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Note of the Day – May 29 (John 8:12)

John 8:12

As discussed in the previous note (on 7:37-39), the festival of Sukkoth (Booths/Tabernacles) is the setting for a complex discourse-scene that appears to span the entirety of chapters 7-8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). Jn 8:12-59 is the second half of this discourse scene. It is actually made up of three sections, each of which follows the Johannine discourse format, beginning with a saying (declaration) by Jesus, followed by the people’s reaction, and an exposition from Jesus in response. In these three sections, Jesus is engaged in debate/dispute with the religious authorities (Pharisees), as in the chapter 5 discourse. Indeed, 8:12-59 is parallel to 5:30-47, sharing the central themes of Jesus’ words as a witness to his identity, and of his relationship to God the Father. The line of argument in 8:13-18 is quite similar to that of 5:30-47. Each of the three sections concludes with an important declaration by Jesus regarding his relationship to the Father; note the following outline:

  • Part 1—vv. 12-20
    • Narrative introduction: “Then Yeshua again spoke…”
    • Saying of Jesus (v. 12)
    • Reaction by the Jewish leaders (v. 13)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 14-18)
    • Statement on his relationship to the Father (v. 19, picking up from v. 18)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 20)
  • Part 2—vv. 21-30
    • Narrative introduction: “Then he again said to them…”
    • Saying of Jesus (v. 21)
    • Reaction by the Jewish leaders/people (v. 22)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 23-27)
    • Statement on his relationship to the Father (vv. 28-29, picking up from v. 27)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 30)
  • Part 3—vv. 31-59
    • Narrative introduction: “Then Yeshua said to the Jews trusting in him…”
    • Saying of Jesus (vv. 31b-32)
    • Reaction by the Jewish leaders/people (v. 33)
    • Exposition by Jesus (vv. 34-48)
    • Statement on his relationship to the Father (vv. 49-56, picking up from v. 48)
    • Concluding “I Am” declaration (vv. 57-58)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 59)

Note here the way that the discourse-episode begins with Jesus in dispute with the Pharisees, and gradually widens to include other “Jews”, at least some of whom begin to trust in him (v. 31). At the literary level, and perhaps at the historical level as well, these three discourses fit together as a running dialogue, building with dramatic tension, until the climactic moments of vv. 31-59.

Today I will be discussing the saying of Jesus which begins this second half of the Sukkoth discourse scene, verse 12:

“I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the light of the world—the (one) following me should not (ever) walk about in darkness, but will hold the light of life.”

This saying is similar in form to the “I am” declarations in the Bread of Life discourse: “I am the Bread of Life…” (6:35, also v. 48), “I am the Living Bread…” (6:51, also v. 41). It begins with a fundamental “I am” statement in which Jesus identifies himself with the true/living form of some image from the natural world or from daily life—indicating that this “living” form comes from God. The statement is then followed by a promise for the one who receives/accepts this “living” form, which is defined as trusting in, or coming to, Jesus. Both aspects are included here in the defining participle following (a)kolouqw=n)—”the one following” = “the one trusting”. The essential promise “he will hold the Light of Life” is precisely parallel to the statement “he will hold the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”, introduced in 3:15-16 and repeated throughout the Gospel (3:36; 5:24, 40; 6:40, etc). Thus the expression “Light of Life” is largely synonymous with the “Life of the Age”, the eternal/divine Life which the righteous were thought to inherit at the end time, and which believers in Jesus possess already in the present.

It is worth examining each of the expressions Jesus uses here.

“Light of the World” (o( fw=$ tou= ko/smou)

In an earlier note, we examined the similar expression “Life of the World”, which was used by Jesus specifically in connection with his sacrificial death: “the bread which I will give is my flesh, (given) over the life of the world“. The basic concept involved reaches back to the Prologue, covering the role of Jesus (the Living Word) in Creation, as well as his coming into the world (i.e. the Incarnation). In verse 9 we read:

“(This) was the true Light, which gives light to every man, coming into the world”
which can also be read as:
“The true Light, which gives light to every man, was coming into the world”

In verses 10ff the Word (and Light) is described as being “in the world…and (yet) the world did not know him”; a more concrete reference to Jesus’ life in the world as a human being comes in vv. 14ff. This idea is repeated in 3:19-21, again using the motif of light, and introducing even more clearly the dualistic contrast of light vs. darkness:

“…the Light has come into the world, and (yet) men [i.e. people in the world] loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their works were evil” (v. 19)

Light features repeatedly in the Gospel, both the specific noun fw=$ (23 times), as well as the related verb fwti/zw (“give light”), and words derived from fai/nw (“shine [light]”). The expression “light of the world” appears again in 9:5, and cf. also 11:9; 12:46. In Matthew 5:14 it is Jesus’ disciples (believers) who are called the “light of the world”, much as they are referred to by the title “sons of light” in 12:36 (cf. also Lk 16:8; 1 Thess 5:5; Eph 5:8).

