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I am the light of the world

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Topic Scripture: John 9:1–7

I was once part of a group touring Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The park contains over 119 caves. One of its caves has been mapped to a depth of 1,600 feet. Seventeen species of bats live in the park; one count estimated 793,000 of them in the caverns.

At one point in our tour, the guide turned off the lights wired into the ceiling of the cave, then his flashlight. We were plunged into the most total darkness I have ever experienced. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. No amount of adjustment to the dark made my eyes able to see. There was absolutely no light anywhere in the room.

Then the guide turned on his flashlight again. It was immediately and obviously visible to everyone in the cave. And it illuminated all that we could not see just a moment before.

I found my experience to be a metaphor for Jesus’ statement, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Without his light, we are all in complete and total spiritual darkness. By his grace, all who turn to his light can see.

So, what does it mean for Jesus to be the “light of the world”? What about people who have never seen this light? What happens to them? If God would condemn them to hell for rejecting a light they’ve never seen, what does that say about God? Conversely, if they don’t have to see the light to be saved, why does God tell us to share it? Why does he send people to risk their lives as missionaries to shine a light that the world doesn’t need?

Finally, how do we share this light in a way that defeats the darkness? These are the questions we’ll discuss today as we learn how to share the only “light of the world” with those in our dark “cave,” wherever and however we can.

Opening blind eyes and souls

Last week, we began a survey of Jesus’ “I Am” statements, using them to address the perennial faith questions we all face. Today, we come to his second “I Am” claim: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).

As our text opens, Jesus “saw a man blind from birth” (v. 1). This man’s infirmity meant that he could not be healed by first-century medicine. He needed not a physician, but a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). In the misguided theology of their day, every physical illness had a spiritual cause. If this man was born blind, clearly someone sinned. The options were binary—either him or his parents.

(It’s interesting that the disciples thought Jesus would know the answer to their question, an indication of their growing understanding of his divinity.)

Jesus exploded their wrong theology: “It is not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). Some suffering is the result of sin, but that was not the case here. Much of the world’s grief and pain is not the result of anyone’s sin or failure. Think of Job’s plight or Jesus’ crucifixion. To attribute all suffering to sin often increases the suffering of the innocent.

God did not cause this man’s blindness, but he used it: “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Our Lord redeems all he allows, something Jesus demonstrated powerfully in this man’s life.

Then Jesus brought us into the narrative: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (v. 4). “We must” points to the imperative of what Jesus calls us to do. “Night is coming” shows its urgency.

Our “work” is to share the true light our dark world so desperately needs: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (v. 5). Here Jesus repeats God’s holy personal name, “I Am.” “The” points to the fact that he is the only light of the world. All else is darkness.

The Bible says of Jesus:

  • “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
  • “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:4–5).
  • “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8:12).

Now Jesus calls us to reflect his light to our dark world: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16).

So, our text teaches that Jesus is the light our dark world needs. He is the light of salvation, wisdom, direction, and purpose. Our job is to reflect his light to others, so they may see our works and praise our Father in heaven.

What about those who have not seen the light?

Here’s the problem: two billion people, nearly a third of the planet’s population, have never heard the gospel. They’ve never been shown the light. They’ve never been given the opportunity to make Jesus their light. Billions more have some access to the gospel, but they live in places where it is hard or dangerous to become Christians.

What happens to them? Let’s survey the options.

One: God judges them according to the light they have.

Romans 1 states:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (vv. 18–20).

The text clearly teaches that all people are “without excuse” for rejecting God, since his “invisible attributes” can be perceived through his creation. However, this does not mean that they can be saved apart from the gospel, or there would be no need to share the gospel. We could trust that people will respond or not to the light they can see in the world, with no responsibility for giving them more light.

Two: God knows what they would do if they heard the gospel.

The Bible says that Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). God knows “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10). It is plausible, therefore, that he knows what a person would do if he or she had an opportunity to respond to the gospel and judges this person accordingly.

But if this is true, why do we need to give them the light? Why risk our lives to share the gospel with those who have not heard it?

Three: Everyone goes to heaven.

This is called “universalism,” and it comes in two forms. One claims that since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), everyone goes to heaven because he loves them.

The other claims that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for everyone’s sins, whether they know it or not. I don’t have to know about Jonas Salk to receive the polio vaccination he developed.

However, the Bible says of Jesus: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). Our Lord said of himself, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Clearly, a person has to trust in Jesus to be in heaven.

Four: All who have not heard are condemned.

This is the logical corollary to the third position. If people must trust in Jesus to be saved, and they do not hear the gospel, they must be lost. If I need to receive a vaccination to avoid contracting polio and no one tells me about this vaccination, I will get polio. The fault is not mine, but I will contract the disease nonetheless.

However, Scripture teaches that God is just: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Psalm 89:14). He is also love (1 John 4:8). It seems a contradiction of his justice and his love to condemn people to hell for rejecting a light they have never been shown.

Five: The “elect” will see the light.

Some Christians believe that God chooses who will be in heaven (the “elect”) and who will be in hell. While this seems harsh, they note that no one deserves to be in heaven. Salvation is only by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). All who are in hell deserve to be there.

However, the Bible says that God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Scripture states that our Father “desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). While some believe that these texts refer only to the “elect,” others (myself included) see them as applying to all of mankind.

John 3:16 is both famous and clear: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Six: God will get the gospel to everyone in the world.

Here we meet the concept of “supernatural evangelism,” the belief that the Holy Spirit is showing the light of Christ to the world, whether we participate in his ministry or not. Jesus revealed himself supernaturally to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Cornelius had a vision that led him to Peter and to the gospel (Acts 10).

Millions of Muslims around the world are seeing visions and having dreams of Jesus and the gospel. (For more, see my friend Tom Doyle’s magnificent book, Dreams and Visions or do an internet search on “Muslim visions of Jesus.”) Since God wants all people to be saved, his Spirit is bringing his light to those we cannot or will not reach.

Affirming this principle could cause us to be less committed to global missions, since God is reaching those we do not. But we can see our Lord as our missions partner. The fact that missionaries are reaching people overseas I cannot reach makes me no less responsible for the people I can reach at home. We can take the same approach with God’s global missions activity.

Conclusion

Whatever your approach to this question, here’s a fact we can all affirm: lost people need Jesus. Those in the dark need and deserve to see the light. And it’s our privilege and responsibility to share it with all we can, however we can.

If we could ask Paul what happens to those who don’t hear the gospel, here would be his answer: tell them. Don’t speculate about the question, but answer it practically. If we shared the light with those in the dark, the question would not exist.

You might respond, “But I cannot reach the entire world.” You’re right. But together, God’s people can fulfill God’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Consider this: If you were the only Christian on earth and you won me to Jesus today, there would be two of us. If tomorrow, each of us won someone to Jesus, there would be four of us. If the next day, each of us won someone to Jesus, there would be eight of us. Then sixteen, then thirty-two, then sixty-four, and so on.

How long would it take us to reach the entire planet? Thirty-three days.

By multiplication, in thirty-three days the number would be 8,589,934,592, exceeding the planet’s population by a billion people.

This is the method of multiplication Jesus intended when he spent three years with twelve men. He wanted them to reach others who would reach others, until they reached the entire world. And by Acts 17:6 they had “turned the world upside down.”

Now it’s our turn. Will you pray by name for a lost person you know? Will you ask Jesus to shine his light through your life?

Who will be in heaven because of you?