The “Light” Motif in Isaiah

Light is an extremely significant motif in Scripture.

“The significance of light goes beyond its mention in the account of creation and in the description of the restored garden. Light is also significant in how it communicates the arrival of the Redeemer and the Redeemer’s commission.”

 

Light is an extremely significant motif in Scripture. We first read of it in Genesis 1:3 as the word of God breaks into the darkness of a world not yet created: “Let there be light.” Such is the power of the divine command that we are not surprised to read next, “and there was light.” We last read of the light in Revelation 22:5, “And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord gives them light; and they shall reign forever and ever.” The glory of the Lord lightens this place, and the Lamb Himself is the light thereof (Rev. 21:23). The created light of Genesis 1 plays a role in the drama of God’s ultimate plan consummated in Revelation 22 as the artificial, ectypal light points forward to the full disclosure of the archetypal light, namely Christ Himself. The created light is the first stage in the preparation for man and woman’s habitation in the Garden of Eden. The days of creation build toward humanity. God created and He pronounced it good, but once sin enters the garden there is upheaval and destruction. Humans in their fallen state love darkness rather than light (John 3:19).

But Eden will be restored. In fact, the restoration will bring a garden even greater than Eden. The light that illumines this consummated garden is not artificial; it emanates from the Lord God Himself. And just as the created light separated the light from darkness, the Lord God in the consummated garden separates His reign and the reign of His saints from the workers of iniquity. There will not be another Fall. The workers of iniquity stand permanently out- side in total darkness and cannot infiltrate the garden of God (Rev. 22:15). The light of the victorious Messiah will shine forevermore.

The significance of light goes beyond its mention in the account of creation and in the description of the restored garden. Light is also significant in how it communicates the arrival of the Redeemer and the Redeemer’s commission to His followers to make God known. As Messiah, Jesus employs a threefold function: He is Prophet, Priest, and King; the light motif contributes to a deeper understanding of the prophetic function of Jesus, the Messiah. God makes Himself known through words, works, and acts. He speaks finally and climactically in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate (Heb. 1:1–2).

This post focuses on the Messiah’s prophetic function with special attention to Luke’s use of Isaiah’s light motif.  Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis in Luke 2 and Paul’s response before the hostile Jews in Antioch recorded in Acts 13 are key to understanding the meaning of Jesus’ arrival to earth as the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan and the necessary spread of that plan through the witness of Christ’s followers. Each passage underscores the belief that God’s redemptive plan was never intended to be exclusively for Israel. Central to the Luke–Acts passages is the conviction that Isaiah’s Servant would bring salvation not only for the Jews, but also for the nations. Both Simeon and Paul directly cite Isaiah’s Servant in 49:6. Luke’s use of the light motif also brings to mind allusions to Isaiah 9:2 (“the people that walk in darkness have seen a great light”).

The Simeon account points to the reality that Jesus is the ultimate light sent from God. The Acts account recording Paul’s use of the light highlights the reality that Christ’s followers are to be lights in this dark world. This, too, underscores God’s program. Just as God sent Christ into the dark world to bring life and light to humanity, so Christ sends His disciples into the four corners of the world to share that light as lights themselves. Luke’s use of the light metaphor reinforces Christ’s mission and the subsequent commission Christ gives to all His followers.

Summary Statement of Isaiah’s Theological Context

Few prophets articulated with such clarity the universal implications of God’s redemptive plan than Isaiah did in his prophecy. Walter Kaiser remarks, “No era of prophetic activity stressed this [universal] aspect of the promise doctrine more than did the eighth-century pre-exilic prophets. Isaiah was the master when it came to seeing the ‘nations’ connected with the ancient and emerging promise of God.”* While aspects of this universal realization of redemption can be found throughout Isaiah’s prophecy, it is on full display in his Servant Songs of chapters 40–66.

In these songs, the ideal character of the Messiah and each of His Messianic offices are on display. Isaiah 42 and 49 focus on the prophetic ministry of the Servant who is commissioned by Jehovah to be a covenant for the people and a light to the Gentiles. This adheres to the programmatic design of redemption. The parallel themes of God’s redemptive program in Isaiah and Luke–Acts is remarkable. Each identifies the outward declaration of the Savior from Israel to beyond, namely, to the end of the earth. This movement from Israel to the nations forms the basis of Paul’s argument in Acts 13 where he cites Isaiah 49:6, applying it to his own ministry. Israel’s rejection of the gospel prompts Paul and Barnabas to turn their attention to the Gentiles.

In the Servant’s commissioning by Jehovah we find the unique role that Israel played. The Servant comes from Israel and is, therefore, Israel’s glory (Luke 2:32). The Servant is the seed of the covenant promised first in Eden to Adam and then progressively to the Patriarchs. However, Isaiah refuses to see the Seed as one who benefits Israel only. Israel will enjoy the Servant to be sure, but he salvation promised extends beyond Israel to the nations. Isaiah speaks lucidly on this matter: “It is a light thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that you may be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (49:6). The Servant will come from Israel and enjoy universal success; He will do for the nations what national Israel failed to do. God’s intent for Israel was to be a light, yet they failed their mission. The Messiah will come and be the ultimate fulfillment of the Servant Songs.

Universal success, however, does not mean the Servant will be equally accepted universally. Simeon acknowledges this in his comments upon seeing Jesus when he prophetically alludes to what Paul clearly experiences. Many will reject the Savior. In Simeon’s blessing, he announces that the “child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against” (Luke 2:34). Paul sees this division and claims that his witness is redirected to the Gentiles because of Israel’s rejection (Acts 13:46).

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