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
If there is any other way out of the darkness of our world, any way other than the gospel, what is it? We’ve tried everything else. But every other path is some form of human self-exaltation, and it always ends up oppressing us. An obvious example of our dark pride is the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. In 1690 John Locke told us that every one of us is born like a blank slate. The old Christian doctrine of original sin – that we are darkened and warped in our very natures – that isn’t true. It’s so negative, so limiting. The truth is, according to Locke, you can write new potentialities on the blank page of your self, and the possibilities are endless. Get rid of that retro Bible and all its superstitions. Use your own reason as your guide, and write your new future on your own terms with freedom and tolerance and progress. And a lot of smart people agreed with Locke. It launched the age of enlightenment. To show exactly where they stood, they enthroned a prostitute as the goddess of reason at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. But the age of reason was also the age of the guillotine. Whenever self-confident sinners unleash the darkness within, they destroy.
And the smarter we are, the more efficient is our killing. In the Bible God tells us what he thinks of our capacity to light our own way: “Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment” (Isaiah 50:11). Look at the torments of the twentieth century – Russia, Germany, China, Cambodia. We need light from far beyond ourselves. There is another enlightenment. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). And we know he was the true light, because he humbled himself, he loved his enemies, he bore their sin on his cross. And millions have turned away from the darkness of their arrogance and experienced the light of Jesus entering in with truth and joy and release. Millions know what Charles Wesley was talking about:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast-bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
What has God done for us? In great mercy, Christ lived a perfect human life in our place – the life we’ve never lived. Then he died a guilty human death in our place – the death we deserve to die. Then he rose up and is now pouring out his Spirit. He’s making his enemies into his friends and gathering them together into churches, like Immanuel Church, where together – to use Paul’s language – we “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Our friends are not impressed by how smart we are and how successful we are and how good-looking we are. The world has smart, successful, good- looking people galore. But Christians radiant with Jesus are something new. They are the display of Christ in a world of darkness.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount – and we’ve all seen the movies so we know what it was like – Jesus looks at these ordinary people, simple people, a bunch of nobodies whose names are known only to God, and he looks them right in the eye and he says, “You are the light of the world. Not the intelligentsia, not the big-shots, but you are the light of the world.” The word “you” in verse 14 is emphatic (you and no other), and it’s plural (you together). Jesus is not speaking to individuals only: “You are the lights of the world.” He is speaking to his people as a group, as the light. He is speaking to Immanuel Church as a church. That’s why he uses the metaphor of a city – an organized gathering of people living and working together. He is saying to us corporately, “You together are the light of the world.” I wonder what would be the result of a word-association test, if we used the word “church” as the trigger-word. How many people today would say, “Church? Hmmm, that’s easy: the light of the world.” Even Christians underrate the power of their own churches in the world. Church is optional in the eyes of Christians. But in the eyes of Christ, his church is the light of the world. “You plural, you together – without you, the world lies in darkness. But with you, they will glorify your Father who is in heaven. That’s why you’re here.”
How does that miracle happen? Only one way. By the gospel going deep into our own hearts first. 2000 years ago a wonderful, egoless nobody named Jesus suffered on a cross for us. That humility was power. So when he speaks to us in the Beatitudes about becoming egoless nobodies, we’re listening. And the more we listen, the brighter the light shines. Who else but Jesus could make us soft and gentle, meek and humble, charitable and generous, willing to suffer rather than inflict suffering? So when he tells us, in verses 13-16, that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he means it in connection with the Beatitudes. What is salty and shining about a church? It’s the cross of Jesus humbling us, sweetening us, cheering us, filling us with a love greater than our own. And when not just individuals but whole churches go there together, that’s when the kingdom of Christ is coming in power. That’s revival. That’s a true age of enlightenment. It isn’t popular, which is why the last Beatitude is about persecution. But there is no other light in the world today.
Are you willing to shine for Christ? Are you willing to be humiliated for Christ? Have you surrendered your reputation to the Lord Jesus Christ? If we will share that willingness together here at Immanuel, the light of the gospel will shine brilliantly through us, and we will never regret it. In 1555 Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake for bringing the gospel to England. As they were about to die, Latimer said to his friend, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. For we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Does anyone here today think of John Locke and say, “What an inspiration! What a life!” But how different our thoughts are about Latimer and Ridley and so many others and the stand they took together. What a light they kindled, by God’s grace! There’s nothing so powerful as a church radiant with a clear witness to the Lord Jesus.
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. —Matthew 5:14-15
Do you have any idea how important you are for God’s glory in this generation? If you are in Christ, God has saved you for a purpose. The Bible says, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8). God has saved you not for yourself alone but also for others. That’s what light does. It shows up and spreads out. At night, when I look east from our home in Westhaven, the horizon is lit up with the glow of downtown Franklin. If I look west, it’s dark. If I look east, it’s glowing, because there’s a city there. And Jesus is saying, “You are my Beatitudes people, so that others, living in the darkness of me-first-ism, when they look at your church can see the glow and they will say, ‘God is there.'” Do we know how dark our world really is – not just in L.A. but here in the Bible Belt? When the author of the book of Judges summed up 300 years of chaos and tragedy in Old Testament history, here’s how he said it: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Why was there so much strife and conflict? Why did those generations fail? What brought down God’s judgment on his people? It wasn’t that they did what was wrong in their eyes but what was right: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” They followed their good intentions, and it was a disaster. Why? Because our good intentions are a Trojan horse for unintended consequences.
