I Am the Light of the World
In February 1954, a navy pilot set out on a night-training mission from a carrier off the coast of Japan. While he was taking off in stormy weather, his directional finder malfunctioned, and he wound up headed in the wrong direction. On top of that, his instrument panel suddenly short-circuited during the flight, burning out all the lights in the cockpit.
The pilot said he “looked around … and could see absolutely nothing; the blackness outside the plane had suddenly come inside.” Stormy weather, nothing but darkness outside his aircraft – in front, behind, to either side, above, and below, he could see nothing. Without his instrument panel, he had no idea which direction he was headed or how low he was. That’s enough to make even the most experienced pilot, which he was, nervous. And then he looked down and thought he saw a faint blue-green glow trailing along in the ocean’s ebony depths. His training had prepared him for this moment, and he knew in an instant what he was seeing: a cloud of phosphorescent algae glowing in the sea that had been stirred up by the engines of his ship. It was the “least reliable and most desperate method” of piloting a plane back onto a ship safely, but the pilot – future Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell – knew that was exactly what he had to do. And so he did. The trail of glowing algae stirred up by the propellers of his aircraft carrier led him right back to his ship.
His life was saved because of light. Not just any light, but “bioluminescent dinoflagellates,” tiny creatures that contain luciferin, a generic term for the light-emitting compound. They live throughout the ocean, from the surface to the seafloor, from near the coast to the open ocean, and their light led Jim Lovell home.
It is always the light that brings us home. Streetlights illumine the roads in cities, towns, and villages around the world. Traffic lights tell us when it’s safe to pass through intersections. Headlights light the road in front of us, and make us visible to others as well. And the warm glow of porch lights welcome us home. Truth be told, without light, we wouldn’t be able to function. Light not only illumines, it produces health and growth. We are made to live in the light. In my office I have a special light designed to help those who struggle with depression through the dark winter months. It emits the spectrum of light that gives us energy and makes us feel better, and helps our bodies manufacture Vitamin D.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In Jesus, we have the light to see God clearly, as God is, as much as our finite minds can comprehend. In Jesus, we have the light to see ourselves and our brokenness and fallenness and sin clearly. And in Jesus, we have the light to see the purpose of life clearly. Turn with me to John 8:12-19.
This is the second of Jesus’ “I am …” statements. Last week, we looked at the first one, “I am the bread of life.” We are full, fulfilled, and satisfied in, and only in Jesus. And because he is also “the light of the world,” we can see God, ourselves, and life clearly in, and only in Jesus. The words “I am” are emphatic. Jesus is expressing the truth about himself forcefully and clearly, with emphasis. Every other Jewish rabbi, even the great ones, said “God is …” Only Jesus said “I am …” He is speaking in the language and style of God. He is speaking as if he IS God. Christian teacher and apologist John Blanchard said, “the I AM’s are either cosmic or they’re comic.” Either laugh at and reject them, and him, or accept them, and him, as absolutely true. There is no in-between.
And after the emphatic “I am,” Jesus always follows with an exclusive word. It’s the word “THE.” I am THE bread of life. I am THE light of the world. Not A bread. Not A light. THE bread. THE light. He intentionally and explicitly excludes anyone but himself from making this claim. ONLY in Jesus will we find the bread of life, real and lasting satisfaction and fulfillment. ONLY in Jesus can we see God, ourselves, and this life clearly.
When Jesus said this, he and those with him were celebrating the week-long Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. This year Jews around the world will celebrate Sukkot from September 20-27. It’s overly simplistic to say it’s a celebration of the harvest, although it includes that. It’s a reminder of and celebration of God’s presence with his people, providing for them, protecting them, and guiding them from Egypt to the Promised Land, through the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. God’s provision of manna, bread from heaven, and the water spouting from the rock to allow the thirsty people to drink feature prominently, and so do the pillar of cloud that guided them by day and the pillar of fire that guided and guarded them by night.
