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  • Writer's pictureBOO

SM #13: This Little Light of Ours

Updated: Feb 18

You all are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in the heavens. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:14-16)

CORE (The heart of the message):

Disciples of Jesus are meant to live together in ways that spread the light of God’s love.

Nothing is more useful than salt and sunshine. ~ Pliny the Elder (Natural History, First Century)

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

As discussed in our last study, Jesus’ salt and light sayings are not detached, free-floating ideas. They make up the conclusion to his introduction of the Sermon on the Mount, and a kind of commissioning to Jesus’ disciples to carry the beatific way into the world. We are now reading the end of the overture to Jesus’ mountain top symphony.

Reading this text in context highlights two apparent contradictions:

1. Jesus has just warned that our righteousness may lead to persecution, while here he says our good works will lead to people glorifying God.

This simply wrestles honestly with the complexity of life. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect” (Mere Christianity). Sometimes people will hate us, and sometimes people will come to love God because of us (also see the mixed results of Paul’s preaching in Acts 17:32-34). We are not responsible for the outcomes, but merely to live Jesusly as we go.

2. Jesus here tells us to let our light (good deeds) shine before others, whereas in 6:1-18 he will teach us to keep our righteous activities more private and unseen.

[Feel free to pause here to have a discussion, or private meditation, about the contrasting teaching. What makes the difference?]

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 is different to our current text in two ways:

1) The warnings in Matthew 6 are for individuals, and the encouragement in Matthew 5 is for the Church as a whole. Individually, we should avoid displaying our spiritual practices for show in ways that inflate our egos, but collectively as the Church we should display our good deeds through the grace we give each other and the love we extend to outsiders. This helps the glory to go to God and not to any one individual.

2) In Matthew 6 Jesus is talking about pious practices like charitable giving, prayer, and fasting. These kinds of behaviours are common among most religions and shine no new light on the world around us in and of themselves. By contrast, the good deeds of Matthew 5 refer to those beatific qualities that make the Jesus Movement unique: limitless grace and unconditional love. And those are meant to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, the Church today often gets this reversed. We hold public prayer or worship events, but stay relatively quiet about our practice of radical grace, mercy, forgiveness, and restoration. Public prayer, praise, or political pontificating is not what Jesus has in mind here. Instead, when we are loud and proud, let us boast about God’s grace in response to our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Also notice that the religious good deeds of Matthew 6 are identified clearly. It is a list of three: giving, prayer, and fasting. Other things could be added to this list, but the thing to notice is that the religious way always has a clear list of expected behaviour. By contrast, the loving good deeds of Matthew 5 are not listed. This is because the ways we can love others is endless. Instead of the religious mindset that follows good deed lists, the mindset of love simply pays attention to the needs of others and responds accordingly. Religion appeals to our love of lists, structure, and predictability. Jesus' way of love is the practice of other-centredness in action.

To call his disciples the “light of the world” becomes all the more shocking when we recall the religious context. In the Jewish world, light was a symbol of the sacred: Israel as a nation (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; Romans 2:19), or Scripture as our guide (Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 6:23), or God’s wisdom (Daniel 12:3), or God’s personal presence in general (Isaiah 60:1-3, 19-20), or specifically in the Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem, symbolized by the golden lampstand/menorah (Exodus 25:31-40; 27:20-21). Can Jesus really be assigning these central roles of the tribe, torah, and temple of Israel to his small band of merry men? Apparently this is precisely what Jesus is doing here.

Elsewhere we read that Jesus (or God) is the light of the world (Matthew 4:12-17; Luke 2:32; John 1:4-5; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 1:5). So we should think of the light that people see through us, not as our own outstanding brilliance, but as God’s Spirit in us. Perhaps we are the light of the world in the same way the light of the moon is merely a reflection of the light of the sun (2 Corinthians 4:6). Notice, even though it is difficult and even damaging to look directly at the sun, we can easily look directly at the moon. Similarly, many people who find it difficult to engage with God directly through prayer, worship, meditation, and Bible study, may find it more natural to engage with God’s people and observe our lives. We shouldn’t say “Don’t look at me, look at God”, but neither should we say “Look at me”. According to Jesus, what we can say is: “Go ahead and look at us, living together in grace, mercy, and peace, and you will see God’s light of love.”

