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.”