The Church as the Light of the World The Life of the Church Series: Sermon Seven
Read Matthew 5:14-16.
Now, we continue our series of studies this morning in The Church, as we are taught about the privileges and character of the Church in the New Testament. And today we think about the witness of the Church under this title: The Church as the Light of the World.
(Transcription of audio file from 01:15 to 02:11 omitted.)
“You are the light of the world” – one of our Lord Jesus Christ’s more outrageous statements when you think about those to whom He spoke. He had gathered His closest disciples, apparently, away from the crowd, although perhaps the crowd was allowed to listen in to this great Sermon on the Mount. And He looked round at those He described as “the light of the world.” There was Simon Peter, who was constantly getting in the way and causing dark shadows to fall. There were James and John, whom He nicknamed the "sons of thunder," because from time to time they would fly off the handle. There was Thomas, whom we know as "doubting Thomas," always niggling away with his difficult questions. And other disciples whose names even Christians have often forgotten. There was Judas Iscariot who throughout the Gospel would bear the tag "Judas, who would betray Him." Not exactly potential candidates for a Fortune 500 company, really! And yet Jesus says to them, “You are the light of the world.”
All that Israel had been called to be; all that Jerusalem had been built to be; the city set on a hill that could never be hidden, to which the tribes of the earth would gather in order to experience there the light of God. All that Israel had been called to become but had failed to deliver. This motley group of a dozen men and some hangers on and others who sought to serve Him. Jesus said, “You, my disciples, you are the light of the world.” And then in the wake of his death and resurrection, He had the audacity to repeat it. “Go, therefore,” He said. “All authority in heaven and earth is mine. Go into all the world to all the nations and make disciples of all the nations.” It was an outrageous thing to say, except that it became true. And within 150 years, the likes of the great early Christian writer Tertullian was able to taunt the Roman Empire with words like these: “We are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled all the places that belong to you – cities, islands, forts, towns, exchanges, the military camps themselves, tribes, town councils, the palace, the senate, the market-place; we have left you nothing but your temples” he said. Because our Lord Jesus Christ’s words to this motley group of disciples had come gloriously true.
And our Lord not only said this to Gis disciples, but you remember He taught them to teach other Christians everything that they had learned from Him. That not only this little disciple-band, but every disciple-band of Jesus Christ would be called where we live, where we work, where we worship, to be a kind of city set on a hill that can never be hidden and also to be light that beams forth to the whole world. And if we are to grasp what this challenge of Jesus means for us today, there are two particular things that we need to understand.
This World is Spiritually Dark
The first is that implied in Jesus’ words is the principle that this world is a spiritually dark place. This world is a spiritually dark place. When Jesus began His ministry, Matthew had remembered how Isaiah had prophesied that Jesus would be light who would come into darkness. Matthew 4:16: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light; those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” And the first principle of Jesus’ teaching is that the Church never really becomes the light of the world until the Church grasps that this world is a spiritually bleak and dark place. And part of the darkness that engulfs the world is that the world itself is not able to see its true spiritual condition.
He spoke these words about light, of course, to people who lived in a rural community. Most of us are city-dwellers, and many of us have been city-dwellers most of our lives, and therefore we have never experienced real darkness. There has always been that glow in the sky, that sense that you can always find your way back home. Not so in this rural community. We used to live in the most northerly inhabited island in the whole of the United Kingdom, where in the winter it hardly got light and in the summer it never really got dark. On a winter night you could go outside, and if the clouds cover the stars you could put your hand right up to your eye and still being incapable of seeing it, so dark was the darkness.
And our Lord Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount to describe the spiritual condition of men and women by nature. He says, “If the light that you think is in you is actually darkness, how great is the darkness.” And this indeed is our spiritual condition by nature: so dark that we cannot see! So dark that we cannot see the chains that bind us; we think that we are free. And we vaunt our freedom, even to the point sometimes of despising and mocking God. “Where is God and His Word when I am free to do all of those things that show I despise Him?” And the truth of the matter is, the very fact that I engage in these things is a sign of my spiritual bondage and my moral darkness.
But you see, when Jesus speaks about this spiritual darkness which the Church is to penetrate with the message of the Gospel, he’s not just thinking of that kind of moral darkness. He is thinking also of a kind of spiritual darkness that may have a religious face. And this is so relevant still to the world that most of us occupy, in a part of the world where churchgoing is still an acceptable thing to do. Where we are not persecuted because we go to church, and where we have always gone to church. I often think of that best of men in the Gospel story and that most religious of men in the Gospel story – the great spiritual leader Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus very atmospherically at night time and begins to speak to Jesus about spiritual things. But the only problem is when Jesus begins to speak to him about his need to enter into the kingdom of God. Nicodemus responds, “But Jesus, I don’t see that. I don’t understand that.” And so this darkness takes different forms. It can take a rebellious moral form, or it can take an endarkened religious form.