After this saying, Jesus will spend the rest of chapter 5 helping his disciples understand what true righteousness looks like. He will do this especially in New Covenant terms that fulfill the letter of the Jewish law and open up the way of the Spirit, so that all Gentiles are also able to to join the Jesus Revolution. But for now, Jesus gives his disciples their first “Great Commission” to be the light of the world.

A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cost of Discipleship)

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

You all. The second person pronoun here is not only plural, but also emphatic – You all, and only you all (plural), are the light (singular) of the world. There is no other source for this kind of light. Jesus’ grammar here suggests that we shine best when we live and love together in gracious ways and allow others to see our unique grace in action. Our witness to the world does not depend on one bright light. And, if any shining light should fail, our witness continues as people observe our grace given to one another.

Are. Jesus is not giving a command but revealing our identity. We are not told that we could be or should be light, but that we, together, ARE light. Jesus tells us who we are before telling us what to do. Our essence and identity are gifts of grace meant to be shared. The Protestant tradition often misses the high value Jesus places upon his Church by redirecting that value onto Scripture, as though the Bible exists somehow apart from or above the Church. Martin Luther (c. 1483-1546) was so fixated on the special authority and influence of Scripture alone that he interpreted Jesus’ words here to refer to the original apostles only, granting them the authority to write Scripture. So, to Luther (and other Reformers) the Bible is the light of the world. Anabaptists, like Catholics, said no to Luther’s interpretation and embraced their own status as light, aided by but not replaced by Scripture.

The light of the world. Light is a powerful and therefore common religious metaphor. Almost every religion and philosophy uses the concept of light to describe what is good, true, and wise. For Jesus to say his followers sum up everything the light metaphor points toward in their identity is to assign the highest value to his Church. (Just as with his salt metaphor, Jesus does not say we are A light, but we are THE light.) The light Jesus has in mind must mean more than generic common-sense wisdom, morality, justice, or kind-heartedness (which can be found in all kinds of cultures, philosophies, and religions), but something unique that can only be seen among apprentices of Jesus. Here again, we find Jesus pointing to agape love and amazing grace without using the words. Jesus doesn’t just teach good deed doing as his moral base setting – every religion offers that. Jesus uniquely teaches a radical nonviolent love for all people, even enemies, as well as infinite active compassion for people who fail. Only Jesus leads us along a path of cheek-turning, second-mile walking, 70x7 forgiving, plank-eye removing, unconditional other-oriented compassion. THIS is our light. Justice is good, kindness is good, simplicity is good, prayer and worship are good; but grace (that active and unconditional relationally reparative energy of forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, and restoration) – this is our light.

A city set on a mountain. Most English Bibles translate the word here for “mountain” (Greek, oros) as “hill”, but this is the same word that describes where Jesus is teaching this sermon (5:1), and is translated as “mountain” or “mount” (as in the Mount of Olives) everywhere else. By referencing a city on a mountain, Jesus makes the comparison to Jerusalem (a raised city on Mount Zion; Isaiah 2:1-5; Hebrews 12:22). God’s people are the New Jerusalem, providing light in the night for weary travellers, inviting them to come and find food and shelter. When we live and act together in gracious ways, we become attractive to people in need of rest.

Basket / Lampstand / House. While the city metaphor focused on light shining outward toward travellers in a way that invites them in, this metaphor focusses on lighting up our own space where we live. Most of Jesus’ forgiveness teaching is in the context of forgiving fellow believers when we wrong one another. Only when we are infinitely compassionate toward one another can we dare to consider ourselves a city on a hill worth inviting others into. Luke’s parallel version focuses on the lamp in the home and never mentions the city, but still has invitation of guests in mind. We light our lamps in our homes “so that those who come in may see the light” (Luke 11:33). Until we learn to forgive and embrace and accept one another the way God has forgiven and accepted us, we are hiding the light of grace God has given us under a bowl or basket. Notice the implicit warning: when we put something overtop a candle, not only are we blocking the light, but it is more likely the flame will go out altogether.

See your good deeds. To define “good deeds”, think back to the Beatitudes. People may see our good deeds in two ways: directly and indirectly. Directly, people may experience our good deeds as something done to them – that is, you (alone or with others) help someone and that person glorifies God. Indirectly, people may observe our good deeds being done among believers – that is, they witness Christians conveying grace, compassion, and care to one another and are moved to glorify God. That is a shining city on a mountain that broken, messy, hurting people will want to be a part of. Also note: light is seen easier and from further away when it is dark. When our world seems at its darkest, it is our time to shine.

