The Tabernacles Discourse: The Light of the World John 8:12-30

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The Tabernacles Discourse is a memorable event in the Gospel of John, but in the Jewish cultural context, it is an even more dramatic event. Scholars disagree on the Light of the World discourse, whether it belongs to the Tabernacles Discourse or not, as the woman caught in adultery exists between the two exchanges. The oldest manuscripts lack the woman caught in adultery; thus the two exchanges would both occur in the context of the Festival of Tabernacles, providing a further dramatic and provocative exchange.

Overview

John’s gospel is one of the four gospels contained in the canon of Scripture. Unlike the other three, it is not part of the Synoptic Gospels as it appears to be independently written. Like the Synoptics, it is written anonymously; however, the author does refer to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (v. 21:20, 24).[1] With the clues that the author left in the text combined with the testimony of the early church fathers, there is strong evidence that points to John, the son of Zebedee, as the author of the gospel.[2] Although objections to this conclusion exist, Köstenberger asserts, “none of the objections raised by Dodd, Brown, and others actually prove, or even plausibly suggest, separate authorship of John’s gospel and the letters.”[3]

Historical tradition holds that John wrote this gospel in the early to mid-AD 80s while spending time in Asia Minor near Ephesus.[4] While this is reasonable, it should be noted that the earliest fragments of the gospel are contained on Egyptian papyri. It is well known that the majority of New Testament papyri comes from Egypt as the climate provides for better preservation. Still, Egypt and Palestine should remain considered for the location of authorship.[5]

Although this information provides some background of the text, it does not explain the purpose of the authorship. Contained within the document, one purpose is provided: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name” (v. 20:31). While this statement has an evangelistic purpose, it also speaks to whom the audience may be.[6]  As the gentiles would largely be unaware of who the Messiah, or Christ, is, the Jewish people would have been very aware of the meaning. As the author intends the document to prove “Jesus is the Christ,” it would be reasonable that at least part of the intended audience was the Jewish people.[7]

When examined, the document clearly demonstrates that portions are of the narrative genre, whereas others contain discourse. Throughout the text, it moves between these two genres, often in a dramatic style.[8] While all four of the gospels contain similar genres, it should be noted that John’s gospel contains more discourse than the Synoptics, “but not at the expense of narrative.”[9] The document has many sections, but in the most general sense, it contains a prologue and epilogue with the “Book of Signs” and “Book of the Passion” contained sandwiched in between.[10]

Exegesis

The Tabernacle Discourse begins in John 7, with Jesus leaving Galilee to Judea during the Feast of Booths, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles (v. 2). While the disciples traveled to the feast publicly, Jesus did not travel with them—instead, He traveled in private (v. 10). Already, the Jews were seeking to kill Him (v. 1), but Jesus knew it was not yet His time to die (v. 8). During the feast, the Jews were already looking for Him (v. 11). Some recognized Him as being a good man, but others believed Him to be evil and committing heresy.

The Pharisees sent officers to arrest Him (v. 32), but He was not arrested. Jesus then declared, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (v. 37-38). This would have had great implications for the feast occurring regarding the water-pouring ceremony that took place in the Temple. While the meaning can be understood by those that are not part of the Jewish culture, for the people of the feast, this harkened to the very reason why the ceremony took place and would have been quite shocking.  

The Woman Caught in Adultery

Following this, the story of the woman caught in adultery occurs. This story is contested by many scholars as it is not found in the earliest of manuscripts. Additionally, the following discourse (v. 8:12) seems to be a continuation of the previous discourse (v. 7:52). If one accepts the author did not include this account in the Tabernacles Discourse, then 8:12 is a continuation of the previous exchange, noted by the word “again,” with Jesus speaking to the people still within the context of the Feast of Tabernacles.[11]

The Festival of Tabernacles

During the feast, the most striking ceremony was the lighting of the torches at the Temple that would light up the entire city.[12] In the Court of Women, four tall candelabra would be lit by the young priests, who climbed ladders to get to the top.[13] The light from these torches would be mesmerizing in the night, providing illumination that could be seen from every location in Jerusalem. In the Mishna, it is recorded,

