John 8:12
Great Texts of the Bible
The Light of the World

Again therefore Jesus spake unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.—John 8:12.

1. Jesus spoke these words in the Temple at Jerusalem. He was sitting in the treasury, within the court of the women; and it was the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, when this court was crowded with pilgrims.

The purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles was to commemorate a chapter in the life of the Hebrew nation away far back in its history. The observance of it was bound up with thoughts of the forty years’ wanderings in the wilderness. It was held at the close of the harvest and the vintage, after the farmers had finished the round of the year’s labours in the fields. When the set time arrived, the people quitted their homes to go up to Jerusalem; and they lived there during the week of the festival in small booths made of branches of olive, and palm, and myrtle, the purpose of this being to recall the tent-life of their fathers in the Arabian Desert. The little huts of greenery were set up in the open courts of the houses, upon the flat roofs, along the principal streets, in the open places of the city, and in some of the outer courts of the Temple.

Two characteristic ceremonies of this Festival gathered up in expressive symbols the lessons of a Divine sustenance and of a Divine Presence, which remained as the great results of the teaching of the desert, and both of these were treated by Christ as parables of Himself. Each morning water was brought in a golden vessel from the Pool of Siloam and poured upon the altar of sacrifice. That water recalled to the people the supply drawn from the rock at Meribah, and pointed forward to the spiritual water which hereafter men should draw “out of the wells of salvation.” For in Christ the living rock, the image and the prophecy found their accomplishment; and so “in the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.” Then again, every evening there were lighted in one of the courts of the Temple two great lamps which are said to have cast their light over every quarter of the Holy City. These recalled the pillar of fire which had been in old times the sure token of Divine leadership and pointed forward to “the sun of righteousness” which should “arise with healing in his wings.” In Christ—the “light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel”—the image and the prophecy found their accomplishment, “and therefore” He “spake again unto” the people, “saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

2. “I am the light of the world.” This is one of those short, pregnant statements of our Lord characteristic of this Gospel, which impress us at once by their brevity, their beauty, and their largeness of meaning. Statements of a similar kind, of equal terseness and force, occur to every one—“I am the good shepherd”; “I am the resurrection, and the life”; “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Sometimes Jesus gathers His work and nature up in one descriptive word, and offers it, as it were out of a wide-open hand, complete to His disciples. In such a word all the details of His relation to the soul and to the world are comprehensively included. As the disciple listens and receives it, he feels all his fragmentary and scattered experiences drawing together and rounding into unity. As, having heard it, he carries it forth with him into his life, he finds all future experiences claiming their places within it, and getting their meaning from it. Such words of Jesus are like spheres of crystal into which the world is gathered, and where the past and future, the small and great, may all be read.

What Divine audacity there is in such sayings! and how little we can suppose them to be the sayings of a mere teacher or prophet! They have no parallel in the words of even the greatest teachers. One and all imply something which the most powerful and enlightened, conscious of their own capacities to communicate truth or to do good, would scruple to arrogate to themselves. They might claim respect for the truth they speak, and summon men to attend to it with a voice of authority. But no merely human teacher would dare to make himself the centre of all truth, and the centre of the world.

It was indeed a magnificent word, a stupendous word. It is one of those sayings of our Lord which prove that never man spake as this Man. It is utterly unaccountable and inexplicable save on one assumption. It either makes us tremble with a shock of surprise, with a feeling of doubt which we wish to crush down as blasphemy, or it brings us to our knees in worship, as before One who is lifted immeasurably above the ordinary limitations of humanity. There are only two possible conclusions to which we can come concerning such words as these. They are either the wildest words of audacity and self-deluded egotism that human lips ever uttered, or they are the language of one who was set far above all human criticism and judgment by His real and unmistakable Divinity. Had such a claim as this been made by the greatest teacher, prophet, or apostle of the ancient world, his words and memory would long since have perished in the scorn and disgust which it would have provoked; and were such a claim advanced by any person in the present day, there would be a universal feeling that mental derangement was at the base of it. No wonder that the men who listened to Him were either filled with indignation or inspired with reverential awe. No wonder that He seemed to them either a blasphemer or the Son of God. There could be no middle course. It was certain that the person who talked in this way would either be scorned and hated and crucified by the world or lifted by adoring hearts wholly above the world in love and honour and supremest adoration. And no middle course has ever been possible for long. Men have never continued to reverence Him as a man unless they have learned to worship Him as God. It is difficult to trust Him at all unless we trust Him all in all. These words are either so extravagant or so sublime, that the Man who spoke them was guilty of a self-conceit unparalleled in human history, or He was higher than the highest human thought can reach and not to be addressed save in the worshipful words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” We have ever to make our choice, and most of us have made it to our heart’s rest and joy. We are sure that He knew what He was saying and had Divine right to say it: “I am the light of the world.”

3. What does Jesus mean? How is He the light of the world? Let us understand what light is and does.

(1) “The light of the world,” “the light of life”—the words send us instantly abroad into the world of Nature. They set us on the hilltop watching the sunrise as it fills the east with glory. They show us the great plain flooded and beaten and quivering with the noonday sun. They hush and elevate us with the mystery and sweetness and suggestiveness of the evening’s glow.

Any one who has watched a sunrise among mountains will know how the light opens out depths of beauty and life where but lately the eye rested on a cold monotony of gloom or mist. At one moment only the sharp dark outline of the distant ranges stands out against the rosy sky, and at the next peak after peak catches the living fire, which then creeps slowly down their rocky slopes, and woods and streams and meadows and homesteads start out from the dull shadows, and the grass on which we stand sparkles with a thousand dewdrops.

