I must confess that I have had a difficult time with this text as I have been concentrating on it this past week. Initially, I could not figure out why I was finding it so difficult. Upon reflection, I was able to better articulate just what was troubling me about this passage of Scripture. First, this text is placed between two of the most fascinating stories in the Gospels—the story of the woman caught in adultery in the early verses of chapter 8, and the story of the healing of the man born blind in chapter 9. Second, the issues dealt with in our text are not new. John develops his argument by introducing various themes, and then taking them up several times later in the book, each time adding some new dimension of truth, understanding, or application. I found the material less than intriguing because it was not new material, but old material, by and large. Third, our text is not one of those “happily ever after” accounts that leaves us feeling better about what is going on in the text. In this passage, we are in the middle of a great debate between Jesus and His adversaries. Ten times they interrupt Him in this chapter alone. Also, the Jews do not have a clue about what our Lord is saying, and so they misinterpret virtually everything He says. By the end of the chapter, the Jews attempt to stone Jesus. We do not come away from this text with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Instead, it troubles us.
All of these things mean that we must discipline our minds and hearts to concentrate on this text and its message. Having pointed this out, let me also say that this chapter focuses on truths about Jesus Christ which are fundamental to our faith. The things which Jesus claims about Himself in this chapter are those which draw some men to faith (verse 30) and drive others farther away (verse 59). As we approach this study, let us look to God, asking that through His Spirit He may draw us closer to the “Light of the World.”
If you consult the commentaries on this text, you will see that many understand the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles as the background to our Lord’s teaching, to which He constantly refers:
‘He who has not seen the joy of the place of water-drawing has never in his life seen joy’: This extravagant claim stands just before the description of the lighting of the four huge lamps in the temple’s court of women and of the exuberant celebration that took place under the light (Mishnah Sukkah 5:1-4). ‘Men of piety and good works’ danced through the night, holding burning torches in their hands and singing songs and praises. The Levitical orchestras cut loose, and some sources attest that this went on every night of the Feast of Tabernacles, with the light from the temple area shedding its glow all over Jerusalem. In this context Jesus declares to the people, I am the light of the world.86
I am more inclined to view our text in the “light” of what we find in the Scriptures than upon historical information obtained elsewhere. Leon Morris appears to take this same approach, focusing on the “pillar of fire” which separated the Israelites from the Egyptians and led God’s people through the wilderness:
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. They 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 a 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 be the Light would stand out the more impressively. In favor of this view there 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 ch. 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 ch. 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’ great saying in any non-biblical place. Elsewhere we read that God is light (I John 1:5) and Jesus Himself said that His followers were ‘the light of the world’ (Matt. 5:14; the expression is identical with that used here). Paul can also speak of Christians as ‘lights in the world’ (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.87
D. A. Carson summarizes the symbolism of “light” throughout the Bible:
Of the incarnate Word we have already learned that the life ‘was the light of men’ (cf. notes on 1:4). The light metaphor is steeped in Old Testament allusions. The glory of the very presence of God in the cloud led the people to the promised land (Ex. 13:21-22) and protected them from those who would destroy them (Ex. 14:19-25). The Israelites were trained to sing, ‘The LORD is my light and my salvation’ (Ps. 27:1). The word of God, the law of God, is a light to guide the path of those who cherish instruction (Ps. 119:105; Pr. 6:23); God’s light is shed abroad in revelation (Ezk. 1:4, 13, 26-28) and salvation (Hab. 3:3-4). ‘Light is Yahweh in action, Ps. 44:3’ (H. Conzelmann, TDNT 9, 320). Isaiah tells us that the servant of the LORD was appointed as a light to the Gentiles, that he might bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (Is. 49:6). The coming eschatological age would be a time when the LORD himself would be the light for his people (Is. 60:19-22; cf. Rev. 21:23-24). Perhaps Zechariah 14:5b-7 is especially significant, with its promise of continual light on the last day, followed by the promise of living waters flowing from Jerusalem—this passage probably forming part of the liturgical readings of this Feast.…88
12 Then Jesus spoke out again, “I am the light of the world. The one who follows89 me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 So the Pharisees objected, “You testify about yourself; your testimony is not true!” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, because I know where I came from and where I am going. But you people do not know where I came from or where I am going. 15 You people judge by outward appearances; I do not judge anyone. 16 But if I judge, my evaluation is accurate, because I am not alone when I judge, but I and the Father who sent me do so together. 17 It is written in your law that the testimony of two men90 is true. 18 I testify about myself and the Father who sent me testifies about me.” 19 Then they began asking him, “Who91 is your father?” Jesus answered, “You do not know either me or my Father. If you knew me you would know my Father too.” 20 (Jesus spoke these words near the offering box while he was teaching in the temple courts. No one seized him, because his time had not yet come.)