But Jesus wants us to understand that when we are called to be light in the world, the first thing we need to grasp is how deep the darkness actually is. And one of the great signs, of course, that I am in the darkness is precisely that I can’t see. And someone explains the Gospel to me, and I say, “But I don’t see it that way.” But darkness in that world, indeed in any rural world, is not only deep and real, it is dangerous. A little island that we used to live on was sided by vast cliffs and occasionally, but regularly, visitors would come to the edge of those vast cliffs, utterly unaware of how near they were to danger, and would take one, two, three, four more steps and they would be gone and dashed against the rocks and ploughed out to sea, sometimes never to be seen again. And that is the situation that Jesus is speaking about, that this spiritual darkness that grips men and women in the present is but the harbinger, the forerunner, of what He later calls the outer spiritual darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And so, if we are ever to be gripped by the urgency of the Gospel and the urgency of our calling as a Christian fellowship, we need to be reminded of the depth and the danger of the darkness. Is that something perhaps you have forgotten? Jesus says if you are going to understand what it means to be light in the world, the implication is that you understand this world is an exceedingly dark place, and once you have torn away its mask there is nothing but spiritual darkness.
We Are a Light in This World
And it is into that context that Jesus, who speaks to us about the reality of spiritual darkness, calls us to be light in the world. My dear friends, let us not complain about the spiritual darkness of the world so much as recognise it is our calling to expose that darkness and gloriously to illuminate that darkness. Now, how are we going to do that? Well, you remember what Jesus is doing here. He is preaching the Sermon on the Mount! We know He was preaching the kingdom of God and He was showing the power of that kingdom by the things He did. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount He begins to describe those who belong, who are citizens, of that kingdom. And then He says, “You citizens, together you are to shine as the light of the world.”
How do we shine as the light of the world? Well, it is not at all complicated, my friends. It is not complicated. All we need to be is poor in spirit and mourn for our sins, and become meek, and hunger and thirst for righteousness, and be satisfied with Jesus Christ, and become merciful and pure in heart, and peacemakers, and be willing to be persecuted for righteousness sake, knowing that ours is the kingdom of heaven. Now, you say, “I thought you said it was easy?” No, I did not say it was easy, I said it was not complicated. It does not take great strategies. It does not take marvellous plans or mighty visions. All it takes is for Jesus’ people to be like Jesus. And then, of course they penetrate the world in which they live – their neighbourhood, the place where they work, the place where they live, eventually their whole city, and eventually the whole world. They penetrate the darkness because of the glory of Jesus Christ arisen upon them and shining through them.
Most of you know I am plagued in life in the United States by people saying, “Where do you come from?” and by trying to guess the accent. (Transcription of audio file from 17:06 to 17:23 omitted.) But I use the same language. Spelling a little different sometimes. I speak the same words. I try and speak in sentences with semi-colons. I am not using a different language. I am not living in a different world. What am I doing? What am I doing that makes people say, “Where does he come from that he is so different?” My friends, the only thing that I am doing is this: I am putting the emphasis on a different syllable. That is all I am doing.
And that is what Jesus is saying. He is saying you don’t go around as religious people wearing black robes or necessarily wearing badges that say, “I am following Jesus.” You don’t do strange things or live as though your feet were six feet above the ground. You simply speak your sentences with a different kind of accent in your life – an accent that is upon the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. That is all it is. But it is so glorious, so marvellously revolutionarily, so quietly, spiritually and beautifully insidious in its power that men and women and boys and girls will ask the question, “Why do you put the accent in your life where you put it?” and you say, “Because I belong to the One who is the light of the world, who has promised that those who follow Him will never walk in darkness but have the light of life. And ever since I came to Jesus and found in Him the light of life, His promise has been gloriously true.” And they will want to say, “Oh, show me that city. Take me to that place. Bring me among those people where that glorious, life transforming, saving from-darkness light shines.”
And to me one of the most marvellous things about these words of Jesus is that He is not simply isolating me as an individual and saying to me, “Now Sinclair, you must shine, and it all depends entirely and exclusively upon you.” He is saying to this diverse group of men and those who are beginning to gather around them as He was building his Church, “Now, you together, you plural, you community, with all the different gifts that I have given you, with all the different ways in which my glorious grace is expressed through you. My dear disciples, go together in fellowship, in love for one another, conscious of the darkness I am calling you to penetrate, go and be a city set on a hill and you will never be hidden. Don’t put your light under a cover, but shine!” And men will begin to see your transformed life and seek out Jesus Christ as He seeks them out, and be drawn to Him and be found by Him and find Him, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Would it be absolutely outrageous if the Lord Jesus Christ stood in our pulpit today and pointed around us and said, “My friends, you are the light of the world!” May it be true, and may He shine through us for His Father’s glory.