“I am the light of the world”
The symbols of light and darkness, of life and death in struggle, and of being witness to the truth recur repeatedly in John’s Gospel.
This passage is located in Jerusalem at the feast of the Tabernacles (or Sukkoth) when crowds gathered at the Temple to admire the festive illuminations. The Temple walls were ablaze with lights signifying both God’s presence, and the Jewish Law, “a light to one’s path”, as the psalms declared.
Already in the Prologue to his Gospel, John the Evangelist had written: “ – that (his) light was the life of men. The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never over-whelmed it.”
Here Jesus appropriates to himself both the symbol of light and what it signifies: “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall wander in the dark, but have the light of life.”
Scattered through John’s Gospel are these famous “I am” passages. They evoke the famous declaration of God to Moses in the burning bush, in the book of Exodus: “I am Who I am”. In John’s Gospel they become statements of divine revelation from Jesus, related to his mission as saviour: as bread of life, for instance; as the good shepherd; and here, as the light of the world.
As John the evangelist sees it, men love the darkness, for it helps them conceal their evil deeds. But Jesus is the “true light which enlightens every man”. A little later in the Gospel, Jesus will cure a man born blind and give him more than just physical sight. He gives him the “light of faith”.
The Gospel passage continues with the controversy between Jesus and the Jews. The Jews challenge Jesus’s arguments, claiming that they are defective because they are unsupported by witnesses. When Jesus refers to his Father as a witness to all that he does, his opponents dismiss his parentage. John’s Gospel abounds in such irony.
All that Jesus says or does is not just a matter of earth-bound reality. His words and deeds are ‘signs’ pointing beyond, to the presence of the Spirit, perceived with the eyes of faith. To accept Jesus is to live by this faith.
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