Matthew 5:14-16.
A City on a Hill

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Matthew 5:14.  Ye are the light of the world.  A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.  15Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.  16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

God, the Father:  The Light of the World.

Matthew 5:14-16 is, for many Christians, a very familiar passage of scripture.  It brings to mind an image of a candlestick or lamp that, rather than being placed under a bushel, is placed on the lamp stand so that light shines throughout the room.  We see from this passage, and from the previous verses that Jesus teaches us to be salt and light so that people will glorify God when they are seen.  However, we may often miss that little phrase, ďA city on a hill cannot be hidden.Ē  What does a city have to do with this passage?  How does that relate to the metaphor of light used here?  An understanding of what it is to be ďthe light of the worldĒ can be truly humbling, and give us reason to look into our own lives and perform a ďreality checkĒ that exposes the nature of our faith and our willingness to be obedient to Christ.

We find the metaphor of light used throughout scripture, with its first reference in Genesis 1:3 and its last in Revelation 22:5.  Letís go back to the reference in Genesis:

Genesis 1:1-4.  In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  4And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness,

When we look at light, as God created it and as recorded in the book of Genesis, what function does it serve?  Without light, the earth was without form and void.  That is, there was no life.  If the sun were to exhaust all of its fuel and burn out, what would become of the earth?  Everything would die as it becomes incredibly cold and dark.  Weather would cease.  There would be no rain, no wind.  The rivers would drain to the lakes and oceans where all would fall into a deep and permanent freeze.

This scenario gives us a little glimpse into the power of light to sustain life.  With light, there is life.  With darkness, there is death.  Just as light provides the resource for physical life, God provides the means for both physical and spiritual life.  Just as it is hard to imagine an earth without light, it is equally hard to imagine a world without the influence of God.  Separated from God, there would be no limit to the wickedness of man, and apart from the blessings of God, this world would be unbearable.  Most likely, man would have long ago annihilated himself as a species without the influence of God.

We see here incredible similarities between the presence and absence of light, and the presence and absence of God.  Consequently, we find repeated use of the scripture of light as both a metaphor and an actual visual indication of the presence of God.

We encounter Godís presence as the light of the world in Exodus.  Moses had spent 40 years as a stepson of the Pharaoh of Egypt and 40 years as a shepherd in the desert near Mt.  Horeb when he observed a fire on the mountain:

Exodus 3:2.  And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 

This incident marked the beginning of an 800-year period when Godís presence on the earth was marked by light.  Often referred to as the Glory of God, or the Shekinah Glory, God repeatedly and consistently made His presence known through the presence of His Holy Fire.  God called Moses to negotiate the release of Israel from bondage under the Pharaoh, and with His Holy intervention, their freedom was obtained.  When the nation was ready to leave the country, God made His presence to them clearly known.

Exodus 13:21-22.  And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: 22He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. 

Most Christians are quite aware of the Pillar of Fire and its function in the wilderness.  As a demonstration of Godís presence, the nation constructed the tent of the tabernacle under it.  On occasions God spoke out of it, and each year on the Day of Atonement, the fire would descend into the temple itself and consume the sacrifice in a very dramatic and graphic proof of Godís presence with man.

If the pillar of fire were to come back today, what would happen?  Certainly, it would serve as front-page news for a day or so.  People would respond in a huge flow of emotion with numerous testimonies of prophesies.  Some people would be saved.  After a week it would be relegated to the second page of our newspapers.  After a month there would be occasional articles on the religion page.  After a year it would be old news, and most of the world would be disinterested.

A similar circumstance took place in ancient Israel.  Record of the pillar of fire becomes sparse through the years, but still, the record exists.  There are several references to the Pillar of Fire and its presence over the tent of the tabernacle in Exodus, Numbers, 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.  It is clear that the Pillar of Fire was present for the entire period of 400 years while Israel worshipped God in the tent. 

