Monday, August 05, 2013

Jesus: The Light of the World (John 8:12)

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Have you ever experienced “total darkness,” the state of being completely isolated from any and all sources of light? It is a rarer experience than you might imagine. There are only a few places on earth that one can experience total darkness: the deepest points of the ocean, or in underground caves, mines or tunnels away and hidden from the points of entrance or exit, and not many places elsewhere. A few years ago, my family had the experience of total darkness while visiting Mammoth Cave National Park. After descending into one of the deepest points of the cave system, the artificial lighting was turned off, and our lanterns were gathered together and extinguished one by one. When the last lantern’s flame died, there was complete and total darkness. It was surreal. It makes one realize that even in what we normally call “darkness,” there is still some light. Nothing makes you appreciate light so much as being in total darkness.

While we may not all have the experience of witnessing total darkness in this physical way, the Bible tells us that we live in a world of spiritual darkness because of the presence of sin. In 1 Samuel 2:9, we read that the wicked are silenced in darkness. Proverbs 4:19 says that “the way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” In Romans 1:21, Paul says the lost mass of humanity has turned away from God, and their foolish hearts have been darkened. In Ephesians 4:18 he says that those who do not know the Lord are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God.” Jesus says in John 12:35 that “he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” And this is the state of the entire human race, unless and until light enters in and shatters the darkness. And into this dark world, the Lord Jesus came and proclaimed, “I am the Light of the world.” This is the first reality that we see in this text:

I. Light has dawned on the world’s darkness in Jesus Christ.

Let us remember the setting of these words. The scene has not changed since the beginning of Chapter 7; multitudes have come together in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Every aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles was designed to remind the people of God’s faithfulness to Israel during the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings before they entered the Promised Land. One of the most joyous and festive aspects of this celebration was the nightly ceremony of illumination. In the Court of Women at the Temple, four enormous lampstands, each one 75 feet tall, were lit. The light was so bright that it was said that every courtyard in Jerusalem was illuminated from the glow of the Temple. As these great lights burned, the men of Israel would dance before them with lighted torches and sing songs of praise throughout the night.[1] This was repeated every night of the weeklong celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.[2] This ceremony of illumination was a reminder of how God had led the people in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.
  
That pillar of cloud and fire that led the Israelites was a visible manifestation of the presence of God among His people. This was known among the people of God as the “Shechinah Glory” of the Lord. God revealed Himself and His manifest glory in visible manifestations throughout the history of Israel, most often in the form of light, fire, cloud, or some combination of these.[3] As the Tabernacle was constructed, God promised that He would sanctify the Tent by His glory – His Shechinah – and He would dwell among the children of Israel and be their God (Ex 29:42-46). Once it was completed, the Shechinah Glory of the Lord took up residence in the Tabernacle, dwelling above the cherubim on the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle (Ex 40:34-35). And God’s Shechinah Glory would lead the nation of Israel through the wilderness every step of the way, as a pillar of cloud providing a shade to the nation in the heat of day and a pillar of fire providing light and heat in the dark of night.

When Solomon’s Temple was built, the glory of the Lord began to reside there in the Holy of Holies, just as He had done in the Tabernacle (1 Kings 8:11). And so this manifest presence of God’s glory remained among the nation for some time, though we are not told whether or not it was always visible. In due time, as Israel violated her covenant with the Lord by chasing after idols and disregarding God’s Law, God raised up the Babylonians to chasten His people by invading the land, destroying Solomon’s Temple and carting off the Jews to live in Babylon during that time we refer to as the Babylonian Captivity. The prophet Ezekiel was among them as they were taken away, and from Babylon, he was given a vision of what was going on back in Jerusalem. In his vision, he beheld the most alarming tragedy of all – the Shechinah Glory of God was departing from Israel. Ezekiel saw the Glory of the Lord lift up from the Holy of Holies and move to the doorway of the Temple (9:3; 10:4), and then to the eastern gate of the city (10:18-19), before moving out to the Mount of Olives (11:22-23), from which the Shechinah Glory departed from Israel and disappeared from Jewish history.[4]

In time, the Israelites returned from Babylon and reconstructed their temple, but it paled in comparison to the Temple of Solomon in many ways. Most significantly, the Shechinah Glory of the Lord was not present in this new temple. But it was through the prophet Haggai that the Lord spoke to the nation and said, “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former.” Here was a promise from the Lord that the glory of the Lord would return in a greater way to this temple than had been known in the previous one. Half a millennium later, Herod the Great would expand and beautify the temple, but the Shechinah Glory had not returned.

The exuberant celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles was always tempered by the reality that the glory of the Lord had not yet returned. And now, another Feast had come and gone. The great lampstands of the Temple were being snuffed out yet again, and the people would be reminded once more that they walked in darkness through a world without the manifest glory of God. And it was on this occasion, at this time, in the very court where those lampstands had burned, that the Lord Jesus again spoke to the people, and He said, “I am the Light of the World.”

