“I am the light of the world.” If we heard someone say this today, we’d immediately think they were joking or certifiably insane. Yet, Jesus says it with full-throated conviction. Such a remarkable claim should evoke awe. But for the surrounding Pharisees it triggers anger, and they accuse Jesus of false testimony. How does Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world strike you? If we’re honest, for many of us it elicits apathy.
“Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy,” wrote Plato. The same is true of theology, yet we smuggle Jesus’ claim into our lexicons of belief without a modicum of wonder. To make it back to the beginning of theology, let’s consider what the Pharisees heard, and what we often miss, when Jesus makes this claim. Perhaps, then, his words will spark the awe they deserve.
When Jesus claimed to be “the light” of the world, his message was heard in stereo by the Pharisees. In one channel, they heard his claim in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, where each evening golden lamps were lit in remembrance of Yahweh’s deliverance from Egypt by a pillar of fire. In the other channel, they heard an even older and more audacious claim: that Jesus was with Yahweh when he made the light. This assertion put him on par with Yahweh, but to which light was Jesus referring?
If Jesus was referring to the creative light of Genesis 1, what light was he thinking of in particular? The “lights in the expanse of the heavens” (presumably the stars) and our sun and moon were not created until day four. Alternatively, he could have been referring to an older light: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). What are we to make of this primordial light?
For centuries, scientists and philosophers alike thought the cosmos had no beginning. Fred Hoyle argued that although the universe is continuously expanding (steady state theory), it had no beginning. Then in the 1960s, a couple of scientists working at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey noticed that their radio antenna kept picking up an inexplicable hissing sound. They deduced that the sound came from pigeons perched on the antennae, so they ran the birds off, only to hear the hissing continue. Eventually, they realized the sound was the afterglow of a Big Bang: cosmic background radiation. The discovery was hailed as a massive scientific breakthrough. Many Christians reeled as the Big Bang dealt a blow to the Bible’s account of origins, replacing God as the origin of all things. However, the Big Bang and “in the beginning” need not be at odds.1
As “the light of the world,” Jesus enables us to harmonize science with Scripture in two illuminating ways. First, the Big Bang theory posits that it generated an abundance of light nuclei that contain some of the basic building blocks of biological life (hydrogen, deuterium, and helium). Second, a massive creative force was necessary to produce the cosmic background radiation still present today. Both of these things—light nuclei and the Big Bang—entail a super powerful, creative light.
When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” he made a creative claim that only Yahweh could make: “Let there be light.” Striking two rocks together, Jesus and Yahweh sparked the cosmos into existence. Yahweh spoke a word filled with the light of the world, and it was Jesus. As Light, Jesus creates cosmological beauty. As Word, he sustains its theological meaning; “he upholds all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Jesus is both Word and Light, the mediator of a kaleidoscope of meaningful creativity that has kept laypeople, scientists, and philosophers busy for millennia. Should not the light of the world dazzle us?
Remove the sustaining power of Jesus and life wilts, the petal fades, bursting color is gone. In scientific terms, if the gravitational constant were slightly greater, the stars would not be hot enough to warm the planets, and the earth wouldn’t be warm enough to sustain organic life. Without “the light of the world,” we don’t exist and flowers don’t bloom. Even the gifted Russian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich sees the light: “When I see a garden in flower, then I believe in God for a second. But not the rest of the time.”2 However, seeing the creative light isn’t enough to sustain wonder.
The light not only creates and sustains, it shines: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). The light exposes the darkness. The darkness isn’t benign, not a mere absence of light. Morally recalcitrant, it strikes out against the light. This moral opacity isn’t difficult to detect today. It lurks about the daily news, slinks through every social media feed: the lust-driven abuses compelling #MeToo, the declarations of nonbinary rights, profiling and harassment of persons of color, and yet another school shooting. We need the light to triumph over the darkness.
