Here are some models that John might have had in mind:
(a) The true light is the rational principle that distinguishes humans from the other animals. In that sense it has continually enlightened every human. But John makes clear the true light is -o logos sarx egeneto- the Logos who became human (1:14), and we can believe -eis to onoma autou- into his name (1:12).
(b) It was Jesus who became the light of the world (8:12) as a result of living and dying among us. But that does not explain why John thinks that -en archy yn o logos- the Logos was there from the beginning, and he was in fact -pros ton theon- right beside God (1:1).
(c) Jesus was the eternal Logos, and John is now beginning the story of his incarnation -yn erchomenon- his beginning to appear in our world (1:9). Now that he has come into our world people can respond to him in faith and become children of God (1:12). But this model will suggest that faith in the Son of God was impossible till he came into our world.
(d) The Jesus who appeared in human flesh (1:14) was the eternal Logos, who was always face to face with God the Father (-para soi- by the side, 17:5) with the glory -monogenous para patros- of the Father's only Son (1:14). In that capacity he was the true light -yn erchomenon- continually coming from the beginning to enlighten humans everywhere (1:9). This model implies that human response and faith was possible among humans from the beginning. This is why John tells us -to phos en ty skotia phainei- the Light is always coming to enlighten the darkness (1:5). And in fact -ek tou plyromatos autou ymeis pantes elabomen, kai charin anti charitos- of his fullness we have all received, as grace is added to grace (1:16,17).
In this model what changes with the incarnation is that the eternal Son of God -eskynosen en ymin, kai etheasametha thy doxan autou- came to dwell among us so we could now see his glory clearly (1:14). Previously the Light was continually coming to enlighten men and women everywhere and at all times, and they could welcome or reject that light without being able to define what the light was. And specifically what John has in mind is that God is love, and Jesus is the light and love of God made visible in human flesh.
(a) The cross is the fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah. When he bore our sins physically on the cross he would be "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53:6,7). The problem is that John the Baptist's words are in the present tense, instead of pointing a future crucifixion.
(b) When Jesus died on the Day of Preparation at the same time as the Passover lambs, He died as our Passover sacrifice. -to pascha ymon etuthy Christos- the Messiah was killed as our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). We can only be saved if we accept his blood symbolically on the door frames of our hearts. This might suggest that the eternal Son of God only became our Messiah and Passover when he actually died.
(c) His death as the Lamb of God was a payment to ransom us from the power of Satan (see comments on Mark 10:45). But there is not a hint of this kind of ransoming in the remainder of John's Gospel.
(d) The animal sacrifice rituals of the ancient world, including those set out in Leviticus, and the annual Passover death of Passover lambs, were all pointing to the continuing sacrificial love of the Messiah in the heavenly realities (Hebrews 8:5, 9:11,23,10:1). In his heavenly Lambness the Messiah is therefore continually taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29) at great cost. This is the heavenly reality that the Prophet describes in Isaiah 53. And when the Son of God comes into history the same eternal reality will be played out in his rejection and crucifixion. The cross becomes the visible expression in space-time of the eternal heart of God.
The problem with this model is that it seems to take away the decisive once for all nature of the crucifixion described in the Gospels. As we proceed we will need to try out a once for all model of the crucifixion, and a continual Lambness model in many texts throughout John's Gospel.
John 3:16 is the best known good news in the Bible, and the meaning is usually assumed to be obvious. But the meaning is not so obvious if we set out some models of what John the writer, of this Gospel might have had in mind when he wrote - outos gar ygapysen o theos ton kosmon, oste ton uion ton monogeny edoken, ina pas o pisteuon eis auton my apolytai all'echy zoyn aionion- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not be destroyed but have eternal life (3:16).
(a) The giving (3:16) refers to the single giving of God's Son on the cross. Before that event no one could have eternal life. The problem with this kind of model is that it suggests that God the Trinity was doing nothing to save us in the three of four thousand years before the birth of Jesus. It also raises many problems as to how John understood faith. How old do children have to be to have faith, and are they lost before the so called age of accountability? What about retarded persons who cannot understand about Jesus dying for us? And what do we say of the millions who never had a chance to hear and believe of that sacrifice on the first Good Friday? Do they all deserve to burn in hell for ever?
(b) The giving (3:16) refers to the single giving of God's Son on the cross. But before that time people like Abraham had the faith to look in the right direction, and be saved on the basis of what the Son would later do to save them. This model allows for people to have faith before Jesus' death on the cross. It could also be extended to allow for people in other nations to look in the right direction after the crucifixion. It does not explain how little children and retarded persons can be saved by believing.
(c) The giving of the Son by the Father is similar to the idea of the Son being the Lamb continually taking away the sin of the world (see 1:29). Jesus' self-giving on the cross is therefore a visible example on earth of the Son's constant sacrificial love as He saves the world. In this model the meaning of -my apolytai- is that the self-giving love of the Son can be refused with disastrous results as in model (d) under 1:9.
The advantage of this model is that it unifies the many titles of the eternal Son of God throughout the Gospel. In addition to using seven signs to provide a structure for his book, John introduces over twenty names for the Logos. The Son is continually Word (1:1), Life (1:4) Light coming into the world (1:9,8:12, 9:5), Fulness of grace (1:16), God's Son (1:18) Lamb (1:29), Spirit giver (1:33, 3:34,7:39, 15:26), Messiah King of Israel (1:41,49. 7:41)and of every other nation (18:36), Teacher (3:2), Eternal Life giver (3:15-16), Krisis Judge (3:17-19,5:27), Water of life giver (4:10,14, 7:37), Healer (5:9), Bread of life giver (6:27), Freedom giver (8:36), Shepherd (10:11), Resurrection life giver (11:25), Way, Truth, Life (14:12), Vine (15:1).
Obviously this list has been carefully introduced into his book by the writer. It seems hard to believe he intended some of these titles to apply to the Logos only after his incarnation. Rather they express the eternal characteristic glories of his loving interventions among all people. Any person at any time and in any place could experience the Son in one or more of these ways.
This means we don't have to believe that everyone is condemned to hell before our missionaries arrive on the scene. But the Son certainly wants people everywhere to learn how the love of God works. Without that they can never enjoy the fulness of what God has in mind for them.
Another alternative is that His self-offering on the cross is one example among many of his shepherding work from the beginning among all people of he world?
In the four chapters of Jesus' words at the last supper there is not
one reference to the cross being a once for all payment in our place. Nor
is there any hint in the account of the crucifixion in John 18 and 19
of the few hours on the cross being a substitution for us to escape damnation.
But the cross does point to very costly loving. By the very fact of continually
coming in to engage with the hearts of men everywhere, the Son of God has
always suffered rejection, betrayal, and costly humiliation.
His cross was not just a few hours of excruciating agony on Good Friday. But those few hours made visible for us the continuing cost of loving people who easily turn against him.