In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ called His followers “the light of the world.” What exactly did He mean? How should we be lights?
It’s no surprise that Jesus Christ—the Word of God (John 1:1)—was a dynamic speaker. The Gospels record powerful, stirring and at times condemning messages that strike straight to the heart.
Of all of His recorded messages, the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus taught the true standard for Christianity, is the longest and most famous. (For a summary of this sermon, read the article “The Sermon on the Mount.”)
Throughout the sermon, Jesus used various methods to make His message clearer to His audience—an audience that includes you and me. These methods ranged from lists such as the Beatitudes, to modifications of common expressions such as “an eye for an eye,” to stirring mental images.
One of the images that Jesus verbally painted for us appears in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Just what does this series of statements regarding the visibility of light mean for us today?
The context of “the light of the world” passage
After going through the list known as the Beatitudes, Jesus refers to both salt and light. Like His statement “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), the reference to light comes right after the final beatitude, which promises a reward for when (not if) we are persecuted.
Even when persecution afflicts the followers of Christ, we are to be like salt and light.
The unique characteristics of salt are described in our article “The Salt of the Earth.” But what about light? What is it about light that Christians are to emulate?
The responsibility of being a light
The description “light of the world” conveys a responsibility that Christ places on the shoulders of His followers. The description “light of the world” conveys a responsibility that Christ places on the shoulders of His followers. Christians, who are to have the characteristics listed in the Beatitudes, are to be visible examples of His way of life to the world around them. Their examples are to be so powerful and dynamic that they serve as a spiritual light.
In a world full of evil and spiritual darkness, this becomes an increasingly vital responsibility for His people (Philippians 2:15).
Being labeled as “the light of the world” isn’t just a fancy title or a nice-sounding phrase. Instead, it’s to be a description that affects every aspect of how we live our lives. Christians are called out of this dark world, and we are to walk “as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).
We are to have nothing to do with the darkness that dwells in the surrounding world (1 Thessalonians 5:5). Our light has to shine brightly, regardless of the situation.
A city on a hill
After stating that His followers are the light of the world, Jesus continued, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
This expression has been used metaphorically by various religious and political leaders, ranging from John Winthrop in 1630 to American President Ronald Reagan in 1989. To those in Christ’s time, the city on a hill referred to a reality that His audience would have easily appreciated.
As a means of defense, ancient cities were built on hilltops. While this was done to help deter attackers, being at a higher altitude also meant that a city could be seen from a distance.
As Jesus Christ’s followers, our light should also be visible from a distance. Spiritually, we are to be the model nation that God wanted the ancient nation of Israel to be.
God told ancient Israel He gave them His laws so that they would be “your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has God so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-7).
But physical Israel failed in that responsibility (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). As spiritual Israel, followers of Jesus Christ are not to fail. Instead, our light has to shine brightly and show people the ways of our God.
Our light should affect those who are around us. And not just the people we personally know. Sometimes our example can have a great impact on people who quickly pass through our lives—the restaurant waiter, the hotel receptionist, a chance visitor in the workplace.
Peter said that our example should be such that those we encounter “may, by [our] good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).
Lamp on a lampstand
Jesus continued, “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Matthew 5:15).
Unlike a city on a hill, a lamp cannot normally be seen from a distance. A lamp doesn’t always put out a far-reaching light. Yet everyone within that lamp’s sphere of influence enjoys its benefits.
The light of God needs to be evident in our lives to those around us. While our light should not be obnoxious or glaring, God’s people should not cover their light or hide it so others can’t see it.
There are times when our light becomes hidden, particularly when we falter in times of trial. The apostle Peter was one of Christ’s closest friends and was present when He gave this sermon, yet he denied Him in front of multiple people for fear of death (Mark 14:66-72). We can easily cover our lights, and it does seem to make life easier at times.
Peter himself did learn to be a light, as we can see by his powerful example of preaching the gospel in the book of Acts. And he recorded this advice about how to prepare to be a light: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
Our personal lights may be small and not very far-reaching, but they can be bright. Those within our sphere of influence should be positively influenced and shown a part of God’s character through how we live.
The purpose of a light
Jesus continued, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This final verse about light reveals the purpose behind our light and why it matters so much.
Our light doesn’t come from us, but is actually a reflection of God’s light. The Bible describes the law of God as a light. The law serves as a light that shows us how to live His way of life and helps keep us from stumbling in the dark (Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 6:23-24).
The Bible also explains that the true source of light is Jesus Christ, who declared, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Whatever light we have results solely from the light that Christ gives to us.
As Christians reflecting Christ’s light, we must recognize that it’s not about getting praise for ourselves by the brightness of our light. Instead, we’re to make sure that Christ and the Father receive all the glory for our good deeds.
Our lights cannot convert people to Christ’s way of life—that requires God’s calling (John 6:44). But our examples are to be shining brightly—individually and collectively—with the purpose of leading others to glorify God when they are called.
Those God is calling now are to be shining examples in an increasingly dark world. We are to be the light of the world.