Paul Talks about Darkness and Light

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By Sigrid Fowler

            Paul often chooses a darkness and light figure when he talks about the Christian life. On the simplest level, darkness can simply be things hidden, either by deceit or out of shame; for example, Paul writes to the Christians of Corinth: “Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (I Cor 4: 5-6). But Paul often bends his reference toward the figurative: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6: 14). Paul writes similarly to Ephesus, “Therefore, do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5: 7-8).

             In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes salvation, again in terms of darkness and light: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For 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” (2 Cor 4: 5-6). And to the Colossians, he writes: “He [Jesus] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1: 13-14).

            For Paul, darkness and light aren’t always figures contrasting deceit and wrong with truth and right. Sometimes, the dichotomy refers to the mystery of God’s purposes, the plan he reveals only in his good time, perhaps after millennia of shielding the details from a wondering humanity, especially Israel’s prophets. Paul seems to remember that Jesus used figurative language to describe his second coming: “But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Thereforeyou must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt 24: 43-44). 

            Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching and stretches the literal meaning of the word darkness toward a broader, more comprehensive usage: “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day” (I Thess 5: 2-4). The dark/light reference clearly functions on two levels, literal and figurative: “We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (I Thess 5: 5-8). Thus his points become the more striking and relevant. Day, night and sleep, light and dark, good and evil we know as facts of our daily round. Perhaps following Jesus’ method of teaching in parables, Paul moves the familiar and literal toward the figurative to make a spiritual point. “You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13: 11-12). 

            For Paul, darkness seems to describe the war: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Those who have rejected Jesus see themselves as “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness” (Rom 2: 19), but Paul remembers David’s words: “let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see” (Rom 11: 10; Ps 69: 23a). Paul agrees with John: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1: 4). Believing is seeing—dark to light.