The Gospel of John by William R. Cannon
Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Gospel of John was published by The Upper Room, 1985. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 4: The Incarnate Light
William Holman Hunt’s picture of Jesus, standing in the dark with a lantern in his hand, though a masterpiece of art, is hardly adequate for its caption: " The Light of the World." The lantern does not even illuminate the garden in which the Savior stands.
John's portrayal of Jesus in this short section of his Gospel as the Light of the world, and from which Hunt got his theme, is more than adequate. It is overpowering. The light Jesus sheds is not a single beam that illuminates one dark spot on which it is focused. It is the all-pervading light of God that dispels all darkness and changes night into day for them on whom it shines.
John portrays Jesus as the incarnate light of God, the glory of the Father reflected in the countenance of his own dear son.
The Divine Light in Human Focus (8: 12-29)
The sun gives the light of day. When it is focused on a part of the earth, the lands on which it shines enjoy what we call "day," a period of time in which most people are awake. The part of the earth which revolves away from the sun is in darkness. The time when we are without its light we call "night." Then it is that most people sleep. They get their rest and are renewed in strength for the activities of the next day, when their part of the earth faces the sun again. The moon and the stars provide dim light at night. But their light is insufficient. Artificial illumination is necessary for most human activities at night.
The Feast of Tabernacles, though it came at harvest time, was a celebration of God's guidance of his people in the wilderness. The Jews wandered for forty years in the wilderness. They were nomads dependent upon their flocks and herds. They lived out of doors in tents. Indeed, their place of worship was a movable tabernacle. When they left one camp, they took it down only to put it back up again when they stopped at another campsite. Their daily reminder of God was the Ark of the Covenant, a movable object that the priests carried before the people on their long march out of Egypt across the wilderness toward the promised land. While they were in camp, the Ark of the Covenant rested in the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle.
God led his people throughout their wilderness journeys by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The pillar of fire enlightened their path and kept them from stumbling or going astray.
All these lessons from their history were enforced on the minds of the Jewish people during the eight days of the Feast of Tabernacles. They made the past vivid in their present by staying out of doors and sleeping in tents, as we do on a camping trip, during the days of the feast.
They opened the Feast of Tabernacles by lighting four golden candlesticks in the Court of the Women in the Temple at Jerusalem. The citizens of the city responded by lighting candlesticks in the courtyards of their homes. So the whole city was aglow with light during the time of the feast.
Jesus stood in the Court of the Women. Pointing to the four golden candlesticks, he said, "1 am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (8:12, RSV.).
We do not know whether the candles were aglow at the time he spoke or not. Probably not, since they were lit on the first night of the feast. Every indication is that Jesus gave this testimony on the last day of the feast. Whether the candlesticks were aglow or not, the force of his testimony was the same.
At any rate, what those candles represented was inadequate at best. He came to displace the dim light of tradition and ceremony with the living light of his own presence, a light that would make the night shine as the day and would give immortality to life itself.
The Pharisees protested, "You are calling attention to yourself. You are advertising your own credentials. You are glorifying yourself. Therefore, your witness cannot be true" (8:13, AP). The Pharisees based their contention on the Law. Before a report could be admitted as evidence, it had to be supported by at least two witnesses. The testimony of just one person was inadmissible as evidence. Even Jesus had admitted earlier if he bore witness to himself, his testimony would not be true (5:31). Why this contradiction?
The answer Jesus gives is that his self-testimony is God's testimony concerning him. He is but repeating to them what the Father has told him about himself. And the conditions of the Law are satisfied, too, for the Father is the other witness who testifies with the son to confirm what the son has said. "If that is true," the Pharisees contend, "produce that second witness. Where is the Father?"
"He is not where you think he is," Jesus replies. "If you knew me, knew really who I am, you would know the Father also" (8:19-20, AP). There is a radical difference between knowing a fact and understanding the meaning of that fact. The knowledge of the senses is not the same as the knowledge of faith. The Pharisees knew their own history as well as Jesus did. But they did not realize that their history pointed to him as their Messiah.