Walk on the central glacier of the Oberland in the gloom of a summer night. The grey clouds have hung about the Grimsel, and inflicted on you the sense of chill October, instead of bringing the sweet clearness of an August afternoon. The night has gathered starless and cold; but you are bent on your journey, though it requires all the energy of your determination to carry you through the discomforts of the march. The path at first is sharp and stony, then it is steep—steep in descent, steep in ascent—and your already tired and aching feet make you feel that it is hard to know which is the worse of the two. However, you have passed the polluted moraine, and at last you are on the ice. How cold it is! The breeze comes sweeping down the glacier, and chills you to the bone. Onward you go. The clouds are clearing. Things are better. Star after star is plain above you, and the giant mountains tower grim and gaunt around you, but, at any rate, less wrapped in shrouds. Onward you go, taking more and more courage. What is that shaft of amber, clear and fine as polished steel? What is that flash of deeper glory which shoots across the heavens? What is that line of scintillating gold and crimson which marks the crenulated crests of the mountains, and makes their snow-peaks and ice-lines like transparencies drenched in living fire? How glorious it is, the breaking of the dawn—the breaking of a real splendid August morning over the region of eternal snow! Gradually it steals down the slope of the mountains, till the very glacier itself is aglow. Now a world is before you, startling in its wildness and beauty—your graceful Finster Aar and savage Schreckhorn, and Strahleck barrier, and then, beyond, the soaring Eiger and the grim and meditative Mönch. Wild and beautiful in form and strangeness,—it is all before you now. Ah! it was all there, in its strangeness and stateliness, even when you shivered in the mist and darkness. It was all before you; but to you it was useless, unperceived, unwondered at. You needed the magic of light to reveal it. You know what it is, though it was there before you knew it. You are a debtor to the tender mystery of the dawn.1 [Note: Knox Little, The Light of Life, 4.]

Twice recently has it been my privilege to watch the sun rise in circumstances of unusual beauty. Long before his appearing we had tokens of his coming. The horizon, and the clouds that gathered in little flocks about the horizon, and banks of clouds further remote abiding motionless in the highest places, began to clothe themselves in appropriate raiment to welcome the sovereign of the morning. Dull greys, gleaming silver, deep reds, dark purple—all available hues were to be seen in that array. Then in the fulness of time the great flame rode out among the encircling glories, making them all appear dim and faint in the presence of his own effulgence.2 [Note: J. H. Jowett, The Silver Lining, 69.]

(2) Now the idea of light, long before the time of St. John, had become spiritual in its religious application; and when Christ speaks of Himself as the “light of the world,” it is no darkness of nature that He has in view, but the darkness that rests on men’s thoughts and life, the darkness that all true men feel more or less in themselves. Wherever men have arisen to the power of thought, and are capable of looking “before and after,” there comes home to them a deep sense of their ignorance. Their outlook is fast bound on all sides; and “more light” is their instinctive cry amid encircling darkness, or a twilight of uncertainty more perplexing sometimes than darkness itself. They look upwards, and long that the day may break on their mental struggle, and the shadows flee away from their hearts. The outward light is not enough. The eye is not satisfied with seeing. There is the conscious need of a higher light than ever. lit up sea or shore. The darkness of the world, in short, is a moral darkness, in which man is often unable to see his true way or choose his own good.

He that has light within his own clear breast

May sit i’ the centre, and enjoy bright day:

But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts

Benighted walks under the mid-day sun;

Himself is his own dungeon.1 [Note: Milton, Comus.]

“I am the light of the world”; and before His coming, His appearance was foretold in tokens of purple and gold. Here and there, in Isaiah and Jeremiah, we have great peaks tipped with the light of the coming day, suggesting the glory in which the whole world would be bathed in after time. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”; is not that a foretoken of the tenth chapter of John? “Liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”; is not this the herald of the wonderful happenings which thrill the gospel story through and through? And then, after all these golden hints of promise there came the Sun, the Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings, and the whole world passed into a new day.2 [Note: J. H. Jowett, The Silver Lining, 69.]

(3) But Christ’s words must be interpreted by their reference to the light which was then being celebrated. Of that light we read that “the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.” This was a customary mode of directing the movements of large bodies of men, whether caravans or armies. In the case of an army a tall pole was erected in front of the chief’s tent, and from it a basket of fire was suspended, so that the glare of it was visible by night, and its smoke by day. The head of a marching column could thus be descried from a great distance, especially in wide level tracts with little or no vegetation and few inequalities of surface to interrupt the view. The distinctive peculiarity of the Israelitish march was that Jehovah was in the fire, and that He alone controlled its movements and thereby the movements of the camp. When the pillar of cloud left its place and advanced the tents were struck, lest the people should be separated from Jehovah and be found unfaithful to Him. During the whole course of their sojourn in the wilderness their movements were thus controlled and ordered. The beacon-fire that led them was unaffected by atmospheric influences. Dispelled by no gales, and evaporated by no fiercest heat of the Eastern sun, it hovered in the van of the host as the guiding angel of the Lord. The guidance it gave was uninterrupted and unerring; it was never mistaken for an ordinary cloud, it never so altered its shape as to become unrecognizable. And each night the flame shot up, and assured the people they might rest in peace.

