A Study in Light
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A Study in Light

John 8:12  (ID: 2304)

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” In this message, Alistair Begg expounds on Jesus’ words, explaining how the light of Christ affects believers today. Like a city on a hill, those who follow Christ should let His light shine through them so that the unbelieving world may see Him through life’s shadows and believe.

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn to the New Testament, to John chapter 8. John 8:12: “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

Here, in the space of relatively few words, Jesus makes a quite remarkable claim, and he issues an equally incredible promise. Claim: “I am the light of the world.” Promise: “All who follow me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

The opening part of the verse reminds us that Jesus has, within the temple precincts, been speaking already. If you look back to 7:37, you will realize there that on this “last and [great] day of the Feast,” Jesus had spoken, making another quite remarkable claim, offering to them the resources that were found in himself. And now it would appear that it is possibly the afternoon of that same day, and as the preparations have been made and will finally be concluded for the grand finale of this feast time, Jesus is taking the opportunity to stand and address the people as John tells us once again.

The feasts of the Jewish people were and are important. They delighted in obedience to them. They rejoiced in the symbolism that they represented. And central to the celebration that was taking place here in the temple courts was the event referred to as the illumination of the temple. This wasn’t simply that they put the candles on in the routine fashion of regular week-by-week worship, but they actually put light to four vast candelabra. And in a phenomenal display of light which not only lit up the temple courts but also spilled out into the immediate environment, that then became the occasion of celebration—exuberant celebration—the Levitical orchestras giving it their very best, men taking burning torches and dancing in much the same way that we saw when we watched Fiddler on the Roof, with music and with dancing, with songs of piety, with songs of hope and expectation. The whole temple precinct was reverberating with life and with light.

And for these individuals, that light was to them a reminder of God’s goodness in their past. It spoke to them of the way in which God had guided them, their forebears, from Egypt to the promised land via the exodus and how he had given them a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[1] And as they danced in the illumination of the temple courts, they were reminded of God’s provision for them in their past. As they sang their songs, they recognized that their songs were symbolized in this light. Because they loved to sing, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”[2] And in their celebrations, they also looked forward to the day when the Lord’s servant would finally appear in Zion, when he would be “a light [to] the Gentiles,” when he would “bring salvation to the ends of the earth,”[3] when the prophecy of Isaiah would finally come to fruition:

The people walking in darkness
 have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow …
 a light has dawned.[4]

And they were filled with expectation in these events.

And then, with an absolutely wonderful and perfect sense of timing—“at just the right time,”[5] if you like—in this context that is highly charged in celebration, Jesus makes this stunning statement: “I am the light of the world.” “I know,” he says in essence, “that you are here in order to celebrate the illumination of the temple. And this is magnificent light, but it can only carry so far, unlike me. I am the Light of the World. There is a fairly powerful source of light here,” he’s saying. “But eventually, it will dissipate; it will dim; it will finally come to nothing. But me—I never dim. My light will never go out. I am the Light of the World.”

And as a result of making this dramatic statement, it is the genesis of debate, of division, and of faith. As the chapter ends, we read that some of them, even as Jesus was speaking, “put their faith in him.”[6] Suddenly, if you like, the light went on for them. They realized, “This is the very fulfillment of the prophecies from the Old Testament.” And when they heard him saying, “I am the light of the world,” the truth dawned.

The Darkness We Live In

Now, remember that what we have here in John’s Gospel, as in the other Gospels, is material that was written after all the events of the life of Jesus had transpired. The Gospels are written not simultaneously with the unfolding of the events, but they’re written in a short period of time after the ascension of the Lord Jesus. And you will remember that John, in chapter 1—and I invite you just to turn a few pages and notice this—that John, under the guidance of the Spirit, has chosen to begin his Gospel not in the way that Matthew and Luke do, with the birth narratives, but he has chosen to begin his Gospel even further behind that. He has chosen to begin in eternity, and how God has revealed himself from eternity, and how into the darkness of time the light has come.

