A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:14-16. v14. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.
Jesus introduces the second metaphor with a similar affirmation: *You are the light of the world*. True, he was later to say ‘I am the light of the world’. (Jn.8:12; 9:5). But by derivation we are too, shining with the light of Christ, shining in the world like stars in the night sky. (cf. Phil.2:15). I sometimes think how splendid it would be if non-Christians, curious to discover the secret and source of our light, were to come up to us and enquire:
Twinkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are!
What this light is Jesus clarifies as our ‘good works’. Let men once *see your good works*, he said, and they will *give glory to your Father who is in heaven*, for it is by such good works that our light is to shine. It seems that ‘good works’ is a general expression to cover everything a Christian says and does because he is a Christian, every outward and visible manifestation of his Christian faith. Since light is a common biblical symbol of truth, a Christian’s shining light must surely include the spoken testimony. Thus, the Old Testament prophesy that God’s Servant would be ‘a light to the nations’ is said to have been fulfilled not only in Christ himself, the light of the world, but also by Christians who bear witness to Christ (Is.42:6; 49:6; Lk.2:32; Acts 26:23; 13:47). Evangelism must be counted as one of the ‘good works’ by which our light shines and our Father is glorified.
Luther was right to emphasize this but wrong (I think) to make it the exclusive reference. Matthew does not have in mind the ordinary works that people should do for one another out of love … Rather he is thinking principally about the distinctly Christian work of teaching correctly, of stressing faith, and of showing how to strengthen and preserve it: this is how we testify that we really are Christians,’ He went on in his commentary to draw a distinction between the first and second tables of the decalogue, that is, the ten commandments expressing our duty to God and to our neighbour, ‘The works we are talking about now deal with the first three commandments, which pertain to God’s honour, name and Word.’. It is healthy to be reminded that believing, confessing and teaching the truth are also ‘good works’ which give evidence of our regeneration by the Holy Spirit. (cf. Jn.6:28,29; 1 Cor.12:3; 1 Jn.3:23, 24; 5:1). We must not limit them to these, however. ‘Good works are works of love as well as of faith. They express not only our loyalty to God, but our care for our fellows as well. Indeed, the primary meaning of ‘works’ must be practical, visible deeds of compassion. It is when people see these, Jesus said, that they will glorify God, for they embody the good news of love which we proclaim. Without them our gospel loses its credibility and our God his honour.
As with the salt so with the light, the affirmation is followed by a condition: *Let your light … shine before men* If salt can lose its saltiness, the light in us can become darkness 6:23). But we are to allow the light of Christ within us to shine out from us, so that people may see it. We are not to be like a town or a village nestling in a valley whose lights are concealed from view, but like *a city set on a hill*, which *cannot be hid* and whose lights are clearly seen for miles around. Again, we are to be like a lighted lamp, ‘a burning and shining lamp’ as John the Baptist was, (Jn.5:35) which is set on a lampstand in a prominent position in the house so that *it gives light to all in the house*, and is not stuck ‘under the meal-tub’ (NEB) or ‘under a bucket’ (JBP), where it can do no good.
That is, as the disciples of Jesus, we are not to conceal the truth we know or the truth of what we are. We are not to pretend to be other than we are, but be willing for our Christianity to be visible to all. ‘Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.’ (Bonhoeffer) Rather we are to be ourselves, our true Christian selves, openly living the life described in the beatitudes, and not ashamed of Christ. Then people will see us and our good works, and seeing us will glorify God. For they will inevitably recognise that it is by the grace of God we are, what we are, that *our* light is *his* light, and that our works are his works done in us and through us. So it is the light they will praise, not the lamp which bears it; it is our Father in heaven whom they will glorify, not the children he has begotten and who exhibit a certain family likeness. Even those who revile us may not be able to help glorifying God for the very righteousness on account of which they persecute us (10-12).
Tomorrow: Lessons to learn.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.