One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is in Matthew 4:16, describing the initiation of the ministry of Jesus Christ: “The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned.”
Most of us probably don’t consider this a “Christmas” passage, and I doubt you’d hear it read during most church Christmas plays. But Matthew does quote Isaiah 9, a chapter about the coming of the Messiah. In fact, just a few verses later we read these famous words, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us” (vs. 6).
It is sometimes difficult for us today to understand just how spiritually dark the world was 2,000 years ago. In the entire world, there was not a single point of light except for the nation of Israel.
What was it like with no spiritual light at all? Everywhere one turned, in every hut, hamlet, village, and city, all was dark. Of course, there was religion everywhere. Paul told the Athenians that they were “very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22).
However, the religions of the pagans were all false. Pantheistic and/or polytheistic, the world was filled with idols, and, according to the apostle Paul, there is nothing behind idols except for demons (1 Cor. 10:20). The dark fire of hell was the only light available to humanity.
That’s not to say that pagans weren’t searching for the true God. Paul also told the men and women of Athens that the Lord of all men even wanted them to find Him. So God worked in the darkness that men might “seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).
In Isaiah 60, the prophet notes the depths of the shadow that covered the earth when the Light of God came into the world: “For behold, darkness will cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the Lord will rise upon you, and His glory will appear upon you” (vs. 2).
Of course, this glory is also symbolized by light, as the very next verse makes clear: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (vs. 3).
Christians understand this light to be Jesus Christ, as He states in John 8:12, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”
The Light came to a world that was almost pitch black, entering in complete obscurity: born in a dark stable at night, in an insignificant village in a small, weak, and powerless country that existed under the heel of the most ferocious empire in existence – Rome.
Anyone could make the claim Jesus was making. Anyone could assert, “I am the light of the world.” What is audacious and breathtaking, however, is the second statement: “he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” This is a promise of transformation – that the disciple of Christ would experience a changed life. That can’t be faked. Darkness would begin to dissipate the moment a follower put his foot into the sandal print of the Messiah.
We speak of transformation because following the Light of the world would not only show us the way out of darkness but make us a light to the world as well. Isaiah 60 contains this encouragement to God’s people: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (vs. 1).
The coming of the Light shines on us, and then we are told, “Arise, shine”! This is not meant to merely indicate that we reflect God’s light, but that God’s light lives in us! This is precisely why Christians insist that their faith is not simply religion but relationship. We abide in Christ, and He is demonstrated to be alive in our hearts.
This is why, 2,000 years after Jesus came to a world oppressed by thick darkness, it is so difficult to comprehend what that darkness must have been like. So much has changed. The church has been far from perfect, of course, but the shining city on a hill (Matt. 5:14) has brought much light to a suffering world.
Naturally, we look around us and see that much darkness and suffering remain. But all who are Christian know the Light of the world Himself. As we approach the beginning of a new year, let us rejoice in that relationship.
Let us also embrace the exhortation of God’s voice through Isaiah the prophet: “Arise, shine”!