January 31: 1 Thessalonians 5:5 (continued)

1 Thessalonians 5:5, continued

Continuing from the previous note, on 1 Thess 5:5, it will be useful to examine Paul’s declaration in context, in order to see more clearly how the designation of believers as “sons of light” is understood. The declaration is at the heart of the instruction in vv. 1-11, which has a decidedly eschatological emphasis. An eschatological issue was dealt with in the preceding section (4:13-18), and eschatology also dominates the discussion in 2 Thessalonians (which was conceivably written prior to 1 Thessalonians). Like virtually every first-century Christian (including the New Testament authors), Paul held an imminent eschatology—a point clearly in evidence by a careful reading of 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In particular, this orientation (of eschatological imminence) informs both the instruction in 4:13-18 and the ethical exhortation of 5:1-11.

This imminent expectation of the end means that the “day of the Lord” could come suddenly, at any moment. In vv. 2-4 this is expressed by the illustration of a thief who comes in the middle of the night (“thief in the night,” kle/pth$ e)n nukti/, v. 2). This image plays on the day-night motif (a variation of the light-darkness motif), discussed in the previous note. Here “night” (nu/c) represents, symbolically, a period of time characterized by darkness—where “darkness” (sko/to$) is used in the ethical-religious sense of that which is apart from, and even in opposition to, the light of God (His Word and Truth, etc). The period of time in question is the ‘present Age’ —and, in particular, the ‘last days’, in which first-century believers (such as Paul) saw themselves living. The ‘end of the Age’ was near, soon to arrive; and, according contemporary eschatological beliefs and tradition, it was expected that things on earth would become increasingly ‘dark’, dominated by wickedness and sin, evil and false deception—a time of great “distress” (qli/yi$), for all humankind, but particularly for believers, who will face persecution and testing. From the standpoint of the illustration, people on earth are in the middle of a dark night, during which disaster (i.e., the thief) will come.

Verse 3 utilizes a different image to illustrate the sudden arrival of distress: that of the labor pains that come suddenly upon a pregnant woman—the expression literally is “the pain [w)di/n] to/for the (woman) holding (a child) in (her) belly”. The arrival of labor pains was a natural image for the idea of a period of distress (involving pain and suffering) that comes upon (vb e)fi/sthmi, “stand upon, set upon”) a person. It is used in the Old Testament Scriptures, typically in the context of the coming of Divine judgment upon human beings—and thus is quite appropriate in reference to the end-time judgment. Indeed, in Isaiah 13:8, the motif is clearly connected with the expression “the day of YHWH” (v. 6), just as it is here in our passage. For other examples, cf. Isa 26:16-18; Jer 6:24; 22:23; 50:43; Micah 4:9-10; and, subsequently in Jewish tradition, e.g., 1 Enoch 62:4f.

Jesus utilized both the thief and woman-in-labor illustrations in his eschatological teaching, as preserved variously in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 13:8 par; Matt 24:43 par). The same thief-image also occurs in 2 Pet 3:10 and Rev 3:3; 16:15 (Jesus speaking). As for the woman-in-labor motif, note the eschatological significance of Jn 16:21f; Rom 8:22, and Rev 12:2. It is possible that Paul’s use of the motifs, together, here in 1 Thess 5:2-4, derive from the Gospel Tradition and the preserved teachings of Jesus; at the very least, he was almost certainly influenced by that Tradition.

In verse 4, Paul comes to the point of his illustration:

“But you, brothers, are not in (the) darkness, (so) that the day should not take you down as a thief (would)…”

Even though the Thessalonian believers were living in the darkness of the end-time, they are not truly in (e)n) the darkness—that is, they are not dominated by it, thoroughly influenced by the forces of sin and wickedness. For this reason, the Day of the Lord, when it comes (suddenly), will not take them down. The verb katalamba/nw could also be rendered “overtake”, but I prefer to keep to its fundamental meaning (“take down”), in the negative sense of defeating, overcoming, etc. The “day” certainly refers to the “day of the Lord,” the time/moment of the end-time Judgment, when all evil and wickedness will be brought to light and judged. This is another way of referring to a basic early Christian principle regarding salvation—viz., that believers in Christ, who remain faithful, will be saved/rescued from the coming Judgment. For believers in the first century, their understanding of salvation was primarily eschatological in nature.

This leads to the central declaration in verse 5:

“For all of you are sons of light and sons of (the) day; we are not (sons) of (the) night, nor of darkness.”

