In John 7, the Jews go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. While this festival is going on, there is nonstop speculation about who Jesus is. Everyone is talking, whispering, and accusing with regard to Jesus’ identity and intentions.
Some are convinced that “he is a good man,” and others are saying exactly the opposite: “no, he is leading the people astray” (7:12). The question of whether or not Jesus is the Messiah gets raised a few times (7:26-27, 31, 41). Others speculate that perhaps Jesus is “the Prophet” (7:40), an Old Testament figure that would rise up to fill the shoes of Moses in leading God’s people.
It’s in this context that Jesus addresses the people in John 8:12, and says simply: “I am the light of the world.”
Light is a common metaphor. It speaks of purity rather than filth. Of truth rather than error. Of knowledge rather than ignorance.
As it happens, we have many candidates vying for the status of “light of the world.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, we had “The Enlightenment,” where the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was re-embraced. Some of these enlightenment philosophers were set on escaping the darkness in which the church had held the world (during a period that came to be referred to as “The Dark Ages”), and shining the light of true humanistic, autonomous, philosophical light around the world.
Those types of thoughts are still with us. Some would say that knowledge is the light of the world. All we need is better education and we will step out of darkness and into the light. Or perhaps we could argue that science is the light of the world. As we learn more about our universe through science, we will finally be able to become the type of superhuman race that can rid the world of its evils and enter into a golden age. Others would argue that deep religious knowledge is the light of the world. We need to look deeply within and gain the type of inward knowledge that leads to enlightenment (this is the mystical/eastern/new age approach).
But Jesus’ statement is unequivocal. I—and I alone—am the light of the world! It’s fascinating to consider that Jesus made this statement hundreds of years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lived and spoke their profound philosophical teachings. As helpful as those insights may be—and some have said that all philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, these guys still have a voice in the debates—there is only one light of the world.
The setting in which Jesus spoke these words is also significant. John 8:20 tells us that Jesus spoke these words in the treasury, which means that he was in the Court of the Women, which was the most public part of the temple. In this court were four golden candelabras. Each had four golden bowls that were filled with oil by the priests. On the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was either still going on or newly ended at this point, these candelabras would be lit. These may have inspired Jesus’ statement.
Beyond that, the Feast of Tabernacles is significant here. They were celebrating God having led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness (hence the “tabernacles” or tents), and into the Promised Land. Remember that God led his people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was this unique light that guided the people out of slavery and into the Promised Land.
And here Jesus stands, at the conclusion of this feast, identifying himself as the light of the world. He is the one who will lead his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. And he will lead not only his Jewish people, but the whole world. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We won’t be lost, we will know where to go. We will know who to follow. We will have the light of life within us. And as we will see in the next post, this last statement is incredible.