John 12:37-50, “I Have Come as Light”

[January 2, 2011] Today, as we consider the pagan sages of Persia seeking the light of Christ at His birth, let us reflect on the meaning of Christ as the light of the world. The passage we are looking at today revolves around Christ as Light, our being blind to His light, and our turning to Him and believing.

The Immediate Context

It comes at the end of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel according to John. The verse following this passage begins John’s account of the Last Supper. Before this we had the last of the seven signs, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, followed by Mary anointing Jesus (perhaps anointing Him as King), Jesus’ royal procession into Jerusalem as the King of Israel, and then the account of some Greeks who worshiped the God of Israel who wanted to see Jesus.

Jesus responds by saying that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” which He connects to His death as a single grain of wheat and His multiplication in resurrection. The word “glory” means the manifestation of light. Jesus’ glory is the revelation of His “cascading brightness” (as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message). The glory of God is His self-manifestation, the unveiling of His light. Jesus then prays for the Father, “Glorify Your name,” and a Voice from heaven responds, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” Jesus then announces, “Now”—referring to the hour that He says has come (the “hour” of His death and resurrection)—“is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of the world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth”—referring to His death—“will draw all men to Myself.”

The crowd does not understand. Having just witnessed His royal entrance into the City, they are confused by the apparent contradiction of a triumphant Son of Man who rules forever and yet must die. Jesus does not repeat what He just said about His glorification (and the Father’s glorification) through His resurrection but responds by calling their attention to the present: “The Light is still among you a little while. Walk while you have the Light so that darkness may not overcome you; and he who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the Light, believe into the Light, so that you may become sons of Light.” Jesus then hides Himself from them. Indeed, the glory of His resurrection will be hidden from them. Only those who believe into Him will witness it.

This is the immediate context of our present passage. It is about Jesus having come as Light and presenting Himself to people as Light. “Believe into the Light” while you have the opportunity, He tells them. If they believe into the Light, they will become sons of Light, that is, they will partake in His light. His light—which is the light of God—will shine through them. The grain of wheat that dies will bear much fruit, that is, will multiply itself in them. This multiplication occurs when He breathes into His disciples on the day of His resurrection and begins to abide in them through the Holy Spirit. This multiplication is what the remainder of the Gospel according to John is about.

Right here, however, at the end of chapter 12, we have come to a kind of conclusion: the end of His public self-presentation. This presentation is repeated for us in the telling of the Gospel. If we believe into Him whom we encounter in the Gospel, then we will know His glorification in resurrection, for He will multiply Himself in us. If we do not believe, then that glorification will be hidden from us.

The Theme of Light

At the conclusion of chapter 12, the threads that have been running through the first half of the gospel come together and are tied. The word light first occurs in the prologue: “And [the] life was the Light of men. And the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:4-5). Also John the Baptist came to testify “concerning the Light”; he was not the Light, but came that he might testify concerning the Light. The One who was the true Light which shines on every man coming into the world was in the world” (1:7-10; see also 5:35). Jesus first speaks of light in 3:19-21: “The Light has come into the world” and people have either hated it or come to it. In 8:12 Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me shall by no means walk in darkness, but shall have the Light of life” (connecting 1:4 with 12:35 and 46). In 9:5, when He healed the blind man, He says, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world” (see  12:35). Jesus repeats this allusively in 11:9-10.

The word glory is related to this. It also occurs first in the prologue: “We beheld His glory, glory as of the only Begotten from the Father” (1:14). In 2:11, after Jesus turned water into wine, the gospel says He thus “manifested His glory, and His disciples believed into Him.”

In 7:18 Jesus says He seeks the Father’s glory and in 8:50 and 54 He says the Father seeks His (the Son) glory. Jesus does not seek His own glory; rather it is the Father who glorifies Him (8:54). In 11:4 Jesus speaks of how Lazarus’ death was “for the glory of God, in order that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” and He tells Martha when He was about to raise Lazarus, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” (11:40). Recall how Jesus’ own glorification in resurrection will be hidden from those who do not believe (12:34-36).

In 7:39 the gospel speaks for the first time of Jesus not being “glorified” until His resurrection. It speaks again of this “glorification” in 12:16. Jesus speaks of it for the first time of it when He says that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Through His glorification the Father will be glorified (12:28; 13:31-32). The Father glorifies the Son through us, the fruit or multiplication of His resurrection in 14:13 and 15:8. In 16:14 the Holy Spirit, who comes in the resurrection of Jesus, will glorify Jesus for “He will receive of Mine and will declare it to you” (16:14). This glorification of Jesus in resurrection, through the Holy Spirit in His believers, which glorifies the Father, is the subject of the Lord’s prayer in chapter 17 (verses 1, 4, 5, 10, 22 and 24).

