The light of the world

abstract-1963838_640“Let there be light.” These are the first words spoken in the Bible, uttered by God at the beginning of all creation.

We need light to survive. Our bodily rhythms respond to the rising and setting of the sun. We need light to find our way in the darkness.

Not surprisingly, light is a recurring metaphor in Scripture, particularly in the Psalms: “You are the one who lights my lamp—the Lord my God illumines my darkness” (Ps 18:28, CEB). The contrast between light and darkness is also central to the prophecy of Isaiah. The Messiah, the Lord’s Servant, is portrayed “as a light to the nations,” sent by God “to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon” (Is 42:6-7).

That’s part of the background to the astonishing claim made by Jesus in John 8, the second of his so-called “I Am” sayings: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The claim also echoes what John has already told us at the outset: “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. …The true light that shines for all people was coming into the world” (1:3-4, 9). 

As we’ve seen, the phrase “I Am” carries the overtones of divinity (with much more of this to come in chapter 8). With echoes of Isaiah in the background, we can hear Jesus making a Messianic claim. But we shouldn’t miss the gracious invitation at the core of that claim: those who walk in darkness are summoned to light and life. Who wouldn’t want that?

John, however, has already warned us not to be naive. Darkness hates the light (3:19-20).

Darkness needn’t take the form of violence; it begins with being blind and deaf to God. Witness the Pharisees’ response to Jesus’ claim. It’s a grand exercise in missing the point, in missing the gracious invitation: “Because you are testifying about yourself, your testimony isn’t valid.” (8:13).

As suggested in an earlier post, here, the reader can see two levels to the story. On the one hand, from the Pharisees’ perspective, there is the question of Jesus’ credibility as a witness. They invoke their own legal principles: you need at least two independent witnesses for testimony to be valid. From a legal perspective, that makes perfect sense.

On the other hand, as readers, we know who Jesus is and where he’s from — and he’s not someone whose testimony you’d question.

Imagine that you’re the victim of identity theft. You’ve lost your driver’s license and social security card, your Internet presence has been erased, and so on. You know who you are. But how would you prove that to someone else?

Jesus knows who he is, even if the Pharisees don’t. As far as they’re concerned, Jesus doesn’t have what he needs to prove his claim, and they’re perfectly justified in rejecting it.

But this is not a question of identity theft, nor even of legal technicalities. It’s a question of blindness. That’s the bigger story: the light has come to a darkened world, and those who walk in darkness refuse to recognize it, let alone rejoice in it. More on that in the next post, as we continue with the conversation.