Jesus is the light of the world. As profound as that statement is, it gets crazier. Because this is a title that Jesus claims for himself, and then also bestows upon us.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
Jesus shares his identity with us. He is the light of the world, and we have been filled in that light. And Jesus intends for us to shine.
Consider Jesus’ lamp illustration. A lamp gives light. That’s just what it does. A lightless lamp is an inherent contradiction. It’s pure nonsense.
Imagine coming over to my house for a chat. We grab some coffee and sit down. The room is dark, so I reach over and turn on the lamp sitting between us. Then I say, “Oh wait, just a minute.” Then I grab a basket off the floor and set it over the lamp, completely blocking its light. “Ah, there we go. Now what were you saying?”
Jesus’ example here is absurd. I’m willing to bet that you don’t know anyone who has ever turned on a light, then covered it up so that none of its light escapes.
And yet—and here is the tragedy of the whole thing—it’s our everyday lived experience to encounter Christians who claim to be filled with the light of the world, yet never emit a single ray of that light. “Well, yes. I’m a Christian. But I’m not crazy. I mean, there’s nothing about me that would hint at the person of Jesus Christ.”
Martin Lloyd-Jones speaks some strong words in commenting on this passage:
“As I understand it, and it seems to me to be an inevitable piece of logic and interpretation, there is nothing in God’s universe that is so utterly useless as a merely formal Christian. I mean by that, one who has the name but not the quality of a Christian.” (from Studies in the Sermon on the Mount)
It’s not that we must become the light or we must act as light: we are the light. A basket over a lamp doesn’t make it any less a lamp. So first we need to examine ourselves and assess how we are relating to Jesus as the light of the world. And if he is truly in us, then we are the light, so we must act and live in accordance with what we truly are. The light of life shines within us, so we must find all of those ways in which that light is obscured by a basket. What things in your life cover up the light of Christ? If the light of the world shines through you, what in your life is keeping the people around you from seeing that light?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer also gives a blunt comment regarding this passage:
“Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.” (from The Cost of Discipleship)
This was a big statement for Bonhoeffer to make, but he backed it up with his life. When Bonhoeffer, who was a pastor in Nazi-dominated Germany, had the opportunity to stay abroad until the trouble passed, he decided that he could not be away from the German church in this dark hour. And at the greatest possible cost, Bonhoeffer reminded that church that they could not hide their light, even if it meant losing everything.
Jesus is the light of the world, and he has chosen that he will continue to shine in this world through us, his church. We cannot afford to lose a single ray of that light. Every one of us has to take this seriously, because together we make up that city on a hill. An invisible city is the farthest thing from God’s intention. We are that city on a hill, shining with the true light of life that scatters the darkness of this world.