Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


Additional Links

LIGHT.—Apart from the ordinary use of this word to denote outward light (as in Luke 11:36, Matthew 17:2; Matthew 24:29 etc.), there are three applications of the metaphor of light in the Synoptic Gospels which demand attention.

1. The first occurs in the figurative and somewhat enigmatic saying preserved in Matthew 6:22-23 = Luke 11:34-35, where the eye is called the lamp of the body, the symbolism pointing to sincerity of soul as the decisive feature of life. Each Evangelist gives the saying a different setting. In Mt.’s version of the Sermon on the Mount it occurs in a context laying stress upon the supreme need of the heavenly mind in religion; and as the main rival to God in man’s affections is the world, in the shape of material wealth, the pursuit of the single mind is naturally correlated with the avoidance of covetousness. This shade of meaning is reflected from Matthew 6:19-21; Matthew 6:24-25 (see Mammon) upon the intervening logion. The soul is to human life what the eye is to the body (so Philo, de Opif. Mundi, 17, ‘reason [νοῦς] is to the soul what the eye is to the body’); it is a lamp, by means of which the way and work of life are illuminated. As the functions of the physical life depend largely upon the soundness of the organs of vision, by means of which men move safely and freely in the outside world, so the mental and moral health of man is bound up with the condition of his inner life. The inward disposition (cf. John 11:10) is the key to all (cf. Ruskin’s Queen of the Air, § 93; Eagle’s Nest, §§ 106–110). The employment of ‘light’ in this connexion is thus one illustration of the inwardness of the teaching of Jesus. He brought men from the circumference to the centre, laid supreme stress on motive, and sought to emphasize—as in this saying—the vital importance of the inner spirit for conduct. The symbolism turns on the ethical meaning implied in ‘single’ (ἁπλοῦς) and ‘evil’ (πονηρός), the former suggesting ‘liberality,’ the latter ‘niggardliness’ in the moral sphere. Hence ‘light’ means that condition of life which is void of covetousness and the grasping spirit. Such a spirit confuses life by diverting it from the supreme inward and heavenly aim which is its true pursuit. The hoarding temper, which absorbs men in outward possessions, is pronounced by Jesus to be a flaw in the moral vision, a speck that blurs ‘the light that is in thee,’ i.e. the inner light of conscience, the heart, or the soul. When the latter is darkened by the intrusion of a divided affection, especially in the form of some appetite such as covetousness or worldliness, then ‘how great is the darkness’! For religion, as Christ taught it, is not admitting God into life. It is putting Him first in life. Faith is not thinking Him good, but hailing Him as best. And nothing can be more ominous than when the soul, which is man’s delicate faculty for seeing and choosing God, is diverted to double-mindedness or to an attempt to reconcile the competing interests of God and of the world. The outcome is compromise and its inevitable product, hypocrisy—that sin which a Frenchman once called the firstfruits of English society—ripening under the very breath of conventional religion.—The logion may be, as Brandt suggests, a Jewish aphorism based on Proverbs 20:27, which Jesus here quotes and applies.

The introduction of the saying in Luke 11:33-36 is due to the key-word λύχνος. Here, as often, Lk. groups sayings together less from their internal correspondence than from some verbal common element. He sharpens the point of the saying by introducing Luke 11:35. As eyes may become injured by the blinding glare and dust which make ophthalmia a prevalent complaint in the East, so, it is implied, the inner disposition lies exposed to risk and disease, against which it is a man’s duty to guard. For if the heart rules the life, the life, on the other hand, can stain and spoil the heart. Yet the stress of the saying falls on attention to the inward life as determining the course and value of the outer. ‘ “Take care of the little things of life, and the great things will take care of themselves,” is the maxim of the trader, which is sometimes, and with a certain degree of truth, applied to the service of God. But much more true is it in religion, that we should take care of the great things, and the trifles of life will take care of themselves. “If thine eye be single, thy whole body will be full of light.” Christianity is not acquired, as an art, by long practice; it does not carve and polish human nature with a graving tool; it makes the whole man; first pouring out his soul before God, and then casting him in a mould’ (Jowett’s Paul, ii. 117).—The point of Luke 11:36 is not easy to grasp. It seems a somewhat tautological expansion of Luke 11:34 b (so Blass). D [Note: Deuteronomist.] , Syr [Note: yr Syriac.] cur etc., omit it, while Syr [Note: yr Syriac.] sin has a different form of it; yet, as Wellhausen observes, it does not read like an interpolation, and probably we must be content to suspect, with Westcott and Hort, e.g., and J. Weiss (in Meyer8 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , pp. 476–477), some primitive corruption of the text.

