The "Light of Life" in Baptism Ceremonies of the Early Church (Eph. 5:3-14)

One of the central themes of Ephesians 5:3-14 is the metaphor of “light”. Paul uses this concept to help us understand how putting on the “new self” is a process of exposing the darkness in our hearts and in our actions to the light of Christ and his finished work on the cross. Verse 14 is particularly interesting.

“This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’” (Eph. 5:14)

Many scholars think this quotation is from a baptism ceremony in the early church. People would greet the recently baptized brother or sister with a similar phrase that declares the reality that they have “emerged from the sleep of spiritual death into the light of life” (Bruce, NICNT, p. 376). It has the idea of coming out of a grave (cf: Rom. 6:3-4, buried with Christ, raised to newness of life) where it is dark and full of death, and now your baptism symbolizes the coming out of the grave and into the light of day where your new life has begun.

F.F. Bruce calls this a “primitive baptismal hymn” (ibid, p. 376). It is a synthesis of quotations from the Old Testament: Isaiah 26:19 “But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy…” and Isaiah 60:1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

It is common for the church to use scripture-based liturgies at moments like baptism to reinforce the theological meaning of one’s step of faith. We see this pattern in the early church in examples like Clement of Alexandria who quoted this very same baptismal hymn and accompanies it with another poem amplifying the reference to Christ:

The sun of resurrection, Begotten before the day-star, Who has given life with his own beams” (Clement, Protrepticus, 9.84.2).

Notice the metaphor of the sun and light in Clement’s poem. There is something hugely significant about the image of Christ as a source of light and life for the believer. And baptism is a symbol of coming out of the darkness and deadness of the grave, into the light and life of being a new creation in Christ.

F.F. Bruce interprets Paul’s use of this imagery in Ephesians 5:14 by saying: “If ever the readers of the present letter were tempted to forget that, while once they had been children of darkness, they were now children of light, let them remember their baptism and the words they heard then: they would be left in no doubt about their present status and its moral implications” (Bruce, NICNT, p. 377).

This is why we ended our time on Sunday with an opportunity for confession. If there are areas of our lives that are still in darkness, we need to expose them to the light of forgiveness and redemption found only in Jesus. When we shed the light of Christ in all areas of our lives, we reflect more of the radiant light of the grace and love of Christ to others (Eph. 5:13). When we receive forgiveness and the darkness is overcome by the light, we put the gospel on display as a light for the world.