“I Am the Light of the World”: A Meditation on John 8:12–20

This is the second devotional on the “I am” series of statements of Christ found in John’s Gospel. Read John 8:12–20 prayerfully and then keep your Bibles open.

The statement of our Savior focuses upon light. Light extinguishes darkness. As we come to our passage, we are reminded that by nature humans are in darkness. One way to describe the fall is that man fell from light. The world was plunged into darkness. (R. C. Sproul has written an excellent children’s book dealing with this theme called The Lightlings. Read it to your children.) The darkness of the human heart is what Jesus addresses in John 8:12–20. As you read this devotional article, ask yourselves what it means that Jesus is the light of the world and what our calling is in reflecting that light to those around us.

A Divine Claim

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” This statement was profound, prophetic, fulfilling, angering or comforting, and divine. To help us wrap our minds around this, we must understand what is taking place. The Feast of Tabernacles or Booths is about to come to an end. This was one of three national feasts the Jews celebrated. In John 7:37, it refers to the last and greatest day of the feast. What happened on the last day of the feast and the others was that in the temple the two golden menorahs were lit, the candelabra with seven lamps or candles. The court of the women would be lit, the city would be illuminated, and from the surrounding hills the temple could be seen lit up. Once the candles are blown out, then darkness hangs over the city. It is in this context that Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

In the previous article, the significance of the use of the term “I am” by Christ was mentioned. In Greek, the two simple words ego eimi mean “I am.” Not only is this a reference to the divine and God’s revelation of the covenant name at the burning bush, but also, more specific to our text, is the fact that it was God who would be a light to the nations. There is a double reference to God as the light: He is light to the elect Jews and to the nations.

As we turn for a moment to the Old Testament, we can see that Jesus’ statement is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Psalm 104:1–2 says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty, Who cover Yourself with light as with a garment, Who stretch out the heavens like a curtain.” God covers Himself in light. We must understand this to be the fact that God is adorned as light, Himself giving light its source. God is the light, and now Jesus is claiming to be the light.

Isaiah of all the prophets develops the messianic theme of light. Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” That beautiful verse corresponds to John’s prologue, where we read, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:4–9; for further reading, see Isa. 42:6–7a [John 9]; Isa. 49:6 [cf. Mal. 4:2]). When Jesus says that He is the light of the world, He is claiming to be the Messiah, the suffering servant of Isaiah, the one who would build His church by bringing light also to the Gentiles.

There is another Old Testament connection taking place in the earlier context of John. This connection is with the wilderness. The greatest miracles and blessings of the wilderness wandering culminate in Jesus Christ. In John 3, Jesus connects His death on the cross for the salvation of sinners with the serpent on a pole in the wilderness. As we get closer to John 8:12–20, we remember that previously Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” He referred to Himself in John 6:58 as that bread which is greater than manna. In John 7:37–38, Jesus connects Himself to the water in the wilderness. But, unlike temporary water from the rock, Jesus will give streams of living water by way of the Holy Spirit. Now, Jesus calls Himself the light of the world. What was Israel’s light in the wilderness? Exodus 13:21–22 says, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people.” It was that pillar of cloud and fire that gave light and clarity to the Israelites and darkness and confusion to the Egyptians (Exod. 14). Now Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Following the light is what Israel was to do on their way to the Promised Land. Do you see the redemptive theme? We also are to follow the light as we make our journey to the Promised Land. Now it should be getting clearer why the Pharisees were so angry at Jesus.

He not only calls Himself the “I am” a second time, but also He connects His person and work to God’s great work of redemption in history. As a light to the world, He expands the church outside of the walls of Israel. He is the light of the world. The bright candles in the temple which illuminate all around the temple are blown out. Jesus is the light that will pierce the darkness. His teaching here is directed at the hypocritical Pharisees, as we will see in a moment. In John 9:5 Jesus repeats this statement. This happens as He heals a man who was born blind. His whole life the man saw nothing but complete darkness, and Jesus miraculously restored the sight he never had. As this man’s retinas are filled with light, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” Jesus’ statement comes to the spiritually blind Pharisees and to the man born blind, who because he was healed by Jesus will be excommunicated from the temple.

To put it in other words, Jesus is saying, “I am the light of the world” to the religious elite and to the religiously lost. What He is saying to the Pharisees and to us if we are not on guard is if we are not following Jesus, if we are not looking to the light, if we are not walking in the light, if we seek light from elsewhere, we are like the Pharisees. As Paul tells the Corinthians, to do many amazing things without love is nothing. So too, to live an outwardly religious life without the inward renewal of the spirit is nothing. To surrender our time, money, energy, even prayer to the Lord without the surrendering of our hearts, what profit is it?