Hence verse 4, speaking of Jesus: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Verse 9: “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.” Have there been other lights? Yes. Were there others who claimed to be shepherds? Yes. Others who claimed to be guides? Of course. The distinguishing feature of the Gospels points to the uniqueness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And so the message is absolutely clear. There is no question that Jesus is declaring that his listeners live in darkness. After all, why would you say, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness”?[7] The person puts up their hand and says, “I don’t walk in darkness.” It’d be like coming into a room that is fully illumined with light, and someone says, “You know, I have a flashlight for you.” You say, “What possible use do I have for a flashlight? The place is ablaze with light!” But if, of course, I’m living in darkness—if I find myself down in a cave or in a hole—and somebody says, “Here, I have light for you; follow this light,” then, of course, it immediately takes on significance.

So, Jesus is declaring what the Bible makes clear—namely, that by our very nature, we live in darkness. Darkness and light—the great contrast between them—are used throughout the Bible in order to contrast what man is by his very nature as alienated from God, in rebellion against God, unbelieving of God, and therefore living in the darkness of his own rebellious heart, and the light which then pervades a life that is turned upside down—namely, the right way up—as a result of becoming the follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And of course, this annoyed people—particularly the religious people, the most favored of them, the most learned of them, the most exalted of them. They say, “What does he mean, ‘I am the Light of the World; he who follows me will not walk in darkness’? Doesn’t he know who we are?” Just in the same way as some of you routinely sit here in church, and as you listen to the story of the gospel, you say, “This is a tremendous message for some people who are on skid row, you know. This is a great story for the folks who are, you know, the down-and-outers. This is obviously for the kind of people that can’t make a go of it. But I’m so glad that I am fine.”

You’re not fine! It is an illusion. And for one nanosecond, if you’re honest, you know that you love yourself too much, you don’t love God, you break his laws, you can’t keep your temper, you think filthy thoughts, and you’re outrageous to your wife and your children. And I’m only addressing the men for a moment. You live in darkness.

And that’s the point! “I am the Light of the World,” he says, “and it is only in following me that you will no longer walk in darkness but have the light of life. If you choose not to follow me, then you do not live within the realm of light; you live within the realm of darkness and death.”

Only those whose torches have been kindled at the bright flame of Jesus can then shine into the darkness of the world.

Now, what we know to be true individually we know to be true nationally and also globally. You don’t have to go far looking for darkness and the evidences of darkness. You can take any newspaper you want. This the front page of yesterday morning’s New York Times. And the suicide bomber killed at least forty-six at the Chechen government offices. North Korea is gearing up its nuclear monitors. “Gunmen Kill 4 Inside Yeshiva in the West Bank.” Tragic pictures of those dying of AIDS in Africa and the poorest of the poor eking out a sorry existence. And that’s only on the front page. If you want to go deeper into that, then we can have the story of rape, and mayhem, and prejudice, and disappointment, and fear, and disaster, and runaway children, and broken-down marriages, and so it goes on. Now, stand up and tell me that this is as a result of how well we’re doing in Western culture. It’s dark! By any standards, it’s dark.

Therefore, you would think, wouldn’t you, that if somebody stood on the stage of history, as Jesus has done, and as he comes now through his Word and he says, “I am the light of the world,” the people say, “Well, we must follow this!” But they don’t. And John explains it: “Men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. He who does what is bad seeks the darkness. Only he who does what is good is prepared to come out into the daylight.”[8] Have you ever gone anywhere that was worth its salt that was all closed down and dark and fake and flimsy?

Interestingly, as well, and just in passing, construction of windows at the time of Christ were narrow on the outside and wide on the inside. But the construction of the temple windows were narrow on the inside and wide on the outside, so that the vast majority of light would spill out into the surrounding community.

“Light has come into the world.” “This is the verdict … but men loved darkness [rather than] light because their deeds [are] evil.”[9] Only those whose torches have been kindled at the bright flame of Jesus can then shine into the darkness of the world.

