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Matthew 5:13-16 by Robert Dean
"This little light of mine. I'm going to let it shine." This catchy song that kids love holds a vital truth for all believers. Listen to this lesson to learn that Jesus taught His disciples that He was the Light of the world and the disciples derived their light from Him. Discover the ancient meaning of "a city set on a hill". Become versed in the many ways light is used throughout the Bible and how it is contrasted with the darkness of evil. See how our good works produced when we are walking by means of the Holy Spirit and growing spiritually impact those around us and glorify God.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:45 mins 5 secs

The Light of the World
Matthew 5:13-16
Matthew LEsson #026
March 16, 2014

Last time we began with the first verse in this section where we have these two metaphors describing the disciples. Jesus compares them to salt.

Matthew 5:13 NASB "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty {again?} It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men."

The point of the metaphor is not functioning as a preservative for the culture of the world. The word "earth" here is not a synonym for the world. In the parallel we will see in the next verse, "You are the light of the world", the word KOSMOS is translated world there usually refers to either the world system or the inhabitants of the planet. Whereas the word GE, translated "earth" here, usually refers to land or territory or a region. It is the word used to translate eretz from the Old Testament, specifically referring to Israel, or the earth—"God made the heavens and the earth". There is no documentation we can find of any of the uses in the Gospels where the noun GE refers to the inhabitants of the planet. So the strength of the argument is that this is an agricultural metaphor and that is strengthened from the last phrase, "if it has become tasteless". The word there is an idiom and means it is no longer useful. If it is no longer useful then it is good for nothing but to be thrown out. It is an agricultural metaphor. The idea that fits best linguistically and culturally is the idea related to fertilization and making the believer productive.

So what Jesus is saying here to the disciples is that you, because of who you are, are to be productive, and are to bear fruit. Remember He is talking to them in the age of Israel during the life of the Messiah, and He is giving the principle of the gospel, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The disciples are to be going out and this is to characterize their life as those who have repented and are preparing for the kingdom.

This has an application to all who are waiting for the kingdom. Because the kingdom was rejected at the first advent it is postponed until Jesus comes the second time, so we like the disciples and the Jews at that time are in that interim period where we are still preparing spiritually for the future kingdom. That is the point of contact for application. We have the same kind of application in terms of the light of the world. We are still waiting for the kingdom. In that interim period we are salt, we are to be productive, and we are to be a source of light and revelation in the midst of darkness. The metaphor I have diagrammed here is when you take one element and compare it to another in an unstated way. You could say you are like salt. It is a stated comparison and that is called a simile. When you say you are salt or you are light that is an unstated comparison known as a metaphor. So it is comparing some quality of salt and some quality of light to a quality that is part of the makeup of a genuine disciple. So the salt idea indicates that we are to be productive spiritually and the light metaphor indicates something in relation to illumination.

Matthew 5:14 NASB "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; [15] nor does {anyone} light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. [16] Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

This is to characterize every believer who is seeking to grow and mature as a disciple. It is not a condition for becoming saved but it is to characterize the believer who is working out his spiritual life and growing to spiritual maturity.

Two things are stated. "You are the light of the world"—not to become the light of the world but you are, present tense, the light of the world. The "you" is repeated in the Greek. It is embedded within the second person plural of the verb but the pronoun is stated. It doesn't have to be stated and is not always stated but when it is it is for emphasis. The context in which Jesus is stating this is in the context of the kingdom message that they are proclaiming in terms of that particular end stage of the age of Israel, the time that Jesus was on the earth proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. So this is part of their function as who they are as Jewish believers in that dispensation. We are not in that dispensation but since the kingdom hasn't come we, like they, are to characterize the same thing in preparation for the coming kingdom. The second idea that He states is that of the principle, to illustrate the point He has made, is "city set on a hill cannot be hidden". We are not to hide our life.

So to begin with, to understand this metaphor, we must first understand how it is used in the Scripture. One of the ways it is used is of God and His character and glory. Psalm 4:6 NASB "Many are saying, 'Who will show us {any} good?' Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O LORD!" The light of His countenance is a description of His character. It relates to His righteousness and His justice, which is an expression of His holiness, His distinctiveness. The word "holy" has the idea of being separate, distinct; so it really emphasizes His uniqueness. What is unique about God above any of His creatures is that God and God alone is inherently righteous and just.

Psalm 104:2 NASB "Covering Yourself with light as with a cloak, Stretching out heaven like a {tent} curtain." The first part of that verse emphasizes His character. It is restated in the New Testament in 1 John 1:5 NASB "This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all." He doesn't become light; He is light. This emphasizes the purity of His character and the righteousness of His character. This tells us that light has an ethical value. It is not just illumination of truth; it is inherently righteous. The reason for emphasizing that is because in verse 16 Jesus says: "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." There is a connection between letting your light shine and good works. This is divine good, which is produced for us. We would apply this in the church age to those who are walking by the Spirit. It was different in their dispensation but by application we would indicate that this is the fruit of the Spirit—walking by the Spirit, divine good. So light has an ethical value as well and it is equivalent to holiness, righteousness: that God has no sin, evil or darkness within Him.

