“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Light and darkness represent a familiar contrast in Scripture. God is the light, representing all which is good, holy, true, and righteous (John 1:1-5, 1 John 1:5). Darkness, as the absence of light, is the absence of what is good, holy, true, and righteous, and therefore represents evil, sin, unholiness, ungodliness, and unrighteousness (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 1 John 1:5-10). This imagery is often extended to people on the basis of their identification and conduct: those who seek after God and His righteousness and holiness are considered part of the light, while those who do not seek God but seek their own interests are considered in darkness (Ephesians 5:7-14, 1 John 1:5-10). Light and darkness also have their representative works (cf. Ephesians 5:9, 11). The early Christians exhort one another to walk in the light, participate in the light, and turn away from the darkness and avoid it (Ephesians 5:3-11, 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus understands this imagery and uses it for full effect in Matthew 5:14-16, but toward a slightly different end.
As with salt in Matthew 5:13, so with light in Matthew 5:14: Jesus declares, without a hint of doubt or qualification, that the disciples are the light of the world. Jesus is not providing blanket approval for anything and everything the disciples will think, feel, or act; He is not attempting to deny the temptation for the disciples to act in darkness, and in a parallel declaration in Luke 11:33-36, will warn about the dangers of the eye and the body being full of darkness. Jesus is in no way seeking to contradict the way the imagery of light and darkness has been used throughout the Scriptures. In Matthew 5:14-16 Jesus takes for granted how His disciples will seek to walk in the light and pursue God and His righteousness. Therefore, they are the light of the world.
But what does that mean? Jesus follows up with another declaration: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14). Most cities in the ancient world were built on a hill or accessible mountain for defensive purposes: if an enemy attacked, the defenders of the city would maintain the higher ground and maintain a slight advantage. A city set in the heights has the advantage of seeing the surrounding territory for some distance, but this also means that people in the surrounding territory can always see the city as well. One cannot camouflage a city on a hill!
Jesus then returns to the imagery of light with an example in the negative: no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel (Matthew 5:15). “Bushel” is the Greek modios, a dry unit of measure of grain, often translated as “basket” under the assumption that Jesus uses the term to describe that into which a bushel of grain is placed. The point, made in Mark 4:21-23 as well, is clear enough: if it is sufficiently dark to need to light a lamp, it makes no sense to put the lamp under a bushel and hide or cover the light. Instead, the lamp is placed on a stand to illuminate the whole house (Matthew 5:15).
This entire series of illustrations leads up to Jesus’ explanatory conclusion in Matthew 5:16: as the light of the world, the disciples should let their light shine before others so they can see the good works done and thus give glory to God the Father.
Jesus therefore uses the images of light and a city on a hill to describe the “public” nature inherent in following Jesus. If we are in the light as Jesus is the light, our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions will be conformed to Jesus and reflect righteousness and holiness. As light shines in darkness, so our faith must be evident to all men.
Holiness and righteousness cannot be hidden, covered up, or kept private: a holy and righteous life, by its very nature, will be clear and evident to everyone who interacts with it. Followers of Jesus who reflect His light are the light of the world, a city set on a hill: they cannot be hidden or camouflaged. And that is the point: just like a lamp lit and hidden is next to useless, so is a Christian who seeks to hide his Christianity.
Jesus’ exhortations are quite appropriate for us today. While superficial profession of Christianity remains popular in our culture, firm adherence in following Jesus and His truth are not. We are often tempted to downplay our faith and the role it plays in our lives. Religion makes a lot of people very uncomfortable; our secular society puts a lot of pressure on Christians to “play nice” and not seek to offend or trouble anyone by proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in word and deed. Nevertheless, we must obey God, not men (cf. Acts 5:29), and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ought to so completely transform us that we cannot help but talk about it and live transformed lives because of it. That faith cannot be hidden any more than a city on a hill or light in the darkness.
It has always been a challenge to be the light in a world full of darkness (cf. John 1:5); this is not just a modern phenomenon. Christians are always under immense pressure to compromise their faith and “turn on the dimmer switch,” so to speak, regarding their light. Nevertheless, when we truly shine as the light of God in Christ, people will see our good works, and they will have reason to give glory to God the Father. Even in these dark days many people appreciate the blessings which come from Christians reflecting Jesus. People still appreciate knowing that others love them and care for them. People still appreciate it when others do good things for them. Even if people disagree with Christianity, there remains respect for people who maintain convictions, as long as they live by them.
And such is the warning within Jesus’ exhortation. Yes, His disciples are to be the light of the world, a city set on a hill. But that means there can be no hiding. Just as the people around us are given reason to give God glory when we reflect Christ toward them, they are also given reason to blaspheme when we fail to reflect Christ and act little differently from anyone else despite professing to follow Jesus. If the light of the world acts like the darkness, what hope remains for the world?
Christianity has never been nor can it become merely a private affair. Christianity cannot hide in the shadows; such places are for all those forces opposed to Christianity! Our faith, if it is truly alive and reflecting Jesus, will not just change our lives, but has the capacity to draw all around us toward Jesus as well. Neither Christians nor the church were ever called to “circle the wagons” and retreat into some private, “safe” Christian sphere, withdrawn from the world. You might be able to hide in a desert cave or a rural commune, but Jesus never described believers like that. His people are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. Christianity is supposed to be practiced in the sight of others, for the benefit of others even if it sometimes poses challenges or causes difficulties in our lives.
The Christian life is like living in a glass house, open to the eyes of everyone. There is a lot of pressure in that to conform to the world and to compromise the standards of Jesus; there is also a lot of pressure to try to cover up the windows and retreat into private spirituality. Yet, to this day, people put lamps on stands to give light throughout a room or a house, and so it must be with us and our faith. It will be uncomfortable at times, and it will involve a lot of pressure, but we are called to practice our Christianity everywhere and before everyone. We are called to reflect Jesus in the public sphere. Let us so live to give reason for others to glorify God in Christ, and shine as lights in the world!
Ethan R. Longhenry