“And there was not a courtyard in Jerusalem which was not lit up from the light of bet hashshoebah. The pious men and wonder workers would dance before them with flaming torches in their hand, and they would sing before them songs and praises.”[14]

The water-pouring and the illumination of the torches would have been the two most important ceremonies of the feast.[15] The torches would have symbolized God’s Spirit seen as a pillar of fire in the night that would remain over Israel during their journey through the desert.[16] Both the water-pouring ceremony and the lighting of the torches represented the Shechinah, or presence of God, that once filled the Temple.[17] According to some sources, the illumination of these torches occurred every night of the feast.[18]

The Light of the World

In continuation with the discourse that ends in 7:52, it states that “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’” (v. 8:12). This statement has many Old Testament allusions, with one notable one being the presence of God as displayed by the cloud in the day and the pillar of fire at night (Ex. 14:19-25). Additionally, many Psalms refer to God as “light.” Regarding the eschatological meaning, the Lord is said to be the light and salvation for His people (Is. 60:19-22).[19]

With the Jewish people having this knowledge at the forefront of their minds during the ceremony, Jesus’ statement would have been provocative and shocking. We know this statement was said within the Court of the Woman, also known as the treasury (v. 20).[20] The four tall torches, or candelabra, were located there, so Jesus’ statement would have been in the same setting as where the light was emitting toward all of Jerusalem. Jesus was stating that he was the fulfillment of what the torches represented—the very presence of God among the people. Not only this, but his statement provided an immediate consequence of salvation. Just as the Israelites followed the cloud or pillar of fire in their exodus, Jesus claimed if they followed Him, they would have salvation, another eschatological fulfillment.[21]

For Jesus to claim He was “the Light of the World,” He bore witness to Himself as more than a mere man. The world does not emit its own light, nor does a man emit light, but it is only God “who is the Light and the Giver of Light.”[22] While Jesus’s statement shows He is both the “Light of the World” and the “Light of Life,” it is not a provision given to all of the world. The world is darkened without these provisions, and only those that follow Him will receive them.[23] The question is, who or what is the “world?” It has a double meaning, with the first being a literal meaning of the physical world God created. As discussed earlier, it cannot provide its own light, except through the light created by God. The second meaning is the unbelieving people, who do not have the illumination of the Truth, which is the knowledge and faith in God. In this discourse, the Pharisees with whom Jesus spoke were representative of the unbelieving world.[24]

Jesus’s Witness

Immediately the Pharisees call Jesus out for bearing witness for Himself (v. 13). They did not believe Him, so they charged Him with bearing false witness, which was not a new charge for Jesus. As such, He had already defended Himself, that the Father bears witness to Him (5:37), and in this instance, He uses a similar defense.[25] While the Pharisees try to use the law to convict Jesus, the requirement of two or more witnesses was only necessary for conviction in capital cases, not for acquittal.[26]

Jesus’ response is contrary to the accusation, where his witness is not one of independent testimony, but in perfect unity of the Father’s will.[27] Jesus’ response would have contradicted Himself in 5:31, had He not added, “because I know where I came from and where I am going. But you do not know where I come from or where I am going” (v. 14b).[28] Indeed, He was testifying about Himself, but this testimony was also the testimony of the Father, from whom He came.

