This is an adapted excerpt from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World: A Study of Matthew 5–16, published in partnership with Baker Books.
One metaphor our Lord uses to describe the witness of the Christian is light (Matt. 5:14–16). Christians are the light of the world—a world that, by implication, is shrouded in thick darkness.
Jesus talks about two sources of physical light: the light from a city set on a hill, and the light from a lamp set on a lampstand. The first source, the city, is often misunderstood. Some think that Matthew, in recording Jesus’s teaching, became somewhat confused and put in an irrelevant illustration about a city visible from a great distance because of its elevation. The illustration is colorful, it is thought, but out of place in a context concerned with light. Such critics, I think, are only revealing that they live in the industrialized world where light is so readily available.
Importance of Light
They don’t know how dark nature can be. In Canada it’s possible to go camping hundreds of miles away from any city or town. If it’s a cloudy night, and there’s no phosphorus in the area, the darkness is total. A hand held three inches from your face can’t be seen. But if there’s a city nearby, perhaps 100 miles away, the darkness is relieved. The light from the city is reflected off the clouds, and the night, once perfectly dark, is no longer quite so desolate. Likewise Christians who let their light shine before men can’t be hidden; the good light they shed attenuates the darkness that would otherwise be absolute.
Christians are the light of the world—a world that, by implication, is shrouded in thick darkness.
When once we imagine a world without hundreds of watts of electric power at our instant personal disposal, we’ll understand how darkness can be a terror and a symbol of all that is evil. The light from the city, even if it isn’t as powerful as our modern sources of illumination, makes the darkness a little more bearable than it was before.
Light is so important that it’s ludicrous to think anyone would want to extinguish the flickering flame from an olive-oil lamp by smothering it with a peck measure. That burning wick may cast only a little light by modern standards, but if the alternative is pitch blackness, its light is wonderful, quite sufficient for everyone in the house (Matt. 5:15).
Importance of Good Deeds
“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
What is this light by which Jesus’s disciples lighten a dark world? In this context, we read of neither personal confrontation nor ecclesiastical pronouncement. Rather, the light is the “good deeds” performed by Jesus’s followers—performed in such a way that at least some men recognize these followers of Jesus as sons of God, and come to praise this Father whose sons they are (Matt. 5:16).
The norms of the kingdom, worked out in the lives of the heirs of the kingdom, constitute the witness of the kingdom. Such Christians refuse to rob their employers by being lazy on the job, or to rob their employees by succumbing to greed and stinginess. They are first to help a colleague in difficulty, last to return a barbed reply. They honestly desire the advancement of the other’s interests, and honestly dislike smutty humor. Transparent in their honesty and genuine in their concern, they reject both the easy answer of the doctrinaire politician and the laissez-fare stance of the selfish secular man. Meek in personal demeanor, they’re bold in righteous pursuits.
The norms of the kingdom, worked out in the lives of the heirs of the kingdom, constitute the witness of the kingdom.
For a variety of reasons, Christians have lost this vision of witness and are slow to return to it. But in better days and other lands, the faithful and divinely empowered proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ (who himself is the light of the world par excellence [John 8:12]) so transformed men that they in turn became the light of the world (Matt. 5:14). Prison reform, medical care, trade unions, control of a perverted and perverting liquor trade, abolition of slavery, abolition of child labor, establishment of orphanages, reform of the penal code—in all these areas the followers of Jesus spearheaded the drive for righteousness. The darkness was alleviated. And this, I submit, has always been the pattern when professing Christians have been less concerned with personal prestige and more concerned with the norms of the kingdom.
“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”