“How Sweet the Name: Light of the World”
January 31, 2016 | Brian Hedges
Turn in your Bibles this morning to John the eighth chapter. We’re in the middle of a series that we began in Advent, and are now continuing in the first quarter of this year, on the names of Jesus. “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds in a Believer’s Ear” is a great hymn by John Newton, and that was some of the inspiration for this series.
We’ve looked at names of Jesus such as “Jesus” and “Emmanuel”, but we’ve also looked at a number of images for Jesus that we find in Scripture; images such as “the Good Shepherd”, or our “Husband”, or “the Great Physician”, or “Living Water”, or last week “the Lamb of God”.
Today we’re looking at another one of these images. This one is familiar to many of us: the Light of the world, as Jesus calls Himself in one of those great “I Am” statements in the gospel of John. So we’re going to be looking at John chapter eight, verses 12-20. We’re really going to focus mostly on verse 12, and I want to read this paragraph so that we get a little bit more of the context.
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.’ So the Pharisees said to Him, ‘You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh. I judge no one, yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, 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 people is true; I am the One who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.’
“They said to Him therefore, ‘Where is your father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’ These words He spoke in the treasury as He taught in the temple, but no one arrested Him because His hour had not yet come.
This is God’s Word.
Now, as I’ve done throughout this series, what I really want to do is focus in on the image and give an exposition, really of this image, or of this theme—of light. Jesus makes this wonderful statement in verse 12. “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” I want us to consider three things about this statement.
• Walking in the darkness. What is that? What does that mean? That’s what the Light answers. That’s what the Light is a solution to, so we need to think about that first, walking in the darkness.
• Then, the Light of the world, Jesus Himself, and what He means by calling Himself this.
• Then finally, how do we respond to the Light? How do we respond to the Light?
I. Walking In the Darkness
All right, let’s take each one of these. First of all, walking in darkness. Now, we all know that darkness is an almost universal metaphor for that which is frightening or is wicked or is evil. Darkness is often used symbolically in literature and in art.
You might think, for example, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where Macbeth said, “Stars, hide your fires, let not light see my black and dark desires.” What was Macbeth saying? He was saying, “I don’t want the light to see the darkness that’s in my heart.” He’s contemplating the murder of Duncan, right? So he wants to be hidden. He doesn’t want to be exposed. He wants the dark to cover the evil inside.
That’s a symbolic use of darkness. We could point to the same kinds of things in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness, or in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or, for that matter, Star Wars. Right? The light versus the dark.
Dark is a symbol. It’s a symbol for something, and I want us to think for just a minute about what it symbolizes in Scripture. What does the darkness symbolize in Scripture? I just want to give you five things really fast, okay? You don’t have to write all this down, I’m just going to go really fast through this, five connotations of darkness in Scripture.
(1) First of all, the chaos before creation, and thus the antithesis to everything that is good. You remember that in Genesis chapter one the first thing that God creates is the light, and in Genesis 1:2 this is what we read—this is before the creation of the light—“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
Now for the Hebrew mind, darkness, as well as the deep, as well as the water—all of that—it represented the chaos before creation. It represented that which did not have order and beauty and goodness. It’s the very antithesis to the goodness of the created world. It represented the forces of chaos and evil.
(2) That leads, really, to the second thing, which is moral evil. This is probably the most frequent association of darkness in Scripture: moral evil. Isaiah chapter five, verse 20: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” In other words, there’s a woe, there’s a curse, there’s a judgment pronounced on those who confuse good and evil, who confuse these things that are categorically different, light and darkness.
(3) Darkness also represents in Scripture blindness to truth and to the beauty of Christ. In second Corinthians chapter four Paul is talking about those who perish, and he says that in their case “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The reason they perish, the reason they don’t believe, Paul says, is because they’ve been blinded! They’ve been blinded; they can’t see.
You know, there are two kinds of darkness; there is an objective darkness, where light doesn’t shine. You go into a dark room where there’s no lights shining, no windows—that’s objective darkness. But there’s also a subjective darkness, when someone doesn’t have the faculty of sight, when they’re not able to see the light that is there. Paul says that unbelief is the result of satanic working in the mind to keep a person from seeing the light that is there.