2. The connexion of Luke 11:33 with the saying is not immediate. Luke 11:33 is simply an equivalent of Mark 5:14-16, which is incorporated here under the rubric of ‘light,’ and Luke has already more appropriately used it in Luke 8:16 (= Mark 4:21) in the second phase of the light-symbolism in the Gospels, viz. that of influence. The disciples are cautioned against the tendency, whether due to modesty or to cowardice, to refrain from letting their faith tell upon the world. In Luke 11:33 it is impossible to trace any very obvious connexion between this and what precedes, any more than between it and what follows, unless the idea of the editor is that Solomon’s wisdom and Jonah’s preaching were frank and open to the world (hence Luke 11:33), while no sign (Luke 11:29) is needed if the inner heart be pure and true (Luke 11:34-38). The context in Matthew 5 is much more congenial. Jesus is warning His disciples that while their relation to the outside world is often full of annoyance and suffering, yet this bitter experience (Matthew 5:10 f.) must not drive them into a parochial and secluded attitude of negative protest. ‘You are the light of the world,’ He urges. You owe it a duty. Your faith lays you under an obligation to let your life tell upon your environment (cf. EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] , 4377, 4384–4385), instead of weakly relapsing into some esoteric or Essene-like seclusion. The allusion to good works is peculiar to Matthew. It emphasizes that frankness of spirit and necessity of good conduct which the saying upon light advocates as the sole reasonable position for Christian disciples to assume. The vocation of a Christian is to be visible. And visibility means influence. The reference is not to Apostles but to Christians in general, nor is preaching in view. What Jesus inculcates is an attitude of consistent goodness, void of monasticism and ostentation alike, as corresponding to the nature of His Kingdom, whose property and destiny it is to become manifest to the world (cf. Mozley’s Parochial and Occasional Sermons, p. 212 f.).

This latter idea, without the moral counsel, is reproduced by Mark 4:21 (= Luke 8:16) as a sequel to the interpretation of the parable of the Seeds, as if to suggest that such knowledge as had just been imparted to the disciples was not to be kept to themselves but to be diffused like light (cf. Menzies, Earliest Gospel, pp. 112–114), the placing of the lamp in its proper position perhaps corresponding (so Jülicher) to the fruitful and useful qualities of the good seed in the good soil (Mark 4:20). Others, like Wrede (das Messiasgeheimnis, p. 68 f.), prefer to read the saying in the light of the Apostolic age, as if it meant that after the Resurrection all reserve upon the Christian mysteries was to be thrown aside (Mark 4:11). This, however, cannot be the original sense of the saying, and there is no reason why one should give up the interpretation which makes the lamp here equivalent to the teaching of Jesus or the knowledge of the gospel (see Expos. Nov. 1900, on ‘The Peril and the Comfort of Exposure’). The point is less general than in Matthew 5:14-16. But the essential bearing of the saying is the same, viz. that as the function of light is to radiate, so Christian privileges imply the duty of propaganda. Similarly, Matthew 10:27 = Luke 12:3 (cf. Jülicher’s Gleichnisreden, ii. 86 f.). In the fourth of the New Oxyrhynchus Logia, we have the words: ‘for there is nothing hidden which shall not be made manifest, nor buried which shall not be raised.’

3. If Christians, however, are to arise and shine, it must be because their light has come. Consequently revelation is also embraced under the light-symbolism of the Gospels, in Matthew 4:16, Luke 1:79 [Isaiah 9:2] Luke 2:32, where the reference, based on OT quotations, is to the redeeming life of Christ. This semi-mystical application, which associates light with the Divine effluence, runs far back into human history. ‘Heaven means both the world of light above us and the world of hope within us, and the earliest name of the Divine beings is simply “the bright ones.” Such names are more than metaphors. But if they were simply metaphors, they would show how closely the world without is adapted to express and render definite the yearnings and the fears of the world within’ (J. Wedgwood, The Moral Ideal, pp. 6, 7). It is needless to illustrate from ancient thought how light was almost invariably, if variously, allied to the conception of heaven and the Divine nature, the latter being conceived as radiant and glorious. The gradual evolution of the religious idea slowly purified the symbolism, especially in the deeper reaches of faith within the later Judaism (notably in the Book of Enoch). The semi-physical element, though not entirely excluded even from the NT idea of glory and spiritual phenomena, came to be subordinated to the moral and mystical. The purity, the noiseless energy, the streaming rays of light, all suggested religious qualities to the mind, until the light of God came to be an expression for the healing influence and vitalizing power exercised by Him over human life. The light of Christ, the Messiah, was thus His ministry (see Bruce’s Galilean Gospel, p. 13 f.). His person formed the creative power in the life of the human soul. Through work and word alike, His being operated with quickening effect upon the responsive hearts of His own people.

