Sunday Morning Greek Blog

June 11, 2011

“I Am the Light of the World” (John 8:12)

What does a primitive tent have to do with Jesus being the light of the world? Read on and find out!

Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7)

Before diving into Jesus’ statement, “I am the light of the world,” some background information is crucial to understand both the context of the statement and the connection to other “I am” statements and some of Jesus’ seven signs that John records. In this case, John 7 provides the setting for Jesus’ statement. Seven times in chapter 7, John mentions the “Feast” (or “Festival” in some translations), referring to the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths (7:2; ἡ ἑορτὴ… ἡ σκηνοπηγία hē heortē… hē skēnopēgia /hay heh-or-TAY hay skay-nȯ-pay-GEE-ah/ [g as in girl]). This feast originated in the days of Israel’s wilderness wanderings before entering the Promised Land (Leviticus 23:33–44; חַ֥ג הַסֻּכּ֖וֹת hăg hăssǔkkōth /hag hass-sook-KOATH/, ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ or ‘Succoth’), when the Israelites had to live in temporary shelters to remember their desert sojourn. Deuteronomy 16:16 says that the Feast of Tabernacles is one of the three feasts at which all Israelite males must present themselves every year.

There is no definitive mention of the festival after Deuteronomy until the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Israelites returned from exile. In Ezra 3, Joshua and Zerubbabel rebuild the altar, begin offering sacrifices, and command that the Feast of Tabernacles be restored once again, all eight days of it. In Nehemiah, the celebration of the Feast is reinforced when, as Ezra was reading the law (Nehemiah 8), the people hear the instructions for the Feast and waste no time building booths wherever they could find a spot: on their roofs, in the Temple courts, and especially by the Water Gate. The law of God was read during the eight days of the Feast in Nehemiah, and the text said the people celebrated it as none had since the days of Joshua, son of Nun, when the Israelites had entered the Promised Land some 800 years earlier.

The fact that the people dwelt near the Water Gate is significant, and provides continuity with and a connection to the first “I am” statement and its connection to Jesus’ “living water” statement in John 4. According to Craig Keener, in the section on John 7 in his IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, one of the rituals of the Feast, at least as it had developed in Jesus’ day, was for the priest to take water from the Pool of Siloam and pour it out at the base of the altar each day of the feast. Two of the Scripture passages that had become important for the Feast were Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 47. Consider Ezekiel 47 first, where a river of life flows out of Ezekiel’s temple (one that has never been constructed in history as far as we know, if the dimensions are to be taken literally) toward the Dead Sea, thus transforming it into a fresh-water lake teeming with life. Add to that Zechariah 14:8 (TNIV), which says: “On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter,” and one understands the significance of pouring out the water at the base of the altar. Finally, Zechariah 14:16–19 speaks of the Israelites once again celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles (three mentions).

It is important here to note the connection with John 4: Jesus gets into a discussion with a Samaritan woman about the appropriate place to worship. Jesus says he is the living water. In other words, Jesus is the river flowing from Ezekiel’s yet-to-be-built temple! Jesus makes the claim that it is only through him that God can be worshiped (perhaps looking forward to another “I am” statement in John 14:6), and the geographical location doesn’t matter. In the Bread of Life post, I made the connection between John 4 and 6, so we have the beginning of some insight into John’s organizational scheme (I told you I was working these things out as I go along!).

Another interesting feature of John 7 is that Jesus initially tells his disciples to go to the feast without him, and they do. But Jesus is not far behind. He already knows the Jewish leaders are out to kill him, so he’s trying to be low key, but there is nothing low key about Jesus. He always attracts a crowd. John even makes a point of saying that the crowd was expecting him to be there. Jesus shows up in the middle of Feast week and begins teaching in the Temple. John 7:37–38 is a key passage here, and I use Keener’s suggested translation: “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone thirsts, let this one come to me; and let whoever believes in me drink.‘” (Because the ancient manuscripts did not have any original punctuation, this is an acceptable means of exegeting a passage.) Jesus once again calls attention to himself, this time to a huge crowd, as the living water. Those who drink of him will never thirst again.

