What was the setting in which Jesus said he is ‘the light of the world’ (John 8:12, 9:5), and what does the phrase mean?
John’s Gospel is unique, in that it is the only Gospel to include the words, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12). A close examination of the two settings of Jesus’ declarations of being the ‘light of the world’, and the ancient context of them, help us to better understand what he intended to convey by his use of the title, and how it applies both then and now to our understanding of Jesus’ identity. The first occasion on which Jesus declares he is ‘the light of the world’ draws upon many Old Testament passages, leading an audience familiar with the Old Testament accounts to important conclusions about Christ’s identity and the weight of his claims – especially in the immediate context of the declaration. The second occasion further elaborates on the first, and goes on to apply the statement in an engaging and convicting way to both his immediate audience, and to us as modern readers. What may seem like an abstract and whimsical phrase is in fact bold and tangible, demanding a personal response from the audience.
By looking first at the Old Testament context behind Jesus’ statement, it becomes clearer how the simple statement draws the audience to conclude that Jesus is referencing that he is the very presence of God in the world, and hence is making an enormous claim.
The concept of light throughout the bible starts at the very beginning, setting the ancient scene of which Jesus’ statement is a climax. It begins at Creation in Genesis, when light was separated from darkness and declared to be ‘good’. Then, later in Exodus, the Israelites were led through the wilderness by the presence of God resting upon the Tabernacle, shown physically in a cloud by day, and the fire by night - a visual reminder that God had never left them. The prophet Isaiah later calls on Zion to ‘arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you’, and goes on to speak of a day when ‘the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory’ – an image we can now see is referencing the Messiah and speaking of the constant presence of God in the new Earth, respectively. The association of God and his glorious presence with light is again concretely illustrated in the visions of those such as Ezekiel, when the prophet describes a figure on the throne who ‘looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him’. Thus, from the beginning light has conceptually illustrated the presence of God in a very concrete sense for us as God’s people; and in John, Jesus’ statement leads us to understand that he is claiming to be the tangible presence of God, not only this time for Israel as in the Exodus, but now for the whole world.
It is in understanding this Old Testament context that we can also begin to understand the immediate setting in which Jesus first delivered the statement, and the reactions it provoked. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (at the end of which Jesus made his declaration) lasted for a week, beginning on a Sabbath and ending on a Sabbath, and was a celebration of God’s provision. The Israelites would live in temporary shelters in order to remember the shelters they lived in when God brought them out of Egypt. On what was probably the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (or the day after), Jesus was teaching in the temple courts. It was here that he made his claim of being the light of the world, and his authority was heavily questioned – evidencing that he was making no small claim. His promise that ‘whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’, in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, would have reminded his audience of how God’s presence went with the Israelites in the Exodus. They would have heard him as suggesting that he himself was the light guiding the way of the people of God, so they would not walk in darkness but be led to their promised home – he was the pillar of fire, the embodiment of God’s presence in the world. In John’s gospel, his statement is the second in a series of seven ‘I am’ statements, hinting at his true identity - not only referring to God’s presence in the Exodus, but also to the very name of ‘I AM’ that God declares as his own, in Exodus 3:14. All this drawn together leads us to see that Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world was not just an abstract idea, but was gently hinting towards his very divinity.
The second occasion on which Jesus said he was the light of the world further developed the themes of God’s presence and Jesus’ own divinity that he had alluded to on the first occasion, grounding his words further in Scripture and in practicality, and necessitating a personal response from his audience both then and now. It was a Sabbath, quite possibly about a week later, and Jesus had just avoided being stoned by the Jews for his bold statement that ‘before Abraham was, I am!’ – evidently developing in a less subtle way his earlier hints at his divinity, as stoning was the Jewish capital punishment for blasphemy. And as he went away from the temple, he came across a man born blind. It was in this setting, after correcting his disciples that no one had sinned to cause the man’s blindness, that Jesus said that ‘as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ Jesus went on to heal the man, making mud with his saliva and sending the man to wash in the pool of Siloam – interestingly, healing the man in a such a way that the he would know Jesus’ name, but wouldn’t have actually seen him. It was reminiscent of words of the prophet Isaiah, when a servant of the LORD was spoken of who would be ‘a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind… and to release from the dungeon those that sit in darkness’, and where the LORD promised that He would ‘lead the blind by ways they have not known’ and‘turn the darkness into light before them’.