There is no difficulty in understanding what was in our Lord’s mind at this time. Already He had made two distinct allusions to the incidents of the wilderness journey. In the sixth chapter He spoke of the manna which God had sent down from heaven, and He said: “I am the bread of life.” Then in the seventh chapter He spoke of the water which gushed out of the rock, and He said, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink”; as much as to say, “I am the rock from which the living water flowed.” And in the text it is said: “Then spake Jesus again unto them”—implying that He was taking up the same subject after a little interval—“saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life,” alluding, evidently, to the third great symbol of the exodus, the pillar of fire, by which Jehovah guided His people through the wilderness. So it seems clear that our Lord is referring here to Himself as the fulfilment of this great Old Testament type—“I am the light of the world.”

4. There are two things, then, that light does, and it seems as if Christ had them both before Him when He said, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in the darkness.” The first is that it enables us to see. Enter a dark room and you do not see anything; but bring a light and you see what the room contains. The other is that it guides us. The lights at the harbour mouth are there to guide vessels safely into the harbour. And one has sometimes discovered the use of a light, even though it were but the glimmer of a candle in a cottage window, when one has been overtaken by the darkness on some hillside or unfrequented moor. So we have—

I. Christ is the Light of the world because He enables men to see what is in the world.

II. Christ is the Light of the world because He guides men through the world.


He Enables Men to See

The lights by the altar in the Temple were memorials of the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When, then, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” He would declare Himself as being in reality, and to every soul of man to the end of time, what that cloud with its heart of fire was in outward seeming to one generation of desert wanderers. Now, the first thing which it was to these was the visible vehicle of the Divine presence. “The Lord went before them in a pillar of a cloud.” “The Lord looked through the pillar.” “The Lord came down in the cloud, and spake unto him.” “The cloud covered the tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord appeared.” Such is the way in which it is ever spoken of, as being the manifestation to Israel in sensible form of the presence among them of God their King.

1. He enabled men to see God.

(1) He made clear in His own life and words the Divine idea, as no one had done before, and no one has ever done since. Men had been struggling with this idea from the first efforts of religious speculation. It was still unformed and imperfect. Outside of revelation it fluctuated and took many shapes, now presenting itself as a multiplicity of Divine energies, with more or less coherence; and now retreating into a vague Absolute or Necessity, encompassing all being, but without thought or love for any. Polytheism more refined or more sensualistic, and Pantheism more or less abstract, divided the thought of the Gentile world. On the other hand, the idea of God had been to the Hebrews one of growing clearness. He was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of Israel, who had given the covenant on Mount Sinai, who had led their fathers by the way of the wilderness into the promised land, a “jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation,” and yet also “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin,” a holy God, “of purer eyes than to behold evil,” even a Father whose pitying mercy was able to measure all the depths of our weakness. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.”

This sublime conception of the Hebrew mind was perfected in Christ. Every attribute of spiritual excellence was brought out into clearer distinction, and every element less exalted was enlarged and purified. Hitherto the God of the Hebrews had remained too isolated and apart. With all their growth of religious intelligence—the voice of the Divine always speaking more clearly as we descend the course of their prophetic literature—there still clung certain restrictions to their highest conception. Jehovah was their God in some special manner—the Giver of their Law, the God of their Temple, who was to be worshipped in Jerusalem. They had difficulty in enlarging the Divine idea so as to embrace the human race, in rising above local privilege and national prerogative to the thought of God as the spiritual Source and Guide of all men alike. Christ fixed for ever this great thought. “God is a Spirit,” He said; “and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” “Neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem,” was there any special virtue, so far as the Divine presence was concerned. This presence was universal and universally spiritual, embracing all life, claiming the homage and devotion, the faith and love, of all moral intelligence—the presence of the Father as well as the Sovereign of men.

(2) How did He accomplish this? By the manifestation of His person even more than by His doctrine, since He said, not “I bring the light and the truth,” but “I am the light, and I am the truth.” He is the light of the world, because in Him is the glory of God. His words are madness, and something very like blasphemy, unless they are vindicated by the visible indwelling in Him of the present God. The cloud of the humanity, “the veil, that is to say, his flesh,” enfolds and tempers; and through its transparent folds it reveals, even while it swathes, the Godhead. Like some fleecy vapour flitting across the sun, and irradiated by its light, it enables our weak eyes to see light, and not darkness, in the else intolerable blaze. Yes! Thou art the light of the world, because in Thee dwelleth “the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” Thy servant hath taught us the meaning of Thy words, when he said: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

In that famous picture which Holman Hunt has painted of this wonderful scene and utterance in the Saviour’s life, there is one fatal blunder, as it appears at least to those who read Jesus with clearest eyes. The Saviour stands in the encircling gloom, lamp in hand, through which rays of light stream out upon the dusky archways of the Temple, upon the shadowy forms in the background, and upon His own sad, beautiful face. But it is from the lamp which He carries that the illumination comes. That is the mistake. It ought to have been shown as the irradiation from His own person, the glory of His own face, the sunlight of His own matchless purity, grace, and love. He Himself is the light of the world—not what He taught, but what He was and did. His very incarnation is the world’s light. The fact that God could and did dwell in a human form, could speak through human lips, and think through a human mind, and feel the beatings of a human heart, and suffer all human pangs, and render into perfect beauty a human life; the fact that God’s great, awful, mysterious, holy, and loving nature could have its abode in the flesh in a body like our own and glorify it,—that to begin with, and more than all things else, is the light of the world, for it lightens the face of every man that comes into the world.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough, The Cross in Modern Life, 90.]