Believers belong to the light, and thus are not in the darkness—rather, they/we are fundamentally separate from it, just as light was separated from darkness (Gen 1:4-5) and the two remain forever separate. Paul states this bluntly in v. 5b, including himself (and his fellow ministers) along with the Thessalonian believers: “we are not of (the) night, nor of darkness”. The noun ui(oi/ (“sons”) is omitted in v. 5b; this simply affirms the use of the idiom “sons of” as essentially meaning “belonging to” (on this use of the Hebrew yn@B=, cf. the previous note). The pairs light-day and darkness-night are parallel and antithetic; their occurrence in the phrasing of v. 5 is chiastic, suggesting an inverse-mirrored relationship:

light / day // night / darkness

The eschatological thrust of this religious identity for believers is expressed clearly in v. 9f:

“(So it is) that God did not set us unto (His) anger, but unto (the) bringing about of salvation, through our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, who died off over [i.e. for] us”

In the Judgment, we, as believers, are not destined to face God’s anger (o)rgh/), but instead will experience salvation (swthri/a). The noun peripoi/hsi$ is derived from the verb peripoie/w, “make [i.e. bring] over/about”, with a range of meaning that is difficult to translate into English. A basic meaning would be something like “make secure”, or (more literally), make (i.e. cause) something to remain. It can refer generally to effecting a particular situation or circumstance, or, more specifically, to obtaining a result, gaining possession of something, etc. The verb can occasionally connote the idea of keeping something (or someone) safe, i.e., preserving, saving. I have translated the noun here in terms of the “bringing over” (or “bringing about”) of a situation—namely, salvation from the Judgment (and from God’s anger). This situation is ‘brought about’ through the death of Jesus Christ.

In vv. 6-10, Paul moves from the day-night motif to the related motif of awake-asleep (part of the traditional eschatological imagery, cf. Mk 13:33-37 par). The person who is in (i.e. belonging to) the darkness of night is asleep, overcome by the power of night/darkness, and unaware of what is going on. Believers, who belong to the light, are not like this, and must not behave in such a way—which is the thrust of Paul’s exhortation. Even while living in the darkness of the end-time, believers in Christ belong to the day/light, and thus are like those who are wide awake. Remaining awake is particularly important because of the wickedness that is prevalent in the end-time period of darkness; in addition to being watchful and guarding oneself against this wickedness, believers have certain protections, provided by God, which Paul depicts as pieces of military equipment (armor)—namely, a breastplate (faith and love) and a helmet (the hope of salvation). The helmet, in particular, reflects the eschatological context of vv. 1-11, with the expression “hope of salvation” —i.e., salvation from the coming Judgment (cf. above).

Much of this language and imagery is repeated in Romans 13:11-14, where the believer’s protective armor is referred to, more generally, as “the weapons of light” (ta\ o%pla tou= fwto/$), v. 12. Referring to them as “light” indicates their Divine origin and source, but also keeps the imagery firmly rooted in the ethical dualism of the light-darkness contrast: “Therefore, we should cast away the works of the darkness, and should sink into [i.e. put on] the weapons [i.e. armor] of light”. This military imagery of weapons/armor is developed more extensively (and famously) in Eph 6:10-18f.

As discussed in the previous note, the designation of believers as “sons of light” is conceptually related to the designation as “sons of God”. Belonging to the light (of God) means belonging to God Himself. This identity has eschatological and soteriological significance. There remains also a fundamental ethical consequence: believers who belong to God and are “of the light” cannot—and should not—allow themselves to be immersed in darkness or to be overcome by it. Here, by “darkness” is meant, primarily, the sin and wickedness that characterizes the world during the end-time. It should not characterize the life and conduct of believers. The end-time period of darkness—which is a time of distress for believers—represents a moment of testing: will we remain faithful to our identity (as believers in Christ), and thus be assured of salvation from the coming Judgment?

In the next daily note, we will turn to the next Pauline reference featured in our study: Galatians 3:26. In exploring this reference, we will also be examining a series of arguments, developed by Paul, in chapters 3-4 of that letter.

January 30: 1 Thessalonians 5:5

1 Thessalonians 5:5

“For all of you are sons of light and sons of (the) day; we are not (sons) of (the) night nor of darkness.”

In this series of notes on the theme of believers in Christ as “children of God” (cf. the initial note on John 1:12-13), we turn to the earliest reference in the Pauline letters—Paul’s declaration in 1 Thess 5:5 that believers are “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$) and “sons of (the) day” (ui(oi\ h(me/ra$). Neither of the expressions “sons of God” or “children of God” occur in this verse (nor anywhere else in the Thessalonian letters); however, the designation “sons of light” is related conceptually, even it is drawn from an entirely different line of tradition.

