Summary: God provides light for all who would have their darkness revealed.
The first words of God recorded in the Bible are: “Let there be light.” Later we find that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1John 1.5). Darkness universally symbolizes sin and death; light corresponds to life and holiness and purity. Thus King David sings (around 1000 B.C.): “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
God’s “word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119.105), and God wraps himself in a garment of light, even becoming fire and flame for the destruction of all evil. God’s light is “marvelous” (1Peter 2.9), and heaven has no need for sun or moon, “for the glory of God gives it light” (Revelation 21.23).
Those who heard Jesus were well familiar with the frequent Biblical connection between light and God which provides the background for our text, John 8.12-20.
We know much detail about the Jerusalem Temple and its ceremonies from ancient Jewish writings. During the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the more popular events was the water pouring ceremony that Jesus used as an opportunity to cry out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” That was in chapter seven.
The events related to Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world are also connected to the Feast of Tabernacles. The Talmud (Jewish commentary on the Bible) tells of the celebration surrounding the lighting of four enormous candelabras: “The young priests filled the lamps of the large chandeliers with oil, and lighted them all, even that the place was so bright that its reflection lighted the streets of the city. Hymns and praises were chanted by the pious ones, and the Levites praised the Lord with harps, cornets, trumpets, flutes, and other instruments of harmony. They stood upon fifteen broad steps, reaching from the lower floor to the gallery, the court of the women. And they sang fifteen psalms as they ascended, and the large choir joined voices with them….”
These huge oil lamps reminded the Jews of the pillar of fire that guided Israel in their wilderness journey. Thus Jesus has presented himself as the reality to which the three most significant “wilderness images” point. In John 6, Jesus feeds thousands from a few loaves of bread to show that he is the true manna, the bread of life from heaven. In John 7, Jesus speaks during the water ceremony because he is the rock which followed Israel and gave water in the desert. And now he stands beside the massive temple lamps and claims to be the pillar of cloud and fire which guided and guarded Israel to the promised land: “I am the Light of the world.” As he often did, Jesus shapes his sermon around “external circumstances to arouse the greatest attention and fix the words in the hearts and minds of the people.” Let us consider, this morning: 1) What Jesus says about himself; 2) What Jesus offers us; and 3) What is required of those who hear.
1. Jesus’ Claim: Light (John 8.12a)
When we lived in Nebraska, I occasionally flew into Omaha late at night. Omaha is fairly large town—about half a million people—but it is a virtual island in a vast sea of corn. Tens of thousands of acres of farmland surround it—dark farmland. Streetlights never appear in rural budgets; shopping malls and busy factories shine close to the big city. Even after the captain indicates that we have begun our descent, darkness frames the window of the airplane. Until a turn brings a direct view of the city lights beckoning us to land.
It really makes me appreciate the importance of a blackout during wartime air raids. An enemy pilot could track a city’s lights from many miles. Light witnesses to itself; it reveals its presence. It shines clearly through the darkness.
So Jesus evokes a powerful metaphor: “I am the light….” What does that mean? What is he saying about himself?
1.1. The “Light of the World” Claims Divinity
If you have not watched The Ten Commandments recently, you may not remember how God led Israel out of Egypt. Exodus 13.21-22: “And 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. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”
Standing in the temple, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when the lamps were lit which symbolized this “pillar of fire,” Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World.” “I am the God who is; I am the glory cloud who leads you to life and eternal pleasure.”