The Light of the World | John 8:12-20
Brian Hedges | October 28, 2018
Turn in your Bibles this morning to John, the eighth chapter. We’re continuing our study in the gospel of John, and today we come to the second of the great “I am” statements in the gospel of John, John 8:12. We’re going to be reading this morning from verses 12 down through verse 20 of John chapter 8; I want you to just follow along in your copy of God’s word, or you can read the text on the screen. John 8, beginning in verse 12.
“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.
I want you to see in this passage:
I. A Presupposition about the World
II. A Declaration about Jesus
III. A Description of the Believer
I. A Presupposition about the World
First of all, a presupposition about the world, and it’s all in this one word “darkness.” Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
The presupposition here is that the world is dark, that it’s a dark place, and that without Jesus, without the light, it will remain dark. As you know, darkness is an almost universal metaphor for that which is frightening, that which is wicked, that which is evil.
We see this all the time in popular culture. You just think, for example, about Star Wars; you have the contrast between the light and the dark.
You also see it in classical literature; for example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there’s a line where Lady Macbeth is convincing herself to commit murder, and when she does so she says, “Come, thick night, / And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, / That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, / Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark / To cry, ‘Hold, hold!’” She’s calling on the night to cover her deed, so that it will not be seen. She wants to commit murder, and she needs the cover of darkness in order to do it.
We could just multiply examples in literature and in the various cultures of the world where darkness is that which covers, that which is evil. It’s a cloak for evil, and people flee to the darkness when they want to do evil.
Darkness in Scripture is also symbolic of evil. In fact, there are several connotations to this word “darkness” in Scripture. The first occasion of this word, the first use of the word is in Genesis 1:2, where we read that “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 water.” So, the chaos before the order of creation in Genesis 1 in described in terms of darkness. In other words, darkness is the antithesis to all that is good that God has created.
Darkness, of course, is a word used for that which is evil. Isaiah 5:20 says, “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.” I think of that verse often when I think about the upside-down values of our culture today, where people exalt and celebrate those things which Scriptures say are shameful and are evil. They’re calling darkness light and the light darkness.
Or you might consider Psalm 82, which says that the wicked “have neither knowledge nor understanding; they walk about in darkness.”
And then darkness, of course, is part of God’s judgment on the world. When God judged the Egyptians in the book of Exodus, the children of Israel are held captive there and God sends the plagues, do you remember what one of the plagues was? It was the plague of darkness, Exodus 10:22.
Darkness is part of God’s judgment on his people Israel in the Old Testament, and part of his final judgment. The prophet Joel says, “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
So, darkness has all these connotations in Scripture, and Jesus here in his declaration presupposes that darkness, the darkness of the world. Of course, we see the evidence for this darkness every day. Evil people perpetrate acts of hatred, terrorism, and violence. Celebrities commit adultery, politicians lie, people in authority abuse their power.
More than that, you and I know the darkness of our own hearts. We know what it is to look in the mirror at the end of the day and feel immediate shame for things that we have said or things that we have done. Even if you’ve managed to avoid some of the more scandalous sins, haven’t you discovered in your heart those dark attitudes of envy and arrogance and lust and pride? We have darkness within us.
A number of years ago I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s the story, of course, about a doctor who recognizes a mixture of good and evil in his heart, and so he decides to make a potion that can separate these two natures, and the idea is to suppress the evil side of him so that the good side will come through.
Of course, what happens is the opposite. The evil self is unleashed, the monster is unleashed in the person of Mr. Hyde, where his every act and thought is centered on self. Mr. Hyde becomes a picture of a complete and totally selfish person who is absolutely ruthless in pursuing his own desires, mercilessly destroying anyone or anything that stands in his path.
When Dr. Jekyll recognizes what’s happening to him, he destroys the potion. He vows he’ll never take it again, and when he thinks of all the things that he’s done as Mr. Hyde he vows a life of goodness and of charity and of goodwill to others. He starts trying to make sacrifices, doing everything he can to help other people.
