The Light of the World
By Robert R. Edwards, B.A., B.S., J.D.
Traveling at exactly 299,792,458 meters per second (that’s approximately 186,282 miles per second), the speed of light in a vacuum is one of the only known constants in the universe, and clearly the most visible.1 This is true regardless of whether you’re traveling towards the light, standing still, or running away from it. To better explain, I’ll have to revert to one of those high school math problems many of us hated, but I’ll keep it simple.
If a train is traveling towards you at 50 miles an hour and you are running towards the train at 5 miles per hour, you and the train are approaching each other at the relative speed of 55 miles per hour (50 + 5 = 55). If you are standing still, however, and the train is traveling towards you at 50 miles per hour, then the train is approaching you at just 50 miles an hour. Finally, if the train is moving towards you at 50 miles per hour and you are running away from the train at 5 miles per hour, then the train is approaching (or catching up to you) at 45 miles per hour (50 – 5 = 45). So, relatively speaking, relative to you, the train can be moving at 55 miles per hour, or 50 miles per hour, or 45 miles per hour, depending upon what you’re doing in relation to the train, even though the train is always moving at the same 50 miles per hour.
Not so, however, with the speed of light in a vacuum. It doesn’t matter whether you’re moving towards the light, standing still, or running away from it. The speed at which light approaches you in a vacuum is always the same: 299,792,458 meters (approximately 186,282 miles) per second. Moreover, according to the theory of special relativity, it is the maximum speed at which all energy, matter and information can travel.
This got me thinking about John 8:12 wherein Jesus is quoted as saying that he was “the light of the world.” He continued, saying that “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus punctuated his healing of the blind man in John 9:5, proclaiming that “[w]hen I am in the world, I am the light of the world (emphasis supplied).” Considering that the speed of light is one of the only known constants in the universe and that Jesus did not just say that he was “like light” in the world, but proclaimed himself to be the light [of the world],2 it struck me as perhaps more than mere coincidence. More than an analogy, it was an equation, albeit perhaps metaphorical more than literal in a physical sense. So I dug a little deeper into the Word, and what I found startled and excited me. In the first fourteen verses of the first book of the New Testament, the Apostle John writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made, without him nothing was made that has been made. 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. There came a man who was sent from God, his name was John [the Baptist, not the author of the book of John]. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light, but came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision nor a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us (emphasis supplied).
John 1:1-14 (New International Version).
By his immediate invocation of “light” and “dwelling” in reference to Jesus, John wasted no time (and minced no words) in proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ, the Anointed One, the long awaited Messiah, God incarnate, come to earth to bring light to our dwellings, to bring life to our lives. To understand how John’s invocation of “light” and “dwelling” necessarily constituted his declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, however, we cannot confine ourselves to the New Testament. We must begin with the Old.3
Perhaps the most starkly contrasted imagery throughout all of the Old Testament is that of the darkness and the light. After creating the heavens and the earth, God said, “Let there be light,” then He separated the light from the darkness.4 This was not a reference to Jesus, who John tells us was God and was with God from the beginning, but a reference to the physical properties of light as we understand them, separated and distinct from darkness. Throughout Old Testament biblical history, light came to represent God, His ways, truth and life; while darkness came to represent the way of all flesh, falsehoods and death.5 God used light to reveal Himself to His chosen people, to manifest Himself among them, to separate them from their enemies, and to lead them. God used light as a sword, as a shield, and as a sign.
God first appeared to Moses in the form of light burning in a bush on the Mount of Sinai.6 Gold told Moses that the sign of his having been sent by God to free Israel from Egypt would be that the Israelites would return to worship God at that same mountain.7 Their return was precipitated in part by one of the plagues God sent upon Egypt—a plague of darkness. We are told in Exodus 10:21-23 (New American Standard Version):
Once Pharaoh relented and released the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt, God led them by a cloud during the day and “in a pillar of fire to give them light” by night so that they might travel by both day and night.8 The cloud never left them during the day, and the pillar of fire (i.e., the light) never left them during the night.9 The light not only gave them direction and comfort, but protection as well. When Pharaoh’s chariots set out after the newly manumitted Israelites, the pillar of God’s fire moved in front and stood behind them, “coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.”10 When the Egyptian charioteers followed the Israelites into the parted Red Sea, God “looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud” and threw them into the confusion that precipitated their destruction as the waters rushed in.11 The light of God spared the lives of His people, the darkness brought death and destruction to their enemies.
