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The Life of Jesus - Series 8: Episode 4

Jesus & religious leaders in open debate

| Martin Charlesworth
John 8:12-59

The tension rises as Jesus debates with the Jewish leaders. He uses the symbol of light, connected to the Feast of Tabernacles, to teach more about his identity.

The tension rises as Jesus debates with the Jewish leaders. He uses the symbol of light, connected to the Feast of Tabernacles, to teach more about his identity.


Hello, and welcome to Series 8 and Episode 4, ‘Jesus the Light of the World’. We're studying in John 8:12 - 59 for this episode.

Introduction and Recap

Those of you who have been following recent episodes, and following this series, will know that we are in John's Gospel and as we discussed in earlier episodes, John focuses much of his material on events that happen in Jerusalem. He gives plenty of attention to the dialogue and discussion that takes place between Jesus, the crowds, the religious leaders and other individuals during those times in Jerusalem. The other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tend to focus on events in Galilee up until the last week of Jesus' life, where all four Gospels describe in detail the events that lead up to the death and resurrection of Jesus. John is giving us a perspective from Jerusalem. Luke has already told us that Jesus is now leaving Galilee and he's heading south, in events that took place in Series 7. He's going to be spending time in Samaria and in Judea, and the surrounding areas, because his ultimate goal is to end up in Jerusalem and to confront the religious authorities directly with his identity. He has predicted to his disciples that he'll suffer; he'll be killed; and he'll rise again from the dead, as a result of that confrontation. This is still some time in the future but the general trajectory of Jesus' ministry is to head south and John points out that Jesus is moving southward and travelling in that direction through Samaria and Judea.

He also makes occasional short visits to the city of Jerusalem in the context of the major religious festivals or feasts that take place three times a year, and on other occasions too, for other minor religious festivals. John tells us quite a lot about these events. We now know from John's Gospel that this is the third recorded incident of Jesus going to Jerusalem during his public ministry. They're all recorded in John's Gospel. In John 2, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple, overturning the trading tables and stands of the traders in the Temple, who are making money out of the sacrificial system and all the finance associated with it. We see in John 5 how the healing of a man who'd been disabled for 38 years causes a great controversy because he was healed on the Sabbath, and the Jewish authorities take issue with that on the basis of the Law of Moses. The third visit to Jerusalem is for the Feast of Tabernacles and it's during this visit that the events and discussions described in today's episode actually take place. We have quite an extended account of different things that happen in this Feast of Tabernacles visit from John 7 onwards.

It's worth recounting and recalling briefly some of the things that have already happened, because they help to explain the discussion and the issues that come to the forefront in today's episode. Jesus went up to the Feast of Tabernacles very privately and quietly and only appeared publicly about halfway through the feast. The way he tended to appear publicly in Jerusalem was to appear in the Temple compound. The Temple compound was a huge area where people gathered in large numbers during religious festivals where there were many pilgrims in the city; vast crowds of people going up to the Temple to worship, carry out their sacrifices, and also to socialise, to eat, meet people and hear teaching. Jesus frequently went up into the Temple compound and started teaching and gathering a crowd. He did that at the Feast of Tabernacles, and then at the very end of that feast, just before the conversation and dialogue we have today, he made a magnificent statement about his own ministry and what was going to come after his death and resurrection which I'll briefly recount.

Traditions Within the Feast of Tabernacles

As we begin our episode in John 7: 37 - 38, it says that,

‘On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within him’.

John 7:37-38, NIV

By this, he meant the Spirit in those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time, the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. We discussed, in an earlier episode, exactly what Jesus meant was a reference to the outpouring of the Spirit on his disciples after his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. This particular teaching related very specifically to something that happened in the Feast of Tabernacles and that was that the water was carried from a pool, the Pool of Siloam, to the Temple in a very dramatic religious ceremony, with the priests, musicians and water carriers, singing as they went. They poured out vast quantities of water into the Temple to symbolise the future coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus capitalised on that particular aspect of the festival in order to make a point and in fact predict that that promise of the coming Holy Spirit, which the Jews believed in through the Old Testament prophecies, was in fact just about to happen, as soon as he was raised from the dead and ascended to heaven. It's interesting that Jesus used the Feast of Tabernacles and the events within the Feast of Tabernacles as a basis for a teaching point.

