What did Jesus mean by “night is coming, when no one can work”?

Q. In John, when Jesus heals the man born blind, he says that “as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So, when exactly is “night”? All the time since he left? Is this used to support the idea that we can’t do as many miracles now? Or does night refer to each person’s death? Or something else?

El Greco, “The Healing of the Blind Man”

I believe that in this context Jesus is using the image of “night” to describe his future arrest and execution.  In the gospel of John, just before Jesus comes upon the man born blind, he narrowly escapes from a crowd that wants to stone him.  Jesus knows that healing the blind man will create further notoriety and controversy.  But he’s saying that he can’t let that stop him.  For as long as he is free and alive (“as long as it is day”), he needs to do the works of the Father.

So for each individual follower of Jesus, “night” is the time when we are no longer free or able to be active in ministry.  It can certainly describe our death, but it could also refer to times of persecution, imprisonment, or incapacity due to illness or accidents.  The implication is that we need to make full use of every opportunity while we have it, without letting the risks or dangers involved deter us.

Of course we should be prudent, not reckless.  Jesus himself strategically withdrew from direct confrontation several times in order to prolong his ministry.  And we shouldn’t work so incessantly that we wear ourselves out, bringing on “night” prematurely.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t fail to take advantage of opportunities that are immediately before us, on the premise that “I can always do that later.”  Jesus was telling his disciples that after a certain point, he wouldn’t be able to “do that later,” and by implication, neither would they.  Not because God’s power wouldn’t be just as available after Jesus’ time on earth, but because sooner or later a personal “night” would render each one of them unable to minister actively.

So Jesus’ words are a warning and a call to action to us today:  “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me,” because “night is coming, when no one can work.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

8 thoughts on “What did Jesus mean by “night is coming, when no one can work”?”

  1. This has nothing to do with death, or working until death. One could say that the night is now in the day we live. We are blind, without Christ (not Physically, but might as well be) The age we live in is of great confusion, and the abundance of the world has caused man to fall into a deep sleep. Kinda like in the garden and the disciples fell asleep, Jesus told them to wake up and pray that so they would not fall into temptation. The gentiles according to history are prone to this conscious sleep when things are going good for them.

  2. I believe Jesus is referring to a time or dispensation. When CHRIST was born, a new day dawned and light came into a world of darkness; but there is coming a day of darkness to which no man can work. The urgency here is ” to walk while the light shineth upon our path lest darkness over takes us”

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