And as a part of the celebration, four large lamp stands, large enough that priests had to climb a ladder to light them, were erected in the temple. And each lamp stand had four massive golden bowls on it, each one filled with oil. They actually used the priests worn undergarments as wicks, and they were lit each night. One scholar describes the scene:
On certain nights of the ceremony, they would light the four huge lamps in the temple’s court of women and there would be an exuberant celebration that took p0lace under the light. Men of piety and good works danced through the night, holding burning torches in their hands and singing songs and praises. The Levitical orchestras cut loose, and some sources attest that this went on every night of the Feast of Tabernacles, with the light from the temple area shedding its glow all over Jerusalem.[i]
And it was under those gigantic lamps, large enough to cast their light all over Jerusalem, that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” And it is in placing our faith in Jesus, in FOLLOWING HIM, that we live within the his light. The word John used for “follow” is a present participle. That means it indicates an ongoing action, not a one-time thing. Following Jesus is something we do continually. It isn’t a casual adherence to some set of religious rules and regulations, or a casual observance of some religious ceremonies and traditions. Following Jesus is whole-hearted devotion.
Dave Gibson tells a story about a time when he and a friend were on his friend’s new boat on the Snake River:
My friend bought a 19-foot jet boat and invited me along for her maiden voyage. The boat is made of steel and fitted with a V-8 engine. We put the boat in the North Fork of the Snake River. The water was quite low because of a drought and heavy irrigation. We eased the throttle up until we were going 35 miles per hour. We grinned at each other as we raced across the water’s surface. Suddenly we hit a hidden sandbar, and the boat came to an abrupt stop. We stepped onto the sandbar, barely covered with one inch of water. Another boater came along, and after three hours of digging and pushing, we once again had my friend’s boat floating in the open channel. The boater who rescued us offered to lead us back to the landing since he knew the river well. He instructed us to follow exactly behind him so we would avoid hidden sand and gravel bars.
Our leader pushed his boat up to 35 miles per hour, we fell in behind him, and once again we enjoyed the power of the machine as it skimmed over the water. After a couple of minutes, my friend steered our boat just a few feet to the right of where the lead boat had gone. Within seconds, we hit a gravel bar, and I was thrown into the windshield, injuring me and busting the windshield. When the lead boat came back, the driver reminded us, “I told you to follow me.”
Later in the New Testament, in the Letter of First John, the same John who recorded the “I am” statements of Jesus in his gospel wrote, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 2:5-6). Being a Christian isn’t a specific political platform or a list of rules you agree to abide by. Being a Christian is supposed to be synonymous with following Jesus. I trust Jesus to forgive my sin and cleanse me, and then, filled with the Holy Spirit, I align my life with his life and “walk in the same way in which he walked.” We follow Jesus whole-heartedly. If I want to live in the light, I have to follow Jesus. If I want to see God clearly, I have to follow Jesus. If I want to understand my purpose, I have to follow Jesus. There is no other light that can illuminate those things.
And the tragedy is that some people choose to live in the darkness. Look at Vv. 13-19. Jesus isn’t speaking in the wilderness to the crowds that sought him out. He is speaking in the temple, under those giant lamps, during Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. This crowd is much less friendly, and they get riled up quickly. That’s human nature though. It isn’t just the pharisees in Jesus’ day who oppose him. John invites us to find in ourselves not just the person in the crowd seeking Jesus, but also the pharisee, the religious leader, opposing him. Our tendency is to find ourselves in the “good guy” in the story, in the person who responds well to Jesus. But we are also challenged to find ourselves in the opposition to Jesus. That’s actually the point of this passage. When Jesus spoke the truth about himself, people found themselves resisting him. Following Jesus means going against the flow not just of our culture, but of our own human natures.
