What Does Jesus Mean by "I Am the Light of the World" in John 8:12?

In the 21st century, it can be easy to forget that nighttime exists. It's so easy to chase the darkness away with electric lights both inside and outside our houses, not to mention streetlights, neon signs, headlights, and glowing screens. But back in Jesus' day, the darkness was unavoidable. When sundown came, the most anyone had was a bonfire or an oil lamp. Thieves and evil spirits were constant sources of fear which could be lurking in the shadows. The darkness was a reminder of the uncertainty of life and the smallness of humans in the face of evil.

Who Is the Light of the World?

It was into this kind of world that Jesus came – a world longing for light. It was prophesied that "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone" (Isaiah 9:2) when Immanuel came to dwell with us. Of him it was also said:

"The rising sun will come to us from heaven

to shine on those living in darkness

and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the path of peace." (Luke 1:78-79)

When Jesus began his ministry, he is portrayed as the long-awaited light by Matthew:

"When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

'Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,

Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.'" 

From that time on, Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

What Is the Context of John 8:12?

During Jesus' ministry on earth, he referred to himself as the light of the world (John 8:12, John 9:5, John 12:46). In John 8:12, for example: "Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'" Jesus speaks these words in the context of multiple disagreements among the Jews about who he was and what he said, and the Jewish leaders' unbelief and growing hatred towards him. 

After he claimed to be the light of the world, the Jewish leaders immediately challenged him. These interactions continue to escalate for many more verses until Jesus finally makes the statement: "'Very truly I tell you…before Abraham was born, I am!'" and the leaders try to stone him because he has made it clear that he is claiming to be God in the flesh.

What Does Light in the Bible Signify?

In the Bible, light signifies God and the good things that come from him. "God is light," says John, "and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). He is also called "the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17). The Psalmist declares: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" (Psalm 27:1). God's first act of creation was to say, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). In John 1, the apostle begins to develop a theme of the eternally existent Jesus as the light that he will continue to return to throughout his Gospel and other writings:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world." (John 1:1-9)

The Lord foretold that he would raise up a suffering servant to make disciples of all nations, saying:

"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel;

I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6).

Paul shows how Jesus fulfills this prophecy when he proclaims: "I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles."

There is coming a day where there will be no more longing for light, for the full blaze of God's glory will shine on his people forever. Revelation 21:23 foretells that in eternity, "the [heavenly] city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb."

How You Can Be a Light

hand holding a lightbulb, light of the world

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Fachy Marin

While Jesus was on earth, he spoke of himself as the light, but he also referred to his followers in the same way: "So Jesus said to them, 'The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light'" (John 12:35-36).

Here are a few ways we can be a light, following in the footsteps of Jesus:

1.) Let Your Light Shine (Matthew 5:14-16)

Jesus told his followers: "'You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven'" (Matthew 5:14-16). By doing what is right and loving through grace-empowered good works, we are letting God's love shine through us.

2.) Walk as Children of Light (Ephesians 5:8-9; 1 Thessalonians 5:5)

Paul tells believers: "For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:8-9). We can know we are walking as children of light if we can see our lives being characterized by good and right and true words and actions pleasing to the Lord.

3.) Walk in the Light (1 John 1:7, 2:9-11)

1 John describes "walking in the light" as truly loving others: "Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes." (1 John 2:9-11).

4.) Put on the Armor of Light (Romans 13:11-14)

Paul urges believers to be alert: "Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Romans 13:11-14). Earlier in this chapter, Paul has shown believers what it looks like to "put on the Lord Jesus" by simply following the command "'You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 13:9).

While we might not feel the same desperation for physical light in the electric-lit modern-day as the people of Jesus' day did, we do feel a deep longing for spiritual light. We live in dark days and long for the light of God's presence. We can take comfort in the knowledge that "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). And we rejoice that "God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). Because he has shone in our hearts, we can shine in our world with his light!

Photo credit: ©Unsplash/Dewang Gupta


Jessica Udall author photoJessica Udall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Intercultural Studies and writes on the Christian life and intercultural communication at lovingthestrangerblog.com.

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