This application of the metaphor of light to the Divine revelation in Jesus is developed especially in the Fourth Gospel, where ‘light’ is reserved almost exclusively for this purpose. John the Baptist is indeed described once as ‘the burning and shining lamp,’ in whose light (cf. John 1:7-8) the Jews were ‘willing to rejoice for a season’ (John 5:35, cf. Sirach 48:1), with all a shallow nature’s delight in transient impressions (see Martensen’s Individual Ethics, p. 385). And Christians are incidentally called ‘sons of light’ (John 12:36, cf. Luke 16:8). But, if John the Baptist is the lamp, Jesus is the Light; if Christians become sons of light, it is by believing on the Light. It is not Christians but Christ, the incarnate Logos, who is the Light of the world (John 1:4; John 8:12; John 9:5; John 12:46). Already in the ancient mind the supreme God had been frequently defined as the God of light, and the later Judaism had expressed its profounder consciousness of this truth in the collocation of life and light (e.g. Psalms 36:9, En 58:3) and in the employment of ‘light’ as a summary expression not only for cosmic vitality, but for the bliss of mankind, chiefly, though not solely, in the future (cf. Volz, Jüdische Eschatologie, 328 f.). In the Fourth Gospel, however, this idea is developed with singular precision and breadth. The Logos-Christ is defined in the Prologue not only as Logos but as Life and Light, the former category being confined to Christ’s being as a Divine factor in the creation and in the essence of God (John 1:1-3), as well as to His incarnation (John 1:14-18), after which it is dropped. The intervening paragraph (John 1:4-13), dealing with the Logos-Christ as a historical phenomenon, is subsumed under the category of Light and Life, which afterwards dominates the entire Gospel, except (curiously enough) the closing speeches (John 1:14-17), where the symbolism of Light is entirely absent. ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ This profound sentence really gives the keynote to the Gospel, in which Christ as the Light represents the essential Truth of God as revealed to human knowledge. The Messiah (e.g. En 48:4) and the Logos (as in Philo) had already been hailed as Light. But here the metaphor of light denotes much more than the self-revelation of God in the person of Jesus (Weiss); it describes the transcendent life streaming out on men, the absolute nature of God as truth, as the supreme reality for man to believe in, and by his belief to share. In sharp antithesis to this Light is the Darkness, by which the writer symbolizes all that is contrary to God in human life, whether unbelief or disobedience, all that resists the true Life which it is the function of the Light to produce in humanity, all the ignorance and wilful rejection of Christ which issue in practical consequences of confusion and rebellion. Historically, this opposition emerged during Christ’s lifetime in the Jews’ rejection of His mission. But, as the present tense φαίνει seems to imply, the truth is general; the same enmity pervades every age—a conception to which there is a remarkable parallel in the Logos-teaching of Heraclitus (cf. Pfleiderer’s Urchrist. 2 ii. 339). This antithesis means more, however, than a metaphysical dualism running through the world. The hostility of men to the Light is described as their own choice and fault (John 3:19-20), and this conception naturally permeates the entire Gospel. The determinism is apparent rather than real. Whether positive or negative, the attitude of men to God in Christ is run back to their own wills, although the writer makes no attempt to correlate this strictly with Divine prescience. Nor, again, is the conception purely intellectual, though the terminology would seem occasionally to suggest this view. Light and darkness represent moral good and evil as these are presented in the spiritual order introduced by Christ. To love the light (John 3:19-21) is not a theoretical attitude, but a practical, equivalent to doing the truth. The light has to be followed (John 8:12, cf. John 12:35 f.); Christ’s revelation is an appeal to the reason and conscience of mankind as the controlling principle of conduct; ‘the light of life’ is the light which brings life, and life is more than mere intellectualism (John 17:3). To walk in or by the light is to have one’s character and conduct determined by the influence of Christ, the latter being as indispensable to vitality in the moral and religious sphere as light is to physical growth (cf. 2 Samuel 23:4, Psalms 49:19; Psalms 56:13 etc.). See, further, art. Truth.

