Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 5:8a “For ye were sometimes darkness,. . .”
“Sometimes” denotes formerly, once upon a time. “Darkness” describes what the Ephesian Christians once were, when they were unbelievers. This is one of the Bible’s most severe and ghastly descriptions of lostness.
Unbelievers are spiritually not only in transient fog, cloudiness, or dimness, nor even only in darkness; they are darkness itself. Man’s ultimate problem is not that we live in a dark, evil world, but that the darkness has invaded our essence, saturated our innermost being. In Eden we were created to enjoy inner light in God’s presence, but our decision to sin put out that light. Man’s nature has been dark ever since. As each individual yields to the forces of darkness, night penetrates the person so deeply that he or she becomes the darkness embodied, sevenfold midnight itself.
The lost are not only victims of this world’s evil environment, but also contributors to the problem. The darkness is in them. They share the nature of the surrounding society. They not only grope in darkness, but contribute to it. Each is walking darkness. Thus, people need more than merely a change in their surroundings. They need a change in themselves.
Lost sinners are utterly sunk in spiritual ignorance, totally confused, stumbling like men in the dark, going where they know not, doing what they know not, putting forth strength, but unable to direct it. They cannot see, and do not know where to look for moral and spiritual counsel.
It is sad to hear lost people refuse to accept Christ, claiming they do not want to lose their freedom. Tripping in darkness is no freedom. “Fallen man thinks he is free only because what he wants so closely agrees with what Satan wants. But the believer’s obedience is the deepest desire of his heart” (MacArthur). Believers have responded to this “deepest desire.”
Eph. 5:8b “But now. . .”
The conjunction of contrast highlights the stark divergence between our past and present conditions. Paul used “but now” in 2:13 to accent the contrast between what we were and what we are with regard to God, we who “were far off are made nigh.” Our present text emphasizes the change in us as related to human society. We were “darkness, but now. . .”
Eph. 5:8c “. . .are ye light in the Lord:. . .”
Jesus said of His followers, “Ye are the light of the world” (MT 5:14). We believers have no illusions of personal grandeur, and take no credit to ourselves. We are light “in the Lord.” Only Jesus in and of Himself can say in truth, “I am the light of the world” (JN 8:12). Believers reflect Christ’s light, He shines through us. Our text intensifies this metaphor.
Christ’s light not only shines upon us and through us. We are joined with Him in such vital union that He makes us aglow. We go from being darkness, and become light itself, light embodied, high noon incarnate.
Christ changes essence, nature. He offers a radical change, a transformation from being darkness to being light. This offer of re-birth is why only Christianity can help a society find ultimate, long-term solutions to its problems. All other forms of betterment, having to be content to deal with slight improvements on the surface, are thus insufficient. It is not enough to replace a man’s rags with a new suit, to have him wash his face and cut his hair, to take him out of poverty and give him wealth (as the increase in white-collar crime has proven). He must be born again. “The problem of immorality or vice or crime can never be tackled directly. Conduct is the result of the point of view, so you can never deal with conduct directly. To try to do so is the fatal blunder of every non-Christian system. And we are seeing the failure on all hands. Men refuse to recognize the fundamental principle that as a man thinks, so he is. Therefore, it is of no use trying to control his behavior if his thinking is wrong” (Lloyd-Jones).
Paul’s inference in our text is obvious, believers hold the answer to a lost world’s problems. Unbelievers are darkness, which can be overcome by only one thing, light, which is what believers are. We are made light not for selfish advantage, but for the sake of others. Their darkness can be overcome only by our light. The question is, how can we best be a blessing to our society, what is the best approach for salt, light, and leaven to take?
