We’re to show our good works to the world. Sorta.
Mark 4.21 • Matthew 5.14-16 • Luke 8.16, 11.33 • John 8.12
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his students they’re the light of the world. And multiple times in John, Jesus is declared the light of the world. Here, I’ve got one of those passages lined up for you.
Matthew 5.14 KWL
- “You’re the world’s light.
- A city can’t be hidden when it lies on a hill.”
John 8.12 KWL
- So Jesus spoke to them again, saying: “I’m the world’s light.
- My followers shouldn’t walk in the dark. Instead they’ll have life’s light.”
So which is it?
Both, obviously. It’s not a contradiction. Jesus is the true light who entered the world;
Yep, this light metaphor is all over the bible. Wouldn’t hurt us to read up on it, and see all the different ways God wants us to carry his light.
Starting with the city-on-a-hill idea. Nowadays we don’t create cities on hills. When developers create a town, they place them somewhere convenient: Outside bigger cities, near main roads, a place easy to access. Hills aren’t so easy, plus there’s all the hassle of building on a hill. Put a city on a hill, and it’ll nearly always be an expensive city. But back in ancient times, rulers worried about invasion, and figured a hill was easier to defend than a plain. Plus they could see their enemies coming. The down side was their cities were very visible-especially at night, with all their torches burning.
That’s the trait Jesus wants his followers to have: We oughta be nice and obvious. (True, it makes us more visible to enemies, but let’s not hang up on the negative.) If Christianity is a city on a hill, we Christians need to be visible. No hiding our faith. No concealing who it is we follow.
The Pharisees, much as Christians might knock ’em nowadays, didn’t conceal who they followed. God ordered the Hebrews to put fringes and blue cords on their clothes,
Christians don’t necessarily dress in a distinctively Christian way. Conservative Christians will dress conservatively, but that only implies they’re conservative. For all we know they could be Muslim, Jewish, or Mormon. Yep, even pagans—who happen to be conservative. They’d have to wear something overtly Christian, like a Christian T-shirt, minister’s robes, or a habit. But clothes are not how Jesus expects our light to shine. Clothes are the façade. It’s what’s under the outward appearance that counts. Are we producing good fruit?
If you look atop a hill in the daytime and see no city there, it doesn’t mean the city’s invisible, or is hiding its light really well. It means there’s no city there at all. And the same is true of Christians. If you look at a person and see no light, it means they’re not Christian. Oh, they may be trying to look Christian, and have convinced themselves that’s what they are. They have the trappings. They can fool superficial people. But light will tell you if there’s anything really there. No fruit? No light. No Christian.
You don’t put it under a basket.
It’s been argued, and Christians have taught, that if one of those ancient hill cities wanted to hide from their foes, they could just douse all their torches and oil lamps. Or put something over them, like a basket.
Yes they could. But ancient armies didn’t scout their targets in the dark. They’d check you out in the daytime, and learn exactly where you were. They might move into position and attack in the dark, and you could try to make it difficult for them by putting out your lights. Wouldn’t do any good. You can’t hide a hill city. Putting your lamp under a basket was ultimately a waste of time.
And would set your basket on fire. If you were gonna hide an open flame, you used a jar,
Mark 4.21 KWL
- Jesus told them, “Does the light come in so it can be put under a basket or under the couch?
- Not so it can be put on the lampstand?”
Matthew 5.15 KWL
- “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket,
- but on the lampstand, and it shines on everything in the house.”
Luke 8.16 KWL
- “Nobody who grabs a light covers it with a jar, or puts it under the couch,
- but puts it on a lampstand so those who enter can see the light.”
Luke 11.33 KWL
- “Nobody who grabs a light puts a cover on it, nor under a basket,
- but on the lampstand so those who enter can see the light.”
Lamps in Jesus’s day were basically small dishes of olive oil with a wick in it. They had a handle so you could hold it without burning your hand. Often there’d be a separate hole to put the wick through. It lit the room as much as a candle, so lampstands would hold multiple lamps. Like Jesus said, you don’t light a lamp, or bring it into a room, just to put it where it does no good. You stick it on the lampstand.
Same with us Christians. You don’t go to all the trouble of learning to be light, like Jesus is light, like God is light… then conceal it, and pretend to be dark. The Christian lifestyle isn’t purely academic. It’s practiced.
There are, unfortunately, such things as dark Christians. They fixate on sin, fight the things they fear, and in so doing do nothing to develop the Spirit’s fruit. As a result they draw no one to God. Cause no one to praise our heavenly Father. On the contrary: Pagans and Christians alike groan when they see them, and their rotten attitudes, fearful outrage, and unkind behavior give Christianity and Christ a bad name. We gotta compensate for them regularly. We gotta be the sort of light Jesus calls us to be. By letting our authentic good works shine forth.
Shine your light… but don’t act in public. Wait, what?
Wanna freak out your fellow Christians? Quote these verses together, then watch ’em go bonkers over the contradiction.
Matthew 5.16 KWL
- “So shine your light before the people so they could see your good works,
- and think well of your heavenly Father.”
Matthew 6.1 KWL
- “Watch out to not do your righteous acts before the people to be seen by them.
- Otherwise you won’t earn wages from your heavenly Father.”
Do your good works in front of people… but don’t do your righteous acts in front of people? Wait, which instruction does Jesus want us to follow?
Both. The difference between the instructions has to do with motive—as is made clear by where we find these verses. Jesus taught about being the world’s light right after he talked about being the earth’s salt. We’re to enhance the world; lighting it up is another way we do that. Whereas when he taught about not doing righteous stuff in front of others, he followed up by critiquing those hypocrites who want public praise for doing their good deeds, who aren’t actually doing any of these things for the Father. If you’re doing ’em for God, good!—shine your light. If you’re doing ’em for praise, bad Christian!—human praise is all the award you’ll get.
Out of context, it looks like Jesus is being inconsistent. That’s why I keep reminding you context matters.
Still, we get Christians who read Matthew 6.1 and figures this gives ’em license to ignore Matthew 5.16. Their Christianity, they insist, is private. Personal. Between them and Jesus. They don’t put anything on display. They hide their good works. Their devotions are secret.
That’s their excuse, anyway. The fact that they’re otherwise fruitless kinda tips you off their religion isn’t really private. It’s non-existent. These are the people, when they tell people they’re Christian, regularly get the response, “You’re Christian?” Not because they’re nicer than the Christian stereotype (which is annoying for its own reason), but because they’re worses.
True Christians may keep our acts of devotion personal. But when we’re truly following Jesus, people are gonna figure us out. They may not always realize we act this way because of Christ. But they’ll deduce there’s something religious or moral about our character. They’ll notice we’re not jerks. That we’re kind and patient and self-controlled. That we’re generous instead of self-seeking. That we love people instead of fear everybody. That we have peace where others have anxiety. That we’re joyful, not angry. They’ll want to know what meds we’re taking! But really it’s because they see our light.
If we’re doing it wrong, they’ll see nothing. But when we’re doing it right, it’ll always point to Jesus. ’Cause it’s his light.