So when he said to them that he was going to a place that they could not come, they thought he meant a place that they would not want to come. They thought he was threatening suicide. They were so amazed and self-conceited that they could not conceive of anyone not desiring the station in life that they enjoyed. Jesus' words that they were from the world below while he was from above the world were so foreign to the Pharisees' own self-estimate that they did not understand him. When he said that he spoke only for the one who sent him, they could not conceive that his reference was to God. So, in despair of helping them, Jesus admitted that they would never know who he was until he had been lifted up. He meant until he had been crucified, resurrected from the dead, and taken up into heaven. Still, whether they understood or not, everything he did was to please his heavenly Father.
The Descendants of Abraham (8:30-59)
Some of the people who heard Jesus believed what he said. At least initially, this was the case. But then, when he spoke directly to them, it appears from John's account that they hesitated and then turned back. Jesus offended them when he said to them that if they pursued his thought and advanced in their understanding of his teachings that eventually they would "know the truth" and the truth would make them "free" (8:31-32). They were offended because they thought they were already free. They knew they were off-spring of Abraham. As his heirs, they had never been enslaved.
Yet they were enslaved. Their land was a conquered territory of the Roman Empire. This part of their reaction to Jesus' words is commendable. Even though under the heel of the conqueror, their spirits were not broken nor their minds enslaved. In their inner being, they knew they were free.
What is not commendable was the superficiality of their freedom. They had enslaved themselves and bound their own minds. Prejudice invariably enslaves the most agile intellects. It takes the edge off the keenest minds. By their reversion to Abraham, they shut out the new disclosure of God in Jesus. True descendants of Abraham would gladly have opened their minds and hearts to Abraham's Messiah.
Yet these people rejected him. They even conspired to murder him. They hated him so much that they had already murdered him in their heart.
"Really," Jesus said to them, "you are children of the devil. Your behavior imitates his behavior, not the behavior of Abraham." (8:39, 44, AP). This indictment Jesus made of them rests on two observations. First, he saw that they rejected the truth he taught them and preferred lies to truth. The devil is the father of lies; so in this regard, they were behaving like his children. Second, the devil is a murderer. This desire to see him dead showed them, more than anything else, to be the devil's offspring. They were slaves, therefore, not to the Romans but to the devil. "Everyone who commits sin," Jesus told them, "is a slave to sin" (8:35, RSV). Only the son can make one free. This promise of Jesus was a reference to a custom that these people knew. A son who inherits his father's property could and often did free his father's slaves.
Abraham, in contrast to them, rejoiced in Jesus and the work he was doing. When Jesus said this, the people were dumbfounded. They said, "You are not yet fifty years old, and Abraham has been dead more than two millenia, how can you have had any contact with him?" Jesus then gave direct witness to his divinity: "Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58).
The Healing of the Blind Man (9:1-41)
After Jesus left the Temple on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, as he was walking with his disciples in the streets of Jerusalem, they noticed a blind man. How they knew he had been blind from birth, we are not told. Yet they did, for the disciples asked Jesus whose fault it was, the parents or the man's, that he had been born blind.
It is easy to understand why they might have inquired about the fault of the parents. Moses taught that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children to the third and fourth generations of the unrepentant (Exod. 20:5). But it was absurd for them to have assumed that the blind man himself could have been at fault since he was born blind. Either they believed in the foreknowledge of God which enabled God to know that the life of this person would deserve such an affliction and put it on him in advance of his sins; or else they believed so intensely in original sin that they thought an unborn child could actually sin in the mother's womb and so be personally responsible for this affliction. There is nothing in Jewish tradition to assume either of these interpretations; so this attitude of the disciples is incomprehensible.
They, as we often do, simply asked a question without considering its rational implication.
Jesus' answer, in part at least, is in keeping with their inquiry. He said to them that neither the man nor his parents were at fault for his blindness. This answer is sound and conclusive. But Jesus went on to add that he was blind in order that his blindness might be used to demonstrate God's power. That answer is, at face value, unsatisfactory. God does not abuse someone in order to use that person as a demonstration of miraculous power. Such an act would be unjust. Such a deed would compromise God's character.
