May 9, 2017: Verse of the day

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“I Am the Light of the World”

John 8:12

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

It is not an accident that the claim of the Lord Jesus Christ to be the light of the world occurs immediately after the story of the woman taken in adultery, the story that introduces the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel.

The story of the woman taken in adultery may not have been in the original text of John’s Gospel, that is, in the first copy of the book as John wrote it. But whether it was there initially or not, few can doubt that the place where it finally was put was well chosen; for it follows well on the failure of an original plan by the rulers of Israel to arrest Jesus, and leads naturally into Christ’s statement about being the light of the world. The story of the woman and her accusers is a greater revelation of the dark nature of sin than anything yet recorded in John’s Gospel, and in it the purity and brightness of Jesus shine through abundantly.

It is appropriate to turn from the story itself to hear the Lord say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (8:12).

Jesus already has been described as light in John’s Gospel. In the opening chapter John wrote, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (v. 4). He spoke of the light six times in that context. In chapter 3 there is a similar reference. John said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (v. 19). This verse and those immediately following refer to light five times in reference to Jesus. In each of these cases the image is in John’s words only, however. So we read these verses and, if we have not read further, we find ourselves asking, “But why does John refer to Jesus in this way? Where did he get this image? How did he develop this idea?” It is only when we get to our present text that we discover the answer. John refers to Jesus as the light because Jesus referred to himself as the light. Indeed, John obviously remembered this and so developed the images even further in this Gospel and in 1 John.

Jesus’ claim to be the world’s light is the second of the seven great “I am” sayings that are a unique feature of this book. The others are: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the gate” (10:7, 9), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:6), and “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5).

The Cloud in the Desert

If we are to understand the full import of what Jesus was claiming when he claimed to be the light of the world, we must understand this verse in terms of that to which Jesus was undoubtedly referring. This is particularly important because it is not what we would most naturally think. We read this verse—“I am the light of the world”—and we think of the sun. Indeed, we are encouraged to do that by uses of this image elsewhere, as in Malachi where the coming Messiah is spoken of as the “sun of righteousness … with healing in its wings.” This is not a bad thing to do. There is even much to be learned from it. But it is not the image Jesus is using in John 8:12.

To understand what Jesus had in mind as he spoke to the people we must remember that these words were spoken shortly after the Feast of Tabernacles in the courtyard of the temple area (v. 20) where the ceremonies that were a part of that feast were conducted.

We already have noted one of these ceremonies. On each morning of the eight-day feast the priests of Israel joined in a procession to the pool of Siloam from which they drew water in golden pitchers. Then, returning to the temple area, they poured this water upon the altar of sacrifice. As they did this the people, many of whom accompanied the priests, sang and chanted. One verse used was Isaiah 12:3: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Another was Psalm 114:7–8: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water.” The use of Psalm 114 shows that the ceremony was conceived primarily as a remembrance of God’s provision of water for the people of Israel during the years of their wilderness wandering, though it also pointed forward to the spiritual water that men would draw from God in the day of God’s future visitation. It was probably at the high point of this ceremony that Jesus broke into the festivities by crying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:37–38).

The second ceremony was similar. On the first night of the feast, and probably on succeeding nights also, after the sun had set, two great lamps were lighted in the courts of the temple. These were said to have cast their light over every quarter of the city. The lamps were meant to recall the pillar of cloud and fire that had accompanied the people in their wanderings in the desert. This was the cloud that had appeared on the day when the people left Egypt and had stood between the Israelites and the pursuing armies of the Egyptians the night before the crossing of the Red Sea. It kept the Jewish people from being attacked. Later it guided the people through the wilderness. It also spread out over them to give shade by day and light and warmth by night. I believe that it was in clear reference to the ceremony of lighting the lamps and naturally, therefore, also to the miraculous cloud itself that Jesus referred when he claimed to be this world’s light.

This conclusion is supported by the fact that if it is so, then we have a striking succession of three great wilderness images in chapters 6, 7, and 8 of John’s Gospel. In 6, Jesus is the new manna sent down from heaven. In 7, he is the water miraculously provided from the rock. In 8, he is the cloud. We therefore turn to the cloud itself and to its functions in order to determine the full meaning of this second of the “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel.

