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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Light And Darkness

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Apart from the literal and ordinary uses of the words ‘light’ (φῶς) and ‘darkness’ (σκότος, σκοτία), they are frequently employed in metaphorical senses, and especially either in express combination and contrast or with a reference to each other that is latent but implied. This figurative use of the terms is an inheritance from the OT. There ‘light’ (אוֹר = Septuagint φῶς) often denotes a state of happiness and well-being (Job 33:28; Job 33:30, Psalms 56:13), but more particularly the salvation which comes from God, and God Himself as the giver of salvation and blessing to His people (Psalms 4:6; Psalms 27:1; Psalms 36:9; Psalms 43:3, Isaiah 10:17, Micah 7:8). ‘Darkness’ (חשֶׁךְ = Septuagint σκότος), on the other hand, stands for ignorance, misery, and death (Job 10:21; Job 19:8, Psalms 18:23; Psalms 107:10; Psalms 107:14, Ecclesiastes 2:14, Isaiah 5:30; Isaiah 9:2, etc.), and generally for everything that is opposed to light as a symbol of life, happiness, and moral purity. The metaphors are very natural, and are by no means peculiar to the biblical literature. Reference may be made to the Babylonian Creation narrative with its struggle between Marduk, the god of light, and Tiâmat, the god of darkness; to the Skr. [Note: Sanskrit.] name for deity-deva, ‘a shining one’ (cf. θεός and deus); to the Gr. conception of Olympus as a place where a bright radiance is diffused (cf. λευκὴ δʼ ἐπιδέδρομεν αἴγλη, Od. vi. 45), and of the nether regions as a world of gloomy shades occupied by ‘infernal’ or subterranean deities; to the Zoroastrian antithesis-hardened into a definite dualism-between Ormazd, the god of light and life, and Ahriman, the evil power of death and darkness. But as we find them in the NT, and especially in the Johannine and Pauline writings, the figures of light and darkness have been developed on Christian lines which impart a deeper and fuller meaning to each of the conceptions, and bring them into an opposition that is stronger than any known to the older religions, because it is more spiritual. The material relevant to the present article may be conveniently treated as it bears upon the doctrines of (1) God, (2) Christ, (3) salvation and the Christian life.

1. God.-The fundamental passage here is 1 John 1:5, ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ The conception of God as light is familiar, as has been seen, not only to the OT but to all ancient religious thought. But in the Christian view the physical conceptions of light and darkness which cling to the ethnic and even to the Hebrew theologies entirely disappear, and purely spiritual conceptions take their place. In this passage, as the context shows (cf. 1 John 1:6-10), ‘light’ stands for holiness and ‘darkness’ for sin. In 1 Timothy 6:16, again, where God is represented as dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, the metaphor of light is transferred from God Himself to His dwelling-place, with reference probably to Exodus 33:18-23; but the idea conveyed is that of a holiness that is absolute in its separateness from all human imperfection (cf. Exodus 33:9-14). In James 1:17 God is called ‘the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning.’ And here also the idea of this light without shadow or eclipse is used to emphasize the fact, previously referred to, of the essential holiness of One who cannot be tempted with evil and who Himself tempteth no man (James 1:13).

The darkness against which God’s holy light shines is sometimes represented impersonally (Ephesians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:5, 1 Peter 2:9). But in Colossians 1:13 St. Paul gives thanks to the Father ‘who delivered us out of the power of darkness’ (cf. Luke 22:53); and the word for power (ἐξουσία) suggests the tyranny of an alien authority. This is confirmed when in Ephesians 6:12 we find the Apostle speaking of the ‘world-rulers of this darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.’ When we read in 2 Corinthians 11:14, ‘Even Satan fashioneth himself into an angel of light,’ the evident suggestion is that Satan’s true form is that of a prince of darkness, not an angel of light. In Acts 26:18 there is a significant parallelism between darkness and the power of Satan on the one hand, and light and the redeeming grace of God on the other; and in 2 Corinthians 6:14 f. there is a similar parallel between light and darkness and Christ and Belial.

2. Christ.-As applied to God, the metaphor of light points to His essential nature; as applied to Christ, it denotes His special function as the revealer of God to man. In the one case the light is considered in its intrinsic glory; in the other, as shining forth upon the souls of men. It is in the Fourth Gospel that this conception of Christ as the light of men-a light by which they are at once illumined and judged-is fully worked out (cf. for the illumination John 1:4; John 1:9; John 8:12; John 12:46, and for the judgment John 1:5, John 3:19-21). But in 2 Corinthians 4:6 St. Paul declares that God has revealed the light of the knowledge of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ, and in Ephesians 5:8 he says of those who were once in darkness that they are now ‘light in the Lord.’ Similarly in 1 John 2:8, where the revelation of Jesus Christ and His ‘new commandment’ are in view, the author declares: ‘The darkness is passing away, and the true light already shineth.’ In these passages the reference is to Christ’s function as mediating the gracious Divine light to men and thus bringing them knowledge and salvation. But in 1 Corinthians 4:5 Christ appears as a Judge, who by His coming ‘will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts.’ In this case, however, the penetrating judicial light of Christ is eschatologically conceived, and is not, as in the Fourth Gospel, a light by which men are already judged when they love the darkness rather than the light.

