Summary: Isn't Jesus "the" light of the world? Why does Jesus call us the same?
You Are the Light of the World
Like the previous verse concerning the believer being the “salt of the earth”, verse 14 begins with the emphatic “you”. This means that the true disciples of Jesus who hears His words and puts them into practice stands in a unique position as “the light of the world”.
This assertion immediately raises issues with the equally emphatic statement made by Jesus in the 9th chapter of John calls Himself “the light of the world”. Whatever is meant here in the emphatic statement that the believer is the light of the world must be understood in such a way that is compatible to Jesus’ statement concerning Himself.
The key to the interpretation seems to lie in the idea of discipleship. Jesus tells us that a disciple cannot be above His master, but he can be like his master. In Hebrew thought, the disciple (tamudim in Hebrew) is someone who wants to be what his master already “is”. The true disciple of Jesus can only be the light of the world if the light coming from him/her is the light of Jesus Himself through the agency of the Holy Spirit. So this statement is only true if the light that shines is the light of Christ.
Jesus then compares His disciples with being a city that is set upon a hill which cannot be hid. The true church cannot but draw the attention of the world. And as Jesus himself has taught us, not all of this attention is very positive.
It was not unusual to build cities in elevated places as it offered extra protection against invading enemies. In addition to this, the rubble of previous generations became the foundation of the buildings of the new generation. After many generations, the city itself makes its own hill called a “tell”. But in return for the extra protection, the fact that the glory of the city drew attention to it as well. Visibility is the first incentive to attack, even if the way was difficult. The city of Jerusalem itself was situation on a large hill with large walls. Its wealth had attracted the attention of invading armies over many centuries.
Whereas the city of Jerusalem had mostly failed to shine the light and glory of Yahweh, the true church is called to shine the light of Jesus to the world outside. We are offered a degree of protection as the Lord does protect His bride according to His sovereign purpose. But we must understand this protection in the light of eternity. The kingdom to which we belong transcends all earthly kingdoms. In this sense we are sealed for eternity and kept safe, regardless of what happens to us down here.
When Israel’s enemies came up against her, the Lord was her protection inasmuch as Israel was faithful to the covenant. When they were unfaithful, then Israel’s enemies were allowed to prevail over her as divine judgment. In the true church, the Lord Jesus does discipline us, sometimes quite severely, when we fail to shine as His glorious bride. But just because enemies rise up over us and seem to prevail against us, this in not means should be equated as divine punishment for faithfulness. In fact as we have already learned in the previous expositions on the Sermon on the Mount, persecution for Jesus’ sake is the badge of election.
Wealthy people often use a strategy of trying to hide their wealth so as not to attract attention. This is demonstrated in many ways. In politics today in America, being materially rich is seen as an impediment to election to office. We have had several politicians who have recently tried to tell the public how poor they are or were. Others have their secret bank accounts in Switzerland. Others hide money under mattresses. So secrecy is one of the best means of protecting one’s assets. Ostentatious display of wealth makes one a target. And this is just what the church is to do. They are to ostentatiously display the wealth of Christ for all to see. They are not to hide their wealth under the proverbial bushel basket. The church might try to avoid detection by watering down its message about Jesus and trying to fit in. But just as we are to be salt in the filth of the world without losing our saltiness, we are to publicly shine in the world.
This means that persecution will come when we shine out the light of Jesus Christ. God give us the grace to stand in persecution and slanders. One of the slanders we might face is that others might call us “arrogant” or “hateful”. This is what the liars of verse 12 will do. It is true that the enemies of the church have had some validity to these charges because we have not been completely faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. The source of the light is to be Jesus and not ourselves. When we draw attention to ourselves rather than Jesus, then these charges are valid. God would use these charges to get our attention so that we might get on message.