A Light In The Wasteland (2 Peter 1:16-19)

For I want to remind you that when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus the Anointed, we were relying on what our eyes had seen of His glorious majesty, not on cleverly told fables or myths[1]. You see, God the Father lavished honor and glory upon Jesus when the voice of the Majestic Glory echoed from heaven and said, “This is My beloved Son, and My favor rests on Him.”[2] We witnessed this—we ourselves heard this voice from heaven—when we were with Jesus on that holy mountain.[3] We have a fuller confirmation of the message (in?) [4] the prophets. You would do well to pay close attention to this word; it is like a lamp’s light that shines for you in the darkness of the nighttime wasteland[5] until the day dawns when the day star[6] - the Light Bringer- rises in your own hearts.[7]

 I would like to offer the story of the Old Testament that leads to the prophets, which leads us to Jesus. Peter’s audience read this with what some have called “hyperlinks,” automatic connections they made in their mind when they heard the language of the New Testament writers. Themes, threads, images, and even specific words are LOADED with a context that is hard for us to understand, but which will open up the depth and the meaningfulness of what Peter was saying.[8] I’ve been doing some reading lately that has been unfolding the times and the language of the Bible for me in ways the help me see the same story through fresh eyes. I’m going to start with the background of the world in which the Old Testament was written, then move into how God revealed himself  through the prophets in the midst of a confused and chaotic world, then end on Jesus as the fulfillment of all these things.  


In the beginning (or so ancient near east literature reads), a god rose from primeval waters and birthed the universe. Who it was didn’t matter, and how that was possible didn’t matter. It just happened. Then, that god faded mostly into obscurity, uncaring and uninvolved. 

This cosmos was not a pleasant place. It was formless and void, unordered, birthed in the chaotic conflict of the Darkness and the Deep (if it had a beginning at all). Finally, the gods fought a long battle with the forces of chaos. Marduk and Baal battled with Tiamat and Yam. Fortunately, the gods won. These gods began to ‘name’ things – which in the ANE was associated with creation. To them, something began to exist when it had an identity (captured in a name), not merely a form.

These early civilizations explained this cosmic battle with important imagery. Darkness, the Deep, the Sea, the desert wasteland - these were the homes of chaos, the places of Leviathin, Behemoth, Rahab, sea monsters, dragons, serpents, the wandering souls of the dead, even owls. Important boundaries kept this disorder from overrunning order. Order was a sign that a god was near – the sun had an ordered schedule, so there must be a god behind it. 

Well, the gods got tired and needy. They created humanity begrudgingly so they could serve the gods as slaves. Somebody had to feed and take care of them while they kept order. However, the gods only kept order in their realm – the sky above. They expected the humans to bring order to earthly chaos. So people built cities with walls to separate civilization from the wastelands; they channeled water; they used light to keep back the night. They formed governments. They built sacred spaces with temples and gardens so the gods could come near and be fed and pampered. Their gods ‘inhabited’ the idols they made – which is why the people washed, fed, and put them to bed. They even tried court cases in front of the idol that was literally enthroned. (The priests had to pull off some trickery with the food and the speech, but that, too, was, proper service to their god.)

These gods were not better than people, by the way. They were just stronger. They raised no moral bar. They made mistakes; they committed crimes. Any ideas of goodness, justice, love or mercy were, in the end, no greater than the people who thought about them. The people had to figure out what they thought those words even meant – and then they applied that standard to the gods. History records a sense of despair among the ancients: they hoped the gods would be just, wise, good, gracious and faithful; they hoped they would act in those ways. They often didn’t.


 The writers of the Bible grew up in this world, and it’s fascinating to see how they used the images and ideas that formed their world to tell a new kind of story that transformed their world. 

The general consensus is that Moses was either the writer or editor/compiler of the first 5 books of the Old Testament (perhaps a little of both). Moses was raised and trained by the Egyptians, and the children of Israel had been thoroughly immersed in the ANE worldview. They have a history that diverged geographically and spiritually from a shared beginning; it should be no surprise that they share stories of events. Moses uses the language, images and themes of those shared stories to unveil the True History and True God of the world. 

* * * * *

 In the beginning, God began to create. When God identifies himself to Moses as I AM, He was saying (among other things) that He is the one who causes things to be. He separated things in the void (established boundaries – see the first three days of creation in Genesis 1); he named things that were formless (he established their identity and purpose – see the last three days of the creation account). 

