It’s a pivotal Greek word found in John 1:5 and can mean one of two things, either “comprehend/understand” or “overcome.”
Four popular English translations demonstrate this difference.
The English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV) tell us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
On the other hand, the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New American Standard Version (NASB) say, “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
So whaddayado when four of the most popular English translations of Scripture seem to disagree about the precise meaning of Καταλαμβάνω (pronounced “kata-lambano”)?
Well, the possibility remains this enigmatic word which seems to mean either “overcome” or “comprehend” could very well mean both.
It’s like the sentence, “There was a run on the bank.” Now, that could mean that people came in droves to withdraw their savings or that people were running on the bank building itself.
John’s phrasing is something akin to our analogy of “There was a run on the bank” as if both statements were simultaneously true. In other words, it’s saying that large numbers of people withdrew their money in order to participate in the running race which took place down the outside of the building.
John then is telling us the “darkness” can neither “comprehend” nor “overcome” the light. Καταλαμβάνω means both.
And, believe it or not, we can get a little help from the heavens with this particular fact.
Here’s M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA) – ethereal, hauntingly beautiful light shining in darkness we barely understand. It’s roughly the same size as our Milky Way. If you saw it through a telescope it wouldn’t look like it’s moving at all.
But it is. Faster than you can imagine.
Astronomers are puzzled by a peculiar fact about galaxies in general. They spin. Far faster than a NASCAR driver’s tire squealing and burning rubber in Victory Lane.
But it’s not so much that we spin, but how fast we’re spinning, which creates a really big astronomical conundrum.
Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, for example, spins at a ridiculous rate of some 600,000 miles per hour!
Picture a galaxy as a bicycle tire, sitting horizontally on its center on the ground. Now add some Skittles on the tire and rim. Pretend these colorful candies are the stars of the galaxy. Now, if someone were to come along and spin the bike tire at say, just ten miles per hour, what would you would expect would happen to the Skittles?
They’d go flying off in every direction.
This is the precise problem with the galaxies. Why don’t the “Skittles” (stars) go hurtling off into the cosmos if the galaxy in which they sit is spinning at 600,000 miles an hour? Something, unknown to science, is holding the stars in place
What astronomers have concluded holds all the luminous orbs in place is something called “Dark Matter”, the Elmer’s Glue for stars. They call it “Dark Matter” because they cannot see it, detect it, or physically measure it, but they do see its effects.
There’s no question that if a cosmologist or astronomer discovers exactly what this “Dark Matter” is, they’ll certainly receive the Nobel Prize.
But at present, scientists do not understand this enigmatic and massive pool of incredible light and size. Our human limitations prohibit us from fully understanding what we see. Even something like light confuses us. It is both a particle, like a marble, and a wave of energy. Maybe trying to understand the nature of light is why Einstein’s hair was always on end!
But our sin and ignorance – the darkness within us – does not comprehend or overcome Christ’s light, just as the mysterious “Dark Matter” has not in the least overcome the effulgent beauty of spinning heavenly swirls of majesty and wonder.
Whatever the “Dark Matter” may turn out to be (and whatever darkness has been wrought upon you by sin), as Christians we know the Lord Jesus holds it all together. When we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin. Just like “Dark matter”, sin itself is invisible.
But its effects are obvious.
Scientists may discover the size and shape of this unknown, invisible stuff at some point in the future. And even if they do, we know this “glue” is simply another manifestation of God’s divine attributes, held in place by His omnipotence for His glory (Romans 1:19-20; Psalm 19). As Hebrews tells us, the Lord Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” He is the divine Logos who created the cosmos.
What’s fundamentally even more breathtaking is what astronomers discovered not too long ago at the center of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. From NASA once more.
Dark matter indeed. Our own personal Dark Matter sent Jesus to the cross. And it is the cross which is the most mysterious, wondrous, horrific event in all of the history of mankind. It is both good and evil, a blessing and a curse.
Life from death.
“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
The spiritual darkness of this world has yet to understand or overcome the cross. In fact, it is the cross that overcomes the world’s darkness (John 16:33). It is why as Christians we’re exhorted to pick ours up and follow Him. It’s a daily effort to study it, to take it up and to live it out. It is the best defense for the darkness by which we are surrounded. The darkness does not understand it, but neither will the cross be overcome by darkness.
“O death where is your victory?”
Christian take heart and take up your cross, especially when all around you seems dark and confusing. By God’s grace and power, your light remains even though your world seems to be spinning at 600,000 miles an hour.
Child of God, may the Lord Jesus abundantly bless and keep you through whatever dark trials may be perplexing you. He not only upholds the universe by the Word of His power, He holds you – yes you – with His hand. (Isaiah 41:10-13).
Fear not. The darkness can neither understand or overcome the light of Christ Jesus in your life.