As I mentioned in my previous sermon, we begin with brokenness, by weeping and mourning over them in fervent, intercessory prayer before God. Anger has its proper place, to rouse us to action, but then wrath must yield to deep pity and love. To the overly zealous, I say, calm your spirit, take a deep breath, count to ten. Remember James and John. They wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village, but Jesus rebuked them (LK 9:55). To the under-ly zealous, I say, wake up. Remember the priest and the levite who passed by the wounded man in the ditch and went on their way as if nothing were wrong. The Good Samaritan “showed mercy,” and Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise” (LK 10:37). Believers can never opt to be idle, quiet, deaf, and blind in the midst of a hurting, crying, dying world. Remember, we once were darkness; pity those who are darkness still.
To be effective, brokenness must spawn evangelism. All our efforts at social and moral reform will ultimately fail if not in some way underpinned by evangelism. Thomas Chalmers grieved over the moral decline of his society. He longed “for an arm of strength to demolish this firm and far-spread compact of iniquity, and for the power of. . .(a) piercing and prophetic voice.” Upset, Chalmers wanted to lash out and “do something” to make a difference. He ultimately concluded, “What is the likeliest way of setting up a barrier against this desolating torrent of corruption? The mischief will never be combatted effectually by any expedient separate from the growth and the transmission of personal Christianity throughout the land.” Should Christians vote, write to public figures, seek to influence public opinion, and engage in political activities? Certainly, it is our God who ordained government. Should churches have Moral Concerns Committees? Absolutely. However, let us never forget that all these things are secondary to, not substitutes for, prayer and evangelism.
What a blessed privilege is ours as believers. We have the opportunity to make a lasting and genuine difference in our world. Because of the darkness, much sin, suffering, and sorrow exist in this world. Rather than complain about having to live in a decaying culture, thank God for placing us here as lights to do something constructive about what’s wrong.
I challenge us to rise to the occasion. Christianity is not a tropical plant which has to be pampered and kept in a greenhouse. Ours is a faith as tough as a weed, hardy and strong, able to survive anywhere, including in the midst of a moral cesspool, or atop a social dunghill. Paul challenged Christians in a culture much worse than ours to be “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (PH 2:15).
Now may be our finest hour, this may be the time when American Christians will have our greatest opportunity to shine. Today, more than ever before, let our light be conspicuous. Do not hide it. Put it “on a candlestick” (MT 5:15). As Lehman Strauss urged, never allow the bushel of cowardice or compromise or carelessness to hide the light, for “if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost” (2 C 4:3). As believers, our place in heaven is secure, our salvation is sure. If we flicker and fail, a lost and dying world is the worst loser. Brothers and sisters, America needs us.
How does one overcome darkness? Only with light. Where is darkness? In unbelievers. Where is light? In believers. We are the only hope. Do we truly believe this? A part of our problem may be we overestimate the ability of other groups, and underestimate the importance of our role.
Years ago, James Boice told of a national gathering of religious leaders. The President spoke, very much pleased the gathering, and left the building to a standing ovation and much celebration. The next speaker, Chuck Colson, who once walked the halls of political power, reminded the crowd, “The kingdom of God is not going to arrive on Air Force One.”
Governments come and go. Our country is but a speck on the ocean of history, our effort at government is still but an experiment, yet we boast the world’s oldest constitution in use. The USA is the world’s oldest continuously operating government. Every other country has undergone a more recent radical change in government structure. God instituted governments as a gift to society to maintain order, but obviously never meant for them to offer long-term, permanent solutions to problems. Governments are unable to make themselves last forever, much less their policies.
As I deliver this sermon today at East Side Baptist Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I stand on the very spot where on a previous occasion stood one who is now the most powerful political figure in the world. He and I share certain similarities; we are both baby boomers, both in our 40s, both Southern Baptists, both Arkansans, both Razorback fans. He represents political power, I represent spiritual power. Which of us represents the power which can truly change and salvage the America we have known and loved? Believe me, I have long wrestled with this question. I love politics and have often thought I would enjoy it as a career. Where can the most effective difference be made? Government certainly has a God-given role to perform in society, the Church has one, too. Which of the two can provide ultimate deliverance? Our answer to this is critical, for however important we think we are as a Body will determine the extent to which we will work as believers in seeking to influence the culture around us.