Verses 4 and 5 are interrelated, combining in their lines the themes of life (zwh/) and light (fw=$). Both of these themes, apart from their value each as a natural religious (and theological) metaphor, are specifically associated with the divine Wisdom in Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Verse 4 emphasizes life, while verse 5 focuses on the theme of light.
Life (zwh/), verse 4
“In him was life,
and th(is) life was the light of men”
There are many references to life in the Wisdom literature, associated with the Wisdom of God. These tend to emphasize natural life (i.e., long life) as much as the divine/eternal life, but there is a clear association between Wisdom and the life-giving power of God. Of the many verses that could be cited, see Prov 3:16, 18; 4:13, 22-23; 8:32-35; 13:14; 15:24; 16:22; Sirach 4:12f; Wisdom 6:18-19; Baruch 3:14; 4:1.
The term lo/go$, and the Logos-concept, blends the idea of Wisdom together with the Word of God. YHWH spoke the universe into existence through His life-giving Word (Gen 1:1ff), the same Word which spoke the Torah to Moses, the oracles to the Prophets, and wisdom for the righteous. The term “instruction” similarly encompasses both aspects—word and wisdom—and, indeed, the Instruction (Torah) came to be personified in Jewish tradition, much like the Word and Wisdom of God. The Old Testament basis for this, associating the Torah with the life-giving Word of YHWH, can be seen in passages such as the Song of Moses (Deut 32:47), the great Psalm 119 (vv. 17, 25, 107), and other references as well. Baruch 4:1 is a good example of how closely the personified Torah and Wisdom were connected in Jewish thought.
Here in the Prologue, eternal life, the life of God is said to be “in” (e)n) the Logos. This goes well beyond the idea that God created all things through the Logos (thus giving them life), as expressed in verse 3. In verse 4, the focus is on the life that God Himself possesses, and which the Logos shares. This is the special (theological) meaning of the noun zwh/ as it is used throughout the Johannine writings. The noun occurs 36 times in the Gospel and 13 more in the Letters; if we add in the 17 occurrences in the book of Revelation (counting it as a Johannine work), that comes to nearly half of all the New Testament occurrences of the word (66 out of 135). Clearly “life” is an important keyword in the Johannine writings, and the way it is introduced here in the Prologue is significant indeed.
The second line of the verse (“and the life was the light of men”) is a bit more difficult to explain. Again, it would be easy to interpret this in a natural sense—i.e., the wisdom of God that enlightens human beings (esp. the righteous). This is certainly a fundamental theme of Wisdom literature, as there are many passages which associate Wisdom (and, similarly the Word and Torah of God) with light—cf. Psalm 36:9; 119:105, 130; Prov 4:18; 6:23; Eccl 2:13; Wisdom 7:10, 26ff; 18:4; Sirach 32:16; Baruch 3:14; 4:1-2.
However, it must be emphasized here that, just as zwh/ refers to the life of God (i.e., divine/eternal Life), so also fw=$ in the Gospel of John refers to divine Light—the light of God that is manifest in the person of Jesus (the Son). It is another way that Jesus is identified with the Logos—the Word and Wisdom of God—in the Prologue (cf. the prior note on v. 2).
Light (fw=$), verse 5
“and the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not take it down.”
While the term “light” (fw=$) was introduced in verse 4, it is featured here in v. 5, establishing the important dualistic contrast between light and darkness (skoti/a). This light-vs-darkness contrast is natural, and occurs quite frequently as a religious and ethical motif in many traditions worldwide. It is used by a number of New Testament authors (and speakers), but is particularly prominent in the Johannine writings, being featured at several important points in the discourses: at the climax of the Nicodemus discourse (3:19), as part of the Light-theme in the Tabernacles discourses (8:12), the entire chapter 9 episode (healing the blind man, see v. 4), and at the conclusion of the first half of the Gospel (the ‘Book of Signs’, 12:35, 46; cp. 11:10). There also several key allusions within the traditional narrative, which take on added meaning in a Johannine context (cf. 3:2; 6:17; 13:30; 19:39; 20:1; 21:3). The “world” (ko/smo$) is dominated by darkness, while light belongs to the domain of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and those who trust in him.
The verbs used here in verse 5 are worth noting. The first, fai/nw, means “shine”. It is, of course, a natural verb to use in reference to light; however, like the related noun fw=$, it has special meaning as part of the Johannine vocabulary. Admittedly, the verb fai/nw occurs just three times (here, and in 5:35; 1 Jn 2:8); but when we combine these with the 29 occurrences of fw=$ (23 in the Gospel, 6 in the Letters), along with the related verb fanero/w (“make [to] shine forth”), an extensive thematic portrait emerges. Jesus, the Son and Logos of God, possesses the divine Light of God, and, in his own person and work, makes this Light “shine forth” to others.
The second verb, in the second line of v. 5, is katalamba/nw, which literally means “take down”. It can be understood in a negative, positive, or neutral sense; the parallel in 12:35 strongly suggests a negative meaning here—i.e., of a person who attempts to take someone down, with hostile or evil intent. The opposition of darkness to light means that darkness will attempt to “take down” (i.e., bring down, cover over, extinguish) the light. This dualism is fundamental to the Johannine theology and Christian worldview, as noted above. The world is opposed to God the Father—and thus also is hostile to Jesus the Son, and to the believers who trust in him. This thematic emphasis runs through all the Discourses, and is developed in a number of important ways.
Elsewhere, in the Johannine Letters, the same dualism is present. Jesus is the “true light” of God that has shone forth in the darkness of the world (cf. 1 Jn 1:5-7ff; 2:8-11). Light and darkness are fundamentally opposed and cannot co-exist. Ultimately, the light of God dispels the darkness completely.
In concluding our study on this part of the Prologue, it is worth presenting again verses 3-5 as a poetic unit:
“All (thing)s came to be through him,
and apart (from) him came to be
not even one (thing) that has come to be.
In him was life,
and th(is) life was the light of men;
and the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not take it down.”
A pair of 3-line (tricolon) sub-units surround the central declaration “in him was life”. The first three lines (v. 3) refer to the original creation of the world, while the last three lines (in v. 4) describe the origins of the new creation that is introduced through the person and work of Jesus (identified with the Logos). Like the eternal Wisdom and Word of God, the Son brings life and light to all things. In particular, it is to the chosen ones (believers), who are able to experience the divine Life and Light in a way that the world simply cannot. Since the world has come to be dominated by darkness, it is only the believers, currently living in the world, who are able to embrace the light.