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Every Man Enlightened

I am posting quite late today because my reading of Calvin ran into a snag. As I was appreciating his interpretation of John 1:9, I realized that it was dependent on a translation that disagrees significantly with my preferred translation, the NASB. Was I about to post nonsense? I needed to know.

My first step was to look at the Greek text:

ην το φως το αληθινον ο φωτιζει παντα ανθρωπον ερχομενον εις τον κοσμον

As I’ve said on previous occasions, I’m no Greek scholar. The text above is, as they say, all Greek to me. If not for my Greek lexicon and other helps, it would just be scribbling. I only include it for the benefit of genuine New Testament scholars, and because it looks kind of cool. It is also worth noting that this text is identical whether you read the Textus Receptus or Westcott-Hort, so KJV-only folks can relax (yes, I saw that vein popping out on your forehead). Now, look at a few English translations:


The true light was that which enlighteneth every man who cometh into the world.


That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

Young’s Literal Translation:

He was the true Light, which doth enlighten every man, coming to the world;


There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.


The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

I normally trust the NASB as the most literal translation, but (translators being fallible) I don’t take it for granted. As you can see, Young’s translation maintains the word order of Calvin and the KJV, but with a single comma, changes the subject of the phrase “coming to the world” from “every man” to “the true Light.” The reason this matters (besides the fact that accuracy always matters) is that, as Calvin points out below, “every man that cometh into the world” is necessarily universal, meaning that every man—not only the elect, as some say —are enlightened. The latter translation leaves room for (but does not require) a limited “all,” as in John 12:32.

Matthew Henry follows the former translation, and specifies a universal “all.”1 John Gill likewise accepts that translation, but admits the viability of either interpretation.2 John Macarthur agrees with the NASB translation—“Through his coming into the world, Jesus enlightens every man.”3—but also agrees with Calvin that “every” is meant to be universal. A. T. Robertson renders it “every man as he comes into the world.”4

While there are, no doubt, translation issues of which I am ignorant, I am reasonably confident that the older translation, in this case, is the correct one (if not, I will happily be corrected). In either case, Calvin’s interpretation appears to be correct. Being satisfied, then, that he was on the right track, I was freed to post the excerpt I had selected. So the last word goes, fittingly, to Calvin.

imgThe true light was. The Evangelist did not intend to contrast the true light with the false, but to distinguish Christ from all others, that none might imagine that what is called light belongs to him in common with angels or men. The distinction is, that whatever is luminous in heaven and in earth borrows its splendor from some other object; but Christ is the light, shining from itself and by itself, and enlightening the whole world by its radiance; so that no other source or cause of splendor is anywhere to be found. He gave the name of the true light, therefore, to that which has by nature the power of giving light.
   Which enlighteneth every man. The Evangelist insists chiefly on this point, in order to show, from the effect which every one of us perceives in him, that Christ is the light. He might have reasoned more ingeniously, that Christ, as the eternal light, has a splendor which is natural, and not brought from any other quarter; but instead of doing so, he sends us back to the experience which we all possess. For as Christ makes us all partakers of his brightness, it must be acknowledged that to him alone belongs strictly this honor of being called light.
   This passage is commonly explained in two ways. Some restrict the phrase, every man, to those who, having been renewed by the Spirit of God, become partakers of the life-giving light. Augustine employs the comparison of a schoolmaster who, if he happen to be the only person who has a school in the town, will be called the teacher of all, though there be many persons that do not go to his school. They therefore understand the phrase in a comparative sense, that all are enlightened by Christ, because no man can boast of having obtained the light of life in any other way than by his grace. But since the Evangelist employs the general phrase, every man that cometh into the world, I am more inclined to adopt the other meaning, which is, that from this light the rays are diffused over all mankind . . . For we know that men have this peculiar excellence which raises them above other animals, that they are endued with reason and intelligence, and that they carry the distinction between right and wrong engraven on their conscience. There is no man, therefore, whom some perception of the eternal light does not reach.
   But as there are fanatics who rashly strain and torture this passage, so as to infer from it that the grace of illumination is equally offered to all, let us remember that the only subject here treated is the common light of nature, which is far inferior to faith; for never will any man, by all the acuteness and sagacity of his own mind, penetrate into the kingdom of God. It is the Spirit of God alone who opens the gate of heaven to the elect. Next, let us remember that the light of reason which God implanted in men has been so obscured by sin, that amidst the thick darkness, and shocking ignorance, and gulf of errors, there are hardly a few shining sparks that are not utterly extinguished.

—John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVII, Commentary on the Gospel according to John Volume I (Baker Books, 2009), 37–38.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary Volume 5 (Hendrickson, 1994), 686.

Exposition of the Old and New Testaments Volume 7 ( The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006) 741–742.

The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, John 1–11 (Moody, 2006) 32.

Word Pictures in the New Testament, Volume 5 (Broadman Press, 1932), 9.

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#1 || 10·01·29··11:34 || Daniel

The question really is, what was coming into the world, the True Light, or every human?

The verb "ην" (He/She/It was) predicates something about something else. In this case we know that it is predicating something about Jesus ("Jesus was...").

I think that it was the True Light that was coming into the world, so that the discriptive addendum, "which gives light to every person" in the passage modifies/describes the nature of that light which was coming into the world, as opposed to enlightening the "people" who were coming into the world.

Can it be that Jesus only enlightens the sons of Adam? Did not the powers and principalities stand on tip toe to learn what God had planned, and were they not also englightened by the coming of the Messiah? Certainly they were. The Old Testament prophets foretold this light that was coming into the world, that it would englighten in ways they were not privy to (though they longed to be privy to such information).

Thus I see the thrust of that passage supplying the historical fact that in John's day, Jesus was coming into the world - the True Light, which enlightens all people.

I understand "enlightens all people" to be a comparative use of hyperbole; seriously, when I say that Jesus is the "Lord of all" I do not mean by that to suggest that all obey Him, rather I mean that He is the only legitimate source of Lordship whether you recongize that Lordship or not.

In a like manner I see Christ as the only source of enlightenment in the world - not that every person is enlightened, but that every person who is enlightened is enlighted by Christ.

The Apostle's point here is to describe John the Baptist, not as a source of light in himself, but as a reflection of that light which was to come.

When we see that the thread of Apostle's thought here runs temporally from John to Jesus, we understand that Jesus was the something that was coming into the world, and enlightenment to all people through Him.

That's how I see it at least.

#2 || 10·01·29··22:49 || David Mohler

I enjoyed this article. Thanks! (I read you on my Kindle.)

#3 || 10·01·30··12:39 || David

Thanks, David. I’ve wondered what sort of person would actually pay to read this.

#4 || 10·02·02··09:41 || Daniel

I read your blog the old fashioned way... on my iphone.

#5 || 10·03·18··07:49 || Linda

After the enlightment, what happened?

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