Monday, August 19, 2013

The Light that Shines in the Darkness (John 8:12-20)

A month from now, several of us will be on a mission trip to Vermont. Some of us were there last year, and I have looked forward to going back ever since. One thing I really enjoyed about Vermont is an experience that I don’t usually have around here. Out in rural Vermont, there are not many artificial lights to blur the view of the night sky. There, in the cool darkness of the late night hours, you can look up and see the sky set on fire with what appears to be the entire galaxy shining in incomparable brightness before your eyes. Almost everywhere you look, there are seemingly thousands of brilliant stars, and every few seconds, if you are still and patient, you see another one shooting across the sky. You have to remind yourself that this is the same canopy of space that is over you all the time. But in order to see it and appreciate it, you have to be in a dark place. The darker the atmosphere, the brighter the light shines.

In verse 12, Jesus proclaims Himself to be the Light of the World. Earlier in John’s Gospel, the writer said of Jesus, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” We might summarize much of the earthly life and ministry with these words. The Light was shining in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend that Light. The darkness, in fact, exercised itself mightily in effort to extinguish the Light. But, as every person can attest, darkness can never overcome light. Light always chases darkness away. And try as the forces of darkness may, they could never extinguish the Light of Jesus Christ. They didn’t comprehend it, they didn’t acknowledge it, they didn’t appreciate it, but the Light continued to shine, and it shines still.

When Jesus claimed to be the Light of the world, it was a bold assertion. It was the second time that Jesus used the divine name “I Am” to refer to Himself. The first was in John 6:35 when He said, “I am the Bread of Life.” Five more times in John, Jesus will employ the name “I Am” in metaphoric language to reveal the facets of His divine nature and saving work. As we discussed a few weeks ago, making this claim when He did, at the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus’ words indicate that He Himself is the living manifestation of the glory of God. It was a clear announcement that God had come to dwell in the midst of His people in the person of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, and the promised Messiah, the Savior of the whole human race. But, even though the Light of the world is shining in the darkness, and the darkness is not comprehending it. It is trying to extinguish the Light. The darkness is manifested here in this text in the Pharisees. But beyond this text, we see that darkness manifest in the entire human race. Apart from God’s grace that draws us to Christ, we are all lost in the darkness of sin. But the darkness seems to have lost sight of two fundamental properties of Light. As Jesus speaks, He reminds us of these fundamental properties of Light, and how they are true of Him as the Light of the World.

I. Light is a true witness of itself.

Imagine yourself sitting in total darkness with someone who had never seen light. Perhaps you are reminiscing aloud about the times that you enjoyed a day at the beach, or visited a museum and beheld something beautiful. The person sitting in darkness would have no comprehension of these things. They’ve never seen anything because all they have ever known is darkness. How would you explain the concept of “light” to them? Maybe you could recite the definition from Webster’s dictionary, which says that “light” is “something that makes vision possible; the sensation aroused by stimulation of the visual receptors; or the electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength that travels in a vacuum with a speed of about 186,281 miles per second, specifically such radiation that is visible to the human eye.”[1] Do you think that person would better understand what “light” is even with those definitions explained? Frustrated, you shove your hands in your pockets and discover there at your fingertips some source of light – a book of matches, a lighter, a cellphone, a flashlight, or something of that sort. You pull that out of your pocket and you say, “Here is light,” and you power on the phone or flashlight, strike the match, or flick the lighter. Now, the person understands what light is, because by it, the darkness of their entire existence has been pierced. Light has the fundamental property of being able to testify to itself. How do you know that you are in the light here? You simply look around and see not only light, but everything else because of the light. If the light were not there, you would not only not see light; you would see nothing else.

Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world.” His critics debated Him, saying, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.” Now, what they are actually attempting to do here is to turn Jesus’ own words back on Himself. Back in Chapter 5, after healing a lame man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath, a dispute arose between Jesus and the religious authorities. John tells us that “they were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He was not only breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (5:18). In that context, Jesus provided some defense for His audacious claims by saying, “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true” (5:31). That statement really didn’t have anything to do with the truthfulness or falsehood of His claims. Rather, Jesus was saying that if all they had to go by were His own words, then that would not be sufficient evidence to convince them to believe. But Jesus went on to indicate that His words were not alone in testifying to His claims. John the Baptist had testified to Him; His works, including the very healing that they had just witnessed at Bethesda, testified to Him; God the Father had testified to Him; and the Scriptures had testified to Him. So what Jesus was saying in John 5:31 was that they did not need to take His own word alone as support for His claims. There was plenty of other evidence to convince them of who He was. But even though the Light was shining in the darkness, the darkness did not comprehend it. They did not receive Him, and they did not receive the additional testimonies that had been provided about Him. So here, they are still stuck on the idea that Jesus alone is testifying to Himself, and they turn His words back on Him, saying, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.”

But Jesus says here, “Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true.” Notice the words, “Even if.” He is not saying that He alone testifies about Himself. Indeed, Jesus made a point repeatedly that His identity and mission were validated, not by His own testimony alone, but by that of His Father, by that of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures, and that of the works that He was uniquely able to do. “Even if I testify about Myself,” He says, implying, “but I don’t.” In verse 17, He says, “Even in your law, it has been written that the testimony of two men is true.” This is a principle found several times in the Old Testament about cases that came before a judge, but time and tradition had expanded the principle to apply to any situation. And yet, could it not be the case that two or three witnesses could conspire together to confirm a lie? It happened in the trial of Jesus. So even this principle is not a sure test for truthfulness. But Jesus appeals to it and says, “I am not testifying of myself alone.” He says in v17, “I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.” 

And yet, He says, even if the only testimony of His identity and mission was that of Himself, still His testimony would be true. Think of it this way. If I say to you that I was hospitalized at Forsyth Hospital with debilitating arthritis on the day that Elvis Presley died, you might say, “Prove it.” I cannot. I don’t have photographs or medical paperwork to document it. If my parents were here, they could testify that my words are true, but they aren’t here. And so you might retort and say, “Well, if you cannot prove it, I do not think it is true.” Yet, it is still true. I know it is true. I was there. Sometimes I lay awake at night with my knees throbbing with that same inflammation that has afflicted me for 35 years, and I remember that hospitalization like it was yesterday. Your decision to not believe my words does not render my statement untrue. And Jesus says His words are true, even if there is no corroborating witness, because essentially He says, “I was there.” I know where I came from and where I am going.” And where He came from and where is going is one and the same. He came from the Father, and He will return to the Father. But He says, “You do not know where I come from or where I am going.”

Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World.” The Pharisees did not believe Him. But that does not make His words untrue. The unbeliever today needs to recognize this. Their failure or refusal to believe in God or to believe in Christ does not make Him go away. As C. S. Lewis said so well, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the wall of his cell.”[2] And here, the Light of the world is shining brightly in the temple court of Jerusalem, and yet the very religious leaders of Israel are trying to put out the light, as it were, by scribbling “darkness” on the walls of their existence. His glory is not diminished by one’s refusal to recognize or worship Him. In fact, the darker the setting, the brighter the light shines. It causes me to wonder – is it that the light seems brighter because of the darkness? Or is it that the darkness seems darker because of the brightness of the light? When we compare ourselves with other men, any one of us can see an entire spectrum of shades of grey. But when we compare ourselves with Christ, we see the entire human race as a mass of darkness. The Light of Christ’s glory is always infinitely bright. Our realization of the darkness of our own sin is magnified when we see it.

Consider even the emotions that this passage evokes in us. It seems that if we were to put any other man before the Pharisees and hear them interact with him this way, we would not think it so inappropriate. In fact, we may join in with them. We are sensitized to the offensiveness by the realization that the One they speak to in this way is, in fact, Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh, the Light of the world. How dare such evil people speak this way to the Lord of Glory? Do they not know what they do? But we must remember, had we been there, it is not likely that we would have come to His defense. More likely, we would have joined in hurling insults at Him, for our darkness is as dark as theirs. You see, until His prevailing grace overcame us, we did not comprehend the Light, and we too tried to extinguish it. So, a recognition of the darkness of the human condition should not drive us to pride and boasting, as if we who are saved are somewhat superior to the rest of men. No, instead it should drive us to humility in recognition that we are in fact no better than any other, and for reasons only known to God, He has chosen to expel our darkness by His Light.