2. Christ has made clear not only the idea of God, but the idea of man.

(1) The two ideas everywhere interchange, and react the one upon the other. The glory of Christ is that He seized so clearly the spiritual essence of both, and set the great realities of the spiritual life in man in front of the Supreme Spiritual Reality whom He revealed. There is nowhere for a moment any doubt in Christ as to what the true life of man is. He is here and now, a creature of nature, like all other creatures; but his true life is not natural, like that of the fowls of the air or the lilies of the field. He is essentially a moral being, with relations beyond nature, and wants and aspirations and duties which connect him with a Divine or Supernatural order. From first to last this spiritual conception underlies the Gospels, and makes itself felt in them. There is no argument, because there is no hesitation. “Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” The possibility of a negative answer is not supposed. The claims of the natural order, some have even thought, are unduly depressed. The spiritual life seems to overshadow and displace them. But this is only by way of emphasis, and in order to rouse man from the dreams of a mere sensual existence. “After all these things do the Gentiles seek”—those who know no better, to whom the meaning of the spiritual and Divine order has not come. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” The spiritual must be held in its true place as primary; after this the natural has also its place, and is to be recognized in addition.

(2) But the great thought is, that man is the dependant of a Divine kingdom, everywhere transcending the visible and present world. God has made him in His own image, and loves him, however far he may have degraded that image and wandered away from Divine good. He claims man as His own—as rightfully belonging to the higher world of spiritual intelligence, of which He is the Head. And so Christ came “to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Surely this is a higher conception of human life than that of either ancient or modern secularism—a conception truer to the radical instincts of human nature, ever looking beyond the present, and owning the power of more than earth-born thoughts. From the fact of sin itself and a sense of wrong there comes a voice which speaks of something better—of a life akin to angels and to God. The very misery of man attests his greatness, and that there is more in his life, which “appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away,” than the experience of a day. Towards this thought the yearnings of all larger hearts, and the searchings of all higher minds, had pointed for centuries. It was the dream alike of Plato and of Cicero, of Egypt and of Persia. Hebrew Prophecy and Psalmody had grasped it more firmly as the Divine shone upon them more clearly. Yet withal it remained a comparative uncertainty before Christ. He, as no one before Him had done, held forth before men the conception of a higher life, greater than all the prizes of earth, and more enduring than all the accidents of time. That which was but faintly apprehended by Gentile philosopher, or even Jewish seer, was made manifest by the appearing and resurrection of our Lord, “who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” As St. Peter says in his First Epistle, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.”

Christ asserts for man his true dignity and his rightful place in the universe of matter and of spirit. There is no single point in respect to which Christ has wrought so complete a revolution as in respect to the dignity and worth of the individual man. He effected this change, not by teaching a new philosophy, but by living a new life, and consecrating that life by His pitying death. He came to save man, not because man was wise or worthy, but because he was ignorant and lost, and yet could be exalted to wisdom and holiness. Therein did He declare that the lowliest and the most simple have an intrinsic worth in the judgment of God, such as the world had never before accorded to man as man. It was the reproach of Christ, that He consorted with publicans and sinners. His eating with them, however, did not signify that He sympathized with them as they were; it signified that He knew what they might become. To accomplish His work for man, Christ not only was found in fashion as a man, but, being such, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death—even the death of the cross. In this He attested still more strikingly what manhood, as manhood, is worth in the judgment of God. It is not surprising that the light that streamed from Christ’s life and death slowly but surely effected changes so great in all the estimates that Christendom has learned to put upon man.

How great is little man!

Sun, moon, and stars respond to him,

Shine or grow dim

Harmonious with his span.

How little is great man!

More changeable than changeful moon,

Nor half in tune

With Heaven’s harmonious plan.

Ah rich man! ah poor man!

Make ready for the testing day

When wastes away

What bears not fire or fan.

Thou heir of all things, man

Pursue the saints by heavenward track:

They looked not back;

Run thou, as erst they ran.

Little and great is man:

Great if he will, or if he will

A pigmy still;

For what he will he Song of Solomon 1 [Note: C. G. Rossetti, Poems, 121.]

(3) The new ideal of man was set forth by our Lord not only in His discourses but in Himself. Jesus never taught a systematic and scientific morality. He simply replaced the moral world on its true axis, which is the love of God and of man; but on no occasion did He attempt a classification of our duties, a complete explanation of the motives, aims, impulses, and restraining forces of our moral conduct. In the Sermon on the Mount, He showed the inner and spiritual nature of the law; He pointed out what is true purity and love. In His inimitable parables He has taught us, by many examples, what are the conditions of eternal life; but it is, above all, by the manifestation of His Person, and by the radiance of His life, that He has revealed to us the moral ideal of humanity. For the first time, a life absolutely fulfilling the moral law was seen in Him, a life wholly directed by the love of God and man, a life in which there is not an action, a word, a thought, or an impulse of the heart which does not conduce to the glory of God and the good of mankind, and which is not inspired, filled, penetrated by this love. In Him we see for the first time the admirable union of all those virtues which seem contrary to each other, and which usually exclude each other—authority and simplicity, majesty and humility, strength and gentleness, hatred of evil and tender mercy, purity without asceticism, condescension without servility; so that, to employ an image which the subject affords us, just as the various colours which are separated by the prism—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet—vivid and brilliant as they are, form, when united, a perfect white of spotless beauty, so all those different features which compose the form of Christ unite and blend in a harmony so extraordinary and so lifelike that it is imprinted for ever on the conscience of mankind. Through Him, light has for ever been thrown upon man. In Him, man has been seen as he ought to be. This great example stands before us; and wherever it is seen, the absolute return to darkness is impossible. Doubtless the powers of darkness may fall at times on portions of humanity; baseness, lying, hypocrisy, and violence may even shelter themselves under the name of Christ; but misconception and confusion will not last long; the light will at length be triumphant, the delusive shadows, the hideous nightmares, will disappear, and, in the fair and glorious daybreak of morning, justice, purity, and love will shine forth resplendent.