“Light of Life” (o( fw=$ th=$ zwh=$)

The background for this expression may be found in the Old Testament, in passages such as Job 33:30 (also v. 28) and Psalm 56:13. Ultimately, the association of light with life is fundamental to human experience and religious expression. Even without a modern scientific understanding, ancient peoples intuitively recognized the life-giving quality of light (from the sun’s rays, etc). The introduction of light represents the first stage of creation in the Genesis account, and precedes the formation of life. Light is typically associated with Deity in nearly all religions, and certainly is so in the Old Testament Scriptures—cf. Psalm 18:28; 27:1; 36:9; 43:3; Isa 2:5, et al. It often refers specifically to the manifestation of God—his Presence and action—to his people, especially in the live-giving (and preserving) salvation which he brings (Exod 10:23; 13:21 [the pillar of fire], etc; Psalm 97:11; Isa 9:2; 30:26; 42:6; 60:1ff, et al).

As mentioned above, Light and Life are related in the Johannine Prologue, again in connection both with the presence of God and the work of creation (vv. 4-9). Note the fundamental statement in verse 4:

“In him [i.e. the Word] was Life, and th(is) Life was the Light of men”

On the surface, it may seem that the author, in using the expression “the light of men”, is referring to knowledge and understanding (i.e. illuminating reason) in a general sense. This would fit the context of Creation, but the overall theological context of the Gospel, in which “life” (zwh/) virtually always refers to the divine/eternal Life of God, suggests something deeper. This, too, should be understood by the use of the expression “the Light of Life” in 8:12, with its parallel to “the Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]”, as discussed above.

The association with the Sukkoth festival

Along with the symbolic use of water (cf. the previous note), light also features in the traditional ceremonies associated with the Sukkoth festival, as described in the Mishnah tractate Sukkah (5:2ff). On the first night of the festival, a ceremonial lighting of four golden candlesticks took place. The parallel with the drawing of water, and the ceremonial libation offering, on the morning of each day, suggests that the lighting might have taken place similarly on each evening. Note the parallelism in relation to the two central statements by Jesus in the Sukkoth discourse-scene:

  • Water
    • Ceremonial drawing of water in a golden pitcher and offering in the Temple
    • Jn 7:37-38—Jesus identifies himself as the source of life-giving water (“Living Water”)
  • Light
    • Ceremonial lighting of four golden candlesticks in the Temple court
    • Jn 8:12—Jesus identifies himself as the source of the “Light of Life”

Both of these motifs are also found in Zech 14:7-8, which also has a Sukkoth setting, and may be in view here in the discourse (cf. the previous note):

  • A day in which there will be light in the evening (v. 7)
  • On that day living waters will flow out of Jerusalem (v. 8)

The motif of light in the night-time relates to the contrast between light and darkness, for which there is a strong background in the Old Testament. In many of these passages the idea is that God (His presence) gives light to people within the darkness (cf. Exod 13:21; Job 12:22; Psalm 112:4; 139:11-12; Prov 4:18; Isa 9:2; 42:16; 58:8ff; 60:1ff, etc). The light/darkness contrast is a prominent part of the dualistic language and imagery in the Gospel of John, and appears here in verse 12: “the one following me should not (ever) walk in darkness, but will hold the Light of Life”. The same idea is expressed in 12:35, 46, and see also the the First Letter of John, 1:5-7; 2:8-11.

Light and the Spirit?

Unlike the symbolism of water, there is not as much of a direct connection between light and the Spirit, though it certainly can be inferred as part of Johannine theology; consider:

  • “God is Spirit [pneu=ma o( qeo/$]” (Jn 4:24)
  • “God is Light [o( qeo/$ fw=$ e)stin]” (1 Jn 1:5)

Nevertheless, light, as such, is not as common a symbol for the Spirit—fire is much more relevant and specific in this regard. In Old Testament tradition, the light of God is often connected with wisdom and the Law (Torah), as, for example, in Psalm 119:105, 130; Prov 4:18; 6:23, etc. Indeed, in the Qumran text 1QS, both the wisdom and Law of God are described by the very expression “light of life” (3:6-7), which is provided to the members of the Community through instruction and the interpretation of Scripture. It is possible that ancient Wisdom traditions, and those related to the Torah, also underlie the imagery of the Prologue of John (vv. 4ff)—i.e. God’s Word and Light is present in the world, seeking to find a dwelling place among human beings, but they do not receive it (i.e. the Wisdom of God). Jesus, of course, is the living personification of the Wisdom and Word (Torah) of God.

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