One day, Dr. Jekyll is sitting in the park, Regent’s Park. He’s sitting on a bench, and he starts reflecting on all the good that he’s done in these past months. As he’s reflecting on all of his goodness, he says this, “As I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my act of goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect, at the very moment of that vainglorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea, and the most dreadful shuddering. I looked down. I was once more Edward Hyde.” And he hadn’t taken the potion. The darkness had taken over, the evil self had broken through again.
It’s a parable, isn’t it, of the darkness in all of our hearts, and try as we will to suppress the darkness, we’re unable to do so.
This is an evidence, by the way, for the truthfulness of Scripture. Our recognition of the darkness and of evil in the world is, in itself, a testament to the truthfulness of the claims of the Bible. You know, sometimes people in objecting to belief in God will ask a question like this; they’ll say, “If there’s a God, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?”
Have you ever heard that? Maybe you’ve wondered that. But did you know that that very question presupposes a higher standard of goodness and of truth and of beauty, a higher standard that we only get from God? It presupposes that there’s such a thing as light! When we say, “Why is there so much darkness and how can there be a God in the world?” if there is so much darkness, we are presupposing that there is light by which to measure it against. The reason the objection fails is because the very critique of God borrows categories that we get from God.
Of course, when you read the whole revelation of Scripture, what we discover is that the darkness doesn’t come from God at all. God is the source of light. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” It’s rather the absence of God that causes the darkness in the world, and the great solution to the problem of darkness is the light that comes through Jesus Christ.
II. A Declaration about Jesus
That leads us to the second point, which is the declaration about Jesus. It’s a declaration that Jesus makes about himself. Again, look at verse 12. “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.’”
It’s important for us to understand the context in which Jesus says this. Notice that the text says, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world.’” This is following upon what’s been happening in the previous chapters.
We think, by the way, that - well, there’s good evidence that verses 1 through 11 of John chapter 8 were not in the original manuscripts. It’s not there in lots of the manuscripts that we have. Sometimes that passage is attached to someplace in Luke, sometimes other places. So, that means that John 8:12 likely, in John’s original gospel, follows right on the end of John chapter 7, which takes place during the Feast of Tabernacles.
That being the case, and there’s evidence of that in verse 20 (Jesus is still speaking in the temple, in the treasury) that means that this is still during the Feast of Tabernacles. It’s right there at the end. You remember what the Feast of Tabernacles was? We talked about this several times over the last several weeks. The Feast of Tabernacles was one of those Jewish festivals where the people would travel to Jerusalem, they would build little tabernacles or booths, and they would live in those during this festival.
They were celebrating, they were remembering their pilgrimage through the wilderness as the children of Israel. They were remembering the events of the exodus. They would remember how God provided for them by giving water out of the rock, and so there was this water-drawing ceremony, where they would take the jars of water and pour them on the altar in the temple, and they would do that remembering how God had provided for them this living water, and indeed, in expectation of the future provision of living water. In that context, Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink...and out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
But there was another ceremony. It was also a part of the Feast of Tabernacles, because they were remembering not only the water in the wilderness, they were remembering how God had led his people through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They had this ceremony where, during the night, in all the darkness of Jerusalem (remember, this is the day before electric lights), they would light these huge candelabras in the temple that towered high up in the temple, and they were so brilliant, they were so bright, that it lighted all of Jerusalem. You can see a picture, something of what this might have looked like.
It’s in that context, likely, that Jesus then stands up and says, “I am the light of the world.” And they were remembering these events of the exodus, Exodus 13:21-22, where 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.” The Lord in that pillar, and Jesus referring to that and to this whole ceremony, and then all the imagery of Scripture, where “the Lord is our light and our salvation,” as the psalmist says.
In all of that context, Jesus stands up and says, “I am the light of the world.” It was an amazing claim, wasn’t it, and it was a claim that shows us how Jesus testifies to his own identity.
He is self-attesting, just as light is. Have you ever noticed this? You don’t have to see anything else in order to see light. Light discloses itself, doesn’t it? You go into a room and you turn on the lights, and all of a sudden you see. You walk outside, you see everything by the brilliance of the sun, by the light of the sun, and you see the sun by its own light. The light is self-attesting, and in the same way, Jesus is self-attesting. I think that’s the whole point of the dispute about testimony and witnesses that follows in this passage, verses 13 through 18.
