Lesson 15: “I Am the Light of the World”
Doctrine and Covenants 1:38
Purpose: To strengthen class members’ testimonies that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that by following him we can gain true freedom.
To understand the setting of today’s lessons from John, chapters 7 and 8, we need to go clear back to the days of Moses, when Jehovah gave Moses a description of the holy days that were to be kept by the children of Israel.
39 Also in the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the Lord seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath.
40 And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the Lord seven days in the year. It shall be a statute for ever in your generations: ye shall celebrate it in the seventh month.
42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths:
43 That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
44 And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the feasts of the Lord.
This is the origin of the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths: to remind the children of Israel that God had brought them out of bondage in Egypt. The festival was to take place after the grape harvest, at the end of September or early in October; the chief feature that set it apart from other holidays was that the people were to live in temporary shelters – tabernacles, or booths, or huts – made from tree branches, to remind them of the way they lived in the wilderness after the Lord delivered them from slavery.
By Jesus’s day, the Feast of Tabernacles had developed into one of the three great yearly festivals of the Jews. It was one of the celebrations for which great crowds of pilgrims came to Jerusalem. The people built their tabernacles in the fields and on the rooftops, and anywhere they could find a spot of ground that was outdoors, and for the seven days of the festival they ate and slept in those tabernacles. An eighth day had by then been added to the celebration, during which the people rested from the activities of the festival, took apart their tabernacles, and prepared to return home.
By Jesus’s day, the festival had come to be associated with the Temple. Solomon’s temple had been dedicated during the Feast of Tabernacles, and when the Babylonian captivity had ended, the people returned to Jerusalem and the remains of its temple at the time of this festival. The prophet Zechariah had taught the people to pray for rain during the festival, coming as it did at the time of year when rain was necessary to ensure the next year’s crops.
One of the great features of the Feast of Tabernacles was the daily procession by a priest, followed by great crowds of people, who carried a golden pitcher from the Temple Mount down to the pool of Siloam, filled it with water, then returned to the temple, followed by the people singing and waving willow twigs and palm branches to symbolize the materials from which their booths were built, and lemon or citron twigs to represent the just-completed harvest. The procession went into the temple court and circled the altar, then the priest poured the water on the ground near the altar to represent the rivers of living water that the prophets had taught would flow out from the temple to heal the earth in the last days.
There were scripture readings each day, and at night the temple grounds were lit by four enormous menorahs, so large that a ladder was needed to reach the tops. There were four bowls of oil on the top of each of the menorahs, with multiple wicks floating in the oil. When these lamps were lit, the light was bright enough to illuminate the temple and to be seen from throughout Jerusalem.
It was for this great festival that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the third – and last – time during his mortal ministry.
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. Jesus attends the Feast of Tabernacles and teaches in the temple.
[2. A woman taken in adultery is brought to Jesus.]
3. Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world.”
The crowds anticipated that Jesus will come to the festival, and he was the subject of much talk and speculation. Who is he? What will he do if he comes?
10 But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.
11 Then the Jews sought him at the feast, and said, Where is he?
12 And there was much murmuring among the people concerning him: for some said, He is a good man: others said, Nay; but he deceiveth the people.
13 Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews.
Why were the people so watchful for Jesus? What had he done six months before when he had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration? (Glance over John 5-6 to refresh your memory. [He had healed a man, and miraculously fed thousands.])
John does not tell us, though, that Jesus performed any miracles during the Feast of Tabernacles. He did, however, repeat his earlier activities by teaching the people. Instead of going out to a hill, or teaching from a boat on a lake, this time he entered the court of the temple. He would have been standing near the altar, where the priest had that day poured his pitcher of water on the ground, surrounded by the crowds who had been part of the procession – a crowd that had been singing psalms, and waving their tree branches, and who were likely quite excited by the whole festival atmosphere. Yet Jesus attracts their attention, and they listen to him closely enough to be astonished by what he taught.
14 Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.
15 And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?
16 Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.
17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
The Jews who were listening to Jesus would not have been surprised that he could read and quote scripture – that was expected in that day even of the son of a carpenter. What surprised them was that, as Matthew put it, “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matt. 7:29) While most Jewish men had learned to read and recite scripture, only those who could afford a years-long private education, studying with a rabbi, could have been expected to teach – and they would have taught by quoting the teachings and legal rulings of earlier rabbis. Jesus had not had such an education, and the crowd knew it, yet Jesus taught with power and authority, citing God himself rather than any mortal rabbi as his authority.
Jesus’s claim here to have been sent by God to teach the doctrine of God is very similar to what he had said six months earlier during his previous visit to Jerusalem. In chapter 5, John laid out the evidence that Jesus was the Son of God, carrying out the will of his father, by showing us that Jesus had the power to heal the sick; that he had power to raise the dead, including himself; that John the Baptist had borne witness of him; that the Father himself had borne witness; and that Jesus met all the requirements of the scriptures for being the Messiah.
Here in his teachings during the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus adds another witness, another test for the people to know that he is the Son of God, when he says, “Test me. Do what I have taught you to do, and you will know that my teachings come from God, and are true.”
[relate personal experiment]
Have you ever tried out someone’s advice – perhaps something to do with your work, or your finances, or your personal relationships – and learned whether the advice was solid or whether it was a failure?
How about the gospel and spiritual advice? Can you share an experience where, despite your initial doubts, you obeyed a commandment or followed advice given over the pulpit and learned that a principle was true and came from God?