I used to love sparklers as a child. Fireworks were always available on the fifth of November. Those of you from the UK understand why; the rest, look it up online. But on the fifth of November was sparkler day and firework day, and I would sometimes try and light a sparkler with a match. If you’ve tried that, it’s a futile exercise. I don’t think it is possible to generate enough heat in a match—at least my fingers couldn’t hold on to it long enough to do it. It may be possible. But I discovered very quickly the way to do it is find one that is already lit, and push your sparkler into the source of that light, and then all of a sudden, that dramatic moment where phzz! like that, and it all lights up, and suddenly you are illumined as well. By itself in the box: nothing. Once in contact with that which is illumined: light spills out everywhere.

The Difference Light Makes

What Jesus is saying is this: that we, by our very nature, are like unlit sparklers. And we may want very much to try and shine. We may take courses on shining. We may hang around with a lot of people who shine. But until our lives have been illumined, have been set on fire, by the love and the grace and the power of Christ, then all of our light is a fake light; all of our shining is superficial and empty.

You see, the distinction is very clear, isn’t it? It’s not difficult to understand. Jesus says, “I am the Light of the World. I’m speaking to those who are in darkness.” So today, our congregation is divided between darkness and light. Oh, it’s divided in other ways—by size, and shape, and aspiration, and ability, and age, and gender, and so on—but as God looks from heaven, he sees this congregation only in terms of light and darkness.

And the other distinction is between those who follow Jesus and those who do not follow Jesus. By nature we are dark, and by nature we do not follow Jesus. Well, who do we follow? Well, we may follow many gods, but essentially, the god we follow and worship is ourselves. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, [everyone] has turned to his own way.”[10]

Isn’t that what you say to your friends when they tell you… “I’d like you to come to worship. I’d like you to come. The talk is going to be ‘A Study in Light.’ We’re going to think about the light of the Lord Jesus. And if you follow him, you will not walk in darkness.” “Please, thank you, I don’t mind coming, but I have my own way. I have my own way. I have my own feelings, I have my own beliefs, and I’m glad that you have found your way, but I have my way.” No surprise: “Each of us has turned to his own way.” And Jesus says, “If you follow me, you’ll no longer go your own way, but you’ll go my way.” “I have come into the world,” says Jesus, “as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”[11]

So, in other words, this is a radical change. In other words, if you’re sitting out here this morning and saying, “Well, I’m not sure if I’m in the dark or in the light at all,” let me tell you: 99 percent chance you’re in the dark. Because when Jesus illumines our lives, when he touches us and he changes us, when he turns the lights on, then it is a radical difference. When Paul writes of this, he says to the Colossian believers—describing what has happened to them in following Jesus—he says, “You have been rescued from the dominion of darkness. Someone has come and plucked you out of your predicament, taking you out of the darkness.”[12] He writes to the Ephesians in the same way: “Once you were darkness, … now you are light in the Lord.”[13] There is a before, and there is an after: “Once I was going my own way in the darkness, and then I met Christ, and now I’m going Christ’s way in the light.” Are you? Am I?

What do you have in chapter 9? If we had time, we’d go into it—a phenomenal illustration of the very principle. You go into chapter 9: the man born blind, and Jesus opens his eyes. And the big, fat religious guys… Or maybe they weren’t fat. The religious guys—big, skinny religious guys—they were so sure that they could see everything, and Jesus says, “You can see nothing. You are as blind as the man whose eyes have just opened.” And when they finally pressed the man—“What’s going on here? How did he do this? How did he do that? Do you realize this about the Messiah and where he comes from?”[14] And eventually the man says, “Listen, listen, listen. I can’t answer all your questions, but I can tell you this: I used to be blind, but now I can see.”[15] In other words, it was night and day. It was darkness; it was light.

Have you been changed? Have you been illumined by the great effulgence of Christ, as it were? Have you come a little, weenie, little sparkler with your life in all of the darkness and said, “Illumine me, Lord Christ! My thoughts are dark. My deeds are dark. My end is dark. I want to be your follower.”