Science is teaching us lessons concerning the physical structure of the universe. The same stuff is ablaze in Sirius and the Sun and the flaming heart of the earth, and so Jesus Christ gives us the moral unity of all the worlds. The setting of the next life we can little imagine, but this we know, that God’s ideal of life is Jesus Christ. We are to be like Him. That is the real predestination. He who in both worlds delighted to do His Father’s will, suffered with brave hope, obeyed with changeless fidelity, served with supreme, unfailing love, is the universal type. God tells us that it is enough to be like Him. The words He uttered, “Good and faithful,” are negotiable in both worlds. Character and capacity are all of life that we can take with us when death swings open the door from this into the next room in our Father’s house.1 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 62.]

3. But now, since Jesus has perfectly revealed to us what God is and what man ought to be, He has lighted up the profound abyss which separates man from God. The more His holiness is made evident and clear, the more evident does our own imperfection become; all our virtues pale beside His perfection, as the false glitter of glass trinkets is outshone by the lustre of a pure diamond. His purity brings out the frightful and repulsive character, not only of our crimes, but of those thoughts, evil intentions, hatreds, and covetous desires, which, though unreached by human law, are revealed through Him. He shows us at once the evil that we have done, and the good which we have neglected to do; He casts a searching light on all hollow pretence, on all ostentation, pursuit of earthly glory, and selfishness more or less cleverly dissimulated. Never before Him had our nature been so profoundly, so accurately judged; never before had man been so clearly revealed to man. Thus were realized the prophetic words which the aged Simeon pronounced over the child Jesus—that by Him the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed (Luke 2:35). Thus the light which shines forth from His person, and which at first attracts us by its sublimity, ends by becoming overwhelming and terrible when it penetrates to the depths of our being, and clearly shows our corruption.

(1) One phase of the mystery of man is that which meets us in the mass of sin, and seemingly base, lost life, which there is in the world. It is that same mystery of man’s moral nature; only not of its struggling, but of where it has ceased to struggle. That is the terrible thing which one is apt to feel wherever life is in dense masses, as in large cities—the multitudes who do not seem to struggle, who are complacent in the hollowest shams of vanity and folly; who are sunk in low, grovelling tastes, from which nothing seems to rouse them; who grow up hard, bold, defiant, and despise the very efforts that you make to help them upwards. And there are yet deeper abysses: all the lost, broken-down lives that fester in the byways of our cities; the masses of crime; the even more hopeless baseness of those who fatten by fostering crime,—whole classes, lost, lost, so lost that we cannot tell even how to try to save them, how to begin to try! And what is to be the end and outcome of it all?

(2) This light would be overpowering, and would leave us without hope, if, after having shown us our misery, it did not at the same time reveal the Divine mercy, if it did not show us in God a love greater than our rebellion, a pardon greater than our iniquity. This is what “Christ crucified” teaches us beyond all else, and it is for this reason that these grand words, “I am the light of the world,” never appear grander or more true than when they emanate from the Cross. At the foot of the Cross the sinner sees and receives a pardon truly worthy of God, because it completely satisfies His justice while at the same time revealing His mercy.

In the Howard Prize Essay for 1885, on “The Preservation of Health,” by Dr. Clement Dukes, the following passage occurs: “Light is not only the great preserver of health, but a great preventer of disease; for Tyndall found that sunlight arrested the growth of organisms, so that, as Dr. Murphy states, sunlight serves the double purpose of aiding the growth of those organisms which are necessary for man, as well as of man himself, while it retards the production of those which are antagonistic to his existence.” Many illustrations are given of this in the essay. The author, drawing upon his own experience, says that when house surgeon in a London hospital, he found that in one of its wards, which was very dark, simple fractures took seven to fourteen days longer in uniting than they would have done in a well-lighted ward, whilst they were afraid to put compound fractures in it at all; and when, from want of space, they were compelled to do so, they chose a bed where the light was greatest. Florence Nightingale, as the result of her wide observation, remarks: “One of the greatest observers of human things says: ‘Where there is sun there is thought.’ All physiology goes to confirm this. Where is the shady side of deep valleys, there is cretinism. Where are cellars and the unsunned sides of narrow streets, there is the degeneracy and weakness of the human race; mind and body equally degenerating. Put the pale, withering plant and human being into the sun, and, if not too far gone, each will recover heart and spirit.” In France there are hospitals where they trust almost entirely to light for the cure of disease. Surely there is here an earthly analogue to a spiritual fact, namely, that only by the beams of the Sun of Righteousness can the evil growths in humanity be stayed and the good ones be fostered.