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

But there is one more feature of the “last and greatest day of the Feast” that relates directly to Jesus’ “I am the light of the world” (Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου egō eimi to phōs tou kosmou) declaration in 8:12. On that last night, the entire city was lit up with torches. Streets, houses, temples, market places, and even the walls of the city were not exempt from being lit up brightly. What is problematic for biblical scholars at this point is the debated insertion of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53–8:11. (What is interesting about this insertion is that Zechariah 14:4 says that God will stand on the Mount of Olives and fight for Jerusalem, while the spurious passage in John 7:53 says that Jesus spent the night on the Mount of Olives before returning to the Temple the next morning. Something else to make me go “hmm”.) If 7:53–8:11 is not original to John (and what I am about to say here makes me think it is not), then Jesus’ statement “I am the light of the world” is a direct reference to this lighting ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles.

The moniker “light of the world” was not unique to Jesus. Keener says that it was applied to the law, the patriarchs, Israel, Jerusalem, famous rabbis, and, of course, the Messiah. But for Jesus himself to declare “I am the light of the world” was a bold statement indeed (see the Pharisees’ reaction in 8:13 and Jesus’ response in the following verses). But John has been setting his readers up for this from the very first chapter. Six times in John 1:1–14 and five times in 3:19–21, John describes Jesus as the light (φως phōs) that has come into the world and shattered the darkness. I wrote previously about the connection to Isaiah 9 in my Honoring Galilee post, that Jesus was the light to those walking in darkness. What is even more fascinating is that in chapter 12, the last chapter before Jesus’ passion begins in earnest with the Last Supper, the word for light appears another six times, forming an obvious inclusio with chapter 1 and leaving the reader no doubt that Jesus is in fact the light of the world sent from the Father himself.

But Jesus is not satisfied to draw on the imagery of the Feast for his own testimony. The rest of chapter 8 records a debate about who Jesus is and about whose children the unbelievers are. So if the Feast imagery and the light inclusio still isn’t enough, Jesus puts the pièce de résistance on the whole event in chapter 9: he heals a man born blind. [Added 6/19/2011: Note especially Jesus’ words in John 9:5: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” just before the man receives his sight.] He proves for all eternity (at least for those smart enough and willing enough to believe it) that he is the light of the world because he gives the ability to see light to someone who’s never had a visual sensation of it. And if you thought the Pharisees were fussing in chapter 8, you should see their attempts to twist this spectacular sign into a work of the devil. But Jesus puts them in their place at the end of chapter 9: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Jesus has the power to give and take light, both natural light and spiritual light. He truly is the light of the world.

The Practical Side of Being Children of Light

Paul and John both spent a considerable amount of time in Ephesus, and as I have alluded to before, Ephesians seems to have some traces of a Johannine influence. In no place is that more apparent than Ephesians 5:8ff. Not only does Paul tell us to “live as children of light,” but he also exhorts us to expose “the fruitless deeds of darkness.” As such, we have an active role in living as Christ-followers, and we also have an obligation to be proactive in turning the tide of evil. There is nothing passive about walking in the light of Christ! We could not navigate through the evils of this world without the light of Christ, and that is why he gives himself to us as light.

One final note: I think the light God created in Genesis 1:3–5 is something more than a concept. We know that the light of those verses can’t come from anything physical, because the sun, moon, and stars had not yet been created. Could it be that when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” he is also referring to himself as that first and primary “unmade creation” of God? Obviously, I don’t think Jesus was created or made in the same way everything else was created or made, and the Genesis text doesn’t say God “made” the light. He simply said, “Let there be light”; it is a recognition of what already exists (note that the existence of water is assumed; it is not created or made either, or at least, we are not told directly it is created or made). Light and water, two of the “unmades” of creation and two of the foundations of life, and Jesus calls himself the light of the world and living water. Boy, I’m really hmming now!


Scott Stocking


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