There is a darkness that cannot comprehend the Light. It asks in utter foolishness for Light to provide evidence for its own existence. But this is the one thing that Light will not do because it is the one thing Light does not need to do. All Light has to do is shine. That in itself is proof of its own truthfulness. It needs no supporting witness. Oh, it has supporting witnesses, it just doesn’t need them. How do you know the Light was shining? Did you see it? Well, if you saw anything at all, then that is proof enough that the light was there. How many of you saw the sunrise this morning? Not many. So how do you that the sun rose? You didn’t see it. No, but by it’s light, you see everything else. So, how do we know that Jesus is the Light of the world? What proof do we have? C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[3] Christ makes sense of the world in which I live. He makes sense of my experiences in this world. He shows me how dark my darkness really was by contrasting it against His Light. He offers me to follow Him, and never walk in darkness again but to have the Light of life (8:12). And apart from Him, I find no reason to hope, no basis for love, no source of joy, no satisfaction for the longing of life. And even if there were no one else to testify to His claims besides Himself, they would still be true. Light is a truthful witness to itself.

II. Light is a trustworthy judge of darkness

All this talk about “Light” and “darkness” may sound awfully judgmental, and in the day and time in which we live, we have been told that this is the one thing we must never, ever be. The only judgments that are allowed today is to judge against judgmentalism itself. After all, was it not Jesus who said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1, KJV)? It was, yet we tend to overlook the fact that the statement was made in a context filled with discussions about the need for making judgments in life. And then, in John 7, we saw that Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (Jn 7:24). So, judgments must be made, but the problem is that most often they are not made correctly. They are made according to outward appearances, and this is not the way God judges. They are made on the basis of earthly, carnal standards, and God does not judge on these grounds, nor should we. Jesus is the Light of the world. All the rest are in darkness, unless and until they follow Him. Why does Jesus have the right to make such a sweeping judgment of humanity? Because it is a fundamental property of Light that it is a trustworthy judge of darkness.

Maybe you have experienced something like this. Sometimes when I am reading late in the afternoon, with only the light from the windows shining in. I continue reading, and all the while the sun is setting, and the room is getting darker, and I don’t even realize it. Then Donia comes along and asks, “Why are you reading in the dark?” I object, “Oh, it is not dark at all!” Then she turns on a light, and I think, “Wow! I didn’t even realize how dark it was until the light was turned on!” Light has a way of showing us how dark our surroundings really are. It is a trustworthy judge of darkness.

But here we find the darkness trying to pass judgment against the Light of the world. They are rejecting His claim to be the Light. But notice that Jesus says, “You judge according to the flesh.” In other words, their standards are those of fallen men in a fallen world. They see Him only as “flesh,” not comprehending that He is “the Word made flesh,” the incarnate God. And thus, their perspective on Him is skewed. We see it on display in their question in verse 19, “Where is Your Father?”

There are three ways that this statement could be intended, and all of them are fleshly and evil. First, knowing that Jesus had grown up with an earthly father-figure in His life – Joseph the Carpenter – perhaps it is him of whom they speak. “Where is Your Father?” Surely if they know of Joseph, they know that Joseph had died some years before this. If this is what they mean, then it is an evil stab at the heart of Jesus, as if to say, “Who cares what your father says about You. He is not here to come to Your aid now, because he has died.” That is an evil thing to say, and one rooted entirely in carnal judgment. But, then again, it might be that they do understand Jesus to be referring to God as His Father. If this is so, then still their words are evil. “Where is Your Father?” In other words, “OK, if God is Your Father, then prove it! Let’s call Him to the witness stand to come to Your defense! Can You make Him appear and convince us that You are who You say You are?” I get a bit emotional thinking about that line of argumentation, because that was the way I spoke to Christians when I was an unbeliever. It is pure evil, putting the Lord God to the test in accordance with the tactics of Satan himself. It is an utterly carnal and fleshly judgment.