I was talking some time ago to a City Missionary, an earnest-hearted woman working in the worst parts of one of our great cities; and she told me, how, at first, her work made her utterly despairing. There seemed to be nothing she could do; and she was among a whole population who seemed just sinking down, down to hell—nothing else for it, according to all her old creed. She told me how she used to go home and be haunted with the horror of it; and then she went out again, praying, and longing, and trying, but still reaching only one here and there. But one day it came to her—just the thought of the Heavenly Father’s love shadowed forth in Christ’s, and compared to which her love could be nothing; and like a great flood of light it all broke upon her, that she could trust Him. Why should she be racking her soul with anxiety almost to madness as if she alone in this great universe cared for them? And ever after that, she told me, she had laboured on, not less earnestly than before, but with an easier, freer heart, feeling the mystery losing itself not in darkness, but in light. That light was Christ’s. That anxiety of love for sinners, and that trustful thought of God, are both from Him. There were kind loving hearts before Christ, sad for human suffering; but nowhere, before, do you find that peculiar sadness for sin, and for the poor, lost sinners of the world. That is like a new light upon the great dark mystery, the light of a new love, which has ever since been working in the world; and, the light of a greater love still than ours, a love in the infinite Heart of things, a love to which our hearts go out in that strong trustful plea Whittier has shaped for us—

Father of all,—Thy erring child may be

Lost to himself, but never lost to Thee!1 [Note: B. Herford, Courage and Cheer, 144.]


He Guides Men

The second thought is that Christ, like the pillar of cloud and fire to the Israelites, is a guiding light to us in our march through the wilderness of this world.

But if Christ is to lead we must follow. “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness.” The first demand is for obedience. How emphatically the Book of Numbers (chap. 9) dwells upon the absolute control of all the marches and halts by the movements of the cloud. When it was taken up, they journeyed; when it settled down, they encamped. As long as it lay spread above the Tabernacle, there they stayed. Impatient eyes might look, and impatient spirits chafe—no matter. The camp might be pitched in a desolate place, away from wells and palm trees, away from shade, among fiery serpents, and open to fierce foes—no matter. As long as the pillar was motionless, no man stirred. Weary, slow days might pass in this compulsory inactivity; but “whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, abiding thereon, the children of Israel journeyed not.” And whenever it lighted itself up,—no matter how short had been the halt, how weary and footsore the people, how pleasant the resting-place—up with the tent-pegs immediately, and away. Whether the signal was given at midnight, when all but the watchers slept, or at mid-day, it was all the same.

All true following of Christ begins with faith, or we might almost say that following is faith, for we find our Lord substituting the latter expression for the former in another passage of this Gospel parallel with the present. “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.” The two ideas are not equivalent, but faith is the condition of following; and following is the outcome and test, because it is the operation, of faith. None but they who trust Him will follow Him. He who does not follow does not trust. To follow Christ means to long and strive after His companionship; as the Psalmist says, “My soul followeth hard after thee.” It means, the submission of the will, the effort of the whole nature, the daily conflict to reproduce His example, the resolute adoption of His command as our law, His providence as our will, His fellowship as our joy.

Between teaching and leading there may be all the difference that there is between theory and practice. A teacher may content himself with the thought, the attention, the contemplation, of his pupils, but a leader calls for action. That is precisely the note which is struck in these words: “he that followeth me.” Like the host in the wilderness following the pillar of fire, like the pilgrims to Mecca following the fire-cages slung high upon the poles, so must men follow this Christ, that they may not walk in darkness, but may have the light of life.

1. We have the promise that if we follow faithfully we shall not walk in darkness. This is true in practice of life and its perplexities. Nobody who has not tried it would believe how many difficulties are cleared out of a man’s road by the simple act of trying to follow Christ. No doubt there will still remain obscurities enough as to what we ought to do, to call for the best exercise of patient wisdom; but an enormous proportion of them vanish like mist when the sun breaks through, when once we honestly set ourselves to find out whither the pillared Light is guiding. It is a reluctant will, and intrusive likings and dislikings, that obscure the way for us, much oftener than real obscurity in the way itself. It is seldom impossible to discern the Divine will, when we only wish to know it that we may do it. And if ever it is impossible for us, surely that impossibility is like the cloud resting on the Tabernacle—a sign that for the present His will is that we should be still, and wait, and watch.

I only speak my own experience; I am not talking theology or philosophy: I know what I am saying, and can point out the times and places when I should have fallen if I had been able to rely for guidance upon nothing better than a commandment. But the pure, calm, heroic image of Jesus confronted me, and I succeeded. I had no doubt as to what He would have done, and through Him I did not doubt what I ought to do.1 [Note: Mark Rutherford.]

So the years went on, and the sense of unreality in my teaching grew steadily more intense and intolerable. I saw myself continually expending all the forces of my mind on theories which left me and my hearers alike unchanged in the essential characteristics of our lives. I felt myself, like St. Augustine, but a “seller of rhetoric.” I was inculcating a method of life which I myself did not obey, or obeyed only in those respects that caused me neither sacrifice nor inconvenience. In order to continue such labours at all various forms of excuse and self-deception were required. Thus I flattered myself that I was at least maintaining the authority of morals. I did not perceive that morals are of no value to the world until vitalized by emotion. At other times I preached with strenuous zeal the superiority of the Christian religion, and dilated on its early triumphs. This pleased my hearers, for it always flatters men to find themselves upon the winning side. What I wonder at now is that they did not perceive that my zeal to prove Christianity true was exactly proportioned to my fear that it was false. Men do not seek to prove that of which they are assured. Jesus never sought to prove the existence of a God, because He was assured of it; He simply asserted and commanded. In my heart of hearts I knew that I was not sure. But I did not easily discover the reason of my uncertainty. I supposed the source to be the destructive criticism of the Gospels which had reduced Jesus Himself to a probability. In my private thoughts I argued that it was no longer possible to feel the intense reality of Christ. Francis might feel it, Catherine might feel it, because they lived in an atmosphere of poetry, unchilled by criticism. I could never feel as they felt because I could not transport myself into their atmosphere. Yet as often as I turned to these great lives, something thrilled within me, some living responsive fibre, so that I knew that I was not after all quite alien to them. Could it be that there was that in me that made me, or could make me, of their company? But how could I attain to their faith? What could give back to a modern man, tortured by a thousand perplexities of knowledge of which they never dreamed, the reality of Christ which they possessed? And then the answer came—not suddenly, but as a still small voice growing louder, more positive, more intense—Live the Life. Try to do some at least of the things that Jesus did. Seek through experience what can never come through ratiocination. Be a Francis; then it may be thou shalt think like him, and know Jesus as he knew Him. Live the life—there is no other way.1 [Note: W. J. Dawson, The Empire of Love, 112.]

