“The entrance of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (Ps. 119:130)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1)
Light is one of the most prevalent themes throughout the entire bible, a thread that starts man’s journey on the physical earth and closes out the story in Revelation.
In the first few verses of Genesis, the very first thing God (the Word, Jesus Christ) does in recreating the earth is to bring physical light.
“The earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:2-4).
Then, in the last few verses of the bible, John explains that after God has set up His kingdom and recreated a spiritual heaven and earth, that “they need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light” (Rev. 22:5). The physical celestial lights that God created for man in the current kosmos—sun, moon, and stars—are no longer necessary because we will have the Light with us and God’s glory will be all that is needed to see.
During His ministry, Jesus told His disciples (and us, by extension), “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14, 16). We’ve each probably read that verse a couple hundred times in our lives, and typically what I’ve heard said is that it’s about how we’re meant to live righteous lives and be examples of God’s way. And that’s true.
But a message I heard at the Feast last year got me to thinking about the analogy a little differently, including various aspects of being a light—basically, what does that really mean and require of us? After digging in somewhat, there are a few insights about light that helped me in seeing even deeper meaning to that verse in Matthew. They’re not earthshattering revelations, but rather reminders that should enhance our understanding of the type of light we are meant to be.
I know, that feels like a “duh” statement.
So maybe another way of putting it is that it reveals.
The Hebrew word that’s used in that very first Genesis verse referenced above (ore, H216) means illumination, bright, or clear. In Jesus’s command in Matthew 5, the Greek word used (phos, G5457) also means to shine or make manifest (a.k.a. clear, plain, apparent). Both imply an enlightening or uncovering of something that was there but hadn’t previously been seen or understood.
Jesus used this type of verbiage during His ministry, particularly when speaking of His role in revealing the Father to His disciples and declaring the gospel (Matt. 11:25-27, John 14:6-10). Interestingly, the word translated “reveal” in these verses is apokalupto, also translated “revelation” (as in the book of Revelation).
God consistently uses the theme of light and darkness as an analogy for His calling and the need to separate ourselves from this present world. Peter tells us, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Pet. 2:9).
John states this even more clearly: “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). Darkness is not a thing in and of itself—it is the absence of light, and even a tiny light helps negate absolute darkness. Darkness symbolizes the absence of God, which is why the very first thing that God did during the (re)creation of Genesis is to bring light. It symbolically combated the darkness, where Satan works, and began to illuminate God’s creation. A similar thing happens to us when God begins to work in our minds.
“But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them…For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:3-6).
Are we reflecting the illumination of our Creator, bringing a tiny light to the darkness of this world? Whether through honesty, graciousness, patience, positivity, or myriad other qualities, it’s a question worth asking ourselves. I don’t mean things like overt evangelizing, but rather considering whether our co-workers or peers would think of us in this manner regardless of what they think about our beliefs.
Why does that even matter??
Well, because the light we reflect is God’s, not ours
Like the moon, the light we reflect comes 100% from another source. Again, this isn’t some amazing insight or “new truth”, but I do believe it’s important. It’s easy for us to hear a statement like “you are the light of the world, so let your light shine” and forget that it’s not actually about us or our light, because we can’t do anything on our own.
I believe it’s meaningful that, of all the dozens of different descriptors and names assigned to God and the Son throughout the bible, it’s that Greek word phos that’s used to describe the Son from before man’s beginning.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things were made through Him…In Him was life, and the life was the light of [or brought life to] men. And the light [phos again] shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1, 3-5)
There’s no guesswork or ambiguity to the analogy of Jesus as light. He literally says, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12), and this role of His is prophesied in Isaiah 10:17 as well. Jesus was the Light pointing the way to God and illuminating the path to get there (Matt. 4:16, John 8:12, John 12:35-37).
John gives an unambiguous litmus test we can apply to ourselves, saying “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (I John 1:5-7).
This imagery was made clear from the early stages of God’s interaction with His chosen people. He (the Word) led the Israelites as a pillar of fire by night, giving them light in the darkness and illuminating the path out of Egypt (Ex. 13:21, Neh. 9:12). In the tabernacle and then the temple, a lamp burned oil continually, the flame symbolic of God’s presence (Ex. 27:20-21).
So what does it mean for us to reflect God’s light? At its heart it means that when people see us and interact with us, it should be like an interaction with our Father—they should “get” what He’s like.
- “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2)
- “Be we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the spirit of the Lord” (II Cor. 3:18)
- “If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him…put off…the old man which grows corrupt…and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:21-24)
- “…You have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:9-10)
- “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16)
These verses and many more make it clear that we are supposed to be being remade in His image from a spiritual and mental standpoint. If we are, then that is what people should see; if it’s not, then God may not recognize us when the time comes.
