The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13)
There are so many different directions one could run with this passage. Matthew Henry once said that whole books could be birthed from verse 12 alone, and indeed, that’s the verse in which we will spend most of our time. But first, let’s do a quick run down of what we’ve seen in this chapter so far.
In our first week we read that the Word–still unnamed, Logos in Greek–was with God, was God, was in the beginning with God; he created all things, still sustains all things, gives life and is the light (intelligence?) of men. The darkness cannot comprehend him. In our second week we were led down a small rabbit trail to be introduced to John the Baptizer, who was himself not the light, we were told, but came instead to bear witness to the the light. Now we are brought back to the Light himself.
The true light, John writes in today’s passage, came into the world (verse 9). He was in the world, and the world which was made through him (and held together by him, and existing of him) recognized him not (verse 10). In fact, he came to his own, and his own did not receive him (11). But even though many did not receive him, there were some who did; these, believing in his name, were given the power to become children of God (12). They were born anew, born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (verse 13). Let’s unpack.
I’m going to leave verses 9-11 standing on their own as they are pretty self explanatory (albeit shocking). The Creator himself came unto his creation–we as readers haven’t yet learned how, or in what form–and his creation did not know him. He came to his very own chosen people, and they received him not.
But verse 12 assures us that despite this dismal reception, there were some who did recognize, who did indeed receive, and this word receive packs a lot of punch. Lambavnw in Greek, it means essentially to make one’s own, to appropriate to one’s self. We strive, reach to obtain, do not reject or refuse; we gain and that which we’ve taken hold of becomes ours.
From what I understand here, receiving the Word and believing in his Name are essentially the same action. They define one another. To receive him is to obtain him and take him as our own, making him our own possession as we are likewise his. We obtain, receive, by believing in his name. We’ll look a bit more into this in a moment.
Reading this verse, which is essentially the gospel in 21 words, I am struck by the implication that though all mankind exists because of and through the Word–the Logos–this mere existence does not make us children of God. We do not qualify for sonship because we are born on this planet, not even because we are created in God’s image, breathing the breath of life extending from our Creator. No, in this verse a distinction is made between mere sons of men, and the sons of God; a distinction not unlike that in pre-flood Genesis, when the Sons of God were said to wed with the daughters of men. There are children, it seems, and then there are children.
To become a child of God takes an active acceptance and invitation, an active trust, on the part of a person. It is a hard teaching, like Peter once said: so hard, who can receive it? Not only because it seems unfair is this a difficult teaching to swallow, but also because the question begs: how, in a world that cannot recognize the very One whose energy and magnificence permeate every particle of the universe, are any of us to stand a chance to obtain the status of Child of God? If we must let go the idea that we are all naturally God’s children (where salvation is concerned), then how is it that any of us can be saved?
Verse 12 in my translation (the ESV) says that those who receive and believe in the name of the Word are given the right to become children of God. But the word right–exousia–commands more than just an idea that “I can do it if I want to do it,” which is a very American spin on the concept of rights. Exousia, translated right in the ESV and many other modern versions, is translated power in the King James. In fact, exousia is translated power everywhere else in the New Testament that John utilizes the term, excepting a single verse in Revelation. What we see here is a Greek word that encompasses an idea of ability and authority. You will find several literal renderings of verse 12 that in fact use authority in place of the words right or power. Think about that. He gives us the power to become children of God. He gives us the ability to become children of God. He gives us the authority to become children of God.
Understanding the meaning of this term sheds light on the key that gives us hope. For the verse does not say that if we receive and believe merely, we become sons of God. No, that would place the weight on us, would put the value on our effort. The verse instead teaches that the weight is on God himself. The Word comes to us. He comes to us. He reveals himself, making himself known. Indeed, we are his very own already, and like a child attuned to a mother’s voice, so our very being has been created to tune to him. It is our propensity as a creation to recognize our Creator, we are formed with the ability, and really must reject him outright if we do not receive. He is the one putting forth effort by coming to where we are.
When we do receive what he reveals, casting our faith on the waters of his Name, then God himself gives us power to become his children. There is a gulf fixed we cannot span on our own. We have no power to become his children, however inborn the ability to recognize who he is (and owing to sin’s inheritance, this ability is greatly dimmed). The acquiring of sonship requires power–ability, authority, vested right–and even here, in the beginning of John’s gospel, we are promised that the power to save belongs to a mighty God, and is a gift he alone bestows.
We cannot become children of God on our own. We need something more than blood (natural birth), will of flesh (our inclinations), and will of man (the choice of another human being). Our salvation and the resulting eternity with Christ cannot be inherited by any means of humanity, it is not our common lot. We each must be born of God, we each must be born anew, we each must call on the name of the Lord, and be saved. It is to this end that the Word came to the world.
Here we are in Advent, with eager expectation awaiting the Promised One who is to be revealed. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.
Note: Matthew Henry in his commentary on verses 9-14–which I enjoyed deeply–had much to say about the Name on which we must believe. He writes persuasively of how this term refers not to the literal name Jesus but to the actual essence of God, the essence of the God-head, of the Creator–and though he doesn’t use the words, I would add it refers to God’s character, which ultimately is God’s Name. In this way, he says, it is true that humans from the dawn of time till now have called upon the Lord, have believed in his name, and have become children of God whether they knew the name of Christ or not. Henry infers that still today any who believe in God and receive the light they are shown, even if they do not know that light by name of Jesus, shall, by gospel standards, be saved. What do you think? Read his thoughts here.