June 5 – Living in Light

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.

Matthew 5:14

The apostle Paul looked at the evil pagan world and concluded that its self–centered, useless thinking leads to darkened understanding and a hard heart. That, in turn, leads to insensitivity to sin and shameless behavior, which then leads to unblushing obscenity. And it’s not really much different today.

As believers we shouldn’t even dabble in any of the evils characteristic of unbelievers. We are to be a light on a hill, separate from the evil around us. We are to be different. A city that’s set on a hill can’t be hidden. We must stand as salt and light. But if we’re corrupted by the system, we become useless.

Our blessed Lord Jesus Christ purchased us at the cost of His own life. He gave us a new nature that is holy, undefiled, and sanctified forever. He simply asks us to live up to what He has given us by discarding our old lifestyle and taking on our new one.[1]

5:14 Jesus also calls Christians the light of the world. He spoke of Himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 12:35, 36, 46). The relationship between these two statements is that Jesus is the source of light; Christians are the reflection of His light. Their function is to shine for Him just as the moon reflects the glory of the sun.

The Christian is like a city that is set on a hill: it is elevated above its surroundings and it shines in the midst of darkness. Those whose lives exhibit the traits of Christ’s teaching cannot be hidden.

5:15, 16 People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on a lampstand so that it will give light to all who are in the house. He did not intend that we hoard the light of His teaching for ourselves, but that we share it with others. We should let our light so shine that as people see our good works, they will glorify our Father in heaven. The emphasis is on the ministry of Christian character. The winsomeness of lives in which Christ is seen speaks louder than the persuasion of words.[2]

As to light Jesus says: 14a. You are the light of the world. Light in Scripture indicates the true knowledge of God (Ps. 36:9; cf. Matt. 6:22, 23); goodness, righteousness, and truthfulness (Eph. 5:8, 9); joy and gladness, true happiness (Ps. 97:11; Isa. 9:1–7; cf. 60:19). It symbolizes the best there is in learning, love, and laughter, as contrasted with darkness, that is, the worst there is in dullness, depravity, and despair. When light is mentioned, sometimes one quality—for instance, revealed knowledge—is emphasized; then again another, depending on the context in each case. In certain instances the meaning of the word “light” may even be broader than any one quality would indicate. It may be sufficiently comprehensive to include all the blessings of “salvation” (cf. Ps. 27:1; Luke 1:77–79). So, perhaps, also here in 5:14.

The statement, “You are the light of the world” probably means that the citizens of the kingdom not only have been blessed with these endowments but are also the means used by God to transmit them to the men who surround them. The light-possessors become light-transmitters. Collectively believers are “the light.” Individually they are “lights” (luminaries, stars, Phil. 2:15). Both ideas may well have been included in the words as spoken by Jesus, though the emphasis is on the collective.

However, Christians are never a light in and by themselves. They are light “in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8). Christ is the true, the original “light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5; 12:35, 36, 46; 2 Cor. 4:6; cf. Ps. 27:1; 36:9; 43:3; Isa. 49:6; 60:1; Luke 1:78, 79; 2:32). Believers are “the light of the world” in a secondary or derived sense. He is “the light lighting” (John 1:9). They are the light lighted. He is the sun. They resemble the moon, reflecting the sun’s light. Apart from Christ they cannot shine. The electric bulb does not emit light all by itself. It imparts light only when connected and turned on, so that the electric current generated in the power-house is transmitted to it. So also as long as Christ’s followers remain in living contact with the original light they are a light to others (cf. John 15:4, 5).

Now since it is the business of the church to shine for Jesus, it should not permit itself to be thrown off its course. It is not the task of the church to specialize in and deliver all kinds of pronouncements concerning economic, social, and political problems. “The great hope for society today is in an increasing number of individual Christians. Let the Church of God concentrate on that and not waste her time and energy on matters outside her province.” This is not to say that an ecclesiastical pronouncement revealing the bearing of the gospel upon this or that not specifically theological problem is always to be condemned. There may be situations in which such an illuminating public testimony becomes advisable and even necessary, for the gospel must be proclaimed “in all its fulness” and not narrowly restricted to the salvation of souls. But the primary duty of the church remains the spreading forth of the message of salvation, that the lost may be found (Luke 15:4; 1 Cor. 9:16, 22; 10:33), those found may be strengthened in the faith (Eph. 4:15; 1 Thess. 3:11–13; 1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18), and God may be glorified (John 17:4; 1 Cor. 10:31). Those who, through the example, message, and prayers of believers, have been converted will show the genuine character of their faith and love by exerting their influence for good in every sphere.

Continued: 14b–16. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and place it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. So let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. In connection with the symbol of light two ideas are combined here: The followers of Christ must be both visible and radiant. They must be “in the light” and must also send out rays of light. The first idea is conveyed by the city situated on a hill. Such a city, with its walls and fortresses, “cannot be hidden.” It is clearly visible to everybody.