Therefore, the meaning of our Lord's answer is that this man's blindness was not the result of an immoral act on the part of his parents, and certainly he did nothing before birth to deserve this affliction. His condition was an unfortunate accident of nature. God did not deliberately plan it. However, since he was the way he was, his condition would give the son of God another opportunity to express his power in an act of mercy toward this blind man.
Jesus knew his time was limited in this life. Therefore, with a sense of urgency he set about to do the work the Father sent him to do. "As long as I am in the world," he said, "I am the light of the world" (9:5, RSV). The divine light can and must penetrate human darkness. Thus without any request from the blind man himself, Jesus set out to make him see.
Jesus mixed saliva from his mouth with dust from the ground to make clay that he applied to the sockets of the man's eyes. He sent the man to the Pool of Siloam to wash the clay out. Why did he do this? In order to recapitulate God's act in creation. God made the first human by using clay to mold him. God took dust from the ground watered by mist from the earth and breathed into the earthly model the breath of life (Gen. 2:6-7). This act of restoring sight to a physically blind man was to be more than a physical act. The entire man was to be made over in the process. A beggar became able to work. A weak person became courageous. An ordinary human being became an avid believer in the son of God.
The narrative rises in psychological intensity. After the man washed his eyes, he saw. At once his physical sight was complete. He had twenty-twenty vision. But when he was accosted by the Pharisees, he did not even know where Jesus was. Asked by them what he thought about the man who healed him, his answer was that he must be a prophet.
The man's parents testified that their son had been blind since birth. Then they were asked, "Does he now see?"
They answer, "You had better address that question to him. He is able enough to take responsibility for his answers. We do not want to be involved in this."
The Pharisees interrogated the man again. They told him that he should give God the praise, not the person who healed him. This person, they contended, is a sinner, for he healed him on the sabbath day. John comments that even the Pharisees are divided among themselves on this issue. Some of them realized that a sinner could not perform such a miracle. Others, however, put the observance of the sabbath day above the welfare of the people who observe it and labeled Jesus a sinner for violating it.
It is interesting that the man's own neighbors had so associated his blindness with him that once he was able to see and no longer begged for a living, they were unable to recognize him. A few admitted it must be he. Others said it was another who looked like him.
The man responded to the Pharisees that he did not know anything about Jesus' moral character, whether he was a sinner or not. "One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see" (9:25).
"How did he do this?"
The man declared impatiently, "I have told you all this before. Why do you keep on asking me? Could it be that you want to become his disciples?"
"No, no." the Pharisees said and retreated. "You only are his disciple. We are Moses' disciples. We don't even know where this man came from."
"Well, if you are as smart as you claim to be," the man replied, "you ought to know, for he healed me. He is an extraordinary person. Have you ever heard of anyone, since the world began, making a blind man see? God does not hear sinners. God hears only those who sincerely worship him. Look what God enabled this man to do for me. What he did testifies he is of God."
The Pharisees were theologically defeated by an ignorant beggar. They had no more to say. Their last words were, "Who are you, born in sin, to try to teach us?" And they ordered him out of their presence.
But Jesus found him and asked him if he now believes in the son of God. The man humbly replied, "Who is he? I want so much to believe in him."
Jesus said, "Since you now see, the person you are looking at is he." And the man believed with his whole heart and worshiped Jesus.
This blind man, because Jesus is the light of the world, both saw and perceived. But others, like the Pharisees, see but never understand the truth of what they see. They would be better off blind, for then they would not be able to see how to sin. But, as it is, they are sinners and do not know it. Jesus was a Savior to the blind man who accepted his mercy and believed in him, but he was a judge who condemned the unbelieving Pharisees.