These and other applications of this metaphor throughout the Fourth Gospel are all suggested in the somewhat abstract language of the Prologue. Three further points may be selected as typical of this mode of thought.

(a) The function of Christ as the Light is described as bearing not only upon the creation of the Universe, but on the spiritual and moral life of men (John 1:3-4). In this sphere it encounters an obstacle in the error and evil of man’s nature, but encounters it successfully. This is proleptically described in John 1:5 (cf. 1 John 2:8), where οὐ κατέλαβεν probably means ‘failed to overpower, or extinguish’ (cf. John 12:35, Sirach 15:7); despite the opposition of man’s ignorance and corruption, the true Light makes its way. The climax of this triumph in history is then described. It was heralded by the prophetic mission of John the Baptist, the allusion to whom is, like John 5:35, carefully phrased in order to bring out the transient and subordinate character of his ministry (cf. Lightfoot’s Colossians, p. 401); whereupon the historic functions of the real Light are resumed in John 5:9 f. ‘The true light, which lightens every man, was coming into the world’; i.e. had arrived, even when the Baptist was preaching (cf. John 5:26). Later on, this is frankly stated by Jesus Himself at the feast of Tabernacles, when brilliant illuminations were held every night—a symbolism which may have suggested the cry, ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8:12; cf. Isaiah 60:1). The description in John 1:9 is probably an echo of Testament of Levi 13:4 (‘the light of the Lord was given to lighten every man’).

(b) While the Light is the Christian revelation, it is implied that already (John 3:21), not merely in Judaism but throughout humanity (cf. John 11:52, John 12:21 f.), there were individuals whose honesty and sincerity had prepared them to receive the truth of God (John 1:11-12) mentally and morally. When the light fell on those who sat in darkness, some were content to sit still. But others rose to welcome the fuller knowledge of God in the perfect revelation of Christ’s person, men like Nathanael and the Greeks. For it is characteristic of the Fourth Gospel that good people, rather than sinners (as in the Synoptic narratives), flock to Christ. The Logos, as Hausrath puts it, draws God’s children to the light as a magnet attracts metals, while mere stones are left unmoved by its presence. And God’s children are those who respond to Christ by the exercise of their moral instincts and religious affections. Unlike Philo, the author refuses to trace back this lack of susceptibility towards God to any source in the material constitution of mankind (cf. John 8:44); but the semi-Gnostic idea of a special class remains.

(c) Upon the other hand, Christ, the Light, came to His own people; and there are repeated allusions to the brief opportunity of the Jews (John 9:4, John 11:9-10, John 12:35-36), in sayings which warn the nation against trilling with its privilege,—a privilege soon to be taken from its unworthy keeping. Here the author is reflecting the period in which he writes, when the Jews’ day of grace had passed, with tragic consequences to themselves. ‘Light, accept the blessed light, if you will have it when Heaven vouchsafes. You refuse? Very well: the “light” is more and more withdrawn, … and furthermore, by due sequence, infallible as the foundations of the universe and Nature’s oldest law, the light returns on you, this time, with lightning’ (Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets, iii. ad fin.).

Literature.—In addition to the references already given, see Norris, the Cambridge Platonist, Reason and Religion, p. 222 f.; Berkeley, Siris, § 210; and, for the use of the idea in morals and religion, Fiske, Myths and Myth-Making, p. 104 f., and D. G. Brinton, Religion of Primitive Peoples, p. 73 f. The use of the symbol in the Gospels is analyzed by Titius, die Johan. Ansehauung d. Seligkeit (1900), p. 119 f.; Holtzmann, Neutest. Theologie, ii. 304 f., 399 f.; and especially Grill, Untersuchungen über die Entstehung des vierten Evang. (1902), pp. 1–31, 217–225, 259–271, 308 f. See also Dalman, Worte Jesu, 1. (English translation ) iv. § 3; and Drummond, Philo Judœus, i. 217 f. For the moral uses of the word see Phillips Brooks, Candle of the Lord, 305, Light of the World, 1; R. W. Church, Village Sermons, i. 296, iii. 46: B. F. Westcott, Revelation of the Father, 45; F. Temple, Rugby Sermons, 3rd series, 149; G. Macdonald, Unspoken Sermons, iii. 163; G. A. Smith, Forgiveness of Sins, 89; R. Rainy, Sojourning with God, 64.

J. Moffatt.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Light'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Life Book of