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Matthew 5:14-16 “Proof of Covenant Purpose”

You are the light of the world. It is not possible for a city to be hidden being placed on a hill. Nor do they light a lamp and appoint it under a basket, but upon a lampstand, and it lights all those in the house. Therefore, your light is to shine before men so that they might see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

This is the third and final emphatic “you are” statement (vv. 11, 13) before Jesus completes His introduction (vv. 3-16) and dives into the main content of His sermon (5:17-7:12). After identifying His disciples as present stakeholders in the future kingdom (vv. 11-12) and asserting that they are living proof that God has not abandoned His promise to Israel (v. 13), Jesus now completes the thought by relating how the disciples fit in to the purpose of God’s covenant: that is, to save the world through Israel.

Jesus follows a similar, though not identical pattern when associating His disciples to light as He did with salt. He makes an explicit statement with heavy Old Testament ties (v. 14a) followed by ridiculous and rhetorical images (vv. 14b-15). This is similar to Jesus’ statement regarding salt (v. 13a) and rhetorical question (v. 13b). Whereas Jesus concluded His statement regarding salt with an observation (v. 13c), here He concludes with an imperative (v. 16). If Jesus’ disciples have a role to play (and they do), then there is work to be done.

The Statement (v. 14a)

You are the light of the world.

Much of what is made of this verse depends upon one’s interpretation of v. 13. If salt is understood only from an historical and cultural perspective or preservation (i.e., all Christians are called to be a preserving agent in a decaying world), then light will likely be understood in a similar fashion. Both would be understood in a primarily moral way: Christians are to (a) permeate society to slow or stop moral decay and (b) expose that moral decay as light exposes what is hidden in darkness. The hopeless state of this popular interpretation abounds with problems that include but are not limited to the following: (1) Jesus addresses His disciples not the church at large. If we take seriously the “you” (ὑμεῖς) then our interpretation must first seek an answer in the disciples (later apostles) sitting at Jesus’ feet on that mountainside. (2) Both salt and light should be assumed to be objective statements grounded in previous revelation rather than subjective metaphors adrift in ancient culture. There are a myriad of possible nuances of both salt and light, yet Jesus assumed that His audience (and Matthew his readers) would understand a specific nuance. (3) Whatever Jesus says in vv. 11-16 may be misunderstood as speaking against the Old Testament (v. 17) and thus we should look for the answers in the Old Testament. (4) Limiting our understanding of salt and light to a purely moralistic benefit to society is not particularly nor specifically Christian. Most religions elevate a certain ethic, and all men appreciate a certain amount of morality making it very unlikely that Jesus’ main point is to exhort moral influence upon the world.

But, what if light, like salt, is understood as (a) specifically indicative of the disciples and (b) is rooted in an Old Testament background? Grammatically, the present statement is every bit as emphatic and specific as before. Jesus states that His disciples, and His disciples alone are the light of the world. As for the Old Testament background, Matthew has already pointed us toward Isaiah 9 back in 4:15-16. Matthew clearly identified Jesus as the light that shone upon the people of Galilee (Is. 9:1-2). This light is the same child who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace who will have the weight of the government upon His own shoulders (Is. 9:6-7). All of this to say that Matthew has already made a connection between light and Messiah. This is a necessary connection to make but is hardly the end, or even the beginning of our study regarding light.

A biblical theology of light must begin in Genesis 1 on the first day of creation: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day” (Gen. 1:3-5 NASB). This light, though it indicated the time of day, did not come from the sun, for God did not create the sun until day four. Looking ahead, we read that in the eternal state there will still be light but that there will no longer be any sun (Rev. 22:5). This future light will have the same source as the original light, God Himself. By creating light, God’s first recorded action is to allow Himself to be perceived. In other words, “light” is primarily associated with revelation; specifically, the revelation or unveiling of God to man. Physical manifestations of God’s presence are often perceived in brilliant light (Ex. 34:29; Is. 2:5; 60:19-20; Ezek. 1:4; Hab. 3:4; Zech. 14:6-7; Matt. 17:2; Lk. 2:9; Acts 9:3). The theology of light begins with God’s revelation of Himself to man.

