The Light of the World: The Second “I Am” (John 8:12–20)

Read John 8:12–20.

Light is precious, though we who live in the developed world can easily take its power for granted. Ours is a world with countless electric lightbulbs and LED screens, the constant blur of car headlights, and the convenience of a flashlight-wielding phone in every pocket. But out in the wild, light is a magical force that makes life possible. Without the light of the sun or a campfire, activity comes to a halt, paused until the light returns.

I’m a fairly accomplished darkness walker. I’ve learned how to navigate the confines of our home in nearly pitch blackness. My wife, Laurin, has trouble falling back to sleep if she wakes during the night, so if I have to get up for any reason—to use the bathroom, respond to the crying of our youngest son, or double-check that I did indeed lock the back door—I do my best to move about in silence without the aid of a light. Normally, I’m skilled at avoiding furniture, doorframes, and the occasional toy left on the floor by one of our boys. But about six months ago, we bought a small wooden bench that now rests against the foot of our bed. Not once or twice but three times I smashed my toes against its solid, unforgiving, farmhouse-inspired frame. In my groggy post-midnight, not-enough-sleep-yet state, I had attempted to maneuver a room I thought I had memorized, but this new addition surprised me each time, leaving the big toe on my left foot battered and bloodied.

God knows about darkness walking. That’s why the pillar of cloud that led Moses and the Israelites by day became a pillar of fire at night. This pillar was the Lord’s presence, illuminating their path so that they would not stumble in the darkness. The Festival of Tabernacles, which commemorated the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn in the wilderness paid tribute to this pillar-cloud of fire. Each evening during the celebration, an enormous candelabra was lit in the temple, shining from the court of women out into Jerusalem proper. It is perhaps with this tremendous light as the backdrop 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” (John 8:12).

If we believe the content of John 7:53–8:11 is a later addition to the text and not part of the original flow of John’s message, then this statement of Jesus comes just after the religious leaders tell Nicodemus, “Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee” (7:52). Jesus’ words, then, are a rebuttal of sorts, as if Jesus Himself had heard what they were saying and “looked into it” for Nicodemus. As readers listening in on this conversation between the Jewish leadership, Jesus, and the crowds, we are meant to recall Isaiah 9:1–2:

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Jesus is that light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Here’s the thing about light: It doesn’t negotiate with the darkness. It doesn’t give in or give way. We can choose to live in the light or remain in the darkness, but the light will not compromise with us. It exposes us and reveals who we really are. It’s why John 3:19 tells us, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Light is necessary for life. Without it, we will stumble and fall in the darkness. We will remain lost and never find the way home.

Jesus’ second metaphorical “I am” statement in the Gospel of John, then, is an invitation and a warning. He is drawing a line in the sand. As an invitation, Jesus is calling people to follow Him and live in the light. To do so, we need to leave behind our masks and false pretenses. We must acknowledge that we were, in fact, living in the darkness prior to meeting Jesus. That means recognizing our great need for a Savior and willingly following wherever He leads.

But as a warning, Jesus is announcing that He is the only light—the light of the world—the only way to life and salvation, the sole way back home to God. Just as the Israelites in the wilderness had just one pillar of fire to follow, there are no other options available to us. All other supposed lights are really just different shades of darkness, and they will all leave us groping around in confusion until death finds us.

It’s not a coincidence that when God created this world, He spoke light into being on the first day (Genesis 1:3). Without light, life doesn’t happen. There can be no joy, no adventure, no celebration. People were created to live in the light. But with sin and death came spiritual darkness. And so God decided to bring a new light. He sent His Son to be the light we needed and to ignite a new creation. The book of Revelation gives us a preview, and sure enough, “the glory of God gives it light, and Lamb is its lamp” (21:23). Here in John 8, then, when Jesus announces He is the light of the world, He isn’t just calling His fellow Jews out of the darkness; He’s calling all of us to experience the joy we were made for.

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