English service - July 18, 2021
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
I Am the Light of the World
Isn’t it great to be able to meet here again in person this week! We are very grateful to be able to gather online and for the hard work of our Worship Team to make this happen week to week. But there’s nothing quite the same as being together in the same place and meeting in person with God and each other, is there.
We’ve begun a series of messages on seven traditional “I Am” sayings of Christ in the Gospel of John. Last month we learned about Jesus’ using the “I Am” name of God in chapter 6 when He said, “I am the bread of life.” We continue today with some of our Lord’s most famous words: “I am the light of the world.” I want to first introduce some background that will help us get the full meaning of these words, then see some general meanings of the teaching of Jesus as the light of the world. And at that point let’s focus on five specific things Christ means by presenting Himself as the light of the world.
To begin, when Jesus says these words, He is in the Temple, the center of worship in Jerusalem, Israel. Chapter 7 puts Him in the Temple courtyard (v. 14) during the Feast of Booths (v. 2, also called the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Ingathering [harvest]). That is the autumn festival held every year for seven days according to the instructions given in Leviticus 23 and elsewhere. Following the barley harvest in the spring and wheat harvest in the summer, people in Jesus’ country would have a general harvest in the fall. After it was finished, all faithfully practicing Jewish people who could travel to Jerusalem would go and spend a week there celebrating and honoring God. The holiday’s meaning was especially focused on remembering the Old Testament story of His leading His people out of slavery in Egypt and across the desert, to the Promised Land. They lived in temporary shelters during the journey. Even God did, too, in a portable Temple called the Tabernacle. To remember that whole experience of receiving from the Lord freedom, salvation, and life, the Jewish people built temporary shelters, or booths, where they would stay during this holiday week. (Many still do, and even some Christians keep the custom.) Jesus’ family no doubt did this year after year, and it is easy to imagine Him as a boy out collecting palm or myrtle branches to help his family build their shelter. (We may think of this holiday as a kind of camping trip, though we usually leave our city or town to go to the countryside, and people in the Bible do just the opposite at Sukkot, as it’s called in Hebrew.)
The section of the Temple Jesus is in when He says, “I am the light of the world” also has great meaning. Verse 20 tells us that He is near the place where the offerings are put. There are 13 trumpet-shaped containers where people will put their offerings for various purposes related to the Temple worship. (You may recall that as the place a woman puts her last two coins when she is held up by Christ as a model of faith in the Mark 12:41-44 story.) That place for giving offerings is in the Court of Women. Women, men, and non-Jews are allowed in that area, though others are restricted. It makes sense that the treasury is there, so that giving money to support God’s work will be possible for everyone who comes to the Temple. (The nation needs money, of course, to hold these activities, and people need to give.)
In other words, Jesus has positioned Himself in the part of the Temple where the most people will likely be. There are probably tens of thousands of people here on a day like the one in this major national holiday when the story in John 8 takes place. Jesus’ message is an inclusive one that shows He wants to be the light for all the world’s people, regardless of sex, gender, or ethnic background.
During the Feast of Tabernacles, God’s people observe a custom called the Illumination of the Temple. A little like White Illumination in Sapporo in the winter, in Bible times, candelabras (candleholders) are set up all around the Court of Women every night during the holiday week. Apparently these are quite large-scale, one container on a candelabra holding dozens of liters of oil, which will be burned to make the light. This makes a beautiful display that can be seen from a long distance, especially with the city and the Temple sitting on relatively high ground.
This gives us some hints about exactly what Jesus’ words may sound like to their first hearers. We don’t know the exact moment when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” Maybe people are just lighting the candles as night approaches, and it provides a good opportunity for Him to give an object lesson. Or maybe it is daytime, the lights have been put out from the night before, and Jesus takes this as a chance to contrast Himself with them. In other words, “I am the light of the world that never goes out. When you follow me, you have eternal life and so will never walk in darkness.”
