But the path of the just is like the shining sun, That shines ever brighter unto the perfect day.Proverbs 4:18
However one chooses to interpret the verse above, I think most of us recognize that light has always stood as a metaphor for understanding. Even in our cartoons, a realization or an idea is often conveyed by the drawing of a light bulb above a character’s head. Thus, it seems apparent that this Proverb is at least hinting at the idea that the way of the just improves as greater understanding is obtained. The Psalmist famously said, “The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130). Thus, the word of God illuminates our understanding, giving us insight into the will and purposes of God, enabling us to live a life upon which His blessing can be bestowed.
Growth is progressive, and thus, our understanding comes as we are able to take in more and more “light” from those who teach us. Just as we can do things from a natural standpoint to increase the amount of light by which to see better, such as flip on a light switch or open a window shade, we can also do things to intentionally add to our understanding, such as read well or sit at the feet of those whose knowledge and wisdom exceeds our own. We can also do things, intentionally or inadvertently, to shut out the light of truth, thus impeding our ability to grow and mature.
An earnest disciple of Jesus would assume that it is always preferable to welcome fresh insights that can add to our understanding. However, both the scriptures and human history are filled with examples of people refusing to consider ideas that challenged their assumptions. Even today, there are companies, for example, that do not want certain technologies to gain traction lest they should displace their own inferior products on the market. Others in various fields of science may have built their reputations and careers on theories that new discoveries threaten to overturn. Still, others may simply be too comfortable with the conventional wisdom to consider new ideas or improved perspectives that could challenge the status-quo.
The Bible is full of examples of people whose assumptions were challenged by an encounter with the living God. Most notably, the Pharisees had their own version of the Jewish Messiah challenged when Jesus refused to dance to the tune of their presuppositions. Their refusal to accept Jesus had little to do with the truth. They simply did not want their powerbase threatened. Even Pilot could see that the Pharisees had given Jesus over for execution because of envy (see Matthew 27:18). However, not always is the resistance to new ideas based on such malicious dishonesty. The truth is, accepted ideas and perspectives have never easily given way to new ones, nor does it follow that they necessarily should. If we always forsook our long-held, sacred convictions simply because a new idea came along, we would never have any basis for belief, and our lives will be built on shifting sand. Sometimes our presuppositions are deeply ingrained into us by our culture and traditions. Our context shapes us subtly, and we tend to trust those who have been our lifelong teachers, whether they be parents, pastors, or our own life experiences. As a result, some ideas die hard.
After His resurrection, Jesus found two disciples who were deeply discouraged on the road to Emmaus. Their disappointment was due to their false assumptions regarding Jesus’ mission. One can hear the despondency in their reply as Jesus, unknown to them at the time, asked them what they were discussing between themselves.
Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:18-21)
One has to believe that Jesus was greatly desirous to assure these two men that all would be well. However, rather than simply revealing himself to them directly, he instead begins a Bible study that apparently covered the entirety of the Old Testament.
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
How did he correct their false assumptions? He introduced the light of scripture. Once again, we hear the echo of the Psalmist, “The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130).
Others whose stories are recorded in the scriptures had their false assumptions toppled in an even more dramatic fashion. There is perhaps no better example of this in all of history than that of Saul of Tarsus. It was to be just another routine day of persecuting those members of “The Way” for the zealous young Pharisee as he headed to Damascus to round up a few more of those trouble-making Christ followers. Suddenly, he is confronted by a light that shines brighter than the noonday sun. This light not only blinded the stunned Pharisee, but it toppled the mountain of presuppositions that had served as the foundation for his life and his crusade against the Church. For three days he sat in stunned silence and in prayer in the city of Damascus as his entire worldview was completely changed by his encounter. Just as this first light temporarily blinded the young zealot, it would be the light of revelation from the risen Christ that would set his future course and bring illumination to the entire world.
Peter is an example of how even longtime followers of Christ can have firmly held beliefs that shut out the light of truth, understanding, and opportunity. It was on the housetop of another Simon whose home was by the sea in Joppa that Peter would receive understanding in a vision that would obliterate his notion of an all-Jewish Church (see Acts 10:1-15). The vision of a sheet let down from heaven with an assortment of unclean creatures on it was repeated three times, while God’s invitation to “rise and eat” offended Peter’s kosher sensibilities. This would serve as a metaphor to Peter that those whom he had once considered “unclean” would now be justified by faith and brought into the Church. Nor was Peter alone in his assumptions. He was forced to give an account to the Church leaders in Jerusalem for his actions. With their acceptance of his testimony, a thousand walls of separation fell to reveal a larger vision of the Church to the Jewish disciples of that day.
In my own life, God has repeatedly shaken my own assumptions by introducing me to new ideas often brought by those outside my safe circles of influence. Not always did these ideas take root easily nor displace my long-held convictions quickly. As is the case with many believers, I was raised in a doctrinal echo-chamber designed to insulate me from perspectives other than those presented by my own denomination. My own dear family and friends were my teachers, as were the pastors whose intentions and integrity I never doubted. I still don’t. They were walking in the light they had which had been handed down to them as it had to me. However, as some of my inherited convictions were challenged by this new and unfamiliar light of truth, it was as though the very earth upon which I stood seemed to shake as my assumptions were called into question. In the long run, my faith was moved onto higher ground by the truth I received, and the lesson was well learned: while I stand resolutely on the immutable foundations of scripture, I am also aware that there are many things I still have to learn. My heart remains teachable, and the scriptures serve for me as that divine plumb line by which all fresh insights must be measured and tried (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Jesus spoke of those whose hearts and minds are shut off to light, drawn more tightly closed than any window shade which ever prevented the light of day. While they clung to their traditions, they shunned the light of truth that could have allowed them to see and receive the salvation that had come in Person to restore their nation. Quoting from the prophet Isaiah, he reproved them, saying,
“For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.” (Matthew 13:15, emphasis mine)
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can receive light from the scriptures that we have not seen before. However, we cannot force that same truth onto others. Each one must choose to open his or her own eyes. There is forever a danger that we, too, might think we have finally arrived and that our conclusions are at last unassailable, no longer open to scrutiny or further light. This is the first step to willful deception. Certainly, anytime the curtain is open in the darkness, there is a reflexive closing of our eyes to the brightness to which we are unaccustomed, but as our eyes adjust to the light, there comes the discovery of that which we simply could not see before. It was this willingness to adjust to the light that changed Saul to Paul, that opened the Gentile world to evangelism, and brought encouragement to two despondent disciples who couldn’t see that their best days were immediately before them. So too, a new day of discovery lies before any and all who are willing to invite the light of truth into their hearts and minds.