You know those things where Jesus says something and then he goes and says something that’s the opposite?
Here’s one of them. Jesus says,
“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14),
“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
So who is the light of the world?
Is it Jesus, or is it us?
As is often the case, looking at these verses in context will solve the mystery.
Let’s first look at what is required for someone to be considered to be “the light of the world.”
The first thing to notice is that Jesus gave different messages to different people. Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world because they knew who Jesus was but still didn’t understand who they themselves were in him. On the other hand, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is the light of the world because they didn’t even know who Jesus was and they could not understand anything else without that foundation.
If you don’t believe Jesus is the light of the world (like the Pharisees), then you aren’t the light of the world. Contrarily, if you believe Jesus is the light of the world (like the disciples), then you are the light of the world.
This is further clarified by what Jesus says immediately after his “light of the world” statements.
To his disciples he follows it up with, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” Jesus is explaining what it means for them to be the light of the world (this is new information to them). He basically says that if you are his disciple and you have him in you, you’re not going to be able to hide it (and if you’re trying to hide it, you’re probably not his disciple).
To the Pharisees he follows it up with, “He who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” This is salvation 101. Jesus is telling them “Hey, if you follow me by faith instead of the Law by your own efforts, you’ll be set free from your dark, boring, fruitless life. Get to know me – that’s eternal life man!”
Alright, we now know what is required to be considered “the light of the world.” But we and Jesus both fulfill the requirements. So we’re going to have to dig a little deeper to answer the question.
Frank Viola points out a very interesting point in this blog post. I’ll summarize it here.
The books of Luke and Acts are a single volume written by Luke the physician. Check out how he opens Acts 1:1 [with my commentary in brackets]: “The first account I composed [the book of Luke], Theophilus [the dude Luke was writing for], about all that Jesus began to do and teach.”
What’s interesting to note is that Luke wrote “…all that Jesus began to do and teach,” not “…all that Jesus did and taught.” Luke records everything from before Jesus’ birth to his death, resurrection, and ascension. But according to Luke, that was only what Jesus began to do and teach.
So who came after Jesus left the earth physically? Holy Spirit. And that’s what Acts is all about – what Jesus, through Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, continued to do through his body, the Church.
What’s crazier is the short dialogue between Jesus and Saul after Jesus blinded Saul and knocked him down to the ground in Acts 9:4-5 – “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.'”
This is perhaps one of the most remarkable texts in all of holy writ. Saul is persecuting the church in Jerusalem. And Jesus Christ takes it personally! The Lord appears to Saul, but He doesn’t say what we would expect. The words ‘Why are you persecuting My church?’ never come out of His mouth. Instead, He makes this incredible statement: ‘Why are you persecuting Me!?’ In the eyes of God, the church is nothing more and nothing less than Jesus Christ on earth. It’s a new species (creation) that’s kin to divinity; a body to the Son and a family to the Father. Kind of His own kind.
Let that wreck your theology.
So how can our question be answered?
We and Jesus are both the light of the world.
A little while after Jesus made his claim to the Pharisees, he says to his disciples, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world” (John 9:5). I’d like to propose that Jesus was implying that when he left the earth physically, we (us and Jesus together) would be the light of the world.
Going back to the first two “light of the world” verses, did you notice how Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that they are “lights of the world” but rather that they are “the light of the world,” the exact same thing he called himself?
And Luke and Jesus both identify Jesus as the Church in Acts.
The Church and Jesus are inseparably united as one (1 Corinthians 6:17)
The Church is the fullness of God (Ephesians 1:22-23)
The Church is the expression of Jesus on the earth.
The Church is Jesus to the world.
Just as Jesus once did in his physical human body while on the earth, now we love people unconditionally, tell people the good news, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons, set people free, reconcile people to God, etc. This is possible because as Christ is, so are we in the world (1 John 4:17).
The incarnation continues in us.
I once asked Jesus why he never shows me his face. He answered and said, “look around you.” At the time I was worshipping with other believers. I knew what Jesus was saying. He identifies so strongly with his Church and we are so intimately united with him that, just like Jesus, when people see us they can see the Father (John 14:9).
Let’s enjoy our Daddy as he reveals himself to the world through us. We don’t even need to try. Just receive his love for you, rest in his finished work, and he’ll get the job done.
And that reminds me…
You know those “worship” songs about light? Like that one that says “Shine, Jesus, shine,” or “Shine your light and let the whole world see,” or that popular Japanese song that says “Please make me the light of the world” (世の光にしてください)? They are all a manifestation of unbelief in who Jesus said we are.
So I’d encourage you to not sing along and instead thank Jesus that he has made you the light of the world.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you” (Isaiah 60:1).