“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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 in heaven.”
Matthew 5:14-16 (NRSV)
Up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, and regularly in the Gospel of Matthew, we have seen allusions to key points in Israel’s history, identity, and mission. Jesus is being faithful Israel in the world and re-birthing the nation to usher in their hopes for the future and, ultimately, God’s plan for the world.
In this passage, Jesus explicitly ties his audience to Israel’s original identity and mission.
From God’s calling to Abraham, we see several times that the nation God will make from Abraham is meant to be a mechanism of blessing to the other nations (Gen. 12:1-3, 22:15-18). Somehow, the prosperity and growth that comes from faithfulness to YHVH will result in good things for all the nations.
This is a key part of Israel’s mission in the world. Her mission is to live in a hostile world as a new creation people, called out by the God who made the heavens and the earth. Her faithfulness to God and the peace she enjoys as a result are a testimony to the surrounding nations. Her very identity is a witness to the true God and a call to faithfulness. This aspect of her mission was symbolized by the lampstands in the tabernacle and Temple.
Isaiah, already a reference point for the Sermon on the Mount, expresses many of these hopes. For example, in chapter 19, Isaiah has Egypt and Assyria – traditionally enemies of Israel – crying out to Israel’s God for their deliverance and being treated the same as Israel. “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth,” Isaiah says in a statement very radical for his day.
The explicit drawing together of these hopes with the light imagery is also in Isaiah:
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Isaiah 49:5-7 (NRSV)
In these passages, we don’t have a sense of the other nations actually becoming part of Israel. Israel is still Israel, Egypt is still Egypt, the nations are still the nations. It won’t be until much later that Jesus hints at what Paul will explicitly state – that this new iteration of Israel also includes the faithful Gentiles.
But this hope of Israel is something Jesus puts in his sermon. These people who are supposed to be a light to the nations need to be lights. They are a light, not primarily in what they say, but in what they are. They are supposed to be something, and when they are this something, God Himself keeps them safe and advances their growth and prosperity.
In the same vein, the apostles will call their fledgling Jesus-following communities to faith as a testimony to the world that God has vindicated Jesus, made him Lord, and brought about an impending judgment. Yes, the community tells these things to the world, but primarily, they are a certain thing in the world. Their faithfulness in the world and God’s response with signs, wonders, and a wildfire-like spread testify to the world the reality of their proclamation.
While the historical particulars of exactly what these people are testifying to the world around them will change, what remains constant is that the people exist in a certain way, and this way of being is a proclamation all on its own to the nations around them. They are the proof of the new creation as it looks in world full of the old creation. They testify that a new world is coming because they are that new world in the here and now.
In the modern West, we love our words. The Christian faith is something you explain and people believe and explain to other people. Whether or not someone is a faithful Christian is often defined by the integrity and purity of their beliefs.
It is true that proclamation – a message – has always been part of the witness of God’s people in the world, but it has always meant to be an incarnate word – a word made flesh and dwelling among us. When we are the faithful people of God in the world, then our testimony rings true. When we look just like the rest of the world, or the truths we proclaim are primarily a matter of propositions and assent to those propositions, then we become irrelevant at best and actively harmful at worst.
We spend so much time coming up with evangelistic and missional “strategies,” when the reality is that, if we looked anything like a faithful people the way Jesus defined it, people would be breaking down our doors to get into it. Everyone would want to get in on this. A kingdom where we pronounced forgiveness of sins, where we healed the sick, where we gave food, clothing, and shelter to the poor, where we took in those that society hates and persecutes and gave them love and safety, where all the things that divide humanity become pale shadows of a former life.
But we look very little like that in most parts of the world most of the time. What we say with our lips is completely invalidated by our corporate testimony. How can I credibly tell a homosexual man that we love him when we’re also fighting for the right of businesses not to serve him? How can I credibly tell a poor man that the kingdom has come to make all things right when we spend our money on new buildings and work to cut welfare, proclaiming that it’s not the government’s job to take care of the poor, but refusing to do it, ourselves? How can I credibly say that I stand for life and promote war?
We look like something in the world whether we’re trying to or not. We are either a testimony of the reality of what God is doing in the world, or we’re telling everyone it’s all a huge lie. We are either a light to the nations and a city on the hill, or we look just like all the darkness around us.
- What are the characteristics of His people that God values? What has historically gotten them into trouble?
- In what ways does Jesus “reset” Israel on the right path?
- What things are missing from the church in the world today that would testify that our message was true?