The second idea is set forth by the figure of the lamp set on the lampstand (not “a candle put on a candlestick,” A.V.). Such a lamp “gives light”; it “shines.” The lamps of that day can be seen today in any large museum and in many private collections. The author at this moment is looking at one of these terra cotta saucer-shaped objects. This one happens to be about five and one-half inches long, four wide, and one-and-a-half high. It has a handle on one end; on the other a nozzle-shaped extension with a hole for a wick. In the top of the lamp’s upper surface there are two holes, one for adding oil, the other for air.

What Jesus is saying, then, is this, that no one would be foolish enough to light such a lamp—evidently for the purpose of illumining the surroundings—and then immediately place it under the peck-measure. Any sensible person would of course set the lit lamp on the lampstand. Such a lampstand was generally a very simple object. It might be a shelf extending from the pillar in the center of the room (the pillar that supported the large crossbeam of the flat roof), or a single stone projecting inward from the wall, or a piece of metal conspicuously placed and used similarly. The point is that the lamp, already lit and placed on the stand, would give light “to everyone in the house.” This is understandable when it is remembered that the houses of the poor, the very people whom Jesus was addressing (Luke 6:20), had only one room.

Now what a lamp is to a house the follower of Christ should be to the world. A lighted lamp should be given the opportunity to send out its rays. Similarly the followers of Jesus should “let their light shine” in order that men may see their conduct, their “good works.” It is on these works, considered as products of faith (see on verse 17) that the Lord places the emphasis, for “actions speak louder than words.”

It is not at all necessary nor even advisable in the present connection to make a separation between works done in obedience to the first table of the law and those performed in conformity with the second. In the teaching of Jesus these two go together even though it is true that the first is basic (Matt. 22:34–40; Mark 12:30, 31; Luke 10:25–28). When such excellent works, of whatever nature, are done out of gratitude for salvation obtained by grace through faith they are pleasing to God. This is true whether they consist of taking hold of God in prayer (Matt. 6:6; cf. Isa. 64:7) and trusting him (Matt. 6:24–34); or of helping those in need (25:34–40) and loving even one’s enemies (5:44).

That some of these good deeds are seen by men is unavoidable. Even unbelievers will at times hear the songs of praise sung by God’s children. Worldly people will take note of the quiet trust in God manifested by believers in times of trial and distress. They will at times express astonishment about the manner in which Christians will go out of their way, risking danger and even death, in order to extend help to the sick and dying. Tertullian (fl. about a.d. 200) wrote: “But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they [the Christians] love one another,’ for they themselves [the non-Christians] are animated by mutual hatred; ‘see how they are ready even to die for one another,’ for they themselves will rather put to death” (Apology XXXIX).

It is a fine thing that these good works are seen by men. That is exactly what Jesus wants. Rightly considered, it is even what those who perform them want, but not in order to gain honor for themselves, in the sense of 6:1, 5, 16. On the contrary, Jesus says, “… and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” The end, therefore, and also to a certain extent the result, of seeing such good works, will be that men, influenced by God’s Spirit, will ascribe to God the reverence that is his due for having caused the light to shine forth from human lives (Isa. 24:15; 25:3; Ps. 22:23; cf. 1 Cor. 10:31).

A word must be added about this phrase, in the Gospels here used for the first time, “your Father who is in heaven” (literally “in the heavens”). A highly respected author writes, “It is true indeed that even in the Old Testament God is sometimes addressed as Father, but then not to express the personal relation between God and the individual believer but as an indication of the relation between God and the covenant people Israel; compare, for example, Isa. 63:16.” I fail to see the correctness of this statement. Even in the Old Testament God is recognized as the Father not only of the nation (besides Isa. 63:16 see also 64:8; Mal. 1:1, 6; and cf. Num. 11:12), but even of individual believers, holding them in his tender embrace and caring for them: “A Father of the fatherless and a Judge of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5). “He will cry to me, Thou art my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.… My lovingkindness will I keep for him forever” (Ps. 89:26, 28). Although it is true that in Ps. 103:13 God is not directly addressed as “Father,” yet the idea of his fatherhood in relation to individuals is clearly implied: “As a father pities his children, so Jehovah pities those that fear him.” To them he is more precious than any earthly father: “Though my father and my mother have forsaken me, yet Jehovah accepts me” (Ps. 27:10). See also 2 Sam. 7:14, 15 (cf. 1 Chron. 28:6). Jesus, then, builds on this Old Testament foundation—was it not his own Spirit that inspired this book?—and in the Gospels causes the term as applied to God, to stand out in all its tenderness (“Father”) and majesty (“who is in heaven”). See further on Matt. 6:9. All those, whether of Jewish or Gentile origin, who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, are privileged, in addressing God, to say, “Our Father who art in heaven.”[3]

Being Light

Jesus also calls us to be light. You are the light of the world. Whereas salt is hidden, light is obvious. Salt works secretly, while light works openly. Salt works from within, light from without. Salt is more the indirect influence of the gospel, while light is more its direct communication. Salt works primarily through our living, while light works primarily through what we teach and preach. Salt is largely negative. It can retard corruption, but it cannot change corruption into incorruption. Light is more positive. It not only reveals what is wrong and false but helps produce what is righteous and true.

In his introduction to the book of Acts, Luke refers to his gospel as “the first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1). Christ’s work always has to do with both doing and speaking, with living and teaching.

