Over the next several Mondays, the contributing writers at Of Larks will be sharing a series on Jesus' I AM statements in the book of John. This is the third post in the series. Read the introductory post to the new series here, and "Bread of Life" here.
"Again Jesus spoke to them saying, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'" (John 8:12).
In this series exploring the ‘I Am’ verses in John, we learn very much about the character of God and His work in this world through Jesus. Already more than familiar with these verses, it’s easy for me to glance over them and take in the metaphor without really considering it. Jesus (and John, the author of this gospel), have not chosen their wording haphazardly. (For those of you who have spent a long time in the gospel of John, you will already be aware of how carefully He treats the themes of words, light and life). Just look at John 1:1-18.
So an initial question might be, what is the light of the world? Well, we might say, light illuminates. Dim light can never reveal as exactly as bright light. To be “enlightened,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook.” We have many examples: “to shed some light on the matter,” meaning to clarify; to “bring into the light” meaning to make evident; and “to see the light,” meaning to understand or realize something after prolonged thought or doubt—also to undergo a religious conversion. While researching these words, I wondered, How many of these idioms, given our Judeo-Christian roots, were based on this very verse?
Now, as I was considering this subject, I happened one day to read Psalm 139:
"O LORD, You have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from Your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol [the pit], You are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there Your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me."
[11-12] "If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,'
even then the darkness is not dark to You;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with You."
Now to a Christian, we always quote these verses as a comfort: there is nowhere you can go where God will not be near, no state or emotion that He will not know about. It is an affirmation of His deep knowledge of us, that we will never be neglected or forsaken by Him, never left to fend for ourselves. This is the light of verses 11-12: nothing irretrievably shrouded in darkness. It is a tremendous comfort.
However, how might the psalm change if you didn’t want to be found? This is a searchlight which pierces through the flimsy hideouts, murky waters, and lights up all, throwing into sharp relief the terrible details that even dim light might not disclose.
Then why would we rejoice for this light coming into the world? Jesus answers. In John 8:12, we see that this light is the one that will light up our way, a light to the path we are already blindly stumbling along (see Psalm 119:105). Not only is this the illumination we need, but this is a light we ourselves will have. We don’t need to worry about the searchlight discovering the cobwebs in the corners that we never noticed; we will have already seen the cobwebs and cleaned them out.
In the second part of the verse, Jesus says that by following this light—this light that He says He is—people will no longer walk in darkness. What then is that darkness?
If we look elsewhere in the Bible, Isaiah 49 talks about a “day of salvation” (verse 8), when He will restore, “saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear’” (verse 9). This light He is talking about is a light that liberates: as if we were half-beings, imprisoned in darkness, making slow, blind and uncertain progress. But it is almost as we are called to existence by this life power. We are called out of hiding in our fear and our miserable, insurmountable imperfection, but called in order that our path might be lit up for us.
In John 12:35-36, Jesus says, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” (emphasis my own). Part of the human existence in an unrestored world is uncertainty: Is this it? is the question I often find myself asking. But here Jesus dispenses with the uncertainty. This is the light that illuminates the way we should go. We still need to follow the light. Consider streetlights; Jesus’ light lights up the path as we go, but it serves nothing if we stay where we are, or head off in a different direction.
Light and Life
Jesus’ purpose was also to come and to illuminate the Father. Have a look with me at John 1:16: “For from His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, He has made Him known.” In this way Jesus' ministry helps us to know the real Light: the Author and Sustainer of our existence, the conquering life-force before which darkness cowers (John 1:5). In real, understandable human terms, Jesus shows us the multi-faceted character of God Himself, helping us to understand Him—a human form of God just as conversation is a verbal form of relationship. Jesus' coming lights up the way to God.
It affects every aspect of our lives. Do we realize what has been accomplished for us in this? Our redemption through Christ's sacrifice of Himself on the cross means that we are miraculously afforded grace. Grace for any of our vainglorious efforts at self-righteousness, for the weaknesses we can't shake, our helpless inclination to selfishness, doubt, slander, cruelty, greed, and guilt. Covered in Christ's righteousness, we grow in Christ-likeness. The terrible searchlight no longer threatens lamentable exposure of our sin and folly. Jesus' coming and His sacrifice gives us the courage to be outside the shadows where we would otherwise be hiding. This is what Jesus means when He says we will have "the light of life" (John 8:12). We have Jesus to show us the Father, but by His redeeming work, we too will become filled with this light (see John 4:14 where Jesus promises to sustain the growth He initiates).
The light comes into our lives. It gives us understanding, meaning, liberation from fear of exposure. And by God’s overflowing grace, He grants it in such abundance that it fills us (see Matthew 5:14), and enables us to shine this light to others. It is our calling, our purpose and our joy.