2. But there is a higher meaning in the words than even this promise of practical direction. In the profound symbolism of Scripture, especially of this Gospel, “darkness” is the name for the whole condition of the soul averted from God. So our Lord here is declaring that to follow Him is the true deliverance from that midnight of the soul. There is a darkness of ignorance, a darkness of impurity, a darkness of sorrow; and in that threefold gloom, thickening to a darkness of death, are they enwrapt who follow not the Light. That is the grim, tragical side of this saying, too sad, too awful for our lips to speak much of, and best left in the solemn impressiveness of that one word. But the hopeful, blessed side of it is, that the feeblest beginnings of trust in Jesus Christ, and the first tottering steps that try to tread in His, bring us into the light. It is not necessary that we should have reached our goal, it is enough that our faces are turned to it, and our hearts desire to attain it; then we may be sure that the dominion of the darkness over us is broken. To follow, though it be afar off, and with unequal steps, fills our path with increasing brightness, and even though evil and ignorance and sorrow may thrust their blackness in upon our day, they are melting in the growing glory, and already we may give thanks “unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.”

Only he can be a true follower whose life and love are in union with the life and love in Christ. He will not be “light in the Lord” until his will is intermarried with the will of his Lord. Every man who is thus joined to the Lord is one Spirit with Him, and walks in His marvellous Light. He is inly and immovably persuaded that nothing can separate his love from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus his Lord; and the comforting, assuring light of this love floods his understanding. The love of God in his will, and the light of God in his mind, make him a new man. The descent of God’s life and light to dwell in his soul makes him sure and certain of his final ascent to God.

3. But we have not merely the promise that we shall be led by the light and brought into the light. A yet deeper and grander gift is offered here: “He shall have the light of life.” That means, not, as it is often carelessly taken to mean, a light which illuminates the life, but, like the similar phrases of this Gospel—“bread of life,” “water of life,”—light which is life. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” These two are one in their source, which is Jesus, the Word of God. Of Him we have to say, “With thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.” They are one in their deepest nature; the life is the light, and the light the life. And this one gift is bestowed upon every soul that follows Christ. Not only will our outward lives be illumined or guided from without, but our inward being will be filled with the brightness. “Ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord.”

This is the great distinction between the light which Christ is and the light by which the Israelites were led from day to day. They had an external means of ascertaining promptly which way they should go. Their whole life was circumscribed, and its place and mode determined for them. The guidance offered us by Christ of an inward Kind. A God without might seem perfect as a guide, but a God within is the real perfection. God does not now lead us by a sign which we could follow, though we had no real sympathy with Divine ways and no wisdom of our own; He leads us by communicating to us His own perceptions of right and wrong, by inwardly enlightening us, and by making us ourselves of such a disposition that we naturally choose what is good.

If I had fulness of life I would have perfectness of vision; I would know what God is, what man is, what heaven is. Is it not written, “This is life eternal that they should know thee”? And yet, marvellous to tell, this unspeakable glory may be mine—be mine now, here, in the midst of the present world: “He that followeth me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” It is not by dying it shall come to me; it is by following—following the steps of the Master through life’s strait gate and life’s narrow way. It is by taking up the cross, by lifting the burden, by bearing the sacrifice, by doing the will, that the doctrine shall be known to me.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Moments on the Mount, 251.]

The still commandress of the silent night

Borrows her beams from her bright brother’s eye;

His fair aspect fills her sharp horns with light;

If he withdraw, her flames are quench’d and die;

E’en as the beams of thy enlight’ning Sp’rit,

Infus’d and shot into my dark desire,

Inflame my thoughts, and fill my soul with fire,

That I am ravish’d with a new delight;

But if thou shroud thy face, my glory fades,

And I remain a nothing, all composed of shades.

Eternal God! O Thou that only art

The sacred fountain of eternal light,

And blessed loadstone of my better part,

O Thou, my heart’s desire, my soul’s delight,

Reflect upon my soul, and touch my heart,

And then my heart shall prize no good above Thee;

And then my soul shall know Thee; knowing, love Thee;

And then my trembling thoughts shall never start

From Thy commands, or swerve the least degree,

Or once presume to move, but as they move in Thee.2 [Note: Francis Quarles.]

4. Christ is our guiding light even unto death. The night cometh. I shall have to lie down and die. Is there any light? “I am the light.” He claims that to those who are in Him the night shineth even as the day. What does my Lord do in the hour of death to break up the reign of darkness? He gives us the cheer of sovereignty. “All things are yours … death!” Then I do not belong to death? No, death belongs to me. Death is not my master, he is my servant. He is made to minister to me in the hour of translation, and I shall not be enslaved by his approach.

