The meaning of the verse is Jesus is both life and light, two things which are inseparable. The main emphasis is looking forward to making children of God. This future outcome is presented as a continuation of Him through whom all things came into existence. The relevance of the past work is to show the one who had the ability to make all things continues to make all things, specifically children of God.
The Literary Structure
With respect to this verse 4, some believe the beginning completes the thought which begin in verse 3 and the next thought begins in the middle of the verse:
#1: 3 All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence. 4 What has come into existence by means of him was life.
#2: 4 And the life was the light of men. 5 And the light is shining in the darkness, but the darkness has not overpowered it. (NWT)
#1: 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
#2: 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (ESV)
When the text is parsed as in the NWT 1, in Him was life completes what has come into existence. The change in punctuation removes in Him was life making life and light independent of Him.
The original text lacked punctuation, but writers used other devices like structure to show where one thought ended and the next began. In his article Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature, Brad McCoy discusses chiasms, their use, and their exegetical significance. The Prologue is one example he gives showing how a chiastic structure functions to punctuate a passage: 2
A: The Word with God (1-2)
B: The Word's role in creation (3)
C: God's grace to mankind (4-5)
D: Witness of John the Baptist (6-8)
E: The Incarnation of the Word (9-11)
X: Saving faith in the Incarnate Word (12-13)
E': The Incarnation of the Word (14)
D': Witness of John the Baptist (15)
C': God's grace to mankind (16)
B': The Word's role in re-creation (17)
A': The Word with God the Father (18)
McCoy summarizes three significant aspects of a composition using this device: 3
- Delineate units of thought
- Accentuate the main idea or theme the writer is concerned to convey to their readers
- Compare and contrast the interplay between textually separated but thematically paired units of thought
The central theme in the Prologue is making children of God:
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Becoming children of God is a result of receiving Him and believing in His name. Significantly, it is He who gives the authority to those who believe. In other words, it is accomplished by the Word who had the authority and ability to give those who believe that which they were not born with and otherwise would not have obtained.
An important aspect of the Prologue is the presence of the Word in each distinct thought:
A: The Word with God (1-2)
B: The Word's role in creation (3)
C: The Word is life and light (4-5)
D: John the Baptist gives witness to the Word (6-8)
E: The Word comes to His own (9-11)
X: The Word gives authority to those who believe (12-13)
E': The Word is made flesh (14)
D': John the Baptist gives witness to the Word (15)
C': The fulness of the Word gives grace (16)
B': Grace and truth come from the The Word (17)
A': The Word returns and is with the Father (18)
Punctuating verses 3 and 4 as in the NWT removes the Word from the idea which follows and is contrary to the structure. It also implies life and light are not from the Word. This is at odds with the Word bringing all things into existence and being the integral component to making children of God. Therefore, the traditional punctuation is correct. Verse 4 begins the next thought with In Him was life and the life was the light of men.
The Grammatical Structure
The writer also employed grammar to show the complete thought. The composition is
ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων.
The grammatical device is the phrase
ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς which has two meanings:
And the life was the light of men (κα η ζωη ην το φως των ανθρωπων). Here the article with both ζωη and φως makes them interchangeable. "The light was the life of men" is also true.4
The writer composed a statement so that both in Him was life and the life was the light of men and in Him was life and the light was the life of men are true. The full meaning of the verse is:
in Him was life and the life was the light of men and
in Him was life and the light was the life of men
The life is the light of men and the light is the life of men. The first reading is a logical continuation of in Him was life.... The second reading is literally "behind the scenes." What is a grammatical possibility in the Prologue is developed as an explicit reality in the Gospel. When John reports Jesus saying I am the light of the world, it looks back to the Prologue, in Him was life and the light was the life of men.
Conclusion - Life and Light
John is affirming Jesus is both life and light and the inseparable connection between the two. The life in Him is life which is the light of men and He is the light which is the life of men.
Immediately after making this statement John makes two clarifying statements. First, he explains the role of John the Baptist as it relates to light:
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John focuses the Baptist's message on light. He is to bear witness about the light, Jesus, so that all might believe through Jesus. Importantly, the Baptist is not the light. He is simply a messenger of the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
The Baptist's role is further distinguished: Jesus is the true light. Jesus gives light to everyone. His light is the light of life just as His life is the life of light.
1. NWT is the New World Translation produced by the Watch Tower Society, also know as Jehovah's Witnesses.
2. Brad McCoy, "Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature." p 29 Chafer Theological Seminary
3. McCoy pp.30-31
4. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament