Bringing Context to the Familiar Phrase, "The Light of the World"
Updated: May 27, 2020
by Wave Nunnally
In the Gospel of John, Jesus states, “I am the light of the world,” on two different occasions (John 8:12; 9:5). In both passages, He is in Jerusalem and in or near the temple. Did this language merely happen to occur to Jesus on the spot? Are the many scholars correct who dismiss the historicity of these statements as merely a theological theme that John develops by using “light” imagery frequently (John 1:4,5,7,8,9; 3:19,20,21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35,36,46; see also its appearance in the three letters of John and the Book of Revelation)? Or is it possible that, as with so many other teachings of Jesus, greater awareness of how He interacted with the realities of His world could bring greater clarity and depth to His words?
Light” imagery appears throughout Scripture. It is the result of God’s first act of Creation (Genesis 1:3), probably because it is a primary characteristic of His divine nature (Psalms 27:1; 89:15; Isaiah 60:1,19, 20; Micah 7:8; 1 John 1:5; Revelation 22:5). Special expressions of His presence (which we sometimes refer to as “Shekinah”) are often described in terms of light (Exodus 13:21; Acts 9:3; 22:6,9; 26:13; 1 Timothy 6:16; Revelation 22:5). Divine revelation (the “Word” of God) is also spoken of as light (Psalm 119:105,130; Proverbs 6:23; John 1:1-2,4,5,9; Acts 26:23).
Not surprisingly, then, the early rabbis often spoke of “the light of the world.” It is abundantly clear that this kind of thought and language is pre-Christian, because the rabbinic sage Bava ben Buta used it in the century prior to Jesus’ birth. He was the only rabbinic sage Herod the Great trusted to be one of his closest advisors. Consider this lengthy dialog found in Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 3b-4a in which these two older contemporaries of Jesus discuss “the light of the world”:
3b [Herod the Great] said, “Who are the people who teach, ‘From the midst of thy brethren thou shalt set up a king over thee’ [Deuteronomy 17:15]? The rabbis!” He therefore arose and killed all the rabbis, sparing, however, Bava ben Buta, that he might take counsel of him. 4a He placed on his head a garland of hedgehog bristles and put out his eyes. One day [Herod] came and sat before [ben Buta] and said: “See, sir, what this wicked slave [Herod] does.” “What do you want me to do to him?” replied Bava ben Buta. [Herod] said, “I want you to curse him.” [Ben Buta] replied with the verse, “Even in your bedchamber do not curse a king” [Ecclesiastes 10:20a]. Herod said to him, “But this is no king.” [Ben Buta] replied, “Even though he be only a rich man, it is written, ‘And in thy bedchamber do not curse the rich’ [Ecclesiastes 10:20b]; and though he be no more than a ruler, it is written, ‘You shall not curse a ruler of thy people’” [Exodus 22:28]. Herod responded to him, “This applies only to one who acts as one of ‘thy people’ [Deuteronomy 17:15], but this man does not act as one of ‘thy people’” [Deuteronomy 17:15]. [Ben Buta] said, “I am afraid of him.” But Herod said, “There is no one who can go and tell him, since we two are quite alone.” [Ben Buta] replied, “For a bird of the heavens shall carry the voice and that which has wings shall tell the matter” [Ecclesiastes 10:20c]. Then Herod said, “I am Herod. Had I known that the rabbis were so prudent [with respect to their speech], l would not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make.” [Ben Buta] replied: “Since you have extinguished ‘the light of the world’ [i.e., killed the rabbis], as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’ [Proverbs 6:23a], go now and attend to ‘the light of the world,’ the Temple, as is written with regard to the temple, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it’” [Isaiah 2:2].*
This text reveals a number of things: 1) the language Jesus used is not new, but predates Jesus by at least a generation; 2) Jesus is therefore reusing well-known language because important historical figures were already employing it; and most importantly, 3) it provides three ways in which the phrase “light of the world” was used in the time of Jesus: as a reference to the rabbis, the temple, and the Torah (or Word of God).**
It’s clear that the rabbinic world into which Jesus was speaking was in the practice of referring to the Scriptures, the temple, and their authoritative teachers as “the light[s] of the world.” Therefore, when Jesus identifies himself as “the light of the world,” He is appropriating this language to himself. He is declaring that He is 1) the embodiment of the Word of God (see John 1:1-5), 2) that He is the dwelling (“Shekinah”) presence of God (for the temple was the physical representation of God’s dwelling presence among His people — see John 1:14),*** and 3) that He is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture and mediator of its meaning and relevance to God’s people (see John 1:9,17).
Seen from this perspective, Jesus is not speaking in vague platitudes, nor is He using new and therefore unclear metaphors. Instead, He is using contemporary language to declare himself to be the embodiment of the Word of God, its authoritative interpreter, and further, the very dwelling presence of God himself! These are astounding claims that would have attracted attention both positive and negative, but His intended meanings would have been perfectly clear to everyone in His original audiences, regardless of their response.
At another point in His earthly ministry, Jesus used the phrase “the light of the world” again. This time, however, at the beginning of His most lengthy and most famous sermon, Jesus declared to His followers, "YOU are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
In this teaching, He applies the same phrase found in the Gospel of John to His original followers, and by extension, to followers of Christ today! His use of the same phrase evidently implies that in some lesser way, Christians are also an expression of the dwelling presence of God (see Ezekiel 36:27; 37:14; John 14:17; Romans 8:9,11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 2:21-22, etc.), the embodiment of His Word written on a Christian’s heart (Jeremiah 31:33; 2 Corinthians 3:3, etc.), with Jesus the Living Word living inside of His followers. Most especially, when Christians are walking in obedience to His Word and thus properly representing Him by reflecting His true nature, they function as His priests and priestesses. Christians serve as spokespersons for God when they proclaim, interpret properly, and apply appropriately His pure Word! If this appears sensational or farfetched then or now, it must be recalled that hundreds of years earlier, God himself had called covenant Israel “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6).
Many rabbinic texts indicate that it was common in that time to speak of God’s and Israel’s joint effort to show forth His glory to all creation. This would be seen as a fulfillment of God’s words to Abraham, that “through the agency of [his] seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3), to Moses, that the entire nation was to function for Him as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6; see Numbers 11:29), and to Isaiah, that Israel was to serve as a “light to the nations, a covenant to the peoples, that [His] salvation might reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6)! And it is precisely this high calling that Jesus is co-opting when He speaks, first of himself, and then by extension, when He speaks of all those who would follow Him. This is the high calling to which ALL are called — young and old, men and women, Jew and non-Jew alike. Having been created in His image, Christians are to reflect that image to the world, drawing all men to His light, bringing as many as possible, as the rabbis of old expressed it, “under the wings of the Shekinah.”
In dealing with the teachings of Jesus, it is important to remember that, like writers of the Hebrew Bible, His words are typically closely connected to the realities of His immediate surroundings. This means that when He teaches and illustrates, hearers need to discipline themselves to listen carefully to the words of Scripture that often provide His location.
It is evident that Jesus’ points of reference change with His location. When His is in the rural and agrarian context of Galilee, He speaks of “the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:28), “the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26) and “their nests” (Matthew 8:20), “foxes” (Luke 13:32) and “their holes” (Matthew 8:20), “sowing seed” (Matthew 13:3-8), etc. In contrast, when He changes to an urban setting, His points of reference and physical illustrations also change with Him. In Jerusalem, He refers to gigantic and beautifully-dressed stones and magnificent buildings (Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5), “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27).
He points to observable realities within eyesight of His audiences that can serve as visual aids. Jesus masterfully employs these physical realities from His and their world to illustrate the spiritual realities that He is working hard to make accessible to everyone He is speaking to, regardless of age, gender, or educational level!
With that in mind, it should be recalled that the Sermon on the Mount took place in primarily rural Galilee, and more specifically, somewhere around the Sea of Galilee. To clarify what Jesus means when He says that “You are the light of the world,” He uses “Hebrew poetic parallelism” when He adds, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
In Jesus’ day, however, cities were no longer built on the tops of high, artificial mounds made up of successive levels of human occupation, as they were in Old Testament times.
There was, however, one very prominent city that had been built on a natural “hill” that could be seen from practically every point around the lake’s shoreline. The magnificent Decapolis city of Hippus (Latin for “horse”), called “Susita” by the local Hebrew-speaking Jewish population, was the most obvious point of reference around the Sea of Galilee that was indeed a “city set on a hill [that could] not be hidden.”
In addition to the topographical prominence of this city, there are numerous references to “Susita” that have been preserved in the teachings of the early rabbis, which help to reveal the incredible depth to Jesus’ seemingly simple statement and what it was communicating to His followers.
For example, in discussing the question of whether a male child should be circumcised on the eighth day when it fell on the Sabbath, it had to be determined beyond doubt that the boy had been born before sunset eight days prior to the circumcision. This is because the act of circumcision as well as certain related activities, such as the carrying of the knife, constituted “work” that was forbidden on the Sabbath under normal conditions. Therefore,
Rabbi Ammi permitted carrying [materials like the knife, for the purpose of circumcision, on the Sabbath] on the evidence of women [midwives who had witnessed the birth], who testified that [when the child was born], the sun was still shining on the village of Susita (Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 3:1 [end]).
This means that Jews in the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee were using Susita as a timepiece. The beginning and end of the Sabbath could be determined by the final rays of the setting sun reflecting off the huge marble-coated facades and columns of the public buildings of this magnificent Decapolis city. Jews lived largely on the north, west, and south sides of the lake, so this sight emanating unobstructed from the eastern side of the lake was able to serve as a natural point of reference for measuring time.
Susita was also used as a known point of reference for determining financial obligations and matters of religious observance. The early rabbis referenced Susita as a well-known landmark to locate lesser-known local villages. The purpose was to determine financial obligation regarding the responsibility to tithe from agricultural produce.
Similarly, Susita appears in respect to the rules relating to the observance of the “Seventh Year,” in which no cultivation was to be done, Jewish slaves were to be freed, and debts were to be cancelled (see Exodus 21:2-4; Deuteronomy 15:1-2,12-15; 31:10).
The rabbis said, “[Seventh-year produce] is permitted to be sold if it comes from abroad. Rabbi Yose ben Abun said, ‘For instance, rodqia, which they go and sell between Susita and Tiberius…’” (Jerusalem Talmud Shvi’it 8:3). It is evident that the town of Susita is referenced because it is a well-known landmark. It is being used as a guide to define proper behavior in obedient response to the revelation of God in Scripture.
Susita is also referenced in a list of examples where predominantly pagan cities functioned as rivals to a nearby Jewish city. “Chalamish is hostile to Naveh, Jericho to Na’aran, Susita to Tiberias, Castra to Haifa, Lydda to Ono. Accordingly it is written, ‘This is Jerusalem! I have set her in the midst of the nations!’ [Ezekiel 5:5]” (VaYikra Rabbah 23:5).
By this time, Tiberius has become a thoroughly Jewish town where the Jerusalem Talmud would eventually be compiled and some of the oldest and best manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible were produced. Directly across the lake from it and in some ways in competition to it was the pagan Decapolis city of Susita. The difference between a Torah-observant, obedient-to-God town and a raucous, promiscuous, pagan city could be illustrated no better than to compare Tiberius with Susita!
Lastly, Susita appears in rabbinic texts that speak of measurements of size. Rabbi Phinehas said in the name of Rabbi Levi, “The ark floated upon the water as upon two planks, as from Tiberius to Susita” (Bereshit Rabbah 32:9). In attempting to give the listener/reader some idea of the distance traveled by the ark during the flood, the rabbi provided hearers an illustration of the distance, again using the well-known landmarks of Susita and Tiberius.
The teachers of Early Judaism and their listeners were therefore quite familiar with this magnificently-constructed Roman city. It was used to mark time, location, and distance. It was used as a means of contrasting obedient Judaism versus rebellious paganism. The behavior of its Jewish inhabitants provided positive role-models for how the covenant community was to conduct itself as a religious minority surrounded by an often-antagonistic unbelieving majority. It was even referenced as a landmark to determine important religious responsibilities. Read in this light, Jesus likely used this city as a visual aid, a living illustration with which his hearers would already be familiar and which was likely within eyesight. His intended meaning would be immediately clear to these original hearers: their lives were to be lived in such covenantally consistent responsiveness and obedience that their peers could set time, use their lives as prominent landmarks, and see them as standards of measurement for their own.
The cultural, linguistic, archeological, historical, literary, religious, and geographical textures of Jesus’ words are deeply rooted in the world into which He came. When He communicated with His contemporaries, He spoke their language and expected them to share His points of reference and in so doing, understand His words. By getting in touch with the context provided by the languages, geography, archeology, history, culture, religious expressions, and literatures of the land of the Jesus, today’s Christians are usually able to achieve a clearer and more transformational understanding of the Scriptures and their Author.
And all this provides an open invitation to come and study with the Center for Holy Lands Studies — in His homeland, where “faith becomes sight”!
*At least three other passages in rabbinic literature describe the windows of the Temple, which were constructed in such a way as to “draw light out into the world” or “let the light of the temple out into the world,” for “from the place of the house of the sanctuary, light went forth to the world” (Midrash Tanchuma Tetsaveh 6:6; Piskhta d’Rav Kahana 21:5; VaYikra Rabbah 31:7).
**On this third point of reference, other rabbinic texts make clear what is only alluded to in passing by ben Buta. Midrash Tanchuma VaYakhel 6:3 speaks of “…the Torah, which is the light of the world and the world to come…”
***Another set of rabbinic texts elaborate on Bava ben Buta’s passing reference to God himself being “the light of the world”: “Jerusalem is the light of the world, as it says, ‘And nations shall walk at thy light’ [Isaiah 60:3]. And who is the light of Jerusalem? The Holy One [i.e., God], as it is written, ‘But the Lord will be to you an everlasting light’ [Isaiah 60:19]” (Bereshit Rabbah 59:5; cf. also Pesikhta d’Rav Kahana 21:4 and VaYikra Rabbah 31:7).