Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
The scripture we are about to read records a conversation between Jesus and some Jewish leaders which took place during a very important religious festival called the Feast of the Tabernacles. In those days this feast was a big deal. Jerusalemwould have been packed with pilgrims. And at the center of the celebration was the story of how God had watched over and provided forIsraelas they wandered in the desert fromEgyptto the Promised Land hundreds of years before.
Many of you know the story. In the time of Moses, God delivered his people from slavery in Egyptand told them he wanted them to go to the Promised Land. The problem was that the Israelites, once they got free, had no idea how to get there. So God had to lead them. With a pillar of cloud and fire, like a lantern in a dark cave, God led them through the wilderness and into to the Promised Land. It took 40 years, but God did eventually lead them home.
The Festival of the Tabernacles was, therefore, an annual reminder to the Jews that they served a God who was ready and willing meet them in the wilderness of life and light their way home. A significant part of the celebration, in fact, was at the end of the first day when the Templewould be gloriously illuminated. Four golden candelabras, each about 75 feet tall, were set up in one of the outer courts. Each candelabra had four branches and at the top of each branch was a bowl that was filled with 10 gallons of oil and then lit. Since the Templewas on a hill in the middle of Jerusalem, the light from those candles was visible across the entire city. Every Jew in Jerusalemwas to be reminded that their God had a history of leading his people out of the darkness and into the light.
It is not hard to imagine Jesus standing right near these magnificent candles as he spoke the words we are about to hear.
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Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’
Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’
Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. In your law it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.’
Then they said to him, ‘Where is your Father?’
Jesus answered, ‘You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’
He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. (John 8:12-20, NRSV)
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Our family just spent the last several weeks on vacation visiting some of our National Parks. We journeyed up the Narrows atZionNational Park, followed mules down into theGrand Canyon, explored the cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde. We saw some breathtaking sites.
One National Park we did not visit, however, isMammothCave. Kentuckywas just too far to drive on this trip. Maybe next time; I’d love to see it. Anybody here ever been there?
MammothCaveNational Parkis home to the longest cave system in the world. All togetherMammothCaveincludes 390 miles of passageways. Strung end to end, that would form a single cave that stretched all the way fromSacramentotoLos Angeles! That’s a lot of cave. You better pack extra batteries for your flashlight.
As I understand it, if you visitMammothCavetoday you can take a tour of small, but impressive portions of the 390 miles of cave. You won’t need your flashlight, however. The way is well-lit and paved, with stairs and hand rails and clearly marked exit routes and trained guides. Nobody gets lost on aMammothCavetour these days.
I want you to imagine, however, what it would be like to find yourself deep in a cave like that, dozens, if not hundreds, of miles away from any sunlight, without a guide, without a map, without a flashlight, without so much as a match. Can you imagine what that would be like? The darkness would be so comprehensive that you literally could not see your own hand in front of your own face.
I have read that people who have experienced being lost in a cave like that say that within a few hours of total darkness you being to experience auditory and visual hallucinations as your brain tries to compensate for the lack of sensory input. You begin to hear things and see things that aren’t really there. You begin to lose your mind.
I don’t know about you, but I have trouble in the middle of a dark night navigating my way from my bed to the bathroom without bruising my shins or stubbing my toes. I would never find my way out through the darkness of a cave like that. Without a light to guide me it would be hopeless. I would die in that cave. You would too.
One of the claims that the scriptures make over and over again is that our world, apart from God, is lost in darkness. In fact, when the Bible speaks of God coming into the world it often uses the imagery of light breaking into the darkness. Isaiah 9:2, for example, speaks about God’s coming this way, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The Bible teaches us that our world without God is like a person hopelessly lost in the utter darkness of a deep cave.
As Christians we believe this. Don’t we? We believe that without God there is no truth; we don’t know right from wrong. Without God there is no ultimate hope; we may exist for a while but eventually death will swallow us up. Without God there is no life, at least no abundant and eternal life. This is what Christians believe. And we’re right. Even the atheist has to agree. Without God we are stuck in a cave out of which we will never climb. Without God everything will end some day in darkness. Everything will end in death.
Darkness is a reality in our world. And you know this because you have experienced it. To some extent, every one of us has experienced the darkness, the lost-ness, of this world. For you, maybe the darkness is a future that is so uncertain, even frightening. You don’t know what lies ahead or how to get to where you know you need to be. For others of us the darkness represents doubt. You just don’t know what’s really true or who you can really trust. Others of us feel lost because we know the sort of person we are meant to become, the sort of life we were created to live, but we just can’t make ourselves, no matter how hard we try, into that person. Still others of us have faced some tragedy, some hardship, which has left us discouraged, or alone, or grief-stricken, or hopeless.
