“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Yet a little time the light is among you. You must walk about as you hold the light, (so) that darkness should not take you down; and the (one) walking about in darkness has not seen [i.e. known] where he leads (himself) under. As you hold the light, you must trust in the light, (so) that you would come to be sons of (the) light.’ Yeshua spoke these (thing)s, and (then), going away from (there), he hid (himself) from them.”
From the literary standpoint of the discourse, Jesus’ words in vv. 35-36 represent his response to the misunderstanding (and question) of the crowd in v. 34 (cf. the previous note). Yet it is not at all clear how this response answer’s the crowd’s question, or relates to their misunderstanding. Possibly, vv. 35-36 was originally an independent tradition, uttered by Jesus on a separate occasion; however, even if this were so, we still have to deal with these verses in their current literary context. In terms of the discourse format, Jesus’ statement in vv. 35-36 is part of the exposition—the explanation of the true and deeper meaning of his initial saying (in v. 23); each exchange with his audience serves to build and develop this exposition.
The initial words in verse 23 refer to the hour in which the Son of Man will be given honor; much the same is said in verse 32, only Jesus there uses the pronoun “I” instead of the title “Son of Man” (cp. 3:14; 8:28). Clearly the crowd around him, including his followers and other interested hearers, has difficulty understanding this self-use of the expression “Son of Man”, and they ultimately ask the question in v. 34: “Who is this Son of Man?” How does Jesus’ response address this question? Fundamentally it is a Christological question, regarding the identity of Jesus, and his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God.
If we consider the three prior references to the expression “Son of Man” in the Gospel, two essentially restate the Son of Man saying cited by the crowd in verse 34—8:28 and 12:23. The third occurs at the climax of the healing episode in chapter 9, when Jesus asks the former blind man “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” (v. 35). Some manuscripts read “…Son of God” but this likely is a correction to the more conventional title among early Christians, being more appropriate to a confession of faith (cf. 20:31, etc). Almost certainly, “Son of Man” is the correct original reading. The theme of the episode is that of seeing, with the establishment of sight tied to the idea of Jesus as light (fw=$)—the true light of God—even as he declares in 9:5, “I am the light of the world” (repeated from 8:12), an identification that is found again in 11:9f:
“…if any (one) should walk about in the day, he does not strike (his foot) against (anything) [i.e. does not trip/stumble], (in) that [i.e. because] he looks (by) the light of this world…”
An ordinary illustration is infused with theological meaning, and this infused imagery is recaptured here in 12:35-36—Jesus, the Son of God, is the light that shines in this world, so that people (believers) may see it and walk by it. The expression “this world” is the current world-order, the current Age of darkness and evil—darkness in which the light of God shines. This light/darkness motif is part of the theological vocabulary of the Johannine Gospel, going back to the Prologue (1:4-9), in which the Son (Jesus) is described as the “true light” (v. 9), the eternal life of God that gives light to people in the world (vv. 4, 9); the wording in verse 5 of the Prologue is especially significant here:
“…the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not take it down [kate/laben]”
The same verb katalamba/nw is used here in 12:35, and, literally, it means “take down”, but can be understood in a positive, neutral, or negative sense; the latter is primarily intended in both passages, but certainly so in the saying here—emphasizing the danger of the person being “taken down” (or “overtaken”) by the darkness of the world. The dualistic light/darkness imagery also occurs in the chapter 3 discourse (vv. 19-20).
Thus, even if Jesus’ response might be obscure, from the standpoint of the audience (the crowd) in the discourse, it would be understandable for readers of the Gospel, who would recognize the earlier motifs. Who is this Messianic “Son of Man”? It is the Son of God, the true/eternal Light that shines in the darkness of this world. Here, the Gospel may well be redirecting traditional Messianic expectations of the time toward the unique Johannine Christology—revealing the true, deeper meaning of these titles and expressions as applied to Jesus. Like the healed blind man of chapter 9, believers see Jesus and come to him, responding with a declaration of trust. This refers specifically to the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth (in the world), a brief period of time (xro/no$) that is now coming to an end. The Light is “among” the people, and, as such, they “hold” it—but only believers will truly see and walk (“walk about”) by it (cp. 1 John 1:7).
The imperatives in verse 35 are a call for believers to come to him, and those who belong to God will respond in trust: “you must walk about as you hold the light…as you hold the light you must trust in the light”. Here the verb peripate/w (“walk about”) captures the discipleship-theme from earlier in the discourse—the believer comes toward Jesus and follows him, i.e. walks about with him; this, in turn, leads to trust (pi/sti$) and the believer remains with Jesus. This remaining involves union with Jesus (the Son) and with God the Father, and means that the believer has the same divine/eternal character as Father and Son. Thus, believers in Christ can properly be called “sons [i.e. children] of Light”, a title more or less synonymous with being called “children [lit. offspring] of God” (cf. 1:12; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2). The expression “sons of light” is traditional, being used, for example, by the Community of the Qumran texts, and comparable usage is found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 16:8; 1 Thess 5:5; Eph 5:8); however, it has a deeper significance in the Johannine context, corresponding with the Christological light-imagery of the Gospel (cf. above).
The message of vv. 35-36 provides a suitable conclusion to the discourse, and to Jesus’ teaching in the first half of the Gospel; it completes the idea foreshadowed in the opening of the discourse—the Greeks (i.e. believers from the nations) who wish to come and see Jesus. In its own way, this is entirely a Messianic theme, prefigured, for example, in the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah (e.g., 42:6; 49:5-6; 52:10; 60:3). Early Christians would apply such (Messianic) imagery to the first-century mission to the Gentiles. The Johannine outlook in this regard is somewhat broader—the universal ideal of all believers in Christ, united together through the Spirit (see esp. Jn 17:20-26).
Verse 36 brings the narrative of the “Book of Signs” (chaps. 2-12) to a close, with the notice that Jesus went away and “hid himself” from the people. The same is stated in 8:59, at the end of the great chap. 7-8 Discourse (cf. also 10:40); apart from historical concerns, it is essentially a literary device, closing the curtain on a particular narrative (episode), and preparing readers for the next (the Last Supper scene and the Passion Narrative). Even so, chapter 12 only reaches it final close with two additional summary sections, in vv. 37-43 and 44-50. The last of these provides a kind of summary of all Jesus’ teaching from the great Discourses in chaps. 2-12, emphasizing, in particular, his relationship (as the Son) to God the Father. The light theme (of vv. 35-36, etc) is reprised here as well, in verse 46:
“I have come (as) light into the world, (so) that every (one) trusting in me should not remain in the darkness.”
This is the last occurrence of the noun fw=$ (“light”) in the Gospel, after serving as a key-word in the first half (23 times in chaps. 1-12). Implicit in this shift may be the idea of a time of darkness surrounding the Passion of Christ (cp. Lk 22:53 and Mk 15:33 par, and note Jn 13:30, “And it was night”), along with the promise that the light, even in the midst of the darkness, cannot be overcome (1:5).