There are times when preparing the message for Sunday, there is so much buzzing round my head as a result of preparation, that I don’t quite know how to shape things or what to put down. Preparing for this week was one of those occasions. The links, connections and implications are extensive and they all contribute to understanding what Jesus was saying when he declared, ‘I am the light of the world.’ The metaphor of light we may well understand better than that of bread, because whilst bread for people in Jesus’ time was essential for life – as it is for a huge number of people in our world today – we have such a variety of foods that we can do without bread. Light however, is another matter. Without light the planet does not thrive or survive; we don’t thrive or survive; plants and insects don’t thrive or survive. We may know of people who suffer from seasonally affected depression as we move into the winter months and the days grow shorter and gloomier. We need to feel the sun on our skin and we need the sunlight for our mental health. Why are there so many pagan rituals around Christmas time? Because people long ago wanted to make sure the sun returned to warm the earth and give life.
Just as the Bread of Life saying was linked with the Passover, so this saying of Jesus is linked with the Feast of Tabernacles. If you would like a clear Jewish explanation of this festival, then go to
I will summarise: the celebration remembers when the people of Israel were living in temporary shelters as they wandered the wilderness. It remembers the vulnerability of the people and their dependence upon the provision of God. It also looks forward to the future blessing of God and when God will ‘tabernacle’ with his people and he will be their light. It was and is a festival of joy and celebration, and a time when Gentiles were invited to celebrate with their Jewish neighbours. This represented the fact that the nation was to be a light to those round about who were in the darkness of not knowing YHWH. It reflects the prophecy of Isaiah 60:
‘Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
A rabbi once said that if you hadn’t experienced the joy of Sukkot, you didn’t know what joy was.
The important point to note is that at night the temple was illuminated by enormous oil lamps on 15ft pillars and so it shone out of the temple mount, illuminating Jerusalem and visible for miles around. Again this was symbolic of Israel being a light to the nations and drawing the nations to the mountain of God. It is in this context that Jesus says, ‘I am the Light of the World’.
Light a theme of John
If you are familiar with John’s gospel, you will be aware that light is a theme that runs throughout the first part of the book. It begins in John 1 with the declaration that, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ The Word is described as the true light that gives light to the whole world. In John 3 he says, ‘This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.’ The contrast between light and darkness is a theme that goes on through the gospel and is also reflected in the letters of John. Again in chapter 9 Jesus claims to be the light of the world and chapter 12 as Jesus talks about his impending passion, he declares that while the people have the light with them, they should walk in the light. The first letter of John picks up this theme of linking light with God and darkness with sin and evil, and that we can’t claim to walk in the light if we continue to sin. Neither can we claim to walk in the light if we deny that we are sinners in need of the forgiveness of God.
Light is a biblical metaphor for the people of Israel and more specifically for the servant of God spoken about in Isaiah. So we get in Isaiah 2 the call to the people to walk in the light of the Lord. In chapter 9 we have the Christmas reading that declares that people living in the land of darkness have seen a great light as the promised one comes and brings justice and joy. In Isaiah 42 the focus moves specifically to the Messiah who will embody the covenant and be a light to the nations. In Isaiah 49 we have reinforced the message that the Messiah is not just for Israel but the light for the Gentiles and in chapter 60 we have the prophecy that the kings of the nations will be attracted to the brightness of the presence of God in Israel. In Revelation 21/22 we read that the glory of God will be the light of the new Jerusalem and the nations will walk in that light. There will be no sun or lesser lights, because the glory of God will illuminate everything.
Why is this brief survey of the metaphor of light in the Bible necessary? Because Jesus in his declaration is claiming to be that light, just as he claimed to be the bread from heaven.
