A Biblical Theology of Darkness and Light

ONE SERVICE TIME

An interesting series of biblical-theological allusions to light and darkness emerge in the Gospel of John. In the first 14 verses of chapter 1, the apostle John takes his readers from the preexistence of Christ through the creation of the world by Christ to the incarnation of Christ. In between declaring that “all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (v. 3) and “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14), John tells us:

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:6-9). 

When we come to chapter 3, the apostle picks back up on the metaphor of light and darkness. After telling us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by cover of night, he writes:

And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).

In chapter 8, Jesus expressly declared what was already taught in chapters 1 and 3 when He said, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).

In chapter 11, Jesus links the metaphor of light to the light of the creation day when He said, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” (John 11:9-10).

In chapter 12, He likens His time in the world to the rising of the sun:

The people answered Him, “We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’”? Who is this Son of Man? Then Jesus said to them, ‘A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light…I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness.’” (John 12:34-36, 46).

Given the redemptive-historical nature of John’s Gospel (i.e. creation, tabernacle and Covenant themes), it seems altogether appropriate for us to go back to the Old Testament to understand the biblical theology of the light/darkness metaphors. In order to understand more of the glory of Christ in the work of redemption we must first go back to the creation account of Genesis 1.

‘Let There Be Light’

The very first words of God in the realm of special revelation, were ‘Let there be light.’ We cannot emphasize the importance of these words enough. There is a rich theological intentionality to the Scriptures opening with a focus on darkness and light. When God first formed the heavens and the earth, Moses tells us that “the earth was without form and void, and that darkness spread across the face of the deep.” It was into this world of darkness that God spoke those very first words, “Let there be light!” The point of Genesis 1:3 is not for you to try to understand scientifically how there could have been light without the luminary bodies, but to learn the theological rationale for light in the world. First, God made light so that man could see the glories of His handiwork in creation. Second, God made light without a sun so that man would understand that all things derived their life and preservation from God apart from the means to which we are tempted to attribute power and sustenance. Third (and most important to our considerations here), we are to understand that God is tell us something about the redemptive work that will occur after the fall of man.

There was Evening and Morning

The biblical theology of light and darkness continues in the first chapter of Genesis when we read the refrain (after each creative day), “there was evening and there was morning…” In his book The Cross in the Experience of Our LordR. A. Finlayson offered, what I believe to be, the best rationale for the days of creation being delineated by “evening and morning” rather than by “morning and evening” when he wrote:

God is at work as of old in a progressive development of light. We remember that, in the first creation, light came progressively. It was not the sun in its meridian splendor that shone; indeed there is evidence that the sun had come at a much later period than the light. But the light did come, it came to wax and grow. And it is significant that at every period in God’s creative work, we read, ‘And the evening and the morning were the first day, the evening and the morning were the second day’, and so on. Why should it be evening and morning?” is is not after the manner of man’s toil; he works from morning to evening. It is not enough to say that this is a Jewish division of time. We have to get behind that Jewish division of time, and ask how it came about that the Jew was taught to regard time as moving from evening to morning. It was God’s pattern of workmanship. He is always facing the light, his back is on the evening, his face is towards the waxing light, and the rising sun. And if that was true in the natural creation, it is blessedly true in the spiritual creation. When God shines in our hearts with spiritual illumination, it is twilight with our souls; we see, though we see but dimly.

Yet God comes with waxing light, and as God’s work develops, the light progresses until, eventually, it reaches noonday splendor. Our face is towards the sunrising, and our souls are looking towards the meridian splendor of God’s fully developed work, and of God’s self-revelation to our souls. We are always going from the evening to the morning as the work of grace progresses in our souls.

We know that God is at work once again, in an ordered sequence of events, as he was in the first creation, for we know that there was a sequence in the divine operation. But the light was a harbinger of all life upon earth. As long as night had shrouded the world there was nothing on earth but desolation and death; nothing could live where the earth was enveloped in darkness; in the outer cold of space there was nothing but death. But when light came, things began to happen on earth. Not only did the clouds lift and the darkness break, and the day dawn, and the mountains of snow and ice melt, but life came with the light. ” e grass began to grow in the field, the trees in the forest, fish were placed in the ocean, birds in the air, beasts in the field, and eventually man came. But the light was the prerequisite of life, and the harbinger of every blessing that God was to give to the world.