I mentioned that the Feast of Booths recalls the Exodus journey across the desert. One thing of deep meaning that happened in that time was that God put with the Israelites a pillar of fire to stay through the night. That special light, along with a pillar of cloud for the daytime, was a clear reminder of His presence. As Sasaki-san noted last week, it probably provided some welcome warmth for the people as desert nights can become cold very quickly, even when the days are hot. It was also a symbol of the Lord’s glory as it overcame the darkness. I am not sure whether the people of Israel traveled during the day or night, but I know that I would rather travel at night than in the burning daytime heat across a desert, as long as I could see the path ahead clearly. In that sense, light probably showed the way to go, protected, and assured God’s people.
So when Jesus announces Himself as the light, God’s people already have a history of following the pillar of fire. People who are willing to follow Christ with their lives are living in that same tradition and fulfilling it. The Temple ritual leads people to Jesus, and through Him, in deeper and deeper ways, to God. When Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” He is inviting His listeners to look back at how the Lord has worked with His people in the past. If they will do that, they will find something connecting them at a deep level with their spiritual (and cultural) roots. For example, Psalm 27:1 (NIV) says, “The LORD is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” The prophecies of the coming Messiah use the image of light again and again to describe Him. For example, in Isaiah 42:6-7, God says to Him:
I, the LORD, have chosen you to do what is right. I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you safe. You will put my covenant with the people of Israel into effect. And you will be a light for the other nations. You will open eyes that can't see. You will set prisoners free. Those who sit in darkness will come out of their cells.
Similar words appear in Isaiah 49, 50, and 53.
In presenting Himself as the light, Christ is also telling us to look with open hearts and spiritual eyes at the physical light that we know from our daily lives and find examples of how our God, in Christ, is at work every day. When we see light having beauty, showing beauty, cleansing, and doing the other things it normally does, we have occasions to see more deeply what our God is like and what He wants to do in, for, and through us. If you ever think, “I don’t know what to pray about” or “I’d like to try Christian meditation,” the image of Christ the light could give you a great way to start.
“Those who follow me will never walk in darkness. They will have the light that leads to life” (v. 12b). Jesus is not just a light to be seen and admired. He is a light to be followed. This word follow in Bible times would be used to talk about, for example, a soldier following a commander, a slave following a master, a person following a wise counselor, someone following a law obediently, or a student following a teacher’s line of argument.
Now that we’ve seen Jesus’s words with some of their background in view and looked at some of their more general meanings, let’s focus on five particular ways that Jesus is the light of the world, according to God’s word.
First, Christ is the light of knowledge that drives out the darkness of ignorance. Looking at Christian missionaries’ work around the world for almost 2,000 years, one of the main things they have done is set up schools. Ignorance keeps people in the dark. All knowledge is God’s knowledge. So Christians, of all people, should be hungry for knowledge and unafraid of asking honest questions in search of the truth. In fact, every time we learn anything that is true, whether it is math or language or uncomfortable facts of our own history, in a key sense, we are moving closer to God.
For this kind of “walking in the light” (I John 1:7), we need correct information. Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders seems to involve one problem of this kind. In v. 14, He says, “I know where I came from. And I know where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going.” Jesus is talking about coming from and returning to heaven most of all, but there has also just been (7:40-43) some talk about where in Palestine He was born. Debating about whether Jesus could be the Messiah, some said He could not be because He was from Galilee, and the Messiah was to be from Bethlehem. In fact, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and circumcised and dedicated at the Temple, according to Luke 2. So there should be records at the Temple which could be checked, if the people in the debate took the trouble to do so. Not doing is leaving them in the darkness.
Second, Christ is the light of truth that drives out the darkness of falsehood.
Verses 13-18 describe the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders about the two witnesses required for a testimony to be accepted. The Pharisees are arguing
based on their belief that Jesus is not God but only a human being. In that case, they would be correct, and Jesus would need two witnesses to back Him up. And they have found some support in their argument in the words that Jesus used back in John 5:31-32. There He said, “If I give witness about myself, it doesn't count. There is someone else who gives witness in my favor. And I know that his witness about me counts.” So now the Pharisees use this sentence to play the “Got you!” game. They reject His words not because they can prove they are untrue but by making a claim against the process Jesus uses in debating. In other words, they stand in judgment over the Son of God, refusing to accept the possibility that He has authority over His own words.
