I recently completed a nine-month-long study of 1 John for my apprenticeship for seminary. After all that study of 1 John, I now want to turn to the Gospel according to John, where I suspect there is an even more profound and deeper development of many of the same themes as the epistle.
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
"Life" and "light" are two very important metaphors in John's theology, and this verse affirms a central connection between the two of them. This same Logos, who is with God, and is God, and through whom absolutely everything was created, has life within himself. This life, at the same time, is also the light of all human persons (to phos tou anthropon). What is the significance of these metaphors, and what is the significance of their close connection, according to this verse?
On the one hand, it seems to me that life is fundamentally connected with experience. The difference between something that is living and something which isn't living is the fact that the one can experience the world to a certain extent, whereas the other cannot. This also speaks to the quality of experience, however, for we commonly distinguish between biological life and life lived in its fullest sense. Plenty of people are biologically alive -- they have a pulse, their brain is functioning, they are conscious, and so on -- but are lacking life in the fullest sense. Their experience, in other words, is lacking energy, lacking vitality, lacking joy, lacking that which the person can appreciate and value and feel joy over. To my mind, then, life is a kind of full experience of the world (and of God, and of other people, etc.) of which a person is conscious and can appreciate.
On the other hand, light has to do with the intellect and with action. What is the difference between a room that is dark and one in which there is light? In the dark room, you cannot see where you are going; you will run into obstacles, and you cannot find the object for which you seek, since your eyes lack light. But once the light is turned on, then your agency is newly enabled: you know what you are looking for, and you know how to get it, because you can see where everything is. You are newly aware of the natures of the things around you. Light, then, is a kind of vision or knowledge that makes you capable of seeking your goals with efficiency.
With these comments in mind, the connection between life and light should be obvious enough. A person who remains in darkness -- who cannot see the truth, who doesn't know how to go about his life, who is unable effectively to seek happiness because she doesn't know what is true and what is false -- cannot truly have life. No such person can have the fullness of experience which requires that we be able to discern between truth and falsity, between real and non-real, between good and bad. That is why so many people are biologically alive and yet lack the fullness of life which I talked about earlier: because they don't know how to act, they don't know what to do, they don't know what is right and what is wrong for them. But because nobody can "sit still," so to speak, because we are inevitably always searching for that which will give us the fullness of life, such a person ends up "looking for love in all the wrong places." They think that uninhibited sex or drugs or power or money or fame or whatever will make them happy, will give them the fullness of life. But they end up empty in the end, because they lack light to see that all such pursuits are idolatrous: it is a seeking in the creature of that which only the Creator can provide.
John's claim, then, that the Logos has life within himself, and that his life is the light of all people, can be understood like this. The Logos, which was incarnate in Christ, has life within himself. Whereas we lack life within ourselves -- we always seek it from whatever is outside us -- the Logos on the other hand is that source and fountain of all life, which grounds the possibility of the existence of imperfect, contingent living beings such as ourselves, whose life is clearly corruptible and derived. And the life of the Logos is not unrelated to his light, because we need the light to see the Logos for what he is. We can have life from the Logos only because he gives us light, so that we can see the truth about ourselves, about God, and about the way we ought to behave ourselves.
There is no separating life from light. The fullness of life, that profound experience of joy and happiness at one's state in the world, can only come about in contact with the Logos, who is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Yet at the same time, this fullness of life doesn't come about without the mediation of the light, especially of the light of the gospel. We need to know who Jesus is, and to accept his teaching, so that we can have access to the fullness of life which is in him.
This verse, as abstruse and esoteric as it may sound, really is quite practical in the end, as all proper theology ought to be. Do you feel a certain emptiness which is properly described as a lack of life? Are you lacking in that vital experience of fullness, of joy, of happiness and satisfaction at your circumstances which makes life worth living? Everyone who feels this way ought to know that we lack life only because we are not in communion with the Logos, who is Jesus of Nazareth. Only in communion with him, and in acceptance of him and obedience to his commandments, can we have the fullness of life which we all seek -- only if we accept his light, as well.