That was a true and beautiful word uttered by Mrs. Booth when she was passing home: “The waters are rising, but I am not sinking!” Death was her minister, floating her forward to glory. “All things are yours … death.” And my Lord further softens the night by the gracious light of fellowship. “I will be with thee.” When we are in fine and congenial company how the time passes! The hours slip away and we marvel when the moment for separation comes. And so it will be in death! Our company will be so rich and welcome that the season will pass before we know it. I think the Christian’s first wondering question on the other side will be: “Am I really through? Really?” “Even the night shall be light about thee.” It matters not how stormy the night may be, the Light of Life shall never be blown out. “At eventide it shall be light.”1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, The Silver Lining, 73.]

Whence are we—and whither? Especially, whither? How that question has pressed upon the heart of man. Do you remember the first living glimpse that we get of our old Saxon forefathers, as they stood facing Christianity, not yet converted to it, but wondering if perhaps it might be true? They are facing it with this mystery of the unknown beyond pressing on their hearts. I know few more beautiful episodes in old-world thought. It was a few years after Augustine had come as a missionary to England, and in the rude North, King Edwin of Northumbria had gathered his chiefs and thanes together in “Witenagemot,” or “Wise men’s meeting,” that they might consider this new faith. One by one they told their faith about it, but the best word spoken was this. Said one of the thanes: “Truly the life of man in this world is on this wise. It is as when thou, O King, art feasting with thy thanes in winter-time, when the hearth is lighted and the hall is warm; but without, the rains and the snows are falling, and the winds howl. Then cometh a sparrow and flieth through the hall; it cometh in by one door and goeth out at the other. When a little moment brief and pleasant is passed, it disappears, and from winter returns to winter again. So is it with the life of man, O King. It is but for a moment; what goeth before it, and what cometh after it, wot we not at all. Wherefore, if these strangers can tell us aught, let us hearken to them and follow their law.”2 [Note: B. Herford, Courage and Cheer, 145.]

5. And, finally, Christ guides His followers to another and a better life. Through the opened doors of that immortality which He has brought to light by means of His gospel, there has streamed ever since a steady radiance, towards which the hearts of all men have turned with thankfulness and hope. Christ has done for immortality what He had done for theism. He has not demonstrated it to the reason, but He has verified it as a fact. He has not superseded the necessity of searching and scrutinizing its possibility or probability on grounds of reason, but He has enforced these demonstrations by the best attested events of human history; and He stands before the rational faith of men declaring afresh to all the generations, “I am he that liveth and was dead,” and “Behold, I am alive for evermore,” and “Because I live, ye shall live also.”

What about the morrow? When the river is crossed, is there any light upon the regions beyond? Am I to gaze into blackness, impenetrable, inscrutable? “I am the light.” What kind of light does He give me here? “In my Father’s house!” Is there not a softening gleam in the very phrase? Look here for a sheaf of rays of welcome light. “In my Father’s house,” there is our habitation! “I go to prepare a place for you,” there is the preparation for us! “I will receive you unto myself,” there is a welcome for us! Does not this throw the soft light of the morning on the Beyond? The same light which has been given to me along the way of time will shine upon me in the realms of the new day. “The Lord God is the light thereof.” So you see it is Jesus all the way; my light to-day, to-night, to-morrow!1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, The Silver Lininig, 74.]

There is an ancient prayer for the departed which runs: Grant them, O Lord, eternal rest, and let light perpetual shine upon them.

The Light of the World


Aglionby (F. K.), The Better Choice, 51.

Banks (L. A.), Christ and His Friends, 254.

Banks (L. A.), Sermons which have won Souls, 75.

Brooks (P.), The Light of the World, 1.

Church (R. W.), Cathedral and University Sermons, 80.

Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, iii. 46.

Greenhough (J. G.), The Cross in Modern Life, 88.

Herford (B.), Courage and Cheer, 138.

Hopkins (E. H.), in The Keswick Week, 1908, 10.

Horne (C. S.), The Light of the World, 1.

Ingram (A. F. W.), The Gospel in Action, 23.

Jerdan (C.), For the Lambs of the Flock, 54.

Jowett (J. H.), The Silver Lining, 69.

Lewis (J.), The Mystic Secret, 143.

Little (W. J. Knox), The Light of Life, 1.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: John i.–viii., 319.

Marten (C. H.), Plain Bible Addresses, 100.

Matheson (G.), Moments on the Mount, 250.

Maurice (F. D.), Lincoln’s Inn Sermons, iv. 174.

Miller (J.), Sermons Literary and Scientific, ii. 218.

Newman (J. H.), Oxford University Sermons, 1.

Porter (N.), Yale College Sermons, 204.

Pulsford (J.), Loyalty to Christ, ii. 7.

Ragg (L.), Christ and our Ideals, 51.

Ross (J. M. E.), The Self-Portraiture of Jesus, 80.

Tulloch (J.), Some Facts of Religion and of Life, 209.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), Nos. 375, 687.

Walters (C. E.), The Deserted Christ, 21.

Westcott (B. F.), The Revelation of the Father, 47.

Christian World Pulpit, xxxi. 380 (Horder); xxxvi. 138 (Whiton), 362 (Perowne); xlvi. 310 (Lang); lvi. 161 (Hughes); lxvii. 177 (Ingram); lxxvii. 70 (Marshall).

Clergyman’s Magazine, iii. 193 (Bersier).

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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