So one of the central themes of the Gospel according to John seems to the glory of God shining through Jesus who is thus the Light of the world. He is the Light of life, meaning the Light of the life of creation and also the Light of the life of God, eternal life.

The words related to light are also ubiquitous. The word “reveal” occurs in 12:38 and “manifest” in 1:31; 2:11; 3:21; 7:4; 9:3; 14:21-22; 17:6; 21:1 and 14. Also central is the importance of seeing and sight. The word “to see” occurs in 1:18, 29, 33-34, 38-39, 46, 50-51; 3:3, 11, 32, 36; 4:19, 29, 45, 48; 5:6, 19, 37; 6:5, 14, 19, 22, 26, 30, 36, 40, 46, 62; 7:3; 8:10, 38, 51, 56-57; 9:7-8, 15, 19, 21, 25, 37, 39, 41; 10:12; 11:9, 31-32, 34, 40; 12:9, 19, 21, 40; 14:7, 9, 17, 19; 15:24; 16:16, 17, 19, 22; 18:26; 19:26; 20:1, 5, 6, 18, 20, 25, 27, 29; 21:9, 20, and 21. The word “sight” occurs in 7:24; 9:15 and 18. The word “behold” occurs in 1:29, 32, 36, 47; 3:26; 4:35; 5:14; 7:26; 11:3, 36; 12:15, 19; 16:10, 16- 17, 19, 32; 17:24; 18:21; 19:5, 14, 26-27. The word for “eye” occurs in 4:35; 6:5; 9:6, 10, 11, 14-15, 17, 21, 26, 30, 32; 10:21; 11:37, 41; 12:40; and 17:1. And the word for “blind” or “blindness” occurs in 5:3; 9:1-2, 13, 17-20, 24-25, 32, 39-41; 10:21; 11:37; and 12:40. Obviously it has varying significances; not all referring to spiritual sight. This is enough, however, to show that John’s gospel has a particular interest in the matter of spiritual sight: whether or not we can “see” Jesus.

Jesus comes into the world as Light. Whether we believe depends on whether we can see His light, the light of His Person—who He is. And only if we believe into Him (this One whom we thus see), will we see His resurrected glory.

This matter then, of whether we “see” Him, is that with which chapters 1—12 concludes and on which the Gospel according to John then pivots over to its second half, the story of the “hour” of His glorification.

Blindness (John 12:37-41)

John, the gospel writer, quotes Isaiah concerning the people’s unbelief. Isaiah, John says, saw Jesus’ glory—that is, the brilliance of His light. Isaiah saw this in his spirit because God revealed it to him. Isaiah had a bright shining light burning within him, the light of the coming Messiah. This light was the basis, in fact, of his prophetic vision. The “Arm of the Lord” that Isaiah speaks of in chapter 53:1 is Christ. But Christ is revealed as the “Arm of the Lord” only to those who believe. The people would not believe because they were blind, and they were blind because their hearts were hardened. If they would turn to the Lord, they would “see with their eyes” (obviously not their physical eyes) and “understand with their hearts” and God would heal them.

2 Corinthians 3 speaks of the same thing. A veil covered the eyes of the people so that they could not see the light of the Torah. This was because their heart was hardened. When the heart turns to the Lord (the Lord Jesus), the veil is taken away (verses 14-18).

The light is there in Jesus—as we behold Him in the testimony of the Gospel—but we do see it. What would it take for the Lord to soften our hearts so that the veil can be lifted from our eyes? We can begin by turning to the Lord Jesus and asking Him to open our eyes (Matthew 20:29-34).

The Weak in Faith (12:42-43)

Not everyone to whom Jesus appeared was blind. Even some of the members of the council in Jerusalem—men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea—believed into Him. They were afraid, however, to “come out of the closet” with their faith because their faith was still weak. The word glory (doxa), which means “brilliance, radiance, brightness and splendor,” also means “reputation, estimation, or opinion.” If we are weak in faith we love the praise of men more than the praise of God. This has a double meaning. We love the “praise” of men because we see their “light” more than we see the brightness of God’s light. If we did see the brightness of God’s light, we would love it, and consequently we would care only about having God’s approval, not the approval of men.

The Light of Christ is the Light of the Triune God (12:44-46)

Jesus here says that His light is none other than the light of the Father. The glory that shines through Him is His Father’s glory. Yet it is also truly His own. For the light of the Father is the light of the divine nature, which is as much the Son’s as the Father’s. The Persons of the Trinity are not self-involved, but even while Each dwells in the Other, Each also “faces” the Other in self-giving. The divine-nature is the love that Each has for the Other. The Father seeks the glory of the Son and the Son seeks the glory of the Father. In beholding One we behold the Others in the One.

