Jesus: Light of the World (John 8:12-20)

Plato once said, "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when grown men are afraid of the light." Hold that thought. We'll come back to it.

Light as a metaphor for truth, illumination, life, holiness, purity, and/or God is common in the literature of both antiquity and modern times. Light drives away the darkness of ignorance, sin, and death. Light introduces hope, confidence, and life. It is a beautiful, natural metaphor.

From the opening lines of his Gospel, John has let us know that light is one of his favorite images for Jesus and his presence among humankind. "In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (1:4-5). He returns to it more than once in this Gospel we are studying - using the word sixteen times to describe Jesus' life and ministry - and uses it as well in his epistles. For example, "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:5-7).

Why wouldn't this common and natural theme occur to John? It was light that led Israel in the wilderness. The Hebrew Church used to sing songs such as these: "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" and "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psa. 27:1; 119:105).

Now that the Word has been made flesh, Jesus is the light. His birth was the dawn of a new age, and his resurrection bathed the world in astonishing brilliance. To walk in the light is to be his follower and disciple. To live in the light is to be conscious of his presence and will, his Lordship and salvation. It is to pursue purity over self-indulgence, obedience over defiance. To turn away from him is to embrace the darkness of eternal night.

What Happened at the Festival

At John 8:12, we are returning to the flow of events around Jesus' presence at the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (cf. 7:2ff). Here we encounter the second of the great "I Am" claims of the Gospel of John (cf. "I am the bread of life," 6:35). As with an earlier statement about living water in this festival context (7:38ff), his claim to be the light of the world was occasioned and made emphatic by a practice associated with the Feast of Tabernacles.

One of the more dramatic features of the Feast of Tabernacles was the lighting of the temple precincts by means of the great golden candelabra or menorah in the Court of the Women. The glow of the lights reminded the devout of the light Yahweh gave their forefathers in the desert through the pillar of fire that signaled the very presence of God.

What Jesus had the audacity to say in this context must have seemed outlandish to everyone there. "I am the light of the world," he declared. "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (8:12-13). Imagine it!

If the festival week was over, Jesus was standing in the darkness of the temple courtyard - a darkness made more impressive because of the recent ceremony of lights - to offer light that would never be extinguished. If the festival was still in progress, it must have been the final day (cf. 7:37) - the same day on which he had talked about living water. If so, the contrast between the week-long rituals with water and light and the permanent supply of a superior type of water (i.e., one that would bubble up forever) and light (i.e., one that would not go out after a week) would perhaps be even more emphatic still.

Among those who heard this strong claim were certain Pharisees who apparently grasped its significance. So they spoke up immediately to challenge him.

Then the Pharisees said to him, "You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid." Jesus answered, "Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf." Then they said to him, "Where is your Father?" Jesus answered, "You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also" (8:13-19).
This exchange sounds strange to our ears but is rooted in the demand of the Law of Moses (Deut 19:15) that testimony must be corroborated to be accepted. Jesus doesn't repudiate the principle so much as he dares to say that the only other reliable witness to his true identity was his Father. The claim "I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not . . ." is equivalent to the later claim he will make that the Father had sent him from heaven (8:18) and that he was one with the Father (10:30). The Father and Son are always in sync with one another, thus the Son's testimony was hardly uncorroborated. Those who would insist on judging heavenly mysteries by "human standards" would remain in unbelief, for human categories cannot receive, comprehend, or contain God. That is the work of faith - trust in the sovereign deeds of the Almighty.

What It Meant for Them

Do you see what a hopeless situation these critics were creating for themselves? Do you grasp the depth of their spiritual perversity? Do you see what is going on here for what it really is?

When human beings set themselves to judge God rather than to submit to him, they are guilty of the ultimate arrogance. When we presume to measure and judge divine fullness by our finite human understanding, we are preparing to offer ourselves as gods and to reject the One True God.

Take, for example, the expectations the Jews had built up concerning the Messiah and his kingdom. For most of them it seems, he was supposed to be a military figure. He was expected to reestablish the glory days of David and Solomon. He was supposed to make everybody wealthy in a paradise on Earth. He was supposed to ride a noble steed, cut a striking figure, square off with the Romans, strike down his opponents, and so on. But those were the wrong-headed judgments formed from human standards that the people had embraced and by which they would measure anyone offering himself as Messiah.

