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10. The Light of the World (Matthew 5:14-16)

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You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16 (NET)

What should the church’s relationship with the world be like? After teaching the Beatitudes, which are character traits of those who are truly part of God’s kingdom, Christ teaches about the relationship his followers will have with the world. They are to be salt and light.

Is there a difference between the two metaphors? If so, it is only slight. MacArthur shares:

Whereas salt is hidden, light is obvious. Salt works secretly, while light works openly. Salt works from within, light from without. Salt is more the indirect influence of the gospel, while light is more its direct communication. Salt works primarily through our living, while light works primarily through what we teach and preach. Salt is largely negative. It can retard corruption, but it cannot change corruption into incorruption. Light is more positive. It not only reveals what is wrong and false but helps produce what is righteous and true.1

The metaphor of light being used to describe the disciples would have seemed strange if not ludicrous to the original audience. Spurgeon adds:

“This title had been given by the Jews to certain of their eminent Rabbis. With great pomposity they spoke of Rabbi Judah, or Rabbi Jochanan, as the lamps of the universe, the lights of the world. It must have sounded strangely in the ears of the Scribes and Pharisees to hear that same title, in all soberness, applied to a few bronzed-faced and horny-handed peasants and fishermen, who had become disciples of Jesus.”2

Yet, this metaphor was not just applied to the disciples but to all believers. We are the light of the world. With that said, believers are light only because Christ is light. In John 8:12, Christ declared, “I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”3 Christ is the Light; therefore, we reflect the light he gives us. We are like the moon—only a big ball of dust, not of much value by itself. But in the right place, at the right time, when the sunlight of Christ shines on us—magical things happen. People fall in love with Christ, marriages are restored, people turn from a life of destruction to a life of purpose. As the light of Christ reflects off believers, they light the world. But this light is something more than a reflection since Christ actually indwells us—changing us into his image. We are no longer darkness but are actually lights ourselves (cf. Eph 5:8).

In this study, we’ll consider the believers’ relationship with the world by considering the metaphor of light. In what ways are we light? How can we shine brighter?

Big Question: What does it mean for believers to be the light of the world? What applications can we take from this metaphor?

The Light of the World

Interpretation Question: What does the metaphor of light represent biblically?

John MacArthur’s comments are enlightening:

In Scripture the figurative use of light has two aspects, the intellectual and the moral. Intellectually it represents truth, whereas morally it represents holiness … The figure of darkness has the same two aspects. Intellectually it represents ignorance and falsehood, whereas morally it connotes evil.4

We see this in many places. Psalms 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to walk by, and a light to illumine my path.” Here light refers to intellectual truth as seen in God’s Word. In Romans 13:12-14, it refers to moral deeds, and darkness refers to immoral deeds. It says,

The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.

Isaiah 5:20 refers to both the intellectual and the moral. It says, “Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead, who turn darkness into light and light into darkness, who turn bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.”

Believers are light because they have been changed intellectually and morally. These changes are significant—making believers like a town on a hill, which illumines the sky for hundreds of miles. The light from believers cannot be hidden.

Interpretation Question: In what ways are believers light and the world darkness?

1. Believers are light because they know God, and the world is dark because they reject the true God.

Romans 1:21-23 describes the world as intellectually darkened in reference to knowing God, the Creator. It says,

For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

The world has a darkened mind. They profess to be wise when they are really fools. They deny the living God by worshiping false gods or themselves or denying God’s existence all together. Psalm 14:1 says the fool says in his heart there is no God. The world is dark because they do not know or acknowledge God. But believers are light because they know the Light—they know God. Christ said this is eternal life, that they may know God (John 17:3).

2. Believers are light because they know the gospel and Scripture in general, and the world is darkness because they reject revelation.

Second Corinthians 4:4 says, “among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God.” The world is blinded to the light of the gospel. First Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” To the believer, the gospel is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Believers are light.

Not only are unbelievers blinded to the gospel but Scripture in general. First Corinthians 2:14 says, “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” While the world rejects Scripture and cannot understand it, it is the believers’ daily bread (Job 23:12), constant meditation (Psalm 1:2), and joy (Psalm 119:24).

3. Believers are light because they practice righteousness, and the world is darkness because it doesn’t.

Again, Romans 13:12-14 says,

The night has advanced toward dawn; the day is near. So then we must lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the weapons of light. Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.

Believers are called to put aside the deeds of darkness and to clothe themselves with Christ.

Similarly, 1 John 3:10 says, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are revealed: Everyone who does not practice righteousness—the one who does not love his fellow Christian—is not of God.” Children of God are identified by obeying God, and unbelievers are identified by disobedience.

Essentially, to be in darkness is to be ignorant of God and his Word and to rebel against both. The world is darkness, but believers are light. They know the truth about creation, the gospel, and God, and they live in view of these realities. But the world rejects these things.

Ephesians 5:8 says, “for you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light.” We used to be darkness, but now, we are light and commanded to live in accordance with that reality.

