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 ESV)
I am profoundly grateful for the grace of God in my life, for Bible passages that I have read a dozen times over that the Holy Spirit can suddenly bring to fresh meaning and power for me.
Such was the case when I was reading the above passage. Over and over I have read this passage, commentaries on this passage, even a book largely based on this passage, but I had never seen this: We are the light of the world. Not we have light for the world, not we should be light to the world, but we are the light of the world.
Our very being, our very lives, are the light of God. In the Scriptures light is equated with knowledge; light is required to see (know, reveal) anything. In a limited way, people can see God, understand His nature, through seeing the universe around them—its complexity, its order, its purpose. But Jesus is saying that as we are the body of Christ, we are the light, the means, that people can see more clearly the nature of God: they can see His love through our compassion, they can see His justice when we take the side of the oppressed, they can see His community as we live in harmony, they can understand His purposes as we declare them through teaching.
That is why Jesus urges us not to hide our light—this light exists by virtue of us being regenerated souls abiding in Christ; not by anything we manufacture on our own. We can neither create nor extinguish it—we are light. What can go wrong, however, is for us to hide our light—for us to not fulfill our God-given purpose to show His glories to a world that does not know Him. We must be in the world, every day, fully engaged to fulfill this purpose of showing light, and not “put it under a bushel,” as the children’s song says.
But in our engagement in the world, Jesus gives us one more caution in the passage—to be sure that our witness is bright and clear. When I first read this passage, I stumbled over verse 16, because I thought it was saying that the light was the good works. But if you look closer, this cannot be the case. A Buddhist could do “good works” for someone in Buddha’s name, and that person would not thank the true God for this work. It is only as we are light, as we clearly display the truth of the gospel to the world, that the world will be able to thank the Father for our good works, for them to be able to say, “these people are doing these things because of the presence of Christ, because of the love of the Father, that dwells within them.” We must have both, a clear witness to the truth of the Father, and good works that clearly reflect and honor the God whom we love and serve.