Here is the passage:
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
So the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying about yourself; your testimony is not true.”
Jesus answered and said to them, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.
You judge according to the flesh;I am not judging anyone. But even if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.
Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”
So they were saying to him, “Where is your father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.”
These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; and no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.
Theme and structure of the passage
On first reading, this passage seems to be fairly unstructured. It looks like this:
- Jesus says something really important about being the light of the world.
- The Pharisees challenge his claim.
- Jesus spends a lot of time talking with the Pharisees about their attitudes to him and his testimony.
In other words, it looks like everyone gets distracted. It seems to be one long rabbit trail leading away from verse 12.
However, I think this first impression is deceptive. I think there is a remarkable integrity to the passage. Every piece of it is important, and it all serves to drive home the same theme, the theme that Jesus is our light.
The light that is Jesus
Jesus says that he is the light of the world, and that everyone who follows him does not walk in darkness but has the light of life. What is the practical meaning of walking in darkness or having the light of life?
I would like to suggest that the passage makes most sense if we interpret the light / darkness here in terms of our understanding of life rather than our behavior. Jesus is not saying, “If you follow me, you’ll make good decisions and not stumble.” He is saying, “If you follow me, life will make sense for you. You’ll be able to grasp its meaning. You’ll know what you are here for.”
The light of the Pharisees
The Pharisees respond by saying “You are testifying about yourself, so your testimony is not true.” Of course they didn’t mean that they knew for sure that Jesus wasn’t speaking truth; they meant that what he said didn’t count as valid testimony. It didn’t follow their rules of what testimony had to be. It didn’t prove anything for Jesus to claim it.
The Pharisees were experts at argumentation and debate. They had established procedures, based on the law and on logical thinking, for getting at the truth. They were objecting here that Jesus wasn’t meeting their standard for evidence. There were rules for submitting your testimony to a court of law or a theological body, and Jesus wasn’t following those rules.
The Pharisees didn’t think they needed anyone to be the light of life for them. They already understood what life was about. Their light was their knowledge. Their light was their methodology for establishing truth.
When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world”, they did what they always did with claims like that. They judged it by their own light. They asked, “according to our methods for finding out truth, does this qualify?” It didn’t.
The problem was, Jesus wasn’t submitting his claim to them for their adjudication. He wasn’t saying, “if you use your already-established system for discovering theological truth, you’ll find that a part of it is Me”. He was saying that he superseded their methodology.
I teach a philosophy class in which one unit is on proofs for and against the existence of God. Some people argue that God exists, others argue that God doesn’t exist, and there is a lot of disagreement. Yet, everyone seems to agree on one thing: we humans are capable of finding out the truth for ourselves, if we just look hard enough. The default philosophical view of rationality seems to be that we can start from an unbiased, neutral standpoint, carefully sift all the evidence around us, and come to a measured and intelligent decision about God.
Scripture says differently. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 that God has deliberately worked in such a way that intellectual pride will never lead us to Him. He has set things up so that we are blinded to him by any attempt to find him on our own.
The Pharisees were making the same mistake as my philosophy students. Jesus said he is the light of the world. He said that we will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life if we follow him.
The Pharisees said, “We don’t walk in darkness right now. We already understand life. We already know how truth works. We ourselves aren’t confused: our job is to cast light on all the things that confuse other people. We know the law really well, and we know how to reason from it. Just show us your claim and we will be able to tell you if it is correct.”
Here, then, is the situation in John 8: Jesus says we can only understand reality if we follow him. The Pharisees already had a way to understand life, so they thought. They were willing to test his claim, but they didn’t realize he was actually challenging their very methodology. He was asking them to abandon their intellectual self-sufficiency.
What follows is Jesus’ attempt to get them to see that it was their very assumptions about how to decide what is true that he was calling into question.
First response: we need to see beyond the temporal
At first, Jesus sets aside the Pharisees’ concerns about method. The Pharisees were looking for proof. They should have been looking for truth. “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true.”
Why is it that Jesus is able to know and speak the truth about himself, while the Pharisees are not? Because they aren’t working with all the facts: he knows where he came from and where he is going, and they do not.
From a merely human perspective, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who said some startling things and did some amazing miracles. From the Father’s perspective, he was the eternal son of God, who had come to earth in the form of a man, and who planned to die for us, rise from the dead, and ascend back into heaven where he would rule as both Lord and Christ. Jesus didn’t tell them all these details yet, but he he hinted. He pointed out, here and on other occasions, that he came from heaven, and would one day return there.
What does this make a difference? Because what matters is not just Jesus’ three years of ministry in Palestine. What matters is the larger meaning of his life in history and in eternity. What matters is what he came to do, and where from, and what the outcome would be. If we follow Jesus as a good moral teacher only, we still walk in darkness. It is only when we follow Jesus as the the one sent from God, as the Savior, as the One whose name is above every name, that we find he is the light of life for us.
The Pharisees, though, couldn’t see the full significance of Jesus, because their perspective was limited. It had to be limited. As finite human beings, they were only aware of what was in front of them in the early first century. They couldn’t possibly know all the facts.