Then came Jesus of Nazareth, born to a peasant family and with no militaristic aspirations. There was no steed or armor, no promises of earthly prosperity or long life. His assurances were, in fact, that siding with him might well make one subject to persecution and death! He didn't square off with the Romans but taught his followers to pay their taxes and to carry a soldier's pack an extra mile when pressed into slave duty. Why, he even acted like a slave himself by washing the feet of his disciples when they were too impressed with themselves to consider the task. He rebuked them and told them never to be too good to serve one another!

Because he didn't fit the standards of human judgment, they rejected him. Because he wasn't the militaristic, materialistic, macho character they had convinced themselves to expect, they looked their Messiah square in the face and spit on him.

For the second time in this Gospel (cf. 3:17), it is pointed out that Jesus had not come into the world to pass judgment on people but to save them. The fact remained, however, that his very presence sometimes constituted a judgment. In those instances, he said, "My judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me" (8:16). Just by being who he was and by being faithful to the work he and his Father had agreed upon, people were judged - not by human standards but by the measuring-rod of heavenly truth, heavenly presence.

Against this sort of challenge, they could only question his paternity! "Where is your Father?" they demanded. Maybe they were asking if Joseph were still alive and available to clear up what his (presumed) son was saying. Maybe - and some scholars see this as their meaning - they were insulting him by reminding him people hadn't forgotten the circumstances of his mother being pregnant before her marriage to Joseph was officially consummated. They couldn't answer him and wouldn't believe on him, so they insulted him.

What It Means for Us

How I wish this text could be left in its historical circumstances and not brought into my own life situation. I could feel smug against those Pharisees. I could indict them for their unbelief. I could point an accusing finger at their self-imposed blindness - standing in the light of Jesus' presence but squeezing their eyes tight-shut against him. But this text about human standards for judgment and refusing to see the light is too close to home for every generation.

Jesus has made some of us wince, look sideways from the light, and retreat to the false comfort of dark places.

When the Bastille was about to be destroyed in 1789, a convict was led out who had been confined in one of its windowless cells for years. Instead of dancing at the joy of his freedom, he begged to be taken back - or so the story goes. It had been so long since he had seen the sunshine that he believed his eyes could not endure its bright light. He preferred to die in the murky gloom of the dungeon where he had been imprisoned than to adjust his eyes to light, his lungs to clean air, or his mind and heart to freedom.

"But he must have been crazy from his long sentence in prison!" says someone. Perhaps. "And nobody in his right mind would do such a thing in the world today," he continues. I wonder.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. May I tell you how embarrassing that holiday is to me? I have the dubious distinction of having attended a Christian college where a faculty member wrote a book in the 1960s to "prove" Dr. King was a Communist. Why, he had to be! Anyone with a social agenda for racial equality that would result in having to open Christian schools to African-Americans must be trying to subvert the American way of life, destroy the Christian religion, and vilify motherhood and apple pie.

Now do you understand how the Pharisees of Jesus' time could treat him as they did? Jesus ran into the buzz saw of "human standards" set against divine standards. The status quo could no more accept the light of Jesus' presence and teaching than some of us could allow the status quo of segregation to be challenged by a black man who had had enough of injustice. And churches and church schools were among the last-with-the-least to challenge a societal evil that was long defended in the name of "Christian society" and "Christian religion." Christian individuals, churches, and institutions still have not accepted the task of repentance and reconciliation that are surely on the divine agenda with enough aggressive energy.

There are people, times, and circumstances that will not tolerate a fresh word from God. It was wrong for the people at that festival to reject Jesus because he was not what they had it in their minds the Messiah would be. It was wrong to refuse a prophetic word against racism and segregation fifty years ago. Today we are challenged to hear a fresh word from God against the sexism our churches have perpetuated and the religious bigotry and sectarianism we continue to practice as an affront to Jesus' plea for the unity of those who wear his name. Tomorrow there will be more blind spots to surface, repent of, and grow through. But it is painful. It is more than some are willing to do.


Do you remember that quote from Plato I gave you at the beginning of this sermon? The one to which I said we would return? "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark," he said. "The real tragedy of life is when grown men are afraid of the light."

That aphorism from the fourth-century B.C. is prophetic to the text we have examined today. It may even be prophetic to someone under the sound of my voice. If the light of Jesus' presence and teaching is calling you from unbelief to faith, from error to truth, from evil to holiness, or from death to life, there is no excuse for shrinking back. A cell is no place for someone God has set free. The darkness is no place for someone who has heard Jesus say, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

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