There is a winsome and inspiring beauty about the faith of the blind man as it unfolds and intensifies in this narrative. The gift of sight was unsolicited by him. He passively accepted what Jesus bestowed. All he did was wash out his eyes. Yet his new condition enabled him to work, which he gladly did. He gave up the degrading necessity of begging. His faith expressed itself initially in self-respect. But there is the element of gratitude as well. The man who gave him his sight must be a prophet. On the basis of what Jesus had done for him, the healed person formed his estimate of Jesus. Although his parents were afraid of being ostracized simply because their son had been healed, he was willing to endure criticism and mistreatment and even expulsion from the synagogue rather than disparage Jesus. The climax of his experience was his confession that the person who healed him is the son of God. This man's faith began by loving Jesus for what Jesus had done for him. It ended by loving Jesus unselfishly for Jesus' own sake and thereby loving himself because Jesus loved him. His faith rose from a concept of God as an instrument of his own self-betterment to a concept of himself as a tool in God's hands to be used as God sees fit.
There is no transition, or abrupt departure, from the healing of the blind man and the picture of the good shepherd. Both are essential parts of the same piece, for what Jesus says about the good shepherd is occasioned by the reaction of the people to the healing and is an explanation, not of the miracle itself, but of its effects on the lives of its witnesses. Though what Jesus now says paints a picture in words, it is not a parable or even a story. It is an analogy, a simple comparison of any good shepherd to Jesus. The difference between Jesus and any ordinary shepherd is that our Lord's sheep are human beings.
The immediate meaning of what he said was apparent to his auditors. The Pharisees had not healed the blind man. They had even objected to his being healed. To them he was a nameless beggar. Jesus had healed him. He cared enough for him to come back to him again and to offer him salvation. He came to know him and to look after him as any good shepherd knows and cares for one of his sheep.
But the deeper meaning of this analogy was not apparent to any one. It was an enigma. They all were familiar with a sheepfold -- an enclosed area in which many different shepherds placed their sheep and hired a gatekeeper to attend it. The gatekeeper admitted only one of the shepherds, never a stranger. The shepherds had to know their own sheep to distinguish them from the sheep of others who shared the sheepfold with them. They had to collect their sheep and take them out to pasture.
At times, sheep owners employed shepherds who did not own sheep to tend their flocks. However, one could not expect such a hired person to take the same interest in the sheep as the owner. These hirelings were interested in collecting their wages, not in the welfare of the sheep. Then in times of danger, they put their own safety above the safety of the sheep. But the shepherd who owned his sheep would take great risks to protect them. They were his property. They were his sole livelihood and the livelihood of his family.
To Jesus, the sheepfold was the safe abode of all God's people. He himself was the true shepherd who owned those sheep. Unlike any other shepherd, even those who owned sheep, he loved every one of his sheep more than he loved himself. He would go so far as to give up his life to save the life of one of his sheep. These Pharisees were no more than hirelings. They cared for their own status and self-interest above the interest of the people they were entrusted to teach. They worked only for wages -- the esteem and praise of the public. They had shown no interest in the blind man whatever. But Jesus also had human sheep in other sheepfolds. He was as much interested in saving people outside the Jewish religion as he was those inside Israel. Finally, he would gather all those sheep who would follow him into the everlasting sheepfold of God.
It is no wonder many of those who heard him said he was out of his mind to talk like that. His words were still an enigma to them. Others, though they did not grasp the full import of what he said, at least appreciated what he had done. An insane person or one with a demon inside (which the people of that day believed made a person insane) could not cause a blind person to see. These people realized Jesus was the Light of the world.
Questions For Reflection And Study
1. "The truth shall set you free -- but first it will make you miserable," says a Christian poster (it is a picture of a rag doll halfway through a set of wringers). Have you ever had an experience where it was painful to face and obey the truth? In what ways does facing the truth about life and ourselves set us free?
2. The disciples blamed the blind man's blindness on sin. In what ways do we still blame suffering people for their suffering'?
3. The Pharisees were concerned about Jesus' not keeping the sabbath. What value is there in keeping the sabbath? Do you observe the sabbath?
4. How do you think we come to know God's voice, as the sheep know their shepherd's voice? How does God communicate with you, and how do you know it is God speaking?