A City on a Hill Cannot Be Hidden

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:14-16

As surely everyone in America knows, the midterm elections are this Tuesday. Early voting is so high that one political scientist says, “We could be looking at a turnout rate that virtually no one has ever experienced.”

Vitriol is high as well. When I voted last Wednesday, it was the twenty-fourth time I have voted in a presidential or midterm election. I have never seen such animosity in our political environment. Protests, anger, and name-calling are dominating the news. These are challenging times for our democracy.

In a day like this, what does the Lord want to say to his people? How can we be part of the answer and not the problem? How can we speak, act, and live in ways that glorify him and serve the common good? As I began asking the Father these questions this week, a familiar text came immediately to mind.

Here’s some background.

After some thirty trips to Israel, it’s unusual for me to see something new. But that’s what happened when I led my most recent study tour to the Holy Land. We visited Safed (known in Hebrew as Tsfat), a city in far-north Israel. It is a fascinating and beautiful artistic community filled with shops and galleries.

But it is especially important to us because of its role in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord delivered the most famous sermon in history from a location just south of Safed. Then and today, the city towers over the area where he preached to the crowds. When he spoke of “a city on a hill that cannot be hidden,” he was likely pointing to Safed.

His words about them are God’s word to us today.

Reflect the light of Christ

Our text begins: “You are the light of the world.” “You” is plural, including everyone who follows Jesus. “You are”—present tense, right now. Not you will be, but you are today. No matter your past, your present, or your future.

This is a spectacular compliment. Not because of who we are, but whose we are. You see, Jesus is the true light of the world.

He said so: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And later, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).

Now that he is no longer in the world, he has called us to reflect his light, as the moon reflects the sun.

The Bible says, “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (John 1:6–8).

This is true of each of us: “You are all sons of the light” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). We exist to show our Father’s light. To be his mirror. To reflect his light to our dark world. To be the moon to his sun. This is Jesus’ high and holy calling for each of us.

Know that the world needs your light

But why is this calling so significant? Why is being the “light of the world” so important? For this simple reason: you have the only answer to the greatest need in all of humanity.

Would your life be significant and satisfying if you cured cancer or AIDS? If you found the solution to all war, abuse, neglect? If you discovered a way to end all hunger and poverty? Would you then consider your life fulfilling? We could do all this and more, but the world would still suffer in spiritual darkness. And this darkness would be its greatest problem, its worst disease, its most horrific malady.

The Bible says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12, emphasis added).

God describes humanity this way: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:18–19).

This darkness is Satanic: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

What is the answer to his deception and darkness? You are “the” light of the world. Not just “a” light—the only light.

The Bible is very clear on this subject. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Because you share his faith and bear his light, you are “the” light of the world. Its only light. Your faith is our world’s only hope of eternal life through a personal relationship with our Creator and Lord.

Choose to shine for God

Here’s the catch: your light must be visible. Otherwise it does nobody any good, including yourself. Consider these facts.

One: You are already a witness.

Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hid.” “Hill” is literally “mountain.” Houses in Israel were whitewashed. With their lights on at night, a city on a mountain cannot be hidden.

Neither can your life. People see you. They know whether or not you live what you believe, whether you will say what you believe. You are a witness. Is your witness good or bad?

Two: Your light is intended for others.

“Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl” (v. 15a). Their lamps were small clay bowls filled with olive oil, with a floating wick. They were very hard to light. So once they were lit, at night they were covered with a basket which allowed them air while shielding their light. Jesus’ point is clear: no one lights a lamp so they can hide its light.

“Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (v. 15b). People in Jesus’ day lived in one-room homes, with one small window. So they built a clay or stone ledge into one wall, and there they placed their lamps. For this was their purpose.

“In the same way, let your light shine before men” (v. 16a). “Men,” wherever they are. You are the light of the world, not of the church. Wherever you go, whatever you do. With whomever you meet. Your light was given to you, to be given to them.

Three: Your life is your light.

“Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (v. 16).


Be godly.

“The night is nearly over, the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:12–14). Do others see godliness in you? There you are the light of the world.

Care about hurting people.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:9–10). Whose need are you meeting? There you are the light of the world.

Love your brother.

“Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (1 John 2:9–11). Are you wrong with someone today? Where you love your brother, you are the light of the world.

Share your faith.

“Become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Philippians 2:15–16). Who has heard of Jesus through you? There you are the light of the world.

With this result: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). When we live as the light of the world, God uses us for his glory. It’s that simple.


As you discuss the politics of our day, will your words glorify God? As you speak of those with whom you disagree, will your words reflect the light of Christ? As you engage in the cultural issues of our day, will your life bring honor to your Lord?

It’s not enough for people to “see your good deeds.” They must also “glorify your Father in heaven” as a result. Your good must be for his glory. People must be drawn to him through you.

This is the most significant way you can live today and for eternity. This is a life God can bless. This is the light our dark world so desperately needs.

This week, I spoke with a couple I have not seen in nearly forty years. The husband was our wedding photographer in 1980 and a significant leader in my home church in Houston. But he is especially important to me because of what he did in 1973 to let his light shine for God’s glory.

His church had just called a new pastor. This pastor suggested that they consider a “bus ministry”—they would purchase an old school bus, put the name of the church on the side, then go out into the community to knock on doors and invite people to ride the bus to church.