Then, King Solomon built the permanent Temple in Jerusalem.  While the building was taking place, worship still took place in the tent.  God showed his approval of the temple by moving the Pillar of Fire over it.

2. Chronicles 7:1.  When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple

Just as the Pillar of Fire, the presence of God in His Tabernacle had been evident for 400 years in the Tent of Meeting; it was also present at Solomonís Temple for a period of 400 years.  It had been 800 years now that Godís presence was found in the tabernacle, and that presence was in the form of light.  Light had become synonymous with Godís presence.  However, this latter period of 400 years was characterized by the apostasy of the nation.  The kings who followed Solomon took the nation away from God and embraced the gods of the world culture.  First Israel and then Judah, who separated after Solomonís reign, were taken into captivity in Assyria and Babylon, respectively.  Ezekiel and Ezekiel alone was then witness to one of the most profound events in the history of Israel:

Ezek.  11:23.  Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim (Ezek.  10:18).  The glory of the LORD went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it.

After 400 years in the tent, and 400 years in the temple, the Pillar of Fire, the Shekinah Glory of God departed.  The Prophesy of 1 Samuel had been fulfilled.  The name of Ichabod was written across the face of the land:  The Glory of the Lord had left Israel.  This event was the beginning of 400 years of darkness.  This is the period of time between the writings of Malachi and Matthew, between the Old and the New Testaments.  Unlike the 800 years before, when the priests would bring the sacrifice to the altar, the Pillar of Fire no longer came down to consume it.  They had to clean up the bloody mess themselves, fully knowing that God was not there.  Israel continued to exist as a nation, but not as children in relationship with God.  There was only darkness.

Jesus, the Light of the World.

This 400-year darkness was insidious.  During that time there were no prophets, and so, no word from God.  Where was He?  Israel turned completely away from God and instead of embracing relationship with Him, turned fully to their traditions to sustain their self-definition.  Faith had been replaced by cold and meaningless religious ritual.  The commandments of God had been replaced by a system of legalistic written and oral laws.  God was gone.  Religion was now in the hands of men.

However, after 400 years of darkness, the Glory of the Lord came back.  Where and when did this happen?

Luke 2:9-11.  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord

The Glory of the Lord returned.  His light lit up the field where the shepherds were keeping their sheep, and unlike the fire of 800 years ago that came and went without interest, this time, the shepherd were quite scared by this apparition.  Israelís hope in the return of Godís Glory was entirely wrapped up in the coming of the Messiah.  As the glory returned, the message of the Angels was exactly that:  today is born the savior, the Christ.

In the ensuing years, we see references to that Star of Bethlehem, the light that lit the shepherdís field served to lead the wise men to the Christ child, leading them in the same manner that it led Israel through the wilderness.  Through the return of the Shekinah Glory, and the announcement of the Angels, it is clear that Godís presence has returned.  This time, He has returned through the life of a baby born to the most humble of people.  Jesus is now the light of the world.  Not only did God testify through His Glory that Jesus is the light of the world, Jesus Himself agreed Ö

John 8:12.  When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

What darkness does Jesus refer to?  It is not the darkness of night that comes from the shadow of the earth that blocks the sunlight.  Rather, that darkness is the darkness of sin and death, the absence of Godís Holy presence.  Consider for a moment the battle between light and darkness.  If we were to close all of the doors and cover all of the windows of our room, and then turn out the lights we would be able to observe the room in absolute darkness.  Many people have never experience such absolute darkness.  What happens when a light is turned on in the room?  The darkness is literally chased away by the light whose power fills the room.  Light proceeds from its source at 300 million meters per second, or 186,000 miles per second, encountering no resistance from the darkness.  Darkness has absolutely no power.  It is the light that has power.  Likewise, what happens when the power of the Holy Spirit enters?  Just as darkness is impotent to the power of light, the absence of the Spirit is impotent to His presence.  Satan is entirely impotent when confronted by the Holy Spirit.  For example, when Jesus confronted the demon possessed man of Gadara (Mark 5:1-13) did the demons take on Jesus in a battle?  No, they pleaded for his mercy.  They were absolutely powerless against Him.  During Jesusí ministry, He served as the Light of the World.  He was the tabernacle of the Lord, the presence of God among men.  However, Jesus, after His resurrection, had fulfilled His mission of salvation of mankind.

