for us.

  • Random Name

    The holy righteousness of God is the light which darkness will understand. I can sit here and argue with a drug addict why drugs are harmful or with a sex crazed hormonal teenager how having sex will literally fuck up his life, but it wouldn’t do any good for darkness will never understand the ways of the light.

  • Kelly Withee via Facebook

    Wonderful! Well put.