Here’s my lesson for this Sunday.
In 8:12-30, Jesus uses a metaphor from the Jewish feast of Tabernacles. “I am the light of the world,” he says. The feast of Tabernacles is held near the time of the autumn equinox, when it is evident that the light is fading. Naturally, light played a role in the festivities. Four large lampstands were lit in the Court of Women in the Temple and worshipers danced before them with torches in their hands. Observers claimed that all of Jerusalem was lit by the flames at Tabernacles. This recalled the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites in the desert when they fled Egypt. This was the context of Jesus’ sermon on being the light of the world. He was claiming to be like the pillar of fire guiding the chosen people through the dangers of the desert. He was also the light that illuminated the Temple during one of the most joyous celebrations of Judaism.
Testimony In this passage the Pharisees challenge Jesus’ testimony about himself as the light of the world. John depicts them like the bloggers of the ancient world eagerly pouncing on an apparent contradiction in Jesus’ stump speech. They played the game of “gotcha” so well because that was the source of their authority. Rather than engaging in the hard work of improving the lives of the “people of the land” or challenging the oppression and injustice of the Empire, they liked to lie back and make snarky comments about those who were trying to effect change. When confronted by a charismatic prophet like Jesus, all they could do was undermine his authority. “You’re testifying on your own behalf,” they shouted in triumph. Jesus offers himself as the light of the world and they cannot see it because they are focused on the letter of the law.
In ch. 5 it was Jesus who raised the issue of testimonies. You may remember that he had said that he was not testifying on his own behalf: John the Baptist, the signs, the Scriptures, Moses, and especially the heavenly Father testified on his behalf. It is a bit surprising, then, that in this controversy in the Temple, he does not point to the same witnesses. He appears to contradict his earlier statement by agreeing with the Pharisees here. He admits that he is testifying on his own behalf and that the only other witness is the Father who sent him. In other words, we see Jesus challenging the Pharisees on their own terms. He points out to the lawyers that the law they follow claims that two witnesses are sufficient. He has two: the Logos and the Father. The Pharisees naturally ask him where this Father is who testifies on his behalf. They probably knew that Joseph had been buried in Nazareth long ago. They wanted humans to testify to the claim that Jesus was the light of the water and the source of living water.
There was no proof of Jesus’ messianic status that lawyers and religious authorities could accept as valid; there was only the evidence of faith. As long as they kept looking at Jesus on the surface level, all they would see was a Galilean preacher making trouble during the festival. They could not really hear his words; they could not even see the signs. They were like those who turn away from the light because it hurts their eyes and reveals things they would rather not see.
We may gain some insight into this confusing discussion with the Pharisees if we make an analogy to less exalted things. We use all kinds of diagnostic tools to help us understand ourselves or others. Some of you know what I mean when I say I am an INTP or an intuitive-creative type. But such things don’t really tell people who we are. Just think if you had to find three witnesses to your character to report to your spouse about who you really are! We spend a life-time on a process of self-discovery, and, hopefully, we include those we love in the process, but the truth is that we only get to know a person after we have learned to trust that person’s self-testimony.
This was part of what Jesus was trying to tell his opponents who were looking for evidence that he was who he claimed to be. This was what the Beloved Disciple told his congregation nearly 2000 years ago and what the author of this gospel continues to tell us. The only way to know for sure who Jesus was, and who he is, is to trust in him and let him teach you. John plays with language and imagery and even teases the Pharisees in an attempt to invite the reader into genuine contemplation and encounter with the living Jesus. The light is its own witness. Those who cannot see the light will not be convinced by any other testimonies that there is a light.
Going Away There is a rather sudden shift from verse 20 to 21. Verse 20 gives the rather mundane information that Jesus was speaking near the treasury of the temple, but doesn’t tell us why that was important. It is interesting that this was the setting for his discussion of the widow’s mite in Luke’s gospel. It would appear that Jesus liked to preach in front of the storehouse of the Temple where the priests collected their tithes. This would have been very disturbing to the authorities. Have you noticed that even in America, where we have freedom of speech, we get nervous when protesters show up at economic summits or occupy Wall St.? The big news of the day is whatever that affects the Stock Market, not news about how our civil liberties are being diminished. Jesus became more of a threat when the authorities became afraid that his preaching would reduce the amount of money collected in the Temple.
Once again, Jesus responds by telling his opponents that they have missed the point entirely because they view things entirely from an earthly, materialistic perspective. They will look at the cross as evidence of the defeat of Jesus rather than his victory. They will see his dead body and think that his words and works have died. They cannot recognize that it is the Father in heaven who has sent Jesus to be the light of the world. Because they cannot see the light; they cannot follow the light.
Sin At this point, the discourse turns to the sin of unbelief. Jesus states bluntly that his opponents will die in their sins because they do not believe in him. Verses 24-25 present a host of difficulties for translators, by the way, and you will find quite different interpretations given in the NIV and the NRSV. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but I will point out that many scholars are convinced that this is a place where something was lost in transmission from the original manuscript because the Greek here is not really a sentence. Modern translators tend to supply words that aren’t there, but this sometimes obscures the meaning.
