In 1 Timothy 6:16 the author describes Jesus as dwelling in ‘unapproachable’ or ‘inaccessible’ light.
What is this ‘unapproachable light’ of which the author speaks?
The phrase should surprise us because one of the main points of the whole New Testament is that God has become ‘accessible’ or ‘approachable’ to us through Jesus Christ. He is, as St. Paul says, the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossian 1:15). In Jesus, the divine Word became flesh—it became visible, tangible, and therefore approachable (John 1).
Here is the broader contact for the phrase in 1 Timothy:
I charge you before God, who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus, who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate for the noble confession, to keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ that the blessed and only ruler will make manifest at the proper time, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.(1 Timothy 6:13-16).
In the first place, we should recognize this as a reference to the divine brilliance that is so dazzling as to be blinding. We find ourselves in darkness in the presence of such a great light because we cannot comprehend God in His essence, as St. Thomas Aquinas says in a commentary on this epistle. To borrow the analogy of the sun from Aquinas and C.S. Lewis: the sun illuminates everything but itself cannot be seen. To look at the sun, the brightest thing we can see, is to be plunged into the darkness of blindness.
Supernal Triad, Deity above all essence, knowledge and goodness; Guide of Christians to Divine Wisdom; direct our path to the ultimate summit of your mystical knowledge, most incomprehensible, most luminous and most exalted, where the pure, absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their Darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty.
Likewise, St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke the ‘dazzling darkness.’ A later medieval writer known as Theophylact, write that, “It is unapproachable on account of its exceeding brightness.” One also thinks of the related notion of the dark night of the soul from St. John of the Cross.
The word ‘unapproachable’ adds something to our understanding of our inability to fully understand God—beyond what words like light and dark, day and night can do. The English unapproachable is a faithful rendering of the Greek word, aprositos. It is comprised of three parts: the prefix a-, which is a negative; a stem related to pros, a preposition meaning near; and the Greek word for going. So aprositos means not-going-near.
In English we usually use prefixes like un- and in- to negate things (hence the words, unapproachable and inaccessible). But sometimes a- is also a negative prefix. It’s still retained in words like atheist, atypical, apolitical, asymptomatic, and aphasia.
In theology we talk about two primary ways of knowing God: the way of affirmation and the way of negation—saying what He is not. We get closer to God in this way. This is the way of darkness. This is fittingly reflected in the very building blocks of the Greek phrase in a way that is lost in the English word darkness—un-approachable light.
But the Greek text invites us to go even deeper than this. Although certainly there is the sense that this is light so bright that it is darkened to invisibility, that isn’t exactly what unapproachable means. Unapproachable puts an even greater distance between us and this divine light.
This point can be illustrated through a simple thought experiment, using our analogy of the sun. Suppose we could compress the sun into a small orb that would fit into a hidden room somewhere without losing any of its brightness. Anyone who entered that room would be blinded. We could talk about that light being dazzling in its darkness or even so blinding as to be invisible. But then let’s say we put a lock that room. Then, that light, in addition to being not visible, would also be unapproachable and inaccessible. Unapproachability is a distancing word.
Aprositos doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. But its use elsewhere in ancient Greek literature confirms our understanding of its role. For example, here is the Hellenistic historian Polybius describing an island formation that stood in the way of the Carthaginian general Hannibal on his way to Rome:
Hannibal, marching steadily from the crossing-place for four days, reached a place called the ‘Island,’ a populous district producing abundance of corn and deriving its name from its situation; for the Rhone and Isère running along each side of it meet at its point. It is similar in size and shape to the Egyptian Delta; only in that case the sea forms the base line uniting the two branches of the Nile, while here the base line is formed by a range of mountains difficult to climb or penetrate, and, one may say, almost inaccessible (The Histories, 3.49.5-7).
An even more vivid instance comes from another Hellenistic writer, Strabo, in his work, Geography:
Near to Methone, which is on the Hermionic Gulf, a mountain seven stadia in height was cast up during a fiery eruption; during the day it could not be approached on account of the heat and sulphurous smell; at night it emitted an agreeable odor, appeared brilliant at a distance, and was so hot that the sea boiled all around it to a distance of five stadia, and appeared in a state of agitation for twenty stadia, the heap being formed of fragments of rock as large as towers (Geography, 1.3.18).
These ancient texts give us vivid images to help us imagine what the author of 1 Timothy is saying. The light in which God dwells not only is incapable of being seen by the human eye or grasped by the human intellect, but also something that we cannot even approach. It is the blindingly radiant fire on top of a mountain we cannot climb.
How do we reconcile this with the overall message of the New Testament?
First, the point is that even though God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, God in His essence remains beyond us. God has not stopped being God because of the Incarnation.
Second, although He may be unapproachable by us, He can approach us. One eighteenth century Lutheran commentator, Johann Albrecht Bengel, put it this way: “That light is unapproachable to creatures, except in so far as they are admitted by Him, and as He goes forth to them.” This is achieved through Jesus Christ. The Letter to the Hebrews offers a beautiful account of how he makes God accessible to us:
You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them, for they could not bear to hear the command: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’ No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-24).
Note that here we can approach! In Greek the word is proserchomai. This is built of off pros, the preposition meaning hear which was also related to aprositos. Once again, we have to ask how the message here can be reconciled with 1 Timothy 6:16.
How do we reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable texts?
The answer is that is the purpose of the Incarnation—to reconcile irreconcilables, God and man.
It is actually an encouragement, then, that Jesus is specifically named in 1 Timothy as the One dwelling in unapproachable light because His mission is to make God present among us. Because of this it is tempting to say that through Jesus the light becomes approachable. But it would be more accurate to say that through Jesus the light approaches us.