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).
“I Am the Light of the World”
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.
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).
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 synonymous 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).
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.
12 The discussion of chapter 7 is resumed. John does not say when this happened, but he does indicate the situation, namely “near the place where the offerings were put” (v.20). Jesus’ opening words, “I am the light of the world,” are very impressive. “I am” is emphatic. It is the very style of deity that we have seen employed before in this Gospel (see on 6:35). There has been a good deal of speculation about the origin of the expression “the light of the world” (cf. 9:5; 12:46 for the repetition of the thought in slightly different wording). Many draw attention to the ceremonies with lights at the Feast of Tabernacles and suggest that Jesus was consciously fulfilling the symbolism suggested by them. There is nothing unlikely in this, especially if the words were uttered reasonably close to the time of the Feast. The feasts were very important to the Jews, who delighted in their observance and rejoiced in their symbolism. And it was important to the Christians that the Christ fulfilled all the spiritual truths to which the feasts pointed. Now the brilliant candelabra were lit only at the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles; there is dispute as to the number of nights on which the illumination took place, but none as to the fact that at the close of the feast it did not. In the absence of the lights Jesus’ claim to the Light would stand out the more impressively. In favor of this view is also the fact that the candelabra were lit in the Court of the Women, the most frequented part of the Temple, and the very place in which Jesus delivered his address.
Yet, just as the reference to the water in chapter 7 seems to point us back to the rock in the wilderness rather than to the pouring of water from the golden pitcher, so the light may refer us to the pillar of fire in the wilderness. We have noted the reference to the manna in chapter 6, so that in three successive chapters the wilderness imagery seems consistently used to illustrate aspects of Jesus’ Person and work. It must always be borne in mind that light is a common theme in both Old and New Testaments, so that it is not necessary for us to find the source of Jesus’ saying in any nonbiblical context.5 Elsewhere we read that God is light (1 John 1:5), and Jesus himself said that his followers are “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14; the expression is identical with that used here). Paul can also speak of Christians as “stars in the universe” (Phil. 2:15). It is, of course, plain that such terms must be applied to believers in a sense different from that in which they are applied to Christ. He is the fundamental source of the world’s illumination. They, having kindled their torches at his bright flame, show to the world something of his light.
Bultmann sees the emphasis not in the fact that Jesus is distinguished from other claimants to give light, but from that human certainty that it already has the light, (p. 343). Light is not a natural human possession. It comes only from Christ. And it is not a separable entity that may be possessed in itself. It is not an objective revelation that people may receive and hug to themselves. Jesus is the light. To have the light is to have Jesus. There is no light apart from a right relationship to him.
This is the supreme example of John’s interest in light, which we have seen from the Prologue on (see on 1:4). In the opening verses of the Gospel he associated both life and light with the Logos. Now the whole world draws its light from him, and light and life are again connected. This saying does not mean that all people indiscriminately receive the light. Light does not belong to the human race as such. Only those who follow Jesus are delivered from darkness and enjoy the light; the implication is that the whole world, of itself, is in darkness. We should not overlook the present participle, which implies following Jesus continually. Jesus is speaking of wholehearted discipleship, not of casual adherence (cf. 1:37 and note). The follower of Jesus “will never walk in darkness.” This may refer to the darkness of the world or the darkness of Satan. Perhaps we are not meant to distinguish sharply between them, for believers are delivered from both. Far from being confined to darkness they will have “the light of life.” “The light of the world” does not give only a fleeting glimpse of light; the whole of life is illuminated. “Will have” points to something that continues. The coming of the light means a permanent transformation. For “life” see on 1:4; 3:15. Marsh makes the important point that “light, in a sense, bears witness to itself, though every other object in the world requires light in order to bear witness to itself. Light always illuminates, is never illuminated.” (p. 351). Light is unique.