He did not arise from the Darkness and the Deep; He made them and then ordered them. This God did not do battle with Titans of Chaos who threatened to overwhelm them. They were nothing compared to him. [9]

He raised humanity from the dirt (adam-‘earth’) and yet he designed them to co-create with him (eve – ‘to give life’). People had value because God created them to carry the image of a God. “In the ancient world it was rulers, emperors, and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. So what Genesis was saying was that we are all royalty.”[10] God created humanity to enjoy this creation and their Creator, not feed and pamper a needy god. This God, Yahweh, was the one true God – he didn’t need any help. 

People were icons and representatives of God and royal, priestly stewards of His creation - honored positions in any ancient near east culture. I AM means more than just ‘the one who caused things to be.’ This was not an impersonal, aloof God who got things started and then left. The Hebrew word for I AM is situated within ancient languages in such a way that it suggests he is a God who enters into relationships. That, too, is a thing he creates. 

God makes his sacred space, a temple if you will, in a sacred garden in the land of Eden. It was everything people should have wanted: an ordered and complete world in a space where God “walked and talked with them.” He did not inhabit it in the form of an idol; the Psalmist would later note that he was enthroned on (inhabited) the praises of his people (Psalm 22:3). God made a covenant with Adam: be faithful, and you will flourish in this good world. Be unfaithful, and you will reap toil and pain from the chaos you sow.

Nothing in the space was off limits – except for one thing, a Tree of the Knowledge Of Good and Evil. It’s the knowledge of those who have the right to declare good order and right boundaries for the world. This tree was not inherently bad; after all, it was part of God’s good creation. Clearly God had this knowledge. God just said, “It’s not meant for you. This is my territory. If you claim ownership of that, chaos will follow, because the boundaries of good and evil are not yours to decide.”

A serpentine creature of Chaos, a “beast of the field,” slithered into the garden, a crafty tester, challenging order with disorder – and they welcomed it. Instead of having dominion over the animals, they gave up their dominion to the animal. It did not go well. First, they hid in shame. Then, in the first act of violence recorded in the Bible, an animal died to cover their shame. The wages of chaos is death. We’ve known this since the beginning. 

God unveiled the path they had chosen. They were given the image of God; they had chosen to associate with the image of a beast. Now all that was made good would be haunted by pain, chaos, and disorder. Humanity and the serpents- stewards of order and creatures of chaos - will painfully struggle, over an over. Soon, the Bible first uses a word we translate as “sin” to describe how Cain had chaos and disorder “crouching at the door “of his life.

The next several chapters of Genesis follow this pattern. People headed “east of Eden,” a direction that we see over and over to represent a direction that takes people away from God. Everybody kept making things worse. When people built cities to put walls between the dark deserts of chaos, the cities were worse than the barrens. The serpent bites their heal and causes them to stumble even as they bruise its head and chase it away. Over and over. 

If the behavior of Adam and Eve is any indication of how humanity would choose to live, their descendants may well have welcomed these sin serpent before realizing what they were. They may have known. Surely the story had been told. They may have still found it intriguing and seductive – until they didn’t. Echoes of the Deep resided in them. Chaos was still in their hearts. Sin walked over the doorway and into the house. 

All of the ancients recorded a flood in which the gods judged the unboundaried people by removing boundaries around them: the people wanted to set the boundaries – which was none - so the gods gave them a world in which they got what they thought they wanted. However, a select group was set aside to try again. 

The Hebrew writers agree with the basic plot line – it was a shared historical event, after all – but they record more. Yahweh is God; he warned and waited for decades.  After God washed the disorder and sin from the world, we read a second creation narrative: the winds blew over the earth and the waters subsided (much like the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters). God set up a new Eden, with a new Adam (Noah). There was a reminder that beasts would fear them, that order (the seasons) would continue. They were to continue the “be fruitful and multiply” mandate given to Adam and Eve. This was all surrounded by a new covenant for all of humanity. Eden 2.0.

Noah did not improve on Adam’s failure. He and his children promptly brought more disorder and sin. His descendants moved even further East to Babel (Babylon), where they soon pursued their own version of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, this time “making a name for themselves” instead of allowing God to name them, identity them, and order the lives of his image bearing stewards. 