Glorify your father. This is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus refers to God as “father” (Greek, pater; Aramaic, abba) and he calls him YOUR father, as he will continue to do throughout this sermon. Jesus beautifully includes his disciples in his own intimate relationship with God as our Source, Sustainer, and Shepherd. What a conceptual adjustment from seeing God only as “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isaiah 57:15), to seeing this holy and lofty Creator as our Dad. Jesus has forever altered the way we think of God. God the Father has already spoken publicly at Jesus’ baptism, identifying Jesus as his own unique son (Matthew 3:17), and now Jesus shares that position of honour and intimacy with all of us. This means that we can pay attention to Jesus’ relationship with God as his father throughout the gospels and know that we too can enter into that kind of intimacy with the Almighty. And notice that when we work together, not as single spectacular lights but with each person bringing what they can to create the greater light of a large city, the glory is more likely to go to God rather than to any one person (1 Peter 2:12).

CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

I confess that my own sin has diminished my ability to shine God’s light to others. By myself, I stand out more as a black hole than a shining light. Not only do I fail to shine brightly, I also seem to suck the light of others into my dark vortex. I see it, I am sorrowful about it, and I am sorry for it.

On days that I focus on my darkness, well, these are the days that I find it hard to get out of bed. But I do have some hope that I can still play some part in helping others give glory to God. My hope rests in Jesus’ emphasis on the plurality-in-singularity of this light that he describes. The Church together is the unique light of God’s grace to the world. And in that context, even if my current role is to be the one simply receiving forgiveness and restoration, I feel hope that I can play my small part in the Church being light to others around us. Even the mess-ups can be a part of the light of the world.

I have no desire to be the sage on the stage, but perhaps I can serve as a guide on the side. I am grateful to be a part of a gentle, gracious, and loving church community who refuse to hide their light under a bushel. To me, they are a lighthouse.

God intends his grace to be as conspicuous as a city built on a mountain’s brow. ~ Charles Spurgeon (Expositions)

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

Today many Christians talk about shining light in the darkness as code for exposing, rebuking, and judging sin. Certainly the multivalent metaphor of shining light can be used to refer to bringing justice and truth (Isaiah 51:4), and light can expose corruption. But in this context Jesus is saying so much more.

The apostle Paul talks about our identity as light, and then adds some helpful commentary about what that means:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. ~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:8-13)

After declaring our nature as “light in the Lord”, the apostle Paul describes this light as “all goodness, righteousness, and truth” (sorry I had to add the oxford comma – the lack of it drives me nutty). Today, some Christians would interpret these three qualities to mean all moral uprightness, a keen sense of justice, and a commitment to exposing sin. Except, if this is all that our goodness, righteousness, and truth amount to, then we have only graduated to the level of a Pharisee. So, yes, we expose sin, but not in any shameful details. The word here for “expose” is the same used in Matthew 18:15 for direct private confrontation, and that is its normal usage: face-to-face correction. (It is normally translated “reprove” or “rebuke” or “show their fault” and is done directly.) So a more accurate translation would say: "Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather rebuke them".

Paul is not talking about becoming a social media justice warrior, dragging the sin of others into the light of truth. Sounds noble, but that isn't the approach Jesus teaches. Public outrage is lazy, compared to the hard work of private, personal, and gracious engagement with people caught in sin.

According to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, we always begin by shining light on our own sin through daily acknowledgement (forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) and through the plank-eye-process when approaching others (dealing with our own sin before helping a sister or brother remove their splinter). And according to Matthew 18, we always start any process of confronting sin by going directly and talking face to face with the hope that this is not only where the process starts but where it ends. So whether we "expose / rebuke" our own sin or someone else's, we do so according to the way of Jesus, which is primarily privately, directly, and personally. And this understanding of "exposing" sin in the above passage makes sense of Paul's thought that it is shameful to talk about private sin in a public way.

If we follow the way of Jesus in dealing with sin - giving people private, relational opportunities to see their own sin in God's light, and to repent, rethink, and to receive forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration - something beautiful happens: Paul says it is possible for even the sin that is made visible to become light! This is a literal and radical translation of Paul's last statement in the above passage: “everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” This translation is so radical that many translations say that what is exposed becomes “revealed” or “visible”. But the word here is light (Greek, phos), and the message is amazing. Exposed sin, when there is modesty in the exposure and repentance in response and the counter-response of the community is to gather around in mercy (we know this from Jesus’ teaching) – this all becomes another opportunity to shine the unique grace of the Jesus Revolution out to the world. (For more on this, see our first 1820 study on being A Mercy-Full Church.)