Jesus claims to be the light
It is against the backdrop of the Feast of Tabernacles with the temple ablaze with light to the extent that it looks as though it is on fire, that Jesus declares he is the embodiment of the symbol of the blazing temple. He was the one who was to come into the world. He is fulfilling the symbolism of all the festivals. Another aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles is that the priest goes to the Pool of Siloam and draws and pitcher of water, bringing it back to the temple and pouring it out before God. This is an act of prayer; an act of asking God the Holy Spirit to come to them; for the presence of God to come and dwell in the temple and be the light of the nation. During this celebration Psalm 118 is used, which the people called out as Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem:
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
25 Lord, save us!
Lord, grant us success!
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Did you recognise those words in the middle?
In the declaration of Jesus he is taking on the role of the servant of Isaiah; he is saying he is the light to the nations, fulfilling the role of Israel; he is the fulfilment of the festival; he is YHWH come to his temple. No wonder the Pharisees are saying, come on – who is supporting your witness to yourself? As Christians, we often fail to understand the huge demand being placed on the Pharisees and the people of Israel to refocus from the future to the fulfilment being here and now; to making the leap of understanding that God is there present with them in Jesus. Faith in YHWH was not a Sabbath addition to the week, but permeated the whole life of the nation. There was no religious/secular divide in the way we experience it and sometimes live it in our society. It was all of a piece. So what Jesus was asking for was a complete change in mindset.
Whoever follows me, declares Jesus, will never walk in darkness but have the light of life. In the wilderness, the glory of the presence of YHWH led the people in the form of the cloud and the pillar of fire. If they followed the glory they knew they would be safe and YHWH would lead them through to the Promised Land. It also meant having no other gods before YHWH and worshipping only him. It meant sticking strictly to the covenant and keeping the sacrifices and festivals. To wander from YWHW was to wander into the darkness of the surrounding nations and to leave the path of life. To wander from YHWH was to step into judgement. It was when the people took their eye from the pillar that they sank into depression and difficulties. It was when they became complacent and strayed from the covenant that they came under judgement. Life with all its blessing was to be found in YHWH alone.
As Jesus takes on this role he is claiming that he is the one to follow, the promised one of God and that in him is life – both now and in eternity. It was and is an exclusive claim: life is found in him. Whilst it is a claim for the here and now, it has to be a claim for the future, as pictured at the end of Revelation. Why? Because clearly there are and there have been those who enjoy life in all its material blessing who don’t give God a second thought; who believe that Jesus – if he existed – was a good, but misguided person. Because mafia gangsters and drug barons and pursuers of wealth and the privileged enjoy life, following the philosophy of eat, drink and be merry. If that is all there is we may as well follow their example. However, we believe that Jesus not only demonstrated he was and is the Light of the World, but was justified in that claim as God raised him from the dead.
Just as Jesus expected a response to his claim that he was the Bread of Life and the requirement for being raised on the last day was to receive him – to feed on him; so Jesus is expecting a response here. To follow Jesus is to have the light of life and not walk in darkness and not to follow him means the converse is true. As before, this is a claim that causes people to stumble. John describes refusal to accept Jesus as the light, as preferring darkness. The follow on from the well known passage that often gets quoted from John (3:16) is that not to believe in the Son of God is to stand under judgement. We need to pray for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives to see who Jesus is.
You are the light of the world
A word to those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. In the Sermon on Mount Jesus said,
‘You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’
This could be an allusion to this festival in which the city on the hill blazes out because of the huge lamps that were lit. Or simply it could be just what it says: you can’t miss a city that rises up on the hillside from the valley. A light that is hidden under a bowl is useless to everyone – it doesn’t shed its’ light and will go out for lack of oxygen. However, when it is set on a stand, everyone benefits from it and can see what they are doing. How is your light shining and glorifying your Father in Heaven? This I would suggest is a daily challenge for us all.
The light of Christ the only Son of God, has come into the world. His life was and is the light to all humankind. The darkness has sought to overcome it, to extinguish it in so many ways, but has been unable to do so. It still shines in the darkness of this world. The light of Christ shines and draws people to himself all over the world. If we are followers of Jesus Christ we are channels of the light and need to let it blaze out.