“I want my life to be changed like the life of Zacchaeus,” you may say. His life was dark, wasn’t it? Zacchaeus was the equivalent of a Nazi collaborator with the French in the height of the Second World War. People spat on the ground when he came around. He was deceitful. He was lining his own nest. He was a bad actor. What was it, then, that brought him out on the front stoop of his house, and he’s standing out there, and he’s saying, you know, “I’m just going to be giving a lot of money away the next few days. I’m going to be repaying my debts. And more than that, I’m going to actually go overboard and just take care of every problem that I have ever created by my miserly and selfish existence.” And then people say, “What in the world happened to him?” And Jesus said, “Let me just explain it to you: salvation has come to this house.”[16] The light came and overcame the darkness.[17] Has the light overcome the darkness in your life?

The Demand We Face

You see, there is a difference that we find, and let me give the balance of my time to suggest to you that there is also then a demand that we face.

When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he described them in wonderful terms. He said, “You know, you wonderful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, as you go about your business there in Philippi, I want to remind you that you are shining like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.”[18] Shining like stars in the universe! People were coming up to them and saying, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star! How I wonder what you are.” Has anyone come up to me lately and said, “Excuse me! You know, there is just a shine here. There’s just a conviction here. There’s just a light here. There’s just a story here. Twinkle for me! I’m trying to figure you out.”

Not only did Jesus say, “I am the light of the world”; you remember in the Sermon on the Mount, he said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.”[19] He says in John chapter 9, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world,”[20] the inference being, “I am going to relocate, and when I relocate, the light which shines like stars in the universe holding forth the word of life is going to be as a result of those who are illuminated as a result of their coming to me to be my followers, as they turn away from their own way and turn to follow me.”

“Nobody,” he says, “lights a light and puts it under the bed, but he sets it up on a stand so that it would give light to all that are in the house. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill can’t be hidden.”[21] Two perfectly understandable illustrations! If a city is nestled down in a valley somewhere, its light may be hard to find except from certain points and perspectives. But when a city is set up on the mountainside, you can see it from miles away. Who goes into their house, and takes a light, and illumines it, and then covers it over with a big blanket? “So,” says Jesus, “I want to make sure that you, in every outward and visible manifestation of your Christian lives, are showing people, are illustrating the fact, that you are a follower of me, the Light of the World—that you shine, that you’re not concealing your light.”

When my light is concealed, one of four things is at play in my life, I can guarantee you. Number one: willful sin. When I am actually doing something that I know is dead wrong to do, no surprise that the twinkle goes.

Number two: by compromise—trying to have it both ways, playing it down the line. That way, nobody asks, except this question: “I thought you were a… How come you’re in a…? I thought you were a… How come you do…?” See? So you can’t, when you’re trapped in that situation, start, “Well, I’m actually a follower of Jesus Christ. He’s the Light of the World.” Because the response is obvious, isn’t it? “Well, if he’s the Light of the World, and you’re a follower of the Light, what are you doing in here in this dark spot?”

Thirdly, your light is dimmed by laziness. Laziness: “Nah, I don’t want to shine. I don’t want to talk to that person. I don’t want to do what Jesus says. I’m tired of this. It’s someone else’s responsibility around here. Let someone else shine for a while!”

Or by fear. Fear: “I’m afraid that someone will see the light and ask me questions. I’m afraid that someone will see the light and identify me with Jesus. I don’t mind them identifying me with religion. I don’t mind them thinking that I’m a very altruistic individual. But I don’t want to be identified with he who is the Light of the World.”

So what happens? Fear, laziness, compromise, and sin dull our lights.

Are you shining? You shining? Salt in the cellar that doesn’t touch the mashed potatoes is pretty well useless.[22] And mashed potatoes without salt, as a connoisseur of mashed potatoes, are miserable things—absolutely horrendous, especially if they go slightly cold at all. Cold mashed potatoes, unsalted mashed potatoes—yuck! Terrible. So you got to get the salt on them very quickly.

