I have spent the last few days thinking and thinking on the theme of God breaking through darkness with light. We see this thought woven throughout Scripture and finding ultimate expression in the gospel. Here is a poem that attempts to capture the gospel angle on light conquering darkness.
“Post Tenebras Lux.” This is the Latin phrase that became the motto of the Protestant Reformation. It literally reads, “After darkness, light.” It referred to the breaking forth of gospel light that had been largely veiled throughout the middle ages. The motto is rich because it captures a profound truth about God’s mode of operation. Darkness is often, if not always, the prelude to God’s blinding grace.
From the first page of Scripture to the last, God is conquering darkness with light. In the beginning, he speaks piercing light into the blackness. In the end, God’s presence eclipses the sun and gives light to the new earth. In the between, we find God’s light consistently following darkness. In the kingdom of God, darkness will never have the final word.
Note a few texts that capture this hopeful theme.
“But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me” (Micah 7:7-8).
“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:4-5).
“Light dawns in the darkness for the upright; he is gracious, merciful, and righteous” (Psalm 112:4).
Darkness is certain in this life…painfully inevitable. For the people of God light is just as sure. The night will always bow to the day. Death will ultimately be swallowed by resurrection. Every experience of light conquering darkness in the present is a foretaste of the time when darkness will be no more. That day is coming…may it come soon. If you are walking in the darkness, hold tight, light is coming.
Gregory of Nyssa was a theologian that lived in 300 A.D. He was one of the Cappadocian Fathers along with Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory and the other two fathers played a significant role in the formation of the Nicene Creed. They also wrote some significant theological works on the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the person of Christ, and the attributes of God. Gregory of Nyssa was also known for his own unique contribution to theology. He was one of the first to explore the theme of darkness as it related to God. Anthony Meredith in his book on Gregory of Nyssa says this:
“Gregory has often been credited with the discovery of mystical theology, or rather with the perception that darkness is an appropriate symbol under which God can be discussed. There is much truth in this….Gregory seems to have been the first Christian writer to have made this important point…”
Phillip Kariatlis wrote an interesting article entitled Dazzling Darkness: The Mystical or Theophanic Theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa. In the article he says this about Gregory.
‘That which set St. Gregory apart from other fathers in general and the Cappadocians in particular was the innovative approach to his understanding of the vision of God expressed in terms of darkness rather than the prevailing light imagery. Hence, instead of presenting the Christian life as a transformative journey towards increasing luminosity, St. Gregory put forward a vision of a person’s ascent towards God in terms of increasing impenetrable opacity.”
Gregory coined some very intriguing phrases as he wrestled with the paradox of God revealing himself in darkness. He liked to speak of God’s “luminous” and “dazzling” darkness. He used the language of “seeing that consists in not seeing” to describe faith’s engagement of the darkness of God.
So where does Gregory come up with this stuff? What would lead him to develop a theology that utilizes the imagery of darkness so heavily? Here are some of the key texts that support this line of thought.
“The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Ex 20:21).
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me” (Deut 5:22, cf. 4:11, 5:23, Heb 12:18).
“Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.’” (1 Kgs 8:12, 2 Chron 6:1).
“Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Ps. 97:2).
“He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he was seen on the wings of the wind. He made darkness around him his canopy, thick clouds, a gathering of water. Out of the brightness before him coals of fire flamed forth” (2 sam 22:10-3, Ps. 18:9, 11, 28).
I don’t know about you, but I am very intrigued by texts like this. We think and hear much more about the biblical theme of God and light. These passages describe God as standing on, dwelling in, and being surrounded by darkness. Darkness, like light, functions to communicate things about God. He cloaks himself with darkness and at the same time reveals himself through it. As Samuel Terrien states, “total darkness is a symbol both of the divine presence and the divine hiddenness.”
This theme of God’s revelation in the dark presses forward into the New Testament. Phillip Kariatlis says this.
“Saint Augustine in his Confessions states that God is ‘most hidden, yet most present.’ The truth is that the God of Sinai is most fully in our midst in the cross of Christ where He is also most hidden. Karl Barth has declared that ‘one must know the darkness of Sinai and Calvary, and must have faith to know the God who is above us and his hidden nature.’ To approach ‘the thick darkness’ in the New Testament is to find God most of all in the cross of Jesus Christ. I find it more than symbolic that at the historic moment of Jesus’ death ‘darkness came over the whole land’ (Matt 27:45). If the holy means the hiddenness of God, nowhere did He more hide Himself than in the cross of Christ.”
The cross is the pinnacle of the light/darkness paradox in Scripture. Here the light of the world is cloaked in darkness. Both Paul and John consider Calvary’s darkest moment as the greatest expression of God’s brilliance and glory (2 Cor 4:4-6, John 7:39; 12:16, 23; 13:31; 17:1, 4, 5). At the cross we truly behold “dazzling darkness.”
Another author argues that this theme of darkness is foundational to Christianity. He states,
“The test of honesty is whether a man or woman has looked into the darkness in which Christianity has its roots, the darkness of God being killed by his creatures, of God himself breaking and reshaping all religious language by manifesting his activity in vulnerability, failure and contradiction.”