The significance of the expression (as a designation for believers) is rooted in the contrastive distinction between light and darkness. The contrast is a natural and obvious one, and can be found in many cultures and religious traditions. Paul’s usage, however, is derived primarily from a light-darkness contrast found in the Old Testament Scriptures, where the opposing motifs of “light” and “darkness” are utilized in an ethical-religious sense. Apart from the idea of the separation of light and darkness that is part of the natural order (as described in the Creation account, Gen 1:4-5, 18), the juxtaposition of light and darkness, in an ethical-religious sense, occurs most frequently in the Wisdom literature (esp. the book of Job, e.g., 3:4; 10:22; 12:22; 17:12; 18:18; 29:3; 30:26; 38:19; cf. also Eccl 2:13), the Psalms (18:28; 112:4; 139:11-12, etc), and the book of Isaiah (cf. 5:20; 9:2; 42:16; 45:7; 50:10; 58:10; 59:9). Light is associated with the Divine, as an attribute of God Himself, but more particularly characteristic of His Word, Wisdom, and Instruction (Torah). It comes from God, serving as a blessing for humankind (Num 6:25; Psalm 89:15, etc), and even as a symbol of life itself (Psalm 49:9; 56:13, etc). Those who follow God’s Instruction receive illumination from the Divine light (Psalm 36:9; 43:3; 119:105, 130; Prov 6:23, etc).

Based on this ethical-religious usage, particularly as expressed within the Wisdom literature, the righteous—that is, those who are faithful to God and who follow His Instruction—are characterized as belonging to the light, possessing the light (a reflection or portion of the Divine light) as an attribute (cf. Psalm 37:6; 97:11; Prov 4:18; 13:9; Isa 2:5, etc). In the first centuries B.C./A.D., the Community of the Qumran texts developed this line of tradition. A number of texts feature this light-darkness contrast, but expressed from a more pronounced dualistic worldview. Indeed, the Qumran texts even make use of the specific expression “sons of light” (roa yn@B=) as a designation for the righteous ones of Israel—that is, members of the Community—while all others (i.e., the wicked) belong to the “sons of darkness” (Ev#oj yn@B=); see the key references in the Community Rule document (1QS) 1:9-10; 3:13, 24-25 and the War Scroll (1QM) 1:1, 3. Thus, the faithful members of the Qumran Community are designated as “sons of light”, much as believers in Christ (i.e., faithful members of the Christian Community) are by Paul (here), and elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 16:8; John 12:36).

The idiom “sons of” also reflects Hebrew usage (going back to the Scriptures). The noun /B@ (“son”) is often used in a general (and more abstract) sense, indicating a person who belongs to a particular group, and, as such, possesses (or exhibits) a certain set of attributes or characteristics. Thus, the expression “son of light”, refers to someone who belongs to the light—that is, light as a Divine characteristic. Such a person exhibits an affinity for the Divine light, particularly by showing devotion to God’s Instruction (Torah)—he/she is faithful to God and to his Word and Wisdom (cf. the Scriptural references above). Belonging to the light essentially means that the person belongs to God; thus, a “son of light” is also a “son of God”.

A comparable light-darkness contrast occurs in a number of New Testament texts; it features most prominently in the Johannine writings, but is found as an important idiom in the Pauline letters as well. Paul’s use of the contrast is similar to the Johannine, though without the pronounced and pervasive dualistic orientation that characterizes much of the Johannine writings. Paul uses the light-darkness motif two primary ways: (1) in terms of the Divine illumination that comes through the Gospel (e.g., 2 Cor 4:4-6; cf. 2 Tim 1:10; Eph 3:9), and (2) as an ethical paradigm. The latter emphasis is found here in 1 Thess 5:5, and similarly in 2 Cor 6:14; Rom 13:12 (cf. also Eph 5:8-9ff).

In Rom 13:12, as perhaps also in Eph 5:8ff, we find a similar eschatological orientation to Paul’s ethical instruction and exhortation. Eschatology certainly dominates the two Thessalonian letters, and provides the immediate context for the declaration here in 5:5. The reason for this emphasis is that Paul, like virtually every first-century Christian, held an imminent eschatology, expecting the end to come very soon (presumably within the lifetime of he and his readers). There is thus a special urgency to his exhortation: the “day of the Lord” surely will come very soon, and could arrive at any moment (vv. 2-3). Paul makes use of a play on the word “day” (h(me/ra)—referring at once to both the coming “day of the Lord” and the ethical-religious “light”-motif.

In the next daily note, we will continue this examination of verse 5, with a brief exegetical analysis of the surrounding passage (vv. 1-11).