This test that Jesus gives requires us to behave as though we already had faith in a doctrine that we did not yet fully believe – it requires us to pay tithing before we have a testimony of tithing, or to get out of debt before the economy starts to pinch, or to act as though we love our neighbor while we still believe he is a scoundrel. Is there anything wrong with that, any element of hypocrisy?
Then what sometimes stops us from making the experiment that Jesus has invited us to try?
Most of the people who heard Jesus teach and witnessed his extraordinary show of authority, who benefitted from his miracles and were privileged to stand in his presence, did not “do his will, to know of the doctrine.” They debated Jesus’s ancestry, his education, his right to speak as he did, but they did not try his teachings, and did not believe his word.
Jesus taught the people that he had authority from God, and that following Jesus’s teachings was the same as if God himself had taught the doctrine. In our day, the Lord has taught us that listening to the voice of his servants is the same as hearing the voice of God:
Doctrine and Covenants 1:38:
38 What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.
Have we, like the people who followed Jesus during his mortal ministry, benefitted from miracles? How?
Can you think of some ways in which our people today – even Latter-day Saints – are like the crowd at the Festival of Tabernacles, debating the ancestry and education and right of God’s servants to speak as they do?
I’m not asking for public comment here, but ask you to consider silently: Have you recently mimicked the crowds in Jesus’s day by questioning the right of a servant of God to teach as he has taught? Is it worth your effort to apply Jesus’s experiment in this case – to test the doctrine taught by a modern apostle or prophet, to know whether it comes from God?
Jesus returned to the temple on the last and greatest day of the festival, when the ceremonies were at their most impressive. The procession was larger than ever, and circled the altar seven times before the water was poured on the ground. Jesus stood again in the temple court, and pointed to the water just poured on the ground, and declared, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me [shall find] rivers of living water.”
That apparently was the final straw. An argument erupted over Jesus’s claims, and the Sanhedrin sent the temple police to arrest Jesus. The efforts of the Jewish leaders to silence Jesus failed. We find him again teaching the people, drawing on the lighted menorahs visible to everyone present at the Feast of Tabernacles:
12 Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.
How do we interpret that? How is Jesus the light of the world?
In Matthew 4:14, Jesus tells his disciples, “Ye are the light of the world.” Is there a contradiction here?
Jesus also taught at the temple that week,
31 … If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;
32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
As 21st-century Americans, heirs to Greek philosophy and the Western Enlightenment, we are used to defining “truth” as either the realities of the physical world, or as something that can be determined by human logic. To us, “freedom” means independence, the right to act and decide for ourselves. To the Jews of his day, though, the way Jesus would have been using the ideas, truth was God, and truth came from God, and truth was spoken by God. Freedom meant not independence from rulers or rules, but the absence of guilt and freedom from the consequences of sin.
This statement – “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” – is reminiscent of another of Jesus’s teachings that we talked about a few weeks ago. Let’s return to Matthew 11:28-30 and review the kind of freedom Jesus is speaking about at the Feast of Tabernacles:
28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Probably most of us talked about the yoke this is put around the necks of cattle, by which men can cause oxen to pull heavy loads. The scriptures often use that kind of yoke as a metaphor for the enslavement that comes from disobedience to God.
There was another kind of yoke, though, that was familiar in Jesus’s day: the kind that a human being would wear across his shoulders, from which were suspended water jars. This yoke was still a burden, but at the same time it was a great help to its wearer. It enabled a man to carry a balanced load so that he wasn’t bent to one side. It enabled him to carry the weight on his shoulders with the aid of his upright back, instead of wearying himself by hunching over under the weight of the water dragging on his arms. It may have been that kind of yoke Jesus was speaking of when he said his yoke was easy – it was still a burden, and a man was still laboring, but his burden was actually lightened by such a yoke.
The same lesson where we discussed the yoke asked us to consider two stories that illustrated how assuming the yoke of Jesus Christ makes our burdens lighter – makes us free.
The first was the case of Jesus and his disciples plucking some grain to ease their hunger as they walked through a field. The Pharisees chided them for that, and Jesus taught that the Sabbath was greater than the Pharisees’ minute rules, that the Sabbath was for doing good works, showing mercy, and glorifying God.
How does a true understanding of the Sabbath set us free?
(Incidentally, the Jews who accused Jesus of Sabbath-breaking because of his “work” of plucking the grain fully understood that the work of God should go forward on the Sabbath: Drawing water, kindling fire, and carrying tree branches were all violations of the Pharisaic rules against work on the Sabbath, yet all three of those actions were major features of the Feast of Tabernacles, including its Sabbaths.)
The second story we discussed in connection with the yoke of Jesus was the case of the repentant woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She had been a sinner and burdened by disobedience; but she had repented, and showed her joy and relief at her freedom from sin by her gratitude to the Savior.
Repentance is never easy. It’s a burden – but it is a burden borne by the yoke of Christ. How does accepting the truth about repentance set us free?
Can you think of other occasions, either from the scriptures or church history or your own life, where accepting the truth taught by God has set someone free?
Jesus challenged the people of his day to recognize the witnesses of his divine nature and the fact that he came from the Father and taught the doctrine of God. In some ways it doesn’t matter that 2,000 years have passed since he asked the people to Jerusalem to follow him – each one of us has to make the same decision. Is Jesus the Messiah? Did he teach true doctrine? Will following his teachings set me free?
You are asked to read John, chapters 9 and 10, for next week’s lesson; and several sections from Mark and Luke – which you’ll find listed in your class study guide – for the week following. I’m sure all the teachers would appreciate your preparing to help with class discussion. I tend to follow the reading assignments rather closely, so you’ll have an opportunity to share your insights when you do take the time to prepare.