Jesus told His audience,
14 "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16 NIV
If I told you that you are the light of the world, you might think that I am a humanist who believes humans are basically good, and all that we need to overcome hang-ups is a little affirmation. But haven't we learned in Sunday School that humans are desperately wicked and incapable of doing anything good on their own? In all honesty, I don't know what, if anything, people learn in Sunday School these days. But people who have grown up around traditional Reformed theology might be puzzled by the fact that Jesus didn't say (at this particular moment) "I" am the light of the world. Reformed Theology emphasizes human depravity and accentuates Jesus' exclusive claim to moral integrity. But here in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus called his audience the light of the world! Is this a slip of the tongue? If this wasn't Jesus speaking, we might be up in arms about this statement.
As usual, when the Bible doesn't say the things we think it should say, we need to back up and set aside our modern questions for the moment and ask ourselves what these words meant to Jesus and His first audience. Jesus wasn't addressing our contemporary concerns about self-esteem. Jesus was addressing the issue of what it means to be "God's people."
Jesus' proclamation to the Jews gathered on the Mount of Olives that day was not new information. Jesus was not revealing a previously hidden truth. Jesus was reminding Israel of her calling, and He was showing her how to see it accomplished. In fact, "You are the Light of the World" is a reminder, not a revelation.
Israel exists because God set her apart ages ago to be the people through whom He would accomplish redemption for the earth. In Adam, human rebellion brought a curse on the world. In Abraham, "all nations of the earth shall be blessed." Abraham's Family is God's solution to the problem of evil. Because of God's choice to use her as His vessel of redemption, Israel is "the light of the world."
Because Israel is the light of the world, Jesus brings a challenge: why are you hiding your light under a basket? This challenge is the equivalent of someone in today's world that challenges mainstream Christians' behavior: "You are a Christian! You are not supposed to be..." If you question the moral conduct of Christians in the West today, you will undoubtedly hear a chorus of people saying, "You shouldn't judge me," and "I am under grace, not the law." But guess what? You are the light of the world. If you hide your light, you will cease to be it! The truth is, being "under grace" does not make us free from the Law. Grace enables us to fulfill the Law.
The effect of the Law, or the Torah, is not, as is so commonly taught, a means for proving that we cannot be good enough for God. The Torah is an identity marker and a babysitter for the people of God. God gave it to Israel to provide definition and a guard rail against paganism. Why did Israel require a distinction? Because she is the light of the world, a unique people set apart for redemption. If Israel went the way of the world, who would rescue the world? Israel also needs the Torah as a guardrail because she, too, is broken.
Jesus clearly states that He has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Jesus didn't come to relieve Israel of her calling but to give her the grace to complete it. Jesus brought healing and "light" into the world. Jesus is the one faithful Israelite who would graciously get the job done on behalf of failed Israel. That is why ALL people, including Israelites according to the flesh, must be baptized into the name of Jesus. When we do this, we come into the Law, we don't escape it, but it is a Law written on our hearts and defined by the identity marker of the Messiah, not the circumcision of the flesh.
Jesus' reason for calling out failed Israel is to point her forward to an open path for success. Jesus is paving the way for a successful Israel. "Follow me," Jesus is saying, "and you will succeed in living up to your calling." You and I are the light of the world; at least, that is our calling. The point of the beatitudes is that the behaviors that Jesus presents to His audience are some of the key identity markers for people who truly are the light of the world.