Light is also related to Yhwh’s Servant, the One whom Yhwh anoints to represent Him to the nation of Israel and who represents Israel to Yhwh (Is. 42:3, 6; 49:6). In addition to this, the light that is Yhwh is associated with His people Israel (Is. 60:1-3, 19-20). Both Yhwh’s Servant and the nation of Israel reflect the light of Yhwh for the same reason: to save the world (Is. 42:6; 49:6; 60:3). The plan has always been for Messiah to display the light which is Yhwh to Israel so that Israel would then turn and display that same light to the nations. The world is saved by Yhwh and His Messiah through Israel.

The scope has widened since v. 13 where Jesus called His disciples the salt of the land (γῆ). Here they are called the light of the world (κόσμος). Clearly, the scope has progressed from local to global. But why does Jesus specifically point to His disciples as those who are the light of the world? Answer: because they, and they alone, follow Israel’s Messiah.

From the very beginning, Israel was commanded to settle in the Promised Land which God gave them (Deut. 12:10) and center their lives around the worship, service, and obedience to God at the place where God would choose for His name to dwell (Deut. 12:11). Three times a year, all Israel would show up to a centralized location to worship God (Ex. 23:14 ff.). That place was identified as the city of Jerusalem, specifically, the temple (1 Kings 8:12-53). The reason for this gathered people in this land and at this place was to display and declare to the watching world that Yhwh is God and there is no other (1 Kings 8:60). The nation of Israel was meant to be a light to the world with the anticipation that the nations would one day stream into Jerusalem with their own offerings (Is. 2:2; 27:13; 56:7; 66:20). But what if the light of Yhwh’s presence is no longer to be found at the temple (Ezek. 9:3-11:23)? How will the nations see this light now that the temple itself is destroyed (2 Kings 25:9)? Unless there is a new temple to which Yhwh’s glory returns (Ezek. 43:1-5), Jerusalem cannot be a beacon of light to which the nations flood. Therefore, if God is going to save the world through Israel (Is. 49:6) then representatives of Israel will have to go to the world rather than waiting for the world to come to Israel.

Because Jesus is the light that shines in dark Galilee, only those who follow Him exclusively can reflect His light. No other people in Israel outside of His disciples can thus shine because they have no light to shine. The point then is this: When Jesus calls His disciples the light of the world, He is explaining the missing gap. The disciples are not replacing Israel’s task of standing as a light to the watching world, for no such beacon currently exists. Rather, they are taking the light of God’s revelation (specifically, the historic first advent and anticipated second advent of Messiah) out to the nations (the world) so that when Israel repents and believes (Zech. 12:10) and the glory of Yhwh returns to the temple, the nations will stream in. If the disciples are salt as proof that God has not forgotten His plan, then they are light as proof that this plan is to save the world through Israel.

The Images and their Implications (vv. 14b-15)

Immediately following this statement, Jesus provides two images of such a ridiculous nature so as to make His intentions clear. These images not only speak of the nature of light but also tie all three “you” statements together.

The City (v. 14b)

It is not possible for a city to be hidden being placed on a hill.

We should probably again notice that Jesus makes a statement here and not an exhortation. He does not say that His disciples ought to be a city on a hill. He simply makes a passing observation that if one were trying to hide a city, it would be utter folly to place it upon a hill or mountain (ὄρος). The point is not that this city should not be hidden, but that it cannot be hidden.[1] That this is a lose reference to the city of Jerusalem is beyond any doubt. Jerusalem is the city of our God and Zion His holy mountain from which He will return and reign (Ps. 2:6; 48:1-2; Joel 3:17; Zech. 8:3; Is. 40:9). Even if one tried to hide the capital of heaven’s kingdom on earth, it would be impossible. The point is simple: the kingdom is not going to sneak in (how absurd!) and therefore must be proclaimed. As the light to the world, Jesus’ disciples will proclaim this coming kingdom.

The Lamp (v. 15)

Nor do they light a lamp and appoint it under a basket, but upon a lampstand, and it lights all those in the house.

The second image also pictures the obvious against the backdrop of the ridiculous. If one were going to light a lamp, there is the assumption that the house is dark and light is needed. In such a case, one would never even think about putting the lighted lamp underneath a basket for that would (a) defeat the purpose of lighting the lamp and (b) waste precious fuel. The idea is akin to flipping a light-switch and then removing the bulb from the light fixture. Why would someone do that? Answer: they wouldn’t. Rather, one sets the lamp high in the room so that it lights the whole house. Nearly ninety percent of people in Judea in the first century lived near subsistence level, meaning that they didn’t earn a living so much as they survived. The vast majority of homes would have consisted of a single room lit at night by a single lamp. To get the most use of that single lamp, one would place it high on a lamp stand (likely an inward stone protruding from the wall[2]). The point here is like the image of the city: light is not meant to be hidden.