It would seem that the Feast of Tabernacles has just recently concluded when our Lord speaks out in the temple, “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” It is interesting to me that as often as simple statements of our Lord were misunderstood (see 8:21ff.), this is one time His audience seems to understand something of what Jesus means when He calls Himself the “light of the world.” Later on, Paul will use the term “light” when he challenges the Jewish religious leaders concerning their own sin:
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God 18 and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, 19 and if you are convinced that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an educator of the senseless, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the essential features of knowledge and of the truth—21 therefore you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by transgressing the law. 24 For just as it is written, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:17-24, emphasis mine).
I am inclined to interpret our Lord’s words in the light of texts like these, found in the prophecy of Isaiah:
6 “I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles, 7 To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house” (Isaiah 42:6-7, NKJV, emphasis mine).
“Indeed He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Isaiah 49:6, NKJV, emphasis mine).
I believe Israel failed to fulfill her mission as God’s “son” (see Exodus 4:22-23), as did Israel’s kings fail in this same role (see 2 Samuel 7:13-14). What men could not fulfill as God’s “son,” the “Son” did fulfill. And so the Lord Jesus was the perfect “Son.” What Israel failed to do as the “servant of the Lord,” Jesus did as the “Suffering Servant.” Israel was to carry the “good news” of God’s salvation to the Gentiles, but, like the prodigal prophet Jonah, they refused to do so. And so our Lord Jesus came as the “Light of the world.” It was this part of our Lord’s “gospel” which the Jews hated (see Luke 4:16-30; Acts 22:1-24f.).
None of our Lord’s audience chooses to argue about who He claims to be.92 They quibble with Him over a technicality—His credibility as a witness in His own defense. This is indeed ironic, especially in the light of the story of the woman caught in adultery at the beginning of this chapter. The scribes and Pharisees insisted that this woman be stoned, in order to fulfill the Law of Moses. Jesus did not disagree about her guilt or even her punishment under the law. What He did (which caught His adversaries completely off guard) was to appeal to the Law of Moses as to how they should proceed with the stoning. Under the law, there must be two eye witnesses. When Jesus required that the two witnesses be innocent and that they “cast the first stone,” no one was willing to do so, and the case was dropped for lack of any witnesses who would testify against this woman.
You would think that anyone who opposed Jesus would stay away from the “witness question,” but instead we find our Lord’s opponents attacking Him on this same issue. Does He claim that He testifies for the Father, and the Father testifies about Him? That means there are only two witnesses, and that Jesus is one of the witnesses. Under the law, a man cannot be a witness for himself because of his own interests in the case. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus seems to have conceded this point: “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true” (John 5:31).
Now, it would seem that this apparent concession is going to be used against Him. Do the Jews finally have Jesus trapped? We should know better than that.
The most important thing about any witness is that he or she is, in fact, a witness. Imagine a car accident in which one person is seriously injured. The injured person seeks damages from the driver of the other car. His attorney needs to prove that the other driver was negligent or in error. A witness is called, but when cross examined it becomes apparent that this “witness” was not even at the scene of the accident. This person simply wants to give their own opinion about something they never saw. This “witness” is not a witness at all! Now, Jesus is a witness. He speaks of those things which He has seen and heard from His Father: “No one has ever seen God. The only One, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18).