The Pharisees are then countered by Jesus with His declaration that their judgment is flawed as it is without the understanding of the truth, according to the flesh or sin (v. 15). Jesus follows this up with that He does not judge anyone, even though He certainly has the authority to, but it is the Father that judges. If Jesus were to make a judgment, it would truly be the Father’s judgment, not His own (v. 16). Jesus uses the law to prove His authority is proven by the testimony of two people, both Himself and the Father (v. 17). Interestingly, Jesus refers to the law as “your law” instead of “our law” as Nicodemus had, thus indicating He was no longer one of them.[29]

 The Confusion of the Pharisees

The confusion of the Pharisees becomes more evident with the following discourse that takes place with Jesus. They first inquire where His Father is (v. 19). Michaels suggests this question was to remind Jesus that His Father was not present but far away, or even deceased, further showing their ignorance.[30] The reality is that they did not know who Jesus was, nor did they know the Father, for they would have known how ignorant their question was.[31]

Despite their unbelief in Jesus, they still did not arrest Him (v. 20). God is sovereign, and it was still not His time. Jesus perplexes the Pharisees again with His next statement, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come” (v. 21). This has strong implications—Jesus was from above, they were of this world, and He was going to His Father, while their father was Satan.[32] Further, they did not recognize the Messiah had come, so they would continue to look for His arrival.[33] While Jesus had made a similar pronouncement earlier, His words do not capture their attention as would be expected. Instead, they were confused and concerned over where Jesus was going.[34] The Pharisees were so far from the truth that they believed He might even go kill Himself (v. 22). Jesus’s words meant no such thing, and even more, ironically, it would be their actions that lead to Jesus’s crucifixion. The great irony is that their deception was so flawed that they thought God in the flesh was an evil heretic. Jesus was correct in saying they did not even know the Father.

Jesus explains Himself with similar statements, but with different wording, explaining He is from above, and they are from this world (v. 23). They would die in their sins unless they came to faith in Him as the Messiah who would save them (v. 24). As if Jesus’ words were not clear enough, the Pharisees still ask, “Who are you?” and Jesus replies to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning” (v. 25). They were so blinded by their sinful deception that they could not understand Jesus was speaking of the Father (v. 27). Jesus then makes an unusual statement, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he” (v. 28). It seems this statement is an allusion to the future crucifixion that He would endure, where He would be glorified.[35] While some of the statements would be hard to understand, especially in 8:28, many people believed Him (v. 30). The “many” that believed Him stand in stark contrast with the unbelieving, confused Pharisees. They thought themselves righteous for adherence to the law, yet they were completely ignorant to the Messiah, who the law pointed toward.

Critical Discussion

If the woman that was caught in adultery truly belongs in the position in text as it does today, then that story splits the Tabernacles Discourse. In that case, the Light of the World discourse is its own discourse, outside of the context of the Feast of Tabernacles. The timeline of events would be difficult to know if it occurred after the feast. It could occur directly after the feast concluded, with it still heavy on the minds of the people, or it could have occurred much later. If it occurred much later, then the discourse would not lose its meaning. Still, the encounter would lose some of the provocative value provided in the setting of the ceremonial acts of the water-pouring and lighting of the torches. While this is not a possibility that can be completely ruled out at this time, it seems unlikely as the language of 7:52 seems to flow directly into the discourse of 8:12, as previously discussed. This textual criticism is supported by the fact that the ceremony was pointing toward the coming presence of God as found in Christ, who was the fulfillment of the ceremony. In that regard, the eschatological implications support that the woman caught in adultery should not exist within this the Tabernacles Discourse.

Application

For the believer reading this discourse, it provides insight that the unbelieving world is so blinded in their sins that even God in the flesh does not convince people to turn to the Truth. Often, believers believe if they could only get better with their apologetics or argument, that they would be able to convince more people to have faith in God. The reality is that no amount of evidence can bring all to faith. Many want to continue in their falsehoods due to their love of sin. Unless God works within the person to turn their heart of stone into one of flesh, they are completely unable to see the Truth of the gospel. Instead, the person must rely upon the simple truths of the gospel—it does not take extraordinary intelligence to understand it. It is so easy to understand that even a child may understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

The Pharisees were likely the most knowledgeable of the Scriptures, yet they could not understand Jesus. While they awaited the Messiah’s coming, they failed to realize Jesus was, in fact, the promised Messiah. He was and is God in the flesh, yet they deemed Him a heretic. The great irony of this situation shows just how strong the deception of sin acts upon humanity. Even in their great knowledge, they failed to see how Jesus’s testimony was true according to the same Scripture they studied. It was recognized by many that He spoke like no other man, so it should have been obvious to them that something was different—He was not a mere mortal person.