In continuing to insist that He has to rely on someone else to prove Him right, they show how closed-minded they are. Their false belief is not based on a lack of correct information. It grows out of an unwillingness to believe. That is different. It shows a lack not of intelligence, but wisdom, which goes beyond grasping concepts and ties itself to love.
Imagine Chris Cartney and I are walking through a long tunnel. It’s very dark, so he asks me, “Jim, do you have a torch?”
I say, “No, I don’t have a torch.”
He says, “But didn’t I see you put one in your backpack a while ago?”
I say, “No, that was a flashlight. But thanks for reminding me! I’d forgotten all about it!”
Now, hopefully, at that point I would take the battery-powered-light-dispenser out of my bag, we would share the light, and we’d be happier after finding a useful way to handle our problem. We might even enjoy the real problem we’ve been having—British English torch and American English flashlight are the same thing. It’s just that we were applying the ideas to different situations in our minds. (In real life Chris would probably know both words and help me keep from getting confused.)
But what if Chris said, “No! You said you didn’t have a torch! So nothing you say about this now counts!”
And I said, “I told you the truth! You should have believed me!”
We could stand there arguing, but what we really need is not an argument about words. We need the light!
The religious leaders’ claim against Jesus might sound good in the beginning, but a closer check shows it falls apart when you look at their pre-chosen beliefs lying under it. We’re like that, too. What we need is not more clever-sounding arguments. We need Christ the light!
Gladly, we have a more positive example to follow than the religious leaders in John 8. If we continue to John 9, we find the fascinating story of a man who was born without sight but encounters Jesus and is changed forever. Jesus’ disciples look at him, but they seem to see him as an interesting theological question more than a suffering fellow human being. They ask Jesus (9:2), “Rabbi, who sinned? Was this man born blind because he sinned? Or did his parents sin?”
That is darkness. It’s a darkness of false teachings these men have probably received through their culture about causes of human suffering. It is also a darkness of spirit that goes deeper in these disciples than the blindness that troubled the man who can’t see. But Jesus replies to His followers (9:3-5):
It isn't because this man sinned. It isn't because his parents sinned. This happened so that God's work could be shown in his life. While it is still day, we must do the work of the One who sent me. Night is coming. Then no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
Then He heals the man’s eyes and helps him to see not only the light of day but—far greater—the light of the world.
Third, Christ is the light of holiness that drives out the darkness of impurity. We see what this means as we follow His interaction with the Pharisees. When Jesus talks in v. 18 about “the Father, who sent me,” they come at Him (v. 19) with a question that is really more of an insult: “Where is your father?” They refuse to see the possibility that He really is the Son of God, so they turn the conversation to His human father. They may be suggesting that He has no legitimate father, in other words that He was born out of a sinful relationship and not a true marriage. It’s easy to imagine rumors like that starting in small-town Nazareth, thinking of the story of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1, Luke 1). Another possibility is that Joseph, the father in Jesus’ human family, has now died. After the story of him with Mary, losing 12-year-old Jesus on the way home from Jerusalem (Luke 2), Joseph disappears from the gospel stories. Many Bible teachers say that he may have died. In this case, the religious leaders’ going out of their way to bring him into the conversation with Jesus may have been their way of being as hurtful to Jesus as possible.
In either case, they are being hateful and anything but pure-hearted. True holiness is first and most about love, as the Bible presents it, and the Pharisees demonstrate none of it in their encounter with Christ. So Jesus has to shine a light on their dark hearts as He replies, “You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” Sadly, “You don’t know God at all” is still true for people who reject the Savior whom God has sent to us.