9 Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? 11 I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12 If I have told you people about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things. 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man” (John 3:9-13).
31 “The one who comes from above is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is superior to all. 32 He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 The one who has accepted his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful. 34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly” (John 3:31-34).
36 “But I have a testimony greater than that from John. For the deeds that the Father has assigned me to complete—the deeds I am now doing—testify about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified about me. You people have never heard his voice nor seen his form at any time, 38 nor do you have his word residing in you, because you do not believe the one whom he sent” (John 5:36-38).
45 “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to me. 46 (Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God—he has seen the Father.) 47 I tell you the solemn truth, the one who believes has eternal life” (John 6:45-47).
“I am telling you the things I have seen while with my Father, but you are practicing the things you have heard from your father” (John 8:38).
The defense of our Lord is awesome. The first qualification of a witness is that they be a witness—that they must have personally experienced that of which they testify. The Jewish religious leaders spoke with great authority about things they never experienced. Now, they seek to challenge our Lord’s authority and credibility as a witness. Only He and the Father can testify about heavenly things because they have firsthand knowledge of them. Who else is qualified as a witness if not our Lord?93 He knows where He has come from and where He is going. His opponents do not know where He has come from nor where He is going.
But they think they know where He is from—Galilee. On the basis of this assumption, they reject Jesus as the promised Messiah:
25 Then some of the residents of Jerusalem began to say, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? 26 Yet here he is, speaking publicly, and they are saying nothing to him. Do the rulers really know that this man is the Christ? 27 But we know where this man comes from. Whenever the Christ comes, no one will know where he comes from” (John 7:25-27).
41 Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? 42 Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:41-42)
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of the rulers, said, 51 “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” (John 7:50-52)
Obviously, no one checked out the actual birthplace of our Lord. They assume it, simply on the basis of appearances. His parents were Galileans, though providentially He was born in Bethlehem of Judah (Luke 2:2-7). He grew up in Nazareth and was called a Nazarene, thus fulfilling prophecy (Matthew 2:23). Many of His disciples and followers were Galileans (Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:40-41). He was raised in Galilee and probably had a Galilean accent (see Mark 14:70). Had anyone done even a little inquiring, they would have known that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, and that He was a descendant of David. Had they asked Mary and believed her testimony, they would have known that He was born of a virgin and that He was conceived through the Holy Spirit of God. These Jews who are judging Jesus are not doing a very good job. They accuse Him of being disqualified as a witness, and yet He alone is qualified to witness about heavenly things. They think they are qualified to judge Him, yet He is the One who is uniquely qualified to judge them. This is not His mission in His first coming, and thus He speaks of judging no one (verse 15). But His judgment is true, because He and the Father are united in this activity as well. The “witnesses” are not only those who alone have “seen” heaven, they are also the ultimate “judges” of all mankind. Jesus can say with complete confidence, as He does, that His witness is true.
Unfortunately, those who are resisting Jesus just don’t seem to get the point. They just can’t stop, and so they ask what I perceive to be a very ugly question: “Where is your father?” (verse 19). I believe this question is intended to be a very cruel blow to Jesus, one that His adversaries hope will silence Him and give those listening to this interchange a chance to have a good laugh at His expense. If they think Jesus is talking about Joseph as His father, they know he has been dead for some time. How then can Jesus speak of His “father” (Joseph) when he is dead? Is there something Jesus has not told them? Is He in communication with the dead? Is Jesus working with a dead man?
Or, worse yet (and more likely in my opinion), they are accusing Jesus of being an illegitimate child, as they do again later in this same chapter: “Then they said to Jesus, ‘We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself’” (John 8:41b). Their cutting words are intended to embarrass Jesus for being the illegitimate child of Mary and some unknown “lover.” Jesus dares to speak of His Father? Then they will press Him on this point, reminding Him and others that He has no right to speak about having a father.