This man was an insurance executive. He didn’t teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, or preach sermons, but he could organize a strategy. He plotted the entire community on a map, divided it into regions, organized church members into teams, and led the bus ministry into the city.

In August of 1973, he knocked on my apartment door, inviting my brother and me to church. That is how we heard the gospel. I will forever be grateful to him for his light in my life.

Who will say the same of you?

The Concentric Circles of Christmas

Topic Scripture: Luke 2:15-20

Last week, Janet and I were setting out our Christmas decorations. Many of them. Boxes and boxes of them, in fact.

As we were doing so, she wondered what the Chinese workers who make our Christmas decorations think of the way we celebrate the Christmas holiday. It’s a great question.

I did some research. It turns out, nearly two-thirds of the world’s Christmas products are manufactured in a single place, a Chinese city of 1.2 million residents called Yiwu. It is home to six hundred factories that make everything from glowing fiber-optic trees to felt Santa hats.

In a country where two-thirds are atheists or non-religious and Christianity officially composes only 5 percent of the population, it’s easy to wonder what the people making commercial Christians decorations think of the Christian faith.

We can ask the same question here at home. I grew up in Houston, Texas, but did not hear the gospel in a way I understood until I was fifteen years old. I knew much more about Santa Claus than I did about Jesus Christ. I could have told you that he was born on Christmas day, but I had no idea why, or why his birth mattered to me.

Many of the people we’ll interact with this Christmas season are where I was and where the Chinese are today. This fact makes Christmas one of the most important seasons of the year for Christian witness and ministry.

Max Lucado notes that “God made you on purpose for a purpose.” There are people whose lives you can touch for eternity this Christmas season. But Christmas must be real in us before Jesus can be real through us.


A shocking story

In Luke 2, we find “shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (v. 8). No one reading Luke’s Gospel in the first century would have expected them in the Christmas story.

Shepherds were a noble profession in the Old Testament—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their sons all engaged in this vocation. By the time of Christ, however, they were despised. The scholar Joachim Jeremias documents their rejection by their culture. The Mishnah, their written record of the oral law, calls them “incompetent”; another passage says no one should feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who fell into a pit.

Shepherds could not be admitted in court as witnesses. You could not buy wool, milk, or a goat from a shepherd, because it was assumed to be stolen property.

Philo, a first-century Jewish scholar, reported that their profession was “accounted inglorious and mean” by wealthier and more respectable people (On Husbandry 61).

It would have shocked the self-respecting religious authorities that shepherds rather than rabbis and priests were invited to the first Christmas.

Jesus was making this point: if they were included, so are we.

A surprising response

Their story begins: “In the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8). “The same region” refers to Bethlehem, where Jesus has just been born. The “field” is traditionally identified with the town of Beit Sahur, an eastern suburb of Bethlehem. Three chapels stand there today, built by Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants.

When an angel of the Lord appeared to them, “they were filled with great fear” (v. 9). This is a typical response to meeting an angel in the Bible, perhaps heightened by the shepherds’ religious class in their society. But the angel announced the astounding good news: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (v. 11).

The shepherds’ immediate response is fascinating.

First, they chose to come and see: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (v. 15). And they did this “with haste,” finding “Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (v. 16).

Second, they chose to go and tell: “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child” (v. 17). They met the Child of Christmas, then they told the good news that their Messiah had come.

How can we follow their example?

Come and see, then go and tell

Let’s begin with the first invitation: to “come and see” the Lord Jesus.

I’ve been thinking much over Thanksgiving about two biblical imperatives: “be still” and “be thankful.”

Psalm 46:10 calls us to “be still, and know that I am God.” We must do the first to do the second. Over the coming Christmas weeks, let’s make a time and place every day to be still with God, to be in his presence in Scripture, prayer, and worship, to experience him intimately and directly.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 calls us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Over the Christmas holiday, let’s look for ways and times to give thanks in every circumstance we encounter. Let’s express our gratitude to God for the families and friends with whom we share the holidays; for those who serve us in the stores and restaurants; for the prosperity we enjoy and the joys of this season.

If we make the strategic decision to “be still’ and to “be thankful,” we will “come and see” Jesus wherever he is found this Christmas.

Now let’s consider the second invitation: to “go and tell” the world.

Dr. Oscar Thompson was a beloved evangelism professor when I taught on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary many years ago. He made famous a model he called “concentric circles of concern.”

He traced seven levels in our relational lives: from self to family, relatives, friends, neighbors and associates, acquaintances, and “person X” (someone unknown to us). He urged us to build bridges to each as appropriate to the nature of our relationship with them.

Using his model in our context, we would “go and tell” our family about Jesus in different ways than we might with neighbors or acquaintances. We must earn the right to be heard. But as we pray for those we know and ask the Lord to use us in sharing his love with them, we can know that the Father will lead us in ways that are best for them and for us.


This Christmas season, let’s come and see Jesus every day. Then let’s go and tell however the Lord leads us.

We can give our souls, and our friends, no greater gifts.

Janet received a very kind thank you card from a woman in one of her ladies’ Bible studies in Dallas. It contained these words from Max Lucado: “When you arrive in heaven, I wonder if Christ might say these words to you: ‘I’m so proud that you let me use you. Because of you, others are here today. Would you like to meet them?'”