scientists cannot decide whether light is more like a wave or a particle. The mathematics sometimes fits one model, sometimes the other, and sometimes neither. Yet, it is essential to life. Without light (and our biological light receptors) we could not see. Without light to drive photosynthesis, there would be no green plants – hence food would be in short supply.
Yet, we know from whence light comes. In Genesis 1:1-3, God created the heavens and the earth. Initially, all was darkness and formless – until God said, “Let there be light.”
Actually, “light” already existed before that – for, as John notes in 1 John 1:5, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” It was not until Genesis 1:14 that God said “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens….”
The word here is different from that in verse 3. This refers to luminous bodies, or objects that emit light; verse 3 refers to light itself, a characteristic of God and his glory. Genesis 1 does not even name the sun and moon. There, these are “the greater light” and the “lesser light” ruling the day and night respectively. Genesis throws in the stars that make up the rest of our expanding universe almost as an afterthought: “He made the stars also.”
The sun and moon were put in place as “light holders.” They are not light itself, but they hold light for our world.
Later, God gave us a series of what I think of as “human light holders.” These are individuals or groups whom God has provided to give light of a different kind to the world, “light” by which to live – and by which we see and know God.
In the Garden, God provided this light directly as he walked and talked with the Man and the Woman in the cool of the day. After the Fall the human race was barred from that face to face communion with God, but certain individuals did walk with him and find grace in his eyes. Later, he chose some to communicate his light to others.
Abraham & His Descendants
Among the most notable of these were Abraham and his offspring through Isaac and Jacob. In calling Abraham, God said he would make his name great “so that you will be a blessing” in whom “…all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
For the next two millennia, the story of Abraham’s descendants continued in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 4 is the first of a series of messages to Israel Moses gave before he went up Mt. Pisgah to die and Israel crossed Jordan into their promised land. Moses told them God’s purpose in giving them the Law. If you keep the instructions I am giving you, he said, “…that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (v. 6) By keeping faith with God in the Covenant he made with them, Israel would be a blessing to other nations, pointing them to the Yaweh as he teaches how all men should live their lives.
But did they do this? The nation formed by God to be a blessing in a world of violence, greed, and mayhem instead wanted to be like the nations around them. And like them they became. They worshiped the same idols the other nations worshiped in the same lustful ways. They, like other nations, oppressed the poor while upper classes lived in luxury. Instead of leading the nations to God, Israel followed the nations.
There were exceptions to this, of course – but they were few. God sent prophets to call the people back to him, but scarcely any listened. He sent natural disasters and the scourge of war, but the nation did not return to God.
One of the greatest of the prophets was Isaiah. In a context where God speaks to Isaiah as his servant (even saying to him “you are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified”), God said:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)
Israel did not listen – so the nations around were left in darkness. Israel went into the darkness of captivity. When they were permitted to return to their own land, they shunned idolatry – but they did not live as God wanted them to live. Corruption in the palace and in the temple was rife.
Though there were glimmers of light here and there, on balance we have to say Israel failed as God’s light-holder to show Him and His ways to the nations. Yet, there was a thread of hope running through the story, as there were promises through the prophets that God was not through with Israel yet! This hope focused on the coming of Messiah who would save Israel and be God’s Light for the world.
Messiah and God’s Kingdom
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Among those who came was Jesus of Nazareth who was also baptized by John. As he came out of the water, a voice from the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove lit on him.
After a time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus returned to his home in Nazareth where he entered the synagogue and read from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down…. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21, reading from Isaiah 61:1-3)
Matthew writes of this early ministry of Jesus in Galilee as well:
And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:13-17 quoting from Isaiah 9:1-2)
In Jesus – his words and deeds – people began to see the light of God. He traveled throughout Galilee and also in Judah teaching and healing the sick. Later, one of his disciples would write about him:
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Hebrews 1:3a)
All that he did and said radiated the glory of God in all its brilliance. Near the end of his sojourn on earth, one of his chosen apostles said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” He replied, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:8-9).
One of his great statements about himself is in John 8:12 where he proclaimed, “I am the light of the world!” Just as Israel had seen the glow of the light of God’s glory on the face of Moses when he came down from the mountain after being with God, so men were able to see God’s glory, not in a literal ‘glow,’ but in the teaching, attitudes, and actions of Jesus.
It is this of which Paul writes:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
And this leads us directly to another of God’s appointed human light-holders.
The Church & Its Mission
Early in his personal ministry, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to the multitude gathered there:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Note that in this text, “you” and “your” are both plural in Greek. He speaks of a community of faith, not of individual believers. As he said, it is the city set on a hill that cannot be hidden, though an individual lamp or candle may be hidden under a basket.
It is as this community lives in God’s light that others see their good works and glorify God. But it is God’s light that they will be able to see in those who are walking with him.
Look back at 2 Corinthians. Immediately after the verse quoted above (3:18), Paul continues to develop what that means. God has given us a ministry, a ministry of beholding and reflecting the glory of God. It is the ministry of God’s new covenant people. We are to behold the glory of God so that we may reflect it to those around us.
Yes, there will be some who are blinded by the god of this age so that they do not see the light of the gospel of Christ’s glory (who is the image of God)!
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7, but see also vv. 1-4, 10)
We do not preach ourselves, but Christ. Or do we? Too many promote the particular denomination, sect, or congregation of which they are members more than they preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Few are willing servants of God, walking in the steps of Jesus while many choose the path of the Pharisee who exalted himself over the tax collector; yet, the later went home justified (Luke 18:9-14).
Note that God placed the treasure in jars of clay for a purpose. That is to show the greatness is not in us, but in God. These jars of clay remind me of Gideon’s battle to deliver Israel from the horde of the Midianites. God gave this plan of battle: Give each of your 300 men a pitcher with a lamp inside it and a trumpet. Surround the enemy camp at night. At a signal, every man is to break his pitcher, reveal the light, and blow his trumpet. When they did, the Midianites panicked and fled, killing one another in their disarray. God won a great victory that day, but not by numbers or strength of arms.
Like their pitchers, we must be broken to allow the light God puts in us to shine through. We must walk as humble servants, as Jesus walked. We must accept the outrages that others may heap on us. Even when persecuted, we must accept it as Jesus accepted the cross. Peter wrote,
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation….
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people….
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:12, 15, 20-21)
How does the light of Jesus shine in us? It is by living as he lived. It’s not in amassing wealth to build the biggest cathedrals, nor having power to influence the councils of the nation or world. It is in the simple discipleship of service to any who are hurting. It is in forgiveness and the meekness of a gentle spirit, filled with the fruit of the Spirit of God, the Spirit that transforms us into the likeness of Jesus.
…Therefore it says, “Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14b)
Let us arise from our sleep, even the sleep of death, so that Christ may shine on us and in us so the world in darkness may see his light. Let us walk in light as he is in the light.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good…. (Genesis 1:3-4a)