8:12 Surprisingly, the Pharisees will now proceed to do almost what Nicodemus recommended! Whether they choose to or not, they will now “hear” from Jesus and to some degree “learn what he is doing.” As the narrative continues, we are told, “So again Jesus spoke to them” (8:12). “To them” can only mean “to the Pharisees,” for the Pharisees are identified as those who answered (v. 13). “Again” implies that he had spoken to them before—probably not directly but by what he said to the officers representing them, when they came to arrest him (7:32–34). “No man ever spoke like that” was the reaction then (7:46), and the reader will echo those sentiments about what he adds now: “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
The pronouncement evokes for the reader the description of Jesus as “the Word” in the Gospel’s preamble, “In him was life, and that life was the light of humans” (1:4), with the further explanation that “The light was the true [Light] that illumines every human being who comes into the world” (1:9). Now “the Word” speaks with his own voice, telling “the world” (represented by the Pharisees) what the readers of the Gospel already know, that he is the world’s “Light” whether so recognized or not. Earlier, he had pronounced a negative verdict on “the world” and on “human beings” in general, who “loved the dark and not the Light, because their works were evil” (3:19), but now he offers hope. The form of the pronouncement—with “I am” and a predicate, followed by an invitation and/or promise—recalls 6:35 (“I am the Bread of life. The person who comes to me will never go hungry, and the person who believes in me will never ever thirst”), and 6:51 (“I am the living Bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eat of this bread, he will live forever”). As we have seen, Jesus’ invitation and promise in 7:37 (“If anyone thirst,” and “Whoever believes in me”) looked as if it should have been preceded, or was once preceded, by just such an “I am” declaration.
What does it mean for Jesus to be “the Light of the world”? The world has no light of its own, but rather “the Light has come into the world” from without (3:19), from God, who is Light and the Giver of light (see 1 Jn 1:5). The natural point of comparison is the sun, yet Jesus never explicitly mentions the sun in connection with the metaphor of light. In another Gospel, when he told his disciples, “You are the light of the world,” he compared them to stationary light sources other than the sun: “a city set on a hill” (Mt 5:14), or a lamp “on the lampstand” (5:15). Here, by contrast, he himself is “the Light of the world” (in keeping with 1:4, 5, 7, 9, 10; 3:19–21), but not a fixed or stationary light source like a lampstand or a city, or even like the sun. Rather, he is on the move, for his implied invitation is to “follow,” and his promise is to “not walk in darkness” (my italics). He had told the Pharisees before (through their messengers) that they could not follow him (“where I am you cannot come,” 7:34), but now he promises that those who do “follow” him will “not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” The promise goes right over the heads of the Pharisees, for just like the earlier promise of “living water” (7:38), it is not for them but for those who believe (see 7:39), and specifically for the readers of the Gospel. “The Light of the world” is a moving light, for as Jesus has said, “Yet a short time I am with you, and I go to the One who sent me” (7:33). He returns to this thought each time he returns to the subject of light: “when I am in the world, I am the Light of the world” (9:5); “Yet a short time the Light is among you; walk while you have the Light, so that the darkness will not overtake you.… While you have the Light, believe in the Light, that you might become sons of light” (12:35, 36, my italics; see also 11:9–10). Jesus is “the Light of the world” in that he offers salvation to those who believe and are ready to join him on his journey back to “the One who sent him.” The metaphorical expression, “the Light of the world,” is functionally equivalent to what the Samaritans acknowledged him to be three chapters earlier (“the Savior of the world,” 4:42), or to what John called him even before that (“the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” 1:29). The metaphor of light contributes to the imagery the notion of a journey soon to begin, and the assurance of knowing where the journey leads (see 12:35, where anyone who “walks in that darkness does not know where he is going”; also 1 Jn 2:11). The “light of life” (v. 12b) is light for that journey, light that gives eternal life and salvation to those who follow “the Light of the world.”
The Light of the World
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Of all the hundreds of times I have landed onto a runway in an airplane, perhaps the most memorable was a nighttime landing at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. I could not help but notice the difference between landing in Nairobi versus an American city. As an airplane approaches an American airport by night, it is bathed by the light of a million sparks below. But as we descended closer and closer to the ground in Nairobi, I stared out my window into pitch black, seeing the ground only as we descended through the last few feet.
As our plane landed in the darkness, my mind traveled to the hundreds of Christian missionaries who had come to “the dark continent” with the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The same thing had happened centuries before to my European ancestors, when the light of the gospel came to the darkness of northern Europe—and before that when the gospel light came to Greece and Rome from ancient Jerusalem. Light is one of the great biblical images of salvation. Isaiah wrote, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isa. 9:2). Light depicts the coming of God with saving life: “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” sang David (Ps. 27:1).
It was with this in mind that the Lord Jesus Christ declared, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus came to a whole world in darkness. John uses the imagery of light to describe Jesus sixteen times in this Gospel, light being a fitting symbol for the coming of God among men. Thus, Jesus is the only remedy for the darkness in the world. It is only through faith in him that a darkened world may see and receive the light of God.
A Light for the World in Darkness
If we want to understand the nature of the light and salvation that Jesus brings, we need first to understand the character of the darkness. What was the darkness in which Jesus found the world?
