The "Light" Motif in Isaiah

Light is an extremely significant motif in Scripture. We first read of it in Genesis 1:3 as the word of God breaks into the darkness of a world not yet created: “Let there be light.” Such is the power of the divine command that we are not surprised to read next, “and there was light.” We last read of the light in Revelation 22:5, “And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord gives them light; and they shall reign forever and ever.” The glory of the Lord lightens this place, and the Lamb Himself is the light thereof (Rev. 21:23). The created light of Genesis 1 plays a role in the drama of God’s ultimate plan consummated in Revelation 22 as the artificial, ectypal light points forward to the full disclosure of the archetypal light, namely Christ Himself. The created light is the first stage in the preparation for man and woman’s habitation in the Garden of Eden. The days of creation build toward humanity. God created and He pronounced it good, but once sin enters the garden there is upheaval and destruction. Humans in their fallen state love darkness rather than light (John 3:19).

But Eden will be restored. In fact, the restoration will bring a garden even greater than Eden. The light that illumines this consummated garden is not artificial; it emanates from the Lord God Himself. And just as the created light separated the light from darkness, the Lord God in the consummated garden separates His reign and the reign of His saints from the workers of iniquity. There will not be another Fall. The workers of iniquity stand permanently out- side in total darkness and cannot infiltrate the garden of God (Rev. 22:15). The light of the victorious Messiah will shine forevermore.

The significance of light goes beyond its mention in the account of creation and in the description of the restored garden. Light is also significant in how it communicates the arrival of the Redeemer and the Redeemer’s commission to His followers to make God known. As Messiah, Jesus employs a threefold function: He is Prophet, Priest, and King; the light motif contributes to a deeper understanding of the prophetic function of Jesus, the Messiah. God makes Himself known through words, works, and acts. He speaks finally and climactically in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate (Heb. 1:1–2).

This post focuses on the Messiah’s prophetic function with special attention to Luke’s use of Isaiah’s light motif.  Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis in Luke 2 and Paul’s response before the hostile Jews in Antioch recorded in Acts 13 are key to understanding the meaning of Jesus’ arrival to earth as the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan and the necessary spread of that plan through the witness of Christ’s followers. Each passage underscores the belief that God’s redemptive plan was never intended to be exclusively for Israel. Central to the Luke–Acts passages is the conviction that Isaiah’s Servant would bring salvation not only for the Jews, but also for the nations. Both Simeon and Paul directly cite Isaiah’s Servant in 49:6. Luke’s use of the light motif also brings to mind allusions to Isaiah 9:2 (“the people that walk in darkness have seen a great light”).

The Simeon account points to the reality that Jesus is the ultimate light sent from God. The Acts account recording Paul’s use of the light highlights the reality that Christ’s followers are to be lights in this dark world. This, too, underscores God’s program. Just as God sent Christ into the dark world to bring life and light to humanity, so Christ sends His disciples into the four corners of the world to share that light as lights themselves. Luke’s use of the light metaphor reinforces Christ’s mission and the subsequent commission Christ gives to all His followers.

Summary Statement of Isaiah’s Theological Context

Few prophets articulated with such clarity the universal implications of God’s redemptive plan than Isaiah did in his prophecy. Walter Kaiser remarks, “No era of prophetic activity stressed this [universal] aspect of the promise doctrine more than did the eighth-century pre-exilic prophets. Isaiah was the master when it came to seeing the ‘nations’ connected with the ancient and emerging promise of God.”* While aspects of this universal realization of redemption can be found throughout Isaiah’s prophecy, it is on full display in his Servant Songs of chapters 40–66.

In these songs, the ideal character of the Messiah and each of His Messianic offices are on display. Isaiah 42 and 49 focus on the prophetic ministry of the Servant who is commissioned by Jehovah to be a covenant for the people and a light to the Gentiles. This adheres to the programmatic design of redemption. The parallel themes of God’s redemptive program in Isaiah and Luke–Acts is remarkable. Each identifies the outward declaration of the Savior from Israel to beyond, namely, to the end of the earth. This movement from Israel to the nations forms the basis of Paul’s argument in Acts 13 where he cites Isaiah 49:6, applying it to his own ministry. Israel’s rejection of the gospel prompts Paul and Barnabas to turn their attention to the Gentiles.

