Our Great Privilege to be Lights in the World
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
— Matthew 5:16
“Privilege” may be defined as a special right or advantage granted or available only to a particular person or group of people, a benefit granted and enjoyed which is not available to others. Our title-text declares that, as true believers in Christ Jesus, we Christians enjoy a great privilege: To be lights in the world!
In studying our title-text we note how it is connected to the immediate context by the little word “so.” “Let your light so shine…” (Matthew 5:16a). The previous two verses provide the connection: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (vv. 14-15). Mark well what the Savior declares His own to be: “Ye are the light of the world!” How are we to understand this clear designation in reference to what He says of Himself in John 8:12, namely, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12)? Jesus Himself provides the answer in the words that follow: “I am the light of the world. He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” The Savior is the Bringer of saving grace and truth (John 1:17b). The Savior is “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9), as “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Gospel or Good News of His wonderful, vicarious work as the Redeemer of the world gives to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death the knowledge of salvation through the imputed righteousness and remission of sins that He merited and won for all mankind (See Luke 1:77-79; I John 2:2). The Psalmist declares: “For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light shall we see light” (36:9). Enlightened by the Gospel and so gifted with genuine, saving faith in Christ, Christians become light-bringers, light-bearers to their fellow sinners, so that what God has done for believers by bringing them to saving faith through the Gospel of Christ may also be done unto them: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6).
The Savior gives us a common example from everyday life and the use of light in a house: A lighted candle is not hidden but placed on a candlestick with the intended result, its ultimate purpose, being met, namely, that “it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15). The light of Christ is intended for all, as God’s grace is universal (Titus 2:11); and the benefit of Christ’s redemption is intended for the whole world (I John 2:2; I Timothy 1:15). The Savior’s “Great Commission” to the Church sets forth His will that believers share the “light” of salvation with all mankind (Matthew 28:18f; Mark 16:15-16); for the whole world sits in darkness, in desperate need of enlightenment (Psalm 82:5; Isaiah 9:2-3; Acts 26:16-18; Colossians 1:12-15; Ephesians 5:8-9). As Christians our purpose is clear: To reflect the light of Christ, His saving Gospel of grace, to others. Enabled by God-wrought faith, worked, strengthened and preserved in us by the effectual power of the Gospel, we have the great privilege to be light-bearers to others, to shine!
How do we shine? How do we bring light? We have a concrete example in John the Baptist, the God-appointed forerunner of Christ, of whom it is written: “The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light” (John 1:7-8). How did John bear witness of Christ that men might believe? He was the living epitome of Christian testimony, as the Apostle Peter exhorts also us to render it in I Peter 3:15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts; and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”
How so? To the impenitent, to the smug and self-satisfied, to the work-righteous and proud, John preached the Law in all its bitterness to destroy their self-trust! He testified of their evil, unmoved by the fear or favor of men! He identified sin and brought the condemnation of the Law to all who lived in sin (Matthew 3:7; Mark 6:18). The common people heard him preach repentance, as he called upon them to confess their sins; and the Pharisees, Sadducees and even King Herod heard him as well! As light-bearers we must expose sin: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11). Unless a sinner has been unmasked as such by the uncompromising mirror of the Law and given the convicting knowledge of his sin, guilt and well-deserved, just damnation, he is not ready to hear and receive the Gospel! Today, as always, the correct, clear and unmitigated preaching of God’s Law is opposed on every side. As Christians we must quit ourselves, that is, stand up and fight, as men, not as cowards. Our flesh tempts us to find all sorts of plausible excuses for avoiding the declaration of the Law in all its fierceness and bitterness! The carnal mind whispers, “Use caution! Don’t be so harsh! Wouldn’t a soft approach be less likely to cause an adverse reaction?” Under the guise of wisdom and prudence, we are tempted to justify what is really driving any hesitation on our part to speak up in reproof and correction of sin: Fear of a “bad reaction”! Put away the fleshly fear, the selfish cowardice of the Old Man! Do not put your light “under a bushel” (Matthew 5:15)! Unless you shine the light of God’s Law on a person, he will never see his need of forgiveness and salvation! Our Lord told the woman at Jacob’s well outside of Sychar in Samaria the “hard truth” of her life (John 4:16-18). When He exposed sin, as He did also for the rich young ruler, He did so out of love for the sinner’s soul (Mark 10:17-22)! Love “rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth” (I Corinthians 13:6). Fallen human nature does not seek the light but shuns it: “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light lest his deeds should be reproved” (John 3:19-20). So we light-bearers must bring light to those who shun it, who close their eyes to it, and who flee from it, foolishly imagining that they can escape it (Matthew 23:33-36; Romans 2:3; etc.)!
And John the Baptist is also an excellent example of Gospel preaching. He brought the light of Christ to penitent sinners! He clearly proclaimed the person and work of the Savior: “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’” (John 1:29). As his father, Zacharias, foretold, John gave the people what they needed most: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).