Jesus makes this declaration; he says, “I am the light of the world,” and the Pharisees say, “You’re bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.”
Notice what Jesus says in verse 14. He says, “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 came from or where I am going.” He’s referring back to things he’s already been saying in John chapter 5 and in John chapter 7. He knows his origin; he comes from the Father. He knows his destiny; he’s going to the Father. And he bears witness to himself right alongside of the Father’s witness to him.
In verse 17 Jesus says, “In your law it is written that the testimony of two people is true.” He’s referring, of course, to the maxim in Jewish jurisprudence that no one could be convicted of a crime without two eyewitness testimonies. So, testimony was established in the mouth of two witnesses, and Jesus refers to that and says, “I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.” He confronts them with the fact that “you don’t know me because you don’t know my Father. If you knew my Father, you would know me.”
So, right here you see Jesus’s claims about himself, claiming his sonship, claiming his divinity, his deity. I think in a subtle way this should affect us in the way we think about truth, the way we think about approaching truth.
You know, there are two great ways that people approach truth in the world. People in the west approach truth by means of scientific investigation and analysis, right? Anything that you can verify, anything that you can test, anything that you can get absolute, concrete proof for. That’s the approach; it’s a very rationalistic approach.
That’s not the approach of people in most of the eastern countries of the world. People in the east approach truth by means of mystical experience. It’s getting outside of reason, it’s their emotions, it’s their experience, it’s perceiving something beyond what they can see in this world.
Did you know Christianity critiques both of those things? Neither one of those is the sole ground of approaching truth. It’s not merely your reason, although Christianity is not anti-intellectual. Jesus confronts us with claims, with propositions, with truths about himself; we have to wrestle with those. But when you’re coming to Christ and when you’re investigating the truth, you’re not merely looking at words that someone says; you are encountering a person, and you encounter a person in a personal experience. So both experience and reason come in together, and they come in together under the umbrella of God’s revelation and our response of faith. Jesus claims to be the light of the world.
What does he mean when he makes that claim? Well, it means that Jesus does for us all that light does. If you just think about the pillar of cloud and fire in the Old Testament, the purpose of the pillar for the children of Israel, Jesus fulfills those same things.
What did that pillar do? Well, first of all, it was the symbol of God’s presence, right? It says, “The Lord was in the pillar.” In the same way, when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” Jesus is saying, “I am God manifest among you.” He is God’s presence with us.
The pillar was also God’s protection of his people. You remember how, at the Red Sea, the pillar stood between the children of Israel and the Egyptians? They have the Red Sea on one side, they have the Egyptians on the other, and as Moses says, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord,” and he raises his rod and the waters part, what’s keeping the Egyptians from overwhelming them? It’s the pillar that stands between them and their enemies! In the same way, Jesus is the one who protects us, who rescues us, and who saves us from our enemies.
And then, of course, as the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, they were led by the pillar, the cloud by day and the fire by night. God guided them. Nehemiah 9:12 says, “By a pillar of cloud you led them in the day and by a pillar of fire in the night, to light for them the way in which they should go.”
So Jesus is not only God’s presence with us and God’s protection of us, he is God’s guidance for us. He gives God’s guidance to us. In fact, he says it here, doesn’t he? “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
One more thing to note here. When Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” he’s making a universal claim. He’s not just the light of the Jews; he’s the light of the Gentiles! Isaiah 49, the servant of the Lord who would be a light to all the nations, a light to the Gentiles, and that’s Jesus. He is a light to the world, to every person in the world who will receive that light. Jesus is not just a tribal deity. I think, once again, one of the greatest evidences of the truthfulness of Christianity is the pervasive influence of the message of Jesus that transcends cultural boundaries, so that people of every tongue and tribe and race and nation in the world are coming to know Christ.
Of course, the great task of missions is to get the gospel to those who have not yet heard. But Jesus is working, not just in the United States of America. Jesus is working, not just among English-speaking people. In fact, the church is growing, Christianity is spreading at its greatest in places in the southern hemisphere, in South America and in Africa, because Jesus is not a tribal deity. He’s not for one nation only. He wasn’t for the Jews only; he is a light to the world.