Fourth, Christ is the light of joy that drives out the darkness of sorrow. In the Old Testament Law, in Leviticus 23, God tells His people exactly how to celebrate this holiday of the Feast of Tabernacles. Among His directions is a remarkable command (v. 40): “You must be filled with joy in my sight for seven days. I am the LORD your God.” We might mistake that for an almost humorous demand: “Have fun! Or else!” What is happening there? I’m not sure I understand all of it, but we can say a couple of things from God’s word with assurance.
For one, God wants you and me and all His children to live in joy. Yes, He can be tough with us in training and discipline, and He will send us trials that are more than we can bear alone, so that we will learn to depend on Him. But at the end of the day, God’s will is for His people to be motivated and empowered by joy. Our Teacher, Jesus, even went to the cross partly because He knew that there was great joy waiting for Him on the other side of death. Hebrews 12:2 tells us: “He suffered there because of the joy he was looking forward to. Then he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” So I take from that that Christians should be people who enjoy life more than anyone. We have the light. We are taught to “live like children of the light” (Ephesians 5:8). Part of that is being in the habit of celebrating—through having a day of Sabbath refreshment weekly, observing holidays, and much more. That is a key habit of the heart that God teaches His people. And because it is a command, we see that there is a “choice to rejoice.” It may sometimes not be the thing we feel like doing most of all. But as we come to know and love God—and the people He sends us to serve—more and more, we will be led to the deepest kind of joy—the joy of the Lord.
Fifth, and last, Christ is the light of life that drives out the darkness of death. In a sense, this includes all the other ways that Jesus is the light. But the Bible seems to show us one point in particular here. Just before today’s John 8:12-20 story is the well-known account of the woman caught in a sexual sin and brought before Jesus, where she might be stoned to death. As a matter of fact, there is a problem with the Bible text here. We do not have one original version of the Bible but thousands of copies, some older than others. Scholars try to find the oldest ones and get as close as possible to the originals. But the section from John 7:53 to 8:11 is not in the oldest copies. There is no particular claim that is made against the content. In its teaching and tone, it sounds like the Jesus we see throughout the gospels. But it appears that someone added it later. It’s in different places in John in some copies and even in Luke in one case. So how did it end up just before Jesus’ great claim, “I am the light of the world”?
We don’t have one answer that we can give as the only possible correct one. But here’s what I think. The story of Jesus and the woman in danger of being stoned to death for her sin gives us a dramatic illustration of how Jesus is the light and gives “the light that leads to life” (v. 12). Before Jesus is a person who could be minutes or even seconds away from death. People may hit her with stones until she dies, thinking that they are doing something moral—doing God’s work of justice. She is truly face-to-face with the darkness of death. That is when Christ the light shines in and challenges the people who would attack her to look inward at their own sin before throwing stones at her. She is saved. She is able to continue physically seeing the light of day, and even more, she has come to know the light of the world as her personal savior in an important, real sense. She is freed from the darkness of death by being forgiven—freed from the sin that brings death as its penalty.
Christ is our light! That is the good news I bring to you again today. Amen. Let’s pray.
Father, you know where the darkness in our hearts and minds is. Whether it keeps us from “walking in the light” in our private, inner thoughts, relationships with
others, habits we feel unable to quit, or whatever it is, shine your light there, we pray. Thank you for caring enough about us to send your Son, Jesus, to be our light. Not only in our intentions but in reality each day, may He be in us . . .
the light of knowledge that drives out the darkness of ignorance
the light of truth that drives out the darkness of falsehood
the light of holiness that drives out the darkness of impurity
the light of joy that drives out the darkness of sorrow, and
the light of life that drives out the darkness of death.
This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Heitzig, S. (2016, September 2). John 8:12-59. Calvary Church with Skip Heitzig. Retrieved July 17, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ne7k41JoN0
MacArthur, J. (2014, April 12). I Am the light of the world. Grace to you. Retrieved July 1, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07x8335999I&t=1249s
Packer, J. I. and Tenney, M. C., ed. (1980). Illustrated manners and customs of the Bible. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.