Light as a Biblical Metaphor Pt. 2

This is Part Two in my series on Light as a Biblical Metaphor. 

Part One explored the three dominant biblical metaphors for light:
1) Light as Goodness/Virtue
2) Light as Knowledge/Vision
3) Light as Life/Vitality

In this post, we'll look at how the three primary metaphors for light developed in the Old Testament get applied to Jesus and his followers.
Matthew 4:16 asserts that Issiah's vision is fulfilled in Jesus and says of his life: "the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." (Light as life)  

John 1:4-9 In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ... The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (Light as life)

Notice that Jesus is not just the Light of Israel, as was said of Yahweh in Isaiah, Jesus is the light that gives light to everyone.  

John 3:19-21 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (Light as goodness)

John 12:46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. (Light as knowledge)  

2 Corinthians 4:4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (Light as knowledge)

So we have in those handful of verses uses of each of the three biblical metaphors for light applied directly to Jesus. Jesus’ light is virtuous or good. Jesus’ light gives vitality or life. Jesus’ light is the source of vision or knowledge. But Jesus and the New Testament writers who follow him don’t stop there. The God-light which is Jesus is also to be the light within God’s people.

In fact, this idea of God’s people bearing the light of virtue and vitality and vision has biblical antecedents in the Old Testament. Perhaps you remember what happened when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai?

Exodus 34:29-30 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the two Tablets of The Testimony, he didn't know that the skin of his face glowed because he had been speaking with God. Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, saw his radiant face, and held back, afraid to get close to him...and he passed on the commands, everything that God had told him on Mount Sinai.

In Isaiah, God explicitly communicates his intention that his light would illuminate Israel so that their light would brighten, so to speak, the whole world. 

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.

Jesus picks up on this prophetic vision and announces to those listening to his teaching in Matthew 5:14-16:

Paul’s epistles regularly draw on the metaphor of light, placing it right at the center of the Christian message.

In this passage, Paul brings together this light metaphor with Jesus’ most consistent gospel language, that of the kingdom of God, which Paul can call the Kingdom of light and the Kingdom of the Son. The light metaphor is so closely linked to the core of Christian teaching that I’d go so far as to say that if you really understand it, you really understand the gospel.

This is one of my favorite passages using this metaphor. Paul describes salvation as the transformation from darkness to light. He doesn’t say “you were in the darkness” but “you were darkness and now you are light.” Then he calls for Christians to live as Children of the light – which he describes as living virtuously (light as goodness.)  The fruit of the light is synonymous here with the fruit of the spirit. And then—and this is my favorite part—he turns the metaphor from light as virtue to light as vision, when he talks about how light makes everything visible, namely the action and character of people. He adds a final thought – everything that is illuminated becomes a light. In other words, anyone who is in the light of God, becomes a light to others. The author of 1 John says that  

1 John 1:7 ...if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (Light as goodness)

To John, walking in the light has direct implications for our relations with other people. It is not just having our sins forgiven but being made holy, being “purified of all sin.” We don’t just have the light shine on us once, we walk in the light. Walking in the light is holy living and the hallmark of holy living is love. So it is no surprise when a couple of verses later he writes:

This last collection of verses all point to the idea that God’s people are intended not just to be recipients of light but sources of light for the world.

Before I share the climactic use of this metaphor in Scripture I want us to pause for just a moment and think about what all this means for us. Sometimes Christianity is understood to be little more than an arrangement whereby if we believe the right doctrine, we get to go to heaven when we die. But we must compare this idea to what we have just read.

The Christian life, is the life lived in the light of God. Followers of Moses and Jesus and Paul are those who live in the kingdom of light, who heed the command to live as children of the light. They are those who walk in the light to let their light shine before others. These are the straightforward biblical commands:

Walk in the light. 
Live as children of the light. 
Let your light shine before others. 

In my first post is this series, I mentioned that light appears not only on the first page but also the last page of the Bible. And here we find great hope. In John’s vision of the age to come, in which a new city of will come from heaven, and be joined with earth, he fills this vision with all the metaphorical punch of this metaphor and writes these words:

Rather than being literal descriptions about the cosmology of the new age, these statements draw on all three aspects of the metaphorical significance of light: In that time, God will be with us, and among us and there will be no more more more ignorance and no more death.  Come quickly Lord Jesus!


  1. Hi Dr. James :)
    Light is one of my favorite biblical metaphors too. I enjoyed part I read part 1 also. Great thoughts! I think that the physical properties of light are so facinating also as best I can understand it...the wave/particle duality that it is both wave--transference of energy and particle--building block of the energy. Then there is the whole spectrum of color within white light!

  2. I love it!

    Here's a question: How does Isaiah 50:10-11 fit into this?