God’s Presence

Why was the cloud important? The most obvious way in which the cloud was important was that it symbolized God’s presence with the people. This would be obvious from the fact that the cloud gave off light. For in an age that did not know an abundance of artificial light, light would always suggest God’s presence. Besides, the cloud was so huge and so striking that this in itself would suggest a theophany.

We see this in the texts that refer to this unique phenomenon. For instance, the first reference to the cloud in the Old Testament clearly identifies the presence of the Lord with it. “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night” (Exod. 13:21–22). Other passages tell us that God spoke from the cloud and that he sometimes broke forth from it in judgment upon the sins of the people. In one striking passage the cloud is even addressed as God, for God is said to have raised himself up when the cloud rose and to have descended when the cloud descended. “Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Rise up, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.’ Whenever it came to rest, he said, ‘Return, O LORD, to the countless thousands of Israel’ ” (Num. 10:35–36). At no time in their wandering were the people of Israel able to forget that the presence of God went with them and overshadowed them in all they did.

Apply this now to the claim of the Lord Jesus Christ. Long years before, the cloud of God’s glory had departed from Israel. It once had filled the Holy of Holies of the temple before which Christ was standing. Now the innermost shrine was empty, and even the lamps that commemorated the departed cloud had gone out. In this context and against this background Jesus cried, “I am the light of the world. I am the cloud. I am God with you.” Here was God once again with his people.

Have you found God in Jesus? Is Jesus, God with you? There is no other place in which you may find him. Come to him if you have never done so, and learn to say with John and the believers of all ages: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Protection

Second, the cloud was important in that it was the primary means by which God protected the people. Without it the people would have perished many years before they entered Canaan, either from their human enemies like Pharoah and his armies or from the natural dangers of the desert.

We must remember at this point that when the people of Israel left Egypt there were probably about two million of them. The Bible says that there were 600,000 men, but, of course, wives and children need to be added to that number. This vast company of people was being led out into a desert region that, as anyone who has ever been there can tell you, is one of the most inhospitable regions on earth. In the daytime the temperature can easily reach 140 or 150 degrees, and at night it can fall below freezing. To survive in such a region the vast host of Israel needed water and a shelter from the sun. The rock, which Moses was instructed to smite with his rod, provided water. Shelter was provided by the cloud, which spread out over the camp of the people to give them protection. Without this special and miraculous provision the people would have died.

We sing about God’s protection of the people in one of our hymns, a hymn that many who sing it probably do not understand.

Round each habitation hov’ring,

See the cloud and fire appear

For a glory and a cov’ring,

Showing that the Lord is near!

Thus, deriving from their banner

Light by night and shade by day,

Safe they feed upon the manna

Which he gives them when they pray.

In the same way the Lord Jesus Christ is a protector for all who come to him and follow him.

The Moving of the Cloud

Third, the cloud was important because it was the primary means by which God guided the people while they were in the desert. There were few, if any, landmarks in the desert, and the people would not have recognized landmarks even if they had seen them. Besides, the heat of the desert produces mirages, distorts distances, and makes most terrains indistinguishable. How were the people to find their way? How were they to avoid wandering into hostile territory or around in circles? The answer God gave was the cloud. When the cloud moved they were to move; indeed, they had to move, for if they had remained where they were they would soon have died from the heat of the desert by day or from the cold at night. When the cloud remained in one place, they remained.

One long passage in Numbers makes this particularly clear. “Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s order and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the Lord’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the Lord’s command they encamped, and at the Lord’s command they set out. They obeyed the Lord’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses” (Num. 9:17–23).

We can easily see how this applies to Christ’s statement. For when he claimed to be the light of the world in clear reference to the cloud of Israel’s wandering, he was claiming not only that he was God with his people, or that he was the one who would protect them, but also that he is the one who gives guidance. Thus, when Jesus moves before us we are to move. When he abides in one place we, too, are to remain there.