Application Question: The implication of believers being light is that the world is in darkness. In what further ways is the world in darkness? In what ways have you experienced deliverance from former darkness, and how are you still experiencing it?

The Function of Light

Application Question: What are typical functions of light and how do these apply to believers in this world?

1. As light, believers expose darkness.

While Christ was on the earth, he exposed the false teaching of the Pharisees and scribes. He exposed the corruption taking place in the temple. It should be the same with believers. They shine light on dishonest practices, gossip, corruption amongst leaders, racism, etc. This often angers people. They are the ethical lights within a friendship, a family, a business, an education system, or a government.

Are you willing to expose the darkness? We expose darkness indirectly simply by living a moral life, but we also expose it directly by calling sin as it is. Kent Hughes put it this way:

We need to be ethical light when we are in the office, in the classroom, in the shop, and in the Church. We must be willing to risk being called “negative,” “narrow,” “judgmental,” “puritanical,” or “bigoted.” If God’s Spirit is calling us to stand up against wrong, it is up to us to be faithful.5

2. As light, believers give off light.

Ephesians 5:13 (NIV) says: “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” “When light touches something, it becomes light. It is lit up; and, to some degree, the object gives off light itself. It is converted and changed.”6

In the same way, the light of a believer’s life often changes a work environment, as sin is exposed and righteousness replaces it. It changes people’s lives, as they repent and give their lives to Christ. Light by nature is more powerful than darkness. It transforms environments.

In 1 Peter 2:12, Peter said this to believers: “and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears.” Though persecuted and mocked by the world, believers, through their conduct, often change those around them, even if only slowly. When Christ comes, many will glorify God for the chaste lives of a Christian co-worker, friend, or family member who led them to Christ.

Light makes other things light—it gives off itself. We’ll consider several other functions of light which, in one sense, arise from how light gives off light. However, they are worth noting for emphasis.

3. As light, believers help others grow.

Plants can grow in a dark cave as long as light is present. In addition, research tells us that broken bones heal faster when they are soaking up sunlight.7 This all should be true of Christians in a dark world. As they shine their lights, friends, family, and co-workers grow.

Are the people around you growing—getting to know God more, changing their language, attitudes, and actions?

4. As light, believers wake people out of slumber.

When it’s spring time, people tend to wake up earlier because of the gradual increase of sunlight into their bedrooms. It’s also true that if you immediately turn on the lights while somebody is sleeping, it will often quickly wake the person up. In the same way, the ethical light of believers who are on fire for Christ will often awaken those who are spiritually lethargic or spiritually sleeping. They stir spiritual zeal in those who are spiritually lazy and help awaken those who are spiritually dead. As light, believers wake people out of slumber.

5. As light, believers warm those who are cold.

Light not only illuminates, it warms. When people are cold from standing in a shadow, they move to a place with more sunlight to get warm. When in a home that is cold, people go by the fireplace. Heat is emitted from light. Therefore, when believers are light, they warm people’s hearts—provoking them to love God and others. The impact of their warmth helps others repent of bitterness and anger and instead show acts of kindness. By loving, believers warm up homes, workplaces, and communities. Often people run to them to find fellowship, comfort, and encouragement.

Application Question: What are some other functions of light which believers represent in this world? What makes exposing the darkness in a company, church, or relationship difficult? How can we do this wisely? Share a time when God called you to expose darkness. How did it turn out?

Growth as Light

People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:15-16

Application Question: How can we grow as light? How can we be most effective?

1. To grow as light, we must stay near Christ, who is the Light.

Kent Hughes gave this illustration when considering how believers can shine even brighter:

A man returning from a journey brought his wife a matchbox that would glow in the dark. After he gave it to her, she turned out the light, but it could not be seen. Both thought they had been cheated. Then the wife noticed some French words on the box and asked a friend to translate them. The inscription said: “If you want me to shine in the night, keep me in the light.” So it is with us! We must expose ourselves to Jesus, delight in his Word, and spend time in prayer soaking up his rays.8

Second Corinthians 3:18 (ESV) says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” As we walk with our Lord and Savior, we are daily transformed into his image and glory. If we’re going to grow as light, we must spend time with the Light!

2. To grow as light, we must continually congregate with other godly believers.

When you place many burning coals together, the light becomes more intense, hotter, and burns longer. In fact, the “you” of “you are the light of the world” is plural referring not just to Christians individually but corporately. We are more effective as lights together. We strengthen our individual light by being around other godly believers who are on fire. We also increase our light by listening to messages and reading books by great lights in our community. As we do this, our light increases. Similarly, if we continually put ourselves around people who are not walking for Christ, our light and effectiveness will diminish. Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who associates with the wise grows wise but the companion of fools suffers harm.”

