The Apostle John employs various images and metaphors to explain Jesus. Many of these are dualistic in nature, which was a common writing style at the time of Jesus. This dualism can be seen in both this Gospel and the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the more well-known metaphors John uses to describe Jesus is “Light.” This metaphor is a natural progression from Word since light illuminates and reveals. The two are inseparable in nature, and the same relationship should be seen in this passage. This metaphor also hints (remez) to Genesis where God spoke light into existence. Light is an essential component of our world—both in a physical as well as a spiritual sense. It illumines our path to see both opportunity and peril. It allows us to see beauty and to view its counterpart. In fact, light reveals all—whether good or bad.
All of these instances convey the same fundamental meaning, but there are occasions when John makes a particular point about Jesus being the light. John first uses Light about Jesus in John 1:4-5. The first instance is when John introduces Jesus and describes His importance. He reveals Jesus as life as well as light. “The amazing statement that the darkness failed to overcome the shining light sets out the fundamental opposition to God’s revelatory plan in the starkest possible terms.” [i] The light shone through Him to the Jewish people. He entered their darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. The word “comprehend” can also mean “overcome,” which is how John uses the word in the rest of his Gospel, so “overcome” may be the correct meaning in this case. “Understood in this way the evangelist is foreshadowing the repeated futile attempts of ‘the Jews’ to extinguish the light, Christ.” [ii]
In these verses, the Apostle John establishes the foundation of the Gospel and correlates life and light with Jesus. “For some, light was wisdom (or wisdom was even superior to light). For others, the light was given by the Mosaic Law or Scripture. Still others sought enlightenment in philosophy, morality, or a simple lifestyle. In this religiously pluralistic context, John proclaims Jesus as the supreme light, who is both eternal and universal, and yet personal.” [iii] This correlation repeatedly recurs throughout the Gospel. Immediately John contrasts the light with darkness—notice the present tense voice in verse five—and explains that the darkness did not comprehend the light. Into the darkness came the Light, just as at creation light was spoken into darkness. “More than likely John, whose skill in wordplays appears throughout his Gospel, has introduced a wordplay here: darkness could not ‘apprehend’ or ‘overtake’ the light, whether by comprehending it or by overcoming it.” [iv] In this way, John introduces the conflict between the two that continues throughout the Gospel.
As any writer should, when introducing a new concept or idea, it is best to connect with what the reader already knows. For John, the best point of reference is the Old Testament. He does this when he introduces the concept of the Word, eloquently referencing the creation to provide revelations about Jesus, the Word. Like the other disciples, John was a Jew; he was knowledgeable of the Old Testament and knew his readers were likewise. Because John spoke to believers who were formerly Jewish, he freely utilized concepts and ideas from the Old Testament to explain God and His workings. In addition to the connection to creation, believers who read the Gospel of John would connect the dots back to God and gain new implications of the light in Jesus such in 1 Kings 11:36, Psalm 27:1, Psalm 119:105, Isaiah 45:7, and Isaiah 60:19-20.
These verses use the basic concept of light to explain the workings of God. They point to God as the source, and His word and commandments are like a lamp showing the way. At least two of these verses seem prophetic of the coming Messiah, and the last verse from Isaiah seems to contain an allegorical reference to Jesus as the everlasting light. The concept of these two entities representing good and evil was fairly common in ancient societies. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain writings of the children of the light and children of the darkness. There are ancient teachings of light and dark. From all of these, readers could realize the light was Jesus. John masterfully introduces the concept of Jesus in this way as general revelation and connecting the dots in the minds of his readers to the creation and the Old Testament.
With these verses in mind, several interpretations of the meaning of light are possible in verse five. Most commentaries explain the light in this verse is meant for all men, and some of the verses from the Old Testament seem to support this idea, but several verses seem to imply a spiritual or evangelistic meaning. Remember, John is just beginning his Gospel, and additional revelation is forthcoming. This explanation, shown in the Old Testament verses that Jesus is the light of men and the light shines in the darkness, is consistent with what is known as the general revelation of God. The Old Testament gave Jews insight into the light that is God. This light was not made available to the Gentiles, but they did have general revelation to teach them of God.