The exact same thing is going to happen in the discussion and teaching of today's episode. There was another ceremony associated with the Feast of Tabernacles which has particular significance, which Jesus draws out symbolically in the teaching today. Not only was water very significant in the way that I've just described, but light was also very significant. One of the things that the Feast of Tabernacles was well known for is that large numbers of torches were lit and placed prominently all over the city but particularly all around the Temple compound. The Temple compound became filled with a tremendous amount of light, which was a wonderfully dramatic thing to see during the evenings of the feast. People came up to the Temple just to experience these torches, which would probably have been saturated fabric with oil in it. They were lit and would burn for quite a long time into the night. The two key symbols of the Feast of Tabernacles were water and light. These were symbols that had been added in by the Jews over the years because traditions were added in, in terms of the meaning and outworking of all the different feasts. As I explained in earlier episodes, there are three major feasts: Passover, March-April; Pentecost, May or June; and Tabernacles, September and/or October. The original meaning of the Feast of Tabernacles was to do with the living in tents in the wilderness for 40 years but other themes had been added in: the theme of harvest; the theme of the Holy Spirit; and the theme of God's light, which is what we want to think about as we look at the texts that we're going to discuss today. There's quite a lot of dialogue in our passage today. Jesus had long conversations with the crowds and with questioners and opponents when he went to Jerusalem. As I've already explained in earlier episodes, the atmosphere in Jerusalem was complex and difficult for Jesus because hostility was there; the Sanhedrin were already against him; the Jewish ruling council of Pharisees were already against him; they were briefing the people against him; and they were issuing propaganda against him. The people haven't seen Jesus in the flesh very much and many of them had never seen him before. They'd heard all the things he'd done in the north of the country, in Galilee. Maybe they knew people who'd been healed or who had seen him. They were confused and so there are divided opinions about Jesus all the way through the accounts of his visits to Jerusalem.

Light of the World

Let's look at John 8: 12 - 20.

‘When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The Pharisees challenged him. “Here you are, appearing as your own witness. Your testimony is not valid.” Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I came from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgement on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law, it is written that the testimony of two witnesses is true. I am one who testifies myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.” They asked him, “Where is your father?” “You do not know me or my Father.” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” He spoke these words while teaching in the Temple courts, near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.”

John 8:12-20, NIV

Jesus makes this powerful claim ‘I am the light of the world’ and, of course, the symbol of light was very powerful in the minds of those who had been at the Feast of Tabernacles as we have just discussed. This is one of the famous statements of Jesus, the so-called ‘I am’ statements that John particularly draws our attention to. There are seven statements of Jesus concerning his identity, which start with the affirmation, ‘I am’. They all appear in John's gospel. We did one already in John chapter 6, and there are five more to follow. I'll quickly tell you what they are: John 6 verse 35, ‘I am the bread of life,’ John 8 verse 12, ‘I am the light of the world’, in John 9 verse 5, John 11 verse 25, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, John 10 verse 9, ‘I am the gate’, John 10 verse 11, ‘I am the good shepherd’, John 14 verse 6, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, John 15 verse 1, ‘I am the true vine’. Jesus' method of teaching, particularly in Jerusalem, - six out of seven of these take place in Jerusalem - involves making these very clear metaphorical affirmations. He's telling people who he is by using metaphorical or symbolic language. Symbolically, Jesus is the light of the world. John has already discussed this theme in the introduction to his gospel. In John 1 verses 4 and 5, it says,

‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

John 1:4-5, NIV

Jesus is bringing spiritual light, revelation, understanding of truth, awareness of God and awareness of salvation. All these things are implied in this beautiful statement that Jesus makes, ‘I am the light of the world.’ By the way, the world - not just a particular ethnic group, not just the Jews, not just the Western world, not just the modern world - no, he is the light for the whole world. His message is literally for the whole world. It is a Word for the world but of course, the Pharisees claim that Jesus is self-appointed and without authority. The main contention between Jesus and the Pharisees is the question of authority. From their point of view you can only be an authorised religious teacher if you go through their system, their academic training, their authorisation, their religious structures and appointments. It was a complicated religious system that created the authorisation to become a teacher, or a rabbi, or a member of the sects like the Pharisees. Jesus had not gone through any of those qualifications or training or schools. He wasn't a priest; he wasn't a Pharisee; and he wasn't a Sadducee. He was just an ordinary carpenter from Nazareth. Yet, he claimed authority greater than theirs and so the dialogue goes on.

Jesus Challenges the Jewish Establishment

We'll read now a long discussion, 21 - 47,

‘Once more Jesus said to them, “I'm going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.” This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, ‘Where I go, you cannot come’?” But he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of your this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.” “Who are you?” they asked. “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied. “I have much to say in judgement of you. But he who has sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” They did not understand what he was telling them about his Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” Even as he spoke, many believed in him. To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus said, “If you hold my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we will be set free?” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you'll be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham's descendants. Yet you're looking for a way to kill me because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father. “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham's children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is you're looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.” “We're not illegitimate children,” they protested, “the only Father we have is God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my message not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar, and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth you cannot believe in me. Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what he says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

John 8:21-47, NIV

In this long and quite complex dialogue, I want to pick out some things that are important for us to keep in mind in understanding this passage. Jesus is challenging the Jewish religious establishment. He says that those who don't believe in him are actually going to die in their sins; salvation will be about the response of individual people to the person of Jesus. He says that his own true identity will only fully be known when he dies, verse 28,

‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.’

