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Jesus has dramatically called people to come to him for God's living water (7:37-38) and now he again (palin, 8:12) refers to himself in a most startling way, saying, I am the light of the world (v. 12). This claim, like the claim to give living water, also corresponds to events at this feast. A lamp-lighting ceremony took place in the temple every evening of the feast, during which large lamps were set up in the Court of Women. The lamps' light, it was said, filled every courtyard in the city (m. Sukka 5:3). In the light of these lamps there was great singing and dancing all evening in celebration of God's salvation, especially his deliverance at the exodus as he lead his people with his presence in a pillar of fire by night. In the sight of these great lamps in the Court of Women (8:20), perhaps even in the evening while they blazed, Jesus proclaims himself to be the light of the world.
Light is a universal religious image (cf. Barrett 1978:335-37; Conzelmann 1974a: 310-43). The primary context for John's use of this image is the Old Testament, but readers from virtually any background would find meaning in these words. In the Old Testament the motif of light is used to refer to God's presence (Num 6:25; Ps 4:6; 104:2; Ezek 1:4, 27-28), his salvation (Ps 27:1; 44:3; 67:1-2; 80:1, 3, 7, 19; Is 60:19-20) and his revelation (Ps 119:105, 130; Prov 6:23; cf. Conzelmann 1974a:319-22). Thus, in the setting of this festival, which celebrates the Israelites' deliverance, Jesus is claiming to be the divine presence that saves God's people from their bondage. He is the saving presence for the whole world, not just for the Jews. He has already spoken of his mission to the world (Jn 6:33, 51; cf. 1:29; 3:16-17), and now he reiterates it in terms that remind us of the role of the suffering servant, who was to be a "light to the nations" (Is 49:6).
Israel followed the presence of the Lord in the pillar of fire as they escaped Egypt and journeyed to the Promised Land (Ex 13:21; Neh 9:12; Ps 78:14; 2 Esdras 1:14). Now Jesus says that those who follow him will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (Jn 8:12). Here is a promise of salvation much greater than the salvation Israel experienced, for it is deliverance not just from a national enemy, but from the forces of rebellion against God that lie behind every form of evil in the world. And this deliverance is not just a rescue from darkness and a glimpse of the light, but an ongoing life apart from darkness through possession of the light of life. This pregnant phrase refers to "the light which both springs from life and issues in life; of which life is the essential principle and the necessary result" (Westcott 1908:2:3). The world lies in darkness and death because it has rebelled against God and thus broken contact with the one source of light and life. Jesus claims to be the light that brings light and life back to the world and sets it free from its bondage to sin. All the salvation that went before, such as the deliverance celebrated at this feast, was a type of this deepest and truest salvation that Jesus now offers.
The Pharisees do not yet realize the enormity of Jesus' claims regarding himself, so they do not respond with a charge of blasphemy. Instead, they challenge the form his self-proclamation takes, charging him with bearing witness to himself and therefore lacking sufficient witnesses (8:13). The need for two or three witnesses is laid down in the law (Deut 19:15), and the later tradition, reflected here, said that "none may be believed when he testifies of himself" (m. Ketubot 2:9).
Jesus says his testimony is valid (alethes, "true") because he knows where he is from and where he is going, even though they do not (v. 14). That is, he really does know the truth about himself because he knows the Father and is conscious of his relation to the Father. They cannot see this truth about him because they are judging by human standards (v. 15; kata ten sarka, "according to the flesh"). It is as though they are trying to evaluate the straightness of a line and their only tool is a crooked yardstick, or as if they are in an art gallery trying to evaluate the paintings when they have been blind from birth, never having seen shape nor color. Their judgment is limited to the human sphere and "breaks down when applied to anything which puts this sphere in question" (Bultmann 1971:281).
Jesus contrasts their inability to judge with his own ability (8:15-16). They judge by human standards, he says, but I pass judgment on no one (8:15). He does not pass judgment like they do, that is, according to "mere appearances" (7:24) and "according to human standards" (8:15). Instead, he passes judgment in keeping with reality, because he does so in oneness with the Father (8:16). He judges simply by revealing the truth and pointing out one's distance from that truth. That is why he says he will not judge but his words will judge (12:47-48). Such revelation carries implicit condemnation of that which is untrue, and Jesus makes that condemnation explicit. So what does he mean when he says he not condemn (3:17-18)? The Pharisees have determined Jesus is in error, and they have condemned him in the sense of writing him off. Jesus, on the other hand, has determined they are in error and has shown that they are culpable for their rejection of him and for the alienation from God which lies behind this rejection. But he has not condemned them in the sense of dismissing them, for he still bears witness to them, offering them revelation and thereby offering them salvation.
These distinctions regarding judgment are important within the church. Jesus says, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Mt 7:1). Clearly this does not mean we should not distinguish good from evil or truth from error, for Jesus calls us to do just that a few verses later in his teaching on false prophets (Mt 7:15-20). But it is one thing to recognize evil and error and quite another to conclude that an individual is totally lost to God. The final state of a person's soul is known only to God. Therefore we should write off no one, yet all the while we should discern the teaching and behavior to see whether it is of God. Such discernment can only come from Christ through the Spirit, for our judgments, like Jesus' (Jn 8:16), can only be right if they are in union with the Father.
Jesus brings up the need for two witnesses (8:17) in order, it seems, to bring home the point that when he bears witness his is not the witness of a single person but of two persons, himself and his Father (8:18; cf. 5:31-32). Since the two witnesses required by the law do not include the accused this would not be a valid legal argument. So Jesus seems to use the law in a nonlegal way to bear witness to his relationship with the Father. The Father is known as the one who sent me (v. 18); in other words, Jesus is identified by his relationship to the Father, and the Father, likewise, is known by his relationship to Jesus.
When the Pharisees ask Where is your father? (v. 19), they reveal that they do not realize Jesus is talking about God. It is as if they want to locate this Father so they can interrogate him, as they will the parents of the blind man in the next chapter. It would not do them much good, since those who are not open to God cannot hear him even when he speaks directly to them (12:28-30). They do not realize that in Jesus they are seeing the clearest revelation of the Father himself: If you knew me, you would know my Father also (v. 19; cf. 14:9-11). To know Jesus is to know God--such is the core proclamation of this Gospel. Their question points up once again their alienation from God.
Jesus' revelation of himself as the light of the world and this ensuing discussion take place in the temple near the place where the offerings were put (v. 20), which is, most likely, in the Court of Women (Carson 1991:341). In the temple Jesus has revealed himself as the fulfillment of what the temple itself was about--the presence of God on earth. And "in the temple itself they gave proof of their being closed to the Revealer!" (Bultmann 1971:283). John suggests that the opponents wanted to seize him (v. 20). Just as Jesus' every action is under the direction of the Father, so are the circumstances of his life. They were not able to act against him because his time had not yet come (v. 20). Thus, these opponents are ignorant of both Jesus and his Father (v. 20), a point already made clear at this feast (7:28, 34) and driven home over and over in this chapter.