So God steps in again to re-create. Unlike the Mesopotamian gods, he would not stay aloof; this God would continuously descend to His creation and serve them. He selected Abraham, who would be fruitful and multiply by being a “father many nations”. He sent him to the Jordan Valley, which was watered “like the garden of the Lord.” Eden 3.0

 God made a covenant with Abraham that all of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Abraham slaughtered animals in a classic suzerain ritual. God’s spirit (a blazing torch in a deep darkness) moved through the middle of these pieces, in essence saying, “If either one of us breaks this treaty, may it be done to me and me alone what was done to these animals.” It was unheard of for the stronger party to take upon himself the weight of the penalty. Abraham was good with that kind of unconditional promise. But while God would never break it, Abraham and his descendants could. They were tasked with some conditions: be inwardly blameless, and outwardly circumcised (a common custom that was a mark of initiation).

Being blameless was bound to be too much. A few of Abraham’s children, the children of his disobedience, head East yet again.

Fast forward to Egypt, where captivity and slavery threaten to overwhelm them in new kind of flood. The Bible uses words of chaos again: the Egyptians are “sea monsters” and “Leviathan,” (Psalm 74); when Aaron and Pharaoh’s magicians have a battle pitting their gods against each other, their staffs become tannin (dragons); the plagues, a methodical smackdown of the Egyptian gods, end with a deep darkness that threatens to visit death on every family in Egypt. But God provides another ‘ark’ for his people, another way out: a precious lamb, whose costly death and spilled blood protected them as Death passed them by.

The spirit of God moves over yet more water (the Red Sea) as Yahweh leads His people out of Egypt – a pillar of both cloud and fire, separated like the first day of creation, gives  light to the Israelites and darkness to the Egyptians. He feeds them with manna, which is described as looking the same way as precious stones in the Eden (the only two references in the Old Testament). In the desert, the Creator God of Order and Life, Dispeller of Chaos, begins to re-create again.  

God made another covenant with Moses, a leader God raised up to take his people to their Promised Land. This covenant brought order to practically every aspect of the lives of his people, from the kinds of clothes they wore to the meals they cooked to their sex lives to how they harvested. His glory would be seen in the right ordering of the world he had made – and that included the people. This was good news. The gods of their neighbors never bothered to tell their worshipers about what offended or pleased them. Yahweh, however, made it very clear. God and God’s will could be known.  

So, Moses and the people took the 10 foundational Commandments from God and wrote books about out what they would do to bring covenant justice and order to their nation and their lives to reveal His goodness to the world. These Books Of The Law were the kind of ‘law text’ found throughout the ancient world. These were wise guidelines, commentary to accompany the primary text on stone tablets, - “wisdom literature” if you will, the kind that would guide Solomon as he made decisions in unexpected ways. 

These wise laws texts set the standard for covenant life and set the limits of lex taliones punishment (the punishments showed the limits of retributive justice.) These laws also practiced provisions of mercy, which typically took the form of a substitutionary atonement for sin, such as a fine. In other words, the people knew what a crime deserved, but they also knew that their just God - who was also compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love – desired that they do justice while loving mercy.

They built a tabernacle (a mobile temple) with imagery that re-created Eden, down to an entrance facing toward the east and armed priests guarding the door (like the cherubim in Eden), perhaps as a reminder that those who enter the tabernacle are leaving the land of the lost and entering the garden of life. 

Once again, animals die to cover the shame and guilt of their sin. This was not a frivolous or blood-thirsty act. It was the deepest act of penance. An animal was life. It was wealth. It was status and power. This was an act of humility that reminded them that the wages of sin is death. 

But the law and order meant to bring life brought judgment and sorrow. These  covenant people kept doing non-covenant things, and if they wanted to live under the blessing and protection of God, there was a covenant. On their way to the new Eden of the Promised Land, the serpent stayed at their heel literally[11] and spiritually. At one point God sent a punishment of fiery serpents after the people rebelled. Surely they remembered their history and understood this message. Moses made an image of this curse that he “lifted up” so that those who turned their eyes toward it could be healed.[12] (More on this later).

The entire generation of people set free from Egypt never made it to the Promised Land. Moses himself never made it to the Promised Land because he broke God’s boundaries. Chaos is a hard habit to break. It took new people, with a new honor of the God and appreciation of covenant, to be entrusted with the care of the new land of promise – Eden 4.0.

That went bad too. God had warned Moses, "You are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)

In their now chaotic new Eden, God gave them judges, heroes that would lead them – but the people still ended up ‘doing what was right in their own eyes’, language that echoes what happened in Eden and at Babel. The book of Judges is a series of episodes that just play on repeat: worship other gods, do terrible sins, welcome chaos into your land, get ruled by other kings who serve other gods….but God in his mercy would send his Spirit to move over the troubled chaos of his people and raise up a new judge, a deliverer. Repeat.

