Bible & Theology

A Light in Darkness: God is Not Dead, Nor Doth He Sleep

God has always been a light to His people. Light imagery abounds in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Exodus 13, “the Lord went before [Israel] by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.” Exodus 14:20 puts it beautifully: “And it lit up the night.”

In Ezekiel 1, the glory of the Lord appeared “with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually…downward from what had the appearance of his waist…[was] the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him.” Habakkuk said of God, “His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand.”

Fast forward to chapters 7 and 8 of John’s gospel. Jesus is at the Feast of Booths, otherwise known as the Feast of Tabernacles. One of the key ceremonies during the Feast of Booths was the lamp-lighting ceremony, where four large lamps were lit and a celebration ensued that involved dancing, singing, and the holding up of burning torches. Jesus took advantage of this opportunity to illustrate an important truth about Himself.

The Light of the World

In John 8:12, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus goes on to say that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins…When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”

John had already written of Jesus that “in him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him…. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:4-9).

Light is a wonderful sensory experience. What do you think of when you think of light? Perhaps you think of the beauty of a candlelight service in which your church celebrates Christ as the light of the world. Perhaps you think of strings of twinkling Christmas lights wrapped around green garland and evergreen branches. Perhaps you imagine shadows dancing on the wall from the flickering flame of an apple-scented Yankee candle. Perhaps you picture a million brilliant stars, scattered like pixie dust across the inky black sky. Perhaps you feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, wrapping around your body like your favorite fleece blanket.

But if you take these images of tranquility and comfort and compare them to your life experiences this past year, you might begin to question whether Christ is really a light in whom is abundant life. For many of us, our emotions and experiences feel more like darkness.

When Darkness Closes In

This year, many in our church families have felt the darkness of loss closing in on them. One of my ministerial brothers is broken over the loss of his wife and ministry partner. A family is feeling the emptiness of a Christmas season without dad. Numerous others are facing life-changing situations. We love them and grieve with them.

For some, this year has brought some of the darkest valleys of their lives. The darkness of debt, emotional brokenness, marital tension, difficult family situations, being misunderstood, feeling excluded, or breaking off a relationship is a kind of darkness that can be felt. It is like standing in a room so pitch black that the darkness feels thick.

But unlike this noticeably felt darkness, we sometimes cannot feel the light—at least not a warm, comforting light like that of the sun. Perhaps you can relate to the writer in Ecclesiastes: “I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! …And I thought the dead…are more fortunate than the living” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-2).

In 1863, during the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a son who joined the Union Army against his wishes. Discouraged and feeling the weightiness of pain, suffering, and loss that results from times of war, Longfellow grappled with the reality of darkness in the world. He wondered, is God dead? Consider the words of Longfellow’s famous poem, “Christmas Bells.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The True Nature of the Light

Longfellow picks up that the influence of God in this world is not always (presently) exercised to spare people from pain or injustice. The light of Christ is not the kind of light that warms our skin and makes us feel fuzzy. It is not freedom from earthly suffering. It is something far greater.

Charles Wesley says it best:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

The light of Christ is light that opens the eyes of blind sinners and infuses them with eternal life. Light and salvation cannot be separated. Psalm 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”

“God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Christ’s words that he is the light of the world are in the context of warning people that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sin.” Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know.”

According to 2 Corinthians 4, “The god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” This is the glorious key: The same “God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He has given us “power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12).

Saved by Hope

As sons and daughters of God, we have the solid hope that one day we will dwell with God in a place where there are no tears or sorrows. We know that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). “For we are saved by hope” (Romans 8:24). While we wait patiently, we are not alone: “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).

Because we “love God” and “are the called according to His purpose,” we have the unshakeable confidence “that all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39).

As we pass through this cursed world, where the consequences of sin surround us, we are not free from brokenness. We will cry. We will hurt. But the light of salvation helps us to see our suffering from a heavenly perspective and, like Job, persevere in the hour of trial. When we are faced with the darkness of death, 1 Thessalonians 4:13 encourages us “not to grieve as others who have no hope.” We grieve. We feel pain. At times, we may even feel overwhelmed with darkness. But we have hope because we have been given the light of eternal life.

As we walk through this life with Jesus, He doesn’t ignore our brokenness. He heals and purifies us at deeper and deeper levels. Healing is a process and our suffering is often long. But Malachi said that “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” Luke 1:78-79 says of Jesus, “the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

So this Christmas season, if you are feeling hurt—if you are feeling the darkness—remember the hope of eternal life and the glorious truth that Christ has delivered every true believer from the darkness of sin within and a future of eternal darkness in hell.

Stand firm. Anchor your soul in these truths. And day by day, year by year, until you make it home, God will minister to your wounds and help you to find deeper and deeper levels of joy and peace in Him. He will shepherd you in your grief. He will not leave you comfortless. The Holy Spirit will intercede for you with groaning that cannot be uttered.

The joy in serving Jesus is far better than anything that this world has to offer. Despite all that is wrong, Jesus is truly the light of the word. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The darkness may overshadow the light, but it cannot extinguish it.

God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.