I had mentioned last week in our chronological walk through the life of Christ, that Jesus for the first time in over 6 months is now in Jerusalem, and things are really escalating between He and the religious leaders. The majority of all of Israel has been gathered to celebrate the Festival of Booths, and as they are gathered camping out in tents, Jesus has been teaching in the temple. Now the crowd is divided as to who they believe Jesus to be, some say He’s demon possessed, others say He’s a prophet, and others are realizing that He must indeed be the Messiah. And the religious leaders are scrambling to put Jesus to the test in front of the people, hoping to discredit Him, or catch Him making some sort of mistake that would sway the crowd against Him and eventually lead to His downfall. We saw last week that they came up with a really good “catch 22” test in which they brought before Jesus a woman they had supposedly caught in the act of adultery. Their goal was to get Jesus to say either “Yes, stone her as per the law of Moses,” and they would then use that to turn the Romans against Him, or they wanted Him to say “No, don’t stone her” and they would then rile up the people over Jesus not supporting God’s law given through Moses. Of course, Jesus’s wisdom was no match for them, and His answer and actions shamed them in their hypocrisy, and they abandoned their test and retreated to regroup.
Now this morning we’re going to look at the next statement Jesus made, in John 8:12. Let’s go ahead and read that verse. In order to understand the heavy significance of what Jesus is really saying using these words in this verse, we need to understand a little more about this Festival of Booths that was taking place, and a little more about the period of time it was reminding the people of. I had mentioned the festival was celebrated in order to remind God’s people of His salvation from Egypt. The people were to remember how they were rescued from slavery, and how they had camped out in tents for 40 years, before God brought them into the land now known as Israel. During those 40 years, God’s very own presence camped out with them, and He led them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light. (Exodus 13:21) And so God Himself traveled with the people, and soon began meeting with Moses face to face in a tent set apart from the rest of the community tents. This tent was known as the Tent of Meeting. When Moses would go out to meet with God in this tent, the people could see God’s pillar of cloud descend at the entrance of it. (Exodus 33:9) And it must have been an impressive sight to see, the Bible says that when the people saw the pillar of cloud at the entrance of the tent, they would arise and worship, each at the entrance of their own tent. (Exodus 33:10) Later, a more special Tent of Meeting was constructed to house God’s presence, it was also known as the Tabernacle, or the Sanctuary. The Ark of the Covenant was constructed as well, a golden box that inside of it contained God’s commandments written on stone tablets, and on top of the golden Ark box was the specific resting place of God’s presence, known as the Mercy Seat. During that time the Ark was kept inside the Tabernacle tent.
And after Moses met with God, He would come out of the tent with His face shining, with light so bright that he ended up having to cover his face with a veil when he was among the people. It seems as if hidden within the cloud there was magnificent light from God so strong that Moses’s skin absorbed and radiated that light when he walked out. And that cloud, containing God’s light- God’s own presence- when it picked up from the Tabernacle and moved, the people knew it was time to pack up camp and travel to a different location.
So, for 40 years, the people camped out with God, and were directly dependent on His light by night, and directly dependent on His light by day that was hidden within the cloud- as God spoke to Moses and instructed the people through giving Moses the law and commandments. God intended for this time of 40 years to be used in drawing the people close to Himself- in helping them to depend on Him, and look to him daily for His leadership and guidance. Each day, they could see the cloud around the tent, hiding God’s light, and each night they could see a small glimpse of that light- in a pillar of fire that radiated light all across the campsite. Like the cloud, I’m sure this pillar of fire was a magnificent sight to see as well- a massive pillar of fire burning in midair, seemingly without any fuel source, casting a more brilliant, mesmerizing light than ever seen before in any blazing bonfire.