So here we find a powerful lesson: Where there is grace lived out in the community of Christ, even our failures can become light to the world.

In the late second and early third century, a Christian leader from Carthage, a Roman province in northern Africa (where Tunisia is today), wrote extensively about how and why the Christian movement was growing. He explains that people in the surrounding cultures saw something different in the way Christians treated one another that made the movement so attractive.

It is mainly the deeds of a higher love that lead many to put a brand upon us. “See how they love one another!” they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; “See how they are ready even to die for one another!” they say, for they themselves would prefer to fight each other to the death. ~ Tertullian (ca. 160–220, The Apology, ch. 39).

See how they love one another! In our surrounding culture, people of different tribes tend to tear each other down. And then, even within the same tribe (be it political or religious), tearing down can still happen. But the Jesus Movement was always intended to shine something different into our surrounding culture: the light of non-retaliatory enemy love toward outsiders and the light of grace, mercy, and peace toward insiders.

This is in keeping with precisely what Jesus taught is the distinctive “brand” of his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. ~ JESUS (John 13:34-35)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is giving guidelines for a community of salt and light that will rise to become an alternative kingdom on earth with an alternative culture of grace, mercy, and peace. If you have a good reputation and a voice people listen to, use it to proclaim grace, mercy, and peace. If you feel like a messed-up failure, confess your sins and let the Church demonstrate grace, mercy, and peace toward you. We all have a part to play in helping others say, “See how they love one another!”

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 God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

Spiritual superstars are still just single lamps, contributing to the light of a large mountaintop city, shining into the darkness. And people who feel more like spiritual failures are still part of the light of that city, helping the world see grace in action. If you’re feeling like a fragile jar of clay, remember that light shines out best through the cracks.

There is a role for all of us to play in building that beautiful city that brings people to say, “See how they love one another!”

CONCLUSION (One last thought):

We’ll give the last word of this study to a song: Beautiful City from the musical Godspell.

Out of the ruins and rubble, Out of the smoke, Out of our night of struggle Can we see a ray of hope, One pale thin ray reaching for the day?

We can build a beautiful city, Yes, we can (Yes, we can). We can build a beautiful city, Not a city of angels, But we can build a city of man.

We may not reach the ending, But we can start. Slowly but surely mending, Brick by brick, Heart by heart, Now, maybe now, We start learning how.

We can build a beautiful city, Yes we can (Yes, we can). We can build a beautiful city, Not a city of angels, But we can build a city of man.

When your trust is all but shattered, When your faith is all but killed, You can give up bitter and battered, Or you can slowly start to build! ~ Beautiful City, Godspell (2011 Broadway Revival Revised Lyrics)

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Isaiah 2:1-5; Micah 4:1-4; Matthew 4:12-17; 2 Corinthians 4:6-7; 12:4-10; Ephesians 5:8-13; Philippians 2:14-15; 1 Peter 2:12

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. What do you think moves people to glorify God when they witness the light of infinite grace and agape love through the Church? And how do they even know to give God the credit?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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May 19, 2023

I think you mean Tunisia not Tanzania as the location of Carthage. ;)

May 19, 2023
Replying to

Whoops... Yes! Changes made. Thank you!


Jon Pessah
Jon Pessah
May 14, 2023

I love the analogy of the moon reflecting the sun's light in the darkness. It's a really great way to describe our graceful light on a world that may not have the Son.

Definitely grateful for the guide on the side! Praying for you daily!


Ger McRae
Ger McRae
May 12, 2023

Thank you for serving as a "guide on the side"! You have much wisdom to offer.


"I feel hope that I can play my small part in the Church being light to others around us. Even the mess-ups can be a part of the light of the world."

Many see your light, Boo, and are thankful for your courage to write these powerful, helpful, insightful blogs.


May 10, 2023

Maybe another difference between shining love and virtuous boasting is timing?

We once gave financial help to someone in desperate need, and told no one. But much later, the gratitude of our desperate friend shone quite brightly in their circle.

The idea that even our failures, forgiven, can shine brightly is SO comforting! Thank you. Tony

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