So God the Father is stated to be light. Jesus is also stated to be light: "In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness"—John 1:4, 5. At the incarnation the presence of Jesus on the earth illuminates the darkness of the cosmic system. We are told on John 1:8 NASB "He was not the Light, but {he came} to testify about the Light… [9] There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man." This is part of common grace. Jesus through the incarnation gives light (in terms of illumination) to every single human being so that all can be held accountable. He illuminates the world for truth. So when we answer the question, well what about the person who never heard? the answer is the Scripture says that Jesus by coming into the world gave light to all men, no matter where they were. It is a part of common grace and God's general revelation.

Later in John 3:19 the writer says, NASB "This is the judgment, that the Light [Jesus] has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. [20] For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed." The normal modus operandi of every unbeliever is they recoil from the light. Why? Because as Paul says in Romans 1:18-20 they are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. They don't want the exposure. But if they are positive to that light that is given to them and do want to know more then eventually through the ministry of God the Holy Spirit they will respond to the truth. The Holy Spirit illuminates their thinking to truth.

John 3:21 NASB "But he who practices the truth [person who is positive] comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God."

John 8:12 NASB "Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, 'I am the Light of the world ...' " The same words that He uses in Matthew chapter five when He says to the disciples, "You are the light of the world".

But our life is derivative of His life, because He is the light of the world. So what we see is the light of the world—the second person of the Trinity—comes into the world (John 1:3), and then He tells His disciples that because they are His disciples and have responded to the message of the kingdom, and they will go into the kingdom, that therefore they must let their light shine. They are already positionally light in the Lord because they are regenerate. Now they need to make sure that their light shines before men. That applies to us by extension: that we let our light shine before men as those who are regenerate. So Jesus claimed to be the light of the world, and "… he who follows Me [the disciple] will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life."

That is the ethical challenge for every believer. Are we going to live like unbelievers and say well, that's okay, God will forgive my sin, I'll just use 1 John 1:9 later? Or are we going to recognize that we are not to live like unbelievers, we are to live as lights because that is who we are?

When we loom at this metaphor of light it goes back to creation. One of the first concepts we see in Genesis chapter one is that the world is shrouded in darkness and the first creative command of God in verse 3 is: "Let there be light". Then the light is separated from the darkness. When there is light then the darkness is dispelled. We see that same imagery picked up in the New Testament by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:6 NASB "For God, who said, 'Light shall shine out of darkness,' …" This shows us the miraculous nature of the illumination of God the Holy Spirit of our souls so that we can understand the truth of the gospel. "… is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." Part of the role of God the Holy Spirit is that He is going to convict the world of righteousness and sin. And that is what He does for every unbeliever. This is His focal point: convicting the world of righteousness and sin and faith. He is going to be exposing that in the gospel presentation. 

Jesus is talking to a Jewish audience. He is using imagery that they are familiar with, coming our of their knowledge and understanding of the Old Testament, the Torah. He is speaking to them in the age of Israel and He is communicating principles related to those who want to be prepared for the arrival of the kingdom. So we need to go back and trace the use of light in its different emphases so that we understand what it is that Jesus is communicating.

In the Old Testament we have a great passage in 2 Samuel 23:3, 4. These are David's parting words before he dies. What is significant about this is that David is a type of Christ. In many aspects of his life he foreshadows the messianic King, and in his closing words he states: NASB "The God of Israel said, The Rock of Israel spoke to me, 'He who rules over men righteously [must be just] …" At this time he is giving prophecy related to his descendant, the one who will fulfill the Davidic covenant, the one who will sit forever upon the throne of David. "He who rules over men must be just". We see again that ethical value is part of this.

"… Who rules in the fear of God [The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom], is as the light of the morning {when} the sun rises …" There is darkness, and in the ancient world they didn't have street lights and all of the illumination at night that we have today, and when the sun went down it was dark. What is being compared here is the hope that is there because the sun comes up, it dispels the darkness, there is hope, a looking forward to a new day, a new time. So the messianic King is compared to the light of the morning, dispelling the darkness, presenting hope, and looking forward to the next day, 'A morning without clouds, {When} the tender grass {springs} out of the earth, Through sunshine after rain.'"

All this is imagery of something that has been cleansed, something new, darkness has been dispelled; there is hope for a future. That is linked with the ethics of the ruler who is just and the coming of the messianic King. It emphasizes righteousness and justice.

Psalm 37:6 NASB "He will bring forth your righteousness as the light And your judgment [justice] as the noonday." Again, righteousness and justice are associated with the imagery of light.

Nehemiah 9:12 NASB "And with a pillar of cloud You led them by day, And with a pillar of fire by night To light for them the way In which they were to go." Light is also a depiction of God's guidance for us. It is through His illumination that there is guidance. This is emphasized in numerous psalms.

Psalm 18:28 NASB "For You light my lamp; The LORD my God illumines my darkness." He is the one who brings light into our own spiritual life.

Psalm 36:9 NASB "For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light." That is, in the light of divine revelation in His Word we see light. That is a great word for epistemology. How do we know? Our knowledge is derivative. It is because God knows all things that we can know some things. It is in His light, His illumination that we can come to know truth. The reality of God is the presupposition for knowing truth.

Psalm 43:3 NASB "O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me; Let them bring me to Your holy hill And to Your dwelling places." Notice how light is related to truth in this verse; it is related to illumination.

Psalm 112:4 NASB "Light arises in the darkness for the upright; {He is} gracious and compassionate and righteous." So light is not only illumination but it is associated with the righteousness of God.

Psalm 119:105 NASB "Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path." Illumination from God's Word.

Psalm 119:130 NASB "The unfolding [or, entrance] of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple."

In three passage sin Isaiah it is connected to the rule of the Messiah. The suffering Servant: Isaiah 42:6 NASB "I am the LORD [God the Father], I have called You [the Messiah] in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations." So the role of the Messiah is to be a light to the Gentiles, and by extension those who follow Him.

Isaiah 49:6 NASB "He says, 'It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth'."

Isaiah 60:3 NASB "Nations [Gentiles] will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising." This is a millennial passage.

So in Matthew 5:14 this statement "You are the light of the world" resonates with meaning related to the illumination of God, related to divine guidance and related to the illumination that comes with the Messiah and with the kingdom.

Then it is explained by the phrase "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden". If you don't want your home, your town to be noticed by anybody you establish it in the valley. Nobody will see it. But of you want people to see it and to know it is there, and you want to make a statement in the world you build your city on a hill. A city that is set on a hill is set there to be highly visible, to be prominent. Travelers who didn't reach a city before the sunset and it became dark would see lights. They would beckon to a destination of hope and safety and give direction to travelers. This is the role of the disciple. He is a source of hope in a hopeless world. He is a source of illumination and truth in a world that is in darkness and lacks truth.

This idea that it is not hidden but is to be exposed to all around is expanded in Matthew 5:15 NASB "nor does {anyone} light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house." The word for basket here is for that which would be used to collect the grain in the fields, something that they would have in most homes. To light a light and then put a bushel basket over it would only dim it and they wouldn't see anything. So the disciple is not to hide the fact that he is light. He is going to put it on a lampstand so that it has greater visibility.  

This is part of how we bless the world through our relationship with God—blessing by association. Because we are living in light of who we are as sons of light, the Scripture says.

Jesus concludes in Matthew 5:16 NASB "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven." Here it connects ethically to the spiritual production in our lives. We know that that productions doesn't come from pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, by just an act of morality, but by walking by the Spirit. And when we walk by the Spirit then the Spirit is the one who is working and producing in our lives. The result of that are good works that are intrinsically good. This is the Greek word AGATHOS, meaning intrinsic good; not KALOS which usually means relative good. There are many good things in life that don't accrue to spiritual significance. It is good to be ethical, it is good to be moral, it is good to be obedient to the law; but it is not the kind of good that is going to get one into heaven or mature the believer spiritually. But these are those kinds of good works that are related to spiritual growth and that people need to see that we are ethically different. It has an impact on the culture around us and as a result the hope is that they will glorify God because of what we have done.

Light is connected in numerous passages to the production of spiritual good. In Job 30:26 NASB "When I expected good, then evil came; When I waited for light, then darkness came." We see here in the earliest book in the Bible this connection: light is connected to that which is good or the absence of it to evil.

Isaiah 58:8 NASB "Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard." Righteousness there is connected to light, so this isn't a strange idea for Jesus' hearers. They understand that light relates to righteous behavior.

Paul talks about this in Romans 13:12 NASB "The night is almost gone, and the day [referring to the church age] is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light"—further described in terms of ethical righteousness, biblical righteousness, divine righteousness that is worked out in our lives.

Ephesians 5:8, 9 NASB "for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light …" We are light in the Lord, but we don't always walk that way. So Paul gives us the mandate here that we are to walk as children of light. What does that look like? "(for the fruit of the Light {consists} in all goodness and righteousness and truth)". Walking in the light has an ethical dimension. We are to walk in righteousness, goodness and truth.

Philippians 2:12 NASB "So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Paul is not talking about getting justified; they already are believers. [13] "for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for {His} good pleasure." There are three different ways in which the Bible uses the word "saved". We believe in Jesus as savior and we are justified, and the Bible says we are saved from the penalty of sin; our destiny is heaven, not the lake of fire. But after we have been saved from the penalty of sin we are a newborn baby and need to grow. So we are saved from the power of sin (Romans 6:3ff). The sin nature's tyrannical power before we were saved is broken at justification, but it is still present so we have to learn through doctrine by growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18); we are saved and are to grow and mature, being saved from the power of sin. Then glorification is when we are absent from the body and face to face with the Lord where we are saved from the presence of sin; we have no more sin nature at all.

Philippians 2:14 NASB "Do all things without grumbling or disputing". No complaining, no arguing. Have a great attitude about everything that you do whether you like it or not. [15] "so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world". That is what we are to do.

How do we do that? Philippians 2:16 "holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain."

How do we function as a light of the world? By holding on to the Word of God, by learning it and applying it in our life. We have to learn it before we can apply it, and that is why we focus upon it.