Remembering this experience, this 40 years of camping with God the Guiding Light, was the whole reason behind celebrating the Festival of Booths. Now the important question to ask at this point is why were the people celebrating a memory, rather than celebrating a current blessing they were experiencing? That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked! When the people arrived in Israel after the 40 years of camping, they soon turned against God who had rescued them, dwelt among them, and guided them with His light. The people began worshipping false gods. But God was patient with them and still maintained a degree of His presence there on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. And like a good father, God would discipline the people, with the goal of them repenting and turning back to Him. Once, God even allowed the Ark to be stolen by enemies of Israel because of their disobedience. Imagine it- the location of God’s glorious presence, forgiveness, mercy, and light- robbed from the people. The people mourned because God’s glory had departed from Israel. The One who had been with them for so long, guiding them, living with them, illuminating their way- had left. (1 Samuel 4)
Well, the people who took the Ark were evil too, and God punished them as well, to the point where they thought they better return the Ark so more bad things didn’t happen to them. After it was returned, the people of Israel kept the Ark in someone’s house, but it really became somewhat forgotten until the time of King David. King David remembered the Ark and wanted God’s light to lead and guide him, and to bless Israel once again. So, in a nationwide celebration David had the Ark moved from the man’s house to Jerusalem, the capital city from where David ruled. David put the Ark back under a tent, and appointed musicians there to praise God through music continually before the Ark. (1 Chronicles 16:4-6)
Even though the place of God’s presence had been returned, and once again remembered and honored, we don’t find mentioned the visible, heavy presence of God as described during the days of Moses. No pillar of cloud, no pillar of fire- the clouded light was not there. Even so, David was joyful to have the Ark there, and began to feel that a tent was not a sufficient place to house the presence of God. He wanted to build God a fancy house in which the Ark of the Covenant could be placed. (2 Samuel 7) God replied to David saying that He didn’t really need a fancy house, but it pleased Him that David wanted to honor God in that regard, and so- with God’s blessing- David’s son Solomon ended up building a house for God, known as the Temple.
When the Temple was finished being constructed, Solomon had the Ark moved into it. And as the trumpets played, and the singers sang, and the cymbals crashed in praise to the Lord- as recorded in 2 Chronicles 5:14 - the temple was filled with a cloud, a cloud so intense that the priests weren’t even able to stand. The cloud of God’s presence had once again returned, the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.
But once again, the following generations turned away from the Lord and many years later, after repeated warnings, God allowed the nation of Babylon to destroy Jerusalem and the temple that Solomon had built to house God’s presence. Again, the light- the glory of God- had departed from Israel. Then after 70 years, God allowed Jerusalem and the Temple to begin to be rebuilt and once the Temple was finished, it was celebrated and dedicated to the Lord. (Ezra 6:16) But there was something missing- the Ark of the Covenant was missing and was not placed into this second temple. If I remember right, I think Indiana Jones uncovered it several years ago, but it wasn’t available at the time of construction of the 2nd Temple. I joke, but in seriousness I say that, to this day, many speculate, wonder, and rumor over what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. It was not found and placed in the 2nd Temple, and this is the same Temple in who’s courtyards Jesus was teaching during and after the Festival of Booths. And that is the long answer to our question of why the people were celebrating a past memory, rather than a current reality. The short answer is that they had run God’s presence off. Disobedience, turning from, abandoning, forgetting their God- had left them without a continual, visible presence of God in His brilliant light hidden by a cloud.
The generation alive in this passage in John had never seen the glory of God displayed through the darkness of the cloud or the light of the fire. They were attempting to celebrate a memory they didn’t even have. They celebrated a time when God’s powerful light dwelt among His people, an experience they could only act out, one that they had never experienced personally in reality. According to Jewish history, during this Festival of Booths, there were four massive golden candelabra that were set up in the Temple courts (each 75 feet tall), and they cast a brilliant light throughout the night- shining throughout the entire tent city as everyone camped out together in Jerusalem. Temple ministers climbed up and down ladders feeding the lamps with great amounts of oil in order to keep them lit all night, and every night, of the festival. These lamps were there to specifically remind the people of God’s pillar of fire that guided their ancestors during the 40-year journey to Israel. Dancers, musicians, and singers were assigned to worship the Lord in praise, and the idea was that they were celebrating and aiming to usher back in God’s glorious presence that had departed years ago. There were prayers offered up, calling on the Lord to return and to send His Messiah to redeem the people. Scripture from the book of Psalms was recited in unison by priests. There were ceremonial marches with branches being waved as the people cried out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”- calling out to God to send the blessed one- the Messiah.
