When we come to the end of this text of John 8:12–30, we see the response of many people in verse 30: “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.” This is good news. Because Jesus had said in verse 24, “Unless you believe that I am he [literally, that I am] you will die in your sins.” So here we have a picture of people passing from death to life. They will not die in their sins. They will be forgiven. Their sins will not be held against them. And when they die, they will go where Jesus has gone — to the Father — unlike the unrepentant, as Jesus says in verse 21, “Where I am going you cannot come.” And so these believers will live in everlasting light and joy.
That is why Jesus came into the world. That is why he spoke these words in our text. And that is why I am preaching this message. I want the same thing to happen for you that happened for the people in verse 30 — “As he was saying these things, many believed in him.” Notice, it was Jesus’s words that God used to bring about the faith. He wasn’t doing miracles at this point. He was speaking. In fact, he was going back and forth with the Pharisees and the crowd — those who were blind to what he was saying. And as people listened to his words, they believed. Faith comes by hearing — the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).
That can happen here. You may start to hear this message as an unbeliever. And you may come to the end of this message as a believer. It happened for them. It can happen for you. So I am going to try to let Jesus speak by walking with him through this text pretty much in the order that it comes.
A Detour That’s Not a Detour
But it might be helpful to say something about the overarching point of the passage. The passage begins in verse 12 with Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” And surprisingly he never mentions light again in this whole chapter. It’s as though he goes off onto a detour because of an objection they raise.
But we have seen before (for example, John 4:16–21) that when Jesus lets someone take him on a detour, he handles the detour in a way that really illumines the starting point and the destination. So it turns out not to be a detour after all.
The Focus: Jesus’s Relationship with the Father
The dominant focus in the apparent detour in verses 13–29 — the detour away from “I am the light of the world” — is that the testimony and the judgments of Jesus are true because of his relationship with God the Father. At least seven times in this passage, Jesus points to the fact that he is from the Father, and speaks on the authority of the Father, and is going to the Father, and does nothing on his own. He claims, in other words, that his authority is not owing to any human origin. It’s owing to his relationship with God the Father.
“Jesus’s authority isn’t from human origin. It’s from his relationship with God the Father.”
Imagine the greatest human authority you can, and he is saying: I don’t pretend to have that. What I claim is that I speak from God and for God and as God. I don’t testify to any autonomous human greatness. What I claim — in and under all I say and do — is that “I am.” I am one with God, the great “I am” (Exodus 3:14). Verse 24: “Unless you believe that I am [the he is added in our English translation] you will die in your sins.” Verse 28: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [again, the he is added].”
And the reason I say this emphasis on Jesus’s relationship with the Father is not really a detour from verse 12 — “I am the light of the world” — is that the way Jesus is the light of the world is precisely by being one with the Father. Jesus is the light of the world because he comes from the Father and speaks for the Father and is going to the Father and is one with the Father.
So these words of interaction with the Jews look like a detour from “I am the light of the world,” but in fact, they are constantly pointing to the way he is the light of the world — by coming from the Father and going to the Father and being one with the Father.
That’s the big picture of the text — that is what Jesus wants us to see and believe and treasure from these words. May the Lord do that for you as we listen to him.
When We Follow Him, We Have Him
So let’s begin with the claim in verse 12: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
This is a life-changing verse if you see it for what it is — see him for who he is. It says that following Jesus is more than tagging along behind him. It means following him for who he is. Being so taken with him that you join yourself to him.
And notice that when you follow him you have him — you have him as the light of life. “I am the light . . . Whoever follows me . . . will have the light. . . .” You will have me, he says, as your light. If you follow me, you have me. I am yours. I am your Shepherd and your Sacrifice and your Living Water and your Bread from Heaven and your God, and your Light.
Notice the last phrase of verse 12: “You will have the light of life.” What is the connection between light and life? John 1:4 gives the answer: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” The life gives the light. The life Jesus has and the life he shares with those who follow him gives them light. That is, we are dead and blind to the light until the life of Jesus is imparted to us by God’s Spirit, and then we see. The eyes of our hearts are opened, and divine light streams into our living spirits. And thus we have the light of life. The light that comes from new, spiritual, eye-opening life — the life that gives sight to the blind soul, eternal life giving eternal sight.
