Jesus' statement that He is the light of the World is the pinnacle of one of Scripture's most extended allegories. It entirely permeates the Gospel of John is alluded to throughout Old Testament prophecy and is mentioned symbolically as far back as Exodus. It then appears again at the very end of Revelation where it may even by literal rather than allegoric. Some might even argue none of these are allegory but rather a statement of fact. Notwithstanding, as we will see, the uses in John certainly are allegoric at least in the setting in which they appear.
Whilst I will touch upon some of the evidences that Jesus being the light of the world is allegory; it is not the purpose of this essay to enter that debate. Instead I wish to draw out some of the points of similarity that the allegory is trying to define and perhaps enhance the picture in our minds a little so that it may apply to us with full force.
Naturally the best place to start looking at this allegory is in the verse where it appears. Uniquely amongst the 'I AM's of John the light of the world appears twice. It appears once in the normal declarative form and again as an explanation of something else. I will start with the 'standard' verse.
Joh 8:12 Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life."
If this verse were just the first two clauses it would be fairly easy to interpret. Christ is a light; you follow the light and you know where you are going. We also see that light is antithetical to darkness. But what does it mean to have the light of life? Is this another name for the Lord and the verse simply claims we will have him? Or is this some derived or reflected form of light that comes from the Lord but which we individually and uniquely possess ourselves? Or is the expression light in the third clause redundant and really it is a statement that we will have eternal life?
The second reference is a little longer and grants a little more information:
Joh 9:4 "I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world".
Here the light is disjoint from the reference to life. We also see that the light and dark from John 8:12 are closely related to the concept of night and day. We know from 1Th 5:5 that believers are children of the light, and children of the day and neither of night nor darkness. We therefore have a parallel. It would appear that periods of light are described as day and periods of dark are described as night. As in these verses that is certainly not a twenty four hour period. In contrast the present of the Lord upon the earth rendered it daytime for some thirty years. However we also see that during periods of darkness no one can work. Not only is night dark but it cannot self organize to make itself light.
The first chapter of our Bible acts as an excellent introduction and concordance upon this subject. First we find that darkness existed before the act of creation. Before God's first creative statement there was already darkness. We therefore see that darkness is not really an object or a thing; on the contrary it is the absence of existence. Then the first thing that God created; before any of the more tangible and physical objects; was light. It can also be noted that light is the first thing the Bible ever declares to be good. At the same point God distinctly divided light from dark; the light didn't improve the dark. The light is seen as antithetic to darkness. We also see that at least for now the division is temporal creating day and night.
The last chapter of our Bible also acts as a conclusion and summary upon light as we presently experience it. In Rev 22:5 we are told there will be no more night. There will be no need of candle or even sun as the Lord God will provide light directly. In fact this promise occurs in the Old as well as New Testament. It is Rev 21:23 however that makes explicit that this light whilst coming from God has its source in the Lamb. This may be an essential point as it potentially gives us an inkling of the role of Christ I the creation.
John 1 starts with a beautiful, memorable but ultimately fairly cryptic announcement that the Word was co-existent and co-creator with the father. John 1:14 then makes plain that this 'Word' was none other than Jesus Christ. However it is John 1:4 may hold the missing piece of the puzzle. Here we are told that Jesus was life; in fact from John 5:26 we know that he had life in him in the same way that the father does. He is self existent. And it is that self existent life which was the light of men. It was that light which shone into darkness and that the darkness was not able to comprehend. I therefore suggest this is implying that Christ was the source of light and life from which God created the universe. I believe Col 1:16 supports this view.
On the basis of this I hold a rather different view of the light allegory to many of the commentators. Many will take the shining light as a source of truth and clarity. To me this seems a redundancy for the one who is the way, the truth and the life. It should also be noted that the Lord states that his light to work by went when He ascended. Therefore if that is the meaning of the 'light of the world' the He presently isn't! Others take it to be eternal life. Again it seems a little redundant for the resurrection and the life. I believe the light of the world is a more encompassing claim; He is the one that holds the universe together. He is its' source and culmination. We are told to follow him. You don't usually follow a light. You hold it and it shines ahead of you. I'm not sure this is about optical clarity so much as visible energy.
I think this I AM appeals to me as a scientist almost more than as a believer. One of the core scientific discoveries and perhaps most famous equations is the:
E = mc2
Which effectively tells us that energy, light and matter all really forms of the same thing. They are convertible and interchangeable. When God called light into existence He was calling for the building blocks from which we are formed. When Jesus said He was the light of the world He wasn't just claiming to be brighter than the sun; he was claiming to be the source of the universe. In fact it is possible He is actively holding it together; literally. In Hebrews 1:3 we get the phrase 'upholding all things by the word of His power' which seems a little florid. After all science would have us believe that everything pretty much just rolls along unless there is miraculous intervention.
However at the center of matter, in the middle of the atom, is a very peculiar and largely unexplained phenomenon. The nucleus of the atom should not stick together. A clump of positively charged particles should just fly apart. It doesn't, it is held together, and I believe this is why it states the Lord is upholding all things by the Word of His power.
So heading back from the science the question becomes what is the interpretation of John 8:12? Well clearly the light does provide illumination; but it isn't an illumination that is to get us to somewhere else. The passage is towards the light and the end of it is the light indwelling and permeating our being. The Word of God is the light to guide us; the Lamb of God is the light to draw us forward and the energy to succeed in our path.
In conclusion: we have looked at the light of the world allegory. We have seen that the picture permeates the whole Bible from first to last chapter and that it is a recurrent them of John's Gospel in particular. We noted that this is often taken to mean that the Lord guides but I have suggested that it is more fundamental in nature and relates to the Lord's role as the substance and sustainer of the universe. The special nature of this allegory and its relation to science was also mentioned. Finally I noted that the purpose of the light was not to give us a path away from it but to draw us toward it. Let us pray that He does so.