III. A Description of the Believer
So we see here a presupposition about the world, we’ve seen a declaration about Jesus, who is the light of the world. I want to end by looking at the description Jesus gives of the believer. Again, look at verse 12. “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.’” I want you to see how the believer is identified, what characterizes his life, and what Christ promises to him or her.
(1) Look at how the believer is identified. “Whoever follows me…” What is a Christian? There are lots of biblical ways to describe a Christian, but here’s one of the most common: a Christian is someone who follows Christ. “Whoever follows me.” This is language used often in the gospel of John. In John 12:25-26 Jesus says, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me, for where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
If you will serve Christ, you must follow Christ! That means be a disciple of Christ. It means obey Christ. It means to go where he leads, to follow his guidance, his leadership.
In John 10:27-28 Jesus says that this is one of the characteristics of his sheep. He says, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. And no one will snatch them out of my hand.” To be one of the Christ’s sheep is to follow Christ, and I ask you this morning, are you following Christ? I’m not asking, merely, do you agree with the proposition that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That’s important, that’s crucial, believing the truth about Christ; but following Christ goes deeper than what we believe intellectually. It goes into our lives, it goes into our will, it goes into our hearts. It means that there’s something happening in our lives; it means there’s a change.
William Barclay, in his commentary, says there were five different but closely connected meanings to this word “follow.” He said it referred to a soldier following his captain, or a slave accompanying his master, or the acceptance of a wise counselor’s opinion, or of giving obedience to the laws of a city or state, or following a teacher’s line of argument or the gist of someone’s speech. To follow Christ means to be in step with him; it means to follow his guidance, to obey his commands.
(2) Notice what characterizes the life of a Christ-follower. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness.” He will not walk in darkness! The mood of this verb carries the idea of that which is probable or intentional. This is a description of what is normally, characteristically true of the one who follows Jesus. The one who follows Jesus does not walk in darkness.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we never struggle with sin. As we saw in our Scripture reading earlier this morning, “If anyone says he has no sin he is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” There is a struggle with sin, but we must also say that there is a definitive change that happens in our lives when we come to Christ, so that we are no longer characterized by darkness, but rather as people of light.
In fact, the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5:8-10, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” You were darkness, now you are light; walk as children of light. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness.”
Now, I think it invites us, exhorts us, admonishes us to examine ourselves to see, are we walking in darkness or are we walking in light? It exposes us, it makes us look at our hearts. What does it mean to walk in light? It means to embrace that which is good and right and true. Right? Those are the words that Paul uses. That’s the fruit of the light. What does it mean to walk in darkness? It means to embrace that which is not good, that which is evil, that which is not right, that which is false and deceptive, that which is not true, that which does not please the Lord.
So this morning, let’s examine ourselves. Are we walking in darkness, or are we walking in light? Are there things that you need to lay down? Are there things you need to get rid of? Are there habits you need to change? Are there thought patterns that you need to put to death? Are there attitudes and desires and feelings that are displeasing to God, that are dark? Here’s one way you know that they’re dark: you’d be ashamed if everybody knew. I know that you have those places in your heart, because I know I have those places in mine.
My exhortation to all of us this morning is [to] bring it into the light, into the light of Jesus. Let it be exposed, repent, turn from the darkness, and turn to the light. Let your life be such that you are characterized by not walking in darkness, but by walking in the light. Here’s the great promise of Scripture: if we “walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
(3) Look at what Christ, then, promises in this passage. He says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” These two terms, “light” and “life,” are used over and over again in the gospel of John. Light is metaphor for eternal life. It harks back all the way to John 1:4-5, speaking of Christ, the word who was in the beginning and who was with God, and the word who was God. Verse 4 says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
It is an Old Testament image as well, as we’ve already seen, but here’s another passage, Psalm 36:9, “For with you [that is, with God] is the fountain of life, and in your light do we see light.” The only way you get life is to come into the light. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Do you have that this morning? Do you have the light of life? Do you have eternal life? One way you can know that you have eternal life is if you’ve begun to walk in the light, if you’ve moved to the light.