Examples of general revelation include rain falling on the good and the evil alike, the beauty of the world, the intricacies of nature, and other things in creation pointing to God. The Apostle Paul voices this same concept in Romans 1:20, where he explains how the ungodly learn of God from the world around them even though they have no specific revelation from God. The concepts of light and darkness allow people from Gentile, pagan backgrounds to understand the basic concept the Apostle John is seeking to convey. The author elaborates and expands the explanation of light to reveal Jesus and His message through the course of the Gospel.
An important aspect of these verses is the tenses in which they are written. John writes the light “shines” in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. The darkness to which John refers symbolizes unbelief, sin, fallen mankind, and the world. In a sense, “all the light we have, whether we walk in it or turn our backs on it, we owe to the Word.” [v] As the Gospel progresses, John continues to enlighten the reader about the light of Jesus. The conflict between light and darkness intensifies with each new revelation about Jesus. Darkness is not merely the absence of light but the manifestation of the sin and evil that is in opposition to Jesus and His message. The two terms should be understood ethically, not metaphysically. This tension between light and darkness continues throughout the entire Gospel. It is also important to not, as many are prone, “read” too much into this verse and use material from later in the Gospel not yet known to the reader.
Borchert, however, thinks it important to remember the resurrection perspective when examining the Gospel. “From his point of view, there was no guesswork in how the story would turn out. The light of the Logos shone and continues to shine. Certainly the darkness did not accept it, but neither did it have victory over it.” [vi] While true, the reader of the Gospel is unaware at this early juncture of the Gospel of all the implications of what the Apostle John is writing; the many illustrations and inferences will be made clear by the conclusion of the Gospel. Understanding this Gospel, as with any writing, must build from the beginning, and the author must build the foundation before elaborating upon it. John is doing this, and we must allow space for this to occur and resist the temptation to incorporate later material to interpret the beginning of the Gospel.
A few verses later in John 1:8-9, the term “light” occurs again. At this point, John begins to expand the definition of light. The author accomplishes two objectives in this verse. He reveals a person who is not the Light, but also a person who is a powerful witness to the Light. The author refers to John the Baptist. This passage, a continuation of the thought in the preceding verses, refers to John the Baptist and his role in the revelation of the light. More importantly, the Apostle John now begins to define and distinguish the specific light which is Jesus. This verse begins the process of explaining the true meaning of light as meant by the author.
Because of all these factors and John the Baptist’s obvious zeal for the Lord, when he burst upon the scene, large crowds came to him for guidance. He was very effective because many, including tax collectors, prostitutes, and Roman soldiers, came for baptism. When they sought his counsel, John gave suggestions for how they might conduct themselves. Even the Jewish religious leaders came to question John about his identity but were roundly chastised by the Baptist for their presence. John the Baptist had a special and unique role in the unveiling of Jesus, but the Apostle John emphatically describes the Baptist as not the Messiah but a witness of the Messiah. The author does not refer to this important figure in the ministry of Jesus as “John the Baptist,” but merely as “John.” This wording is interesting because the author carefully identifies others in his Gospel that has the same name, but there is no other John in this Gospel except for John the Baptist and the author.
As a note, John the Baptist had disciples who continued their devotion to their leader even as Jesus introduced the kingdom of heaven and the Gospel. Some—probably most—of the disciples of John remained with him while some became followers of Jesus. Those disciples of John continued their dedication to the Nazarene prophet, as Acts 18:25 and Acts 19:1-5 note, for an indefinite period and faded into history. John the Baptist did play a significant role in the ministry of Jesus, providing an independent source proclaiming His identity. In a Judaic legal sense, the testimony of John the Baptist was critical to validating the identity of Jesus. Remember, until this point in time, Jesus was unknown. It was not until Jesus was thirty years old, the age a man could become a rabbi, that He began His ministry to proclaim the kingdom of heaven. The Apostle John incorporates the testimony of John the Baptist but carefully distinguishes the Baptist from the true light.