We need King Jesus to save us from the madness of our goodness. We need his cross to humble us down to the level of the Beatitudes. That’s when we begin to see the difference between darkness and light. Jesus says to us, “I’m not looking for helpful people; I’m looking for sinners. You available? Are you willing to learn to think gospel and live gospel and shine gospel? There is no other light, not even here in the Bible Belt.”
Here’s the thing about light. It has no edges. Light does not go so far and then just stop. It can’t be sliced up into pieces. It is not self-limiting. It spreads out as far as it can. Even so, we can’t set any preconditions with Jesus. We can’t say to him, “Thus far, and no further.” The light of the world must shine without limits, until he returns. No bargaining with him. No hiding from him or others. No restrictions on his claims. But total surrender and unceasing availability for his purpose, day by day, for his glory. What a privilege. One of the powerful forces working against us every day is what sociologists call “privatization.” The modern world doesn’t mind us being Christians, even passionate Christians, as long as we limit it to our private lives – like nineteenth century government officials not minding Indians wearing their war paint and dancing their war dances, as long as they stayed on the reservation. But all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. His salvation is a light spreading out in all directions, illuminating all of life.
I have a missionary friend named Hugh. Hugh was a political radical in the 1960s – radicals make great Christians – when the FBI began to take a warm interest in him. So Hugh decided it was time for a European vacation. He fell in love with a girl in France. They found their way to L’Abri, the Christian ministry in Switzerland, and became Christians. Later Hugh was working for IBM in Paris. As he was working with his boss, who was also a Christian, they discovered a disagreement about an important aspect of the business. As they tried to work it through, Hugh’s boss finally said to him, “Hugh, what you’re asking for is that Christ would be Lord of IBM!” And Hugh replied, “Exactly. Christ should be Lord of IBM.” But Christ was not welcome in that office as Lord, and Hugh lost his job. Now, which of those two Christian men enjoyed the thrill of living all-out for the Lord Jesus Christ? Which of those two men could hear in his heart the words of Jesus, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted”? Which of those two men could lay his head on his pillow that night with a happy conscience? Which of them could come to the end of his life with the gladness of this thought: “I didn’t hold back”? Light shines out in all directions, with no limits. That is simply what light does. It can’t do anything else and still be light.
In the same way – that is, without holding back – 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 5:16
Now the Lord translates the metaphor of light into the concrete reality of “good works.” By that he means the total expression of the Christian life. And the word “good” means “attractive.” That’s important, because there is a repulsive kind of goodness. It’s goodness that shows off, to make other people feel inferior and small. That’s ugly. But this kind of goodness is attractive, because it isn’t self-display. Jesus isn’t telling us to show off; he’s telling us not to hide. And what he wants people to see is the loveliness he creates in real people, so that others turn to God.
This week God will give you and me many opportunities to let our light shine out, for his glory. The difficulty is not lack of opportunity; the difficulty is in our hearts. We want too much to be popular, or just unnoticed. We will be tempted to privatize, tempted to hide, tempted to deny Christ. What he wants us to know is how important we are where we are this week. The glory of God will be either revealed and admired or concealed and robbed through us. Here is one way it can happen. When Henry Martyn, the Anglican missionary, was a guest for dinner in the home of a Muslim friend, his host described a painting he’d seen of Jesus bowing down before Muhammad. Martyn did not respond by saying lamely, “Isn’t that interesting?” Nor did he rebuke his friend. He was simply heartbroken. He tells us, I was cut to the soul at this blasphemy.
Mirza Seid Ali perceived that I was considerably disordered and asked what it was that was so offensive? I told him, “I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified; it would be hell to me if he were to be always thus dishonored.” He was astonished and again asked “Why?” “If anyone plucks out your eyes,” I replied, “there is not saying why you feel pain; it is feeling. It is because I am one with Christ that I am thus dreadfully wounded.”
That is Christianity – felt union with Christ. Christ gripped Martyn’s heart. Here’s a gut-check question for us all to think about. Fill in the blank: “It would be hell to me if ____.” But Christ loves us a gazillion times more intensely than anyone else does, and we should love him at least a thousand times more than we love our spouses, our children, our jobs, our friends, our reputations. Light that light shine brightly, without holding back, to attract people to God. So good luck on getting there. Do your best. I hope it works out. No! Here is the gospel: God loves cowards. God sent his brave Son to save cowards and fill their lives with gospel adventures. Remember Peter, who denied Christ repeatedly? The Lord did not reproach him. The Lord just asked him this question: “Do you love me?” And here’s how we get back there again and again.
Look at Jesus on his cross. He was humiliated for you, and he accepted it. He knew that only the cross could melt our hostility toward God into tenderness toward God. The cross is where he did not lash back at us but absorbed all our arrogance and abuse into himself. Look at Jesus on his cross. He stooped to the level of being humiliated, in order to win your heart. How can you not love him? Just keep looking at Jesus Christ humiliated on that cross for you, and your being humiliated as a witness for him won’t seem unthinkable any more. In fact, it will grow in dignity, and you’ll count it a privilege to stand for him. Just keep looking at Jesus Christ crucified for you, and you will shine brightly.