Who is the light of the world? (Matthew 5:14-16)

The character of a king is revealed in the people he governs.

Open Matthew 5:14-16.

Ask your church friends, “Who is the light of the world?” They all know it’s Jesus. That’s only part of the story. Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world” (5:14). Really? How does that work?

Most commentators connect Jesus’ comment back to Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6 where God called Israel “a light for the nations.” That’s right, but Israel was part of an even bigger story, with the ultimate goal of restoring God’s reign over the nations. The vocation God gave Israel was the vocation he gave humanity. Reflecting God is what it means to be human.

Light is foundational to God’s reign. Our world was vacuous and void until his first decree, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). Light, the first of his works, revealed his wisdom. His proclamations transformed a cavernous deep into a world of shape and significance.

There are two groups of three days in the account of God establishing heaven and earth. The first group culminates with the sovereign placing lights in the sky to signify that life on earth is ordered from heaven, as markers of God’s “rule” (Genesis 1:14-18). The second group culminates with the sovereign placing living images on the earth to rule the creatures in a way that reflects the glory of our heavenly sovereign (Genesis 1:26-28). The opening chapter of the Bible draws a parallel between the function of humans on earth and the function of the light-bearers in the sky.

But the light turned dark as humans grasped control, killing and enforcing their own will on each other (Genesis 4), losing their distinctiveness and corrupting God’s world (Genesis 6). That’s why God raised up Abraham’s family to be the expression of his just reign among violent cities like Sodom (Genesis 18:19). In other words, Israel was to be to the nations what humans were designed to be — reflectors of our glorious sovereign.

But the light of God’s kingship was almost extinguished by the nations (Assyria and Babylon). Even in exile, YHWH called his people to be light-bearers to the nations that crushed them (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; 60:3). Finally, the light came into focus in the person of Jesus. He was the revelation of God’s kingship of the nations, the sovereign’s glory reflected in his people (Luke 2:32).

So, Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:9; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46). He is the human, the one who reflects the glory of the heavenly ruler. He restores the light of the heavenly sovereign’s reign to all nations.

So were’ all good? Jesus is the light of the world? Yes, but there’s more. To the people who follow him, the ones to whom God gives the kingdom, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world” (5:14).

Not you individually; he’s speaking of us corporately. We submit to Jesus as our ruler; we serve as the community under God’s reign. That makes us the light of the world, the light by which the peoples of the earth discover their true sovereign.

Epistemologically, this is crucial. It’s how people get to know God. People discover God in his people, in the community under his management. Not primarily by apologetics (arguments for God). Not primarily in formulations of faith (doctrine). Not primarily in what we say (proclamation). All of those things have their place, but the primary way people discover God is by seeing the good things that God’s servants do and twigging, “Wow, that’s amazing! That community reflects our heavenly Father” (5:16b).

Jesus’ point is that it’s not hard to be the kind of community that reflects God-light, the character of its sovereign. A city set on a hill doesn’t need to a strategy to give off light; it would struggle not to. A lamp doesn’t struggle to give off light; it takes effort to block it. Under persecution from evil rulers, you may wish you could hide the God-flavour of your salt or the God-reflection of your light, but that’s not possible without sacrificing our identity. Don’t even try; just go ahead and be the community that does good stuff to people, things that reveal the glorious care of the sovereign you serve.

The character of a king is revealed in the people he governs. You can’t hide it: God set up his city on a hill. Human beings were designed to be God-reflectors. So let’s get on with being human!


What others are saying

Steve Sjogren, Conspiracy of Kindness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008) Chapter 11:

Instead of viewing kindness as a mindset that we take on and off, we simply go there and live there all the time. There is no “Off” switch. We live in the power of kindness all the time. Again, it is the power of God living through us, His kindness being manifest in and through us. We don’t try to be kind. The sooner we give up all attempts at trying to be kind, the better. Why is this so?

Because no one is going to be touched in any sort of memorable way by human niceness.

Give up your attempts to do anything to help God. Simply confess to God that you are willing and available. Then listen, observe and expect invitations to join into others’ lives. Opportunities will come—probably beginning today …

Father, launch me into a life of living in an atmosphere of kindness, being ready, willing and able to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as I live out my life, day in and day out. Let it be!

Isaiah 60:1–3 (NIV):

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Touchstone, 1984):

What is to give light must endure burning.

[previous: Are Christians the moral police?]

[next: Why wasn’t Jesus demanding obedience?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

2 thoughts on “Who is the light of the world? (Matthew 5:14-16)”

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