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Sunday, November 19, 2017

On the Mount (5)

When God set about creating the universe into which he eventually placed mankind, the first thing he did was turn on the lights.

The very first.

And it wasn’t so he could see to work. Where God is concerned, “night is bright as day”. No, it was entirely for the benefit of his creation.

Today, we take light for granted. You want to see, you just flip a switch. Or push a button on your cellphone, which, if you’re like me, you take to bed with you in case you need to find your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night without stepping on anything black, furry and alive.

Convenient, especially for the cat. But quite a recent development.

In a non-urbanized, pre-technological environment, you didn’t go anywhere without light. It was necessary for all human activity. In the Bible, travel is consistently associated with the light of dawn and was impossible without it. Unless you were in a troop of armed men with torches, you simply didn’t travel at night. Even something as comparatively simple as preparing a meal before dawn required lantern or candle, not to mention fuel.

So when Jesus told crowds of fellow Jews, “You are the light of the world,” he was not saying something trivial. The world of their day needed light in order to function. It was not optional.

  Light as Spiritual Insight

It is hardly surprising, then, to find that wildly diverse cultures use light as a metaphor for understanding and spiritual insight. The Jews are no exception:
“It is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness.”

“The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.”

“The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”
You get the general idea.

  Light as Life Itself

Further, in Old Testament literature, the “lightening” of the eyes is connected to life itself:
“Light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”

“The poor man and the oppressor meet together; the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.”
When that light goes out, there’s no coming back.

  Light and God’s Favor

Further still, light is used by the prophets and psalmists as a metaphor for the favor of God:
“Make your face shine [light] on your servant; save me in your steadfast love!”

“Let your face shine [light], that we may be saved!”

“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine [light] upon us.”
If God’s face could be said to “light” on you, salvation was surely on its way.

  Light and Reflected Glory

It is hardly surprising to find the glory of God described in terms of brightness and illumination. That’s the literal experience of most men and women who have had dealings with him, from Moses and his burning bush on through the historical narrative passages of the Old Testament to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night in the book of Luke.

But Isaiah speaks specifically of God’s glory to be one day reflected in Israel:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
And the psalmist speaks of God’s glory reflected in individuals who trust him:
“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Metaphorical? Probably. But there’s your “light of the world” in its Old Testament context, and it’s both a collective and an individual light. It’s the light of people blessed by God and characterized by the brightness of his own glory.

  Light and Messiah

But the original “light of the world”, of course, is the Lord Jesus himself. Isaiah says of God’s Messiah:
“I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.”
And again:
“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 as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
So Israel had heard such language before. But Jews in the crowd who believed the Lord Jesus to be Messiah might well have expected him to introduce himself as the light of the world. Such a declaration would have called them right back to these words from the pen of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s possible the thought that they themselves were also personally light to the world had never occurred to them. But it’s axiomatic that those who are sent to bring insight, life, favor and the glory of God to the world are only as bright as the light they reflect. That light is the Lord Jesus.

The Light of the World

So what did Jesus actually say about the light of the world?
“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.”
Like the salt metaphor that precedes it, there seems to be both a corporate and an individual aspect here. A city implies a bunch of people, a lamp is singular. It would be hard to think of a city on a hill (or, really, a number of hills) without thinking immediately of Jerusalem and the nation it symbolizes.

Or America, if your name is Ronald Reagan [facepalm]. (Reagan credited the image to puritan John Winthrop, but may not have been aware of its biblical origin.)

In any case, Israel’s testimony to the nations had failed (and let’s not even start on the U.S.’s “testimony to the nations”; America’s track record on abortion should be sufficient to establish that the nation has well and truly abandoned whatever moral high ground it once occupied). Isaiah’s prophecy that “the nations will come to [Israel’s] light” was not to be realized literally in the Lord’s first coming to his earthly people (though we could certainly see it as an allegory for the testimony of the apostles and early Jewish believers after the Lord Jesus rose from the dead).

Thus Jesus turns once again to the individual disciple.

Even if the world could not see the “good works” of the nation as in the glory days of Solomon, it could hardly fail to register the testimony of individuals who deliberately set themselves apart from the religious hypocrisy of their own day by choosing to live like the Lord Jesus himself.

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