We are in the same boat. We just don’t know enough as humans to be able to figure out the truth on our own. We can’t find the light of life as long as we are restricted to temporal reality and ignore the eternal.
Second response: we need to see beyond the physical
Nor can we find the light of life if we are restricted to physical reality and ignore the spiritual.
“You judge according to the flesh,” says Jesus.
Sometimes when the Bible says we do something “according to the flesh” it means that our actions arise from sinful motives. Other times it simply means we do it physically (for example, in 2 Corinthians 10:3). In my opinion, that’s the interpretation that makes the most sense here. Jesus’ primary meaning isn’t, “You are judging from sinful hearts”, but “You are judging based on outward appearances.” Human knowledge, on its own, is inherently limited to physical evidence. Because we cannot get past that, we cannot make sense of life by ourselves.
Third response: we need to see beyond our own expertise
“You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone.” What does Jesus mean by judging? I think he is referring to the kind of judgment the Pharisees are engaged in: they had set themselves up as the arbiters of truth. They had appointed themselves the job of approving or disapproving everyone else’s moral and religious claims.
Jesus says, “I’m not playing your game. I have nothing to prove. I’m not interested in arguing about theological systems. I’m simply stating the truth.” Not that he couldn’t argue if he wanted to: “Even if I do judge, my judgment is true …”. It’s just that, again, in claiming to be the light of the world, he was setting aside all merely human systems of knowledge.
Fourth response: we can’t find the truth alone
“[E]ven if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.”
When my philosophy students ask whether God exists, the one thing they never think to do is to ask God to reveal himself to them. Secular reasoning often starts from the standpoint of an independent neutral observer. Whatever we can discover for ourselves, we will believe. Whatever we cannot discover for ourselves, we will reject. We are self-sufficient in our rationality. (Even neutrality can be seen as a studied independence from whoever might influence us.) I’m not saying that people actually succeed in being independent and neutral, just that they aspire to be.
The Pharisees, as religious as they were, functioned the same way. They were theologically self-sufficient. They accepted that God had given them the law, but, having received it, they wanted to work the rest of it out on their own.
Jesus, in contrast, says that he is not alone in his judgment, but is united with the Father in it.
I think it would be a mistake to think of Jesus and the Father as being two independent sources of testimony. Even though that may be the ideal in a court of law, it is not the ideal when it comes to ultimate truth. Jesus doesn’t just hold the same opinion as the Father, he forms it in partnership with the Father.
Specifically, Jesus says, his judgment is united with “the Father who sent me“. Because he is defined by where he came from and where he is going, because he is called by the Father and lives within that calling, his every judgment is shaped by that calling. He does not hold his judgment alone, for it is the natural side-effect of the Father’s creative shaping of his life.
The Pharisees are limited because their lives consist of a narrow slice of time in a small corner of the universe.They are also limited because they isolate themselves voluntarily. Their relationship to God, as they see it, is to figure out for themselves what he meant and then obey it. Even though they appoint themselves as judges of the truth on behalf of God, they never seek to discover their calling from God. They do lots of thinking about God, but don’t wonder what God thinks of them. The consequence is, they miss the experience of finding that God has led them to the truth.
Fifth response: we can’t find the truth outside of Jesus
Finally, Jesus responds on their own terms. At least he appears to: “Even in your own law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”
It doesn’t help, though, because they can’t talk to God directly they way they can to people. (And they certainly can’t interrogate him!) They want a way to evaluate truth that depends on humanly measurable factors. So they ask him, “Where is your father?”
I don’t think they were confused by what he meant – I think they knew he was talking about God. They ask “where is your father” to get him to admit that claiming “God agrees with me” isn’t really helpful evidence. Regardless, Jesus knew what he meant.
His response, though, is even more unhelpful! “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.” In other words, “You’ll know if I speak the truth if you ask my father, but to come to know my father you’ll have to trust me first.”
There is a vicious circle here. They can’t prove to themselves that Jesus speaks the truth until they are sure the Father agrees with him, and they can’t be sure the Father agrees with him until they are willing to trust what he is saying. Logic won’t help because the vicious circle corresponds to a circular argument.
This is precisely why the Pharisees are in such trouble. There just is no way to get from their methodology to the kind of trust and understanding Jesus requires. If we walk in darkness, we can’t see to find our way to the light. If Jesus doesn’t break into our lives with his truth, it will remain inaccessible to us. Only he is the light.
It would be easy to turn the first four stages of this passage into a 4 step process, a new method for finding the truth.
- Step 1: take an eternal perspective
- Step 2: take a spiritual perspective
- Step 3: admit our ignorance
- Step 4: look for help
But that only works if Jesus is in every stage. Jesus didn’t say “you don’t know where you come from and where you are going”, he said, “you don’t know where I come from and where I am going”. We can’t find eternal meaning in our own lives without first finding it in his life. We can only walk in our own relationship with Father when we find it through Jesus’ relationship with the Father. We can’t even know the Father except by knowing the Son.
The Pharisees thought they were being asked to judge Jesus’ claims. They weren’t. They were being told that everything they thought they knew was uncertain. They were being told that they were incapable of seeing truth without God’s intervention. They were being invited to find truth in Jesus. The single condition was that they stop thinking they could find truth without Jesus.