In like manner, is it not true that while the darkness of nature shrouded our hearts, there was nothing there but desolation and death? As long as we are ignorant of God in Jesus Christ we are spiritually dead; there can be no life at all as long as we are estranged from God, and aliens to his life and love. But when that light shone into our hearts, then life came. It was a harbinger of every blessing; every growth and every development in our being came because the light of the knowledge of Jesus shone into our hearts.

Is it not true then, that we, who have been saved by grace, have felt the creative power of God? Is it not true that the God who laid the foundations of that first creation, and brought light out of primeval darkness, is the God who has shone into our hearts, and laid the foundations of a new creation which sin will not mar, and the flesh and the Devil cannot destroy? Yes, our dealings have been with the Creator-God who made himself known savingly and redeemingly to us in Jesus Christ his Son.1

Pillar of Fire

As redemptive history unfolds we find other types and shadows that carry the light/darkness theme forward until the coming of Christ. One of the principle types that we come across is the pillar of fire. In Exodus 13:21 we are told of this theophany when Moses writes that “the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night.” The pillar of fire symbolized the presence of God leading His people through the wilderness. He is the One who gives light to His people. He makes day into night and night into day. In the typical redemption of Israel out of Egypt, God was intimating that He would make spiritual darkness into spiritual light for His people. In the coming down from heaven and the ascending to Heaven, Jesus shows that the pillar of fire was pointing to Him. He appeared to lead His people through the greater Exodus out of bondage to Satan, sin and death. He ascended to glory to lead them to be with Him where He is (John 14:1-3). Throughout our wilderness wandering in this life, He is the light of the world who shines into the spiritual darkness of our hearts and this world to give us the light of life.

Interestingly, when Jesus ascended to glory He promised to come in the Person of the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Luke tells us that (what appeared to be) little pillars of fire rested on each of the disciples (Acts 2:1-4). In this way, we are to understand that the ascended Christ descends again in the Person of the Holy Spirit to lead them through the darkness of the wilderness of this world and onto glory.

The Plagues of Egypt and the Covenant Curses

The second to most severe plague that God sent on Egypt was “thick darkness.” Considering the fact that there was something of an exponential increase in the severity of the plagues, we are forced to ask the question, “What was so terrible about darkness?” When we consider that the blessing of God that rested on His world was manifest most clearly from the creation of light on the first day, and the sustaining of all created life through that light, we start to understand that darkness and death are synonymous symbols of the curse. Without light we would not be able to see the glory and beauty of the world that God created; but, worse than this, without light nothing would be able to grow on the earth to sustain man.

Having brought Israel out of Egypt, God graciously entered into covenant with His people at Sinai. After giving Israel all of the commands and statutes of the Law, God promised blessing upon obedience and cursing upon disobedience. In Deuteronomy 27:28-29 we read:

The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of heart. And you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continually, and no one shall save you.

“The curse was reiterated in temporal and typical forms throughout the history of redemption. Just as Adam and Eve were “cut off” from paradise, God promised to “cut off” the covenant people for disobedience (Num. 15:31). There was a close relationship between the plagues of Egypt and the covenant curses (Deut. 28:21–2958–61). The second-to-last plague God sent on Egypt was darkness. This was also a covenant curse promised to Israel (Deut. 28:29). It served as a picture of the “outer darkness” spoken of by our Lord (Matt. 25:30). Whether it was in the plagues that fell on Egypt or the covenant curses promised to Israel (Deut. 27–30), the curse resurfaced as a reminder of the justice of God and the consequences of sin.”2

