In John 8:12 Jesus makes the remarkable statement that he is the “Light of the World.” As readers of John’s Gospel, we have know this fact since the prologue, but now Jesus declares to crowds gathered to celebrate the Feast of Dedication that he is the True Light.
Jesus makes this statement at the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah, a festival celebrating the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt in 165 B.C. After Antiochus desecrated the Temple, the Jews fought a war to re-capture Jerusalem. When the Temple was secured, the altar was replaced so that sacrifices could begin again. There was not enough oil consecrated to light the menorah in the Temple, so they used what they had and it lasted for the whole eight days it took to consecrate more oil. This miracle is therefore recalled during the feast by the lighting of lamps in homes and in the Temple.
Josephus described the feast as the “festival of lights” although some scholars doubt this description as accurate. The story of the miraculous light is not found in 1 Macc, so the origin of the “light” aspect of Hanukkah is not clear (ABD, “Dedication, Feast of,” 2:124). Since this saying takes place in the public courts, Jesus may very well be contrasting himself with the lights of the festival. As people are celebrating the liberation from their oppressors by the lighting of the menorah in the Temple, Jesus stands up and declares that he is the true light of the world!
By declaring that he is the Light of the World, Jesus is alluding to several texts from the Hebrew Bible as well as practices in the Temple. There are a number of texts which describe God as light (Ps 27:1, 36:9) or the Law as light (Ps 119:105, Prov 6:23). I think it is likely that Jesus’ allusion is to the light of the Torah in this saying. The Torah is God’s word, and it is by God’s word that the the world came into being. This resonates with the prologue ion John 1 as well, since the Word was with God in the beginning and through the Word all things have been created. For a Jewish teacher to declare that they are the “light of the world” is to claim something which goes beyond what might be expected, he is claiming to be God.
Since Jesus says that everyone who follows this light has life, it is possible this is also an allusion to Israel in the Wilderness. This was obvious in chapter 6 when Jesus provided food in the wilderness, in this case the light is the pillar of fire which led Israel when they traveled in the wilderness.
In either case, that Jesus is the light of the world is a major theme in John’s gospel. Those who follow Jesus walk in the light, those who reject Jesus walk in the darkness. Light exposes what is hidden in the darkness. Light is always associated with truth, lies with darkness. By the end of this chapter Jesus makes it clear that to reject him is to willingly choose to remainin the darkness, those who follow Jesus are walking in the light.