Moreover, we are to avoid two errors. The first error is to be overly hasty in following him; that is, to follow so closely upon the moving of the cloud that we mistake its moving and find ourselves going in another direction. If we tend to make this mistake, we must remember that there was to be a clear space between the guiding ark over which the cloud rose and the people—about “two thousand cubits” (three-fifths of a mile)—that there be no mistakes about the road. Alexander Maclaren, who writes on this theme, observes, “It is neither reverent nor wise to be treading on the heels of our Guide in our eager confidence that we know where He wants us to go.”

On the other hand, we are not to be slow either. For, as Maclaren states, we are not to “let the warmth by the camp-fire, or the pleasantness of the shady place where [our] tent is pitched, keep [us] there when the cloud lifts.” The only place of true blessing is under the shadow of God’s presence.

Will You Follow?

To summarize: When the Lord Jesus Christ claimed to be the light of the world he was claiming to be these three things for his people—God with them, the source of protection, and the One who guides. These are great claims. But we must not overlook the fact that they are only for those who follow him. He said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” To follow Christ is almost synonomous with believing in Christ; for in another, parallel passage Jesus uses the same image in declaring, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46). Faith in Christ is following Christ, or at least leads to following Christ. And following Christ is possible only for those who have faith in him.

Do you have faith in Christ? Are you following him? You should; for if you are, you have Christ’s promise that you will no longer be walking in darkness but will possess the light of life. The last phrase is another way of saying that you will possess Christ himself, who thereafter will become all things to you. The Bible says that he is made unto us “righteousness, holiness, and redemption,” and that it is a joy to follow him (1 Cor. 1:30).[1]


The Assertion

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” (8:12)

As noted in the previous chapter of this volume, the word again appears to link this passage with 7:37–52, rather than 7:53–8:11, likely not in the original. More important, this is the second of seven “I am” statements in John’s gospel that reveal different facets of Christ’s nature as God and His work as Savior (cf. the discussion of 6:35 in chapter 20 of this volume). John had already used the metaphor of light to describe Jesus (1:4, 8–9; cf. Rev. 21:23), and it was one rich in Old Testament allusions (cf. Ex. 13:21–22; 14:19–20; Neh. 9:12, 19; Pss. 27:1; 36:9; 43:3; 44:3; 104:2; 119:105, 130; Prov. 6:23; Isa. 60:19–20; Ezek. 1:4, 13, 26–28; Mic. 7:8; Hab. 3:3–4; Zech. 14:5b–7).

By claiming to be the Light of the world Jesus was clearly claiming to be God (cf. Ps. 27:1; Isa. 60:19; 1 John 1:5) and to be Israel’s Messiah, sent by God as the “light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6; cf. 49:6; Mal. 4:2).

Jesus Christ alone brings the light of salvation to a sin-cursed world. To the darkness of falsehood He is the light of truth; to the darkness of ignorance He is the light of wisdom; to the darkness of sin He is the light of holiness; to the darkness of sorrow He is the light of joy; and to the darkness of death He is the light of life.

The analogy of light, as with Jesus’ earlier use of the metaphor of living water (7:37–39), was particularly relevant to the Feast of Tabernacles. The daily water-pouring ceremony had its nightly counterpart in a lamp-lighting ceremony. In the very Court of the Women where Jesus was speaking, four huge candelabra were lit, pushing light up into the night sky like a searchlight. So brilliant was their light that one ancient Jewish source declared, “There was not a courtyard in Jerusalem that did not reflect [their] light” (cited in F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 206 n. 1). They served as a reminder of the pillar of fire by which God had guided Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 13:21–22). The people—even the most dignified leaders—danced exuberantly around the candelabra through the night, holding blazing torches in their hands and singing songs of praise. It was against the backdrop of that ceremony that Jesus made the stunning announcement that He is the true Light of the world.

