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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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Light always involves the removal of darkness in the unfolding of biblical history and theology. The contrast of light and darkness is common to all of the words for "light" in both Old and New Testaments (esp. Heb. or [ אֹור ]; Gk. phos [ φῶς ]). The literal contrast between metaphysical good and evil, God and evil forces, believers and unbelievers. The Bible entertains no thought that darkness is equal in power to God's light. God is the absolute Sovereign who rules over the darkness and the powers of evil.

Light Is Good . The importance of light and darkness is dramatically presented in the opening sentences of the biblical record. In response to the darkness that was over the surface of the deep (Genesis 1:2 ), God spoke and light came into being. Darkness and light are evocative words in Hebrew. Darkness evokes everything that is anti-God: the wicked (Proverbs 2:13 ), judgment (Exodus 10:21 ), death (Psalm 88:12 ). Light is the first of the Creator's works, manifesting the divine operation in a world that is darkness and chaos without it. While light is not itself divine, it is often used metaphorically for life (Psalm 56:13 ), salvation (Isaiah 9:2 ), the commandments (Proverbs 6:23 ), and the divine presence of God (Exodus 10:23 ). In the first creative act, "God saw that the light was good" (Genesis 1:3 ).

God Is Light . If light represents goodness in antithesis to the evil associated with darkness, it is a natural step for the biblical authors to understand God, the ultimate good, as light. Light symbolizes the holy God. Light signifies God's presence and favor (Psalm 27:1 ; Isaiah 9:2 ; 2 Corinthians 4:6 ) in contrast to God's judgment (Amos 5:18 ). Throughout the Old Testament light is regularly associated with God and his word, with salvation, with goodness, with truth, with life. The New Testament resonates with these themes, so that the holiness of God is presented in such a way that it is said that God "lives in unapproachable light" (1 Timothy 6:16 ). God is light (1 John 1:5 ) and the Father of lights (James 1:17 ) who dispels darkness.

The Johannine writings gather up the Old Testament understanding of light and show its summation in Jesus Christ (thirty-three of the seventy-two occurrences of phos [ 1 John 1:5-7 ). Jesus declares that he is "the light of the world" (John 8:12 ; 9:5 ). Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, who has come as the light that enlightens all people (John 1:4-14 ), so that those believing in him will no longer be in darkness (12:46).

Paul concurs as he harks back to the creation account: "For God, who said, Let light shine out of darkness, ' make his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6 ). Through the Word of God light came into existence (Genesis 1:1-3 ), and through the revelation of God in Jesus Christ the Word brought light to humanity.

The Light of Salvation and Life for Believers Those responding to the light are ushered into the sphere of life in which darkness is dispelled. Salvation brings light to those in darkness ( Job 22:28 ; Psalm 27:1 ; Isaiah 9:2 ; Matthew 4:15-16 ). Jesus Christ is life-giving light, in whom is life (John 1:4 ), and those who follow him "will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12 ). Believers are "sons of light" (John 12:36 ; Ephesians 5:8 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:5 ).

Light possesses powers essential to true life. Hence "to be in the light" means simply "to live"—both life eternal and life temporal. The one who has come into the light of Jesus Christ is brought into the ethical life characterized by light (cf. Luke 16:8 ; John 3:19-21 ; 12:36 ; 2 Corinthians 6:14 ; Colossians 1:12-14 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:5 ; 1 Peter 2:9 ). The godly person enjoys the light of life in the present age (1 John 2:10 ). Paul intentionally contrasts the old life in darkness with new life in the light in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:17-24 ). Although Satan can disguise himself as "an angel of light, " Christians live in the true light of salvation, laying aside the deeds of darkness and putting on the protective "armor of light" (Romans 13:12 ). The revealed will of God provides light to the heart, soul, and mind of humanity, providing guidance in a dark world (Psalm 19:7-10 ; 119:105,130 ). A stark contrast will characterize the old life and the new: "For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of lightfor the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true" (Ephesians 5:8-9 ). The truly Christian life is a life of light.

A Light to the World . God is light, who dispels the darkness of this world. Jesus came as the light of the world, breaking through the darkness of sin by his work on the cross. It follows that believers are a light to the world as well. Jesus describes his disciples as light and light-bearers (Matthew 5:14-16 ). Paul indicates to believers in Asia Minor and Macedonia that their lives are a shining light of witness to the world around them (Ephesians 5:8 ; Philippians 2:15 ). It is the task of all believers to pass on the divine light they have received. What they have received in the secret intimacy of the community of believers they are to proclaim fearlessly "in the light" of public (Matthew 10:27 ; Luke 12:3 ). All those who have entered into the light now bear responsibility as missionaries of Christ, shining out as "lights in a dark world" with the light of God himself (Philippians 2:15 ).

The Light Yet to Come . While both the Old Testament and New Testament describe the future of the ungodly in terms of eschatological darkness, symbolizing perdition, they equally describe the future glory for believers in terms of light. In the New Jerusalem there will be no more night (Revelation 22:5 ), and the city will not need the sun, moon, or created light to shine on it, "for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light" (Revelation 21:23-24 ). The prophetic word of God is what brings hope of the light yet to come, and Peter provides an appropriate admonition: "You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in you hearts" (2 Peter 1:19 ). At the future appearing of the Lord Jesus Christ all darkness will be dispelled, and believers will walk in purity, peace, and joy in the light of the living God.

Michael J. Wilkins

Bibliography . E. R. Achtemeier, Int 17 (1963): 439-49; F. G. Carver, Wesleyan Theological Journal 23 (1986): 7-32; H. Conzelmann, TDNT, 9:310-58; D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology ; H.-C. Hahn et al., NIDNTT, 2:484-96; G. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, and D. G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters ; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament ; G. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 .

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Light'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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