Jesus is preparing His disciples for a high profile and dangerous mission with these words. He opened the discussion by revealing that they will be persecuted for being associated with Him (vv. 11-12). This was followed by a claim that they are living proof of God’s everlasting covenant with Israel. But that means that God’s revelatory light must shine to the Gentile nations as well as Israel. The promise to the land remains secure (v. 13), but the good news of the world’s savior must extend to the world (v. 14a). This message cannot be snuck in but must be boldly proclaimed (vv. 14b-15). Thus, the following command.

The Command (v. 16)

This command is predicated upon the images of vv. 14b-15. It is because (οὕτως pointing to what precedes) a city on a mountain cannot be hidden and that no one lights a lamp only to hide it that the disciples’ light is commanded to shine. As followers of Jesus, the disciples’ mission will not be a secret one.

The Command is Given (v. 16a)

Therefore, your light is to shine before men.

Because English does not have a third-person imperative, it is difficult to accurately relay the idea presented in λαμψάτω. The point is that the disciples are not commanded to shine their light so much as they are implored that the light must shine. They might consider inhibiting the light, but they cannot produce it or increase its brightness. If ever we were tempted to consider that this light is somehow produced by the disciples, we are here corrected. Jesus does not command them to produce the light or increase it, but rather to impress upon them the necessity for the light to do its job. Your light must shine!

The fact that this light is to shine before men cannot be overlooked. The generic ἄνθρωπος (men) is used to fit the global κόσμος (world). Because light is the revelation of God to man, it is necessary to point out that this light is more than information (though certainly not less). This light is visually perceptible, meaning that men can see the effects of it. In other words, faith in Jesus is not only proclaimed but is also demonstrated. These two sides of “shining” seems to be what Jesus has in mind when He addresses the purpose of this command.

The Desired Result of the Command (v. 16b)

So that they might see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Ὅπως marks the purpose or reason for the command which Jesus presents in a two-fold manner. The first reason that the disciples’ light must shine is so that men might see their good works. Jesus focuses on the light that emanates from action, specifically the disciples’ good works (τὰ καλὰ ἔργα). While the Greek adjectives καλός and ἀγαθός are generally understood as synonyms (good), ἀγαθός tends to describe the objective purpose of something (beneficial, useful, of good merit, quality) while καλός can be used to add a description of appearance (beautiful, fine, attractive). These works are not only objectively good and useful works, but they are also pleasing to behold. If men see them as such, then they will glorify God.

An obvious question should be asked at this point: how does man glorify God? By repenting of their rebellion and submitting to Him alone. This light is more than information or even demonstration but leads to transformation. If men see the light, it is only because they have been given eyes to do so. If they glorify God, then it is only because they have been given a heart to know and believe Him. What is interesting at this point is how Jesus refers to God: your Father who is in heaven (τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς).

Of the 44 references to God as “Father” in Matthew’s gospel, 16 of them are in the SM. This is the first one.[3] The reference to God as the disciples’ Father solidifies their association with the nation of Israel (Ex. 4:22) and Messiah (Ps. 2:7). This statement is something of a polemic for Jesus implies that those who follow Him (Messiah), rather than submitting to the apostate religious establishment, are the sons of God. The way to access the covenant blessings made to Israel is through Israel’s Messiah.


The three “you are” statements (vv. 11, 13, 14) once taken together help to explain themselves. The reason that the disciples should expect persecution (vv. 11-12) is because they, not the current establishment, are proof of God’s unfailing promise (v. 13) to save the world through Israel (v. 14a). This task will begin with them and will not go unnoticed (vv. 14b-15), yet it must be done (v. 16). These men are the first kingdom citizens who await the coming kingdom. With this as an introduction, Jesus will proceed to explain that this message by no means abolishes, annuls, or annihilates the Old Testament but rather fulfills it (v. 17ff.).

[1] Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p. 86.

[2] Archibald Robertson, Matthew and Mark, vol. I, VI vols., Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p. 42.

[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 106.

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