(4) Then coupled with that is the darkness of willful ignorance. Sometimes we talk about someone who is “in the dark”. Maybe they are happily in the dark. Maybe they have chosen to stay in the dark. They don’t want to know, they don’t want to see, they don’t want to know the information, they don’t want to know truth.
Paul describes this in the spiritual realm. In Ephesians chapter four he talks about those who are “darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to their hardness of heart.” In other words, there’s something so hard about their hearts that they have shut themselves off from the truth. They are willfully ignorant; they have chosen to stay in the dark.
(5) All of this leads to the fifth thing, which is the judgment of God. Darkness is symbolic in the Scripture of the judgment of God. You might think of the plague of darkness. The plague of darkness, one of the plagues of Egypt; or you might think of the prophets, for example Zephaniah chapter one. “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast. The sound of the day of the Lord is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud. A day of wrath is that day. A day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Darkness because of the judgment of God.
So all of these are the connotations that we have in Scripture for darkness. Here’s the problem: Jesus describes those who are walking in darkness. He says if they follow Him they’ll no longer walk in darkness, but that presupposes that anyone who’s not following Him is walking in darkness, and here’s the problem: this is the condition of every single one of us, outside of Christ. We walk in darkness. The problem is that we “love darkness rather than light, because our deeds are evil,” John chapter three.
It reminds me of H.G. Wells’ story The Time Machine, where the time-traveler goes 800,000 years into the future and discovers two races of people. One of the races is the Morlocks. What are the Morlocks? They are these beings who inhabit the darkness underground and they hate the light. They only come up to the light so that they can prey on the others and then drag them back down.
We could say that the Scriptures teach, in a sense, that we’re all spiritual Morlocks. We love darkness rather than light. That’s the state of every single person who’s outside of Christ, according to the gospel of John.
Or we could put it this way: that even as followers of Jesus, we still battle with the darkness that’s in our own hearts. You might say, “Well, I don’t love the darkness rather than light; I’ve embraced Jesus.” Yes, but you still have bits of darkness inside, and I do too. We have bits of darkness inside, and we’re in a constant battle against deception, the deception from sin and from Satan and from our own hearts.
As an illustration of this, I was thinking about Lewis’s Narnian book The Silver Chair. Now this isn’t everyone’s favorite, but it’s one of my favorites. I like The Silver Chair a lot. This is the one where Jill and Eustace Scrubb and Puddleglum go looking for Prince Rilian, and after they finally find him he’s been deceived, he’s been enchanted, he’s been bound by the sorcery of this witch. The enchantment is finally loosed, but they’re underground, they’re in the Underworld, the Underland.
There’s a scene there where the witch comes to them in the Underland, and she burns this green powder--it’s kind of a magical incense--and it dulls their senses and it makes it really hard for them to think. Then she takes out a mandolin and, very Siren-like, she begins to play a soft sound that they’re barely conscious of, and then she speaks to them in a sweet, quiet voice, and she begins to question the reality of everything above-ground. She questions the whole reality of the Overworld; the sky, the sun, Aslan, Narnia itself. The children are trying to fight it by remembering the sun and by remembering Aslan, and there’s a place where the witch replies to everything they’ve said.
She says, “‘I see that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You’ve seen lamps and so imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it a sun. You’ve seen cats and now you want a bigger and better cat and so it’s called a lion. Well it’s pretty make-believe, and look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, the world of mine, which is the only world. Come, all of you, put away such childish tricks; I have work for you, all in the real world. There’s no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan.’” Then she wants them to just go to bed and go to sleep.
How like the enemy, how like the evil one, for he will whisper to us that your desire for salvation and your desire for an afterlife and your desire for a God, those are really just images of things in this world that you want and you’ve created this in your mind and your imagination, but there’s nothing above. There’s no God. There’s no heaven, there’s no Christ, there’s no salvation! He whispers these lies into our minds and into our hearts.
You know, the only way that the children escaped is that Puddleglum walked over to the fire and he stamped it out, at great pain to himself. It was only in that the enchantment was broken.
Well, we’re in a battle! We’re in a battle against darkness; the darkness in the world, but the darkness in our own hearts. The darkness of self-deception. We all have parts of ourselves that are dark, that we’d rather not address, we’d rather not face, we’d rather not confront, but you can’t have a genuine encounter with Jesus without those things getting exposed. Jesus says to those are in darkness, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will no longer walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
II. The Light of the World
So let’s think for a minute about what this means. What does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world”? Well, we need to think for a minute about the symbolism of light as well as the darkness. So think about the symbolism of light in the Old Testament. There are so many passages, but let me just give you a few.
(1) First of all, it’s a Messianic symbol. It’s a symbol, it’s a statement that’s made of the servant of the Lord, the Messianic servant of the Lord, in Isaiah 42—also in 49, but let me just read the one in Isaiah 42—“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.” He’s speaking to the servant. “I will take you by the hand and keep you, I will give you as a covenant for the people a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” So it’s a Messianic thing; “the servant of the Lord brings light.”
(2) It’s also a statement that’s made about God’s truth. Right? The psalmist in Psalm 43 prays, “Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me, let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling.” Or you might think of Psalm 119 verse 105: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” So, the truth of God is characterized as light.
(3) And then especially you have this image, which is very important as I’ll show you in a minute. It’s very important in this context in John chapter eight. The image of the pillar of fire, the shekinah glory of God that led the children of Israel through the wilderness, Exodus chapter 12. It says, “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light that they might travel by day and by night.” It was the glory of God! It was the manifest presence of God that was leading the people through the dark, through the night.
(4) Or think of, again, one of the psalmists, who simply said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
So that’s the symbolism. Now this becomes all the more poignant when you understand the context that Jesus is speaking in. You see this in verse 20, which says, “These words He spoke in the treasury as He taught in the temple, but no one arrested Him because his hour had not yet come.” He’s in the temple, and we have to actually go back a little bit to understand what this scenario is.
This is about six months before Jesus’s crucifixion, and in John chapter seven John tells us that it was the Feast of Booths, or the Feast of Tabernacles. This was one of the annual feasts where the people would flock to Jerusalem and they would build these little huts, and it was to remind them that they had been sojourners through the wilderness.
During that feast they would do certain things: at one point they would pour out water, pour water out of water pots, to remind themselves of how God provided water in the wilderness. It’s in that context that in John chapter seven Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me, out of his heart shall flow springs of living water.”
But there’s another thing that they did, near the end of the feast. When it was night, they would light these four huge candelabras, and those candelabras would provide light, not only to the temple, but to virtually all of Jerusalem! You could see it for a great distance away, and the candelabras would provide light to the temple and to all this region. These lights reminded the people of the pillar of fire. You can see a picture of it here, something of what this would look like. These huge globs of fire burning up above the temple.
That’s probably the point at which Jesus says, “I am the light of the world”! Some scholars tell us that when this happened, the priests or the holy men would then read from Isaiah 42 about the servant of the Lord being the light to the nations, and maybe that had just been read. This is on everyone’s mind, and Jesus is here saying, “I am the light of the world.” This light, the light in the temple, it’s going to go out, but I am the Light that never goes out, “and whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Now when you put all this together we learn two things. First of all, it shows us the clarity of Jesus’s claims. What’s He claiming? He’s claiming to be nothing less than the Messiah, than the servant of the Lord. But not just that, He’s claiming to be the very embodiment of the truth and the glory of God Himself! The Lord is my light and my salvation, and Jesus says, “That’s me! I am the Lord. I am the Light.” He’s claiming to be divine. He’s claiming to be one with the Father.
This whole sequence that follows, Jesus talks about His testimony and the Father’s testimony, because they’re one, testifying to the reality of who He is. That’s what He’s claiming—that’s why they want to kill Him! That’s why they want to arrest Him, but they’re not able to because His hour has not yet come, it’s still six months away.
So He’s claiming here the greatest possible claim. He’s claiming to be the Word of God made flesh, He’s claiming to be the glory of God among us. The Light of the world.
That’s the first thing we learned, and here’s the second. In making this claim, and in His whole incarnation and His ministry and everything that Jesus said and did, Jesus then confronts us with the radiance of God’s holiness, the holiness for which we were made but from which we fall so far short. In Jesus we see not only the face of God, we also see the perfect human representation of goodness, truth, and beauty.
That’s why when people were confronted with Jesus, they feared Him. They feared Him. That’s something—it’s a threshold that every person crosses if they’re in a genuine relationship with Jesus. There comes a point where you’re so faced with the truth and the goodness and the beauty of Jesus—the holiness of Jesus, the light of Jesus—that it forces you to look at yourself. And when it does, it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable, because you see things in yourself that make you unfit for the light.
