20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
JOHN 3;20-21 ESV
πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ· 21 ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα.
JOHN 3:20-21 SBLGNT
In v. 19, γάρ (for, gar) establishes why the evil choice is made. In v. 20, γάρ elucidates the reason stated in v. 19, and is quite necessary, for the case is not that when a man chooses the darkness in preference to the light, he then leaves the light alone. The moral reason that prompts that choice, i.e., the evil work from which he will not separate himself, does not let him rest but makes him hate and war against the light. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” Here again, as in v. 18, Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. Jesus individualizes for the same reason. This moral baseness and the hatred it produces are personal, and the ensuing guilt is personal. The singular thus grips Nicodemus personally, who surely must think of himself as he hears these words.
A radical and far-reaching difference separates the two interpretations of v. 20, 21: the one that Jesus here describes two men who have come into decisive contact with the light that Jesus brings, the one accepting, the other rejecting that light; and the other interpretation that Jesus here adduces only a general rule, namely that any man who does wrong likes to keep it dark while any man who does right is not afraid to come into the light. The words of Jesus can be made to express the latter very ordinary thought only by altering a number of the concepts which Jesus uses in their distinctive sense. Thus “the light” is not daylight or the public light but the light that is Jesus and in Jesus, the light that has come into the world. Therefore, this is also true concerning the other expressions. This view leads to the false notion that, to begin with, “the world” is composed of two classes of men: the one inwardly false and hypocritical who forever remain so and thus are not converted; and the other, a better class, better from the very start, upright and honest, who before Jesus is brought to them already follow the light and the truth that is found in natural revelation and then embrace Jesus and become converted. Rom. 2 and all that the Scriptures teach concerning man’s sinful condition contradict this view. Jesus’ own words in these two verses shut it out most decidedly.
“Everyone that practices things worthless” refers to those who have spurned the light and chosen the darkness instead. Verse 19 puts this beyond question. Jesus characterizes this kind of man according to his works, not to his act of preferring the darkness to the light, because in v. 19 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil, the inner motive of this preference has been revealed, the determined love of wicked works. The substantivized present participles ὁ πράσσων and, in v. 21, ὁ ποιῶν are exactly like ὁ πιστεύων in v. 15, 16, and 18. The continuous action indicated describes the man referred to in each case. The variation between ὁ πράσσων in v. 20 and ὁ ποιῶν in v. 21 is slight, and yet the difference may be noted. The one verb has the idea of aim: wer treibt, agit; the other has the idea of effecting: wer tut, facit. Hence also the addition in v. 21: that his works “are carried” in God, ergon, εἰργασμένα. In v. 19, the evil works are called πονηρά, “wicked” (actively so); now, Jesus uses φαῦλα, “worthless.” Trench, Synonyms, II, 169, etc.: “That which is morally evil may be contemplated on two sides, from two points of view; either on the side of its positive malignity, its will and power to work mischief, or else on its negative worthlessness, and its good-for-nothingness. Πονηρός contemplates evil from the former point of view, and φαῦλος from the latter.” Thus the one-term amplifies the other. The latter brings out the utter folly of him who chooses the darkness, for the deeds for which he wants this darkness are worthless and net him nothing for his life.
However, having made his choice for a reason indicated and now practising such worthless things, he “hates the light and comes not to the light.” Jesus repeats “the light,” which thus plainly, even emphatically, takes up v. 19, reaches back to 1:4, 5, and forms one of the cardinal terms in John’s Gospel. Therefore, this is the light of the divine truth which always displays everything as it is. This light, once being rejected for the darkness, this man is bound to “hate”; he cannot tolerate it; he “comes not to the light” and will not let its truthful, revealing rays fall upon him. The light is there, and he knows it is there; it is there for him, and its rays go out to reach him. Deliberately he avoids it. Coming to it would mean that he is attracted by what it does; not coming means that he recoils from it, dreading what it does.
Instead of stating the cause or reason for this hate and avoidance, Jesus indicates the purpose, which also is negative, ἵνα μή, “lest” or “in order that … not.” Rejecting the light is negative; the following worthless works are negative; hating and avoiding the light is negative; trying to run away from conviction is negative. “Lest his works should be convicted”, ἐλεγχθῇ, not merely, “reproved,” our versions, and still less “discovered,” A. V. margin; but shown up as what they are, evil, worthless, fit only for “the darkness.” Furthermore, “his works” are here again not merely certain individual deeds but the works that sum up and characterize the man. Here we see the inner, hidden self-contradiction and self-condemnation of all such doers of evil who act contrary to Christ and the gospel in unbelief. They choose the worthless, but they do not want its worthlessness revealed. They want to be undisturbed in thinking the worthless valuable. Hence, they can do only in “the darkness” where they and others cannot see. This self-deception becomes tragic when religious error prevails, as in the delusion of Pharisaic works-righteousness or any other aberration. When speaking of the wicked and worthless works, Jesus is not excluding those that transgress the second table of the law, but he has in mind, especially those that transgress the first table. The supreme issue for him is faith or unbelief and the works only as evidence and fruit of the one or the other. Moreover, the thought behind being convicted is not a mere condemnation of the worthless works but a condemnation that produces contrition and repentance and thus turns the heart from these works unto faith and the works that flow from faith.
