Why Is Jesus Called the "True Light"?

Borrowed Light
Why Is Jesus Called the "True Light"?

When I was a little boy, I loved going to my grandmas in the early summer and collecting lightning bugs (or “fireflies” for those who aren’t as hip as me). Along with my cousins, we would gather as many of these as possible, place them in a jar, and try to create a flashlight.

It never really worked but it was fun to try. I always thought the problem was that we couldn’t get them to light up at the same time. But in reality, the problem was that they are made of different stuff than a flashlight. They’re not created to shine for a long distance. They aren’t a real light source for us.

Can you imagine trying to navigate your way out of a dark cavern only using the flickering light of a lightning bug? It’d be crazy. If you want to make it through the dark, you need an actual source of light.

This is partially what John means in John 1:9, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” But what exactly does he mean by calling Jesus the “true light”? And how does this impact us today?

Why Does John Call Jesus the "True Light"?

There is some difficulty with translating this verse, and you can see it reflected in a couple different translations. Look at the differences between the ESV/NIV, KJV.

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” (ESV/NIV)

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (KJV)

The difference is in what is “coming into the world.” Is it the “true light” that is coming into the world? Or is it “every man” who comes into the world? Scholars are divided over the correct translation. And the way we interpret this does have some difference in meaning.

Is this text saying that Jesus is like an ever-shining light that will rest upon you once you enter into the world? If this is the case, then every person is without excuse because they are given the light of the knowledge of Christ even when they are born. This would square a bit with what Paul says in Romans 1:16-32.

Personally, I believe the context and the way in which John typically uses these words leads us to adopt the NIV/ESV translation. In this case the meaning is something like saying, “if you have light then it comes from this source.”

I also lean this way because it jives with what is meant here by “true.” For John, this word means far more than just the opposite of that which is false. It means authentic, genuine, real, ultimate. John is comparing John the Baptist with Jesus. He is saying that John was like a lamp and Jesus is the power grid.

Perhaps the meaning here can be illustrated by the words of the Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne. McCheyne was reading through the biographies of many dear saints who had gone before him. On March 20, 1832, after reading part of the Life of Jonathan Edwards, McCheyne then comments, “How feeble my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun! But even his was a borrowed light, and the same source is still open to enlighten me.”

That is what John is saying here. Jesus is the source of everything that shines. When we understand what John means by “light” the beauty of the incarnation becomes even more clear to us.

Why Does Light Matter?

If you have ever been in a dangerous location while it was dark, you realize that this question is silly. There is a reason why small children are afraid of the dark and very few are afraid of sunshine. When things are dark, they are uncertain. We know that bad things lurk in the shadows.

Likewise, if you have ever been poring over a significant problem that just cannot seem to unravel, you realize how important “light” in a situation can be. There is a reason why our cartoon characters have a light bulb appear over them when they come to a realization that can help them solve their problem. And there is a reason why we talk about a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Think back to being a child, perhaps sleeping in an unfamiliar room. When the light goes out every shadow becomes a dangerous monster. The closet becomes a portal to the underworld. The window — rather than an entrance to the beautiful outside world — is now a pathway to peril. The tree outside looks like the gangly arms of a creature from another planet. Darkness disorients.

But flip on the light and what happens? The tree turns back into a tree. The closet is the place where you keep toys instead of terrible monsters. And the window is once again a gate to beauty. That’s what light does. It gives safety and security instead of chaos. It gives warmth and knowledge. It helps us to see what is real.

This is what it means, then, to say that Jesus is the true light. He provides all of these things. He, being the source of all light, shines upon the world and helps us to see things as they really are.

Why Is It Important for Us That Jesus Is the TRUE Light?

There is another image here that I believe John wants us to see in regards to Jesus as the source of light. It’s not that the people in the Old Testament were without light. But there is a massive difference between the light of a blazing fire and the light of a matchstick.

The revelation that they had in the Old Testament was a shadowy type of light. God’s Word was indeed a lamp unto their feet, it was sufficient for them to understand much about God. But it’s not the same as the blazing inferno of the revelation given in Christ. That is partly what John wants us to see here about Jesus.

John 1:18 declares, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” That is what light does. It makes known. And this is why it is significant for Jesus to be the true light, the source of everything which shines.

This means that everything we know to be true about God finds its origin in Jesus Christ. It means that every fact which can be known about anything ultimately flows out of the storehouse of Christ. If you have light, it comes from Jesus.

When you and I are laboring in the darkness of incomplete knowledge we can find answers in Christ. When we find ourselves in the cold and dark places of the world we can be warmed by the presence of Christ. When all about us seems confusing and scary, we can be comforted knowing that Christ shines brighter, and that someday all evil and darkness will be cast out. There will be no more dark alleys or hidden corners.

Put Out Your Torch

There is one last point to be made about the reality of Christ being the true light. It means that we need to drop our own torches.

In Isaiah 50:11 we read this:

"Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!

Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!

This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment."

If we reject the light of Christ, because we prefer darkness or our own light sources, then we’ll be eternally tethered to these faltering sources of light. These are not true light sources, because they do not have Christ as their source. As such, they are destined to fade. If we light ourselves by these fires, we will eventually find ourselves in the cold.

Christ has come. May we snuff out our own little torches and rest in His light. 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/bruev

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.