The literal translation reads, “Unless you come to believe that I AM,” but translators like to add what they think Jesus is. This is one of those places in John, though, where the phrase “I am,” or ego eimi, was intended to identify Jesus with God. Jesus here claims to be the one who spoke out of the burning bush to Moses. When he says this is what I’ve been telling you since the beginning, it probably means from the beginning of Creation, not the beginning of the Gospel. This part of ch. 8 is repeating the themes of the prologue to the Gospel. Jesus is the Logos who brings light to the world, but his opponents preferred darkness to light.
When Jesus says that they will surely die in their sin, he is equating sin with walking in darkness. This is not a statement that people will be punished because they did not believe in Jesus as if profession of faith is a moral obligation. It was a statement that those who rejected Jesus had rejected the light that would illuminate their lives and sinfulness. The fact that they could not see that Jesus was bringing healing and life into the world was evidence that they had closed their eyes to the life of God. They had chosen the dark side; therefore they could no longer recognize goodness and truth. The Law of Moses and the Scripture were no longer life-giving to them because they used them to justify their oppression and self-righteousness.
Think a moment about this image of darkness as a metaphor for sinfulness. Few of us have experienced true darkness. In our world there are always stars, or street lamps, or candles, or night lights to give some light in the middle of the night, but even then we have trouble doing things in partial darkness. When I was a teen-ager, my Dad and I visit Mammoth Cave Kentucky. On one of the tours, our only light was our headlamps on our helmets. At one point, when we were in a safe room, we all turned out lights off. We were in absolute darkness. It was almost like a tangible thing pressing down on us. There was no way to orient oneself other than by the feeling of the ground. If we had continued on our journey through the cave, we could have fallen into oblivion and been lost forever. That is the darkness Jesus is talking about, and his statement about dying in sin was intended as a statement of fact, not punishment. Those who turn from the light of God have nothing to illuminate their path, no way of avoiding the pitfalls of life. They will die in their sins without even knowing that there was a better way.
The bitter irony of this dialog with the Pharisees is that they were the ones who studied Scripture and who rejoiced in the Word of God as “a light to their path and a lamp for their feet.” Much of the OT is devoted to the idea that Scripture was God’s gift of light and a source of wisdom, but John’s Gospel says that even those who knew the Law failed to recognize that Jesus was sent by God to bring healing to the world. Those who should have seen Jesus as the manifestation of the great I AM who spoke to Moses were the ones who handed him over to be crucified. Because they could not see who Jesus truly was, they killed him unjustly. Rather than experiencing eternal life that begins in this life; their earthly existing was a slow death in sin and separation from God.
Lifted Up This idea of dying in sin leads naturally to a discussion of the crucifixion. In verse 28 Jesus says that they will raise up the Son of Man. In John, this phrase about raising up the Son of Man refers to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. There are three predictions of the crucifixion in John that parallel the three predictions of the passion in the Synoptic Gospels. John’s approach is more metaphorical than the synoptics, though. He speaks paradoxically of Jesus’ being exalted in the crucifixion rather than humiliated. Here, the Gospel also reports that at the moment of the crucifixion the religious authorities themselves will recognize that Jesus was doing the will of the Father. We have already seen the emphasis John’s Gospel places on the idea that Jesus was doing the will of the Father rather than pursuing his own agenda.
We should not pass too quickly over these verses. It is curious that Jesus is speaking in the future tense when he says “you will realize that I AM”. This could mean that when Jesus was on the cross those who crucified him would recognize their error or it could mean that the revelation of Jesus as the divine Logos would continue after the crucifixion. It could mean that the lifting up of Jesus on the cross begins the age of the Holy Spirit and even those who rejected him will come to believe in him. The statement that “you will realize that I AM” could be a prophetic promise of redemption even for the opponents of Jesus or it could be a word of judgment that those opponents would realize that they had killed God’s lamb. We cannot be sure what John intended here, but he does note that many believed in Jesus because of his teaching.
Conclusion In many ways, this section of ch. 8 is a transition from the controversy during the feast of tabernacles and the healing of the blind man. It reiterates many of the themes we have already seen in the Gospel, but it places them in the context of increasing hostility to Jesus from those who claimed religious authority. Next week, we will see that this controversy will continue with a long debate about Abraham. It is easy to get so wrapped up in this narrative of the controversy between Christians and Jews after the destruction of the Temple that we miss the most important aspects of these verses. Jesus is the light of the world, and in that light we can see our shortcomings and our injustice. Jesus brings life and healing to a violent world, but too often we are the ones who turn away from his light and life and truth. Too often, it is we who profess belief in Jesus as the Son of God who are walking in the darkness of prejudice and self-righteousness. Rather than debating about the possible salvation of those who do not profess faith in Jesus, perhaps we should profess our faith in Jesus by walking in his light and being fountains of living water for those who are thirsty.