It’s one of the reasons that Jesus warned His disciples, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name?…And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:22-23). If we are a reflection of His image and reflecting His light, that’s simply not possible—it would be like each of us looking in the mirror and not recognizing ourselves. And if it’s the case it means we’ve likely become disconnected from Him along the way.
All light needs a constant power source to keep working
No light in our physical world is self-sustaining, and neither is ours. No matter the type of light—lamp, flame, solar-powered, even the sun itself—if lights get disconnected from their power source, they eventually lose charge, weaken, fade, and die or burn out. Likewise, we have to continuously recharge our connection by replenishing the oil in our lamps: God’s spirit.
We looked at a bit of II Cor. 4 earlier, but letting Paul finish his thought ties this theme of our power source together nicely.
“For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of the darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Cor 4:6-7)
God gives His people a measure of His spirit to carry within us, which is the oil that should be feeding the light we reflect. But that little light is not yet infinite or eternal if we don’t tend to it—the five foolish virgins discovered this in Jesus’s parable when they ran out of oil (Matt. 25:1-13). This is another sobering example where Jesus says “I do not know you”, because the five foolish virgins had lost connection to their light’s power source and were no longer reflecting the Light.
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Paul makes clear that not only are we to be reflecting God’s light, but it should be becoming part of us—it’s literally a portion of our inheritance. He writes the Colossians that they should give thanks to God our Father, “who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light…He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom” (Col. 1:12). Because He is light and we are His children, our inheritance is His light. We, like Esau, are at risk of losing out on our inheritance if we run out of oil.
But we need to be worried not only about becoming disconnected from our power source, but also because there’s another danger that can affect whether we’re reflecting God’s light.
Light quality is affected by pollution
We had this cool brass candleholder when I was a kid, with a big glass shade encasing the flame. We didn’t use it all that often (mostly when the power was out), but over time the brass and glass became blackened and dull, and rather than it reflecting light, the flame could barely be seen. The light was the same, but the vessel containing it had fallen prey to pollution.
Even when we have God’s spirit and are reflecting His light, we have to watch out for the impact of our society’s norms, values, and distractions. It’s almost impossible to be completely unaffected by the world we live in, so we have constantly be alert.
In the olden days, if a lighthouse wasn’t constantly cleaned and maintained, the sea salt and minerals, dust, and smoke from the flame would cake on and dim the light, rendering it useless. To me, this is a lot like what happened to Lot (Gen. 19). Lot knew God. He believed in Him. My guess is he largely followed God’s commandments. But Lot was living in Sodom and Gomorrah, and over time, bit by bit, rubbing elbows with that society changed him without him even noticing.
Personally, I think that’s really what Paul was talking about when he told the Corinthians, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” (II Cor. 6:14). He wasn’t telling them to remove themselves from society altogether and live out in the desert. And maybe he was speaking about marriages, as many people think.
But I also think this has to do with close relationships and how we choose to spend our time. There’s a reason we closely monitor the friends our kids have and who they’re spending time with—we know that the company we keep ends up becoming who we are. But sometimes we forget to put that into practice in our own lives.
This is a common theme for Paul, because after writing the Corinthians, he tells the Ephesians something similar. He starts by telling them to be imitators of God and then finishes:
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light…and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them…but all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light” (Eph. 5:8-13)
God gives a warning to those who “call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness” (Is. 5:20). It’s easy to read this and think of other people, of those not called. But God wasn’t talking to pagans or Gentiles in this passage…He was talking to His people! And it doesn’t just mean literally substituting evil for God’s way—it can also include putting our own traditions above God’s laws or intents, or our own priorities over His desires.
Jesus addresses this idea of the lamp getting affected by its surroundings. He told His disciples, “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness…no one can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and mammon (money)” (Matt. 6:22-24).
Conclusion: What does it mean to “let your light shine”? Are we reflecting the Light?
God’s light is a metaphor for our physical life as well—without light, nothing living can survive. One of the last pieces of God’s wrath that this world will endure is complete darkness, which will prevent anything from growing and be a breeding ground for fear and hate, a representation of this world’s true state without God (Rev. 16:10-11).
Even then, they’ll reject God and turn to fight the returning Messiah. Jesus explained why this is to His disciples:
“And this is their condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:19-21)
When Jesus struck Paul blind on the road to Damascus, He told him that he was being sent to both Jews and Gentiles “to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light…that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18).
These are the stakes for us, and this is the light we’re meant to reflect as a “city on a hill”. Are we reflecting the Light, or has our light dimmed?
“The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light” (Rev. 21:23-24)