But unlike the temporary and stationary candelabra, Jesus is a light that never goes out and a light to be followed. Just as Israel followed the pillar of fire in the wilderness (Ex. 40:36–38), so Jesus called men to follow Him (John 1:43; 10:4, 27; 12:26; 21:19, 22; Matt. 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 10:38; 16:24; 19:21). The one who follows Him, Jesus promised, will not walk in the darkness of sin, the world, and Satan, but will have the Light that produces spiritual life (cf. 1:4; Pss. 27:1; 36:9; Isa. 49:6; Acts 13:47; 2 Cor. 4:4–6; Eph. 5:14; 1 John 1:7). Having been illumined by Jesus, believers reflect His light in the dark world (Matt. 5:14; Eph. 5:8; Phil. 2:15; 1 Thess. 5:5); “They, having kindled their torches at His bright flame, show to the world something of His light” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], 438).

Akoloutheō (follows) is sometimes used in a general sense to speak of the crowds who followed Jesus (e.g., 6:2; Matt. 4:25; 8:1; 12:15; Mark 2:15; 3:7; Luke 7:9; 9:11). But it can also refer, more specifically, to following Him as a true disciple (e.g., 1:43; 10:4, 27; 12:26; Matt. 4:20, 22; 9:9; 10:38; 16:24; 19:27; Mark 9:38). In that context, it has the connotation of complete submission to Jesus as Lord. God does not accept a half-hearted following of Christ—of receiving Him as Savior, but not following Him as Lord. The person who comes to Jesus comes to Him on His terms, or he does not come at all—a truth Jesus illustrated in Matthew 8:18–22:

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea. Then a scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”

An even more striking illustration of that principle is found in Jesus’ dialogue with the rich young ruler:

A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother.’ ” And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But He said, “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.” (Luke 18:18–27)

In a shocking contradiction of contemporary evangelistic principles, Jesus actually turned away an eager prospect. But the Lord was not interested in making salvation artificially easy for people, but genuine. He wanted their absolute allegiance, obedience, and submission. In Luke 9:23–24 He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” (For a discussion of the biblical view of the lordship of Christ, see John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], and The Gospel According to the Apostles [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993.)

Following Christ is not burdensome, as walking in the light illustrates. It is far easier than stumbling around in the dark (cf. Jer. 13:16). [2]


8:12. Again, therefore, Jesus spoke to them saying, I am the light of the world.

According to many this is the continuation of 7:37–52. It must be granted that such a connection is, indeed, possible. One might reason as follows: he who according to 7:37, 38 represents himself as being living water for the thirsty one, reveals himself here (in 8:12) as light for those who sit in darkness. So rich and glorious is he that not a single name can describe him, and not a single metaphor can do justice to his greatness. He is life, light, bread, water, etc.

Others, however, see a very close connection between the story of the adulteress (7:53–8:11) and the present paragraph (8:12 ff.). They reason that Jesus, by dispelling the moral darkness which reigned in the heart of this woman (if, indeed, it was dispelled!), gave an illustration of his work as the light of the world. We do not have sufficient information to make a definite choice between these alternatives. The decision would depend on the authenticity of 7:53–8:11, which has been discussed.

Jesus is again addressing the people in the temple. To them he says, “I am the light of the world.” This is the second of the seven great “I Am’s.” For the entire list see Vol. I, p. 37. This second “I Am” is similar in grammatical structure to the first (see our explanation of 6:35). Hence, also in this case subject and predicate (the latter preceded by the article) are interchangeable. Jesus is the light of the world; the light of the world is Jesus. He himself in person is that light. He—no one else beside him—is that light, for it is only in and through him that God’s glorious attributes shine forth most brilliantly in the midst of the world.

The meaning of Christ as light has been set forth in connection with 1:4 and 1:9. That Jesus represents himself (here in 8:12) as the light of the world indicates that in the midst of sin-laden mankind, exposed to the judgment and in need of salvation, mankind in all its phases (both Jew and Gentile, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, free and slave), he stands forth as the source of men’s illumination regarding spiritual matters and of the everlasting salvation of God’s children. To all who come within hearing he proclaims the Gospel of deliverance from sin and never-ending peace. On the concept world (κόσμος) see the explanation of 1:10.

Jesus is the light of the world; i.e., to the ignorant he proclaims wisdom; to the impure, holiness; to those in sadness, gladness. Moreover, to those who by sovereign grace are drawn (6:44) to the light and follow its guidance he not only proclaims but actually imparts these blessings.

But not all follow where the light leads. There is a separation, a parting of the ways, an absolute antithesis, as is clear from the words, “He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” Some follow the light; many do not. Many are called; few are chosen.

To follow the light, Christ, means to trust and obey him. It means to believe in him and out of gratitude to keep his commandments. Man must follow where the light leads: he is not permitted to map out his own course through the desert of this life. In the wilderness the forefathers had followed the pillar of light. The symbolism of the feast of Tabernacles (now in progress or just ended) reminded the audience of this light which the ancestors had enjoyed as a guide. Those who had followed it and had not rebelled against its guidance had reached Canaan. The others had died in the desert. So it is here: the true followers not only will not walk in the darkness of moral and spiritual ignorance, of impurity, and of gloom, but will reach the land of light. Nay more: they will have the light! The Antitype is ever richer than the type. Physical light—for example, that of the pillar of light in the desert or that of the candelabra in the Court of the Women—imparts outward illumination. This light, Jesus Christ as the object of our faith, becomes our inner possession: we have him, and this abidingly; cf. 4:14. He is, moreover, the light of life (τὸ φῶς τῆς ζωῆς). In harmony with what was said in connection with 1:4b we regard this as a genitive of apposition: the light is itself the life, when the latter is made manifest.[3]


12 On the basis that the section on the woman caught in adultery (7:53–8:11) is not part of the Johannine corpus, it would appear that the audience to whom Jesus speaks in v. 12 are the Pharisees. (The NIV’s “the people” is an arbitrary interpretation of the Greek autois, “them”; NASB, “to them”.) That the very next verse speaks of the Pharisees supports this connection. In fact, it is interesting that while the crowd (ochlos, GK 4063) is mentioned eight times in ch. 7, the designation does not occur again until 11:42 (NIV, “people”). In ch. 8 Jesus deals exclusively with his Jewish adversaries.

Apparently the Feast of Tabernacles is over and the crowds have returned to their homes. This observation has significance for the context of Jesus’ famous revelatory declaration, “I am the light of the world.” It is customary to point out that during the festival four huge lamps in the court of the women were lit and illuminated the entire temple precincts. It was a time of enthusiastic celebration, with men dancing all night, holding torches and singing (m. Sukkah 5:1–4). The celebration of light reminded the worshipers of Israel’s wilderness journey, when they were led at night by a pillar of fire (Ex 13:21; Ne 9:12). Supposedly it was during this time of celebration that Jesus declared himself to be the “light of the world.” However, if the festival were already past, this particular background would no longer be an option.

So what is the conceptual background of Jesus’ declaration? The OT is rich in its many uses of “light” as a metaphor for spiritual illumination and life. “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” sang the psalmist (Ps 27:1). “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Ps 119:105). The prophet Isaiah promised Israel that in the coming age the Lord himself would be their “everlasting light” (Isa 60:19; cf. Rev 22:5). While in the OT, light and darkness are not portrayed as set over against one another as principles of good and evil (as they are in John), this dualism is prevalent in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which the Essenes (“the sons of light”) are guided by a good spirit (“the prince of lights”) but opposed by an evil spirit (“the angel of darkness” [1QS 3.20–21]).

In Greek thought, darkness was often associated with ignorance and death, while light symbolized life and happiness. It would appear from the universal recognition of light as a metaphor for what is good (in contrast with darkness, which stands for evil) that Jesus’ claim to be “the light of the world” would not require a specific contextual background in order to be understood. It may well be that something as simple as the rising of the sun as he spoke gave rise to this the second of his great “I am” statements. In any case, Jesus goes on to promise that those who follow him need never “walk in darkness.” As the Israelites were led unerringly throughout the night by the pillar of fire, so also can the NT believer escape the darkness of this evil world by following the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. To follow him means to obey him. Christians need walk no longer in the darkness of sin. The light, which is life in Christ, will guide them to the Promised Land.[4]


[1] Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 613–618). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 333–336). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 2, pp. 40–42). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 473–474). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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