The salt is to be rubbed into the culture. That’s what we do to prevent the meat from putrefying. We’re supposed to have an impact. We’re supposed to be involved in the arts. We’re supposed to be involved in science. We’re supposed to be involved in secular education. We’re supposed to go to public schools. We’re supposed to be salt, and we’re supposed to shine as lights.

Do you walk in the darkness, or are you in the light of the Lord Jesus? Are you going your own way, or are you following the Lord Jesus Christ?

Most people know the Dead Sea Scrolls. They haven’t a clue what they are, but they know there were some scrolls somewhere around the Dead Sea. They emerged as a result of the work of the Dead Sea community. The Dead Sea community took its name from its location. It was actually a gathering of monastic individuals, it seems, who dwelled in caves around the Dead Sea. The reason they dwelled in caves was because they had determined that the world was a big, bad place, and they had withdrawn from it. Ironically, they called themselves “the sons of light,” and the sons of light lived in caves. Quite a strategy, wouldn’t you agree? “Now, we have a light here that is to shine into the darkness. But we don’t want this getting out to too many people, so why don’t we just come in here and keep it to ourselves?” It’s nice to have a little light, isn’t it, on a cold, dark evening? Yeah, but there’s something wrong when I don’t want to go out of my well-illumined place and bring in someone who struggles in the dark and share the light of my fire with them. It’s just total selfishness.

Men and women need to see the light through those who have been illumined. Men and women need to hear of Christ, the one who is the Redeemer. They need to hear of his amazing love. They need to have someone unpack for them the story of the gospel. They need to hear that the cradle pointed forward to his cross; that in his atoning death, Jesus dealt with sin—all that was necessary in relationship to sin. Jesus dealt with all that was necessary in relationship to the wrath of God, being the propitiation for our sin. Jesus dealt with all that was necessary in relationship to ourselves, so that there is now, in Christ, “no condemnation to them [that] are in Christ Jesus”[23]—that the slate is clean, that the chapter is new, that it’s no longer darkness; it’s light. It’s no longer doing my own thing and going my own way, but it’s following the Lord Jesus Christ.

So, there it is. I just stop now, I think. I think it’s fairly straightforward, isn’t it? The distinction is clear: darkness, light; following, not following. Do you walk in the darkness, or are you in the light of the Lord Jesus? Are you going your own way, or are you following the Lord Jesus Christ?

Father, we hear your Word today calling us from darkness to light.[24] Grant us grace that we might make that move. We hear your Word calling us to shine as lights in the dark place. Grant to us your divine enabling that we might be, in all of our faltering and flickering, pointing away from ourselves to Christ, who is the Light of the World. And if it please you, Lord, arrest the slide into darkness in our culture. Set us on fire, and set your ministers of the gospel on fire, and set people on fire. Revive your church in the midst of the days.

And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, now and forevermore. Amen.


[1] See Exodus 13:21–22.

[2] Psalm 27:1 (NIV 1984).

[3] Acts 13:47 (NIV 1984). See also Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32.

[4] Isaiah 9:2 (NIV 1984).

[5] Romans 5:6 (NIV 1984).

[6] John 8:30 (NIV 1984).

[7] John 8:12 (RSV).

[8] John 3:19–21 (paraphrased).

[9] John 3:19 (NIV 1984).

[10] Isaiah 53:6 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.

[11] John 12:46 (NIV 1984).

[12] Colossians 1:13 (paraphrased).

[13] Ephesians 5:8 (RSV)

[14] John 9:10, 12, 15, 16–17, 24, 26 (paraphrased).

[15] John 9:25 (paraphrased).

[16] Luke 19:8–9 (paraphrased).

[17] See John 1:5.

[18] Philippians 2:15–16 (paraphrased).

[19] Matthew 5:14 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.

[20] John 9:5 (NIV 1984).

[21] Matthew 5:14–15 (paraphrased).

[22] See Matthew 5:13.

[23] Romans 8:1 (KJV).

[24] See 1 Peter 2:9.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.