It is from this point that Jesus develops his deeper message concerning spiritual blindness. The Pharisees interrogating the healed man were indignant at the fact that Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, and could not accept any version of events that didn’t show Jesus to be at fault. Jesus addressed their spiritual blindness, saying that it was ‘for judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind’ Thus, the setting of the healing of the blind man illustrates a vast contrast in the two responses to Jesus’ claim to be light of the world, and in concrete terms. The healed man who could now see believed in Jesus and worshipped him; while the spiritually blind Pharisees rejected him and, as Jesus declared to them, ‘now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains’. Jesus had said that ‘whoever follows me will never walk in darkness’, but the Pharisees in their rejection of Jesus had also rejected the light, and remained in spiritual darkness. The beginning of John’s gospel also makes mention of this, saying of Jesus that ‘in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it’ – the Pharisees could not understand the light in front of them, and so turned away. This spiritual blindness is reflected in many instances in the Old Testament where the stubborn, hard hearts of Israel are lamented, such as in Isaiah 42:18-20. Those who were meant to be God’s light to the Gentiles, and indeed the world, were instead walking in darkness and had turned away from God in their blindness. In Matthew, Jesus called his followers to be what Israel failed to be when he said, ‘you are the light of the world’, calling on them to let their light shine in order that God would be glorified. Just as Jesus is the light of the world, his followers are also called to walk in the light, and reflect that light to all around them. So, by better understanding the meaning behind the phrase ‘light of the world’, and in seeing the responses to Jesus’ light play out, the reader is left with a challenge of whether they will follow Jesus, walking in the light, or remain blind, walking in spiritual darkness.
Jesus’ declaration that he is the ‘light of the world’ was not simply meant as an abstract or poetic phrase; it has a much deeper meaning, and contains an innate challenge to both the immediate audience and the modern reader. When we look at the context behind the phrase in the Old Testament and see how it is applied in the immediate context of the Feast of Tabernacles, we can see that Jesus is gently hinting at his own divinity - that he is the very presence of God in the world, just as God’s presence was shown in a pillar of light that guided God’s people through the wilderness to their promised home. Then, when Jesus again repeats his claim of being the world’s light as he heals a man born blind, we see how he is also tangibly demonstrating how he brings light to those living in darkness, and how those meant to be a light are in fact living in spiritual darkness. His statement leaves a challenge to his followers – will you continue to walk in darkness, and reject the light of life, who is God in the flesh? Or will you follow Jesus, and walk in the light?
 All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011
 See Isaiah 60:1-2 and 19-20
 See Leviticus 23:33-43
 The Hebrew word here for ‘shelters’ is also the word translated as ‘tabernacles’
 See Exodus 13
 The other of Jesus’ seven ‘I am’ statements recorded throughout John are ‘I am the bread of life’; ‘I am the door of the sheep; ‘I am the Good Shepherd; ‘I am the resurrection and the life’; ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; and ‘I am the true vine’.
 John 8:58
 John 9:4-5
 Isaiah 42:16
Indeed, the beginning of their persecution of Jesus had been when he had healed a man on the Sabbath, and Jesus had named God as his Father, ‘making himself equal with God’ (John 5:18). They had never been able to accept that Jesus could be free from sin if he had healed on the Sabbath, and hence they could not accept his testimony that he was from God, and the light of the world.
 John 9:39
 John 9:41
John 1:4-5; many translations render the last phrase as ‘the darkness has not overcome it’ and footnote the ‘understood’as an alternative translation