We live in a dark world. For all our technological advances and increased prosperity, the social fabric in the West is fragmenting. More marriages than ever end in divorce and, in its wake, divorce brings family break-up. The prevalence of mental health problems is higher than ever. Viewed from the perspective of the gospel, Europe is now a dark continent. The ten mega-peoples least responsive to the gospel are all found in Europe, according to the World Christian Database. A report by Greater Europe Mission concludes: ‘Although Europe has a high percentage of people who consider themselves Christians, the data shows that Europe has the least population percentage of Christians who consider themselves committed and evangelical.’ Europe, the home of the Reformation, is the world’s most secular continent.
What is the solution to darkness? The answer, of course, is light. So, it is striking that God’s first words in the Bible story are: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). The context is the darkness of the primordial chaos. God had created the heavens and earth, but “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep.” (Genesis 1:2) Into the darkness, God speaks, and the result is light. In the ancient world, the great lights of the sky – the stars and planets – were often deified. But in the Bible’s account of creation, they are created. It is God who is the ultimate source of light (Psalm 18:28; 118:27; Acts 22:6-11; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 1:5).
Light does not simply solve the problem of darkness. It also solves the problem of chaos. The night is a time of fear and frights. Without light, we cannot locate our way or perform basic tasks. Darkness is a cover for crime. The night is ‘unruly’ and therefore dangerous.
But on the fourth day of creation we read: “God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night.” (Genesis 1:16) Notice the word ‘govern’. God orders or governs the primordial chaos. And one of the ways he does this is by creating lights. The spread of light is the spread of order.
God’s creative and missional purpose is to overcome darkness and chaos.
And how does God bring light to dispel the darkness? I want to build a case for church planting by presenting a biblical theology of light. What we will see is that throughout the Bible story the answer is twofold: God brings light through his word and God brings light through his people.
Light through the Word of God
What is it that brings light in the story of creation? The word of God. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) God’s word is a light-bringing word.
Light and dark are not locked in a dualistic battle. Ancient cultures often viewed the universe in these terms. Chaos and order, darkness and light; they were held in a perpetual and precarious balance. But this is not the picture presented in the Bible story. Darkness is a genuine threat. But God dispels the darkness simply by his word.
We know from our own experience that light and darkness are a-symmetrical. Light dispels darkness simply by its presence, whereas darkness does not naturally extinguish light. You cannot have a ‘torch-dark’ that casts a beam of darkness into the light. But a ‘torch-light’ casts a beam of light into the darkness.
So, the first divine words of the Bible are programmatic for the whole story. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) Wherever and whenever God speaks, the result is light:
- “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
- “The unfolding of your words gives light.” (Psalm 119:130)
- “For these commands are a lamp, this teaching is a light.” (Proverbs 6:23)
The opposite is also true. “If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” (Isaiah 8:20) Where God’s word is absent, darkness closes back in (Psalm 82:5; Ecclesiastes 2:13-14).
In Exodus 34, we read: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.” (Exodus 34:29-30) Moses encounters God, and it seems that as a result some of God’s radiance has rubbed off on him. He is glowing with the light of God. It is easy for us to think of this in visual terms. If you heat something up, then it glows and emits light. But the text does not say Moses was radiant because he had seen God. Instead we are told it was “because he had spoken with the LORD” (34:29). It is the word of the LORD that brings light.
Light through the people of God
So, God brings light through his word. But he also brings light through his people. This is a big theme in the storyline of the Bible, and one which has big implications for church planting.
The story of redemption begins with God’s promise to Abraham. God promises Abraham a people who will enjoy God’s blessing and live in a place of blessing. But God also gives this people a missional mandate right from the beginning. He promises that through Abraham’s family “all peoples on earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
How will God bless the nations through Abraham? In Genesis 18:17, God says that “all nations on earth will be blessed through [Abraham].” Then he says: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:18-19) Notice the word ‘for’. God will bring about what he has promised and what he has promised is blessing for all nations. And how will he bring about this promise? “I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just.” It is as Abraham’s family lives the way of the LORD that God will bless all nations. People naturally think God’s rule is bad news. They think they are better off without God. So, our job as God’s people is to live in such a way that we show it is good to know God and good to live under his rule.
Sadly, more often than not, God’s people did not draw the nations to the ways of God. Instead they were drawn to the ways of the nations. The result was exile.
But the prophets look beyond judgment to a time when God’s people will again be a light to the nations.
“In the last days
the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as the highest among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.’
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war any more.” (Isaiah 2:1-4)
Isaiah says one day Jerusalem will become the highest mountain. In other words, everyone will be able to see God’s people and as a result the nations will stream into Jerusalem. The nations will see that it is good to live under God’s reign. And what is Isaiah’s exhortation in the light of this vision? “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” (Isaiah 2:5) Live as a light to the nations.
Or consider Isaiah 60:1-3:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)
The LORD rises upon his people like the sun rising over the land and the darkness of night is dispelled. The darkness that signifies judgment is replaced by the glory of the LORD. The prophet tells us to do two things. He tells us to “see”. Look around you. See a world in darkness under judgment without the light of God’s word. But he also says, “Arise, shine”. What happens when God’s light shines on God’s people? God’s people shine. “Nations come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Isaiah 60 continues: “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm.” (Isaiah 60:4) This is happening in the mission of the church. The nations are coming into the kingdom of God. “Lift up your eyes.” Marvel at what God is doing around the world through his people. “Then you will look and be radiant; your heart will throb and swell with joy.” (Isaiah 60:5)
The phrase “a light to the nations” is taken from the Servant Songs of Isaiah. Isaiah speaks of a Servant. Sometimes the Servant appears to be Israel. Sometimes the Servant appears to an individual who rescues Israel. The Servant is the One who embodies the calling of Israel – who is Israel as Israel was meant to be – and so rescues Israel. This is what God says of the Servant:
“I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)
“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:5-6)