You are the light of the World.

This brings us full-circle to the focal verse from which we started:

Matthew  5:14.  Ye are the light of the world.

These words were stated by Jesus to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  If we understand the role played by the Light of the World up to this point in history, what does it mean that those who follow Jesus Christ are the ďLight of the WorldĒ?  This light of which Jesus speaks is the very presence of God, a presence that has the power to defeat Satan.  Can people have such power?  It was Godís plan that people who live in a wicked and sinful world would turn to Him and appropriate this power.

Acts 1:8.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earthĒ

That power in the life of a Christian is provided by the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart and life of every true believer.  When the Holy Spirit draws one to faith in Christ, He serves as the promise and seal of the salvation that such a testimony engenders.  It is the Holy Spirit in the heart and life of the believer that is the source of power against Satan, sin, and death.  Just as Satan has no power when confronted by the Holy Spirit, he has no power when confronted with a Spirit-filled Christian.  What must a Christian do to defeat Satan?

 James 4:7.  Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you

You, as a faithful believer in Christ, are the light of the world.  God dwells in you, just as he dwelt in the tent, in the tabernacle, and in the Spirit of Christ.

1 Corinthians 6:19.  Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;

So, what does this have to do with a City on a Hill?  When a city is placed on a hilltop, it can be seen from all around.  During the day, its structures are evident.  At night, its lights can be seen for many miles.  Likewise, when the Holy Spirit lives in the life of a faithful believer, His presence is evident like that city on a hill.  The regeneration that took place in your life has changed your world view.  Your desires have changed so that you no longer seek sin for your gratification.  Instead, you seek to repent of the sin in your life.  The Holy Spirit makes His presence known as Godís agape love, a love that inspires compassion, mercy, and love for all people.  That compassion and mercy will produce fruit, just as a vine produces fruit, as your nature will be to love others.

This world view is so alien to the world, that just as the city on a hill cannot be hid, the Holy Spirit within you cannot be hid.  Therefore, Christians carry an incredible responsibility in the world.  God has chosen to make his presence known to the world through the hearts and minds of Christians, hearts and minds that are obedient to the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Therefore it is now through Christians that Godís love is to be spread.  It is through Christians that people will see God.

Matt.  5:15.  Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house

What are we to do with the influence of the Holy Spirit that is within us?  Are we to stifle it with our own self-will, our pride, and our prejudices?  To do so is like taking the light and placing it under a cover so that it cannot be seen.  The light is there, but serves no useful purpose other than to be cherished.

Likewise, people can do the same thing to the Holy Spirit that is within them.  Knowing that they are saved from the condemnation of their sin, they can simply ignore the Holy Spirit, and live self-centered and prideful lives that serve no purpose to the Kingdom.  As a Christian, is that Godís plan for your life 

Matt.  5:16.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven

Jesusí command is clear and simple.  Rather than cover the Holy Spirit with our own self-will, we are to let the Holy Spirit work in our lives so that His love will work through us to touch others.  How do we do this?  How can we be obedient to this command?  Actually, the answer is quite simple.  When asked this question,

Matt.  22:37-40.  Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment.  39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Give all of your heart and soul to God, not just a piece of it.  God doesnít want your attention for a couple of hours on Sunday.  He desires to have a relationship with you 24-hours each day.  We are to love him and seek him every moment of every day (Psalm 1).  When we do this, the second command in Jesusí statement here simply comes as a fruit of the nature of Godís love within us:  we are called to love one another.  With a true love in our hearts, Godís work will be accomplished in us and among those around us.