From the opening chapter of Genesis (1:3-5) to the closing of Revelation (22:5), light is one of the bible’s central symbols. It is a powerful motif, in both its literal and figurative uses. The dualism of light and dark is used to describe the powers of God and Satan (John 3:19-20; 1 John 1:6-7; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thes. 5:5).
The first thing that God did in creation was to turn on the lights (Gen. 1:3). Likewise, the first thing that God does in the recreation of man is to turn on the lights (1 Cor. 4:4-6). Without light, we cannot see, either physically or figuratively. Notice how Jesus connects seeing with understanding (Mark 7:18).
Both the apostles John and Paul use this symbolically rich language because Jesus makes it plain that it is central to understanding Him (John 8:12).
But what does it mean that Jesus is the light of the World? First, consider that light is both observable and the means by we which we observe. At night, we turn on our headlights, not so we can get out of the car to stand in the driveway and stare at the headlights, but so that we can operate the car safely. We can get where we are going because we can perceive our world, illuminated by our headlights. From ‘inside’ the light, we can experience the world.
This is what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote one of his most famous quotes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Lewis’ essay, Meditation in a Toolshed, helps us understand the difference between the observability of light and light as a means of experience. C.S. Lewis describes being in a dark toolshed, suddenly becoming aware of a strong beam of light shining through a hole. He could see the light, but when he stepped in front of the beam, he ceased to see the light. He could see, by looking along the light, the blue atmosphere, the green leaves of a tree and at some great distance, the sun. He no longer saw the light, but saw by the light, and once the light was experienced, he ceased to see it. It disappeared. But did it? The light was still there, but it was the means of seeing, not the thing seen.
Lewis was experiencing the light. He couldn’t describe the light at that moment because the light was the means of seeing grass, leaves, sky and sun. The light had disappeared.
Jesus helps us understand this, he did not come in the flesh to learn about man, for he already knew all about man, he came to experience man. To know, from ‘inside,’ and use that experience to redeem man. (Hebrews) Jesus did not stand outside creation observing our suffering, he stood inside of our suffering. He experienced it and that experience is how he defeated his enemies and redeemed him (John 11).
Lewis’ greater point in his essay Meditation in a Toolshed, is that seeing the light and experiencing the light are two different and important things. The modern man wants to stand outside, above, and apart from the light, while looking at the light. Lewis explains,
“Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences. But this is only a very simple example of the difference between looking at and looking along. A young man meets a girl. The whole world looks different when he sees her. Her voice reminds him of something he has been trying to remember all his life, and ten minutes casual chat with her is more precious than all the favours that all other women in the world could grant. He is, as they say, ‘in love’. Now comes a scientist and describes this young man’s experience from the outside. For him it is all an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognised biological stimulus. That is the difference between looking along the sexual impulse and looking at it. When you have got into the habit of making this distinction you will find examples of it all day long.”
Modern man wants to make everything about pseudo-scientific observation; cold, rational scrutiny. Soulless materialistic science. Modern man must learn that “experience,” is the missing ingredient to understanding our world.
Using the light to see, looking along the light is what living out the Christian life is supposed to be. We have separated knowledge from action. We are not legalists, we are Gnostics. We see the light, but we fail to see by that light. To walk in it.
We have applied this dichotomy to our relationship with Christ. We mediate on Him, but we do not experience him. If we wanted two young people to fall in love, would we give them data sheets about one another? Or would we get them together, to experience one another?
Likewise, we must move from the contemplation of Jesus to the experience of Jesus. We must see him, but we also must see by him. Look at Him, but also, look ‘along’ him.
Two places in scripture open this idea for us. The first is the opening chapter of Romans. The passage is 1:19–23. Paul contrasts wisdom and foolishness, light and darkness. Calvin states it clearly in his commentary on this text. “By saying, that God has made it manifest, he means, that man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking on so beautiful a picture, be led up to the Author himself.”
We see creation and if we look along that light, we see the creator of all things.
We either ignore it, suppressing our apprehension of the light, darkening our minds, or we look along that beam and see God’s attributes and power leading us to honor and thank Him.
We don’t just look at the light, the creation, but we look along it, up to heaven and experience God through thanks and honor – through worship. We look at the light of nature, and seeing it, we look along it, up to the heavens. Thanksgiving must shape the whole Christian life.
The appropriate response, our daily experience must be shaped by the recognition that we stand in debt to God, that his very life and experience of living is a gift – and seeing it, we must look along that light – see God with enlightened minds.
The second is found in Titus 2:11-12. God’s grace “has appeared” the Greek word is epephanē, which in Luke 1:79 (metaphorically) in reference to Jesus’ birth and in Acts 27:20 (literally) regarding the appearance of the sun and stars. Paul intends this highly suggestive term to illustrate the dawning of the light of God’s gospel upon a dark and lost world.
“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light,” (Ephesians 5:8). “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,” (Colossians 1:13).
This appearing was not limited to his birth but refers to his entire life including his death, resurrection, and exaltation, which accomplished the salvation now offered to “all men.”
And that Life is instructive. Paul says that the same grace that is saving us, is training us. The continual operation of God’s grace in the lives of Christians is one of Paul’s strongest aspirations for the churches – he doesn’t want us to merely see the light but see by it. To walk in it.
Paul states that God’s grace “teaches us.” The Greek verb paideia means to instruct, educate. But it’s not mere math facts or scales. It’s the whole person’s whole life. Its worldview. Its spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental formation. That’s why Grace trains, Grace teaches.
Teaching is demonstrating a skill to someone and then having them do it while providing correction. They don’t just see you do it. You haven’t taught someone how to make bread till they make bread. They don’t just see the light; they see by it. They don’t contemplate, they experience.
The Bible is about Jesus. He shows us how to live in the light. We observe, the spirit illuminates, we hear the word preached, we study it, we see the light. We comprehend it. We learn from Christ’s example, then we go out and apply it – we do it, we see by it. We experience it.
Education in Christian behavior is seldom a painless process since it involves the correction of human behavior which by nature stands in opposition to God. God’s grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions.” There must be a conscious, willful repudiation of thoughts, words, and actions that are opposed to true godliness.
Grace appeared to save and train. The manifestation of the grace of God unavoidably carries along with-it exhortations to a holy life. To walk by the light of Jesus’ grace is to say yes and no in the present age. To not only know God’s will but do it. To not only see Christ – the grace that has appeared – but to see by Christ-light, the Grace that trains. To see one another. To see our spouses, our children, our co-workers and family members and neighbors. To see our circumstances and current events. To see our trial and tribulations by the light of Christ. To experience Christ in them. To experience the light of Christ by thanking and honoring Him. To experience the light of Christ by saying yes to godliness and no to ungodliness.
Jesus doesn’t want us to merely observe grace, he wants us to experience it.