Our singular privilege is the greatest favor that one poor sinner can do for another: To shine the light of the saving Gospel upon them, so that, through the power of the Holy Ghost, those poor souls may be converted and saved from the eternal darkness of hell (Matthew 25:30)! Every Christian has the privilege, right and duty to do the work of an evangelist, to do what Christ on the road to Damascus told Saul of Tarsus what he would do as His ambassador: “To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me” (Acts 26:18). To declare that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of all mankind, to declare: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), is also to face bitter opposition by the world, by Satan and by one’s own sinful flesh! Such preaching is deemed “foolishness,” and those who preach it are considered “nothings” (I Corinthians 1:18, 28). Christians receive the same hatred and murderous, malicious treatment as their Savior endured because of this Gospel truth (See John 15:18 – John 16:4)! In the cause of the Gospel, “all that will live Godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Timothy 3:12). What should our God-wrought, Gospel-generated attitude be as Light-bearers? The Apostle tells us: “Do all things without murmurings and disputing, that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the Word of Life, that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain” (Philippians 2:14-16). We carry the only saving light, holding it forth as a blazing torch in the midst of spiritual darkness (not unlike the darkness in Egypt — so thick that it “may be felt,” Exodus 10:21), the plague of unbelief engulfing the world! We are to do all things that God wants us to do without any grumbling or complaining, crucifying the flesh daily, thinking only of the benefit we have in Christ, and, moved by the great gratitude created in us by the Gospel, wanting others to receive the gracious gift of full and free salvation that we have been given! “Looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (Hebrews 12:2-3).
We confess Christ before men (Matthew 10:32), not ashamed of Him or of His Words (Law and Gospel) before an evil and adulterous generation (See Mark 8:38)! The purpose is stated by the Savior in our title verse: “that [men] may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Our entire life is to be a doxology to our heavenly Father, for Jesus’ sake: “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (I Corinthians 10:31b). “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him” (Colossians 3:17). “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth, that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 4:11).
The Bible tells us that the work-righteous do what they consider to be “good works” for a purely carnal reason, namely, to be seen of men for the praise of men (See Matthew 6:1, 5, 16; 23:5 ff.). If they think that they thereby also please God, they delude themselves. True Christians, according to their New Man, do good works only to show God’s grace in Christ, so that God, who works all good (John 15:5; James 1:15) within and without, in will and performance (Philippians 2:13), might receive all the glory: “That no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption; that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (I Corinthians 1:29-31). The Apostle Paul demonstrates this when he speaks of the work that God wrought in and through him: “But by the grace of God I am what I am; and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain, but I laboured more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (I Corinthians 15:10). Paul gave all the credit to God and to the grace that God bestowed upon him through the Gospel. The Christian does this as a matter of course, in his New Man, always giving all the credit to God for every good thing. In everything a Christian does, his New Man wants others to say: “Look what God hath wrought!” The purpose and goal of letting our light shine before men is to have others acknowledge what Psalm 118 says: “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, because His mercy endureth forever. … I will praise Thee, for Thou hast heard me and art become my salvation. The stone which the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (vv. 1, 21-24). To give our heavenly Father the glory due Him requires genuine faith of the heart, God-wrought saving faith, confidence in God’s mercy for Christ’s sake. So our Christian confession serves this ultimate evangelical purpose: The conversion of sinners. Conversion only occurs when God’s Holy Spirit creates it by means of His Word — properly-speaking, by the Word of the Gospel: “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
Our actions must support what we testify as a consistent witness to the truth. For example, when the Apostle Peter and others failed to support the true doctrine with right practice, we hear how the Apostle Paul was moved to correct him: “But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, ‘If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Galatians 2:14). Their behavior was not consistent with their doctrinal profession! We are to walk uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel!
One of the greatest offenses to the unbelieving world is the terrible example set by those claiming to be children of God but acting like children of Satan, thereby blaspheming God’s holy name (see Romans 2:1-3, 17-24). No true Christian will indulge in and continue in sin in gross despisal of God’s grace (Romans chapter six)! In our day in particular we see the prophetic warning come to pass: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God, having a form of Godliness but denying the power thereof. From such turn away” (II Timothy 3:1-5). Mark well the last verse! Such people have “a form of Godliness;” they claim Christianity! But their profession is sheer hypocrisy! Such behavior is the exact opposite of what our title-text calls for! For men see their evil works, done under the guise of “Christianity,” and blaspheme the heavenly Father and profane His name (1st Petition, Lord’s Prayer)! Indeed, Christ’s good name is dragged through the mud, as it were, by those claiming to do God religious service while behaving like those who “know not God” (I Thessalonians 4:5)!
Moreover, in striving to be like the world, so many so-called Christians within the outward “Church” condemn and vilify true doctrine and practice, condemning the true and consistent followers of Christ in their evil zeal for the praise of men! They would rather be “politically correct” than doctrinally sound (II Timothy 4:3). In fact, we often feel compelled to explain to others what kind of “Lutherans” we are, lest they think we might be modernists and libertines like so many that comprise entire Lutheran sects, judging by their practice. Look what false doctrine and loose practice have done to Lutheranism in the world today! Luther would barely recognize church bodies that bear his name! The same must be said of Christianity in general — as Scripture foretells what still happens today! Isaiah condemns those who pervert the truth, saying: “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil, that put darkness for light and light for darkness, that put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (5:20).
As true disciples of Christ, we are the light of the world; “but evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (II Timothy 3:13). Spiritual darkness surrounds us on every hand. But God’s Word, “the Holy Scriptures” that bear witness to Christ, the Light of Life, have made us “wise unto salvation.” God’s Word provides us with all we need for our faith and for our life (See II Timothy 3:15-17)! In Christian meekness and humility, in true fear, love and trust in our heavenly Father through faith in Christ, may we ever be both motivated and empowered to will and do of God’s good pleasure: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
— E. J. W.