by Jacob Roberts
In last week’s devotional we saw how Jesus used the festival of Passover as a context for his first I AM statement. Echoing many of the images from the Old Testament passages about the Passover and the Israelite’s journey through the desert, Jesus declares, “I AM the bread of life,” denoting his role as perfect provider and, consequentially, our identity of a receptive child (John 6:51).
Jesus’ next I AM statement—I AM the light of the world—comes only two chapters later (John 8:12). In reality, though, these events would have been separated by several months. We know this because Jesus uses another festival for the context of this I AM statement. Rather than Passover which takes place during the spring, Jesus uses the festival of Sukkot, or the feast of tabernacles which takes place in the fall, as his context. By using this festival as a context for his statement, Jesus not only more intricately reveals who he is, but also sheds light on our identity as well.
Sukkot celebrates, among other things, the fall harvest, which was a reminder that the long days of summer were over and the longer nights of winter were fast approaching. Even though dark days were on the horizon, the Jews knew that God would always act as their guiding light. Specifically, they would often recall how he guided their ancestors in the desert by manifesting as a pillar of fire, lighting up a desolate and dangerous land (Exodus 13:31; Numbers 14:14).
To help remember that God would always serve as Israel’s guiding light, Sukkot included lavish and complex light ceremonies. As part of those ceremonies, the temple priests would place four extremely large lamp stands in the Court of Women: the part of the temple where all Jews could enter, but Gentiles were forbidden. Each stand held four very large golden bowls filled with oil. As the sun would set, the priests would light the lamps and, according to Jews who wrote during the life of Jesus, the whole city was filled with light. Given that most of the buildings in Jerusalem were (and are) made of limestone and would have reflected light well, this statement doesn’t seem too far-fetched. In fact, the passages of the Mishnah that describe Sukkot say that “whoever has not seen these things has never seen a wonder in his life.”
When Jesus declares, “I AM the light of the world,” he would have been standing by these very lamps, devices that gave light to a whole city during a time period where there was no organized public lighting of any kind. We specifically know he was in the Court of Women at this point because the Pharisees bring “the woman caught in adultery” to Him right before he makes his declaration (John 8: 1-11). Rather than just lighting up one city, something that people during the period considered “a wonder,” Jesus demonstrates his supremacy by saying that he will light the entire world.
And Jesus goes beyond providing physical light—although he does just that in the next chapter when he heals the man who was born blind—by providing spiritual light so that we can see and understand spiritual matters. Paul describes this idea in the opening of his first letter to the church at Corinth, stating that those who are not made alive in Christ cannot truly understand the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:18). Thus, without Jesus, it is impossible to reach or understand the Father, something that we will see emphasized even more in Jesus’ next I AM statement.
But if Jesus is the light of the world, what does that make us? After all, I have said repeatedly over the past three weeks that we discover our own identity by first understanding God’s. Who are we if Jesus is the light?
If He is the light of the world, then we are His light bearers, His ambassadors in a dark realm (2 Corinthians 5:11). We testify both to who He is and what He has done for us. We, in harmony with creation, declare the glory of God (Psalm 19: 1-6). And although this sounds like something we would do naturally, the reality is that there are barriers that attempt to prevent us from living out our identity as light bearers.
First, many of us believe that we are too broken to be light bearers, that our past sin or current temptations disqualify us from serving God at all. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. One of the ways that we bear the light is by testifying to how the light has opened our eyes and transformed our lives. By acknowledging who we once were and declaring our victory over temptation through the power given to us through the cross, we bear Christ’s light in the world, ministering to those who desperately need the hope that we possess.
Now, do not misunderstand me. There are situations that can place us into direct temptation and we would be foolish to purposefully place ourselves into such circumstances under the pretext of “ministry.” For instance, given that I struggle with same-sex attraction, I probably don’t need to be the light bearer in the men’s locker-room at my gym. Sure, the guys in there need to hear about Jesus, but there are other men who do not struggle like I do that can share the light of Christ there.
The second barrier we face as we attempt to live out our identity as light bearers comes from a simple yet profound misunderstanding of this identity. If we are light bearers, then it would stand to reason that we are not actually the light. Remember, Jesus is the one who is “the light of the world,” not us. Yet often we are filled with anxiety because we try to take on the job of being the light itself. We feel that if we don’t do our job right, then people will not experience the transformative power of Christ. The reality is that we were never created to fulfill that role and, consequentially, we are crushed by the weight of trying to take it on. Instead of trying to be the light, we must simply reflect the light and testify to His glory, power, and goodness.
What about you? Are you embracing the identity of light bearer? Are you testifying about the way that the light has transformed you or are you content to keep that hope to yourself? Do you believe that you are disqualified from serving God because of your past? Are you foolishly attempting to bear the light in a situation that you know is placing you in direct temptation? Or are you trying to be the light itself, placing the pressure of restoring, transforming, and saving people on your shoulders?
As you think about these questions over the coming days, remember that Jesus is indeed the light of the world, the restorer of the tribes and a light to the Gentiles so that God’s salvation may reach the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).