These verses are mostly about John the Baptist, and since we studied his life back in August, so we won’t spend a lot of time on him here. There’s a special phrase at the end of the passage, however, which I’d like to focus on: “The true light that gives light to everyone. . .”
Now there are different ways to interpret this phrase, so let’s try to narrow down the possibilities. What type of “light” is he talking about? Well, you could take it to be a metaphor for salvation, but that has some problems, since not everyone is saved. You could argue that God has offered salvation to everybody (which I think Scripture teaches), but it sort of stretches the meaning to say that he's “given” it to everyone. You could also see it as special revelation from God’s word, but he hasn’t given that to everyone either. I'm not totally dogmatic on this, but it seems that the phrasing best refers to something else.
This seems to be a good springboard for discussing the doctrine of General Revelation. The best way to define it is by contrasting it with Special Revelation. The latter is revealed truth which we'd never know unless God directly intervened in human history and made an appearance. When the Lord appeared to Moses, that was in this category. Of course, the first and foremost example of this is the collection of Scripture which we know as the Bible. In this book, using the mouths and pens of prophets and historians, God showed us things about himself that we'd never figure out on our own: How God created the world, the Fall of mankind, his standards of holiness, his divine nature, what happens in the afterlife, his plans for the conclusion of history, etc.
General revelation, by contrast, is open to pretty much everyone in the world. Part of this is a basic sense of morality, which every culture has to some degree. C. S. Lewis outlined this for us beautifully in The Abolition of Man. In it he lists universal principles which almost every culture has adhered to, in word if not in deed. Then he lists specific quotes from different religious leaders and philosophers which agree with the sentiment. For example, he might list “Condemnation of unnecessary killing,” and then quote from Buddha, Confucius, and Plato. The point of this is not to put the Bible on the same level as other religious systems; quite the opposite, in fact. His point is that God has revealed truth to all people, but our sinful natures have distorted it. Imagine, if you will, a culture in which treachery is celebrated, in which a man boasts of backstabbing his best friend. Imagine a world in which ingratitude is rewarded, in which theft is applauded. As Lewis said, religions might differ on whether you can have one wife or four, but none of them tell you that you can have any woman you want. They might differ on whether to lie to an outsider, but none of them hold up dishonesty as a virtue.
So what difference does this make? God has revealed himself in some degree to every person on earth. And this partially obscured--never fully sufficient--amount of light has now come out and is now revealing himself to the world. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world now. Can't you feel the anticipation John feels to tell us more about this Light?
This also means that if you’re trying to reach someone with the Good News of Christ, you have a starting point with them. You might not see it at first, but the One who came and died for them has not left them completely in the dark. Look for it, and pray to find it.
Lord Jesus, you want to see people saved much more than I do. Open my eyes to the open doors you’ve placed around me, please.