Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8.12; 9.5). If I had said that, or you had said that, we would be total crackpots! But not Jesus of Nazareth. Just read the New Testament gospels that quote his teaching and tell of his healings and exorcisms. Jesus was one-of-a-kind. I don’t see how anyone can read those documents with an open mind and not realize that Jesus was indeed “the light of the world.” As I often say, if Jesus wasn’t Israel’s promised Messiah, Israel isn’t ever going to get its Messiah.
Jesus being “the light of the world” is a major theme first introduced in the prologue of the Gospel of John. The prologue is sort of an outline of the book. So, we should look for this theme in this gospel’s following text. For, the author first says of the logos, which is Jesus come in the flesh (cf. John 1.1 and v. 14), “What has come into being, in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1.4).
But how did Jesus come to say, “I am the light of the world”? I think we have to dig down deep to understand how it happened. I think we must accept the total consensus of New Testament scholarship about the Adulterae Pericope (woman caught in adultery; John 7.53–8.11), that it is a later insertion after the Gospel of John was first published. BTW, I believe, as most NT scholars do, that this account reflects a reliably-historical event that took place but that it was not a part of the original Gospel of John. (The same is true of John 21.)
The occasion that prompted this self-declaration of Jesus was his attendance at the Festival of Tabernacles/Booths (John 7.2). At the temple that week, he had become a focal point of discussion, especially as to whether or not he was the Messiah of Israel promised in their Scriptures (vv. 25-27). Some said of him, “we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from'” (v. 27). This was a common belief in Judaism. But they knew Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth in Galilee, which was sixty miles north of Jerusalem, which was in Judea, with both lands being a part of Eretz Yisrael.
Jesus soon spoke out loudly, perhaps while a symbolic ceremony of pouring water was conducted. He said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (v. 37).
The people then discussed, again, if he was the prophet predicted by Moses (Deut 18.15-19) or the Messiah (John 7.40-41). Someone said, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?” (v. 41). To affirm this, another then said the Messiah must descend from David’s lineage and come from Bethlehem (v. 42). They obviously didn’t know Jesus’ lineage, which was Davidic (Matt. 1.5; Luke 3.31) or that he was born in Bethlehem, which was located south of Jerusalem in Judea. Micah had prophesied that Messiah would be born there (Mic 5.2; cf. Matt. 2.3-6). Then we read, “So there was a division in the crowd because of him” (v. 43). Many wanted to arrest him but didn’t.
Nicodemus–a member of the Sanhedrin (ruling council) who had gone to Jesus earlier and privately, inquiring of him (John 3.1-15)–was among them. He then said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7.51). Then read, “They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (v. 52). This comment reflects the common and discriminatory belief of Judeans in those days that Galileans were inferior people.
Johannine scholars are quick to point out that one prophet was indeed from Galilee: Jonah of Gath-hepher (2 Kgs 14.25), the prophet who got swallowed up by the big fish (Jonah 1.17). Interestingly, that episode Jesus cited as a sign (type) of his future resurrection from the dead on the third day (Matt. 12.40; 16.4). But Hosea may have been from Galilee as well. These scholars also avoid a contradiction by citing a variant in the two oldest, extant, Greek manuscript portions of the Gospel of John, P66 and P75. They have ho prophetes, meaning “the prophet,” which refers to “the prophet” predicted by Moses (Deut 18.15-19), whom Christians believe is Jesus. I am persuaded to accept this early variant since nearly all Johannine scholars do even though the majority of manuscripts, which are later, have only prophetes, meaning only “prophet.” But earlier is likely more reliable concerning manuscripts. Plus, accepting ho prophetes in v. 52 fits with the same in v. 40.
If the Pericope Adulterae was a later insertion, then we should understand that John 8.12 continues where 7.52 or 7.53 left off. Thus, when 8.12 begins, “Again Jesus spoke to them,” we should understand this to mean that the author continues to relate what happened at the Festival of Booths. Accordingly, Jesus was saying, “I am the light of the world,” as a retort to the previous comment, “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (7.52). Not so, and it is the one who made this comment who needs to search the Scriptures! For Isaiah predicted the Messiah would come from Galilee, and that is why Jesus so spoke and thereby alluded to it–Isaiah 9.1-2.
Yet, I am surprised that the commentaries on the Gospel of John in my library (J.H. Bernard, R.E. Brown, C.K. Barrett, George R. Beasley-Murray) either don’t mention Isa 9.1-2 or make little of it in applying it to this pericope in John 7. Now, Isaiah doesn’t use the messianic title, but the Messiah in the Old Testament has several titles and metaphors applied to him, and both Jews and Christians have believed this (cf. Luke 24.44-46).
Isaiah 9.1-2 says (NRSV), “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.”
I think this Isaiah text has to refer to Jesus as the “great light” that the Galileans would see. For, Jesus spent most of his three-year itinerant ministry traveling about Galilee. Thus, when he twice said at the festival, “I am the light of the world,” he was alluding to Isaiah 9.1-2. In doing so, he was correcting that earlier declaration that the Messiah does not come from Galilee but also bringing to attention those who knew that text that the one Isaiah predicted would be a light to the entire world, since Isaiah said the “great light” would come from the Galilee OF THE NATIONS.” This indicates the risen Jesus’ commission to the church to evangelize and teach the world by saying to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28.19).
Isaiah later elaborates about this wherein he speaks on behalf of Yahweh God, who says of his servant, who I believe is the Messiah, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49.6).
So, in the Old Testament, the Messiah (Anointed One), the Great Light, Yahweh’s Suffering Servant–these titles that refer to the same person, that is, the Galilean who said, “I am the light of the world.”