Living as Light
In this chapter we will continue looking at what it means to understand how our faith applies to all of life. We saw in the last chapter how Jesus used the image of salt to explain that his disciples are called to impact the culture in which they live. Salt was used in the ancient world as a preserving agent which helped slow down the spoilage of food. So too, Christians are called to hold back the moral and spiritual decay that surround us. Because of who we are in Christ, Jesus does not tell us to “be” salt, but reminds us that we are salt and therefore are expected to live like it.
We’re going to look at the other half of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:13-16. Here he is sounding a similar note to his words on being the salt of the earth. Because we are light, we must live as light in a dark world. Jesus teaches,
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
We each exert influence in the lives of others, whether we recognize it or not. President Woodrow Wilson once told the following story which makes this point.
“I was in a very common place, I was sitting in a barber chair, when I became aware that a powerful personality had entered the room. A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself – to have his hair cut – and sat in the chair next to me. Every word the man uttered, though it was not in the least didactic, showed a personal interest in the man who was serving him. And before I got through with what was being done to me, I was aware that I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr. D.L. Moody was in that chair. I purposely lingered in the room after he had left and noted the singular effect that his visit had brought upon the barber shop. They talked in undertones. They didn’t know his name but they knew something had elevated their thoughts, and I felt that I left that place as I should have left a place of worship.”
Can you imagine exerting that much godly influence, simply while getting your hair cut? That gives us a glimpse of what it means to be a light, but we must look more deeply at Jesus’ words.
Just as Jesus’ purpose in calling his followers salt was to contrast them with the world, so too was he contrasting his followers with the world when he referred to them as light. The use of the word light points to the nature of the world around us. It is shrouded in thick darkness.
In contrast to the darkness of the world, Jesus mentions two sources of physical light: the light from a city set on a hill and the light from a lamp set on a lampstand.
A City on a Hill
Long before Ronald Reagan called America a bright and shining city on a hill, there were the Puritans. Commenting on the early American Puritans, John Winthrop said,
“[For the Puritans] All of life was spiritual, a seamless fabric integrating heart, soul, body, and mind in an effort to live life [in the presence of God]. The kingdom of Christ was not confined to private devotions or church gatherings, but extended into the realms of human knowledge and activity.”
He called this effort and attitude, “a shining city upon a hill.” The Puritans sought to faithfully model before a dark world what it meant to be the light of Christ.
If you have ever gone camping a far distance from a city or town, you may have a good idea of what total darkness can be like. I remember a camping trip in high school that took my friends and me a long way from the lights of civilization. The first night I was amazed I couldn’t see my fingers just inches in front of my face.
Jesus’ audience lived in rural communities. They were familiar with pitch black darkness. They would have immediately understood what Jesus meant by being able to see the light of a city on a hill, even a faraway city. Those same people, being Jewish, may have instantly thought of Jerusalem as the great city set on a hill, giving its light to the world. But Jesus had a different light in mind.
The Real Light
In his teaching and preaching, Jesus pointed out that he was the Light of the world, and his followers were to share in that mission. He taught, for example, in John 8:12,
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
It’s in light of those words that Jesus says,
“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
William Hendrickson writes that Jesus’ followers - the light possessors – are now to be light transmitters.
Reflectors of Light
It’s important to note that Christians are not the light, in and of themselves. Only Jesus is the true light of the world. However, just as the moon has no light of its own but reflects the light of the sun, so must followers of Christ reflect his light in a dark world.
When people see the Light of the world reflected in our lives, they aren’t witnessing our own light but the light of Christ dwelling in and shining through us. Like a city on a hill, Christians who let their light shine before others cannot be hidden. The good light from Christians helps to counter the overwhelming darkness of the world.
A Lamp’s Small Flicker
It’s not a coincidence that haunted houses are dark. Our minds run rampant when we find ourselves in a totally dark setting. Surely that is why evil is associated with darkness. Even the smallest amount of light makes darkness a little more bearable than it was before.
Even the smallest flickering flame of an olive-oil lamp make us grateful in a totally dark setting. Such light would be a blessing in a home on a dark night. If you ever had a “night light” growing up, you know even the weakest bulb is more than enough to light your path. That’s why Jesus said in verse 15,
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.
Don’t Hide Your Light
What would be the purpose of Jesus sending his followers into the world as light if they were only going to live as “undercover” Christians? Jesus is teaching it would be silly for people to light a candle or lamp, only to hide it under a bowl or cover of some kind.
This is an important lesson about discipleship. Jesus says the very purpose of following him is to give his light to the world. Therefore, we read in verse 16,
In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
How do Jesus’ disciples lighten the dark world around them? The light is the “good deeds” performed by his followers. According to Jesus, these good deeds are done in such a way that at least some people recognize Jesus’ followers as God’s sons and daughters and praise God because of them.
Shine Where God Places You
Sometimes our minds race to spectacular demonstrations of those who have been the “light of the world,” such as William Wilberforce, John Wesley, or Hannah More. While we thank God for faithful Christians like these, we should be encouraged to serve as the light of Christ right where God has placed us.
When we practice godliness in our homes, showing love and putting our family members before ourselves, we show Christ’s light. Our light is also revealed in the workplace, where Jesus’ disciples are honest and work with integrity and excellence. When Christians stand for justice for the least or demonstrate mercy to those in need in our church family or community, our light shines brightly.
Jesus, the light of the world, has saved and forgiven us, changed our hearts, given us hope, put his love in us, given us joy, and set our feet upon the rock which cannot be shaken. Surely our lives should reflect those truths in the way we love God and our neighbor. When we do, the dark world is less able to ignore or deny the light of our Lord, which shines in and through us.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.