The people eventually begged for a king, one with flesh like everybody else had. Maybe that was their problem. So, God gave them kings. He established boundaries for them and their kingdom, because He is a god of order. He sent His spirit to aid them.

Their first king broke the boundaries quickly. It wasn’t that Saul didn’t know. He ‘did what was right in his own eyes,’ to ‘make a name for himself’ by deciding right and wrong  on his terms. God’s prophet, Samuel, said to Saul, “You are not a man after God’s own heart.” You love chaos and reject order, and God does not.  

The second king, David, was “a man after God’s own heart” – at least when he was installed as king. He, too, gave into the sin and broke the boundaries around his life, and his legacy left a trail of chaos. He passed this on to his son, Solomon, who started well but finished badly. He even built a new sacred space, a new Eden with a new Temple - that would be defiled throughout its existence before it was destroyed by invaders when God tore the kingdom from yet another who followed his own heart instead of God’s.

Still, God, who is rich in mercy, had made yet another covenant. He told David that it was through David that a Messiah would come and establish a kingdom that would endure forever – an Eden that would never end. Yes, sin has its consequences, but it does not control the plans of God. 

Bad years followed. Yahweh, whose “name was to be made great in all the earth” by his covenant people, had his name smeared and dishonored over and over again. 

The kingdom divided. Eventually God’s people were sent east into nations whose gods they had followed. The “formless and void” of Genesis 1(tohu wahobu)  – is repeated only once in the Old Testament, and it is here. When Babylon destroyed Judah, Jeremiah wrote, “I looked on the earth, and it was tohu wahobu” (Jeremiah 4).

God did not send the chaos of the Deep to destroy them; he did send the Leviathan of Assyria, the behemoth of Babylon, the tannin (dragon) of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 51). They would take them to the home of gods and kings that they had chosen over their God and King. Treason has never been treated lightly. Yet Daniel is at peace among the beasts. His friends are not forsaken in the fire. God is near. 

The prophets had warned them. 

  • Daniel had seen beast after beast, chaos creatures coming out of watery darkness, coming after God’s people (Daniel 7)[13]

  • “How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence…” (Ezekiel 14:21)

  •  “Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.” (34:18)

  • "They have turned back to the iniquities of their ancestors who refused to hear My words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers." (Jeremiah 11:10)

  • “All the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart." (Jeremiah 9:26)

  • “When you brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary to profane it, even My house, when you offered My food, the fat and the blood; for they have broken My covenant--this in addition to all your abominations.” (Ezekiel (44:7)

  • “The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant.” (Isaiah 24:5)

That is not good news. But, since Yahweh was faithful, the prophets - the speakers for Yahweh- had always promised hope. 

As God’s Spirit moved the prophets, they said that – shockingly - God’s glory was still with those exiles in the East, and that when it returned there would be a new revelation - greater than God’s appearance to Moses – on another holy mountain. A redeemer was coming, a Savior, one in whom chaos would be defeated and order would once again return. This messiah would bring freedom, life, blessing, joy, and peace as a result of the salvation He offered. 

  • The beasts, dragons and owls will honor him. (Isaiah 43:20)

  • “Before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7)

  •  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (Jeremiah 31: 31)

  • “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

  • There would be one to whom “was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7)

  • “…an anointed one, a prince… shall make a strong covenant with many… and he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering.” Daniel 9

  • Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  (Isaiah 53)

  • “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned….For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:2-7)

 This person arrives to offer a new and final covenant that fixes everything that was broken, fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and take all the threads of the story and weave them together into one unified picture: Jesus the Christ, the perfect God and perfect man, the Creator manifesting as His creation; the Lawgiver become the Lawkeeper; the Covenant Keeper taking the place of the Covenant Breaker; the Lord in whom there is no Chaos, Darkness, Death or Sin taking all of them upon himself and displaying His triumphant power so that we know, once and for all, that we do not have to fear them.

  • The Spirit of God moves over Mary, bringing life where there was not life, making her womb a sacred space, and naming her son.

  • Her son, Jesus, is the new and better Adam.

  • He will make a new heaven and new earth, turning the entire world into his sacred space. The curse from Eden will be reversed: “They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.” (Isaiah 65)

  • He draws wise men back from the “east” and into his land.

