Let the Light Shine

How can we be salt and light in our world, so that—instead of being “trodden under foot” or “hidden under a bushel” (vv. 13, 15)—we can resist evil, do good, and move unbelievers to glorify God as our Father in heaven?  To answer that question, let’s listen to the wisdom of the English Puritans.

The Lord Jesus Christ also says to His followers, “Ye are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14a). This is all the more striking when we remember that in the previous chapter, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up” (Matt. 4:16; cf. Isa. 9:2). Isaiah saw Christ as a great Light rising in the dark land of Galilee (Isa. 9:1, 6–7). Malachi saw Him as “the Sun of righteousness” arising “with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2). Christ Himself says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Here in Matthew 5 the Lord Jesus says the same thing about His disciples: “Ye are the light of the world.”

As Christ dwells in them by His Word and Holy Spirit, Christians reflect and radiate the light of Christ into the world. Ley wrote that we are the light of the world, “not originally, like the sun, as Christ is (John 1:8–9), but by participation, as the moon... so are ministers (Rev. 1:20; John 5:35), as also are other Christians (1 Thess. 5:5; Phil. 2:15).”[1]We are “light in the Lord,” and through us, His light penetrates the darkness (Eph. 5:8, 13).

Your Spiritual Light​ Imparts Knowledge, Understanding and Joy

Light reveals truth, for with light comes sight—if there are eyes to see. Keach said, “Light discovers and makes manifest the nature of things to men.... So the saints of God, by their holy life and doctrine, reveal and make manifest, not only the works of darkness, but also the excellency of Christ, grace, and divine things to men.”[2]

Just as darkness can symbolize sadness and fear (Isa. 5:30; 8:22), so light refers to joy and freedom. We read in Ecclesiastes 11:7, “Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.” In Psalm 97:11, “light” is parallel to “gladness.” Keach observed, “The word or gospel of Jesus Christ is very pleasant, and a delightful thing.”[3]He also said, “It is a great blessing to enjoy the company of God’s people, to dwell among such whose conversations shine.”[4]“Conversation” here means “manner of life,” as it does in the KJV.

Here we see something of the paradox of being salt and light. Both salt and light can irritate, like salt in a wound or light glaring into the eyes. However, salt and light also give flavor and joy to life. Are you willing to live that paradox? The world will not know what to make of you. At times they will praise you; and then they will turn around and attack you.

The key to living this paradox is to remember that you are not salt and light in yourself, nor according to the world’s judgment of you, but only as you follow the unchangeable Word of God. Never think that you can be spiritual salt and light apart from truth of God’s Word and the grace of Jesus Christ. You may sting and irritate but you will not be a force for good in the world.  You may produce a lot of heat, but impart no light. A good flame produces both heat and illumination; Poole said that we are to be “not only a burning light, burning with love to God, and zeal for God, and love to and zeal for the souls of others; but also a shining light, communicating his light to others, both by instruction and a holy conversation.”[5]

Your Spiritual Light Should Shine in the Visible Church

Christ observes that “a city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14b). Jerusalem was built on Mount Zion, “beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth” (Ps. 48:2). The old Rabbis used to say, “He who has not seen Jerusalem in its splendor, has never seen a beautiful city in his life.”[6]Christ’s disciples marveled at the beauty of the temple buildings (Matt. 24:1). Here Christ says that His church is also a city set on a hill.

Our Lord’s point is that God has put us on display for all the world to see. He placards us for His own glory. We are His marketing plan. Ley wrote that, as dwellers in this city on a hill, “you must shew forth good example to others, far and near.... Your lives will be looked on, and scanned by all men; therefore see they be good.”[7]Poole said, “The church is often called the city of God.... It is as much as if our Saviour should have said, You had need be holy, for your conversation cannot be hid, any more than a city can that is built upon a hill, which is obvious to every eye. All men’s eyes will be upon you.”[8]

Perhaps you don’t like that. You’d rather that no one notices you. However, it cannot be avoided; every Christian is a billboard for Jesus Christ; or as Paul says, we are “epistles of commendation … known and read of all men” (2 Cor. 3:2, 3. As a caution to Christians, Henry warns us: “All their neighbours have an eye upon them. Some admire them, commend them, rejoice in them, and study to imitate them; others envy them, hate them, censure them, and study to blast them.”[9]Whether people love you or hate you, they will begin to watch you closely as soon as they hear that you profess Christ as your Lord and Savior.

You are not a light alone, however, but as a member of the church. As Jonathon Edwards (1703–1758) recognized, a city on a hill is not the image of an individual person, but a “professing society” or group of Christians living in fellowship together.[10]As he exhorted those in his church who professed conversion to Christ, the world was now waiting to see, “What a good spirit there appears amongst us; how ready we are to [do] good works; how ready to deny ourselves; how forward to promote any good design; how charitable, and how public-spirited we be; how ready to lay out our substance for the poor, or for the worship of God, and the like.”[11]

Are you a member of a biblical, Christian church? If so, then when outsiders look at you and your church, what do they see? Our Lord said in John 13:35, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Richard Baxter (1615–1691) wrote that our light shines when our churches are “well-ordered” under God’s word, confessing a common faith and promoting relationships of unity and harmony.[12]“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1).

More In This Series: 

  1. Salt and Light
  2. Like a Little Salt


[1]Westminster Divines, Annotations, on Matt. 5:13. The ellipsis is “and the stars”; in the Puritan era the stars included the planets or “wandering stars,” as the ancients called them, which reflected the light of the sun.

[2]Keach, Types and Metaphors, 758.

[3]Keach, Types and Metaphors, 527.

[4]Keach, Types and Metaphors, 758.

[5]Poole, Annotations, 3:22.

[6]Sukkah 51b, Babylonian Talmud, http://www.sefaria.org/Sukkah.51b?lang=en, accessed June 28, 2016.

[7]Westminster Divines, Annotations, on Matt. 5:14.

[8]Poole, Annotations, 3:22.

[9]Henry, Commentary, 1631.

[10]Edwards, “A City on a Hill,” in Works, 19:540.

[11]Edwards, “A City on a Hill,” in Works, 19:557.

[12]Baxter, “What Light Must Shine,” in Puritan Sermons, 2:485–88.

Joel Beeke(@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

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