March 27: John 12:35-36

John 12:35-36

“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Yet a little time the light is among you. You must walk about as you hold the light, (so) that darkness should not take you down; and the (one) walking about in darkness has not seen [i.e. known] where he leads (himself) under. As you hold the light, you must trust in the light, (so) that you would come to be sons of (the) light.’ Yeshua spoke these (thing)s, and (then), going away from (there), he hid (himself) from them.”

From the literary standpoint of the discourse, Jesus’ words in vv. 35-36 represent his response to the misunderstanding (and question) of the crowd in v. 34 (cf. the previous note). Yet it is not at all clear how this response answer’s the crowd’s question, or relates to their misunderstanding. Possibly, vv. 35-36 was originally an independent tradition, uttered by Jesus on a separate occasion; however, even if this were so, we still have to deal with these verses in their current literary context. In terms of the discourse format, Jesus’ statement in vv. 35-36 is part of the exposition—the explanation of the true and deeper meaning of his initial saying (in v. 23); each exchange with his audience serves to build and develop this exposition.

The initial words in verse 23 refer to the hour in which the Son of Man will be given honor; much the same is said in verse 32, only Jesus there uses the pronoun “I” instead of the title “Son of Man” (cp. 3:14; 8:28). Clearly the crowd around him, including his followers and other interested hearers, has difficulty understanding this self-use of the expression “Son of Man”, and they ultimately ask the question in v. 34: “Who is this Son of Man?” How does Jesus’ response address this question? Fundamentally it is a Christological question, regarding the identity of Jesus, and his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God.

If we consider the three prior references to the expression “Son of Man” in the Gospel, two essentially restate the Son of Man saying cited by the crowd in verse 34—8:28 and 12:23. The third occurs at the climax of the healing episode in chapter 9, when Jesus asks the former blind man “Do you trust in the Son of Man?” (v. 35). Some manuscripts read “…Son of God” but this likely is a correction to the more conventional title among early Christians, being more appropriate to a confession of faith (cf. 20:31, etc). Almost certainly, “Son of Man” is the correct original reading. The theme of the episode is that of seeing, with the establishment of sight tied to the idea of Jesus as light (fw=$)—the true light of God—even as he declares in 9:5, “I am the light of the world” (repeated from 8:12), an identification that is found again in 11:9f:

“…if any (one) should walk about in the day, he does not strike (his foot) against (anything) [i.e. does not trip/stumble], (in) that [i.e. because] he looks (by) the light of this world…”

An ordinary illustration is infused with theological meaning, and this infused imagery is recaptured here in 12:35-36—Jesus, the Son of God, is the light that shines in this world, so that people (believers) may see it and walk by it. The expression “this world” is the current world-order, the current Age of darkness and evil—darkness in which the light of God shines. This light/darkness motif is part of the theological vocabulary of the Johannine Gospel, going back to the Prologue (1:4-9), in which the Son (Jesus) is described as the “true light” (v. 9), the eternal life of God that gives light to people in the world (vv. 4, 9); the wording in verse 5 of the Prologue is especially significant here:

“…the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not take it down [kate/laben]”

The same verb katalamba/nw is used here in 12:35, and, literally, it means “take down”, but can be understood in a positive, neutral, or negative sense; the latter is primarily intended in both passages, but certainly so in the saying here—emphasizing the danger of the person being “taken down” (or “overtaken”) by the darkness of the world. The dualistic light/darkness imagery also occurs in the chapter 3 discourse (vv. 19-20).

Thus, even if Jesus’ response might be obscure, from the standpoint of the audience (the crowd) in the discourse, it would be understandable for readers of the Gospel, who would recognize the earlier motifs. Who is this Messianic “Son of Man”? It is the Son of God, the true/eternal Light that shines in the darkness of this world. Here, the Gospel may well be redirecting traditional Messianic expectations of the time toward the unique Johannine Christology—revealing the true, deeper meaning of these titles and expressions as applied to Jesus. Like the healed blind man of chapter 9, believers see Jesus and come to him, responding with a declaration of trust. This refers specifically to the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth (in the world), a brief period of time (xro/no$) that is now coming to an end. The Light is “among” the people, and, as such, they “hold” it—but only believers will truly see and walk (“walk about”) by it (cp. 1 John 1:7).

The imperatives in verse 35 are a call for believers to come to him, and those who belong to God will respond in trust: “you must walk about as you hold the light…as you hold the light you must trust in the light”. Here the verb peripate/w (“walk about”) captures the discipleship-theme from earlier in the discourse—the believer comes toward Jesus and follows him, i.e. walks about with him; this, in turn, leads to trust (pi/sti$) and the believer remains with Jesus. This remaining involves union with Jesus (the Son) and with God the Father, and means that the believer has the same divine/eternal character as Father and Son. Thus, believers in Christ can properly be called “sons [i.e. children] of Light”, a title more or less synonymous with being called “children [lit. offspring] of God” (cf. 1:12; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2). The expression “sons of light” is traditional, being used, for example, by the Community of the Qumran texts, and comparable usage is found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 16:8; 1 Thess 5:5; Eph 5:8); however, it has a deeper significance in the Johannine context, corresponding with the Christological light-imagery of the Gospel (cf. above).

The message of vv. 35-36 provides a suitable conclusion to the discourse, and to Jesus’ teaching in the first half of the Gospel; it completes the idea foreshadowed in the opening of the discourse—the Greeks (i.e. believers from the nations) who wish to come and see Jesus. In its own way, this is entirely a Messianic theme, prefigured, for example, in the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah (e.g., 42:6; 49:5-6; 52:10; 60:3). Early Christians would apply such (Messianic) imagery to the first-century mission to the Gentiles. The Johannine outlook in this regard is somewhat broader—the universal ideal of all believers in Christ, united together through the Spirit (see esp. Jn 17:20-26).

Verse 36 brings the narrative of the “Book of Signs” (chaps. 2-12) to a close, with the notice that Jesus went away and “hid himself” from the people. The same is stated in 8:59, at the end of the great chap. 7-8 Discourse (cf. also 10:40); apart from historical concerns, it is essentially a literary device, closing the curtain on a particular narrative (episode), and preparing readers for the next (the Last Supper scene and the Passion Narrative). Even so, chapter 12 only reaches it final close with two additional summary sections, in vv. 37-43 and 44-50. The last of these provides a kind of summary of all Jesus’ teaching from the great Discourses in chaps. 2-12, emphasizing, in particular, his relationship (as the Son) to God the Father. The light theme (of vv. 35-36, etc) is reprised here as well, in verse 46:

“I have come (as) light into the world, (so) that every (one) trusting in me should not remain in the darkness.”

This is the last occurrence of the noun fw=$ (“light”) in the Gospel, after serving as a key-word in the first half (23 times in chaps. 1-12). Implicit in this shift may be the idea of a time of darkness surrounding the Passion of Christ (cp. Lk 22:53 and Mk 15:33 par, and note Jn 13:30, “And it was night”), along with the promise that the light, even in the midst of the darkness, cannot be overcome (1:5).

Birth of the Son of God: Epiphany

Today, January 6, traditionally called Epiphany, was the date associated with Jesus’ birth in the Eastern Church by the late-3rd century, corresponding to December 25th in the West. During the 4th century, a kind of ‘cultural exchange’ took place, whereby each Tradition adopted the date of the other—in the West, Jan 6 came to be associated with the visit of the Magi (Matt 2:1-12), and with Jesus’ baptism in the East. The Greek word e)pifa/neia (epipháneia) is derived from e)pifai/nw (epiphaínœ)—”shine forth upon”, i.e., upon earth (or upon us)—often in the sense of the manifestation or (sudden) appearance of someone (in Greek usage, this could include the appearance of a deity). The root meaning clearly relates to the shining of light; and, it is in this context that I wish to examine light associated with the “Birth of the Son of God”—briefly, according to three aspects:

  1. Jesus as light
  2. Light imagery in the Infancy narratives, principally the star of Matt 2:1-12
  3. Believers as light (“sons of light”)

1. Jesus as Light

In Old Testament tradition, God (YHWH) is often associated with light; of the many references, see Gen 1:3ff; Psalm 13:3; 18:28; 27:1; 36:9; 43:3; 56:13; 89:15; 90:8; 97:11; 104:2; 112:4; 118:27; Prov 29:13; Isa 2:5; 9:2; 42:6; 51:4; 58:8; 60:1, 19-20; Mic 7:8-9; Hab 3:4; Dan 2:22; as well as light as a component of various theophanies (e.g., Exod 13:21; 24:9-10ff; Ezek 1:4ff; Dan 7:9-10). It can also appear in an eschatological context, of the “Day of YHWH” (Zech 14:6-7, also Isa 10:17; 30:26).

Sometimes it is specifically the word or message of God that brings light (Psalm 119:105, 130; Prov 6:23; Hos 6:5), or connected in terms of salvation God brings (Psalm 27:1; 43:3; 44:3; Isa 9:2; 58:8ff, etc). There are several important (Deutero-)Isaian references which came to be understood in a Messianic sense: Isa 9:2; 42:6; 49:6; 60:1ff, including within the New Testament (Matt 4:15-16), and even the Lukan Infancy narrative itself (connected with Jesus’ birth)—Lk 1:78-79; 2:32 (below).