The Light of the World
And what about the phrase “light of the world”? Verse 12: “Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world.’” What does “of the world” mean? The whole world is not being lightened — at least not yet. In fact, he says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness.” Which means that if we don’t follow him, we do walk in darkness. And where is that darkness? It is in the world and in our hearts. So being “the light of the world” doesn’t mean removing all darkness from the world as he walks through the world. Here’s what I think it means:
Jesus’s being “the light of the world” means the world has no other light than him. If there is going to be a light for the world, it will be Jesus. It is Jesus or darkness. There is no third alternative. No other light.
It means, therefore, that all the world, and everyone in it needs Jesus as their light.
It means that the world was made for this light. This is not a foreign light. This is the light of the owner of the world. When this light comes, it not only makes sin plain as foreign and ugly, but it also makes everything good in the world shine with its full and true beauty. This world was made to be illumined by this light. This light of Christ is native to the world.
And finally, Jesus being “the light of the world” means that that one day this world will be filled with this light as the waters cover the sea, and all darkness, and all the works of darkness, and all the sons of darkness will be cast out. That’s why Jesus called hell “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). In that day, all will be light. Jesus, the radiance of the Father, will fill the world, and everything will be beautiful with the light of Christ.
Jesus’s Offer of Light to All
In these glorious ways, Jesus is the light of the world. If you follow him now, you will have him as your light in advance of that great day. True, he will reveal your sins. Which is a precious gift — like the fortunate early diagnosis of a deadly cancer. But even more, he will reveal all that is beautiful. He will be the light in which you see God — the light in which you see the history of redemption and the work of salvation.
He will be the light in which you see mountains and valleys and oceans and rivers and trees and animals and people. Nothing will be the same again when you have him as your light. Everything looks different in the light of Christ. Yes, even earthquakes and tsunamis and suffering and death. Until his light fills the earth as the waters cover the sea — until it banishes sin and sickness and pain and earthquakes to the outer darkness — until then, even now, his light will help you bear the sorrows of darkness. It will be a soft glow to comfort you in your lonely room after the devastating loss. It will be a lamp on your troubled path. It will reveal the wise and loving face of God behind every frowning providence.
And so I say with Jesus in John 12:36, “While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” When you believe in Jesus as your precious light, when you follow him as your truth and your wisdom and your way and your beauty, you have his life, you are “a son of light.” You are begotten into the family of light. And this light will never go out. In the moment of death, when the world thinks “all the lights go out,” for you it will be the light of heaven.
“Jesus speaks from God and for God and as God.”
So that’s where Jesus starts in verse 12. He offers them and us all of that. And what an offer it is! I pray you take it.
Detour to Contradiction
But now begins this seeming detour. Verse 13: “So the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.’” Where did this come from? It came from John 5:31 where Jesus said, taking his words very strictly, “If I bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.” The Pharisees pick up on this strict wording of what he said, and say, “See you are contradicting yourself and so your testimony is false because you are bearing witness about yourself. You just said, ‘I am the light of the world.’”
This response of the Pharisees (“You are bearing witness about yourself”) sets up everything that happens in the next 17 verses of our text. The detour is defined by these words. And Jesus is willing to go on this detour. And he uses it to focus all attention on his relationship to the Father. Because that relationship is the key to seeing him as the light of the world so that this turns out not to be a detour in the end.
Have they caught Jesus in a contradiction? He really did say in John 5:31, “If I bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.” (The English versions that add the word “alone” in verse 31 — “If I alone bear witness about myself” — are interpreting, not translating.) But what did he mean in the context? He meant: if my testimony comes from myself, if it originates with me, if I am a witness to myself disconnected from the Father, I am false.
But the Pharisees didn’t hear it in context. They heard it in isolation, and now they use it to divert attention from the tragic fact that when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” they see no light.
