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I have a simple The question is about John 1: 4

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

What is this "light of all mankind"? Is it conscience? And whatever it is why is the statement in the past tense? Is it not applicable anymore?

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First, the Greek verbs in John 1:4 - there are two here and both the same: ἦν (en) = "was"; which is imperfect, indicative, active, 3rd person singular. The fact that it is an imperfect verb means that that John intends to convey that Jesus was the light and remains the light - the imperfect verb means the action does not stop.

John's theme of Jesus being characterized by "light" is frequent in his writings. He uses the idea in two separate ways:

Literally

  • John 17:5 - And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed.
  • 1 John 1:5 - And this is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you: God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. Compare Gen 1:3, Eze 1:27-28
  • Dan 10:6 - His body was like beryl, his face like the brilliance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of polished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.
  • Rev 1:14-16 - The hair of His head was white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. ... His face was like the sun shining at its brightest.
  • 1 Thess 2:8 - And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming.
  • 1 Tim 6:16 - He alone is immortal and dwells in unapproachable light.

John also uses this same idea metaphorically to teach about spiritual illumination.

  • 1 John 1:6, 7 - If we say we have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
  • John 8:12 - Once again, Jesus spoke to the people and said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”
  • John 9:5 - While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
  • John 12:46 - I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in Me should remain in darkness.
  • Matt 4:16 - the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
  • Luke 2:32 - a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.
  • Eph 5:13 - But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that is illuminated becomes a light itself.
  • Col 1:12 - giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
  • 1 Peter 2:9 - But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

... and so forth. The best discussion of this metaphor of light is found in John 9 when Jesus healed the man born blind and then used this as a teaching device that the blind could not see the light of Christ's teaching.

39 Then Jesus declared, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?” 41 “If you were blind,” Jesus replied, “you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” John 9:39-41

John 1:4 - In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.

This is a very succinct statement that Jesus is the source of life AND that fact is what illuminates the mind of believers and inspires their hope in the future provided by Jesus.

Benson comments as follows:

He, who is essential life, and the author of life to all that live, was also the fountain of wisdom, holiness, and happiness to man in his original state.

Barnes is more expansive:

The life was the light of men - "Light" is that by which we see objects distinctly. The light of the sun enables us to discern the form, the distance, the magnitude, and the relation of objects, and prevents the perplexities and dangers which result from a state of darkness. Light is in all languages, therefore, put for "knowledge" - for whatever enables us to discern our duty, and that saves us from the evils of ignorance and error. "Whatsoever doth make manifest is light," Ephesians 5:13. See Isaiah 8:20; Isaiah 9:2. The Messiah was predicted as the "light" of the world, Isaiah 9:2, compared with Matthew 4:15-16; Isaiah 60:1. See John 8:12; "I am the light of the world;" John 12:35-36, John 12:46; "I am come a light into the world." The meaning is, that the λόγος Logos or Word of God is the "instructor or teacher" of mankind. This was done before his advent by his direct agency in giving man reason or understanding, and in giving his law, for the "law was ordained by angels 'in the hand of a mediator'" Galatians 3:19; after his advent by his personal ministry when on earth, by his Spirit John 14:16, John 14:26, and by his ministers since, Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28.

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  • Ultimately the Glory of God is the light and Jesus is that through which we perceive that Glory. "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. - Revelation 21:22-23 – Mike Borden Aug 2 at 13:22
  • Thanks, @Dottard with the explanation on the imperfect verb. It was helpful! – Jabez Aug 2 at 15:38
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    @user48152 - I understand that. But John 17:5 suggests that they shared that and had similar "light" characteristics (whatever that means). The other passages also confirm this such as 2 Thess 2:8 – Dottard Aug 3 at 6:00
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    @user48152 - nice try but, unfortunately, I did not say that and object to words being put in my mouth. – Dottard Aug 3 at 8:48
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    @user48152 - I agree with Dottard - your comments should be removed, and an apology would not go amiss either. – Lesley Aug 3 at 9:32
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"Light" can be considered a metaphor of divine presence: for instance, when we understand our mistake, that we trespassed against other person and through this understanding are ignited by a desire to correct it, say apologies, etc. it can be said that we transferred from the "darkness" of ignorance to the "light" of knowledge and repentance.

The very Principle of and the very Creator of our ability of understanding such errors is God-Logos, the co-eternal Son of the God-Father, and thus He can metaphorically be called "Light". In fact, like our physical eyes can see nothing without the physical sun enlightening the landscape (or the moon itself enlightened by the sun, and let us not speak for example's sake about electric lights or lights of bonfires), similarly our created consciences are dark unless enlightened by Logos.

Now, this Light is universal and not parochial, Jewish, or Polish or Senegalian, for all mankind can tell good from bad and rightness from error; that 2+2=4 we understand by our conscience enlightened by Logos, and in "we" I include all mankind, even those poor feminists who ill-advisedly do not like this word :) )

But Orthodox theology also says that God is Light in a literal sense also, implying that God's uncreated energies, can be even perceived physically, as light, like they were perceived physically on mount Tabor by Peter, John and his brother Jacob, where the Energies were visible as shining out from the Lord who showed them His divine Glory. And to those uncreated Energies, the Grace, also pertains universality.

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