For a clear vision of what we’re called to be, turn up the contrast:
Ephesians 5:8-14 (compare NIV)
8 Previously you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (since all goodness, justice and truth are the produce of the light), 10 turning out as the harvest that pleases the Lord. 11 Don’t participate in the fruitless efforts of the dark, but expose them. 12 It’s dishonouring even to talk about the stuff they want to keep hidden, 13 but it’s all exposed by the light, 14 for the light shows everything for what it is. Therefore, this is the message: “Get up, sleeping one. Rise from the dead. God’s anointed will shine on you all.”
The imagery of light and darkness is found in many religions. For clarity in how Ephesians uses this metaphor, we’ll start with a comparison with other religions. If you wish, you can skip down to the phrase-by-phrase explanation of the text.
Different faith groups use the light/dark metaphor differently:
- In traditional Chinese belief, the path to peace is to accept what befalls you: the yin and the yang, dark things as well as bright, the bad with the good.
- In Zoroastrianism (a Persian religion that predates Christianity), our lives are caught up in the dualistic conflict between spiritual forces: light versus dark, heat versus cold, good versus evil.
- In Judaism, everything (including light and darkness) was viewed as God’s good creation in the Torah and Former Prophets. Light and dark were later contrasted in the poetry of the wisdom books and Latter Prophets (especially Job and Isaiah).
- In Jewish apocalyptic literature, light verses darkness became a prominent motif. For example, 1 Enoch 92:4-5: They shall walk in eternal light. Sin and darkness shall perish forever. As in Zoroastrianism, darkness was the influence of evil spiritual powers. Unlike Zoroastrianism, we cannot fight it off. Light can return to God’s world only when God acts, pouring out his judgment on the darkness.
- The Essene community called themselves the sons of light and their enemies the sons of darkness. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran were multiple copies of the War Scroll (1QM, 4Q491–496). It instructed them to prepare for a war against the servants of Satan (Belial). This is how the War Scroll begins:
1 For the Instructor, the Rule of the War. The first attack of the Sons of Light shall be undertaken against the forces of the Sons of Darkness, the army of Belial: the troops of Edom, Moab, the sons of Ammon, 2 the Amalekites, Philistia and the troops of the Kittim of Assyria. Supporting them are those who have violated the covenant. … 6 There shall be no survivors 7 of all Sons of Darkness. 8 Then the Sons of Righteousness shall shine to all ends of the world, continuing to shine forth until the end of the appointed seasons of darkness.
So, how does Ephesians compare with these perspectives?
- There is no overlap with the Chinese yin/yang. Both good and bad happens to us, but we don’t mildly sit by and accept them. Our hope is in the Messiah who liberates the world from darkness to be the light of the Lord.
- There is overlap with the Zoroastrian, apocalyptic, and Essene view of darkness as a spiritual power. The nations that crushed Israel in Old Testament times were slaves to the ruler of the kingdom of the air (Ephesians 2:2).
- Unlike the Zoroastrian view, we cannot free ourselves by choosing light instead of darkness. We’re powerless (dead) under the power of evil (2:1). It takes an act of God to save us (the apocalyptic view).
- Unlike the apocalyptic texts, the act of God that saves his people is not the pouring out of judgement on their enemies. God incorporated the nations in the Messiah’s reign (2:11-13). The Messiah died in the conflict between good and evil, but when God raised him up he delivered a declaration of peace (2:14-17). In this way, the nations that were previously outside God’s nation are established as his people (2:18-20) with God among them (2:21-22). This was the surprising reveal to the apocalyptic mystery of what God would do with the nations (3:1-21).
- The Essene expectation for a war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness is misguided. We are not at war with other humans: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (6:12).
So, this is how Ephesians 5:8-14 uses the metaphor of light and darkness:
You were darkness is a description of the Ephesian recipients. As predominately gentile, they had been outside the covenant people, in the kingdom of darkness.
Now you are the light of the Lord is their inclusion in the covenant people, in the Messiah.
Live as children of the light is a call to no longer live as the gentiles do (4:17), to stop fighting against God and his covenant people, to live as restored and unified community of the Messiah (4:1-6), maturing into the new humanity in him (4:11-16), reflecting his character (4:18-32) as God’s holy people (5:1-7).
All goodness, justice and truth are the produce of the light. Before photosynthesis was a word, people knew that things grow better in the light than in the dark. The nourishing goodness we innately hunger for grows in the open, in the community of justice and truth, not hidden in the dark where people connive injustice and spin lies to gain power (expressions of the dark power).
Turning out as the harvest that pleases the Lord is the hope for humanity. The God who said, “Let there be light” blessed the earth with fruitfulness (Genesis 1:11-12, 28-29), but the world has been less than productive because of the darkness. The descendants of Abraham were God’s planting, but they did not produce the harvest he hoped for (Psalm 80; Isaiah 5). In the Messiah, God’s people finally prove to be the harvest that pleases him.
Don’t participate in the fruitless efforts of the dark rests on the analogy that trying to grow anything in the dark is difficult and unproductive. Empires come and go. All the effort people put into grasping power instead of submitting to God is wasted: it all falls back into the ground and dies.
Expose them. How? Simply by being the light. We are not being asked to investigate the works of evil to publish critiques of the darkness. That would be a waste of effort (fruitless). We would be focused on the shame of the darkness instead of the glory of the Lord. No, we expose the works of darkness as fruitless and shameful simply by being the alternative, being the brightness of God’s productive presence in his world.
That’s the explanation that follows: It’s dishonouring even to talk about the stuff they want to keep hidden, but it’s all exposed by the light, for the light shows everything for what it is.
Therefore, this is the message: “Get up, sleeping one. Rise from the dead. God’s anointed will shine on you all.” The Christian message is not a critique of the darkness. It’s the hope of God’s dormant world coming to life in the light of the Messiah.
Once humanity went dark, but now we are light in the Lord. Let’s live as the children of the light, fruitful lives, his harvest of goodness, justice and truth, pleasing not ourselves but the Lord who is the light that grows the crop.