The Light of the World

It is one of those oracular utterances attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of St. John and found in no other. “As long as I am in the world,” he told his disciples, “I am the light of the world.” Another is: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the father, but by me.” Such self-referential statements are uncharacteristic of the way Jesus is presented in the other three gospels, leading some liberal biblical scholars to conclude they are fabrications. No matter, the story has endured for two millennia, and its central figure compels our understanding, self-referential or not. So what are we to make of a man who believes himself to be the light of the world?

Many spiritual traditions have used light as a metaphor for God, not the least the Quakers, who believe an “inner light” abides in every person. They draw inspiration from the reference in the Gospel of John to Jesus Christ as “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” For those who find this light within themselves, truth comes by direct revelation rather than through the teachings of the church, whether Protestant or Catholic. Quakerism’s founder, George Fox, was not shy about dissenting from popular belief, sometimes rising from the pews during sermons to challenge statements issuing from the pulpit. He argued for the abolition of slavery and for the absolute equality of everyone in the eyes of God. Accordingly, he refused to remove his hat in the presence of kings and magistrates. He refused to swear by any oath. Living in England during the 17th century, when religious dissenters were often savagely persecuted for their beliefs, Fox was arrested numerous times and spent seven years in prison altogether. He was lucky he wasn’t put to death.

Quakers have no quarrel with Jesus’ statement that he is the light of the world, but they would dispute any assertion that he has exclusive claim to it. There is only one light in the world, and it shines through everyone. To the extent that this light illuminates our consciousness, we might even say, as Jesus did, that I am the light of the world as long as I am in the world. We misunderstand him if we think this was his way of saying, “I am God, and you are not.” On the contrary, he came into the world to tell us, “I am God, and so are you.”

John 1:9

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