Of all the portraits of Jesus, the metaphor of light, is to me, the most intriguing. Much like the three faceted, “way, truth, life” metaphor of John 14, the idea of Jesus as light is conceptual. It communicates a different idea than the physical metaphors like shepherd, vine, Great Physician or lamb of God.
Thinking of Jesus as light seems almost “new-agey”. But there is more to this than Jesus being some sort of energy form. In a moment we will say more about what it means that Jesus is the Light. The apostle John is particularly fond of the idea of light. He uses the term in his prologue in John 1: 4-9. His fondness of the term gets re-introduced in the famous “God is life, God is light, God is love” trifecta in his epistles, noted particularly 1 John 1.
There is another place in John’s writings where I recently discovered the idea of Jesus as light in an even more profound way than I had previously noticed. It is in John 3 in the conversation and narrative regarding Nicodemus. Usually when I visit John chapter three, I focus on the “born again” idea. It certainly is a prominent and significant theme in the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. I won’t try to diminish this for one moment as I think the text clearly features this as the metaphor which Jesus chooses to underpin his important discussion with Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling council.
As their discussion continues through verse 15, it is difficult to determine whether the content of verses 16-21 is the extended dialogue of that conversation or if it is an element of John’s inspired editorial work as he organizes his material. Scholars themselves seem to have a variety of views on this as well. Since I view John’s work as guided by the Holy Spirit, it matters little to me which choice one makes. There is something important which comes to view as we keep this material linked to the earlier part of the Nicodemus exchange.
My point is to draw attention to the summation of this section and what is featured in verses 19-21 in particular:
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (NIV)
Notice the opening phrase: “This is the verdict….” The language here would have been of particular interest to Nicodemus. Recall that he is a part of the Jewish ruling council. It is their duty to hear arguments, to view evidence, and to consider testimony as a pre-requisite to their judgments.
The phrase: “This is the verdict….” is a way of saying, this is what we have been getting at. This is the outcome of our consideration. In some translations, the term “judgment” is used here. It is the Greek word, “Krisis” and yes, the etymology of our English word, “crisis” is connected. To use this term to introduce the next part of the discourse is to telegraph that what follows is of utmost importance. It is the pronouncement which carries enormous importance to what has preceded it. We’ve all seen enough courtroom scenes in movies to know that when the judge is told, “we have a verdict, your honor”, the whole courtroom waits in baited breath until the verdict is read. At that moment we are at the point of crisis, the unveiling of what everything has been pointing to until now.
So what follows the phrase in John 3:19? “Light has come into the world….” To appreciate what is being said here it is helpful to know that John’s use of light generally points to the idea of illumination of what is real and true. It means the unveiling, the revealing. This is in contrast to the idea sometimes attached to light as a metaphor for goodness as contrasted with darkness as a metaphor for evil. This is not to say that sometimes light and darkness are used in this way but in John’s use, the word light indicates that which allows us to see the world as it really is.
Have you ever walked through a darkened room at night with only shadowy images of your surroundings? You can negotiate through a darkened room but the chances of encountering the corner of a coffee table or stepping on a sharp object is a greater risk than when the lights are turned up. Enlightenment allows us to know what the next step should be. It instructs on what paths are to be avoided and which paths are to be taken.
Jesus appears on the scene in the gospels as one who helps people see the world in full light. Shadowy corners are seen in full light and we realize how many false assumptions we have had about the realities of our environment. John’s text instructs us that darkness is loved because people generally don’t desire to be shown that we have constructed our own reality, and have gotten pretty comfortable in our darkened version of reality. It is precisely this that John refers to as evil.
Even though the religious officials had the law of God to instruct them, they were interpreting it as in a darkened room.
There’s more we could say about the darkness/light idea here in John 3 but let’s take a look at another passage in John’s gospel where the idea comes up again.
In John chapter 7 from verse 45 we encounter a scene where the identity of Jesus is being debated. The chief priests and Pharisees are critical of the temple guards for having let Jesus slip away. In the middle of this discussion in verse 52 we encounter Nicodemus once again. John takes the time to remind us that he is the same one spoken of earlier in his gospel. Nicodemus has obviously been contemplating his earlier conversation with Jesus as he asks his peers: “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” (Jn. 7:51) In this question Nicodemus is revealing that he is not ready to deliver a verdict on Jesus. He takes some heat from his peers for his insistence that there may yet be presented evidence that will show Jesus to be who he says he is.
Many Bibles will have a note in the margin which states that there is a question about the material of John 7: 53- 8:11. The question concerns the fact that this material is not found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. This can mean that either it was not part of John’s original material or that it may be of authentic Johannine origin but placed incorrectly. Let’s consider the second of the choices and see what this does to the flow of the narrative and what themes get linked together.
If we read 7: 50-52 then move to 8: 12ff we would observe, linked to this Nicodemus dialogue once again, the metaphor of light. For in verse 12 we observe Jesus saying, “…..I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Just as Jesus’ earlier discourse with Nicodemus came down to the verdict statement: “Light has come into the world” (John 3:19)….we have here, the summation of the discussion converging on the idea of Jesus as light.
It seems clear to me that in both cases, Jesus is showcasing the idea that mankind will live in a vague shadowy understanding of his world until he views the world in the Light. That is, unless we form a world view with Jesus as centermost reality, we are living in shadows, even darkness. We are like blind men if we try to live without this light. We will get tripped up and crash into things continually unless we choose to live under the light, Jesus. Walking in darkness will set us up for painful surprises, bumps in the night that disrupt, discourage and disappoint. Living in darkness brings constant confusion and false expectations. Light and life are inseparable concepts abundantly supplied in Jesus.
It is exhilarating to observe the continuation of the story of Nicodemus as we next encounter him in John 19:39. After the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for permission to take the body of Jesus to the tomb. The text says, “he was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night…”
The verdict, it seems, is finally in for Nicodemus of the Jewish ruling council. And the verdict is…..
Jesus is the Light.