Of course. we are painfully aware that neither Israel nor we can keep God’s Law. This means that we are under the curse of the Law by nature. Because we have loved the works of darkness. we are deserving of the eternal outer darkness of God’s just punishment. The Scriptures give us one of the most amazing details about what the just and gracious God has done to remove His curse from us and to bless us with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” God sent His perfectly holy Son, who is himself the Light of the world, into the dark world to become “a curse for us” (Gal. 3:   ). When He was nailed to the cross, our Lord Jesus experienced the full wrath and curse of God for our sin. Interestingly, Matthew tells us that, at the precise time when He was being made a curse for us, Jesus experienced the darkening of the sun. Thomas Brooks, in his Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, explained the significance of the darkness at Calvary when he wrote, “Dionysius being in Egypt, at the time of Christ’s suffering, and seeing an eclipse of the sun, and knowing it to be contrary to nature, cried out, “Either the God of nature suffers, or the frame of the world will be dissolved.”3

Sun of Righteousness

At the close of the Old Testament canon the prophet Malachi foretold a day when “the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2). Of this prophecy, Jonathan Edwards noted:

Tis manifest that ’tis the same day that is here spoken of, for there, in the day of his coming, it is said Christ should sit as a refiner’s fire, and this fire is represented as the fire of a furnace that is for the purifying of silver; and here, the day is said to “burn as an oven.” This is the day of Christ’s coming, the messenger of the covenant, or the day of the Sun of righteousness arising. The times of the old testament were as time of night in comparison of the times of the new testament, because gospel light shall then be so much more clear and full: for though the old testament times were not left wholly without gospel light, yet what light they had was like the dim light of the stars in comparison of the light that was afterwards in the gospel day, when Christ the Sun arose.3

When the Light of the world came into the world, He came to spread His redemptive light across the face of a world darkened by sin and Satan. As the physical sun is the only source of daylight–spreading it’s beams across the face of the earth–so Christ is the only sopurce of light to the world.4 At the cross, it was as if the Sun had set under the severe wrath of God that was upon Him. In His resurrection from the dead, the Sun of Righteousness arose with healing in His wings. It in only through faith in the crucified, risen, ascended and reigning Sun of Righteousness that we have light and life.

New Testament Analogies 

Having already briefly considered the Apostle John’s use of the light/darkness symbolism in the fourth Gospel, it will help us to look at a few other examples in the New Testament. Perhaps the most well known is that of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:6, where we read, “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Eric Alexander captures the essence of Paul’s use of the “creation light” analogy in the explanation of God’s work of regeneration so well when he writes:

The New Testament ransacks the universe for comparisons that will be adequate to describe what has happened to us when we became God’s children. And the only two possible comparisons are the creation of the universe at the beginning and the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. So Paul says the same God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness has shined in our hearts (2 Cor 4). And the same God who raised the Lord Jesus from the grave and broke its bondage over him has raised us in Jesus into newness of life.6

New creation can only be compared with the supernatural greatness and power of God in the original creation. In this way, we can understand that Genesis 1:3 was preparing us for the saving work of Christ. Creation serves the redemptive purposes of God.

This concept is not simply a literary analogy–it is a theological construct that is part of the consummated plan and purpose of God. In the last book of the Bible, we find an intriguing parallel/contrast to what is taught about the creation light in the first book of the Bible. Like bookends to a glorious story we are told that in the New Heavens and the New Earth, “The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light” (In Revelation 21:23). The light of Genesis 1:3 proleptically points to the end of the story when God Himself will be the light in the world to come. This is partly what is intimated when the Apostle John says, “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” In the New Heavens and New Earth, we will be shrouded in the glory and splendor of His holy light. All of His works will be seen and rejoiced in as they are seen by the effulgent beauty and glory of Christ.

 

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1. R. A. Finlayson The Cross in the Experience of Our Lord (PDF of first chapter)

2. Taken from my January 2011 Tabletalk article, “A Life of Blessing and Rest.”

3. Thomas Brooks Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Philadelphia: Thomas Pounder, 1810) p. 25

4. Jonathan Edwards sermon taken from Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (WJE Online Vol. 22)Christ the Spiritual Sun” (1739).

5. This East of Eden episode gives a more theologically robust examination of Edwards’ sermon and the biblical-theological reflections on Christ as the spiritual Sun.

6. Eric Alexander Urbana Lecture on Ephesians 1-3 p. 20

 

 
 

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

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