This is what Jesus means by following Him. It means to believe in Him and to trust Him. The famous book by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps, written nearly a century ago, gets at this. What if in every decision you made in life, you asked, “What would Jesus do in this situation?” Now, there are some problems with the question, partly because Jesus would never get Himself into compromising situations as we often do, but the main thrust is the same. The result of believing or of following Jesus is that the deeds of darkness or of the flesh are taken off and the fruit of the Spirit is put on (Gal. 5). The tree must be good before the fruit can be good.

Remember that when outsiders come to worship. Don’t expect outward piety if there is not yet inward renewal. To expect people from the outside to act like Christians or talk like Christians before they have followed the light is a contradiction. It doesn’t make sense, and even worse, it might encourage a negative form of Pharisaism.

What Jesus is saying to those still in darkness is that there is a light that had come into the world. He will provide the only solution to those things which flourish in darkness: sin, brokenness, frustration, spiritual depression, loneliness. What Jesus provided the man born blind is the same thing He gives to those who follow Him: He gives them eyes to see. So, when sin or temptation arises, they can see it; when brokenness abounds, they can see through it and sail those waters. Following the light doesn’t mean that everything in the rest of your life will be easy. The man born blind was insulted by the Pharisees and then excommunicated. “‘Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.’ They answered and said to him, ‘You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?’ And they cast him out” (John 9:32–34). They threw out the man born blind because they hated the one who healed him. In John 9:35–38, how did the man respond? In faith. He didn’t cry because the religious elite had barred him from their legalistic blindness; rather, he worshipped Jesus.

A Necessary Response

There is always a response to the proclamation of the good news. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” Jesus claimed to be God. The same is true with the preaching of the Word. “The flower fades, the grass withers, but the Word of the Lord stands forever.” Jesus is that Word, which John said has come into the world: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:11–12). “His own” is a reference to the Jews. How did they respond?

They raised all kinds of weak counterarguments (John 8:12–20). First, they claimed that Jesus cannot say those things because He wasn’t permitted to testify for Himself, so then Jesus’ testimony is not valid. This could be true if it was not for the fact that Jesus was the omnipotent, omniscient, sinless one. He says that His Father can testify for Him.

Second, they object about His father as a witness. In verse 19, they ask, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus reply was spot on: “You do not know Me or my Father.” They were spiritually blind: the Light had come to shine in the world and they did not recognize it. The law and the prophets testified to it, and the Psalms and the Wisdom literature testified to it. The suffering servant of Isaiah had come as a light into the world, and the very thing that Isaiah said would take place is about to take place. God will lay on Him the transgression of us all.

The third objection was to the fact that where He was going they could not go. They thought He was going to commit suicide (John 8:22). Jesus said He is not of this world, but they are; they are from below. He is not about to commit suicide; they are about to commit homicide. They are about to crucify an innocent man, though verse 20 reminds us that His time hadn’t yet come.

But they will commit homicide. They will seek to put out, to snuff out the light of the world, but they cannot. For this light is not a light from men. He is not the light of the candelabra which burns for a week and then everything goes out and all is dark again. No, this is the light sent from God. This is the one who said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”

The man who was born blind and was healed humbled himself and worshipped Jesus. He believed that indeed Jesus was the Son of Man, the light sent from God. The religious leaders, hardened and angry, sought to destroy Jesus. They said He was a liar and an imposter. Who do you say He is?

Are you following the light? Is Jesus your light among the darkness of this world? A couple of years ago I went camping, and there was a trail, a shortcut through the woods to the bathroom. I went with my wife, and we took one flashlight. The trail narrowed, and she went ahead with the flashlight and I followed right behind her. But something happened. I tripped and fell over a tree root. The problem was that the light wasn’t bright enough, and I had not followed closely enough. Spiritually, sometimes we fall as we walk through the woods of life, don’t we? We stumble in sin and discontent. When we do, repent, but also ask yourself, are you walking close to the light, or have you slowly fallen back a bit? When you think about your life and your relationship with the Lord, isn’t it true that when you are most often in prayer and in devotion, in Bible study and Bible reading and worship attendance, that things seem to go better? The fact is that things might not be going much differently; however, if we are walking close to the light of God’s Word, our path is illuminated. We are reminded that we depend upon the Lord for guidance.

When the storms clouds come upon us, we are sheltered by God. In the darkness of a broken relationship, or a struggle with addiction, or a difficult child, or a difficult parent, it is Jesus who sheds light upon our path. Follow Him! He said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Follow Him, live in Him, trust in Him, and be comforted in the truth that you belong to Him. The light has come into the world, and it is Jesus. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Rev. Steve Swets is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON.