The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.
-Isaiah 9:2 (TNIV)
A few weeks ago I was camping in the Montana wilderness. There was no moon, and at night, I could see only blurry outlines. I was lucky even to see ten feet in front of myself, and I could only barely discern the outline of my tent so I could walk from the campfire to bed. But by the light of the morning sun I could make out the finest details on the furthest mountains.
This is the effect Jesus had on the followers of God. The Old Testament was the crescendo–it demonstrated our sinfulness, chronicled God’s loving-kindess to Israel, and promised that the Lord would come to earth. The Old Testament was the dawn of God’s light on the world. In Genesis, Kings, Chronicles, and the other historical books of the Old Testament, the Jewish focus is on their development as a nation and how they’ll find their place among the people of the world. They ask God for security, economic welfare, and happiness.
By the time the prophetic books are being written, Israel has been repeatedly ravaged by conquerers, and the Jews are scattered. The prophecies still hinge on Israel as a nation, but the focus has changed a little bit. God cares for Israel’s national well-being, but the prophecies start to spend more and more time talking about knowing God and about God’s effect on the world. You start to see predictions like the one above–on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.
Micah prophesied that God would teach Israel, but also that the world would learn about God from Israel:
Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
When Jesus came and began his ministry, the light of God exploded across the landscape of Israel and eventually to the farthest parts of the earth. All the vague outlines and dawn-lit shapes of the Old Testament were brought into sharp focus by Jesus and his teaching. This is why Paul’s writing is so clearly and logically articulated. Before Jesus, the understanding of God’s kingdom wasn’t quite clear enough to write a detailed theological exposition like Romans.
When Jesus came, the Jews were in great darkness. They were oppressed by the Romans and ruled by Herod, who was infinitely more corrupt than any Illinois politician. If you think Israel wasn’t oppressed, consider that only 40 years after Jesus died, the Romans completely destroyed the temple, the center of the Jewish national identity. Today, we’re still in great darkness, but we’ve also seen a great light, one that can help us understand ourselves and the things that are going on around us.