According to the Bible, darkness is the realm of ignorance and folly. Psalm 82:5 explains that the ignorant “have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness.” The prophet Micah spoke of an age in which the prophets would be silent: “It shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination” (Mic. 3:6). To say that the world is dark is therefore to say that it is lost in ignorance, superstition, and folly. Is this not the constant state of the world wherever Christ is unknown or the gospel is lost? Is this not the way it is now in the once-enlightened West: people made by God with high intellects and blessed with choice educations grope about in a darkness of the greatest ignorance and folly, making decisions and enacting policies contrary to wisdom or even common sense.
Darkness is also the realm of evil and fear. Children fear the dark because in the darkness danger lurks. Proverbs warns against those “who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness” (Prov. 2:13); “The way of the wicked is like deep darkness” (4:19). Jesus said, “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” (John 3:19). Is this not precisely the case in lands where the light of Jesus has not yet shined, or where his light has been rejected? The world into which Jesus came was and is darkened by evil.
This being the case, darkness also speaks to bondage, misery, and death. Isaiah characterized the world as “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish” (Isa. 8:22). He said, “Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom” (59:9). Darkness is a biblical description of the Israelites’ time in their bondage in Egypt; Paul said that mankind suffers presently in the slave-chains of Satan. He speaks of “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12). The darkness of the world involves a bondage in sin and misery that culminates in death. The psalmist laments: “He has made me sit in darkness like those long dead” (Ps. 143:3).
Finally, the world in darkness sits under God’s judgment and is consigned to God’s wrath. Zephaniah spoke of “a day of wrath …, a day of darkness and gloom” (Zeph. 1:15). Jesus foretold the judgment of sinners in the day of the Lord: “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13). Hannah prayed, “The wicked shall be cut off in darkness” (1 Sam. 2:9).
This is the darkness into which Jesus came as a light. Darkness consists of a lack of knowledge: ignorance, folly, and superstition; it has a moral dimension: evil and fear; it is experiential: bondage, misery and death; and it is judicial: judgment and wrath. What is true of the dark world is also true of every life apart from the shining of the light of Jesus’ gospel.
Any sober and honest history of the world will show this principle to be true. But just as those who spend time in the dark acquire night vision, we have become nocturnal creatures—we have come to think that ignorance, evil, misery, and condemnation are not so bad. But the Bible gives us day vision and shows us that ours is a dark planet in need of light.
The world was not created dark; it was made dark by sin. Because of sin, mankind came under the judgment of God; since God is holy, sinful man was cast out from the light of his presence. This is the true story told in the early chapters of Genesis. Cast from the garden because of sin, man immediately fell into spiritual ignorance. Cain tried to approach God in the folly of his own counsel. When he was rejected, he turned to violence, slaying his brother Abel. God cursed his sin with misery and gloom, pronouncing, “You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:12). So it has been ever since. The first song ever recorded by mankind was about violence; Lamech sang, “I have killed a man for wounding me” (4:23).
The world that God made good, and the human race created in glory as his image-bearer, fell into darkness by sin. The world cannot escape the chains of this dark bondage, so in his great mercy God promised to send a Savior to free us from ignorance, evil, death, and judgment. John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah the priest, spoke in these terms when he prophesied the coming of Jesus: “Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78–79). Therefore when Jesus Christ called aloud in the midst of the city of Jerusalem—at the temple where that hope for saving light was deposited—he declared himself that Savior who frees us from our sin: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
To a world that is ignorant of God Jesus reveals the truth of heaven. To a world suffering the misery of evil Jesus offers a cleansing renewal and peace. To those condemned in judgment for their sins Jesus shed his own blood for forgiveness. Into a spiritually dark and dying world he shines the light of eternal life.
The True Light
John 8:12 presents the second of this Gospel’s famous “I am” sayings, which one writer describes as a “Pocket Guide to Understanding Jesus.” Earlier, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (6:35). He later adds, “I am the door” (10:9); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11); “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 vine” (15:5). All these sayings present Jesus as our Savior, by his person and work.
We need to remember that his expression “I am” is an implicit claim to deity. Jesus’ emphatic way of saying “I am” (Greek ego eimi) recalls the reader to the great scene at the burning bush, when God revealed his name to Moses: “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’ ” (Ex. 3:14). Jesus now declares himself as the great “I am,” the divine light that shines into our darkness for salvation.
Jesus did not identify himself merely as a light, but as the light. This means that he alone is the true light shining in the world. John earlier said, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9).