But I am not sure that either of these evil intentions lay behind the question, “Where is Your Father?” I think it is something more sinister, more fleshly and evil, still. I believe they tip their hand in verse 41. There they say to Jesus something that seems to be totally off subject in the debate. They say, “We were not born of fornication.” That didn’t have anything to do with the discussion. There was no talk of sexual immorality going on whatsoever. So why did they say this? I believe they said it in an evil attempt to call into question the moral purity of the Lord Jesus because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding His birth. Surely by this time, stories about Jesus had preceded Him. They knew that His mother, Mary, was unwed when she became pregnant, that Joseph had acknowledged that the child was not fathered by him, and that there was some rumor flying around that they were trying to convince people to believe it was a miracle. They give no credence to that theory whatsoever. They are far too fleshly. But, very early in Christian history – perhaps even before the death of Christ, and certainly by not long after, a story was floating around that Mary had become involved sexually with a Roman soldier named Panthera while she was betrothed to Joseph and that he was the real father of Jesus. Is this what they were hinting at when they said, “We were not born of fornication” in verse 41? I believe that this is what they are getting at when they say, “Where is Your Father?” here in verse 19. “Oh You who talk to us about light and dark and claim God as Your Father, why don’t You just come clean about it all and tell us the real dirty story. Tell us about Panthera, that godless pagan Gentile whose illegitimate child You really are!” Does that make you cringe to think of Jesus on the receiving end of that sort of intense and sinister kind of judgmentalism? Remember, you have been given grace to believe the truth of God revealed in Scripture about Him. Otherwise, you would have been right in the mix with them. That is how dark we are until we comprehend the Light of Christ.

This is the fleshly kind of judgment that was aimed at Jesus. But notice what He says of His judgment. He says in verse 15, “I am not judging anyone.” Now, it may seem like He is judging here, but He says He isn’t. So, what’s going on? Remember back in Chapter 3, that Jesus said, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 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” (Jn 3:17-19). Judgment was not the purpose of His coming into the world at His first Advent. He did not need to come to judge the world, because we were already under judgment. “He who does not believe has been judged already.” And that judgment is evident in that when Light entered the world, men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. So, Jesus did not come for the purpose of judgment in His first coming, but rather to save human beings from the judgment that they were already under.

Yet, notice He does not say that He does not have authority to judge, or that He will never judge. In fact He says, “Even if I do judge, My judgment is true.” And one day He will. He is coming again, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And when He does, His judgment will be true. Light is a trustworthy judge of darkness. His judgment will not be based on fleshly standards, but on righteous ones. He says that He is not alone in His judgment, but He and the Father who sent Him are united in judgment over the human race. And the final summary of His standard of judgment is this: “If you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” But, the religious leaders of Israel fall short of this standard. In spite of their great claims of religiosity and spiritual supremacy, Jesus declares judgment on them, saying that they ultimately do not know God because they do not know Christ. And that judgment is true and trustworthy, and applies to all who do not know Christ. All are condemned in sin before God unless they have been saved by the work He accomplishes on our behalf through His sinless life, His substitutionary death, and His glorious resurrection. He died to bear our judgment in our place, so that we might be saved. That is why He came the first time – to rescue us from the righteous condemnation that we would otherwise bear before God. When He comes again, it will be to exercise the judgment with finality. Then, those who do not have the light of Life that comes through following Him will be cast, in the words of Jesus, “into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).

It is really this simple: If you want to know God, you must meet Him through Christ. Calvin said, “Whoever aspires to know God without beginning with Christ must wander in a labyrinth … Again, because everyone is deprived of all right knowledge of God who leaves Christ and strives like a Titan after heaven, so whoever directs his mind and all his sense to Christ will be led straight to the Father.”[4] In Chapter 14, just before Jesus makes His way to Calvary where He will die for the sins of humanity, He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:6-9). Jesus Christ is the Light of the world. He is God in human flesh. And He lived, died, and rose again to bring us out of the darkness and into the Light of life.

There are these two fundamental properties about light that are true of Jesus as the Light of the world. (1) Light is a true witness to itself. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what everyone else says about Him. What matters is what He declares Himself to be. He says He is the Light of the world – God in human flesh. And His testimony is reliable. Do you affirm what He says of Himself? And (2) Light is a trustworthy judge of darkness. The Light of the world has shined upon humanity, lost in the darkness of sin. Compare yourselves with others and you might look pretty good. Compare yourself to Jesus and you see how far short we all fall of His glory. The Light has shined in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it. He says if you follow Him, you will not walk in darkness but have the Light of life.

[1] Accessed August 14, 2013.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 47.
[3] C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.
[4] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 210.

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