The electricity was out. No TV, no internet, not to mention no heat or means of cooking. I decided to read a book, so I lit a candle. Have you ever tried to read by the light of one candle? It’s almost impossible. By the time you get the book close enough to see the words clearly, you’re afraid the pages will catch fire. One candle, despite the beautiful imagery, is not very effective.
On another occasion, it was Christmas Eve, and we did the traditional candlelit version of “Silent Night” at church. Toward the end, everyone raised their candles. The combined light of all our candles illuminated the ceiling some thirty feet above us. I could have easily read a book. (I didn’t because that would have been rude, but I could have.)
On a cloudy night, sometimes the clouds will part for a single star to shine through. It’s pretty, but not much changes all the way down here on earth. But on a clear night, even with a new moon, a sky full of stars make it light enough to walk around outside without additional light. (Philippians 2:15)
. . . . .
In John, where light is such an important theme, Jesus is the light of the world (8:12, 9:5, and implied in other places). But in Matthew, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Who is “you”?
(Now we pause for a brief English language discussion.)
This is one of my problems with formal English: no distinct second-person singular and plural. Because we use “you” for both one person and a group of people to whom we speak, sometimes the antecedent of the pronoun is unclear. Here in the South, of course, we have “y’all” to make ourselves understood. If only Jesus had been a Southerner… Anyway, before we pull out our Greek New Testaments, let’s check the context and see if we can clear this up.*
The Sermon on the Mount begins with Matthew 5. Jesus saw a large crowd of people, so he sat down on the side of a mountain and taught them (Matthew 5:1). It’s a bunch of people who stay until the end of chapter 7. We know this because Matthew tells us “the crowds were amazed at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28). Therefore, when Jesus says, “You are…” we should assume He is talking to the group unless he addresses someone within the group.
First He says, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). One single grain of salt is insignificant. Salt works collectively. The grains work together to flavor and/or preserve the food. Our second-person-plural thesis remains steady.
Of Towns on Hills
Then Jesus says, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14a). I’ve always thought that meant me. I personally am a light in the world—not the only light, obviously, but autonomous, with a responsibility to enlighten those around me. But when we put this line into the context here, there’s no grammatical or content-based reason to shift from the collective to the individual. Jesus’ next line makes it clear: “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14b). Towns are, by definition, collections of people. Jesus isn’t talking about one lone window in a vast plain but about many windows in many homes joined together by common interests.
Imagine a town on a hill, especially back in Jesus’ day. What does it do?
- Example. Light is good. A well-lit town is something to look at on an otherwise dark night. Ideally, the townsfolk model living well in community. Outsiders may see better living conditions and shared services.
- Standard. A town on a hill can be used for navigation. For example, I go toward the town or I go past the town, keeping it on my right. It’s a permanent mark on the landscape, something that doesn’t move or change locations.
- Goal. The town can be one’s destination, something to work toward. Where am I going? To town. Or perhaps I want to get a job in town or sell my wares in town.
- Security. The town offers sanctuary, safety, maybe even comfort to weary travelers.
After I made my own list, I learned I’m not the first to think about the “town on a hill” this way…
Jesus described [Christian community] as a “city set on a hill,” whose light beckons and guides the weary, lost traveler to the security and camaraderie of a civilized society. In the city there was safety from the marauders who took advantage of the darkness to rob and kill. In a friendly city foreigners could find protection and hospitality. Thus Jesus used the city as symbol of the saving community, whose light shines in the gathering darkness, inviting the traveler to find salvation. -Norman Kraus, The Community of the Spirit
The first time I read Mr. Kraus’ quote, I circled all the words for what a city/town does. Consider how these words describe the role of Christian community much better than they describe the role of a single Christ-follower: beckons, guides, security, camaraderie, safety, friendly, protection, hospitality. Individually, we cannot offer much.
The “town built on a hill” is Jesus’ tangible example of the light. When he said, “you are,” he meant the group in front of Him, the future believers who would come together and represent Him after His departure. (I wonder how many of those listeners became followers.) Translating that idea forward, the “light of the world” is our church, our small group, our band of believing brothers (or sisters).
A couple of years later, with the cross looming in Jesus’ near future, He told his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). That’s how we make light: the one-anothering! In being together, in loving and serving one another, in authentic fellowship, we create Light that illumines the world.
The old children’s song, “This Little Light of Mine” (check my parenting post on this song) is bad theology, or at least incomplete. Yes, I am a light. Yes, it’s still my responsibility to enlighten the world around me (and not hide my light under something), but I don’t do it alone.
If one light “gives light to everyone in the house” (Matthew 5:15), think what a candelabra can do! Think what a chandelier can do! Let’s not hide our community inside our church walls along with the actual chandeliers. Let’s hang those huge light fixtures in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces! Let’s light up the world!
I am not the light of the world. We are.
How do you see Jesus’ “town on a hill” as our community of believers? Does this idea make sense to you? Are you relieved, as I was? I’d love to know what you’re thinking now that you’ve read this piece. Leave me a comment and I’ll get back to you.
*I did pull out my Greek New Testament after I wrote this, just to be sure, and the text clearly shows a 2nd-person plural pronoun on Matthew 5:13 and 5:14.
Note: I came across this idea in Missional Essentials, by Brad Brisco and Lance Ford. The twelfth/last lesson, to be exact.