John 8:28, NIV

The final revelation of Jesus is his death and resurrection and that will provide all the evidence people need. On the other hand, Jesus says that for those who do believe in him, the truth will set them free from sin. He's offering the possibility of freedom from slavery: the enslavement, of the human tendency to sin, which controls people. He's basically saying those who believe in him are no longer under that control because a superior power is at work within them, which we know to be the power of the Holy Spirit, which is described in John 7: 37-39. Jesus is also challenging the belief of the Jews that their biological descent from Abraham, their forefather, guaranteed their spiritual status and their relationship with God. Jesus said that was not the case. Although the biological significance of being a Jew is very great, and still is great, salvation doesn't come automatically through ethnic background, or racial allegiance, or connection biologically to Abraham. Salvation comes through belief in Jesus and he basically warns them that if they turn against him, they are showing more of the characteristics of Satan, the devil, than of any positive ancestor, or of God himself.

This is a very tough talking dialogue on both sides, as you can see the arguments develop on both sides. In the final section, Jesus makes further claims about himself as the Jews get exasperated. The Jewish leaders get exasperated in this dialogue. You can imagine this discussion going on in the public forum, in the Temple compound with possibly hundreds of people listening in as Jesus debates with leading Jews: his identity, their status and the significance of their response to him.

The Jews Challenge Jesus

Verse 48 through to the end of the chapter,

‘The Jews answered him, “Aren't we right in saying that you're a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honour my Father, and you dishonour me. I am not seeking glory for myself, but there is one who seeks it and he is the judge. Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.” At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died, and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim is your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “But you are not yet 50 years old,” they said, “and you have seen Abraham!” Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”

John 8:48-59, NIV

This complex discussion and debate reaches a climax here, and another threat to Jesus' life. The Jewish leaders make two accusations against Jesus. One that he is a Samaritan and the other that he is possessed by evil force - he is demon-possessed. We've come across this accusation of demon possession before a number of times, and we can think back to Matthew 12: 20 - 24 where the Pharisees make that claim of Jesus in Galilee. It was made several times subsequently. The idea that Jesus is a Samaritan seems a really unusual idea. We don't know whether they're being ironic or serious but they are just getting frustrated trying to disqualify Jesus's claims in any way that they can. Jesus claims against them that he is empowered by his Father, not by evil forces.

Then he makes that stunning final claim, which is really the climax of this complex and difficult discussion between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. He makes his claim, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” In this way, Jesus absolutely clearly declares his divine status. He is indicating to them that he is not constrained merely by being a human. As a human, he's a lot less than 50 years old, as they rightly point out but as the eternal divine Son of God he has pre-existed mankind; he has pre-existed Adam and Eve; he's pre-existed the Jewish people; and he's pre-existed Abraham, the father of the Jewish people himself. Therefore, ”before Abraham was born, I am!” is a true statement about Jesus, if he is the Son of God, who at a certain point in time took on human nature in the incarnation when he came to be born of Mary, and had come to the Jewish people, to bring salvation to the world. Jesus is making startling and powerful statements about his divine identity here in the face of really serious opposition from Jewish leaders and their supporters in the crowd. This is a tense situation. This isn't going to be easy. This isn't going to be easily resolved.

Not for the first time in Jerusalem during a difficult dialogue with the authorities, there is a threat to Jesus' life. ‘They picked up stones to stone him’ but he slipped away. The anger, the resentment, the hostility to Jesus is very much on the surface. The risk to him is very real.


What reflections have we got on with this fascinating but quite challenging passage? Jesus is clearly asserting his divine authority. Sent by the Father, he pre-existed Abraham, and he describes himself as the light of the world. He is challenging the Jewish religious establishment, and he is also asserting the power of the Gospel. He is promising to those who believe in him that they will be set free from the power of sin and they will also be given eternal life. He is also predicting his death and the resurrection when he describes himself 'being lifted up', a reference to crucifixion and then his subsequent resurrection. John portrays a very tense and complex situation working out in Jerusalem. It was difficult during the Feast of Tabernacles in previous episodes, but now as that feast is coming to an end it's getting even more difficult as the argument, counter argument and debate, gets more intense between Jesus and his opponents.

In one sense this has always been the case. The identity of Jesus - as divine Son of God, Messiah, Redeemer of the world, Saviour, the one who died on the cross in the substitutionary sacrifice and atonement, the one who rose again from the dead and lives eternally - that identity has always been contested. Mankind, generally speaking, wants to ignore Jesus or to make him some kind of a religious prophet or leader. Everything in the Gospel tells us he is much more than that. This passage is a great example of those remarkable claims that Jesus makes, which we must all evaluate and which we must all respond to. Just as the religious leaders then were judged on their response to Jesus, so will you and I. True wisdom is to acknowledge he is the Son of God, to receive his salvation, his forgiveness and his eternal life. In the next episode, we'll see Jesus performing a remarkable miracle in order to demonstrate the truth of the things that he claims in the discussions he has in this episode. Thanks for studying.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What does the phrase: ’I am the light of the world’ mean for you?
  • Discipleship
    1. How can you be light in your neighbourhood?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How do people in your culture respond to Jesus? What can you say when others claim he is just a good man or prophet?
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