After giving the Beatitudes which describe who the people are who are blessed and belong in Christ’s kingdom, Jesus continues to describe who his people are. There is an identity that Christ’s people understand that they possess. First, Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth. It is not that we have salt but that we are salt. We are to influence people for Jesus. We asked who do we influence, where do we influence, and how do we influence. Jesus’ concern was that we would lose our saltiness. We are to influence in a way that brings grace to the person and to the situation. We must consider our words and actions to determine if we are bringing graciousness that glorifies Jesus. Jesus gives us another picture of our identity in Matthew 5:14-16.
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 ESV)
You Are the Light of the World
The second picture of the identity that Jesus’ followers possess is that they are the light of the world. Now what is the aspect of light that Jesus focuses upon for our identity? Consider the two illustrations that he gives in verses 14-15. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand. The point is that the light gives light to all in the house.
We must not be hidden. A disciple is supposed to be as obvious as a city set on a hill. True disciples are not hidden. Consider the picture. God did not make you light so that you would be hidden under a basket. Light must shine. No one turns on the light switch in a room and then puts aluminum foil over the light. What does it mean that we are called the light of the world? What does light represent? Now First, consider that Jesus called himself the light of the world in John 8:12.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 ESV)
Notice that the concept of light is being able to have life. The concept in the scriptures is always that God is the light and his word provides direction and guidance for our lives in the darkness.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105 ESV)
What we see in Jesus calling himself the light of the world and David declaring that God’s word is a lamp and a light tells us that light is supposed to shine in the darkness so that people can see the way to live their lives. The light is to shine so that they can have direction because the world is full of darkness (cf. John 1:4-9. Light shows the way. Light illuminates the path. Light provides the direction needed. Keep this idea in mind as we think about being the light of the world. We are to show the way. We are to give direction to the world. We are to illuminate the path.
The Gospel of John points out in its prologue that the world has been full of darkness waiting for the coming of the light. The Gospel of Matthew sets up the Sermon on the Mount by teaching that the people were dwelling in darkness but now have seen a great light.
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.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:13–17 ESV)
So how amazing is it to consider that the shining of this great light into the world as seen in Jesus is now described by Jesus as the identity of his disciples (cf. Isaiah 9:1-2; 51:4; 60:3)! In fact, the next paragraph in Matthew 4 is Jesus choosing his disciples. Jesus is the light and we are to take up that role for ourselves and shine as lights into the world of darkness. Just as Jesus warned that salt is useless if it is not influencing, so also light is useless if it is not shining. The light is useless if it is covered up. How sad it is when we willfully choose to hide our light!
How We Shine As Lights
So how are we supposed to shine as lights of the world since this is our identity? Matthew 5:16 tells us what this is supposed to look like. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works….” Notice that Jesus describes our light shining as people seeing our good works. The New Testament is filled with this picture of living a righteous life that is distinct from the world as shining as light.
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Philippians 2:14–16 ESV)
Notice that shining as light means not grumbling or disputing but maintaining our innocence and blamelessness so that we are without blemish in a crooked and twisted generation. We are holding fast to the word of life as a means of shining as lights. Notice that Peter makes the same connection.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9–12 ESV)
Peter says that we are to a holy nation, called out of darkness into his marvelous light. So what does this mean? Peter says it means that we abstain from the passions of the flesh and keep our conduct honorable in the world so that they will see your good deeds and glorify God. Very similar message as Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. How are we to shine as lights in the world? We must try to have a pure life before them. We cannot live as they live and do what they do in the world. We cannot join in their worldliness as if there is nothing wrong with that. Listen to how the apostle Paul tied these two ideas together when he wrote to the Ephesians.
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:6–16 ESV)
Do not participate in the unfruitful works of darkness but expose those works. Notice that Paul says you are light in the Lord. Therefore you are to walk as the children of light and exhibit the fruit of light, which is all things found in what is good, right, and true. So you must look carefully how you walk, being wise in your life and making the best use of your time because you are light. We do not live like the world. We do not make purchases like the world. We do not party like the world. We do not live for the weekend like the world. We will not be immoral like the world. Our worldliness and desiring to look like the world is how we put our light that God has given us under a basket. We cannot be the revelation of God to people in the world and show them the light of Christ when we are doing what they are doing, talking like they are talking, loving the world like they love the world, and behaving like they behave. As the darkness appears to grow in our culture it is all the more imperative that we shining as lights and be distinct. We will influence with graciousness in our words and actions (salt) and shine with our good deeds, pointing the way to Jesus (light).
Why We Are Light
Finally, Jesus explains why we are to be the light of the world. Matthew 5:16 teaches us that we are light “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We do not do good works because we are trying to make the world a better place. We do good works so that people will turn and glorify God. How will the world glorify God by our good works? I want us to recognize that this can never happen if we do not say to the person that are good works are because of Jesus. Faith does not come by seeing our good works, but faith comes by hearing the word of God (Romans 10:17). They are to see our good works and hear the gospel message so that God can be praised. Our good works are not just helping people. Our good works are to be the shining of the light to the world so that they see the way to God. We shine so that people can see God, not us. We must point to Jesus when we do good. This is what the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is going to describe: God glorifying good works. True righteousness.
Let us end by going beyond just thinking about doing good deeds for people. This declaration is far more than that. Being light means not acting like the world around us. We cannot live corrupt, worldly lives. But let us go beyond this also. Being the light of the world means that everything we do is God glorifying. Do people look at our marriage and see a God glorifying marriage? Do people look at our family and see a God glorifying family? Do people look at us at work and see a God glorifying employee? Do people look at you on vacation and see a God glorifying life? Do people look at everything we do, big and little thing, and see God glorified? That is what it means to be the light of the world. We live such radical lives that people want to know God.