There was an old hymn writer named Thomas Binney who put this so beautifully in his hymn.
Eternal light, eternal light,
How pure the soul must be,
When placed within Thy searching sight,
It shrinks not, but with calm delight
Can live and look on Thee.
Only a pure soul could calmly be in the searching sight, the searching light, of God.
The spirits that surround Thy throne [the angels]
May bear the burning bliss,
But that is surely theirs alone,
Since they have never, never known
A fallen world like this.
Oh how shall I, whose native sphere
Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before the Ineffable appear,
And on my naked spirit bear
That uncreated being?
You see what he’s asking? You see the crisis that he’s in? “How can I, a darkened person, stand before the burning blaze of the holiness of God?” That’s what he’s asking. “How can I look on this bright, resplendent glory, this blazing, burning majesty? God is so different from me; how could I ever endure being in His presence?” People felt that when they came in contact with Jesus.
There’s a wonderful answer. Thomas Binney gives the answer in the last two lines of his hymn. He says,
There is a way for man to rise
To that sublime abode.
An offering, a sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit’s energies,
An advocate with God.
These, these prepare us for the sight
Of holiness above,
That sons of ignorance and night
May dwell in the eternal Light
Through the eternal Love,
Because God is not only Light, God is Love. Here’s what Thomas Binney is saying. He’s saying that the only way we can approach the eternal light is because Christ has made an offering and a sacrifice for sin. It’s because blazing holiness and bleeding love met together at the cross of Jesus Christ.
So it’s to cleanse us, to forgive us, and to purify us, to make the Holy Spirit’s energy effectual to change us and to transform us.
These, these prepare us for the sight
Of holiness above,
That sons of ignorance and night
May dwell in the eternal Light
Through the eternal Love
That’s the Gospel. That’s the Gospel. In Christ, the Light and the Love coming together to free us from our sins.
III. How do we respond to the Light?
So then, how do we respond to this Light? I want to give you three things.
(1) First of all, you have to see the light. That’s the first thing that happens with light, is you see. You see. If there’s objective light there, and if you have the faculty of sight, then you can’t avoid seeing the light, unless, of course, you close your eyes. But, even then, you can be conscious of being in a light room or in sunlight as opposed to being in darkness. So that’s the first thing; we have to see the light, or another word we could put for this is “behold”. We have to behold it. We have to look at it. We have to see it.
This is what Paul talks about in Second Corinthians three, where he says that we are beholding the glory of the Lord, and as we behold we are changed, we’re transformed, into the same image, from one degree of glory to the next, by the Spirit of the Lord. And then in Second Corinthians four, the passage we already read this morning, he said that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
This is what Jonathan Edwards called “a divine and supernatural light” in that famous sermon of his. He said that it wasn’t just a knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture, it was something more than that. It was a sense of the divine excellency of God and of Christ and of the Gospel. He said, “The spiritual light is the dawning of the light of glory in the heart.” When it happens to you, when you see it, when the divine and supernatural light comes into the heart, when God shines into the heart and you begin to see, things begin to change.
Edwards says it “weans us from the world.” He says it “raises our inclination to heavenly things.” We certainly start to have an appetite for something different, something new, something better. It turns our hearts to God as the fountain of all good. So we don’t see Him now mainly as a threat; we see Him mainly now as the most attractive beauty. It brings the soul to a saving relationship with Christ. It conforms our hearts to the Gospel. It kills the enmity and the opposition towards God that’s in our hearts.
We all have this darkness in our hearts. How do you slay darkness? You shine the light on it! Right? And the darkness then vanishes. When the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shines into our hearts, when we behold that light, when we see that light, it changes us. It does something to us! This is not just something that happens when you’re converted. It happens then, but then it’s the ongoing transformation of your life. This has to happen over and over and over again.
So that you’re struggling with sin, you’re struggling with some sinful desire or attitude or inclination, and you know it’s dark, you know it’s wrong, you know it’s evil, but it’s there. What do you do? What do you do with that cancer? You bring it into the radiant light of the glory of God. You bring it into His presence. You bring it before His Word. You hold it before Him. You can’t change it yourself! You can’t deal with sin by yourself. You can only mortify sin, kill sin, Paul says, by the Spirit.