Verses 44 and 45 correspond to each other. To believe into the Son is to behold the Son. Though Christ is no longer on earth, we behold Him through the Gospel, through which He is present as if He were physically here (indeed, since His resurrection He is now physically present everywhere). It is not, however, His physical presence that matters in this respect. The “seeing” is spiritual. We need to see who He is, body, soul and spirit: that He is God even as He is the revelation of God.

If we do not come into the Light, we remain in darkness. The light shines on us (see John 1:9) but it does no good. The eyes are like windows that let the light in. The spirit is the eye of the soul. If the eye is blind, the soul is in darkness, and if the soul is in darkness, so also is the body (see Matthew 6:22-23). All people, in their souls, are in darkness until God opens their eyes by enlightening their spirit. If their eyes are open, the light that they see is the light of the Word. The Word comes to us in the revelation of Jesus Christ through the Gospel.

The Willfulness of Blindness (12:47-48)

If a person turns away from Christ, they turn away from the Light. It is not as if Christ judges people arbitrarily. He has come into the world as Light to save the world (i.e., the people) out of darkness, not to condemn people. However, by their refusal of the Light that He brings, they condemn themselves by remaining in their darkness. The person who has never heard the Gospel is not the one who is condemned but the person who rejects the Gospel. Nor is a person condemned simply for being in darkness; it is their refusal of the Light. This willful refusal exposes the nature of the darkness: it is insidious and chosen, and not accidental. People thus prove that they are in darkness willfully. This is what condemns them.

The Saving Medicine of Eternal Life (12:49-50)

When a person rejects Jesus, the danger is that they are rejecting the revelation of God in Him—the Father who reveals Himself in Jesus. It is not that they misunderstand the historical Jesus. That is another matter. The danger is that because they do not like the package they throw out the life-saving medicine within it.

The life-saving medicine that is in Jesus is eternal life. By believing into Him, and thus believing into the Father, we receive the divine life, the medicine of immortality that cures us of death. Without this, without the gift of eternal life that is in Jesus, we cannot overcome death. The life that He gives us is the life by which He overcame His own death. This eternal life He breathed into His disciples on the day of His resurrection just as God breathed mortal life into Adam on the day of his creation. This eternal life Jesus breathes into us when we believe into Him. We believe into Him through His revelation that comes to us in the Gospel.

Light and Life

At one time people could have seen Jesus with their physical eyes. Not everyone who saw Him believed. Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate did not believe. We can also read about Jesus and know Him as a literary figure, and we can acquaint ourselves with all the evidence of the historical Jesus. We can “see” Him with our minds. But not everyone who studies Jesus believes into Him. The seeing of Jesus that Jesus is talking about is in our spirit.

When Jesus healed the man who was born blind in chapter 9, it was an illustration of how He heals our spiritual blindness. Unless we see Him in our spirits, we do not really see Him. Yet we cannot see Him in our spirits without a miracle of God’s grace. It is like the Virgin Birth. His birth could not come about by an act of man, just as Abraham could not give birth to the child of promise by his own efforts. When he had given up on himself, the sign of circumcision was given to symbolize his dependence on God. When Mary said to Gabriel, “May it happen to me according to your word,” this was not the thrusting action of a human being, but the reception of faith created by God’s grace. We can only be receptive in the presence of the Word that comes to us. The Word itself creates in us the receptivity that we need to take it in. As we open to the Word, listening with open ears, beholding with all the attentiveness of our spirit, the Word finds its way in us, into the womb of our heart. As we begin to “see,” our love for Christ in His revelation grows—we know not how but it grows exponentially—and the more it grows the more receptive we become.

Yet as it enters us, a killing takes place. We become aware of our resistance to the Word, a resistance that was already there before the Word came to us. As that resistance is penetrated, it begins to experience death. That dying of the soul is just the beginning of a daily dying that we undergo to make room for the presence of Life. It hurts, yet in that dying of the false self there is also a certain pleasure, because we know what it makes way for. It is the pleasure of love. For the life that begins to form in us is our own true self, a self that we buried but represents our truest nature and most authentic being. Yet the love that we feel is so distinctly different from the self-love of the ego, for this self is transcendent, it is our own but we only know it in the face of the One who comes to us as Other than us, the One who embraces us as the Other in love. (Just as the Father beholds His own image in the Son and the Son only knows Himself in the Father.)

Jesus is not just Someone about whom we believe certain things. He is Light. In knowing Him we behold the “cascading brightness of God.” It enters and fills us. We are transformed by the presence of that Light, that glory. We are filled with love for Him, the kind of love a lover feels for the Beloved. “Hast thou heard Him, seen Him, known Him? Is not thine a captured heart?” (from an anonymous hymn).

How inadequate these words are to describe the One of unsurpassed beauty. No matter how much we think we have seen, we have only just begun to touch the fringes of His radiance.

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