Now, here’s the thing about the light: the light not only gives life, but the light exposes us, as we’ve already seen. It exposes the darkness in our hearts. So the light, as beautiful as it can be, can also be really threatening. This is true even in the natural realm, right? Sunlight is wonderful, but if we were a million miles closer to the sun we’d be incinerated from the power of that radiant light. The light of Christ is beautiful, and yet it threatens us because of these dark places in our hearts. What, then, is the solution? How are we able to have fellowship with the light?
I want to end by directing your thoughts to the words of a hymn by a man named Thomas Binney. These words are in your bulletin, and they’re also in your sermon notes, if you want to follow along. Thomas Binney was an amazing hymn writer, and in this hymn he talks about the eternal light in all of its holiness, in all of its glory, and he asks a question. He’s asking, essentially, “How can I have fellowship with this light when I am characterized by darkness?” He gives an answer towards the end of the hymn. I want to read this, and you can read along as I read it. Here’s the first verse:
“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, only a pure heart can calmly live in the searching light of God’s presence.
“The spirits that surround Thy throne [he’s talking about the angels here]
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 beam?”
Do you see what he’s asking? He’s in a crisis. “How can I, in this fallen world, in all of my darkness, how can I stand before the burning blaze of the holiness of God, the glory of God? How can I look on God?” And then he gives the answer, in verse four. He says,
“There is a way for man to rise
To that sublime abode.”
What’s the way?
“An offering, a sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit’s energies,
An advocate with God.”
He’s pointing us to the cross!
“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.”
Brothers and sisters, the great answer of the gospel to how you and I can live in the burning, blazing holiness of God and his glory is that God is not only light, but God is love. That light is demonstrated in Jesus Christ, and so is the love. The holiness of God and the grace of God, and they meet together in the cross of Christ, where Christ made himself a sacrifice and an offering, so that the Holy Spirit’s energies could be released upon us in transforming power. We have an advocate with God, Jesus Christ the righteous one, and therefore we have great confidence that our sins are forgiven. There’s an atoning sacrifice so that we’re free from our sin.
I want to ask you this morning, Do you know that your sins are forgiven? Are you able to stand in the blazing light of God’s holy presence? The only way you can is through the bleeding love of Jesus Christ. So this morning, let me invite you, let me exhort you, let me urge you with every fiber of my being, turn to Christ! Look to Christ! Trust in Christ! Turn your face towards the light, the light that Jesus is, the light that beams to us from the cross. Remember that Christ, the light of the world, was covered in darkness for three hours on the cross. Why? So that you could escape from the darkness and could live in the light of God! He will rescue you from the darkness, from the “domain of darkness into the kingdom of his...Son,” to use Paul’s words. He’ll take you out of the dark, he’ll bring you into the light, and he’ll begin to clean up the things in your life, the things in your heart.
If you’re not a Christian this morning, I encourage you to look to Christ, flee to Christ, turn to the light. If you are a Christian this morning and you’re struggling with darkness in your heart, the exhortation is the same: believe the gospel, look to Christ, turn to him, and begin to walk in the light as he is light. As you do, you too will be light in the world. Let’s pray.
Holy God, we ask you to search our hearts right now, to expose the darkness within us. Lord, we all have this in some degree. All of us have attitudes and affections and desires, all of us have thoughts that are more characterized by darkness than light. We confess them, Lord. We are sorry. We repent, we turn from them, and we cast ourselves on your grace and on your mercy, and right now we say, forgive us for Jesus’s sake and rescue us by the power of your Spirit. Cast out the darkness from our hearts; bring us into your glorious light.
Lord, as we come the Lord’s table this morning, we pray that these would be moments where we recognize our sin, we recognize the darkness, and we resolve with all of our hearts to turn from it. Lord, for some of us that may mean something new, it may mean some new effort, some radical new discipline or change in our hearts. Lord, we can’t do it on our own; we can only do it as your Spirit fills us, works in us, and changes us. So I pray for that right now. As we come to the table, may there be a real fellowship with the light as we turn from darkness, as we confess our sins, and as we turn to the light that Christ is. So draw near to us in these moments, we pray in Jesus’s name, Amen.