Beyond the Lectionary Text: John 8:12-20
by Heidi De Jonge
Jesus’ words in chapters 7 and 8 of John happen during a particular religious festival. We look back to the beginning of chapter 7 to read about the Feast of Tabernacles (or the Feast of Booths). Jesus’ brothers set out their ideas for Jesus’ travels – recommending that he go up to the Feast with them to Jerusalem. Jesus disagrees, not wanting to make a public appearance, and then goes from Galilee to Jerusalem for the feast on his own.
As a child, I had a fascination with the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast was instituted by the Lord in Leviticus – a seven day festival to commemorate the Lord’s provision for the Israelites as he led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness – led them by a cloud and a fiery pillar. What I loved was that this was as close as it comes to a biblical warrant for camping. For seven days, the Israelites were supposed to live in tents/booths. We read about this in Nehemiah 8:14-17 – how the exiles found the words of the Law – found this biblical warrant for camping:
The significance of the feast of tabernacles was less the little leafy tabernacles that the Israelites built, and more the light that streamed through the leaves over their heads – not the light of the sun – but the light of the fiery pillar that led them by night to each resting place on their journey. The first century Jewish philosopher, Philo, noted the importance of the timing of this festival. On the first day of the festival – the fifteenth day of the seventh month – the sun’s setting was followed directly by the rising of the moon – a continuous light – which pointed beyond itself to the continuous light of God.
It was during this festival that Jesus spoke the words: I am the light of the world. For the Jews, Jesus was the fulfillment of the feast of tabernacles.
This whole conversation in chapters 7 and 8 that Jesus is having with the Pharisees and Jewish leaders during the feast of tabernacles centers around the question of who Jesus really is. The Pharisees’ challenge in 8:13 shows how much they don’t want to believe – how blinded they are to the light of the world. “Here you are,” they say, “appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.” They were holding on to what it says in Deuteronomy 19:15: “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” And Jesus responds in no uncertain terms: “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my own testimony is valid” (8:14).
The light of the world can say this in a way that no one else can. Because that’s the way light is. Anything that is not light needs the light of a witness to illumine it, to defend it, to define it, to expose it. But light is light – it doesn’t need light to illumine it – it doesn’t need someone or something else to defend it. Jesus is light. He doesn’t need witnesses to expose him. He doesn’t need arguments to shed light on his divinity. He just shines. And if the Pharisees really need another witness – Jesus gives them the Father – the one he came from, the one he’s coming to. But for those who are blind in their sin, the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness doesn’t understand it.
“Where is your father?” they ask in verse 19. “You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. You are blind! “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” And then some crucial words for our purposes this morning: Jesus “spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put” (8:20).
The place where the offerings were put was in the women’s court. And if the day before had been the last and greatest day of the feast (7:37), the court would still have been ringing with the noise of the spectacular ritual that happened each night of the festival of tabernacles. Every evening crowds of worshipers gathered there. And there were four huge lamp stands in the women’s court – and each lamp stand had four large bowls of oil. The wicks in these bowls of oil were made from the discarded undergarments of the priests – and all night long, the boys of the priestly families would clamber up and down ladders, filling and refilling these bowls of oil so that the lamps would burn and burn and burn like the pillar of fire that had led their fathers and mothers through the wilderness. The light from these sixteen bowls bounced off the bronze gate at the end of the courtyard and the white walls of the temple and the lights were so bright that light illumined the courtyards all through the city.
And that’s not all! There was music: harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets. And Jewish men who were known for their goodness danced with as many as eight torches in their hands, and sang to the psalms of ascent. Can you hear them calling? “Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD. May the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion” (Psalm 134).
The memory of the night before is still present in the court – and Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.”
Sometimes it’s hard to believe what Jesus says here, because it certainly feels sometimes as though we are walking in darkness, even if we’re following Jesus. We do walk through the valleys of the shadows of death – through the shadow lands. Some of you are walking in a darkness right now. The phone isn’t ringing and you wish it would. You miss him so much and you wish you could hold his hand just one more time. The stress is more than you think you can bear.
[I included a specific story of a husband and wife from my congregation, who were walking through the valley of the shadow of death. The wife was dying in hospice care.] They were walking through a dark valley. And yet, they weren’t. Because they have a place to hide, in the light of Jesus. The Lord is their light and their salvation. Because of Jesus, we can say the words of Isaiah: “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” (Isaiah 9:2).
Jesus is the light of the world. And in the darkness of the Pharisees mounting suspicions and accusations, the light of the world was dawning.
I wonder where the light of the world is dawning for you. I wonder how your shadowlands are warming and brightening with the light of Christ.
I also wonder if those of us who feel like we’re walking in darkness need to see the light of Jesus as much as those of us who feel like we’re walking in light. You see, the light shines brightest in the darkest places. The lights of the lamp stands and the torches lit up the Jerusalem nights during the feast of the tabernacles. But what would happen when the first light of day broke over the Mount of Olives? Two priests would sound the ram’s horns, walk eastward through the temple court toward the rising sun, and then turn around with their backs to the sun in order to declare their faith in God. They did this as a direct contradiction to the actions of some of their forefathers, whom we read about in Ezekiel – – – men who stood in the inner courts, turned their backs to the temple of the Lord and faced east, worshiping the sun.
In the darkness of the shadowlands, I don’t want to say it’s ‘easy’ to trust in Jesus as your light and your salvation, but it is the likely story. We turn to Jesus, we fly to Jesus, we rely on Jesus when we are lonely, grieving, hopeless, confused. When the storms come, we look for the light of the world. The light shines brightest in the darkest places. But when the great light of planet earth breaks through the clouds of winter, isn’t it tempting to forget about the light of the world? When the sun rises, it’s tempting to put your trust in it.
When our oldest daughter, Samara, was diagnosed with cancer, we were in a shadowland – and we turned our faces to the Light of the World… but now that she has been cancer-free for some time – and now that the chances of her cancer returning are less than 1%, it’s easy and it’s tempting to turn our faces toward the warm earthly light of those comforting statistics.
I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come? Not from statistics. Not from a psychologist telling you that you’re normal. Not from your own ability to bounce back after tough times. Not from escaping reality into a good book. Not from the hands of surgeons. I lift up my eyes to the thousands of earthly suns warming my life, from where does my help really come from? My help really and ultimately comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and all of her suns – the maker of the earth and all of its gifts (Psalm 121).
Our help comes from the Lord! And so, with the priests, we turn our backs to the rising sun and we face the court of the women and Jesus, standing there near the place where the offerings were put, and we say – you, you are my light.
As eager as we have been for spring, as much as we long for it, there is a light that we long for more. After a sleepless night, as much as we long for the light of day, there is a light we long for more. With the Jewish men, dancing with their torches, we sing, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130).
There is a sense in which the rhythms of the earth do not bear on the rhythm of our souls. It may be literally dark outside (like today) or literally bright outside. It may be metaphorically dark in your life – a shadowland – or metaphorically bright – relative ease and enjoyment… no matter what, the same light – Jesus, the light of the world, shines as your true light of life.
Will you put your trust in Jesus? Will you put your trust in the light of the world? With the priests, turn your back to the sun of this world – and turn your face toward the Son of God. He is the only light to live by.
When the light of Christ is the light you live by, it reflects off of you like it bounced off the white walls of the temple and the brass gate – it reflects in such a way that Jesus goes so far as to say to us in Matthew that we are the light of the world and that we are to let our light shine before others that they might see our good deeds and then praise our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
Burge, Gary M. The NIV Application Commentary: John, Zondervan, 2000.
Koester, Craig, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, and Community, Augsburg Books, 2003.
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, 1971.