Thus far, the Apostle John has identified the light as Jesus the Messiah and given a reliable witness to verify this. From this point forward as seen in John 3:19-21, John begins to teach how the light of Jesus affects the world, the role of light, the impact of the light, and what should be the response to the light. In these three verses, Jesus, while not explicitly identifying Himself as the light, explained the conflict between light and darkness and how those who practice truth were in the light. The Jewish expression in verse twenty-one— “practices the truth”—means to act faithfully or honorably. Here, the Apostle John reveals more and more about Jesus and how light is a metaphor for His identity. John tells of a process rather than the judgment of God. Notice this passage refers to the deeds (behavior) of those who reject the light and the actions of those who accept the light, how light reveals actions, how darkness conceals behavior, and how people fear the light will expose their behavior.
This passage focuses attention not on those who live in the light and occasionally veer into darkness and return, but to those who remain in the darkness and refuse to come into the light. John makes a clear connection between the nature of a person and his or her behavior. The world hates Jesus, not for any specific reason or cause, but simply because the minds and behaviors of the world are evil. The source of the evil is the pride and self-satisfaction of those who are sure they know God but are in reality far from Him. Those in the light are not better than those in the darkness, but they are in the light to show their actions in the sight of God. This passage does not explain how to move from darkness to light, “but simply focus[es] on the fundamental distinction that must be made between those who at the moment are rejecting the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and those who are delighting in it.” [vii] This verse can also serve as a warning to readers who are in the darkness of the impact of the light on their behavior.
John next uses light as a title for Jesus in a statement in John 9:5. The occasion of Jesus speaking here was His healing a man born blind. This particular man is one of the seven signs to prove His messianic claims. Jesus used light as a metaphor to describe Himself. This verse contains two important points, the first being His presence with the disciples and the second being His role as the light of the world. His statement “while I am in the world” implied His time on earth was finite. The focus of this statement was not in the period after Jesus ascended into heaven and before the Holy Spirit was sent to the disciples, but the period of darkness after His crucifixion and before His resurrection. The contrast between light and darkness is a universal religious symbol of good and evil. After making the statement, Jesus focused on the man born blind and provided an unforgettable illustration of the centrality of light by giving light to the blind man. In doing so, Jesus obeyed the Father, who sent Him to be the light of the world.
In this verse, the revelation of Jesus continued to unfold. He stated He was the light of the world. This statement, however, meant He had to be in the world. This statement goes back to Jesus’ preceding comment, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming, when no man can work.” We can see these words of Jesus along with the “while I am in the world” statement as a messianic statement and also warning to the disciples of the finite nature of His earthly ministry, which He would complete at some point in time. The plural voice indicates Jesus included the disciples in the work of the Father, who sent Him. The work of the disciples was revealed later by Jesus and did not begin until after Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to them in Jerusalem. The word “must” is also significant, indicating a sense of urgency or immediate action. Because of this time constraint, His work must be done quickly and according to His role as the light of the world. At the time of Jesus, a popular belief was that the Messiah would come and reign forever. Even the disciples seemed to adopt this idea. It may have been that Jesus here addressed this mistaken belief.
John 12:35-36 contains the next instance where the Gospel ascribes light to Jesus as a title. The occasion was near the end of His ministry. Hendriksen notes that if this conversation had taken place on Tuesday and the events leading to the crucifixion began Thursday night, then Jesus was speaking of only a few days in which the light would be present. Earlier in the chapter, the Apostle John records Jesus praying at Gethsemane and talking to the multitudes about His impending death and how He would be raised up. The crowds did not understand what Jesus was trying to explain because they thought the Messiah would remain forever, and they asked Jesus why the Son of Man must be lifted up and who Jesus was. Jesus again used the concepts of light and darkness to explain the situation. Jesus did not answer the crowd’s question concerning who was the Son of Man but responded with a warning to walk while the light was present because those who walk in the darkness do not know where they go. “The reference to ‘the light’ harks back particularly to 9:4 and 11:10 and provides inclusion with the references of Jesus as the light in the Prologue.” [viii] As in keeping with the mission of Jesus, these words are not of judgment or condemnation but an invitation to believe.
