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Updated: Oct 12, 2021

WHAT IS THE LIGHT: Exploring Matthew 5:14-16

Matthew 5:13-15 esv

"13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 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."

If you have been a "Christian" or Bible-believer for any period of time, you have likely heard this catchy little term in reference to the modern-day church, "City on a Hill." Songs are sung about it, Christian t-shirts and bumper stickers are scrawled with its words, and preachers, teachers, and believers all over the world eagerly teach on this well-travelled phrase. As one of the headlining concepts behind an evangelical world-view, it has morphed into one of the most common feel-good, one-liner sermon topics of all time. I can certainly understand the reason why this passage is mis-handled with such overt positivity, but there is some meat we must digest before we attempt to co-opt this promise for our lives.

Charles Spurgeon offers some compelling commentary on Matthew 5:14,

"It is not spoken to the apostles, or to ministers exclusively, but to the entire body of the faithful— 'Ye are the light of the world.' Ye humble men and women whose usefulness will be confined to your cottages, or to your work-shops, ye whose voices will never be heard in the streets, whose speech will only be eloquent in the ears of those who gather by your firesides, you, even you, noiseless and unobserved as your lives will be, — ye are the true light of the world. (a)"

At the conclusion of this study, my goal is to challenge your long-held belief about the message of Matthew 5:14 by exploring the following concepts:

1. How does the Bible define "light."

2. Understand the cost of being a light-bearer in a dark world.

3. Explore what the Bible teaches us about how those in darkness will view our public display of righteous affection for our Master and His ways.

4. You will be exhorted to carry the light with boldness and confidence as Yeshua instructs.


1. What does the Bible say is the "light."

Before we get too deep into our study, it is always important to understand terms, even more so when they are used metaphorically, as Yeshua does in Matthew 5:14. Light in a very general sense throughout the Biblical narrative is a term that is attached to the principles of truth and holiness or righteousness. The Scriptures from cover to cover regularly and clearly equate the truth of YHVH, His Word, His Son (Yeshua), and His instructions as light. Here are some examples.

Daniel 12:3 esv

"3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever."

Psalm 119:105-106, 129-131 esv

"105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. 106 I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to keep your righteous rules... 129 Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. 130 The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. 131 I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments."

John 17:16-17 esv

"16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth."

It is critical for us to understand when Yeshua refers to us being a light to the world in Matthew 5:14 it is not because we are intrinsically full of the light of truth, it is because His Truth is the only truth that is light and it has been given to us by Him. His truth is the thing that leads us to faith in the Messiah Yeshua, informs our beliefs, guides our actions, and draws those in darkness to the light.

The uncomfortable reality is there are many out there who claim to be "in the light" yet they do not trust in, guard, and follow the truth YHVH has given us in His Word. They may follow parts and pieces, but they follow in the footsteps of other blind teachers who instruct their disciples in their ways and not YHVH's, in their theology and not His, in their doctrines and traditions and not God's. Can a man or woman who has willingly discarded two-thirds of their Bibles walk in light? Proverbs 6 implores its hearers to follow and understand God's instructions or His torah.

Proverbs 6:20-24 esv

"20 My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching. 21 Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. 22 When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. 23 For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching (torah) a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life, 24 to preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress."

The author of Proverbs says it is the "torah" (v. 23) that is a lamp and a light to those who follow it, echoing the words of King David. It is by YHVH's righteous and holy instructions that we learn to live and walk in the light, or to walk in righteousness and holiness. The concepts of truth, holiness, and righteousness are forever linked in Scripture because holiness and righteousness are product of YHVH's truth.

The Bible defines holiness as "set apart." It is the state of being unique, separate, or distinct from what is common or normal. When we hear a term like "holiness" we should rightly ask, "how can I be holy?" I believe the Bible teaches that holiness comes as a result of removing ourselves from the deeds of our flesh or darkness and willingly adhering to the actions YHVH teaches us are good, holy, and righteous. Paul enlightened his readers to this topic.

Romans 7:12 esv

"So the law (Torah) is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good."

In other words, as we learn and grow in truth (based on YHVH's instructions), we walk in ways that are righteous before God and holy from the dark world in which we live. Does this mean we can earn our holiness or righteousness apart from God? No, because every single one of us have been stained by sin. However, once we put our trust and faith in Yeshua and His atonement for our sins upon the cross, then we choose to put away those common or dark behaviors we once followed, and follow His righteous and Holy path, the truth of the Word of God. Paul, once again, tackles this reality perfectly,

Romans 6:12-14 esv

"12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."

Paul, correctly, is trying to teach a bunch of gentiles who had little to no history with YHVH, the God of the Hebrews and His instructions, how to walk in righteousness before God and in holiness in front of the world. He is connecting the light and the truth of God's instructions (the Torah) with the light of holy and righteous living. Paul and other Biblical writers offer several connections between holy and righteous living and the light of truth, God's Word.

Philippians 2:14-16 esv

"14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain."

Proverbs 4:18-19 esv

"18 But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. 19 The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble."

Ephesians 5:6-11 esv

"6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them."

There are so many more verses throughout Scripture that support and connect these ideas, but make no mistake when Yeshua is talking about us being a "light" He is saying that we have the knowledge of God's truth through His Word, and we walk in it or obey it as a holy and righteous people.

Finally, to fully understand the connection between light and truth, holiness, and righteousness, we must also accept the reality that YHVH alone is the source of this light in our lives. There is no amount of effort or human compulsion that can generate from scratch what YHVH teaches as truth. It is in Him and Him alone that we walk in the light of truth.

Psalm 18:28-30 esv

"28 For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness. 29 For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall. 30 This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

1 John 1:5-7 esv

"5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."

Revelation 21:22-27 esv

"22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life."

Yeshua, Himself, declares that He is the light because He knows and obeys His Father. He is our example, and when we follow His example and we walk as our Master walked, then we will increasingly learn to walk in righteousness and holiness. If we truly walk in Yeshua's truth, then we cannot also walk in darkness.

John 8:12 esv

"12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 12:44-46 esv

"44 And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.

Ultimately, to understand Yeshua's teaching and apply it to our lives, we must first give up all of the things we believe or have been told are "truth," and once again run to the source of the light of truth, YHVH, following in the example of His obedient Son, Yeshua, to properly illuminate the darkness in our own lives and of the world we live in. Light cannot be produced in our lives if we lack the light of truth, which is rooted in God's Word. His Word is a gift, but He didn't just hand it to us and walk away, He went a step further. He sent a "helper" or the "Spirit of Truth" to guide us in the light of His truth and to walk in the light according to his good, holy, and righteous instructions which were modeled for our enlightenment by His Son, Yeshua.

This great blessing has been offered to us freely, as undeserving, rebellious, sinners so that all who believe are able to walk in the light of truth which produces the light of righteousness and holiness in our lives. However, while it is offered freely, it doesn't come without a cost. The meat and bones of understanding truth means by nature, there is only one TRUTH and it is not yours or mine, it is YHVH's. Furthermore, walking in that precise truth requires the shedding of all behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and deeds (works) that do not line up. What is freely given becomes the catalyst for a whole new life as we die to the darkness we once lived in and willingly choose to become servants of the Master of lights, the giver of all good things..


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