We all have had at least a taste of the darkness of a world without God. And so with that in mind, consider this. Try and imagine a reality in which God forever failed to meet you in this world and left you, left us, completely on our own to face life and, in the end, to face death. Imagine being buried deep in this cave and God leaves us there. How would you describe what that would be like? Isn’t darkness is the best way to describe it? Complete, utter, never-ending darkness.
At the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Jews of Jesus’ day celebrated that this was not the reality they knew. God had not left them in darkness. He had not left them to die in the desert all those years before. He would not leave them now. In spite of whatever hardship they faced, their God was alive and active. He was their Guide, their King, their Savior, their Warrior. The Old Testament Psalmist summed up the conviction of Israelwhen he proclaimed, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear.” God does not leave his people lost in the darkness. This was, and is, reason for great celebration!
It was to this conviction that Jesus spoke that day. As he stood in the very glow of those massive candles meant to remind the people that God was indeed their saving light, Jesus made this bold proclamation, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
No Jew standing nearby that day would have misunderstood what Jesus was claiming. This was a divine claim. Jesus was claiming to be God. He was claiming to be worthy of their worship. He was claiming to be the world’s enlightenment.
Now, on one hand it was an extraordinarily exclusive claim. Jesus left no room for other lights. He is the light, the only light. There is no other light but him. On the other hand it was an extraordinarily inclusive claim. Jesus was not only the light for some people, for certain people, for special people. No, he was the light for the world. He was the light for us all.
Jesus’ claim was also unique in this sense. Jesus did not say, “I can give you the light of the world”, or, “I came to bring the light of the world,” or, “I can show you the light of the world.” He said, “I am the light of the world.” Now that may seem like a small distinction. It’s not. It’s a massive distinction. Jesus does not give us the light. Jesus is the light.
On our recent vacation we did a lot of camping. When you camp, as you know, you need a lot of supplies. For the most part, we were well prepared. One thing we forgot, however, was enough flashlights. I assumed that a couple flashlights would be adequate for our family. I was wrong. Trust me when I tell you that when you’re camping out in the wilderness in complete darkness, six people need six flashlights. Well, we didn’t have six flashlights. On this camping trip, six people would have to get by with three flashlights.
Now, from my perspective that worked well enough as long as I was one of the people with a flashlight. You see, when I’m walking my daughter to the outhouse in the middle of the night all goes well as long as I’m holding the light. If she holds the light she doesn’t shine it in the places I want to shine it. When I’m in the tent trying to get ready for bed it doesn’t work for my wife to hold the flashlight. It’s not her toothbrush that I’m interested in finding.
I’ll be honest. I was very reluctant the whole trip to give up possession of one of the flashlights. I didn’t want to depend on somebody else to hold the light. Luckily I didn’t have to because I outweigh everybody in my family.
My guess is that you’re just like me. As people we will all go to great lengths to make sure that we are in possession of the light. The last thing we want to do is to depend upon somebody else for the light. This is true on a camping trip but it is just as true in our spiritual journeys. We want to possess, to control, to manipulate whatever it is we need to get us out of the darkness we find ourselves in.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with the accumulation of knowledge and insight and enlightenment. We want to know. We want to understand. We want to be in control. We want to be in the driver’s seat. And so we read books. We go to seminars. We formulate principles. We figure things out. We make plans. We develop strategies. We set goals. We seek special insight, always on the lookout for keys that will make our life easier and more fulfilled. A new diet, new gadget, new routine, new outlook.
To some extent this is good. God gave us minds, and discernment, and intelligence for a reason. These are gifts we are meant to use and develop. But here’s the thing. Listen to me. Jesus did not come primarily to impart to us knowledge or truth. He did not come to point out to us the way. He did not come to give us the keys to success in life. He did not come to bestow upon us enlightenment. Jesus came to give us himself. He is the truth. He is the way. He is the light.
Think about it this way. When Jesus meets us lost in the deep darkness of the cave, he does not come to bring us a lantern and a map and a backpack full of supplies. He does not say to us, “Here’s what you need. Use this. Follow this. Go this way. Trust me, you’ll eventually find your way out.” No. That’s not what Jesus does. Instead, Jesus comes to meet us and says to us, “Come with me. I am the way out. Follow me and you will live.”