This reality is illustrated by the scene in which Jesus made this claim. The Jews had just wrapped up their religious festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, in which they had exulted in their religious traditions. One of the great events was the festival of lights that took place on the first night of the feast, and perhaps on subsequent nights as well. Four great candelabras, each with four golden bowls filled with oil, were lit in the temple court. The bright light from these sixteen bowls illuminated the whole temple.
After the feast, those lights had gone out. Perhaps the lampstands were still present in the temple courts, the bowls having been taken away. Where the lamps had hung, Jesus now presented himself as “the light of the world.” He fulfilled what the ritual had symbolized: Jesus is the light: he alone provided the reality for which the people rejoiced in the feast. Yet even on such an occasion, the people had rejected him and their leaders sought his life.
This makes the point that religious traditions and practices contain saving truth only as they point to Jesus Christ. Old Testament Jewish faith was a true religion, but Judaism became false when its leaders rejected Jesus. Jesus said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). Without his true light, the lights of their feast were false lights and would soon go out.
This is not merely true for Judaism. What the Jews looked forward to, the Christian church looks back upon. But we will light our candles in vain unless we stay true to Jesus himself and the salvation he offers by his death on the cross. Like the Jews of old, this requires us to humble ourselves as guilty sinners who trust only in Jesus to deliver us from darkness. We might enjoy the fun of singing, the humor of the preacher’s personality, or the encouragement of lifestyle training, but unless we follow Jesus in true faith, the light will soon grow dark.
How much more true this is of pagan religions and philosophical humanism. The ancient Greeks had Plato and Aristotle, and they cast a sort of light. But their lights masked the great spiritual darkness of that ancient world, and in time they went out. Western humanism has enjoyed its so-called Enlightenment, with the truths of the Bible replaced by the false lights of evolution, progress, and tolerance. The result has been a bloody history of war, misery, and moral collapse. Lamech of old made his song about murder; today’s gangsta rap exults in the pleasures of gunfire and rape.
The only true light that this world has ever seen is the light of Jesus. The only true path of peace is the one shadowed by his cross. The only true way for God’s blessing is his way of discipleship. “In him was life,” John said, “and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).
What, then, is the light that you need? Is it the false light of consumerism, psychology, or carnal, mystic spirituality? Or is it Jesus Christ? And what is the light that the world needs to see shining from the church? Is it the neon light of Hollywood glitter so that we can at least enjoy the darkness? Is it the dim light of self-help teaching to help us manage our own dark lives? No, the only true light, the only true Savior, is Jesus Christ. “I am the light of the world,” he insists. Let us follow him; let us proclaim his light of forgiveness from sin and new life for salvation to a dark and dying world. As Jesus is the Light of the World, let us be the lamps that shine his light to others.
A Light to Follow
When we studied Jesus’ great invitation of John 7:37—“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink”—we noted that the water-pouring ceremony in the Feast of Tabernacles had a connection to events in the exodus—specifically, God’s providing water from the rock. There is a similar connection with the festival of lights and Jesus’ claim to be the “light of the world.” The light celebration recalled the pillar of fire that had guided and protected Israel during the people’s passage through the desert. Exodus 13:21 tells us, “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.”
We see, then, why Jesus continued by saying, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). This shows that while Jesus is the one true Light of the World, we benefit from his coming only if we believe on and follow him. We follow Jesus as the Israelites followed the cloud of fire. They trusted it to lead them and found protection under its shadow. As we follow Jesus, he relieves us of ignorance and folly by teaching us his Word. He protects us from the searing rays of God’s wrath, having paid the penalty of our sins on the cross. As he leads, we follow out from misery and fear and even from the curse of death. As the cloud of fire led the tribes of Israel through the barren, scorched desert and into the Promised Land, Jesus leads us in our passage through this wicked world and into the glories of heaven.
What, then, does it mean to follow Jesus? It means to trust in him and live as his disciple. When the cloud moved, the Israelites moved; when the cloud settled, they made camp. Likewise, we follow Jesus to his cross, dying there to our sin. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus taught, “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
If we consider the uses of the Greek word for follow (akolutheo), we can better understand what Jesus means. It is used of a soldier following his commander into battle; the Christian thus fights against evil in the armor of God and with the sword of God’s Word. It is used of a servant or slave who attends upon his master. William Barclay writes, “Always the slave is ready to spring to the master’s service, and to carry out the tasks the master gives him to do.” It is used of one who accepts a wise counselor’s judgment. William Hendriksen writes that a Christian “must follow where the light leads: he is not permitted to map out his own course through the desert of this life.”3 It is used of rendering obedience to the laws of the state; the Christian follows Christ by keeping his commands. And it is used of one who follows the line of his teacher’s reasoning. The follower of Christ is one who has gained understanding of his teaching and takes it into his heart. With all these in mind, J. C. Ryle summarizes: “To follow Christ is to commit ourselves wholly and entirely to Him as our only leader and Saviour, and to submit ourselves to Him in every matter both of doctrine and practice.”