3. To grow as light, we must fight against tendencies to hide our light.

Matthew 5:15 is partially repeated in the parallel text of Mark 4:21. In Mark 4:21, Christ says, “‘A lamp isn’t brought to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it? Isn’t it to be placed on a lampstand?” Many commentators believe the basket and the bed represent common reasons that people hide their lights. The basket Christ referred to was probably a bushel for collecting grain. This perhaps demonstrates how many hide their light because of work. Many believers get so busy at work that they hide the light of Christ, or they hide it in fear of it hindering career progression. Our light is not to be hid under the bushel of work. But secondly, Christians tend to hide their light simply because of laziness, as symbolized by a bed. They are too lazy to go to church, read their Bible, serve on missions, or share the gospel. No wise person puts a lamp under a basket or a bed, and neither should believers, as our light is more important than any lamp in a house.

4. To grow as light, we must put ourselves in the most strategic positions.

In Matthew 5:15, Christ talked about putting a lamp on a stand. When placing a lamp in a house, people put it in the most advantageous position. We must consider this when deciding what we will do for work, where we will live and go to church, etc. How can we most effectively spread our light to others?

Also, we must remove anything that might dim our light or make it ineffective. There are certain environments that could hinder the effectiveness of our light either by not using it or threatening to blow it out by temptation. Believers must live as light by putting their lights on stands for all to see.

5. To grow as light, we must be balanced.

Charles Spurgeon gives this great insight:

“The text says that the candle gives light to all that are in the house. Some professors give light only to a part of the house. I have known women very good to all but their husbands, and these they nag from night to night, so that they give no light to them. I have known husbands so often out at meetings that they neglect home, and thus their wives miss the light.”9

Sadly, this is true for many Christians. We give our best at work and neglect home or give our best at home but neglect being lights at work. Some of us work really hard at a hobby or something we really enjoy but aren’t very faithful at church—nobody at our church is blessed by our light. If we’re going to grow as lights, we must be balanced—displaying God’s light wherever the Lord places us.

6. To grow as light, we must practice good deeds.

In Matthew 5:16, Christ said, “let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.” This is actually a command, not a suggestion. The word “good” can also be translated “beautiful.” It focuses not only on the quality of the works but the attractiveness of them as well. Their beauty draws others to God. Since light refers to truth and moral deeds, we must give ourselves to these works. Like Christ, we must teach God’s Word and share the gospel with others. We also must be given to mercy ministries—caring for the poor, infirmed, and oppressed. We must give ourselves to beautiful works which draw people to God.

Are you letting your light shine by doing good works to the glory of God?

7. To grow as light, we must have the right motive.

Again, Matthew 5:16 says, “let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.” We must notice the motive for shining our light. It is not so that people can glorify us, but so that they can glorify God. Most people are living to make a name for themselves instead of God (cf. Gen 11, the tower of Babel). Without the right motive, our lights will grow dim and ineffective. People often can discern the reasons that we do certain works. Are we doing good works for our benefit—to be seen and praised by others, to make money, to be promoted, etc.? If so, our lights will become dim and actually turn people away from God.

Sadly, this is very common among the religious. Christ warns about these dark motives throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He challenges his disciples and those listening to not be like the Pharisees and scribes who did their righteous works to be seen by others. He said they had their reward but would not be rewarded by the Father (Matt 6:1-8). He also said we should be consumed with storing up riches in heaven instead of on earth (Matt 6:19-21).

Psalm 115:1 sums up the attitude we should have in our daily activities perfectly. It says, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us! But to your name bring honor, for the sake of your loyal love and faithfulness.” Lord, let this be true of our hearts. Amen!

Application Question: How is God calling you to grow as a light? In what ways are you tempted to hide your light? In what ways do you believe God is calling you to place your light in the most effective position? How can we protect ourselves from wrong heart motives—like money and fame?


MacArthur shares stories about two godly saints which serve as a fitting conclusion to our study of being lights of the world:

It is said of Robert Murray McCheyne, a godly Scottish minister of the last century, that his face carried such a hallowed expression that people were known to fall on their knees and accept Jesus Christ as Savior when they looked at him. Others were so attracted by the self-giving beauty and holiness of his life that they found his Master irresistible.

It was also said of the French pietist Francois Fenelon that his communion with God was such that his face shined with divine radiance. A religious skeptic who was compelled to spend the night in an inn with Fenelon, hurried away the next morning, saying, “If I spend another night with that man I’ll be a Christian in spite of myself.”

That is the kind of salt and light God wants His kingdom people to be.10

Are you being a light in the world—drawing all to God by your words and actions? Lord, help this be true of us in Jesus’ name.

Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

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Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 244). Chicago: Moody Press.

2 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 5:14–16). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.

3 The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 8:12). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 205–206). Chicago: Moody Press.

5 Hughes, R. K. (1990). Ephesians: the mystery of the body of Christ (p. 167). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

6 Teacher's Outline and Study Bible - Commentary - Teacher's Outline and Study Bible – Ephesians: The Teacher's Outline and Study Bible.

7 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 86). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

8 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 85–86). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

9 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 5:14–16). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.

10 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 247). Chicago: Moody Press.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Kingdom

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