Jesus is not taken back by this challenge. They are as ignorant on this point as they are on all other counts. They do not know Him; they most certainly do not know His Father. These Jews are the religious elite, the teachers and rulers of the nation, and yet they do not know the most fundamental things about their religion. If they know Jesus, they would know His Father as well. But they do not know Jesus as Messiah nor His Father as God.
In all of this, someone might be inclined to look upon Jesus as the One under fire, the One trying desperately to defend Himself against these powerful leaders. Does anyone look upon Jesus as the victim here? Anyone who does is wrong. In verse 20, John makes a most significant parenthetical remark. It is as though John is a photographer. His camera zooms in on Jesus, then on His accusers, then back to Jesus. Now John gives us a wide-angle shot of this same scene. Jesus is teaching in the temple. He is in the temple courts where the offering boxes are kept:
The place where the offerings were put probably refers to the thirteen ‘shofar-chests’ (probably so named because the ‘chests’ were shaped like shofars … , a trumpet; cf. Mishnah Shekalim 2:1; 6:1, 5). Each was inscribed with the use to which the money collected in it was ostensibly put. Nowhere do we learn explicitly where they were placed, but probably they were located in the Court of the Women, if we may judge from access women had to them (cf. Mk. 12:41-42; cf. SB 2. 37-45). John’s principal point is that no-one seized him, because his time (hora) had not yet come.94
I especially enjoy the insight of William Hendriksen here:
Against the wall in the Court of Women stood thirteen trumpet-shaped chests in which the people deposited their gifts for various causes. Hence, taking the part for the whole, this court was sometimes called the Treasury. Here Jesus was teaching, in the immediate proximity of the hall in which the Sanhedrin held (or: used to hold) its sessions. And, though it is possible that this august body, so thoroughly hostile to Jesus, could almost hear the echo of his voice, no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet arrived.95
Can you imagine this? The Jews think they are the authorities, the ones in charge. Yet here stands Jesus, the One they are determined to silence by killing Him. He is there in the temple, teaching the people. And He is doing so literally outside the door of the room where the Sanhedrin meets. You can almost hear the hushed whispers inside that room, the voices of men plotting to kill Jesus, while outside can be heard the booming voice of the Savior, proclaiming that He is the “Light of the world.” They cannot even lay a hand on Him whom they reject, on Him whom they purpose to kill—even though He is in easy reach—because it is not yet His time. I ask you this question, “Who is in charge here?”
21 Then Jesus said to them again, “I am going away, and you will look for me but will die in your sin. Where I am going you cannot come.” 22 So the Jewish leaders began to say, “Perhaps he is going to kill himself, because he says, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’.” 23 Jesus replied, “You people are from below; I am from above. You people are from this world; I am not from this world. 24 Thus I told you that you will die in your sin. For unless you believe that I am the Christ,96 you will die in your sins.”97 25 So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus replied, “What I have told you from the beginning. 26 I have many things to say and to judge about you, but the Father who sent me is truthful, and the things I have heard from him I speak to the world. 27 (They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father.) 28 Then Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak just what the Father taught me. 29 And the one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do those things that please him.” 30 While he was saying these things, many people believed in him.
In verse 12, Jesus invites men to follow Him as the “Light of the world.” Now, having been rejected by many as the true light, He issues a strong word of warning. He is going away. When He is gone, they will look for Him, but they will not find Him. Such people will “die in their sins,” and they will not be able to go where He is going. What is clear to us now is completely misunderstood by those who reject Him. He is speaking of His departure by death, and of His return to the Father in heaven. He is speaking of the most glorious death possible, His sacrificial, substitutionary (dying not for Himself but for our sins) atonement, whereby the penalty for our sins was paid, and sin’s power over us was broken.
Our Lord’s adversaries presume they are going to heaven, and if Jesus is their enemy, then He must be going to hell. If Jesus is going to a place that they cannot go, then Jesus (in their minds) must be going to hell. And so they jump to the conclusion that He is speaking of His own death by suicide. I can almost hear them mumbling under their breath, “Good riddance!” Is He planning to take His own life? It almost seem as though He is going to spare them the trouble of killing Him.
