On a clear night the lights from a city can be seen for miles, and if the city is on a hill nothing will hide its light. Even in biblical times, long before electricity, the night fires of a city on a hill emitted light which could be seen for a great distance. A number of hills around the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time were topped by cities whose lights were visible on the night horizon. The people to whom Jesus was speaking would have been familiar with these lights. Safad (now Zefat), a city set on one of the high hills in the Galilee area, was particularly noticeable, and this may be the city Jesus had in mind when He spoke the words of Matthew 5:14-16, quoted on the next page.
The lamps used to light first century houses were small ceramic vessels containing olive oil and a floating wick. When lit, the lamp was either set on an appropriate shelf or on a well-positioned lampstand where it could “give light to everyone in the house.” While the first century lamp was not as bright or convenient as our modern electric lights, it gave adequate light as long as the wick was trimmed and the lampstand was in a central place. Because these lamps required fire to light, they were probably not put out when the household went to bed. Instead they were dimmed by placing a bowl over the lamp. This is what our Lord had in mind when He spoke the words of Matthew 5:15.
What is the thrust of Jesus’ comments about a city on a hill being visible and a lamp in a house giving light? It’s obvious from the context that He doesn’t want His followers and their message of truth to be hidden. He wants His light bearers to let their message shine brightly so that there will be no confusion in the world as to what the truth is and where it is to be found.
Purpose Of Light
The purpose of light is to reveal what’s in darkness (the function of a lamp), and to give direction (the function of a beacon or light on a hill). As the light of the world, Christians have this dual responsibility to be shining lamps that make plain the truth concealed by spiritual darkness, as well as beacons that warn of spiritual danger and point the way. “That you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).
Thus, as the light of the world, Christians have the two-fold mission of exposing right and wrong, and of being a reference to determine right and wrong. In verse 15 we see that we are to reveal the truth. Without spiritual light, people cannot clearly distinguish truth from error or right from wrong, just as people in a dark house can’t see where it’s safe to walk. In verse 14 we are told to maintain a testimony which becomes a reference point in this dark world. As hilltop cities become night beacons which can be seen for miles and used as a compass, so our Christian communication (verbal and non-verbal) should stand out and be so obvious that people groping in spiritual and moral darkness can get a bearing on what is right and wrong and be pointed in the right direction.
Remember that the Lord’s main point about our light – whether in the house or on the hilltop – is that we are not to hide it. He has set us there not to be hidden or dimmed, but to shine – because only true Christians are the light of the world. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, cultists, new-agers, religious gurus, shamans, good and sincere people, and all other self-proclaimed “light” bearers are not the light of the world – not even a small part of it. In fact, they are part of the darkness! Their philosophies may sound enlightening and they may appear to be good role models, but according to Scripture this is an illusion: “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
Notice from these verses that the false lights can actually appear to be “Christians” involved in “Christian” service. No wonder our lights must shine brightly and not be partially hidden. How tragic If people in this dark world are led astray by false “light” because the true light is too dim to be noticed. Gropers in darkness will generally turn to the brightest light available. Many who are seeking enlightenment are going the wrong way because false guides don’t hide their “light.” They take every opportunity to talk to anyone who will listen to their ideas of spiritual and moral “enlightenment.” Many of these false “lights” truly believe they are helping others and bettering themselves, but they are deluded. What an awesome responsibility Christians have as the light of the world! We must not hide our light – we must do everything we possibly can to let it shine out so that the evil and error of this dark world is exposed, and people will know which direction is the right way to turn.
Private And Public Light
“But,” you may say, “shouldn’t we be careful not to be too outspoken? People could be offended and turn away from us and the truth. Shouldn’t we build relationships and share the truth of Christianity only when they ask us?” Perhaps we could build a case for this position if the Lord had only spoken Matthew 5:15. Lifestyle evangelism or relationship evangelism is, in many ways, like the lamp in the house. And bringing a friendly, truth-revealing “lamp” into a relationship is certainly part of being “the light of the world.”
But verse 14 clearly indicates that we are to proclaim the truth publicly as well as privately. A city is not built on a hill to be concealed. In fact, its light cannot be hidden. The Lord hasn’t placed us here dressed in camouflage. He has “set us on a hill” so our light can be seen. Building relationships and earning the right to be heard through lifestyle evangelism are very important. “Fire and brimstone sermons” should not characterize our testimony, nor should our “beacon” be like the high beam headlights that annoy other drivers. But in a dark world where people around us are lost, God wants our testimony to shine out not only “in the house” but also “on the hill.” It should shine for great distances and to many people. Of course there will be times when people will be offended by the truth, not want to hear it and turn away from it. Jesus did say that people “love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil” (Jn. 3:19). If we are going to obey the Lord, however, our lifestyle evangelism must include public proclamation as well as private sharing of the truth in caring relationships. Would you say that your individual testimony is like the light of a city on a hill, or like the warm glow of a lamp in the home? To be true to God’s Word, shouldn’t it be both?
Light On Good Works
Where do good works fit in with the Christian commission of being the light of the world? At first glance Matthew 5:16 might seem to indicate that our good works are essentially the light that should identify us. But notice that this verse draws a distinction between our good deeds and our light. They work together but are not identical. Our light should draw people’s attention to our good works: “Let your light shine … that they may see your good deeds.” “Light” refers primarily to the proclamation of truth from our lips, while “good deeds” refers to the activity of our lives. Notice further in verse 16 that our light should draw people’s attention to our good works in such a way that people are directed towards God. Our light is not to be used to show off our good works so people praise us. People are not to hear about our good deeds but see them and praise God. Our works should be the natural outcome of our faith. If our light is shining and not hidden, any praise of our activity will be given only to God.
It is because Jesus is “the light of the world” (Jn. 8:12), that Christians are light in the world. When we became Christians we not only received forgiveness of sins, we also received new light and life in Christ. We have come to know the Lord Jesus not only as “the Way,” but also as “the Truth and the Life” (Jn. 14:6). Because He is the Truth within us, we are the light of the world: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Because Christ is the Life within us, our good deeds are more than humanistic good works. Thus the source of both our light and our good works is Christ within us. Our words and works are distinct, but they must go together. If there is no walk to back up our talk, our “light” may be a mere profession of faith – only mental assent to the truth (2 Cor. 13:5). On the other hand, good works without the light of verbal testimony could merely be humanistic good deeds, and could even contribute to the darkness by failing to bring the true light into dark places.
Let’s follow the perfect model of our Lord. His good works were always associated with His poignant words. His love for people never caused Him to water down God’s righteous standards. He boldly proclaimed the truth to the multitudes; He gently shined light into dark lives in one-on-one relationships. He continued to shine in a dark world even when He was misunderstood and persecuted, and we can expect the same response if we let our light shine (Mt. 5:10-12.) But the good news is that some people will respond to the light! Not only that, there is blessing promised in these verses to shining lights. So let’s not cover our lamps because of compromise or laziness. Let’s not climb down from the hill where the Lord has placed us because of fear or ridicule. And let’s be careful not to hinder the light of other believers in the body of Christ. We must make every effort to let the true light shine clearly in this dark world.
By David R. Reid
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.