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Thick Clouds, Darkness and Spiritual Abuse
It is true that those who follow Jesus “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” because Jesus is “the light of the world” (8:12). At the same time, those who follow Jesus still experience darkness in various forms. In John’s Gospel the stories of the disciples in the dark at sea and Mary Magdalene in the dark at the empty tomb have enduring significance for Christians who know the darkness that falls from the felt absence of Jesus.
This week I want to reflect on the emphasis of darkness in John’s Gospel. Consider this a mini biblical theology of darkness, illuminating how Jesus is presented by John as the light which rescues those who have been wounded by abusive leaders and oppressive religious systems.
John uses the word for “dark/darkness” eight times.1 Six of those are clearly metaphorical/symbolic (1:5, 8:12, 12:35-46). Two of those are clearly literal: it is dark when the disciples are alone at sea (6:17), and it is dark when Mary Magdalene visits the empty grave of Jesus (20:1). It is hard to read John and avoid seeing a deeper symbol in those two scenes. In both, it is prosaically dark due to the absence of the sun. It is also the absence of the Son in both that is set in the context of darkness. To be without the Son is to be in the dark. What strikes me most is that it is Jesus’ faithful followers who experience his absence, not any of the various unbelieving characters in John.2
This symbolic darkness has a range of significations. I believe a major one in John is spiritual abuse and oppression. I say this on the basis of the gospel text itself, but also because of how John builds on OT use of those themes. The entire Bible resonates with the symbols of darkness and spiritual oppression. One significant echo is in Ezekiel 34:
“so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ez 34:12)
The community of God can be a dark place for God’s sheep. In Ezekiel 34 the sheep were scattered by neglectful shepherds (v. 5) and abusive sheep (v. 20-21). In John 10:12 the sheep are scattered by the wolf due to the selfishly neglectful hired hand. It should be no surprise, then, that Jesus would describe the Jewish leaders of ch. 9 as blind (vv. 39-41). They walk in darkness (8:12) and stumble in the night (11:10). As abusive, oppressive leaders, 1 John 2:11 describes them well: “But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
Darkness is not only the condition of sin. It is also the condition of spiritual abuse and trauma. Wherever and whenever God’s people are scattered by the thick clouds and darkness of abusive leaders, Jesus is calling. He is shining the light of his grace and truth. We can trust that he is exposing the evil works of darkness in the church, even if all we can see is that causing evil to further entrench in the dark (John 3:20). We need not fear the dark, but while it remains we may feel pain and anguish in Christ’s absence.
In John 6 when the disciples are alone at sea in the dark, they felt Jesus’ absence: “It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them” (John 6:17). I can imagine them feeling abandoned by Jesus, like Israel feeling abandoned by God in Egypt (Ex. 2:23-25). But Jesus did eventually find them, walking not only through the sea like Moses but actually on the sea as YHWH, the great “I AM” (John 6:20, cf Ex. 3:14, 14:20-21). Jesus was, and is, accomplishing a new and greater exodus: rescuing his people from sin, yes, but also from spiritual tyranny, which, as Richard Sibbes observed, “is the greatest tyranny…It bringeth men under a terrible curse.”
You, too, may feel the weight of Sibbes’ words: “spiritual tyranny is the greatest tyranny.” It causes darkness, thick clouds, great winds, and like the disciples in the middle of the lake with Jesus nowhere in sight, anyone would feel abandoned. If that is where you are, seemingly lost at sea, unable to see Jesus, know this: Jesus sees you. He is shining his light in the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Quote from Herman Ridderbos3
“[B]y saying this [“I am”] Jesus also describes his coming and appearance as a divine epiphany; and this occurs in a context — and that is where the emphasis lies in this self-revelation — that should convince them that, in virtue of the glory given him by God, no darkness was too deep, waves too high, or sea too wide for him to find them and be with them in the midst of that tumult.”
For a helpful exposition of John 6:16-21 that pulls out a lot of great connections to the exodus story, but also illustrates the all-too-common and unhealthy limiting of Jesus’ work to rescue from sin, see Why Did Jesus Walk on Water? by Doug Ponder.
What does John 6:17 evoke for you in your life, past or present? “It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.”
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As well as “night” six times, which is also symbolic, eg 3:2, 13:30.
This also applies to Peter and the disciples in John 21 when they go fishing at night.
The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, p. 217.