  • In his temptation in the desert, He is “cast out” (like Adam and like Cain - ekballo in all cases) into the wilderness with the “wild beasts,” and he takes dominion.

  • He pays the full penalty for the breakers of Abraham’s covenant, as he promised.

  • He is the blessing for the world promised through Abraham.

  • The Egypt that would have killed Moses now shelters the new and better Moses.

  • He is the Ark that preserves us when the Deep threatens to overwhelm us.

  • He is the God who becomes the torn carcass to pay for Abraham’s broken covenant. 

  • He is the eternal Passover Lamb, under whose blood eternal death has no power.

  • He is the final and perfect sacrifice that silences the altars of Moses.

  • He was the substitutionary atonement not just for most sins, but for all sins.

  • He is “lifted up” on the cross like the bronze serpent in the desert, an image-bearer of the curse that would bring healing and life

  • He was a king who literally had God’s heart. 

  • He is the True Temple – who makes us his dwelling place.

  • He was the Messiah who could offer a lasting deliverance not from bondage to people but from chaos and destruction of sin and death.

  • He is the God of the First Creation who now brings the New Creation.

  • He walked on water and commanded the Deep.

  • He withstood testing in the barren desert from the Satan, the greatest bringer of chaos and sin.

  • He brought order into a disordered and broken world: healing the sick, casting out demons, bringing the dead to life, trading beauty for ashes.

  • The fruitful multiplication is now a spiritual one; “Go and make disciples; bear the fruit of the Spirit.”

  • He is not merely a light in the darkness; He is the Day Star, the Light Bringer, rising to make us covenant keepers in our covenant hearts.

  • He met with his people on a holy mountain in power and glorious majesty, the dawning of the day hinted at by the prophetic lamp in the darkness.

“We have a fuller confirmation of the message of the prophets. You would do well to pay close attention to this word….”


[1] It is probable that he means those cunningly devised fables among the heathens, concerning the appearance of their gods on earth in human form… The priests and statesmen instituted what they called the mysteries of the gods, in which the fabulous appearance of the gods was represented in mystic shows. But one particular show none but the fully initiated were permitted to behold; hence they were entitled εποπται, beholders. This show was probably some resplendent image of the god… which… dazzled the eyes of the beholders… to this it was natural enough for St. Peter to allude, when speaking about the transfiguration of Christ.” (Adam Clarke)

[2] The quotation here matches Mt 3:17; it blends the voice at the baptism recorded in Mark (Mk 1:11) with the voice at the transfiguration (Mk 9:7).

[3] Matt. 16:27-28—17:1-6

[4] “Either (a) we have the word of prophecy made more sure, i.e., we are better certified than before as to the prophetic word by reason of this voice; or (b) we have the word of prophecy as a surer confirmation of God's truth than what we ourselves saw, i.e., Old-Testament testimony is more convincing than even the voice heard at the transfiguration. The latter seems to accord better with the words which follow.”  (Vincent’s Word Studies.) 

[5] “The word rendered “dark” occurs here only in the New Testament, and its usual meaning is “dry… ‘In a waste place’ would perhaps be safer…prophecy is like campfires in the desert, which may keep one from going utterly astray, till sunrise frees one from difficulty.” (Ellicott’s Commentary For English Readers) Also see Luke 11:24, which talks about “dry places” where unclean spirits move.

[6] Often translated as “morning star” because of Revelation 22:16, but it’s a different word.

[7] “The day of the Lord would be like a sunrise (Mal 4:2); some ancient Jewish traditions apply the “star” of Nu 24:17 to the Messiah. The morning star (Venus) heralds the advent of dawn; a new age was about to dawn.”(NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible)

[8] I am deeply indebted to Ancient Near East Thought And The Old Testament by John Walton, From Chaos To Cosmos by Sidney Greidanus, and the Bible Project guys for most of the imagery and language here. Scott’s Smith excellent sermon on our website, “The Bible In 30 Minutes,” refreshed my memory on some important things. Also, Bible Gateway and Precept Austin offer, as always, fantastic resources.

[9] The writer of Genesis recorded God’s work in the world in 7s, the number and image of completion, the reason God could declare it all good. There are 7 names for these ancient ’chaos monsters‘ in the creation account. They are not to be feared. He is Lord of them all.

[10] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

[11] Numbers 21

[13] Nebuchadnezzar turns into a ‘beast’ for a while – like an ox, an eagle, a bird.