Now, some people read the words of Jesus in V. 15, “I judge no one” and think he means he never has and never will judge, and that isn’t what Jesus is saying here. One chapter later, in John 9:39, Jesus says “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Jesus judges, but not in the way that we as human beings judge. We judge based on what we can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell. Our judgment is based on natural traits, physical characteristics, and empirical evidence. And on the surface, the pharisees are right. Their law DID require two independent testimonies in order to establish fact. They’re thinking about LEGAL judgment. But Jesus was operating in a completely different sphere. You see, it is Jesus in himself who judges. We are either for him or against him. There is no middle ground. We are either in the light or in the darkness. We are either following Jesus or following the path of this world and our fallen, sinful natures. With Jesus, there is no middle ground. His judgement is between those who are following him, trusting him, and those who are not. Jesus is by his very nature and existence divisive, and he ignites passion either way. Those who follow him follow with passion and dedication. Those who oppose him oppose him with passion. The one thing we cannot do with Jesus is come to him in moderation. We’re either in or we’re out. Living in darkness or living in light. Because if Jesus wasn’t speaking truth here the pharisees were right to want to stone him.
Sadly, some choose to stay in the darkness. We’re used to it. Our eyes have adjusted. We can’t see clearly, but we don’t realize it anymore. When we’ve been in the darkness for a while and step into the light, it hurts for a while. Our senses have to adjust. Jesus tells us that in order to trust him and to follow him, we have to die to ourselves. It hurts. It’s challenging. We have to learn to view the world through a new lens, and that isn’t easy. We have to learn to relate to others in ways we aren’t used to, repaying evil with good instead of seeking vengeance.
I find it interesting that when Judas left the upper room, having just shared the Passover meal with his friends and with Jesus, now intent on turning Jesus over to the authorities, John tells us that Judas “immediately went out. And it was night” (Jn. 13:30). John’s words here are true in both the physical and spiritual realms. It was night time. The sky was dark. But that isn’t the only darkness John is referring to. Light and darkness are among the most common metaphors in Scripture, and with a sense of foreboding, John wants us to know that Judas had made a conscious decision to step out of the light and back into the darkness. Ultimately, the light of Christ was too much for him. Jesus just wouldn’t climb into the box Judas had in his mind for Messiah to fit into, just wouldn’t overthrow the Romans, had probably disqualified himself from being used by God to do that by associating with unsavory types – prostitutes, lepers, the demon possessed, and traitorous tax collectors. Judas found that when we come to Jesus, we come on HIS terms, not ours, and he couldn’t stomach that anymore. The great Greek philosopher Plato hit the nail on the head when he said, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark: the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”[ii]
When Jesus left the temple that day, leaving the pharisees holding the stones they wanted to stone him to death with in their hands, Jesus went and healed a blind man. A man who had, quite literally, been living in darkness received sight. We each have a decision to make: are we going to live in the darkness or are we going to step into the light? “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Near the end of his comprehensive, seven-volume history of the expansion of Christianity, Kenneth Latourette says this, referring to Jesus: “No life ever lived on this planet has been so influential in the affairs of men as that of Christ. From that brief life and its apparent frustration has flowed a more powerful force for the triumphal waging of man’s long battle than any other ever known by the human race.
“Through it, millions of people have had their inner conflicts resolved. Through it, hundreds of millions have been lifted from illiteracy and ignorance and have been placed upon the road of growing intellectual freedom and control over the physical environment. It has done more to allay the physical ills of disease and famine than any other impulse, and it has emancipated millions from chattel slavery and millions of others from thralldom to vice. It has protected tens of millions from exploitation by their fellows, and it has been the most fruitful source of movements to lessen the horrors of war and to put the relations of men and nations on the basis of justice and peace.”[iii]
It isn’t easy to step from darkness into the light. It takes courage, and it can hurt, because everything changes. It took Peter, James, John, and the other disciples three years to wrap their minds around what Jesus was doing, how he was redefining and reworking everything they thought they knew and understood about God, about themselves, and about this world. Judas was never able to come to terms with it and fled back to the darkness. Too many of us try to stand in the middle – not really in the light but not in the darkness either. But with Jesus there is no middle ground. He’s either our Savior and our Lord, or he’s neither. We are either living in the darkness, or in his light. Let us pray.
[i] Bob Deffinbaugh, “The walk Light of the World (John 8:12-30),” Bible.org
[ii] Plato, Leadership, Vol. 1, no. 2
[iii] John Stott, “Christians: Salt and Light,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 109.