3. Salvation and the Christian life.-It is in this connexion that the metaphors of light and darkness most frequently occur in the relevant NT literature. (1) Christian soteriology has to do with sin and grace; and these two contrasted moments of human experience find fitting representation in terms of darkness and light. Salvation is frequently described as a transition from darkness to light. St. Paul was sent to the Gentiles ‘to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light’ (Acts 26:18; cf. Acts 13:47); he says of his converts: ‘Ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:8); and so elsewhere he addresses them as ‘sons of light and sons of the day,’ who ‘are not of the night nor of darkness’ (1 Thessalonians 5:5). In 2 Corinthians 4:5 he compares the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, as it shines into the heart in the face of Jesus Christ, to the creative light shining at God’s word out of the darkness. St. Peter contrasts the marvellous light into which God has called His people with the darkness in which they lived formerly (1 Peter 2:9); while St. John, with a stronger sense perhaps of the progressive nature of the work of sanctification, reminds his ‘little children’ that the darkness is passing away before the shining of the true light (1 John 2:8). The author of Hebrews uses the expression ‘enlightened’ (φωτισθέντες) to denote those who have had experience of the Christian salvation (Hebrews 6:4, Hebrews 10:32), by which he implies that before tasting of the heavenly gift they were in a condition of spiritual darkness.

(2) In Colossians 1:12 f. soteriology passes into eschatology. Christians have been already delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son; but ‘the inheritance of the saints in light,’ of which the Father has made them meet to be partakers, has clearly a future as well as a present reference (cf. Romans 13:12, ‘the night is far spent, the day is at hand’). In the world to come the inheritance of the saints in light has its counterpart in ‘the blackness of darkness’ spoken of in 2 Peter 2:17, Judges 1:13. For those who reject the light of the Divine grace, because they prefer the darkness to the light, there is reserved a deeper and impenetrable darkness.

(3) But salvation has a human and ethical side as well as one that is transcendent and Divine; and this also is set forth under the imagery of light and darkness. When St. Paul declares that ‘the fruit of the light is in all goodness and righteousness and truth’ (Ephesians 5:9 [Revised Version ]), and contrasts that shining fruit with ‘the unfruitful works of darkness’ (Ephesians 5:11), he is giving to light and darkness a plain moral content. When he asks in another Epistle, ‘What communion hath light with darkness?’ (2 Corinthians 6:14), the words that precede show that it is the antithesis between righteousness and unrighteousness that is in his thoughts. And when, after comparing the world as it exists at present with the night, and the approaching Parousia with the day, he adds, ‘Let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light’ (Romans 13:12; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:7-8), he is summoning his readers to that deliberate and strenuous choice and effort of the will in which all morality consists. Those who in the soteriological sense are already ‘sons of light and sons of the day,’ and accordingly ‘are not of the night nor of darkness’ (1 Thessalonians 5:5), are not on that account exempt from the dangers of the encompassing moral and spiritual gloom or from the duties to which those dangers point. On the contrary, just because they are sons of the light they must gird on the armour of light, and because they are not of the darkness they must watch and be sober (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8). Similarly in 1 John 1:6 f. the writer calls upon his readers to ‘walk in the light as Christ is in the light,’ and brands as false those who profess to have fellowship with Him and yet continue to walk in darkness. And if they should ask for a definite test by which the moral life may be judged and its relationship to light or darkness determined, he refers them to the new commandment which the Lord has given (1 John 2:7 f.; cf. John 13:34). ‘He that loveth his brother abideth in the light’ (John 2:10). ‘But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness’ (John 2:11).

Literature.-H. Cremer, Bib.-Theol. Lex. of NT Greek3, 1880; B. Weiss, Bib. Theol. of the NT, Eng. translation , 1882-83; G. B. Stevens, The Theology of the NT2, Edinburgh, 1906, p. 370; Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche 3, article ‘Erleuchtung’; article ‘Light’ in Encyclopaedia Biblica and Dict. of Christ and the Gospels .

J. C. Lambert.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Light And Darkness'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/l/light-and-darkness.html. 1906-1918.

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