In verse thirty-five, the temporal nature and implication of the light being “among you,” suggests that, as time is inevitable and inescapable, so too is darkness. But for those who choose to walk in the light as long as the light is available when the darkness comes, it will not overpower or overcome them. The person who walks in the darkness knows not where he or she is going, but the person walking in the light sees the path to follow. Jesus pointed out the need for the people to respond and act on the light already present. The word “light” occurs five times in these two verses, emphasizing what Jesus sought to express.
The idea of walking in the light rather than the darkness is similar to some writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which teach two ways are possible for one to walk—in light or darkness—and a choice is necessary. The concepts are similar in both, but the wording and terminology in the Qumran scrolls differ slightly from the New Testament. “Son of Light” is a Jewish or Semitic expression indicating a trait or describing a person. This expression contains significance in an honor-shame society where one’s family, heritage, home, and other factors determine one’s status in society. It means the person displays the qualities of light and is a disciple of the light. In the same way, Judas is spoken of as a “Son of Perdition” (John 17:12). “Son of Light” is found in the Qumran texts as well as the writings of the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:5). Notice the present tense of the word “believe” in verse thirty-six echoes a similar theme from Isaiah 50:10. A major premise of John 12:35-36 is not only illumination but the need for faith. A person must have faith and trust in Jesus. This element of faith is the significant difference between this Gospel and the Qumran scrolls. While the Dead Sea scrolls contain a quantity of material about “the sons of light,” they do not encourage people to believe or to become “sons of light” as the Gospel account does.
There is a noticeable sense of urgency in these words of Jesus. He encouraged those listening to believe in the light and also warned of the consequences of not believing. “The image may be of sunset: if they do not keep moving with the sun they will end up in darkness, and one who walks in the darkness will not know where he is going. In other words, they will only become more confused if they do not put their faith in Jesus and become his disciples.” [ix] These words could also have been a warning to His disciples. In chapter nine, when Jesus healed the man born blind, He told the disciples they must work while there was still light. Not surprisingly, Jesus again encouraged His disciples to walk in the light while it was still present and warned of the impending darkness and its dangers. Those who have a relationship with Jesus have no reason to fear the darkness because they take on the qualities of light and are never in darkness.
The last reference to Jesus using this term came at the end of His public ministry in John 12:44-47. It was after His time in the Garden of Gethsemane conjoined with a final appeal to believe. This call by Jesus was part of the closing statement of His public ministry. It was part of a longer statement that summarized His ministry. In verse forty-six, Jesus said He had come as light into the world, which was one of His more emphatic claims of being the light, although not as emphatic as in John 8:12. While John 12:44-47 is similar to John 8:12, the message is not as intense or confrontational. Jesus came as the light into the world seeking those who would believe in Him. It is still a strong statement in the sense Jesus used the word “I” three times to emphasize He came as light and those who believe will come out of the darkness. He also emphasized He came to save the world, not for judgment. The normal spiritual condition of all people is darkness, but Jesus came to deliver us from the darkness and to bring us into the light. It is His desire to save and bring us to the light, not to keep us prisoners of the darkness. When Jesus said that everyone who believed in Him would not remain in darkness, He seemed to hint the light would abide. This statement continues the basic premise of light versus darkness and seems to extend a promise into the future. The expressions “remain” and “abide” refer to the concept of darkness as the opposite of being in the light; the typical use of these words was as positive reinforcement to discipleship. “There is, however, a peculiar standard of judgment applied to those who hear Jesus’ words, but do not keep them. Just as those who were steeped in the words of Moses would be judged by them and find themselves condemned, so anyone who rejects Jesus…that very word that I spoke will condemn them at the last day.” [x]
The statement, “he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me,” in verse forty-five is interesting when put in context with the statement in the Prologue about seeing God. Jesus was further expressing His claim to be God. “His very presence as the light, revealing God, is exposure and thus condemnation of the darkness. So in fact, the judgment does take place through Him.” [xi] The reference to Jesus in this way continues the theme in 12:35-36 concerning the dichotomy of light and darkness, encouraging belief in Him by making the dark undesirable or repulsive. This statement also prepares for the next two verses, forty-six and forty-seven, which stress that He did not come to earth to judge but to save.