“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)
There are certain themes that weave their way through the Bible. Consider light and darkness. From the opening of Genesis there is a formless, empty and dark Earth. Then God’s word pierces the darkness: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). As Scripture unfolds, the theme of light and darkness takes on richer meaning.
For example, when the Hebrews leave their enslavement in Egypt, they are led by a “pillar of fire” during the night hours (Exodus 13:21). This light served as a saving guide and was emblematic of God’s presence. In the Psalms, God’s Word is likened to a lamp directing one’s steps (Psalm 119:105). Not only does light direct, but it also seems to draw, as in the case of Isaiah’s description of the nations being drawn to the light of God (Isaiah 60:1-4). In these texts, God’s light guides, is saving and magnetic and represents His presence.
Perhaps another way to understand the biblical idea of light is to consider what is meant by light’s absence—darkness. The unrighteous are said to “walk in the ways of darkness,” groping and stumbling their way through life (Proverbs 2:13; 4:19). If God’s word is a lamp to one’s feet, then it only makes sense that without it, one ceaselessly totters and trips about. It is a small surprise, then, that Micah describes God’s withdrawal of his Word as a time of great darkness: “it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them” (Micah 3:6). Micah is anticipating what is often referred to as the 400 years of silence. This is the roughly 400-year period between the Old and New Testaments when no books of the Bible were written (this is when the Apocrypha was written). It was a time described as “night,” “dark,” “black” and without sun precisely because God’s Word had been retracted from the world.
Aside from the occasional “bah” of the sheep, it must have been quiet, and it most certainly was dark that night when angels, in their glowing brightness, appear before the shepherds. The nighttime timing could not have been more fitting, for the world was in a thick and weighty spiritual darkness. Struggling to see beyond the radiance of the angels, the shepherds learn that “the light of the world” (John 8:12) had arrived.
Matthew (drawing upon Isaiah) describes the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry as light dawning (Matthew 4:16). This is probably an allusion to the nativity star and its symbolism. And Luke points out the worldwide significance of this light entering the world. After all, this Messiah would be a “light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). To be sure, Mary, Joseph and the animals experienced something of profound significance when Jesus was born! Just as the first creation was marked by light piercing darkness, so the beginnings of the new creation would be marked by the light of the world piercing darkness. Lux venit! Our light has come!
What’s more, Jesus began to call His followers light (Matthew 5:14) and, as John would point out, walking in the light points to one’s rootedness in Him (1 John 1:7). Although Jesus’ followers may often feel as faint flickers of light dwarfed by darkness, a time is coming when darkness will drown in the rays of God’s glory. John describes the New Jerusalem as having no need of sun or moon, thanks to the glory of God that illuminates the world. Whereas the Bible begins with a formless, empty and dark Earth, it moves to an orderly and bright New Jerusalem that is marked by universal flourishing. This dramatic turn of events all pivots upon the light of the world crying in a manger.
Casey S. Shutt is senior writer
for the Baptist Messenger.