Apart from the narrative scenes involving light (such as the Transfiguration and Resurrection [Matt 17:2; 28:3 par], Acts 9:3 etc, which parallel OT theophany accounts, cf. above), Jesus himself is identified with light in the New Testament, primarily in the Gospel and Letters of John—Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 5:35; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 2:8ff. On the eschatological imagery in Rev 21:23-24; 22:5, see below.

2. Light in the Infancy narrative—the Star of Matt 2:1-12

The main image of light associated with the birth of Jesus, is the famous “Star of Bethlehem” in Matt 2:1-12 (see vv. 2, 7, 9-10). The wording of these references is worth noting:

V. 2: “Where is the (one) produced [i.e. born] (as) King of the Jews? For we saw [ei&domen] his star [au)tou= to\n a)ste/ra] in the rising up [e)n th=| a)natolh=|] and came to kiss toward him [i.e. worship, give homage to him]”

V. 7: “Then Herod, calling the Magoi privately, sought (to know) exactly alongside [i.e. from] them the time of the star’s shining (forth) [tou= fainome/nou a)ste/ro$]”

V. 9: “…and see [i)dou/]!—the star [o( a)sth/r] which they saw [ei@don] in the rising up [e)n th=| a)natolh=|] led (the way) before them until, coming, it stood [e)sta/qh] over above where the child was”

V. 10: “And seeing [i)do/nte$] the star [to\n a)ste/ra], they were extremely glad (with) great gladness”

As discussed in a previous note, in the ancient world, according to tradition (and/or superstition) a star or other celestial phenomena were often thought to accompany (and mark) the birth of great persons, such as a king or ruler. For a 1st-century A.D. belief that a world-ruler would arise from the Jews, cf. Josephus, Jewish War VI.310-12, and Tacitus, Histories V.13. In all likelihood, this latter idea stems from Messianic expectation of the period—that is, for an end-time king from the line of David who would restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Acts 1:6ff; Luke 2:25, 38, etc). For the 1st-century B.C.—prior to the time of Jesus himself—our best information comes from the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Among the Old Testament passages which were given a Messianic interpretation, one of the most prominent was Balaam’s oracle in Numbers 24:15-19, especially the parallel couplet of verse 17:

la@r*c=Y]m! fb#v@ <q*w+ / bq)u&Y~m! bk*oK Er^D*
“a star will march from Ya’aqob / and a staff/branch will stand up from Yisrael”

Both the verbs Er^D* (“walk, tread”) and <Wq (“stand, rise”) in context would seem to indicate dominion or rule. The noun fb#v@ is the branch or stick (i.e. “staff, scepter”) which a ruler wields. In the Greek (the LXX) this verse is rendered as:

a)natalei= a&stron e)c Iakwb / kai\ a)nasth/setai a&nqrwpo$ e)c Israhl
“a star will rise up out of Ya’aqob / and a man will stand up out of Yisrael”

The peculiar use of “man” (a&nqrwpo$) in place of fb#v@ (“staff”) in the LXX could conceivably be an interpretive gloss, i.e. on the “star”, to specify that a (human) ruler is meant, as in the Aramaic Targums. We find a quasi-Messianic interpretation of Num 24:17 in the Damascus Document (CD 7 [MS A]), where the “star” and “staff” seem to refer to separate figures. There is a relatively clear “Messianic” allusion (connected to Isa 11:1-5) in 1QSb 5:27, and it is also cited in an eschatological context in 4Q175 and 1QM 11:6-7. That Num 24:17 was understood in a definite Messianic sense by the early 2nd-century is indicated by its use in the Testament of Judah 24:1-6 and by the revolutionary leader Simeon bar-Kosiba who was called bar-Kokhba (“son of the Star”).

Interestingly, Num 24:17 is not used in reference to Jesus in the New Testament, apart from a possible allusion to it here in Matt 2:1-12. I have discussed this possibility in a note last Christmas season. Apart from the common reference to a star, consider the linguistic parallels (marked by italics in the quotations of vv. 2, 7, 9-10 above):

  • Repeated references to seeing (Greek ei&dw) the star—Num 24:17 beings by Balaam declaring “I see him…” (LXX “I will show/point [to] him”); Balaam was a seer whose “eyes were open” (vv. 15, 16)
  • In Num 24:17, the star “will rise up” (a)natalei=, from a)nate/llw); the Magi saw the star in the “rising up” (related noun a)natolh/), which sometimes is meant in the directional sense of “east” (i.e. the sun’s rising), but here probably should be rendered literally—they followed the star from the time of its rising.
  • There is (perhaps) a faint echo in the star standing (“it stood” [e)sta/qh]) where the child was (v. 9); in Num 24:17, the staff (or man in LXX) stands (up) (Greek a)nasth/setai).
  • In both Matt 2 and the LXX, the star is identified specifically with a man (or a male child)—”his star” (Mat 2:2, cf. also v. 9 “…where the child was”)
  • It should also be pointed out that, in Jewish tradition at least as early as Philo (Life of Moses I.276), and thus contemporary with the New Testament, Balaam was referred to as a magos (ma/go$, plur. ma/goi [“Magi”]).