The Feast of Tabernacles had been established and practiced among the Israelites for centuries. Only here and now at this particular time was the true meaning of it revealed to them. In Chapter 6, Jesus had told the people that He was the true manna from heaven, more satisfying than even that which miraculously appeared on the ground every morning during the Exodus. In Chapter 7, He had told them that He was the true rock, which being struck would bring forth living water more satisfying than that which flowed from the rock that Moses struck in the wilderness. Here in this passage, He is saying to them that He is the Light of the World, the true pillar of fire – the true Shechinah Glory of God. He is the true Tabernacle – the dwelling place of God among men. In John 1:1 we are told that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The eternal preexistent Divine Word, we are told in John 1:14, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The word that is used there “to dwell” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for Tabernacle. In Jesus Christ, God had pitched His tent among humanity; He tabernacled in our midst. And John says there, “and we beheld His glory.” The glory that was remembered by the kindling of the lampstands in the Temple courts was now surpassed by the return of the Shechinah Glory to the temple in the person of Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.

In Jesus, the glory of God was made manifest again to the nation of Israel, but not exclusively for the nation of Israel. He is the Light of the World. Into this world – the one in which you and I live; the one that is filled with darkness; the one for which Israel was chosen by God to be a missionary people, declaring the light of God’s truth to all nations; the one which has languished apart from the manifest presence of God in sin and moral decay – into this world, Christ has come, and the Light of the World has dawned. You are not cut off from that Light by your ethnicity, geography, or chronology. You do not have to be a Jew to behold the Light; you do not have to live in Israel; it does not matter that you live twenty-one centuries after Christ lived and died on earth. You walk in darkness; you live in a dark world; you are separated from the brightness of God’s glory because of sin. But, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold 7 centuries before Christ’s coming, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (Isa 9:2). Jesus Christ is that light.

II. People who live in darkness have to respond to the Light.

Have you ever come out of a dark room, say a movie theater perhaps, in broad daylight? You feel as if your retinas are being fried, and your first instinct is to slam your eyelids shut to block out the light. You have to consciously overcome that urge if you want your eyes to adjust to the light. And the same is true spiritually. When light penetrates the darkness, we have a choice to make: to remain in darkness, or to emerge from it into the light.

Jesus speaks of one response here: following Him. He is the Light of the World, and He invites all who live in darkness to come to Him and follow Him. In John’s Gospel, the idea of “following” Jesus is often synonymous with “believing in Him.” But when we speak of “believing in Jesus,” we need to be clear. We are not just talking about agreeing to certain historical facts. We are talking about a personal relationship with Him where there is a faith commitment, where there is trust. Thus, the imagery of following is appropriate. As the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, they didn’t know where they were going or what they would find along the way. But God was leading them by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, and they had to trust that He would lead them in the way that He wanted them to go. And their task was to believe that, to trust Him, and to follow. In a similar way, Jesus has become for us our pillar of fire, and on our journey through the wilderness of this world en route to the homeland that has been promised us, we must follow Him. But the road will not always be easy. He never said it would be. In fact, when Jesus spoke of following Him, He spoke of it in difficult terms. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, He must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Following Him means daily dying to self, and embracing the hardships that He leads us to encounter, following Him even if it means following Him on a path to death. We can do that because we know Him, and we trust Him. We know that to follow Him is to walk in the light, which is better by far than groping and stumbling about in the darkness. He has come to shatter the darkness of our sin by the light of His glory, and He bids us to arise and follow Him – to leave the life of sin behind and walk in His light.

It may not seem like much of a choice, given the alternative. An offer like this might seem to some of us irresistible. How could we not follow the Light of the World? Well, amazingly, multitudes upon multitudes opt for the alternative. In John 3:19, Jesus said, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Their deeds were evil, and they loved the darkness because it was a cloak for the evil of their deeds. They don’t want to come into the Light of the Lord because their evil deeds will be exposed. This is why, at the root of so much professed unbelief today, there is not an intellectual argument but a moral one. In Romans 1, Paul speaks of those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” For so many people, it is not because there is no evidence, argument, or reason that might compel them to believe. It is because they know that to acknowledge God is to acknowledge that their sins have to be dealt with. And because they don’t want to deal with their sins, instead they look for reasons to not believe in God, to not believe in Christ, and/or to reject the truth of God’s Word. If they can cloud out the Light, then they can continue unimpeded in the enjoyment of their sin in the darkness.

I didn’t read any books about that or conduct any scholarly research. I lived it for many years! But as I have talked to others, I have seen that my situation was not unique. And as I read the Bible, God’s Word corresponds to my experience. It would have been a lot easier to just read God’s Word to start with and learn it that way, instead of the hard way. But I loved the darkness more than the light because my deeds were evil. So I argued my way out of the light, and hid myself away in the darkness. And the same is true for many people. I wouldn’t say it is true of every unbeliever, but it is true for many, and may be true for someone here today. But Jesus has come as the Light of the World to penetrate the darkness, and He offers you a choice. You can come out of the dark and follow Him. And there are great promises offered here to those who do. That’s the third and final point. First was that Jesus has come as the Light of the World. Second is that we are driven to make a response to the Light, and third …

