We’re all familiar with metaphors. You probably use them every day, even if you’re unaware when you do. These examples of common metaphors are certainly not intended to be taken literally.
Each of these rhetorical devices is designed to communicate something by alluding to another more culturally recognized reality—even if the original meaning of the metaphor has since been lost.
Metaphors are everywhere, including in the Bible.
When trying to describe something complex, sometimes the best we can do, though usually woefully inadequate, is use metaphors. Some have used clovers to describe the Trinity, for example. Metaphors are everywhere, including in the Bible. John recounted Jesus’ words about being “born again” to describe spiritual regeneration in John 3. Jesus also spoke in John 6 about being the “bread from heaven” as the only spiritual “food” that leads to eternal life. John knew it was helpful to use imagery from the physical world, as Jesus did, to explain spiritual reality. As the Apostle John searched for a metaphor to describe God, he could have chosen many symbols to describe God.
John chose the metaphor of light to describe God in 1 John 1:5: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” While God’s glory was often displayed with bright light, in this context, John is emphasizing God’s holiness and moral purity. So “darkness” in this instance refers to anything sinful or impure.
In this passage, we see how God is understood to be “light” in contrast to the darkness in the fallen world. John identifies “darkness” with sin (1 John 1:6–8) and with specific sins like hatred (1 John 2:9). We find darkness in a world that is passing away (1 John 2:17). But, just as light by its very nature drives out darkness, God is infinitely more powerful than any force of evil.
Physical light has an amazing power. Ignoring the nature of light and whether it consists of waves or particles, we can appreciate light’s capabilities in certain situations. It doesn’t take long to recognize light’s peculiar potential in dark places.
For instance, imagine being in a dark cave. It’s pitch black in this cave and darker than anything painted black on the planet. It’s so dark in this cave that you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
For instance, imagine being in a dark cave. It’s pitch black in this cave and darker than anything painted black on the planet. It’s so dark in this cave that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Then all of a sudden, somebody strikes a match to light a torch. The blackness that had been so manifestly dark is extinguished by the light of the torch. Crevices, stalactites, and puddles of water hidden in the darkness of the cave suddenly become visible because of the light of the torch. Pitch darkness flees, and now you can see things that were not visible before. Light pierces the darkness immediately.
In a similar way, God splits the darkness of the world. His holiness is fundamentally incompatible with all the things characterized as “darkness” in a fallen world—those things can’t coexist with him any more than darkness can remain in the cave after the torch is lit. Often, biblical authors use this metaphor in the sense that God “enlightens” those who follow him. Just as someone with a torch in the cave can see to navigate his surroundings, God is a light to the path of believers (Psalm 119:105). In other words, God’s character is like light: pure, bright, and undefiled. God’s moral light does not mix with the immoral, putrid, and defiled darkness in the world. Wherever God is, darkness necessarily flees. Whenever God’s pure nature advances, corrupt darkness must retreat.
The first connection between God and light is found in Genesis. In the opening paragraph of the Bible, we read, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). God spoke light into existence on the first day. Presumably, a physical light appeared after God spoke. There was darkness before, but then God illuminated creation with light.
The source of the physical light in Genesis 1:3, before the creation of the sun and moon, has been the subject of much scientific and theological speculation. The light could have come from God himself, though the text does not require that. The light may have emanated from another source. In short, we don’t know about the source of original physical light. But we do know the ultimate origin of that light. God originated light.
First John was not the only biblical book to connect God with light. Throughout the Bible, we see the motif of light and darkness in relation to God exhibited in a few other ways. Normally, God and his ways in light are contrasted with the world’s ways in darkness.
In these passages, we can see God’s presence or activity associated with light and the world’s influence associated with darkness.
In these passages, we can see God’s presence or activity associated with light and the world’s influence associated with darkness. Indeed, God is light and there is no intrinsic darkness in his nature.
Throughout the Bible, we can see how God and his ways are associated with light. We can also see how the world and its activities are associated with darkness. But the original phrase, “God is light,” originates in 1 John, so let’s conclude in that epistle. In God’s moral purity, the Apostle tells us how we should act given our new position in Christ. We should walk in the light.
John tells us, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6–7).
As believers, we are no longer to walk in the ways of a dark world. We should no longer be characterized by dark ways of corruption, deception, or immorality. Instead, as “children of light,” we operate under the illumination of God’s perfect moral character. And through Jesus and his sacrifice, we live a new life in God’s light, the source and sustainer of new life in Christ.