‘This is the condemnation, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3:19)
Nothing is more welcome than to see a light in the darkness. Darkness brings confinement to the elderly, fear to children, danger to travellers, frustration to those who have work to complete but cannot do it once the daylight slips away. On the other hand, darkness aids the thief and encourages the vandal. It is a sign to loutish revellers that their time has come. We seldom enjoy physical darkness. It is something to be endured until the day returns.
But what is true physically does not apply spiritually. In spiritual matters, human beings love darkness. They do not merely like it. They have a deep affection for it. They are wedded to it because, says John, their deeds are evil. But is this really true? This Christmas, as always, there will be much harmless fun and enjoyment. Happy families will gather to celebrate the season. Gifts will be exchanged and parties will be held. How can we talk about ‘darkness’ in the midst of so much happiness and goodwill?
The answer is that we are so familiar with the darkness that we do not see it. Spiritual darkness is so universal as to be invisible. As the air around us is transparent, but touches us at every point, so the all-pervasive darkness of the spirit remains unseen but affects our lives in all that we do. But unless we learn to recognize the spiritual darkness that surrounds us, we shall never understand the need for light. And since the light of which the Bible speaks is none other than Jesus Christ, we shall never understand the meaning of Christmas and why he came to earth two thousand years ago.
The apostle John was writing about Jesus of Nazareth. ‘In him was life,’ declared the apostle, ‘and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it’ (John 1:4-5). As the stars appear most bright in the darkest sky, so the light which is Christ burns most brightly in the spiritual night-time of the human race. To understand the glory of the incarnation of Christ, then, we must examine the darkness in the souls of men.
First of all, as sons of Adam, we have ‘darkened hearts’ (Romans 1:21). Paul makes this statement as he surveys the ancient world, but what was true then is also true today. God reveals himself to men in creation, for anyone with discernment would recognize his ‘eternal power and Godhead’ from the things that he has made. Today we live in an unprecedented age of discovery. Never before has man been able to see, as he does now, the amazing intricacy and rational design which underlies the natural world. Science has drawn aside the veil and shown us the true glory of the universe, from atoms to galaxies. Surely man should stand in awe of his creator? But no; his heart is darkened. Professing himself to be wise, he becomes foolish, and attributes the glories of God’s creation to the idols of evolution and random process. Man perceives the mathematical elegance of the natural world, an elegance which we still struggle to comprehend, and calls it all the work of blind chance, mindless motion and crude chaos.
How foolish can we get? Yet even Christians acquiesce in this conspiracy of darkened hearts to rob God of his glory. Very little protest is raised against this darkness which denies the very existence of God. It is taught in our schools and broadcast nightly into our homes, and we accept it as intellectual food rather than reject it as the product of darkened hearts. Yet John takes pains in his Gospel to introduce Christ as the divine ‘Word’ by whom all things were created. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made by him, and without him nothing was made that was made’ (John 1:1-3). This much-neglected truth is the antidote to the darkness of our hearts. As that darkness is manifested in a rejection of the Creator, so the light that Christ provides reveals first and foremost that he is the God and Maker of us all. This is where the gospel begins.
The darkness embraces not only men’s hearts but also their minds. If they are insulated from God’s presence in nature, how much more are they unable to see him in Christ! ‘If our gospel is veiled,’ says Paul, ‘it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ … should shine on them’ (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Satan, then, is the cause of men’s darkened understanding, for they are under his thrall. He blinds his subjects to all spiritual truth, for ‘the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Corinthians 2:14). But above all, he blinds men’s minds against the light of the gospel of Christ. With what result? They turn their backs on it, and go their way in this world as if Christ had never lived, had never died, to save men from their sins. Ultimately, they ‘perish’, banished from God’s presence for all eternity, because they would not, could not, see their need of Christ.
If this is the case, what hope is there for a race estranged from God? If people cannot see that God exists, cannot recognize his work in creation, and cannot understand the gospel when they hear it, who can be saved? Jesus’ reply to this question is as follows: ‘With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible’ (Mark 10:27).
The light shines in the darkness
To truly celebrate Christmas is to recognize that ‘light has come into the world’ (John 3:19). When Jesus was born at Bethlehem he fulfilled the words of Isaiah written six hundred years earlier. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined’ (Isaiah 9:1-2).
But how can the light of Christ disperse the darkness of our hearts and minds? It does so through a work of divine creation as great, in its way, as that which called the worlds into existence. Paul writes, ‘God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness [in creation] … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Quite simply, God himself scatters our darkness, and banishes the blindness of the soul. He does so by a gracious and irresistible work of his Spirit in those that have ‘been appointed to eternal life’ and who therefore believe the gospel (Acts 13:48). What do they see? The glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; that is, their blindness is replaced by sight; their horizon is filled with Christ; their minds are dazzled by his glory; their hearts are filled with his love; their affections are raptured by his grace; they discern the splendour both of the person and the purpose of God.