The background of Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world is the Feast of the Tabernacles (John 7:2,37; Leviticus 23:33-43). During this feast, not only did the Israelites live in booths/shelters for seven days as commanded, but the Levites built huge menorahs which they placed in the temple courtyard to illuminate the evening sky. This spoke to them of God’s presence (Shekinah), in the pillar of fire (see Exodus 40:36-38). What a sight it must have been to hear the roar, feel the heat, and see the enormous flames dance skyward as they splashed their light over the temple area.
And what a claim it was when a carpenter from Nazareth told the thousands there that He was that light! An itinerant preacher with the rag- tag group of disciples maintained that He was the world’s brightness and life! As Israel had received illumination and guidance from Yahweh, He was offering the same thing to the world. Can you think of anything more incredible?
Still, there’s another layer to consider. It concerns the where of Jesus’ claim. He is our light it’s true, but more to the point, He is our light in the wilderness.
The Feast of Tabernacles was a wilderness celebration. It commemorated Israel’s forty years between Egypt and Canaan. It was a reminder of God’s faithfulness in the wilderness through manna, water, quail, and the other ways He provided and protected His people. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, He had remained faithful (2 Timothy 2:13).
For their part, Israel had failed miserably in the desert. Biblical writers point over and over to the wilderness generation as the cautionary tale for believers (see Psalm 95; 1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews 3-4). Despite God’s overarching care of them, they never learned to trust Him and continually expressed the desire to return to Egypt. The lack of belief they showed at Kadesh-Barnea in deciding God couldn’t lead them into the land of Canaan (Numbers 13-14), was maintained throughout their years in the wilderness.
But it was in the desert that the One who claimed to be the Light of the World triumphed. After being manifested to Israel as the Messiah (John 1:29-31), the Spirit sent Him into the wilderness where He fasted for forty days (forty being the number of days the spies were in Canaan as well as the number of years the Israelites were in the wilderness). Satan appeared and taunted Him, telling Him if He was the Son of God, He could turn the stones into bread (as God has done for the Israelites in providing them manna—Exodus 16). But Jesus was much more discerning. He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 to show that He had learned from the wilderness what Israel hadn’t —that it was not the manna that ultimately sustains man, it was the word of Yahweh. He was more than content to live off those words, than to pine for the food of Egypt at the expense of relationship with His Father.
In doing so, Jesus experienced life in the midst of wilderness. In the Scripture, wilderness is the opposite of garden. Barren, blighted, cursed, abandoned, not only lifeless for the most part but life-taking if you weren’t careful. Where a generation of Israelite had perished He found life because He understood Yahweh was God of the wilderness as well as the promised land.
This is what He offers us today in being our light. He offers illumination, guidance, and presence. He offers us life. We need it because we live in the wilderness of earthquakes, infidelities, cancers, duplicities, terrorism, and much, much more that makes our journey hazardous.
Shine Jesus Shine!