In the Servant’s commissioning by Jehovah we find the unique role that Israel played. The Servant comes from Israel and is, therefore, Israel’s glory (Luke 2:32). The Servant is the seed of the covenant promised first in Eden to Adam and then progressively to the Patriarchs. However, Isaiah refuses to see the Seed as one who benefits Israel only. Israel will enjoy the Servant to be sure, but he salvation promised extends beyond Israel to the nations. Isaiah speaks lucidly on this matter: “It is a light thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that you may be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (49:6). The Servant will come from Israel and enjoy universal success; He will do for the nations what national Israel failed to do. God’s intent for Israel was to be a light, yet they failed their mission. The Messiah will come and be the ultimate fulfillment of the Servant Songs.

Universal success, however, does not mean the Servant will be equally accepted universally. Simeon acknowledges this in his comments upon seeing Jesus when he prophetically alludes to what Paul clearly experiences. Many will reject the Savior. In Simeon’s blessing, he announces that the “child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against” (Luke 2:34). Paul sees this division and claims that his witness is redirected to the Gentiles because of Israel’s rejection (Acts 13:46).

Simeon’s Use of Isaiah to Identify the Christ

The song of Simeon (Luke 2:29–32) follows Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and subsequent dedication at the Temple. Luke describes Simeon as a righteous and devout man waiting for the consolation of Israel (2:25). He also records, similar to his description in Zechariah1, Simeon as a man on whom the Holy Spirit rested. The descriptions of personal piety, the reference to the Holy Spirit, and the location of the Temple provide the reader with a sense of hallowed sobriety and anticipation. The anticipation builds as the reader learns that not only had Simeon received a promise that he would indeed see the consolation of Israel, but also that he was at the Temple in direct obedience to the Holy Spirit’s direction (2:27).  Therefore, Simeon’s introduction to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus was no accident. Immediately seeing the baby Jesus, Simeon took up the child into his arms and worshiped God.

Simeon quotes Isaiah in his song as the biblical basis and warrant for how he interprets the attending circumstances. He sees the child as the one who brings the consolation. Like Isaiah, he identifies the Savior and the universal effect of His work. The song expresses the spontaneous joy that arises from the heart of one who finally sees what he has longed for, hoped in, and dreamed of seeing. Full of contentment and satisfaction, Simeon praises the sovereign Lord and petitions to be released from his watchful duties now that he has seen the promise fulfilled (2:29). Simeon announces that his eyes have seen God’s salvation. This is noteworthy for he recognizes that salvation comes by a Person. Such is the link between the identity of the Messiah and salvation itself: the sight of Jesus is synonymous with seeing salvation. Simeon’s response to seeing Jesus demonstrates the absolute necessity of personally and experientially appropriating the Messiah in order to receive the blessing of salvation.

It is clear in the passage that the Gentiles are not the subject of the revelation. But if we keep in mind the theological context of Simeon’s song, there is no difficulty in concluding that the Gentiles are the object of the revelation of the light. This is significant in Simeon’s song. Jesus is salvation, the light. The arrival of Jesus ushers in a new phase of redemptive history as He is a revelation. As light, He reveals before all to see that the Gentiles are the object of the redemptive plan, sharing an equal part in salvation.

The arrival of the light reveals the Gentiles’ place in God’s saving purposes. Simeon’s inclusion of “for a revelation” in his Isaiah citation not only adds clarity to the significance of Jesus’ arrival, it demonstrates that he understood the ramifications of Isaiah’s prophecy with regard to the prophetic ministry of the Messiah. The very presence of the Messiah revealed God’s intention to save not only Israel, but also the nations. Luke’s use of Isaiah’s motif in the record of Simeon’s song enhances our understanding of the prophetic ministry of the Messiah. The very presence of the child was revelation from God.

Paul’s Use of Isaiah to Justify Evangelism to the Gentiles

Luke uses the same Isaiah passage as he records Paul and Barnabas’s commission at Antioch. According to their normal missionary pattern, Paul and Barnabas went first to the synagogue and presented the gospel message (Acts 13:15). After preaching the gospel to the Jews and the Gentiles who were present, Paul and Barnabas were encouraged by many of the Jews to continue ministering (13:43). Despite the immediate reception, Paul and Barnabas faced intense opposition by jealous Jews the next Sabbath, with almost the whole city present (13:45). Paul equated the opposition he and his associates experienced as tantamount to rejecting the gospel of Christ. This rejection precipitated his response to the Jews and his justification for turning to the Gentiles with the message of salvation. Within his response he appeals to Isaiah 49:6 to explain his ministry (13:47). He considers his evangelization of the Gentiles to be in obedience to God’s command.

Paul would not use the Isaiah passage in reference to himself if he did not see any connection between the prophetic ministry of the Messiah in Isaiah 49 and the programmatic design of God in extending His salvation to the end of earth. Certainly Paul did not identify himself as the Messiah, but he did see himself in union with the Messiah. Only if Isaiah 49:6 is a prophecy dealing with both the arrival of the Messiah and God’s saving program for the spread of the gospel to all the world does Paul’s use of the passage make sense.

Luke’s record of the same passage from Isaiah provides greater understanding of Christ’s prophetic ministry as it relates to His people and their mission to spread the gospel to the end of the earth. Paul’s linking himself to Isaiah’s prophecy offers to Christ’s disciples encouragement and confidence as they continue the mission committed by Christ to His people to spread the gospel from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Paul saw himself as so identified with Christ that he shared in the prophetic ministry of the Savior.


God’s revelation of Himself is both immediate and mediate. Mediately, God reveals Himself via prophets, and Scripture emphasizes the necessity of the prophetic office from the very beginning. The unfolding redemptive plan is communicated to hearers through prophetic announcements. God spoke directly to the prophets, who then mediated His words in “thus saith the Lord” fashion. In the Old Testament, however, the prophetic message was not complete, and the prophets could only speak the message given to them and no more. The very nature of the Old Testament prophetic ministry anticipated a prophet whose message would be final and complete.

There was always the hope for a greater than Moses (Deut. 18:15). Hebrews 1:1–2 testifies that God actually spoke to the fathers by the prophets, but in these last days by His Son, and Hebrews 2 identifies this Son as Jesus (2:9). Jesus is the full and final revelation of God to man. This reality caused Simeon to rejoice as he held the infant Jesus in his arms. He recognized by the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit that Jesus was the revelation of God, the Light.

Light is a revealer. It illuminates darkness. In this way, Simeon recognized that the very presence of Jesus, the salvation and light of God, revealed more clearly and fully the redemptive plan of salvation. Gentile nations remained in darkness, but the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ illuminated the way. Seeing the prophetic ministry of Christ from the perspective of the light motif in Scripture in general, and Luke’s use of Isaiah in particular, aids the student of Scripture in recognizing more clearly and fully the significance the Messiah’s arrival in space/time history. Being God manifest in the flesh, the very presence of Jesus is an immediate revelation of God. Simeon rejoiced to live to see God’s salvation and light.

Not only does God reveal Himself immediately through His Son, Jesus Christ, He also continues to make Himself known in a mediated way through those in union with His Son. This is the significance of the Acts 13:47 passage. While Christ is the ideal Prophet, those in union with Him share in a very real way in His prophetic ministry. Paul was acutely aware of this as the apostle to the Gentiles. The Great Commission continues to be fulfilled by believers in all ages. Hence, disciples of Christ, like Paul, are able to find continuity in this mission as lights in a dark world. John Calvin noted, “[Christ] received anointing, not only for himself that he might carry out the office of teaching, but for his whole body that the power of the Spirit might be present in the continuing preaching of the gospel.” By spreading the gospel to the nations (Acts 1:8), believers are a light to the world pointing to the ultimate Light, who is Himself salvation.


* Walter Kaiser, The Uses of the Old Testament in the New


Charles M. Barrett serves as Assistant Minister at Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, TN.


Charles Barrett