Unlike the people of Jesus’ day, or any modern-day religious Jew, most of us do not have the Old Testament as part of our collective memory. Unlike us, the Israelites of Jesus’ day had in their imaginations signs, images, and longings that were formed through their people’s history and the work of God among them. When Jesus arrives on the scene, beginning his ministry in a Galilean synagogue, he does not arrive on an empty stage. He does not create his identity as Messiah from scratch, but works from a long history of events and prophecies that have shaped him and his audience.
When it comes to reading the Gospels, we become better readers when we know the Old Testament better. When we read about what Jesus does and says, we should constantly be asking ourselves—why this action or miracle? Why this image of himself? To find the answer, we need to look back.
I Am the Light of the World
The Gospel of John is known for its rich images of Jesus, particularly in the seven “I am” statements that Jesus makes. One particular, well-known image is that of Jesus declaring himself to be the light of the world. While we are very familiar with this image, there are Old Testament resonances that can help us to appreciate its richness.
In John 8:12-20, Jesus joins his people in Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths. This celebration marked the end of the harvest season. The crops had been gathered in, and in thanksgiving to God for his provision, the people would celebrate for eight days. The celebration also reminded them of their years in the wilderness, and God’s provision in the midst of that time of wandering and disobedience.
Each evening of the feast, the priests would light lamps in the temple. Standing seventy-five feet high, each lamp had four branches with bowls for oil. Young men would climb up the lamps and light the oil, a radiance that was said to illuminate the whole city. It’s in this context, with these lamps in the background, that Jesus stands up at the end of the feast and says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
For us modern readers, light is a very common symbol. We know that it can represent knowledge, illumination, guidance, help, life. For the Israelites, their collective history creates another set of resonances. In the story of the Exodus, the Israelites were guided out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud during the daytime, and a pillar of fire at night. Their salvation from their enemies depended on this light, guiding them away from slavery and death and into freedom and life. Perhaps their thoughts would have gone back even farther, to the very creation of the world, when God first spoke the world into being by commanding, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). Perhaps they thought of King David’s songs that they continued to sing, the songs that declared, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1), and “the Lord my God lightens my darkness” (Psalm 18:28).
Isaiah, too, invokes the image of light in his prophecies, declaring that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). It was definitely a dark time for God’s people, with the Romans occupying their land and the glory of God’s presence gone from the temple. Is now, they may have thought, is now the time that Isaiah spoke of?
“I am the light of the world,” Jesus said. Yes—the whole world! Not Israel alone, not only those twelve tribes and their children’s children’s children. God had promised to Abraham, hadn’t he, that Abraham’s blessing was for the sake of the nations, to bring them in, not to keep them out? “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). And God had promised through Isaiah that his people would be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). After so many years of failure, was this promise finally coming true?
What joy they must have felt when they recognized Jesus in all of these stories and songs and prophecies! What joy to realize that God’s light had not gone out, but that it had come in glory and power to shine on the whole world and overcome the darkness in their world and in their hearts.
Look for the Threads
As we read the stories of Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament, too!), our understanding will be enriched by a deeper knowledge of the Old Testament. We need to learn to read the Old Testament in a way that looks for the threads—what are the connections, the themes, the images, the places, that recur in the Scriptures?
Jesus’ ministry and teaching takes place within a rich context of centuries of history. He does not innovate with new images and ideas of who God is and what the Messiah comes to do—instead he works out of the movement of the Old Testament, a movement that begins with a single man named Abraham, and ripples out to the ends of the earth. The images and events of this history are embedded in the imagination of Jesus’ audience, and Jesus uses them to evoke in his hearers a sense of recognition: This is the one we have been waiting for.
At first, we might feel like we are strangers here, with little to connect us to the history of a specific ethnic group thousands of years ago. And yet, because of God’s rich mercy in “grafting in” (Romans 11) the Gentiles, all those who are in Christ are no longer outside of this history: it becomes ours, as well. With careful study, this image of light—and countless others besides—and rich resonances can become part of our own imaginations.