If they are listening to Jesus carefully, how can He say they will look for Him, as though they need Him? He is not talking about suicide or going to hell. He is saying that once He goes away, it will be too late for them. They will need Him, and they will seek Him, but they will not be able to go where He has gone. They will not find Him to help them. I believe Jesus means they will “look for Him” in the sense that they will eagerly look for Messiah to “come” and to save them in their hour of distress and need. Little do they realize that He has come to save them, and yet they have rejected Him. After they put Him to death, they will realize that He is the Messiah.
It is no surprise that they cannot recognize Him. After all, He is from above, and they are from below. Sadly, they think they are going above (to heaven) and that He is going “below.” They will not believe Him who is not of this world, who came down from heaven. Because of this, they will die in their sins. He who came to bear the sins of men is to be rejected and crucified as a sinner by sinful men. He is the only One who can testify of things above, and they reject His testimony. Unless they believe in Him, they must bear the penalty for their own sins; they must die in their sins.
Jesus can hardly be more clear in what He says, but many do not understand Him at all. And so they respond, “Who are you?” I am tempted to read their question this way: “Say, just who do you think you are?” Surely they cannot miss who He claims to be! And yet I believe they do fail to grasp what Jesus is saying. And so they ask, once again, who Jesus is claiming to be. They will get the point by the end of the chapter at least. Are they looking for Jesus to make a simple statement like, “I am the Messiah”? Jesus responds something like this: “I am the same person I have been claiming to be from the outset of My ministry. I have said this over and over again, but you have not been listening. I have a lot more to say to indict you for your sin, and you’re not going to like it any more than what I have said, but it is all from above, from My Father.”
As clear as this is, John makes an almost astounding statement: “They did not understand that He was talking about His Father.” This is amazing! They are blind and cannot see the “light.” Their ears are dull of hearing. He speaks of Himself as being equal with God and of God as His Father, and they do not recognize it. (If they had, they would have tried to stone Him, as they will soon do in verse 59.) Do they not recognize who He is? They will, and all too soon. They will grasp His words too late, after they have crucified Him on the cross of Calvary. It is His crucifixion and resurrection that will be the one great and final sign, proving Him to be the Messiah:
38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 41 The people of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; yet something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The Queen of the South will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; yet something greater than Solomon is here!” (Matthew 12:38-42)
I believe this actually takes place (at least in part) at the time of our Lord’s crucifixion. At the start, it was a circus-like atmosphere. People are having a good time of it, mocking Jesus and daring Him to come down from the cross. But then some things occur which wipes the smiles from their faces and sends them home beating their breasts:
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three o’clock in the afternoon, 45 because the sun’s light failed. The curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And after he said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts (Luke 23:44-48).
It is at this point that men and women come to see that Jesus is from heaven, that He is not speaking on His own initiative, but at the will of the Father. But it is also too late, for many at least. In the midst of this widespread rejection, Jesus is not alone. He is doing His Father’s will, and His Father is with Him in all that He does. As God is with us in our sufferings and persecution for His sake, so the Father is with the Son when He is rejected by men. There will come that terrible moment when, in dying for the sins of men, the Son will be forsaken by the Father. What a horrifying thought this is to our Lord (see Matthew 26:36-46).
Our Lord’s words remind me of what God said to Adam in the Garden of Eden, after the fall: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19, NKJV). Men have come from the dust of the earth, and it is to dust that they will return. Our Lord came down from heaven, and this is the place to which He will return. Even His death on the cross of Calvary cannot change this. Because He is God, and because He is the source of life, death does not have dominion over Him. He would lay down His own life, and so He would take it up again (John 10:18). No wonder the Apostle Peter claims that it was impossible for death to claim the body of our Lord:
22 “Israelite men, listen to these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man clearly demonstrated to you to be from God by powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed through him among you, just as you yourselves know—23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. 24 But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says about him, ‘I saw the Lord always in front of me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken. 26 Therefore my heart was glad and my tongue rejoiced; my body also will live in hope, 27 because you will not leave my soul to remain in Hades, or permit your Holy One to experience decay. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of joy with your presence.’
