“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16
There is perhaps no greater vision for the Christian life than is found here early on in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel According to Matthew. Although paired alongside one of the more difficult passages to interpret (v.13 – “the salt of the earth”), this verse in particular has been a banner for what it means for Christians to live missionally in their lives, i.e. be the light. From this passage in the Sermon a beautiful picture of God’s design for his people to be a light to the world, engaged in God’s plan for redemption through Christ.
What is “the light“?
Not much to our surprise, this passage indicates that Christ himself is the light of the world. If you look back to Matthew 4:12-16, Matthew gives explicit reference to an Isaianic prophecy (Isa. 9:1):
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.
And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea,
in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,
so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.
“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.” – Matthew 4:12-16
One of the primary themes you’ll see in Matthew is fulfillment. There is a smooth, calculated feel when reading this Gospel where Matthew identifies the fulfillment of the OT prophecies in the life and teaching of Jesus. To think of it simply, each of the four Gospels are different portraits of the same Christ. Each of the Gospel writers are unique both in their style, but sometimes in content. Through the process of selection and deselection wherein the writers decide what to include in their accounts, we see purposeful ordering, authorial intent, and a unique albeit true/inspired/accurate picture of Jesus. In passages like this and several others (1:22; 2:15, 17; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9), Matthew makes a distinguishable effort to demonstrate consistency of the ministry and message of Christ with the prophecies familiar to the primarily urban (think well or better-read in the Torah) Jewish-Christian audience. Although this inspired Word of God is universal in the sense that it will transcend cultural and chronological setting of the day it was written, it helps us to sit in the seat of a first century reader and understand the remarkable significance of what it means for Christ to be fulfillment of all that was said of the promised Messiah.
What Matthew does with this reference to Isaiah is establish for his readers consistency of the Words of the prophet with the life and ministry of Christ. All of the mystery surrounding the promised Messiah has now been made plain in Christ Jesus and Matthew’s aim is to create a Gospel account that demonstrates that this is that Messiah. All of redemptive history had been pointing to the perfect that was to come (1 Samuel 2:35, Isaiah 44:3, Jeremiah 31:31) when God would establish the everlasting covenant *head nod to all you (n)CT’s out there* (Genesis 17:7) through the blood of Christ. Therefore, the people “dwelling in darkness” prophetically speaks of the whole world, separated from God and dwelling in darkness (Colossians 1:13), and on us the light has dawned in Christ.
How then can we be the light?
I’m certainly not trying to belabor the point here. Clearly the most significant thing about this particular passage is that Jesus said to his hearers, “YOU are the light of the world”. However, Matthew’s intent to set a backdrop here is noteworthy. Jesus has said to a people living in expectation that he would be the light to the world are now being told that in following him, they would be the light to the world. What could this mean?
Jesus is setting up for his hearers the idea that through their witness, the nations might come to know God. From one first-century Jew to another, this was not a novel idea. Anyone who knew Torah would have understood God’s intent from the beginning that through their Covenant relationship with Him, others might come to know God. Look all across the Old Testament with this idea in mind and you’ll be amazed at God’s heart for the nations- those outside the Covenant! Look at God’s dealing with the Israelites in Egyptian captivity and see God’s intent to demonstrate himself through the circumstances (Exodus 7:5). Look to the laws established among the Israelites wherein care for the sojourner (those who did not know Yahweh) is placed in high esteem (Leviticus 19). God’s heart is for the nations and his design for his Covenant people is that through them the nations might come to know him.
Let’s dissect the phrase, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” from our passage above. What Jesus is saying is that through the lives- actions, words, desires, cares- of His people, those who are far from Christ might come to know him. The intention of our lives is to be a demonstration of God’s grace in us (1 Corinthians 15:10) such that people might see the glory of the Father. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:20 that we are ambassadors for Christ “as though God were making his appeal through us“. Do you see the consistency? God is making his appeal of grace to a world that is far from him, through a people who were once also far off (Ephesians 2:13). As we have been given the Light (John 12:36), so we are to let that light shine before men. The boldness of calling his people a “city on a hill” comes from nothing less than God’s intentional design for his people to be a conduit through which people might come to know him.
What shall we do then with the light? Put it under a basket, hiding it so that none could see? Instead, you be the light. Let your life be lived before others such that they see Christ in all that you are.