There are two other passages, in the Lukan Infancy narratives, which utilize similar light imagery:

Luke 1:78-79

These are the last lines of the “Song of Zechariah” (the Benedictus); to preserve the immediate context, I include verse 77:

“…77to give knowledge of salvation to his people,
in (the) release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins
78through the inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God,
in which a rising-up [a)natolh/] out of (the) height will look upon us,
79to shine (forth) upon [e)pifa=nai] the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death,
to put our feet down straight into (the) way of peace”

Note the use of a)natolh/ (“rising up”) and the verb e)pifai/nw (“shine [forth]”), similar to that in Matt 2:2, 7 (above) and Isa 60:1-2 LXX (also mentioned above). The specific meaning of a)natolh/ here is not entirely certain, but it would seem to refer to the sun or a great light generally. Though verses 76ff relate primarily to the child John (uttered by his father), vv. 78-79 evince a Messianic application or interpretation of the (Deutero-)Isaian verses Isa 60:1-2; 42:6-7; 9:2 (also perhaps Mal 4:2 [3:20]), and, in context, clearly refer to Jesus.

Luke 2:32

This is the concluding couplet of the brief “Song of Simeon” (the Nunc Dimittis, vv. 29-32). As with Lk 1:78-79, the canticle draws upon the language and imagery of several (Deutero-)Isaian passages—namely, Isa 40:5; 42:6; 46:13; 49:6; 52:9-10 (cf. above). Simeon’s prophetic oracle identifies the child Jesus with salvation—”my eyes saw [ei@don] your salvation, which you [i.e. God] prepared according to the face [i.e. before] all the peoples” (vv. 30-31). On the use of ei&dw (“see”) in Matt 2:2ff and Balaam seeing the future figure (Num 24:15-17), cf. above. At the start of v. 32, this salvation is described as light (fw=$), followed (and qualified) by two purpose phrases governed by the preposition ei)$ (“into/unto”):

  • “uncovering [a)poka/luyin] of the nations” [i.e. Gentiles]
  • “esteem [do/can] of your people Israel”

The light does two things: (1) it shines upon the people (from the nations) who are in darkness (cf. Lk 1:79), and (2) it gives glory to God’s people Israel. In the Lukan context, this esteem/glory (do/ca) involves the joining of the Gentiles with the people (lao/$, sing.) of God to form “the peoples” (laoi/, plur.), v. 31. For a similar idea in Luke-Acts, see esp. Acts 26:18, 23.

3. Believers as light (“sons of light”)

Already in the Old Testament, light is associated with the righteous: Psalm 37:6; 97:11; 112:4; Prov 4:18; 13:9; Isa 10:17; 60:3; Est 8:16; Job 33:30, including also the idea of walking in light (Psalm 56:13; 89:15; Isa 2:5; 50:10-11; Job 22:28; 29:3). This symbolism carries over into the New Testament and early Christian tradition, where believers in Christ as identified with light—cf. Matt 5:14-16; 6:22-23 [par Lk 8:16-17; 11:33-36]; Acts 13:47 (citing Isa 49:6); Rom 13:12; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 2:15; Col 1:12; Eph 5:8-9; 1 Pet 2:9, sometimes as part of an ethical (dualistic) contrast between light and darkness (2 Cor 6:14, etc). Believers are urged (and expected) to walk in the light (Jn 8:12; 11:9-10; 12:35; Rom 13:13; Eph 5:8; 1 Jn 1:6-7; cf. 2:11)—compare the Pauline idea of walking in the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25).