29 “Brothers, I can speak to you with confidence about our forefather David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 So then, because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, 31 David by foreseeing this spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his body experience decay. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:22-32, underscoring mine).
Think about this for a moment. How often we labor to convince others that it was possible for our Lord to rise from the dead. This is not Peter’s way of thinking or speaking. He challenges us with the biblical reality that it was impossible for Jesus not to rise!
Our text ends with another parenthetical comment. It is a sad moment in Israel’s history. Dare I say, it is a dark moment in Israel’s history—when Israel rejects Him who is the Light of the world. But even in this dark hour there are rays of light, rays of hope. John closes this incident in which many reject Jesus by telling us that the same words which turned many against Him caused many to believe in Him. The nature of this belief is problematic to some, but what we see, once again, is that Jesus divides men. The same words that draw some to faith drive others away.
As I have studied this text which presents Jesus as the “Light of the world,” it has become more and more obvious to me that John is simply telling us some of the very same things that he stated at the outset of this Gospel, but now in greater detail. Consider these verses, noting especially those portions I have emphasized:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of mankind. 5 And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it. 6 A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify about the light so that everyone may believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. 9 The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 13 —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God. 14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and cried out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only One, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known.
The Old Testament law was given to “enlighten” men. It revealed God to men. It was given to reveal man’s sin. Israel was to be a “light” to the Gentiles by living according to God’s law, and thus by their righteousness revealing God to men. In so doing, they would also reveal man’s sin. Israel failed their calling, and so God sent Jesus to be the perfect “light.” He not only fully and perfectly revealed God to men, He revealed man’s sin and his need for a Savior. The reason many sinners rejected Jesus is that He did reveal their sin. The self-righteous sinners like the scribes and Pharisees did not wish to be seen as sinners, but as saints, and so they determined to “put out the light.”
The Israelites were able to “handle” the “light” of the law. By means of their traditions and twisted interpretations, they adjusted and altered the law until it justified their sin rather than exposing and condemning it. When Jesus came as the light they attempted to pressure Him to change the light, to modify His message. Our text is but one example of His refusal to do so, and of the Jews’ growing hatred and opposition toward Jesus for His not doing so. Those who were “enlightened” by the light saw their sins and Jesus as the Savior, who came to save them from their sins. Those who were only exposed as sinners came to realize that the only way to “put out the light” was to kill the Savior. What they didn’t know is that this was the means by which God had chosen to save sinners—by the sacrificial and substitutionary death of Jesus in the sinner’s place. Are we surprised that those in darkness would want to do away with the Light? Is it any wonder that when Judas left the Passover celebration and went out to betray our Lord John would write, “Now it was night” (John 13:30)?
As I consider Jesus as the “Light of the world,” I am reminded of the conversion of Saul as described three times in the Book of Acts—Saul, whom we come to know as the great Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Saul was the personification, the embodiment, of the unbelieving Jews we find in our text. He thought he was serving God as he persecuted Christians, just as the Pharisees thought they were serving God by persecuting Jesus. Paul was saved when our Lord intercepted him on a mission to arrest more Christians. Saul was blinded by the “light” of the glory of the resurrected Jesus, whom he persecuted as he persecuted the church of our Lord. That “light” blinded Saul for three days, and during those three days of blindness Saul was given time to ponder the magnitude of his sin. It was after this three day period of blindness that Ananias came to him with the gospel, and Saul was saved.
Our text reminds us that while Saul’s conversion was extraordinary in some ways, it is typical in others. We, like Paul, are blinded by our own sin. We oppose God, we oppose Jesus Christ, we oppose the people of God because we do not like the light; we do not want the light. And all the while we are deceived into believing that we’re doing the right thing. If it were not for God’s “enlightening” us, for His seeking us out, for Him opening our blind eyes, we would never see. If you have come to see Jesus as your Savior, remember that it was He who found you, He who gave sight to your blind (spiritual) eyes.