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward the sky, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even a darkness which may be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand towards the sky, and there was thick darkness through all the land of Egypt for three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days. But all the sons of Israel had light in their dwellings (emphasis supplied).
After God defeated Pharaoh and his armies, God led the Israelites back to Mount Sinai to worship Him as He had promised Moses they would do.12 There God appeared to His chosen people atop Mount Sinai in the form of thunder and lightning and fire, in other words, in the form of loud and booming light.13 God had reduced Himself, in a sense, for His people and for His purposes at the time, from the Creator of the universe to a tangible manifestation of Himself confined to a mountain on one small planet in that universe. The mountain became His dwelling place on earth, and the fire that engulfed the mountain was the manner in which He chose to manifest Himself to all of Israel. It was there that God issued His laws, concluding with specific instruction for the construction and furnishing of the Tabernacle, which was to be His new dwelling place on earth.14 The Tabernacle was to contain a lampstand made from a single talent of pure gold and accommodating seven lamps set up to light the space in front of them.15
Seven is one of the numbers thought throughout Christendom to represent perfection, the beauty and wholeness of God. Thus God was preparing the way to leave His dwelling place on a mountain of His own creation to reside among His people in a Tabernacle built by their own hands—to reduce His earthly manifestation from a fire sufficient to consume a mountain to a mere flicker confined in the flames of seven small lamps arising from a single lampstand. A lamp, of course, is not light; it merely contains light or gives light a place in which to maintain itself. In that sense, the lamp is the dwelling place for the light. Although the Ark of the Covenant was consigned to the Holy of Holies, the most inaccessible chamber of God’s dwelling, the lampstand was set outside the Holy of Holies, separated from the Ark by a veil, but suggestive, perhaps, of God’s ultimate accessibility to all men should that veil ever be ripped or torn open. Meanwhile, the sons of Israel were charged by God to bring for the lamps “clear oil of beaten olives for the light,” so that the lamps might burn continuously. (See Exodus 27:20; 35:8, 14, 28; 39:37; 44:4). This charge is later repeated in Leviticus 24:1-4 (NIV):
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps can be kept burning continually. Outside the curtain in the Testimony of the Tent of Meeting, Aaron is to tend the lamps before the Lord, from evening until morning, continually. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. The lamps on the pure gold lampstand before the Lord must be tended continually.16
The lamp of God came to represent both the presence of God and the promise of the Messiah (a “lasting ordinance”) through the family of David, and it remained a symbol of Israel’s election by God as His “lampstand” throughout Old Testament history. In II Samuel 21:17, for example, we are told that Abishai (King David’s nephew through his half sister) came to King David’s rescue and killed a Philistine, after which “David’s men swore to him saying, ‘Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished.’” The last words of Kind David were prophetic of the morning light to come, the light that would last forever and never be extinguished. He said, “When one rules over men in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning, like the brightness after rain that brings the grass from the earth.”17 The most notable brightness after the rain is the rainbow—a prism that separates in its revelation the most basic of colors, all of which are contained in the whiteness of pure light, and which God gave to Noah as the sign that He would never again destroy the whole earth by flood.18 Numerous times thereafter we are told that God withheld from destroying the “house” of David by any means because God had promised the Light (the Messiah) to David and his sons (God’s lampstand) forever. See e.g., I Kings 11:36; II Kings 8:19; and II Chronicles 21:7.
Had God broken that promise, had God destroyed the “lampstand” (i.e., the house of David) for the light which was promised to David and his sons forever, that light could never have come, at least not from the house of David, of Israel. And God would have been a liar. Given the numerous references throughout the Old Testament to Israel as this lamp, and to the Messiah as this light that was to come from the house of Israel, John could not have made more clear in the first fourteen verses of the first book of the New Testament his declaration that Jesus was that Messiah, the light of the world—his body and flesh the new lamp in the form of one Jewish man, the Christ. The Apostle John referred to John the Baptist as a lamp which signified, pointed to, and even contained some of the light,19 foretelling of the admonition that it would one day be our charge and commission to carry forth that light. More than that, the Apostle John did not just proclaim that Jesus was the light; he also exclaimed that he, Jesus, dwelt, or made his dwelling, among us.