David wrote, “For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). “God is light,” John reminds us, “and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:5–7). Light is not given simply to have but to live by. “Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path,” the psalmist tells us (Ps. 119:105). God’s light is to walk by and to live by. In its fullest sense, God’s light is the full revelation of His Word-the written Word of Scripture and the living Word of Jesus Christ.

God’s people are to proclaim God’s light in a world engulfed in darkness, just as their Lord came “to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). Christ is the true light, and we are His reflections. He is the Sun, and we are His moons. A free rendering of 2 Corinthians 4:6 could be, “God, who first ordered the light to shine in the darkness has flooded our hearts with His light. We now can enlighten men only because we can give them knowledge of the glory of God as we have seen it in the face of Jesus Christ.” God sheds His light on the world through those who have received His light through Jesus Christ.

The Jews had long claimed to have God’s light, and He had long called them to be His light. But because they had ignored and rejected His light, they could not be His light. They were confident that they were guides “to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,” but Paul told them they were blind guides and lamps without light. “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” he asks (Rom. 2:19–21). They had the light, but they were not living by it. “You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal?” Paul continues by way of illustration. “You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” (vv. 21–22). We are to prove ourselves “to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom [we are to] appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).

By its nature and by definition light must be visible in order to illuminate. Christians must be more than the largely indirect influence of salt; they must also be the direct and noticeable instruments of light.

Both in the daytime and at night, a city set on a hill cannot be hidden. It is exposed for all to see. By day its houses and buildings stand out on the landscape, and at night the many lights shining out of its windows make it impossible to miss. A secret Christian is as incongruous as a hidden light. Lights are to illuminate, not to be hidden; to be displayed, not to be covered. Christians are to be both subtle salt and conspicuous light.

God did not give the gospel of His Son to be the secret, hidden treasure of a few but to enlighten every person (John 1:9). Many reject the light and reject those who bring it, but just as God offers His light to the whole world, so must His church. It is not our gospel but God’s, and He gives it to us not only for our own sakes but the entire world’s. True believers are salt and light, and must fulfill that identity.[4]

14–15 As in v. 13, “you” is emphatic—namely, You, my followers and none others, are the light of the world. Though the Jews saw themselves as the light of the world (Ro 2:19), the true light is the Suffering Servant (Isa 42:6; 49:6), fulfilled in Jesus himself (Mt 4:16; cf. Jn 8:12; 9:5; 12:35; 1 Jn 1:7). Derivatively, his disciples constitute the new light (cf. Eph 5:8–9; Php 2:15). Light is a universal religious symbol. In the OT as in the NT, it most frequently symbolizes purity as opposed to filth, truth or knowledge as opposed to error or ignorance, and divine revelation and presence as opposed to reprobation and abandonment by God.

The reference to the “city on a hill” is at one level fairly obvious. Often built of white limestone, ancient towns gleamed in the sun and could not easily be hidden. At night the inhabitants’ oil lamps would shed some glow over the surrounding area (cf. Bonnard). As such cities could not be hidden, so also it is unthinkable to light a lamp and hide it under a peck measure (v. 15, NIV, “bowl”). A lamp is put on a lampstand to illuminate all. Attempts to identify “everyone in the house” as a reference to all Jews in contrast with Luke 11:33, referring to Gentiles (so Manson, Sayings of Jesus, 93), are probably guilty of making the metaphor run on all fours, especially in view of the Gentile theme so strongly present in Matthew.

But the “city on a hill” saying may also refer to OT prophecies about the time when Jerusalem or the mountain of the Lord’s house, or Zion, would be lifted up before the world, the nations streaming to it (e.g., Isa 2:2–5; cf. chs. 42, 49, 54, 60). This allusion has been defended by Grundmann, Trilling (Das wahre Israel, 142), and especially K. M. Campbell (“The New Jerusalem in Matthew 5.14,” SJT 31 [1978]: 335–63). It is not a certain allusion, and the absence of definite articles tells against it; if valid, it insists that Jesus’ disciples constitute the true locus of the people of God, the outpost of the consummated kingdom, and the means of witness to the world—all themes central to Matthew’s thought.

16 Jesus drives the metaphor home. What his disciples must show is their “good works,” i.e., all righteousness, everything they are and do that reflects the mind and will of God. And people must see this light. It may provoke persecution (vv. 10–12), but that is no reason for hiding the light others may see and by which they may come to glorify the Father—the disciples’ only motive (cf. 2 Co 4:6; 1 Pe 2:12). Witness includes not just words but deeds; as Stier (Words of the Lord Jesus) remarks, “The good word without the good walk is of no avail.”

Thus the kingdom norms (vv. 3–12) so work out in the lives of the kingdom’s heirs as to produce the kingdom witness (vv. 13–16). If salt (v. 13) exercises the negative function of delaying decay and warns disciples of the danger of compromise and conformity to the world, then light (vv. 14–16) speaks positively of illuminating a sin-darkened world and warns against a withdrawal from the world that does not lead others to glorify the Father in heaven. “Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him” (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 106).[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 174). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1218). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 284–287). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 244–245). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 170). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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