Now the temple had several different security zones or layers to it. First there was the outer courtyard where anyone could be present including non-Jews. Then you walked up a few steps and the next layer was called the women’s court, and that’s were Jewish men and women could gather. A few more steps up and there was a zone only for men, then there was a zone only for Temple priests, and then lastly there were a set of stairs leading to the Holy of Holies, where only one selected priest could enter only once a year to meet with God. Now the reason I mention this is that the 4 giant lamps casting the light for all to see were placed in the women’s court. Also contained in the women’s court, in the corner of it, was the Temple Treasury. There stood several different boxes with bronze trumpet like bells that would funnel coins down into the boxes. So, if you can imagine in your mind’s eye, standing in the corner of the women’s court with your back to the money boxes, you’d be in the perfect area to look up and see the massive candelabra lamps. And this is exactly the spot where Jesus was teaching in the temple, in today’s passage. Look at John 8:20…
Ok, so Jesus is there teaching the people from the perfect vantage point for viewing the massive lamps, only now the festival has ended. It’s the day after the last day of the festival, and there’s no longer brilliant light emanating from massive candelabra lamps. Perhaps the lamps are still there, as it would take a day or two to disassemble them, and I can imagine there’s a little bit of “Christmas is over blues.” The spirit of the holidays has faded, the warm light is gone, the festivities are over, cleanup crews are busy, perhaps even moping the courtyard stone after Jesus had stooped down to write in the dust. I’m sure there was also a disappointing feeling that God hadn’t come back yet in the pillar of cloud or fire, He hadn’t come back in His glorious light, and now that the light from the lamps was gone, it was all too obvious the fact that the nation who had gathered there at the temple for the festival- was still alone in darkness, without God’s presence, without His light.
Most of the population of Israel, especially all who had attended the festival, were all very familiar with the prophecies contained in Isaiah chapter 9. “The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6) I’m sure each year those words rang loudly in everyone’s minds as they looked up at the beautifully lit candelabras. I’m sure they imagined what it must have been like for their ancestors to have had God’s own presence as fiery light lead them in every step they should take. And then each year to be left with disappointment as the festival ended, burdened with the thought that it shouldn’t be like this. God’s people should once again have God’s shining light with them. Where was He? Why hadn’t He returned? Would He forgive them and dwell again with them as He did when Solomon built the temple? And those questions remained unanswered, and life went on as usual.
This is the atmosphere during this passage, this is the history that massively intensifies Jesus’s words in verse 12. Perhaps, when the crowd had gathered around again, after previously dispersing in shame from the woman caught in adultery, there at the end of the festival, perhaps at the end of the day in the approaching darkness, Jesus calls out “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” His words had to have been like a bomb dropping. I am the Light you are missing. I am God’s presence you are missing. I am greater than the 75 foot tall candelabras, I am greater than the pillar of fire that casted it’s light on every tent in the entire camp, I am the light not just for Israel campsites, but for the entire world! You don’t have to walk in darkness! And you are not just seeing a great light as Isaiah prophesied- but you are given the opportunity to have (possess) the Light of life- It will be yours! Not just a physical, visible light, but a light for your life- to give guidance, insight, clarity, warmth, direction, visibility for your personal life you are living.
I hope that you see the implications Jesus was making by his words in this verse 12. He was implying that He was the Messiah- fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 9. He was implying that He was the pillar of light that not only Israel- but the world- needed to follow. He was implying that God’s presence had finally returned- and that He Himself was God’s presence. He was magnifying the imagery of God’s light that they already had in their minds. And that imagery was to be magnified even further, listen to the words of Revelation 21:23-24. In speaking of Heaven, the new Jerusalem that followers of Jesus will one day enjoy, it says: “And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. [Jesus] 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”
Are you letting the light of Jesus illuminate your life? Are you letting Him lead you as a cloud by day and a fire by night? The nation of Israel knew they needed this type of “light presence” to guide them every day and every night. They knew they needed it, but also understood that they and their ancestors had run off that type of presence by their sin, neglect, forgetfulness, and willful rejection. Don’t hinder the light of the world in His work. Follow Him every day so that you won’t walk in darkness. Do the things He says to do so that you won’t get lost or confused in this dark world.