According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word for “dwell” used in John 1:14 is used only once in the entire New Testament, and its literal translation is “tabernacle.” In other words, this light that had represented God and His promise to Israel throughout all of the Old Testament, this light that had been maintained in the Tabernacle from its construction to its first (and then its second) destruction, had finally come in full human form and now it “tabernacled”among us, only this time in human form. Christ was the light and his human form the lamp, the new tabernacle never to be destroyed (“Destroy this temple [i.e.my body, the New Tabernacle], and I will build it up again in three days”).20 The connection here between the Old Testament to the New is made clear in I John 2:7-8 (NIV), wherein we read:
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the new light is already shining.
The purpose of light, of course, is to illumine a dark place, particularly a dwelling. God’s dwelling, the Tabernacle, was illuminated by the lampstand and its seven lamps. When Jesus came, however, John tells us that he was the light of Man shining in darkness, thus equating Jesus with God, God the Son with God the Father. Just as God at Sinai had reduced His manifestation from fire sufficient to consume a mountain of His own creation, then allowed Himself to be “housed” in a lampstand in an otherwise dark dwelling place built by men, God (in Jesus) had allowed Himself to be emptied into the body of a man that he might tabernacle among us and illumine for us in our beings and our world the light that represented God’s ways, the truth and the life.
Most know what Man did with that light. He nailed it to a tree. Three significant things happened during that crucifixion. In the midst of it, “all the land” became engulfed in darkness,21 the reason being that, for the moment, Man had snuffed out the light of the world. Upon his death, the veil in the Tabernacle that had separated the Holy of Holies from the outer chamber was rent in two,22 symbolizing, I submit, that God’s covenant was extended beyond Israel to all the peoples of the earth and that every man had direct access to God without the intervention of priest or prelate. Third, the earth quaked, rocks cracked, graves were opened, and many of those who died believers were resurrected, a sign of what awaits all believers after death.23 Christ, too, was resurrected three days later and ultimately ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of God the Father, co-equal with Him and with God the Holy Spirit.24
Pending Christ’s return, our mission is to be lamps bearing witness to the Light, a witness, like John the Baptist, to the light that is to shine within us. In I Thessalonians 5:5 we are told that we are children of the light. In Matthew 5:14-16 we are told that we are now to be the “light of the world,” admonished to let our light shine before men because, as the purpose of a lamp is to illumine a dwelling, the purpose of that light which is within us is to illumine the world. We live, we dwell, in the world and in our bodies. Our bodies are to be temples, tabernacles, to the living God and witnesses to a dying world. As our Lord explained in Luke 11:33-36 (NIV):
No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden…Instead he puts it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body is also full of light. But when they are bad, your body is also full of darkness. See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be completely lighted, as when the light of a lamp shines in you.
Prior to his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, God the Son promised the disciples that He would send “a Comforter” after him who would be with them, and with us, until the end of the age.25 Christ identified this “Comforter” as the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who would reside within them and in us.26 When He came, the Holy Spirit first filled those to whom He came and signified His presence by what appeared to be “tongues of fire” (i.e., light) that separated and came to rest upon each of them.27 Thus, God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit consistently made manifest Himself unto us in the form of light, usually accompanied by fire, and gave us the power to be the Sons of God, commissioned to enlighten the word with the light of His Truth.
There will come a time in the New Jerusalem when there will be no more darkness. The Lord our God will provide us light, (Rev. 22:5), and that light will be Jesus, the Lamb of God, (Rev: 21:23). Until then, just as the children of Israel were to maintain a constant and sufficient supply of oil for the lampstand in the Tabernacle, Jesus tells us in the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25) that we are to maintain a constant and sufficient supply of oil in ourselves to let the light of the triune God shine in us and through us. It is God’s intent that for as long as they last, our dwellings, our bodies, never run short of the oil necessary to keep the fire burning within. They are to remain constant, approaching the lost at the maximum speed at which all energy, matter and information can travel.
Just like the Light of the World.