What are your thoughts? What other things may God be communicating through this darkness theme? How is this theme helpful for us today? How does it challenge our theology?
Light is a significant theme throughout Scripture. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation it communicates significant things about God, salvation, and his people. The following is a summary of some of the ways that light is talked about in the Bible.
The Themes of Light
1. God and Light
- He is light (Ps 27:1, Is 60:19-20, Mic 7:8, 1 Jn 1:5, Rev 21:23, 22:5).
- He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16, Job 38:19).
- He cloaks himself in light (Ps 104:2).
- His presence is light (Ps 36:9, Ps 90:8).
- His face shines light (Ps 4:6, 44:3, 89:15, 118:27).
- He is the Creator of light (Gen 1:3, Is 45:7, 2 Cor 4:6).
- He is the Provider of light (Ps 18:28, 36:9, 43:3).
2. Jesus and Light
- He is the promised light (Is 9:2, Matt 4:16, Lk 2:32).
- He is the Light of the World (Jn 1:5, 9, 3:19 8:12, 9:5, 1 Jn 2:8, Rev 21:23).
- His presence radiates light (Matt 17:1-9, Acts 9:3, 22:6).
- He gives light and life to men (Lk 1:79, Jn 1:4).
3. The People of God and Light
- Israel was called to be a light to the nations (Is 42:6, 49:6, 60:3).
- The church is the light of the world (Matt 5:14-16, Eph 5:8, Phil 2:15).
- We are sons of light (Matt 16:8, Eph 5:8, 1 Thess 5:5).
- We are the saints in light (Col 1:12).
- We are called into his marvelous light (1 Pet 2:9).
- We bear the fruit of light (Eph 5:9).
- We wear the armor of light (Rom 13:12).
- We carry the message of light (Acts 26:23, 2 Cor 4:4-6).
4. The Ways of God and Light
- Light is equated with salvation (Ps 27:1, Is 60:1, Acts 26:18, 23).
- Light is a synonym of truth (Ps. 43:3, 119:105, 130, 1 Jn 1:7).
- Light is likened to righteousness (Ps 112:4, Ecc 2:13, Is 58:8, 10).
- Light is equated with holiness (Is 5:20).
- Light is used in reference to judgment (Is 10:17, Hos 6:5).
The Biblical Function of Light
- Light provides guidance (Ps 119:105, Prov 4:18).
- Light exposes evil and sin (Ps 90:8, Eph 5:13-14).
- Light dispels darkness (Gen 1:3, Ps 18:28).
- Light communicates safety (Ps 56:13, 1 Jn 1:7).
- Light brings comfort (Ps 78:14, 139:12).
- Light invites enjoyment (Eccl 11:7).
- Light communicates things about God (James 1:17).
- Light is used to describe salvation (2 Cor 4:4-6, Eph 5:13-14, 1 Jn 1:7).
- Light is used as a garment (Rom 13:12, 2 Cor 11:14).
The Biblical Storyline of Light
The Dawn and the Dusk
In the first two verses of Scripture we are introduced to the theme of darkness. In the third verse we are introduced to the theme of light. God conquers the darkness by commanding light into existence. This sets the stage for the entire storyline of Scripture. God is in the business of dispelling the darkness through his light. The light of creation, however, is much like the dusk for it is not long before the night wins the day.
The Dark Night
Though light wins the day at the beginning of creation it is not long before darkness starts making inroads on God’s new creation. Adam and Eve are invited to join with the dark one and walk in the ways of darkness. With their sin they plunge the world into a spiritual darkness. This battle of light and darkness carries through the entire redemptive story.
The God of light inserts himself again and again into this dark world to provide salvation to those will come into his light. He is the God of the burning bush (Ex 3:1-6), the provider of light when all has gone dark (Ex 10:23), the pillar of fire that lights the way (Ex 13:21, Neh 9:12, 19, Ps 78:14, 105:39). He is the God that shines his face upon his people in their wilderness wanderings, in their worship, and in their pain (Num 6:25, Ps 4:6, 44:3, 89:15, 118:27). He promised that one day he would eclipse the sun with his own brilliant light and bring an end to night forever (Is 9:2, 60:19-20).
The New Morning
The Old Testament told of the day when the “sun of righteousness” would “rise with healing in his wings” (Mal 4:2). The bright star that the Magi followed signaled a new day. With the incarnation of Christ the light had come in ways never before imagined (Jn 3:19). The light of the world was living among men. His every word and deed was like a sun beam on this dark soil. Good Friday was the darkest and yet brightest of days. Here the light of the world blinded humanity with his sacrificial love and generosity. The brilliance of this light was only magnified on the third day when he ravaged death and walked out of the tomb.
After his exaltation he welcomed all men to know fellowship in his light (1 Jn 1:1-9). He transformed people of darkness into people of light (Eph 5:13-14). This new community was called to be mediators of his light to the rest of the world (Matt 5:14-16). The true light promised he would return once again and that his coming would be the final demise of darkness. When he comes there will be no more night. He will reside with his people, retire the sun, and be our light for eternity (Rev 21:23, 22:5).