Does it seem like a radical commitment to follow Jesus? It is! Too many professing believers have come to him without this commitment, and never actually follow him. But there is no other kind of saving Christianity. To have Jesus as Savior is to follow him as Lord. Paul wrote to believers, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). The salvation that Jesus offers is free; we receive simply by the open hands of faith. But following Jesus is nonetheless costly. James Montgomery Boice states, “The path that Jesus walked is the path to crucifixion. It leads to glory, but before that it leads to the cross. Such a path can be walked only by the one who has died to self and who has deliberately taken up the cross of Christ to follow Him.”
Out of Darkness, into Light
So why take up such costly discipleship? To escape the darkness! This is the great promise that Jesus attaches to his call: “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness.” Isn’t that what we have seen in the Gospel of John? As Nicodemus turned his allegiance to Jesus, he was led out from the dark hypocrisy of the Pharisees. When the woman at the well believed, Jesus delivered her from the scandal and shame of her former lifestyle. This is what he offered to those hearing him in Jerusalem and what he offers us today: an escape from the guilt of our sin, from the corruption of our evil natures, and from darkness of the lives we have led.
Therefore, I need to ask: Are you walking in darkness? As a pastor, I am often dismayed to see so many Christians still walking in the ways of this dark world: accepting the world’s values, serving the world’s priorities, dreaming the world’s dreams, and obeying the world’s requirements. If you are a young person, are you willing to stand out by your discipleship to Jesus? Or are you itching to take part in the sinful social practices so pervasive among the youth today? Are you drawn to the music, movies, and video games that celebrate sensuality and violence? Are you dabbling in sexual sin, alcohol, or drugs? If you are, this shows only that you are not following Jesus. He said, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness.” This is what we must aim for in the raising of our children in the church: that they can walk through a dark world without walking in sin—and this comes only through a personal discipleship with Jesus.
Adults, do your lifestyle choices, ambitions, priorities with time and money, and habits reflect the standards of the dark world or the light of Christ’s kingdom? Are you caught up in materialism, egotism, or sensualism—things that belong to the darkness of this world? If you are, it can be only because you are not following Jesus. The same may be said of ministers and churches that mimic the ways of this dark world. Let us all repent in ways large and small; let us take up our cross, follow Jesus, and leave the darkness behind.
I mentioned my thoughts as our plane descended through the pitch darkness onto the runway in Nairobi, reflecting on how the light of Christ has come to shine in Africa. During that visit to Kenya, I had the privilege of witnessing that light shining brightly, as I participated in an unspeakably moving ceremony to dedicate a new children’s cottage at a Christian orphan village in the town of Mwiki. This Christian village provides a loving home to 160 little boys and girls abandoned by desperate parents or orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. I sat together with American missionaries who had come to love, teach, and raise these children alongside their African Christian partners. We sang as one of the African “mamas” led us in praise of God’s faithfulness and love, and we prayed with thanks for the godly home they were dedicating and the beautiful children entrusted by God to their care. The world had cast these children into darkness, abandoning them to misery and death, but by the mercy of God they would instead grow up in the love of Christ to follow in the light as his disciples.
Not everyone is called to Africa as a missionary, although I envied those I left behind. That was just a snapshot of the light that comes when Christians devote themselves to follow Jesus. Never think that you will lose out by turning from the dark pattern of this world to follow the Savior in serious and sacrificial discipleship. Those who receive the light of Christ, who take their sins, along with their former lives and priorities, to his cross, and who then follow after him will never lose out in this life or the next. Jesus promises that they “will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus offers us now a life of love, grace, and power for godliness, and in the age to come eternal life. He said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).
I Am, They Will
Finally, let us never think that it is our following that saves us. We are never saved by our works but only by Jesus Christ. It is because Jesus first says, “I am,” that he afterward promises, “They will.” If we give our “amen” to his “I am” and follow him, he will give his “amen” to our “they will.”
Jesus proclaimed, “I am the light of the world.” He calls us to believe in him, receiving the light of his free gift of salvation. And then, starting wherever we are right now, we simply begin to follow him as he reveals himself through his Word. And as he leads us out of darkness into light, we will hear him say to us, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). For when the light of Jesus has shined in our hearts so that we follow him in trusting obedience, his light will shine through us to illuminate the dark world with his love.
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.