However, before the light triumphs, we must recognize the darkness in ourselves. We all possess the capacity to make the headlines. We contribute to the hate-fueled outrage and slip into lusty imaginations. I think of the mercy ministry leader who did exemplary work among the homeless of his city, only to be busted by the police for participation in a prostitution ring, or the angry rants by self-proclaimed “peacemaker” Christians shouting down one another on Twitter. We live in the shadow of our broken selves. And if we excuse ourselves, then we’re even more deluded than we know.
This delusion often begins by “losing our passion for the Lord.” The Prince of Darkness would have us assume a tepid indifference to the Lord of light. I am reminded of the Christian husband who confessed to “not feeling anything” when it comes to Christ. He received counsel, prayer, and exhortation, but when encouraged to repent, he shrugged it off. Months later he abandoned his wife, a mother to newborn twins. His fatal flaw? A persistent, unrepentant apathy to the Light. Do you comfort yourself that you are not “like those Christians”? Do you think to yourself, “I may have lost my ‘wonder,’ but at least I’m not making the headlines”? Be warned: It is this “lukewarmness” the “faithful witness” spews out of his mouth, calling for passion worthy of his name, to “be zealous and repent” (Rev. 3:15–22).
Yet if we repent, the faithful witness will stand while we sit on his throne: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21). There is a Light, triumphant and true, and he has broken into this world. But to feel his warmth, it is not enough to affirm Jesus’ theological claim. We have to emerge from the shadows—to turn toward the light. Jesus continues his claim about being the light to following the light: “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). To get out of the darkness, we have to stay close to the Light. Dancing on the edges won’t do.
When I was growing up, my parents often prayed that their three children “would walk in the light.” What did they mean? They wanted moral purity for us; but if that was their only prayer, it fell short. We need a light more powerful than a strong, moral constitution. Walking in the light brings to mind the other channel in which the Pharisees heard Jesus’ claim. As the Jews meandered through the torch-lit Court of Women during the Feast of Tabernacles, they were immersed in a message: Walking in the light isn’t just being good; it’s following the burning pillar of fire out of Egypt; it’s being humble enough to cry out for rescue from sin—apathy included—and allowing the Light to cleanse us. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Walking in the light is embracing Jesus’ second exodus work so deeply that we boldly bring our darkness to him, over and over again, to experience his cleansing, purifying light. What can you zealously bring to Jesus? What darkness do you need to get out into the light?
My daughter had strep throat and was confined to the house for a week. Toward the end of the week, we decided to go outside together. When we stepped outside she said, “Daddy, the light hurts.” I told her, “That’s because you’ve been in the dark so long. Once you get used to the light, you’ll see it’s a beautiful day.” Coming out of the darkness can be painful; but once we step out into the light, our eyes are opened to never-ending wonder: a forgiving Savior and glorious Creator with arms wide open.
The creative and redemptive light work together in Jesus to produce a triumphant light: “the darkness did not overcome it.” The Greek word for “overcome” is sometimes translated “comprehend,” but that translation loses the triumph of the light. Those who walk in the light now will walk in Jesus’ final triumph over darkness forever. We are promised freedom from sin, death, and hell. No more impure motives, no more confession of sin. Those who contend with the darkness and follow the light will sit in regal triumph over sin, death, and Satan for eternity in God’s new creation. There, in the new heavens and new earth, there will be no need for a sun or moon, because the glory of the Lamb will illumine it forever. His creative and redemptive light will so suffuse the cosmos that no unclean thing will ever enter it again. The Light will triumph! May the Lord restore and expand our wonder to continually take in his glorious light.
Jonathan K. Dodson is the founding pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas, founder of Gospel-Centered Discipleship.com, and author of a number of books, including Here in Spirit: Knowing the Spirit Who Creates, Sustains, and Transforms Everything (IVP, 2018).
- For more on the historical developments of science and their relationship to Christian faith, see Alistair McGrath, Inventing the Universe (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015).
- See https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/26/the-memory-keeper.