Jesus, Light of the World (John 8:12)
This morning, it is my privilege to lead us in a brief study of John 8. In the next few minutes, I’d like us to focus on just one verse in John chapter 8, verse 12, which contains Jesus’s bold claim of being the “light of the world.” Think of this not so much as a sermon but a devotional. You know, it’s kind of interesting that in our text, Jesus makes this amazing statement that should definitely have elicited a response, but the Pharisees, the religious rulers, completely ignore it and instead attack his credibility. Rather than interact with Jesus on what he said, they object that he’s testifying regarding himself and that such a self-witness is invalid.
Later, they even go on to question his paternity. He claims to have God as his father, but they hint that he’s an illegitimate child, and things go downhill from there. Now earlier in John’s Gospel, in chapter 6, when Jesus claimed to be the bread of life, he went on for about 20 verses to elaborate on that claim. But here, the Pharisees totally ignore him, and so the conversation takes an entirely different turn. What I’d like us to do this morning is do better than the Pharisees. I want us to pause and ponder the question: What does it mean that Jesus is the light of the world? After all, Jesus’s claim is true—he is the light of the world—and we’ll do well to dig deeper so that we truly understand, not only what Jesus’s statement means, but what it means for us.
Alright, then, let’s read verse 12 (I’m reading from the ESV):
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.”
The World Is a Dark Place
“Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness.” All you have to do is listen to the news, and you’ll see that the world is mostly a dark place. Often, I find that virtually all of the news coverage is negative: scandals, crimes, political gridlock, and so forth. True, often news outlets end up with some feel-good story about a lost puppy that was found or something like that, but overall watching the news can be downright depressing.
And you don’t even have to look at the news to know that our human existence can be hard at times. Life is full of broken relationships, confusion, corruption, and immorality. Little has changed in this regard since the time of Jesus. Then, as now, the world is for the most part a rather dark place.
To understand our passage a little bit better, let’s take a quick look at the historical background. In the original context, Jesus’s self-reference to the light alludes to Israel’s time in the wilderness during the exodus. In the book of Exodus, it says, “And 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” (Exod. 13:21–22).
So we see that the light of God’s presence shone by day and by night so the Israelites could escape their slave masters in Egypt. We also read in Exodus how God provided the manna, the bread from heaven (Exodus 16), and brought water out of a rock (Num. 20:6–11).
By saying that he’s the bread from heaven, the living water, and the light, Jesus claims to be God’s ultimate life-giving provision for Israel. In fact, he is going even further. Not only is he the light of Israel; he’s the light of the entire world.
Good News or Bad News?
So it’s against this wilderness backdrop that Jesus makes his astonishing claim of being the light of the world. Now depending on where you come from, this can be good news or bad news. Earlier in the Gospel, John wrote, “And this is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and doesn’t come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (3:19–21).
According to Jesus, in the statement we read in John 8:12, people in the world who live the way the world does, “walk in darkness.” What does that mean? What happens when you walk in darkness? Every so often, back at our house in NC, I venture outside when it’s already dark to put something in our crawlspace or back shed. Most of the time I remember to turn our outside lights on so I can see where I’m going, but sometimes I forget. When I do that, I often don’t want to go back to turn on the light but keep going even though it’s pitch dark outside, thinking I know the terrain. Most of the time it works, but there are times when I forget I left something outside and I trip over it. Or I step into a hole in the ground. Why? Because it’s dark, and I can’t see where I’m going. All because I’m too lazy or too stubborn to go back and turn on the light so I can see.
It’s similar with people in the world. Jesus says that, in truth, they don’t see where they’re going. They’re morally and spiritually confused and without clear direction, as I was when I was lost in my sin before I met Christ. But even though they walk in darkness, people in the world are loving it! They love the darkness! They’d rather stumble in the dark than come to the light. In fact, Jesus puts it even more strongly. He says they hate the light. Why? Because their works are evil, so they want to stay under the radar so that what they do goes undetected.
Does that sound familiar to any of you? Did that maybe characterize the life you lived before coming to Christ? Or are there those here this morning who still live a secret life that they don’t want to be exposed? I think we have to admit that Jesus offers a very keen description of our true spiritual condition that we would do well to face up to. Let’s admit it: We’re sinners, and we do wicked things, and we desperately hope that our sin won’t be exposed.
On the other hand, there are those who follow Jesus, those who, Jesus says, have “the light of life.” Those people know where they’re going. They have moral and spiritual clarity regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. They live life in the light of what Christ has revealed to them about God the Father and about himself. And they make small and big decisions based on what pleases God and brings him glory. Not that they can do that in their own strength, but they’re born again, they have experienced a spiritual rebirth, and they live life in the power of the Spirit as new creatures in Christ.