    Who among you fears the Lord
    and obeys the word of his servant?
    Let him who walks in the dark,
    who has no light,
    trust in the name of the Lord
    and rely on his God.
    But now, all you who light fires
    and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
    go, walk in the light of your fires
    and of the torches you have set ablaze.
    This is what you shall receive from my hand:
    You will lie down in torment.

    1. This scripture only supports the light metaphor. The first man walks in darkness needs to 'trust in the Lord'. This means that he was not trusting in the Lord previously and that is the reason he is in the darkness.
      The second scenario shows us people who have lit THEIR OWN lights. They have not received light from the Lord, but have settled for the light that they have created for themselves. It is a false sense of security and the worship of self that has led them away from God. They have condemned themselves by embracing a light that is not of God.

    2. This scripture does not negate the light analogy. The first man 'who has no light' is commanded to 'trust in the name of the Lord.' This means that previously he was not doing so. By trusting in God, he will receive the 'light.'
      The second scenario shows people who have lit THEIR OWN lights. They have not receives the light from God. They are told to enjoy themselves in this false light while they can (false light could be pride in oneself / gluttony because it gives pleasure / etc) because their doom is near. They provided THEMSELVES with torches that were not of God. They settled for these false lights instead of seeking God and they have condemned themselves.

  3. Thank you so very much for blessing me with this beautiful artwork to His Glory! I am using some of it on my Facebook. Thank You Jesus that we can walk in the light thanks to what you have accomplished for us: Everlasting life with You.

  4. Great passage, Collin. I'd suggests that the dominant metaphor there is of light as Knowledge/Vision or perhaps truth. I believe the sense of the passage is: If you're creating your own source of truth/virtue (lantern) go for it, but you are not in God's truth and you will regret it. See Jeremiah 2:3 for a different metaphor with a similar meaning: My people have committed two sins: "They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." Here water is a symbol of life-source, whereas light (in the Isaiah passage)is a symbol of truth-source.

  5. I am doing a Bible study on Light along the same lines: light as wisdom, truth, and holiness. Wisdom of good choices leading to a fruitful life. Truth of God's word illuninating igornance and doubt. Walking in holiness and purity allowing fellowship with God and others. But I did discover this difference of emphasis: that light comes from life. "In Him was LIFE and the LIFE was the light of men" "And God said, Let there be light". The living God spoke the light, in the living Christ is light. Life comes first. To continue the metaphor, a dead man needs no light. But give a man life and light becomes important to him. Give a soul new life in Christ and holiness, vitality, and truth become important. Eph 5:14 "Arise from the dead" comes before "Christ will give you light". Thoughts?

  6. Colin's reference above would echo some of my own thoughts on this.

    I have long been of the persuasion, as Luther states in his commentary on the verse in Genesis 1, that 'waters', 'darkness', 'deep' and the like are all references to the fact that what we have here is but the 'crude mass' of the heavens and earth - a work very much in the initial stage (the abyss) before it is shaped and fashioned by Christ through the creation week.

    Equally troubling, was when I looked at a few other references to this 'abyss'. Why, I wondered, would God seek to give the 'blessings' of such a place to His children if this were something so negative? He clearly does so through Jacob to his sons, for example, in Genesis 49:25, which marries Gods blessing (not cursing) to both the heaven above and the abyss beneath. If Luther is right, then this makes perfect sense, because the verse also speaks of the blessing of breast and womb - nurture and fertility - which clearly is alluded to in the work of God's Spirit "troubling" the abyss as it is about to yield itself to Christ's animating work.

    It's right, of course, to speak of just as Christ brought light from the darkness, He has shone into our hearts, and that God is indeed light, and in Him there is no darkness, but He is also a God who chooses to dwell in darkness - something which can speak so poignantly of His awe and power.

    Darkness was indeed part of the original natural created order - the evening and then the morning - and this domain grants opportunity for the 'lesser lights' to be evidenced before the day when He will indeed be the light of all. I find it fascinating that in Revelation, the woman (the church) is described as clothed with the son and moon (which actually relates back to a Genesis promise to Jacob's son, Joseph) - the sun rules the day, the moon rules the night, and these adorn 'the woman' - the redeemed, which I cannot help feel in some manner here so defines the new earth, the new creation (no wonder Wiccans 'sense' something here), at present "exiled" (in bondage and futility) in the wilderness of this world.

    God's deepest works (of creation and redemption) have been accompanied by darkness, so as much as light, indeed speaks to us, there is equally something to be considered here.

  7. I like this. I use your Ephesians graphic on a poem on my blog about God's Light and linked back to this page on the graphic. If this is not acceptable, please let me know.

    Thank you and God bless.


    1. Sorry, I used the wrong link to my poem: