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?

I Am the Light of the World

Topical Scripture: John 9:1-7

I was once part of a group touring Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The park contains over 119 caves. One of its caves has been mapped to a depth of 1,600 feet. Seventeen species of bats live in the park; one count estimated 793,000 of them in the caverns.

At one point in our tour, the guide turned off the lights wired into the ceiling of the cave, then his flashlight. We were plunged into the most total darkness I have ever experienced. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. No amount of adjustment to the dark made my eyes able to see. There was absolutely no light anywhere in the room.

Then the guide turned on his flashlight again. It was immediately and obviously visible to everyone in the cave. And it illuminated all that we could not see just a moment before.

I found my experience to be a metaphor for Jesus’ statement, “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Without his light, we are all in complete and total spiritual darkness. By his grace, all who turn to his light can see.

So, what does it mean for Jesus to be the “light of the world”? What about people who have never seen this light? What happens to them? If God would condemn them to hell for rejecting a light they’ve never seen, what does that say about God? Conversely, if they don’t have to see the light to be saved, why does God tell us to share it? Why does he send people to risk their lives as missionaries to shine a light that the world doesn’t need?

Finally, how do we share this light in a way that defeats the darkness? These are the questions we’ll discuss today as we learn how to share the only “light of the world” with those in our dark “cave,” wherever and however we can.

Opening blind eyes and souls

Last week, we began a survey of Jesus’ “I Am” statements, using them to address the perennial faith questions we all face. Today, we come to his second “I Am” claim: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).

As our text opens, Jesus “saw a man blind from birth” (v. 1). This man’s infirmity meant that he could not be healed by first-century medicine. He needed not a physician, but a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2). In the misguided theology of their day, every physical illness had a spiritual cause. If this man was born blind, clearly someone sinned. The options were binary—either him or his parents.

(It’s interesting that the disciples thought Jesus would know the answer to their question, an indication of their growing understanding of his divinity.)

Jesus exploded their wrong theology: “It is not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). Some suffering is the result of sin, but that was not the case here. Much of the world’s grief and pain is not the result of anyone’s sin or failure. Think of Job’s plight or Jesus’ crucifixion. To attribute all suffering to sin often increases the suffering of the innocent.

God did not cause this man’s blindness, but he used it: “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Our Lord redeems all he allows, something Jesus demonstrated powerfully in this man’s life.

Then Jesus brought us into the narrative: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (v. 4). “We must” points to the imperative of what Jesus calls us to do. “Night is coming” shows its urgency.

Our “work” is to share the true light our dark world so desperately needs: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (v. 5). Here Jesus repeats God’s holy personal name, “I Am.” “The” points to the fact that he is the only light of the world. All else is darkness.

The Bible says of Jesus:

  • “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
  • “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:4–5).
  • “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'” (John 8:12).

Now Jesus calls us to reflect his light to our dark world: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16).

So, our text teaches that Jesus is the light our dark world needs. He is the light of salvation, wisdom, direction, and purpose. Our job is to reflect his light to others, so they may see our works and praise our Father in heaven.

What about those who have not seen the light?

Here’s the problem: two billion people, nearly a third of the planet’s population, have never heard the gospel. They’ve never been shown the light. They’ve never been given the opportunity to make Jesus their light. Billions more have some access to the gospel, but they live in places where it is hard or dangerous to become Christians.

What happens to them? Let’s survey the options.

One: God judges them according to the light they have.

Romans 1 states:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (vv. 18–20).

The text clearly teaches that all people are “without excuse” for rejecting God, since his “invisible attributes” can be perceived through his creation. However, this does not mean that they can be saved apart from the gospel, or there would be no need to share the gospel. We could trust that people will respond or not to the light they can see in the world, with no responsibility for giving them more light.

Two: God knows what they would do if they heard the gospel.

The Bible says that Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). God knows “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10). It is plausible, therefore, that he knows what a person would do if he or she had an opportunity to respond to the gospel and judges this person accordingly.

But if this is true, why do we need to give them the light? Why risk our lives to share the gospel with those who have not heard it?

Three: Everyone goes to heaven.

This is called “universalism,” and it comes in two forms. One claims that since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), everyone goes to heaven because he loves them.

The other claims that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for everyone’s sins, whether they know it or not. I don’t have to know about Jonas Salk to receive the polio vaccination he developed.

However, the Bible says of Jesus: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). Our Lord said of himself, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Clearly, a person has to trust in Jesus to be in heaven.

Four: All who have not heard are condemned.

This is the logical corollary to the third position. If people must trust in Jesus to be saved, and they do not hear the gospel, they must be lost. If I need to receive a vaccination to avoid contracting polio and no one tells me about this vaccination, I will get polio. The fault is not mine, but I will contract the disease nonetheless.

However, Scripture teaches that God is just: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Psalm 89:14). He is also love (1 John 4:8). It seems a contradiction of his justice and his love to condemn people to hell for rejecting a light they have never been shown.

Five: The “elect” will see the light.

Some Christians believe that God chooses who will be in heaven (the “elect”) and who will be in hell. While this seems harsh, they note that no one deserves to be in heaven. Salvation is only by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). All who are in hell deserve to be there.

However, the Bible says that God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Scripture states that our Father “desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). While some believe that these texts refer only to the “elect,” others (myself included) see them as applying to all of mankind.

John 3:16 is both famous and clear: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Six: God will get the gospel to everyone in the world.

Here we meet the concept of “supernatural evangelism,” the belief that the Holy Spirit is showing the light of Christ to the world, whether we participate in his ministry or not. Jesus revealed himself supernaturally to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Cornelius had a vision that led him to Peter and to the gospel (Acts 10).

Millions of Muslims around the world are seeing visions and having dreams of Jesus and the gospel. (For more, see my friend Tom Doyle’s magnificent book, Dreams and Visions or do an internet search on “Muslim visions of Jesus.”) Since God wants all people to be saved, his Spirit is bringing his light to those we cannot or will not reach.

Affirming this principle could cause us to be less committed to global missions, since God is reaching those we do not. But we can see our Lord as our missions partner. The fact that missionaries are reaching people overseas I cannot reach makes me no less responsible for the people I can reach at home. We can take the same approach with God’s global missions activity.


Whatever your approach to this question, here’s a fact we can all affirm: lost people need Jesus. Those in the dark need and deserve to see the light. And it’s our privilege and responsibility to share it with all we can, however we can.

If we could ask Paul what happens to those who don’t hear the gospel, here would be his answer: tell them. Don’t speculate about the question, but answer it practically. If we shared the light with those in the dark, the question would not exist.

You might respond, “But I cannot reach the entire world.” You’re right. But together, God’s people can fulfill God’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Consider this: If you were the only Christian on earth and you won me to Jesus today, there would be two of us. If tomorrow, each of us won someone to Jesus, there would be four of us. If the next day, each of us won someone to Jesus, there would be eight of us. Then sixteen, then thirty-two, then sixty-four, and so on.

How long would it take us to reach the entire planet? Thirty-three days.

By multiplication, in thirty-three days the number would be 8,589,934,592, exceeding the planet’s population by a billion people.

This is the method of multiplication Jesus intended when he spent three years with twelve men. He wanted them to reach others who would reach others, until they reached the entire world. And by Acts 17:6 they had “turned the world upside down.”

Now it’s our turn. Will you pray by name for a lost person you know? Will you ask Jesus to shine his light through your life?

Who will be in heaven because of you?