Come to the Light
So what does it mean for you and me that Jesus is the light of the world? I think essentially what it means is that Jesus shines his spotlight on our sinful condition so we can see ourselves in the light of his holiness and righteousness. I’m sorry to say, but in God’s eyes, we’re like rats in the dark who, when you suddenly turn on the light, scurry in every direction to run away from the light. I know that doesn’t sound very nice and complimentary, but it’s true.
Now the real question is, What do we do when Jesus shines his spotlight on our sin? Do we move toward him or away from him? What John tells us is that, naturally, our sin nature causes us to hide from Jesus’s presence, just as Adam and Eve did when they hid from God when they sinned in the Garden. It’s only by God’s grace that any of us turns to Christ and comes to the light. John elsewhere says that God “draws” us, and that unless God draws people, no one can come to Jesus.
So do you and I come to the light? Do we come to Jesus even in our sin and desperate condition? If you’re not a believer yet, would you come to Jesus? He loves you, and died for you. When people asked Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (6:28–29). All you need to do is repent and believe.
Or, if you’re a Christian, when you sin, do you come to Jesus? You know, he wants you to come to him even, and especially, when you sin, because he loves you and died for you, so you can be forgiven. So do what doesn’t come naturally, and what may seem counterintuitive: Come to the light. Come to Jesus. He will receive you and forgive you. That’s grace.
Don’t Die in Your Sin
Alright, then, before I close, let me say a word about the Pharisees, who serve as a foil in this passage. That is, they exhibit a negative trait that John wants us as his readers to avoid, namely hardened skepticism. We’ve all known people, and maybe that’s you today as you’re sitting here in chapel, who were so dead set against the faith that no matter what evidence you presented them with, they had already predetermined not to accept it. Of course, such an attitude is ultimately self-defeating, because if you’ve already decided you’re going to reject all answers and all evidence, how are you ever going to find out if something is true? (I’ve written about this in some of my writings, especially Truth Matters and Truth in a Culture of Doubt if you’re interested, and I’ve given several interviews about this that are posted on my website, www.biblicalfoundations.org.)
It’s one thing to be critical and ask someone for evidence to support their claim; it’s another to be so skeptical that no evidence will ever convince you to let go of your negative bias and preconceived ideas. So, let’s not be like the Pharisees. You can already see this conversation is going nowhere, because nothing Jesus can say will ever convince them that his claims are valid.
But even though Jesus could be very frustrated with his opponents, or even resent them, three times in our passage he warns them earnestly that unless they believe in him, they will die in their sins. That shows he really cares. He doesn’t just try to give them a hard time or win an argument; their eternal destiny is at stake. But what exactly does Jesus mean when he says people will die in their sins? It means that they’ll spend eternity in hell, separated from God, not because God hasn’t done everything he could to save them, but because they’re unwilling to come to Jesus and admit their need for salvation. Don’t be too proud to admit that you need help. We all need help, because we’re frail, finite, and sinful people who need a Savior. We cannot save ourselves.
Jesus Has the Last Word
But I don’t want to close with a description of our sin. I want to end with a brief reflection on what this passage, and in fact the entire Gospel, tells us about Jesus. Who is Jesus? John leaves no doubt whatsoever: Jesus is God. He is the Word-made-flesh, “the only God who is at the Father’s side.” The union between Jesus and Yahweh, between God the Father and God the Son, is at the very heart of John’s message. As Jesus says in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” In Jesus, the invisible God has become visible; incredibly, Jesus says, when you look at Jesus, you see God. Jesus is the true and faithful representative of the Father who sent him.
I mentioned at the beginning that when Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” the Pharisees completely ignored him and at once went on to challenge his credibility. So rather than hear an elaboration of what it means for Jesus to be the light of the world, we read a heated discussion about who Jesus’s Father is and who their true spiritual father is. But you know what? Jesus is not to be ignored. So in the next chapter, in chapter 9 verse 5, Jesus states for a second time that he is the light of the world. And this time, he goes on to heal a man who was born blind, in yet another amazing messianic sign. (I’ve written more about this in my book Signs of the Messiah.) So Jesus has the last word. He doesn’t just claim to be the light of the world, he acts as the Messiah. He makes the lame walk (chapter 5), he feeds the hungry (chapter 6), and he even gives sight to the blind (chapter 9). Jesus is the light of the world.
So as I close, let’s remember: Jesus’s purpose, the reason why he came, was to show us how much God loves us and to save us by an act of supreme self-sacrifice. But in order to be saved, we must put our trust in Jesus. As Jesus says in our passage, “Unless you believe that I am he [that I am God, that I am the one I claim to be, the light of the world, the Savior; unless you believe in Jesus], you will die in your sins.” Friends, the time to decide is now. You don’t know if you’re going to be alive tomorrow. So put your trust in Jesus today and decide to follow him. Or, if you’re his follower already, renew your commitment to Jesus and follow him even more closely. Forsake all other loyalties and live only for him. He is so worthy.
Note: This devotional was originally given as a chapel message at Geneva College on Wednesday, February 22, 2023.