Strong in warning in the last statements, the discourse of Jesus ends with a note of blessedness and joy. Over against the negative Jesus sets the positive. The matter must be made complete. Besides, each casts light on the other. Many may reject the light, but by no means all do so. God’s Only-begotten cannot fail. “ But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” No need to repeat πᾶς which is understood without repetition. The surprising feature is that in describing this man, Jesus does not say, “he that does things good,” but that he at once penetrates to the one and only source of all things good in the sight of God: he that does “the truth.” To do the truth is a pregnant expression and means that one puts the truth which he has received in his heart into his life and actions so that thus the truth stamps him as “one that is of the truth,” 19:37. Only a believer who has the truth in his heart can do the truth, i.e., live according to it in his life. In this doing the truth the first table of the law will have the first place, and the second will, of course, not come short.
“Truth” sounds very general, and many are thereby misled. On the lips of Jesus who called himself the Truth, being its very embodiment, the word here can mean only one thing: the saving truth of God’s grace in Christ Jesus as it shines forth in both Testaments. Any wider sense, such as the truth in nature, is shut out by the entire context and by the statement that the works of the doer of the truth (note the article τήν ἀλήθειαν) are such because they “are wrought in God,” i.e., in union and communion with God. In no other way than through faith in the Messiah can even a single work be wrought in God. Here, then, is a man to whom “the light” came as to the other mentioned in v. 20. He, too, up to that time was doing things wicked and worthless like the other. But when the light began to shine into him and to draw him, he did not wrest himself willfully away and cover himself up completely in “the darkness.” The light did its work in him; it entered his will and began to control it—he began to do the truth. The result was “works wrought in God,” works of the gospel, works of faith. The first of these will always be contrition and repentance for all past evil works, confession of faith, and the continuance of these from day to day, to be followed by the entire range of good works. A perfect and complete doing of the truth will not at once be achieved; weaknesses, faults, sins enough will appear. But the doing has begun and by the help of the truth will go on.
What of this man? He “comes to the light.” Once the light came to him, now he is able to come to it. There is no need to specify that this man “loves” the light, whereas the other “hates” it. His coming to the light proves his love for the light. This man has no reason whatever to fear this divine light of truth when it shows up the inward realities of his heart and his life. The idea is not that this light will find nothing to convict in him. It will show up sins, weakness of faith, and faults enough. But this man wants to be rid of these and gladly submits to the healing power of the light. Jesus passes this feature by, but we may well add it to his brief words. The purpose which Jesus names for this man’s coming to the light is, “that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God.” To translate ὅτι “because” gives a wrong turn to the thought. The verb “manifest,” applied to this man’s works, requires that what is made manifest be stated. This is “that (declarative ὅτι) they have been wrought in God,” ἐστιν εἰργασμένα, the perfect tense saying that, once so wrought, they stand permanently as such. This is what the light of grace already now does for all such works. It is a kind of judgment of grace. It helps, encourages, confirms, and strengthens us day by day as we fight the darkness that still assails us. What a glorious manifestation that will be when on the last day the unerring “light” seals this approval before the whole universe of angels and men!
Did Jesus say any more? We need not know. The attestation in the words which John reports is full and complete. What did Nicodemus say or think? John is not making this a story about this man but a report of the testimony of Jesus to himself. To say that John’s account is incomplete is to misunderstand what the account really is. We may well say, however, that Jesus’ words must have made an indelible impression upon the old Pharisee and must have shaken him profoundly. In due time he came to faith.
Imagine the same discourse is repeated to you today. How would you respond? The same discourse speaks to us every waking moment of our lives, and our response is to not pay any heed to it. We feel the simple acceptance of Christ protects our Christian lives, but there is much more to this acceptance than a subjective occurrence. There is a more objective view that must occur in our lives to be placed within the righteous path. How it occurs is the willingness to accept a radical change in our way of life. There is no middle ground tittering along a demarcation of accepting what fits our narrative rather than the complete spiritual change in our inward objective view. Our choices and reasoning must be confined within the boundaries of the Word of God. We are to bring out what God puts in. The power of the Holy Spirit stirs our souls to act within our bodily framework, the lifestyle God wants us to live.
How many of us are willing to set aside our reasoning and place it in the hands of God. Few of us are willing to walk this path and hide behind the falsehood of being called a Christian to settle our subjective portrayal of righteousness.