Four times in the New Testament, believers are described as “sons of light” (including once “children of light”):

  • Luke 16:8—”…the sons of this Age are intelligent/thoughtful over [i.e. more than] the sons of light [tou\$ ui(ou\$ tou= fw=to$]…”
  • John 12:36—”as you hold the light, trust into the light, so that you might come to be sons of light [ui(oi\ fwto/$]”
  • 1 Thess 5:5—”for you are all sons of light [ui(oi\ fwto/$] and sons of (the) day [ui(oi\ h(me/ra$]; we are not of (the) night and not of darkness”
  • Eph 5:8—”for then (previously) you were darkness, but now light—(so) walk about as offspring [i.e. children] of light [te/kna fwto/$]”

The expression “sons of light” (Heb. roa yn@B= b§nê °ôr, Aram. ar*hon+ yn@B= b§nê n§hôr¹°) is known from the Qumran texts (1QS 1:9; 2:16; 3:13, 24-25; 1QM 1:1, 3, 9, 11, 13; 1QFlor [174] frag 1 vv. 8-9; 1QCatena [177] frag 11-10 v. 7, 12-13 v. 11; 4Q544 frag 3 v. 1; 4Q548 frag 1 vv. 9-10ff), and so was presumably already part of traditional Jewish religious language adopted by the New Testament writers. In Semitic idiom,  “sons of…” often indicates belonging to a particular group, especially among those who possess a certain attribute or characteristic. In the Qumran texts, strong dualistic imagery is used—the contrast with “sons of darkness, sons of Belial”—and it was the faithful Community that saw itself as “sons of light” (par. “sons of justice”, ” sons of truth”, “sons of heaven”, etc), just as for early Christians the expression would relate to faithful believers. Within the New Testament, sonship for believers is metaphorical and spiritual, depending on our union with Christ (through the Spirit)—I have already discussed the idea of believers as “sons of God” in prior notes, and will do so again, in more detail, in an upcoming note.

It is in the Gospel of John that we find the (reciprocal) relationship between Christ (the Son) and believers (the “sons”) defined and described in terms of light:

  • John 1:4-9—Jesus as the true (Divine) Light (cf. 1 Jn 1:5) coming into the world [e)rxo/menon ei)$ to\n ko/smon] (v. 9)
  • John 3:19-21—Light has come into the world [e)lh/luqen ei)$ to\n ko/smon], but people love darkness rather than light (contrast of light vs. darkness established, cf. John 1:5)
  • John 8:12 (and 9:5)—Jesus: “I am the Light of the world [tou= ko/smou]”—believers following Jesus will walk in light, not darkness (1 Jn 1:7; 2:8-10), and will have “the light of life”
  • John 11:9-10; 12:35-36—the emphasis is on believers walking in light, with the contrast between light vs. darkness; note the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection/exaltation: the Son (of Man) being lifted high
    Jn 12:36 is the climactic reference: “that you may come to be [ge/nhsqe] sons of light”—see the similar use of gi/nomai in Jn 1:12-13 (“he gave them authority to come to be [gene/sqai] offspring/children of God”)
  • In John 12:46 Jesus again identifies himself as the Light that has come into the world

In Revelation 21:23-24; 22:5, we see is a final (Johannine) image of believers in the Holy City, with allusions to Isa 60:3, 5, 11, 19-20—”the Lord God gives light upon them” (22:5).

Conclusion: The Baptism of Jesus

In Eastern Tradition, the baptism of Jesus (commemorated Jan 6) involves an interesting (and beautiful) light motif:

According to at least one strand of early tradition, when Jesus was in the river, at the descent of the Spirit, a great light appeared in the water. This detail was part of the 2nd-century Diatessaron (Gospel harmony) of Tatian, according to commentators Isho’dad and Dionysius Barsalibi (9th and 12th centuries), and is found in two Latin manuscripts (at Matt 3:15), as well as being mentioned by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho §88) in the mid/late-2nd century (cf. also Epiphanius’ Panarion 30.13.7). The baptismal tradition of the Eastern (Syrian) Churches expresses the idea that, during Jesus’ baptism, he left something of his glory and presence in the water—at the spiritual/mystical level—which believers then receive when they are baptized. Even though he does not mention it in his Commentary on the Diatessaron, Ephrem the Syrian makes much of this image, drawing upon the parallel between the glory lost by Adam that is restored to humankind through Christ. He mentions it several times in his Hymns on the Nativity, in connection with Jesus’ birth (e.g. Hymn 1.43, 16.11, 22.39, 23.13, also the Ps-Ephrem Epiphany Hymn 4.19-20, 12.1, etc). In stanzas 21-22 of Nativity Hymn 6, Ephrem juxtaposes the light of the star at Jesus’ birth (cf. above) with the light at Jesus’ baptism:

…the star of light cried out in the air, “Behold the King’s Son!”
The sky was opened, the water sparkled;
the dove hovered over; the voice of the Father,
more weighty than thunder said,
“This is My Beloved”…
(translation Kathleen E. McVey, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns [Paulist Press:1989])