I found this quotation “enlightening”:
Cf. C. J. Wright: “There are types of so-called religious apologetic, which, distrusting the intrinsic claims of religion itself, seek to put in its place ‘external evidences’ and ‘institutional safeguards.’ How can light convince us that it is light except by what it does for us? We do not demonstrate that light is light by treatises, or by analyses of its constituent rays. It is only light to us when it illumines and quickens us.” He also says, “Anyone can, to his own satisfaction, confute the claim which Beauty makes, by saying, I do not see it; or the claim inherent in Goodness, by saying, I do not hear it; or the self-evidencing nature of Truth, by saying, I do not know it. But man does not create Goodness, or Truth, or Beauty; and to say that he cannot see them is to condemn himself, not them.” So with Light.98
And let this be a lesson and a reminder to us as we seek to share our faith with others. We will not argue them into the kingdom of God. Men are blind to the “light” of the gospel. We dare not attempt to change the message to appeal to the fleshly appetites of fallen, blinded men and women. We, like Jesus, must declare the truth and realize that unless “enlightened” by God, no one will ever come to faith in Jesus as the “Light of the world.” As we proclaim the truth of the gospel, some will be blinded and hardened by it, while others will be enlightened and saved. Our task is to proclaim the truth and to pray that God may open blind eyes to see the truth and respond to it in faith.
In our text, Jesus makes it clear that it is those who “follow” Him who cease to walk in darkness and walk in the light. I found these words of Calvin encouraging in this regard:
For when we learn that all who allow themselves to be governed by Christ are out of danger of going astray, we ought to be excited to follow him, and, indeed, by stretching out his hand—as it were—he draws us to him. We ought also to be powerfully affected by so large and magnificent a promise, that they who shall direct their eyes to Christ are certain that, even in the midst of darkness, they will be preserved from going astray; and that not only for a short period, but until they have finished their course. For that is the meaning of the words used in the future tense, he shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. Such is also the import of this latter clause, in which the perpetuity of life is stated in express terms. We ought not to fear, therefore, lest it leave us in the middle of the journey, for it conducts us even to life.99
I am impressed, once again, with the unity of our Lord Jesus and the Father. Jesus does not act or speak on His own initiative. He speaks and He does what is pleasing to the Father. Surely this is what we must do. I see in greater clarity, the significance of our Lord’s temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Satan sought to entice our Lord to act independently of the Father, even if it appeared to be by means of some seemingly insignificant act. Our salvation is the result of our Lord’s complete unity with the Father, and His submission to the Father’s will.
Is it any wonder then that Satan, the great deceiver, is carrying out his opposition to our Lord as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)? He endeavors to give us new “light,” to cause us to look at things in a different “light.” But his “light” is not the “light” of the gospel, of God’s Word. His is “new revelation,” which contradicts what God has said. And so when he tempted Eve, he deceived her into believing that God was not good, and that His one command was not really for man’s good. He convinced her that God’s warning was a lie and that disobedience was the way to godliness. He is still seeking to “enlighten” men today, but with a “light” that comes from the darkness. And for those of us who have trusted in Jesus as the “Light of the world,” Satan seeks to keep us from walking in the light. Let us beware of that which is labeled “light”—especially when it is “new light”—testing it to see if it conforms to the “light” of God’s Word.
There is little that is “new” in our text, and with good reason: there is no need for anything “new.” How often today men are attracted by what is “new” more than by what is true (see Acts 17:21). Even the Corinthian saints seem to be enticed by “new” teaching and tired of the simple proclamation of the cross of Christ. Let us beware of leaving the “light” behind for new and novel teaching. Let us hold fast to what is true. Let us hold fast to Him who is the truth, the way, the life.
There are a few simple truths which John continues to proclaim and emphasize in his Gospel, and which our Lord reiterates again and again in our text. Let me review them briefly.
