Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, responds:
Christmas is a special time! It means many things to many people but for the Christian its primary meaning is that God ‘sent his one and only Son into the world’ (1 John 4:9) on a mission to save a humanity that was broken, lost and without hope.
At Christmas time Isaiah 9:2 is often read – ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.’ Traditionally ‘darkness’ has been used in various cultures to signify evil, oppression and depression. In the Bible, particularly, the word is used symbolically of those things that are opposed to God.
Let’s put Isaiah 9:2 into context
During the days of the prophet Isaiah the nations of Israel and Judah were in deep despondency. Israel was being sorely threatened by Assyria which also had Judah in its sights.
In addition to the political threat that was gnawing at Israel and Judah, they were also suffering from the erosion of social breakdown and religious apathy. Isaiah chapter 8 ends on a dark stage with the backdrop of doom, despair and darkness – ‘Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.’ In this verse Isaiah used three different Hebrew words for darkness to emphasise how deep it really was. Hope and joy appeared to have ceased to exist.
Then, unexpectedly, the stage bursts with light! God has not abandoned his people! The light blazes with a dramatic brilliance! A glorious promise is given, a promise centred on the coming of a child. ‘… on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned … For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this’ (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7).
Initially the prophet was speaking about deliverance from the catastrophes that Israel and Judah were then facing. They would suffer but they had not been abandoned. Some biblical scholars suggest that the son mentioned here was, in the first instance, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz.
However the message of the prophet was not limited to that period but had a more wonderful and fuller application. It also had a foretelling and Messianic content as Matthew recognised (Matthew 4:14-16) and the description of the son in Isaiah 9:6-7 could not have been meaningfully ascribed to any mere human being however capable that person may have been.
Only Jesus Christ, who was born some 700 years later, could fulfil the description of the son who would bring light into a darkened world. John has written, ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. … The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world’ (John 1:4, 9 TNIV).
In the Bible darkness and light are often used to characterise the conflict between two opposing kingdoms – Satan’s dark kingdom of evil, hate and hopelessness and Christ’s glorious kingdom of light and love. We must not be deluded – we are living in a war zone.
But even in the midst of gloom and apparent hopelessness, the light of Jesus has not been extinguished. When all seems hopeless, when it looks as if world-based influences have become so strong that they cannot be resisted, when religious indifference grips the hearts of people, when it appears that the things of God are being crushed under the relentless steamrollering pressure of corruption, violence and indulgence, the victory, nevertheless, will assuredly belong to God and we will share in that victory!
In Colossians Paul declares, ‘For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves’ (Colossians 1:13). One day in the temple Jesus made the startling claim, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12).
What can we learn from this?
The wonderful truth of Christmas
However dark the situation may be, either personally, nationally or globally, the coming of Jesus Christ into the world announced that no darkness is too intense to extinguish the ‘Light of the world.’ There is no frightening, corrupt, depraved or hostile influence in the world that can overcome him. He is undefeatable! ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5 TNIV).
This is the wonderful truth of Christmas that should comfort, encourage and enable us to rejoice. In the midst of the world’s darkness we need to remember that because of Jesus Christ we ‘are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Peter 2:9).
The first line of Tim Hughes’ 2006 Here I Am to Worship is very meaningful at Christmas:
‘Light of the world
You stepped down into darkness.
Opened my eyes, let me see.
Beauty that made this heart adore You,
Hope of a life spent with You.’
Dr Jim McClure is the author of Grace Revisited (See Resources), Overview of the Old and New Testaments and the Understanding… series. Orders/enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
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