III. There are great promises offered to those who follow Christ as the Light of the World

A few months ago, the floodlight on the corner of our house burned out, and, well, I hate to confess but, I just haven’t gotten around to changing the bulb yet. The result of this is that every night when I take the trash out, I have to fumble around in the dark, walking through spider webs, tripping over tree roots, bikes and scooters, basketballs, and trying to figure out what—or WHO—is rustling around in the bushes! It’s an unnerving experience. You would think I’d be more strongly motivated to replace that bulb. I guess I’ve just gotten used to walking in darkness, even though I don’t really enjoy it. I think there are a lot of people who are used to walking around in spiritual darkness – it’s all they’ve ever known. But if you could catch them in an honest moment, they might confess that they really don’t enjoy it. They just don’t know how to fix it. The fact of the matter is, they can’t fix it. The Bible makes it clear that there is nothing that we can do to bring ourselves out of the darkness of our sin. That is why the Gospel is good news. What we could not do for ourselves, Jesus Christ has done for us. When the best we can do is feel our way around in the darkness, the Light of the World has come and He promises us that if we follow Him, we will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life.

At some point in our lives, we may have memorized a Bible verse in Vacation Bible School or Sunday School – Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Sometimes when you are walking in the dark, you need a light down on your feet so you can see where your next step will land; other times, you need the light to shine further down the path so you can see where you are going. The Psalmist says that the Word of God is both to us as we walk through this dark world. But, let us remember that the Word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Light that illuminates our way, so that we no longer walk in the darkness of sin, but rather in His Light. This does not mean that the written Word of God has been superceded by the Person of Christ. It has been incarnated in Him. The written Word points us to Him as the Light, and He points us to the written Word to instruct us in how to walk in the Light.

The same Apostle John who penned this Gospel picks up this idea once more in his first epistle, as he says, “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). As we walk in the Light of Christ, following Him in faith and trust, in fellowship with Him and with others who are walking in the Light, we are kept from sin, and cleansed from sin, by the blood of Jesus, which was poured out on the cross for our rescue as He died in our place. We have this promise: Jesus is the Light of the world. Follow Him and you will not walk in darkness. Job said, “By His light, I walked through darkness” (Job 29:3). As Israel’s way was illuminated by the Shechinah Glory in the pillar of fire, so our way is illuminated by the light of Christ. We do not walk in darkness.

And the promise continues: If you follow Christ as the Light of the world, not only will you not walk in darkness, but you will have the Light of life. In Chapter 1, John said of the preincarnate Christ, the Divine Word of God, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” The Light of life was something that Christ possessed in Himself. But here He says that those who follow Him shall have the Light of life as well. It is something that His followers possess, and the present tense suggests that they possess the Light of life perpetually. If you are a follower of Jesus, the Light of life is within you. You have HIM. That is why it is no contradiction for Jesus to say here, “I am the Light of the world,” and to say elsewhere to His followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). You are the light of the world, because the True Light of the world lives within you – Christ has taken up residence within you in the person of the Holy Spirit just as the Shechinah Glory inhabited the temple and tabernacle in days of old. It is not your light which others see, but His light in you. You are the light of the world in the way that the moon is the light of night. It has no light of its own, but shines as it reflects the light of the sun. So, you are the light of the world as you reflect the light of Christ, the Light of the world.

Though darkness may surround you, it will not envelop you, because you have the Light of life. Though death itself should threaten to shroud you in darkness forever, you have the Light of life in Christ, and the Light of life in Him will never be darkened. The Bible says that we will dwell forever in His light. In the book of Revelation, John gets a glimpse of heaven and says of it, “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:22-23). He said, “And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5). In Jesus, because He is the Light of the world, we do not walk in darkness. We have the Light of life. And we will live forever in His light.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, bearing the wrath of His Father for the sins that you and I have committed, the Bible says that there was darkness over the whole land for three hours (Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44). He is the Light of the world, yet He endured the darkness of death under the judgment of God for us, so that by following Him, we might have the Light of life forever. He walked through our darkness for us, so that we might walk in His light. He says, “I am the Light of the World. He who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” The converse is true also. Everything and everyone that is not Jesus is not light. If we are following anyone or anything other than Him, we will walk in darkness (indeed, we cannot walk in His light), and we will not have the Light of life, only the darkness of death. So there is a choice to be made. Come into His light and follow Him. Or, love darkness more than light because of the evil of our deeds. That is the choice we all must make. Some of you have made it, and you are walking in the Light. But you know others who are still languishing in the darkness of sin. Jesus, the Light of the World, said that you who follow Him are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).


[1] Mishnah Sukkah 5.2, from The Mishnah: A New Integrated Translation and Commentary. Accessed online: http://www.emishnah.com/moed2/Sukkah/5.pdf, August 1, 2013.
[2] Alfred Edersheim, citing Talmud Sukkah 53a and Talmud Jerusalem Sukkah 55b, in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 589; cf. also Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 141.
[3] Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah (Tustin, Ca.: Ariel, 1983), 409.
[4] Fruchtenbaum, 420-421. 

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