And how do you do that? You do it by bringing it to Him, and you say, “God, this is what’s there. This is what’s in my heart; please change it. Please do something. Please show me that Christ is better. Please show me that Christ is more beautiful. Please help me see my self-deception. Help me see the lies I’m believing that I would even think this is good! It looks good to me, but Your Word says it’s not good. Change my heart and change my mind. Change my thinking; renew me so that I will love light and hate darkness.” That’s how sanctification happens; seeing the light and beholding the light. That’s the first thing.
(2) Then, right along with that, is following the light. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Whoever follows me.
William Barclay in his commentary on the gospel of John says that this word for “follow” was used in five different ways. It was used of a soldier following his captain, it was used of a slave accompanying his master, it was used of someone who accepted the counsel of a wise man. It was used of giving obedience to the laws of a city or a state, and it was used of following a teacher’s line of argument.
In other words, this is unreserved, wholehearted, sincere, holding-nothing-back following of Jesus. It’s the inclination of the heart that says, “Jesus, you’re Lord, and whatever you say I want to do.” To follow Him. To follow Him!
Now, the greatest battle—and I know this as well as you do—the greatest battle is to get your heart to that state, to get your heart to that place where you’re able and you’re ready to say, “Jesus, whatever You want.” Sometimes Jesus will take us through some difficult things to bring us to that place, but if you’ve committed your life to follow Christ, that’s what we’ve signed up for.
Now here’s the thing! Here’s the thing: that sounds hard. It sounds hard, as long as we think that the light is not as attractive as the darkness! That’s why we have to go back to the first thing; we have to see the light all over again! As long as we think that Jesus is not ultimate goodness, ultimate truth, ultimate beauty, ultimate joy—as long as we think that anything that’s not in Jesus could be comparable, it’s going to be hard, but if you’re really convinced in your heart of hearts that Jesus is it, everything that I want and everything that I need, it’s in Jesus.
Everything that’s good about the world—that can only be found in Jesus. Anything that’s true and anything that’s beautiful. Anything that my heart could ever desire, the only place I’m going to find it is in Christ. If you believe that, then it’s not hard to follow. Then it becomes a delight to follow Him.
(3) So we need to see the light, we need to follow the light, and then thirdly and finally, we need to reflect the light. We need to reflect the light. We’re like the moon reflecting the light of the sun.
Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter five, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, walk as children of light.” He says we are light. I’m not even sure exactly what all that means. You are light in the world. In other words, something is so fundamentally different about you, once you belong to Christ, that your nature is now not darkness, it’s light. We have the pockets of darkness in there—we have the flesh, right? We still have remaining indwelling sin, but that’s not your identity anymore.
He says, “You are light in the Lord, walk as children of light.” Why? Because you’re joined to Christ. You’re joined to Christ; you’re one with Him, so His light becomes your light, and then we’re to shine that light.
Remember what Jesus said, Matthew chapter five: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
So here it is. We live in a world of darkness, and all of us at some point in our lives have walked in darkness. We struggle with the darkness remaining in our hearts, but Christ is the light of the world, He’s the embodiment of God’s truth, of God’s glory, of God Himself. But to come to Jesus to be confronted with His holiness, what we need is to see it. We need to see it, to behold it in all of its goodness, its glory, its beauty, and then follow it and shine as children of light.
So Holy Spirit, we ask you now to search our hearts. The light of your Word, the radiance of your glorious presence. Invade the dark places in our lives and show them up, expose them. Help us see them for what they are. Give us repentant hearts to turn from darkness, to turn to that which is good, to turn from falsehood to that which is true, and to turn from the ugliness, the deformity, the perversities of sin to that which is beautiful. Help us see that Jesus is beautiful, that He is everything the human heart could ever desire. Help us see that. Help us believe that this morning.
Change us, change us right now through Your Word and continue the process of changing us, little by little, step by step, progressively, day by day, as we gaze on the glory of Christ in the Word by Your Spirit.
Father, I pray that for anyone who walked in this morning in darkness, I pray that they would walk out in the light. The confrontation that’s just happened, that they wouldn’t shut their eyes, but open their eyes and be drawn into the light of Christ. That’s a gift, it’s a miracle, but it’s something we should expect when the Gospel is preached and when we pray, when we gather in Your presence. You’re a powerful God, so work right now. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.