"For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” -- Acts 13:47
Both Old and New Testaments speak of God’s people being “light to the Gentiles.” Isaiah used that phrase twice (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6). Those same words appear at the beginning of the New Testament when Mary and Joseph “presented” eight-day-old Jesus in the Temple. That day, an elderly priest named Simeon took the infant Messiah in his arms. As he did so, the Holy Spirit moved him to quote Isaiah’s “light to the Gentiles” phrase (Luke 2:28-32).
About 50 years later, Paul was on his first missionary journey hundreds of miles northeast of Jewish territory. In Psidian Antioch he and Barnabas said Isaiah’s “light to the Gentiles” phrase was why they were preaching about the Jewish Messiah to a Gentile audience far from Jerusalem. As Paul and Barnabas quoted Isaiah’s “light to the Gentiles,” they said, “The Lord commanded us.”
To be sure, today we almost never use the word “Gentile” in everyday speaking. So, would that mean “light to the Gentiles” has little relevance to us today? Hardly. To First Century Jews, “Gentiles” meant every other ethnic group on the planet. Furthermore, while some Gentiles lived in or at least close to Israel, most lived far, far away. Getting the light to those Gentiles meant crossing geographic as well as cultural and language barriers.
“Light to the Gentiles” thus clearly speaks about world evangelism. Indeed, to further emphasize that “light to the Gentiles” is something different from evangelizing people just like us who live near us, Paul and Barnabas added the “ends of the earth” phrase used by Jesus just before His ascension (Acts 1:8). “Light to the Gentiles” thus pushes us to make “ends of the earth” evangelism as equally important as near-neighbor evangelism.
Referring to the contrast between darkness and light signals that Christianity is more than just another religious option. The clear implication is that, no matter how “good” or “spiritual” people may seem, those without Jesus are in darkness.
A decade ago Chris Rice and Kathy Troccoli had us singing “Carry your candle; run to the darkness.” ( http://youtu.be/CVqR6kTu8lE and http://youtu.be/WsM5lt9tCFo ). Sadly, the Church has not always run toward the darkness carrying the light. Indeed, 2,000 years after the day of Pentecost there are still people groups to which the Church has not yet taken the gospel light. Sadly, one sometimes gets the impression that the Church is waiting for the darkness to come to it.
The “go” in Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) exhorts us to take the light to today’s “Gentiles,” those who have yet to see the light. Will we do it? Will we be light to all the peoples of the world?