(1) Jesus Christ is unique, unlike any other man who has walked on this earth.
For Christ does not speak of it as what belongs to him in common with others, but claims it as being peculiarly his own. Hence it follows, that out[side] of Christ there is not even a spark of true light … It must also be observed, that the power and office of illuminating is not confined to the personal presence of Christ; for though he is far removed from us with respect to his body, yet he daily sheds his light upon us, by the doctrine of the Gospel, and by the secret power of his Spirit.100
He alone has “come down from heaven,” speaking with God’s authority to mankind. He alone can testify of heavenly things.
(2) Jesus is God. Some may teach that Jesus was a man becoming a god, and that therefore we, like him, may become gods. This is not what the Bible teaches, and it is not what Jesus claimed. He claimed to be God, who became man. John declared this in the first verses of this Gospel. If Jesus was not the sinless “Lamb of God,” His death would be of no saving value for us.
It is impossible to have the kind of faith that John envisages without having a certain high view of Christ. Unless we believe that He is more than man we can never trust Him with that faith that is saving faith.101
(3) Jesus is the only way to know and to worship God. There is no salvation apart from Christ, and there is no true worship of the Father which rejects, denies, diminishes the Son.
Ignorance of Christ is the root of not knowing God. People today say, ‘Well, I believe in God, but I don’t believe in Christ.’ They’re talking in a riddle. You can’t know God without Christ. And when you come to know Christ, you come to know God. These are inseparable.102
A man can know the Father only as He knows Jesus. It is a key doctrine of this Gospel that it is in the Son and in the Son alone that the Father is revealed. No one has ever seen God. It is the Son who has ‘declared’ Him (18). This is fundamental. If a man really comes to know Jesus then he will know the Father also, and acknowledge the Father’s testimony to the Son. The two go together (cf. Weymouth: ‘You know my Father as little as you know me’). But to reject Jesus is to place oneself out of reach of the divine testimony.103
(4) Jesus Christ is the key to eternal life. Those who trust in Him are saved; those who reject Him will die in their sins. There is no other way to God. Following Jesus Christ as His disciple is not only the way to heaven, it is the only way to escape the darkness of this life. Jesus is to be the central focus of our life. We are never to turn to anything or anyone else as the divine source of light and life. This is the consistent message of the New Testament.104
In our text, Jesus claims that those who reject Him will some day seek Him, but too late (see verse 21). This is true for all who reject Him as the “Light of the world,” as God’s only provision for eternal salvation:
5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:5-11).
Have you trusted in Jesus Christ as the “Light of the world”? Have you experienced the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal life in Him? If you have not done so before, I urge you to do so now. Those who come to Him in faith, He will never turn away. And if you have come to trust in Jesus as the “Light of the world,” I will close with these inspired words of Paul, which challenge us to live as “lights” in a dark world:
12 So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with humility and dependence, 13 for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God. 14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world 16 by holding on to the word of life so that I will have a reason to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain (Philippians 2:12-16).
89 It is the followers of our Lord who do not “walk in darkness,” but in the light, not just those who “believe.” The inference here is found elsewhere in John (e.g. 2:23-25), that there are those who “believe” who do not also “follow” as a disciple. Nicodemus seems to be such a person.
90 This causes me to view the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3 in a different light. Even there, God testifies through two witnesses, consistent with the requirement of the Old Testament law (see also 1 Timothy 5:19).
93 “If Jesus really stands in the relationship to God in which He says He does, then no mere man is in a position to bear witness. No human witness can authenticate a divine relationship. Jesus therefore appeals to the Father and Himself, and there is no other to whom He can appeal.” Morris, p. 443.
96 “Temple maintains that this ‘cannot be reproduced in English, for it combines three meanings: (a) that I am what I say—sc. The Light of the World; (b) that I am He—the promised Messiah; (c) that I am—absolutely, the divine Name. All these are present; none is actually indicated.’” Morris, p. 447.