You see, Christ does not want us to depend upon a set of truths or instructions. He does not want us to depend upon spiritual principles, or keys to living, or biblical commandments. He does not want us to depend upon religion, or doctrine, or theology. He does not even want us to depend upon the Bible. Though all of these are good gifts from God which can wonderfully enhance our life, Jesus does not want us to wholly depend upon them. Ultimately, Jesus wants us to depend upon him. He did not come to bring us light. He is the light.
In the time I have left, let me show you one practical way this plays out in life. It has to do with how we view the Bible.
When Christians talk about the Bible I often hear them speak about it as an answer book, or a guide book, or a map through life. The thinking is that the Bible is life’s great reference book. If you’ve got a problem, or a question, or a struggle, or a doubt, go to the Bible and if you search long enough you’ll find the solution, the answer, the relief, the truth. One popular acronym for the word Bible is “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
Now of course, to some extent this is true. There are answers in the Bible, along with great wisdom, and direction, and rules for living, and guidelines. And yet, I do not believe God intends us to see the scriptures primarily as a manual for living.
Writer Richard Foster has helped me a great deal on this point. In his book, Life With God, Foster says that there are two misunderstandings about the Bible which are widespread in the church. The first one is that people study the Bible for information or knowledge alone. They seek history, or facts, or doctrines. Some even study the Bible simply to show how other people are mistaken in their religious beliefs.
The second misunderstanding is people study the Bible only when they want to find a formula for solving some pressing need. For instance, they look for biblical keys that will help them become a good parent, or better manage their finances, or get out of depression.
Foster says that the problem with studying the Bible only with these goals in mind is that, in his words, “It always leaves us or someone else in charge. These are, in fact, ways of trying to control what comes out of the Bible rather than entering the process of the transformation of our whole person and our whole life in Christlikeness.” The difference, again, is between seeking to possess the light and seeking to follow the light.
Again, do not misunderstand me here. Of course, there are plenty of instances when we spend time in scripture and then come away with knowledge or guidance. When we enter into scripture, however, this not what we are primarily after. We’re not primarily after knowledge; we’re after the One who knows. We’re not after guidance; we’re after the Guide. We’re not after comfort; we’re after the Comforter. We’re not after salvation; we’re after the Savior. We’re not after protection; we’re after the King. We’re not after enlightenment; we’re after the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment of the world.
In the end, the difference comes down to where we place our trust. Jesus does not want us to trust knowledge, or wisdom, or principles, or plans in and of themselves. Jesus wants us to trust him. He meets us in the deep darkness of the cave and says to us, says to you, “Follow me. Follow me and you will never walk in darkness again but will have, instead, the light of life.”
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The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
- Read John 8:12-20 again. What do you notice first?
- What do you think that light and darkness signify in verse 12?
- Theologian Rudolf Bultmann once said, “Without the revelation of Christ the world is in darkness.” Do you agree with this statement? Without Christ, would your life be in darkness?
- What do you think it means that Jesus proclaimed “I am the light of the world” instead of “I came to give the light of the world”? What is the difference between Jesus being the light and giving the light?
- Is Jesus really a light to the whole world?
- How is Jesus a light in your life today? Or in the past?
- Paul wrote in II Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” What insight does this verse add to the idea of Jesus as the light of the world?
- Jesus says in verse 19 that if people know him they also know his Father. What is he trying to teach us here?
Further Scripture Readings for the Week:
Monday: Exodus 13:17-22 – Pillar of Light
Tuesday: Psalm 27 – Light and salvation
Wednesday: John 1:1-41 – I saw the light!
Thursday: II Corinthians 4:1-6 – Revelation of Christ
Friday: I John 1:5-10 – Walk in the light
Saturday: In preparation for worship tomorrow, read John 7:31-39.
 You can read this part of the story in Exodus 13:17-22.
 Read more about the lights at the Feast of the Tabernacles at http://jewsforjesus.org/publications/newsletter/1998_10/tabernacles
 Psalm 127:1.
 Italics mine.
 I’m indebted to commentator Dale Bruner for this insight. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, c. 2012), p. 513.
 I’m reminded of the inherent danger here pointed out by Paul in I Corinthians 8:1-3, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.”
 Richard Foster, Life With God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation, (New York: Harper, c. 1973), p. 5.
 One more insight here. If the Bible were a manual for living, whenever you faced the same challenge in life you could look up the right reference and it would give you the right guidance. That’s how a cookbook works, or an owner’s manual, or a math textbook. That’s not how scripture works. This is why I can read the same passage months apart and God will speak to me something quite different each time.