For the unbeliever, they should see this discourse as evidence that Jesus is who He says He is. He is the fulfillment of what Scripture points toward. In Him, there is the light of truth and the light of life, from which nothing else can provide. While the Pharisees remained in their self-righteous sin, many that were present did come to faith. The amount of knowledge in a person does not necessarily lead to truth, but only by faith in trusting God. The most educated of the era were likely the Pharisees, and even their education failed their recognition of God before them as found in Jesus Christ. Evidence is all around that speaks to the existence of God, but it is by the sinful nature of humanity that the world is blind toward it. Instead, people put their trust in vain philosophies and other studies that have no power to save. There is only one faith that provides for the complete salvation for a person not based upon works, and that is faith in Jesus as the Christ promised in Scripture.

The church must not fall into the same trap of the Pharisees—self-righteousness. No number of ceremonies, traditions, or history will save a person’s soul. This is not to say that the church should stop endeavoring to become more righteous, holy, and pious, but these things alone are meaningless without the Truth. Salvation comes only from the grace and mercy of God through the work of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection. The natural person is deceived by their sin, and the wages of their sin is death. Only through the free gift of forgiveness and salvation may a person come to life. Instead, the church must use its knowledge rightly to honor God and recognize the Truth. Discerning the Truth from sinful deception is of the utmost importance, so others do not fall into the trap that is falsehoods.

Conclusion

At face value, the Tabernacles Discourse is an amazing narrative. With the finding of older manuscripts that suggest the Light of the World discourse should be a continuation in the same context, it becomes that much more provocative. It would place Jesus in the very festival ceremonies that were pointing toward the presence of God, providing an eschatological fulfillment. The inability of the Pharisees that could not understand the words of Jesus become even more evident of how blinded in sin the world is. While people like to think of themselves as being intelligent with the ability to use logic and reason to come to correct understandings, the Tabernacles Discourse indicates that no amount of evidence can change the mind of the person that is steeped in their sins and thus blinded from all Truth. In the exchange, it seems that Jesus is in a dire situation, where He would be arrested. Repeatedly, we see Scripture saying that it was not His time to be arrested, showing the sovereignty of God over situations. Even in the direst of situations, we trust God that He is in control. He is the only one that trust is sure, for humanity will always fail, where He will never fail.


[1] Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God, Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 72.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 93.

[4] Ibid.

[5] J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 37.

[6] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 90.

[7] Ibid., 90-91.

[8] Robert Kysar, “John, The Gospel of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 916.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Carson, 103.

[11] Ibid., 337.

[12] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Jn 8:12.

[13] Margaret Barker, King of the Jews: Temple Theology in John’s Gospel (London: SPCK, 2014), 272.

[14] Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 289.

[15] Alfred Edersheim, The Temple, Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ. (London: James Clarke & Co., 1959), 286.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 285.

[18] Carson, 337.

[19] Ibid., 338.

[20] W. Shaw Caldecott, “Treasury (of Temple),” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 3008.

[21] Carson, 338.

[22] Michaels, 478.

[23] Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 389.

[24] Michaels, 477.

[25] Morris, 387.

[26] Michaels, 479-480.

[27] Carson, 339.

[28] Michaels, 480.

[29] Ibid., 482.

[30] Ibid., 484.

[31] Carson, 341.

[32] Ibid., 341.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Michaels, 486.

[35] Carson, 345.

Gordon Bland

I am a seminary student working toward my M.Div. While I grew up Pentecostal, within my first semester of seminary, I came to a different understanding of the Word and theology. I am now Reformed Baptist. #1689 I love teaching others about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, for it was Christ that transformed me. For a number of years, I was a militant atheist and substance abuser. If God can change me, I know he can do the same for you! I am but a wretch, yet He still chose to give me grace. He truly is amazing and deserves all our praise!