Seeing, They Did Not See
Here is a picture of what’s happening. It is as though you heard me yesterday in a conversation with a British friend say, “I don’t use the word torch.” And then today I find you lost in a totally dark and dangerous tunnel. And I bring you a bright, burning torch that can show you the way out. And I say, “I have a torch for you. There’s the way. Follow it to freedom.” And you look right past the torch and say, “I heard you say yesterday that you don’t use the word torch. So your testimony that you have a torch is false.”
What should I say in response to that? I could explain to you, “In Britain, they call flashlights torches. I was saying yesterday that I don’t use the word torch that way. You didn’t understand the context. Here’s a torch. Take it. Get out of here while you can.” But if you are like the Pharisees, you would answer, “There’s no torch here. You contradicted yourself.”
Now you should respond to this illustration by saying: “That’s absurd. The torch was right there in front of me. And I needed it to get out.” That’s right. And Jesus, the light of the world — the divine, self-authenticating light of the world — was right there in front of them. And they said, “You contradicted yourself. There’s no light burning here.”
The eyes of their hearts were blind. Seeing, they did not see. The light of Christ is not an inference from premises. It is the brightness of God shining on the retina of the human soul. You know it’s there not because you conclude it from an argument, but because you see it with the eyes of your heart.
What It Means to Be The Light of the World
Jesus responds to the Pharisees in verse 14: “Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” In other words, “I came from God. I am going to God. And you don’t know God. And therefore you can’t see me as the light of God. Because the fact that I am from God is what it means for me to be the light of the world.”
He goes on in verse 15: “You judge according to the flesh” — that is, you don’t have spiritual life and so can’t see the light. That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. You need, like Nicodemus, to be born again (John 3:6–7). To have the light of life, you need life. But you are only flesh. Your spirit is dead.
He continues in verse 15: “I judge none” — that is, I judge no one on my own. I don’t originate judgments. I echo my Father’s judgments. He explains. Verses 16–18: “Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness about me.”
When His Hour Comes — And Not Before
Verse 19: “They said to him, therefore, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’” In other words, Jesus says, “I and the Father are so united that if you knew and loved either of us, you would know and love the other.”
“The light of Christ is the brightness of God shining on the retina of the human soul.”
These are explosive and dangerous claims that he is making about himself and God. So John pauses to comment in verse 20 how amazing it is that no one is stoning him or arresting him: “These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.” He will go when his hour comes, not before.
He Warns Them with Hell
Now he spells out one of the implications of their blindness. Verses 21–24: “So he said to them again, ‘I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.’ So the Jews said, ‘Will he kill himself, since he says, “Where I am going, you cannot come”?’ He said to them, ‘You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am . . . [he is added] you will die in your sins.’”
When Jesus says in verse 21 that he is going away, he means going to die and rise again and go to the Father. When he says they will “die in their sins” and that they cannot follow him where he goes, he means: when they die, they do not go to the Father. He is warning them, that if they persist in their blind rejection of him as the light of the world, they will perish away from God in hell forever.
But He Offers Hope
But he offers them hope — and he offers you hope. Verse 24: “Unless you believe that I am . . . [again, he is added] you will die in your sins.” Believe, and you won’t. “Believe that I am — that I am from the Father. And that I and the Father are one. Open your eyes and see that I am the light of the world and receive me as your light. And you will not perish.”
Jesus keeps saying it over and over in this passage — that he is from the Father and that that he speaks what the Father speaks. But things come to a climax in verse 28 where he finally tells how it is that they will eventually come face to face with what they cannot see. Verse 28: “So Jesus said to them, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [he is added].’”
See and Believe
That doesn’t mean that at the crucifixion of Jesus, they all became believers. It means that you yourselves unwittingly are going to help me finish being the light of the world. You are going to lift me up. You are going to crucify me. And when I am crucified, my role as the saving, redeeming, creation-filling light of the world will be secured. And I will rise and reign and shine forever. And the day will come when you will know this. You can know now and have your sins forgiven. Or you can be the ones who crucify me, and die in your sins, and find out the truth only later when it is too late.
And so it is with you and me: We see him and receive him as the light of the world now. Or we die in our sins and see it only when it is too late. May God grant you to see and believe now.