The phrase “of the world” denotes the relation which the Church sustains to the world. It signifies that the Church was given to the world as light; that this light must shine, in order that men (the elect) may glorify God.
“A city set upon a hill cannot be hid, neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” The Church, then, is a city. Scripture frequently calls the Church a city. “There is a river, the streams of which shall make glad the city of God” (Ps. 46:4). Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of His holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King” (Ps. 48:12). Abraham is said to have looked for a city that hath foundation, whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:12). But ye are come unto Mount Zion, unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. . . . (Heb. 12:22). And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride, adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2).
The Church a city, the people of God, a distinct commonwealth, a separate society, constituted of such as have been redeemed to God by the blood of the Lamb out of every kindred, tongue, people and nation—a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, whose King supreme is God.
This city cannot be hid, as it sets on a hill. Calvin’s commentary on this utterance reads as follows: “This means, that they (the apostles and the pastors) ought to live in such a manner, as if the eyes of all were upon them. And certainly, the more eminent a person is, the more injury he does by bad example, if he acts improperly. Christ, therefore, informs the apostles, that they must be careful to live a devout and holy life, than unknown persons of the common rank, because the eyes of ail are directed on them, as to lighted candles; and that they must not be endured, if their devotion and uprightness of conduct, do not correspond to the doctrine of which they are ministers. . . . After having taught the apostles that, in consequence of the rank in which they are placed, both their vices and their virtues are better known for good or bad example, he now enjoins them to so regulate their life, as to excite all to glorify God.”
The assertion that all eyes are upon such as do occupy positions of prominence and that the vices and virtues of such persons are better known for good or for bad examples, and that, finally such persons should, for that reason, be careful to live devout lives is all very true in itself. However, such are not the sentiments circulating through Christ’s words. Such, very plainly, was not His point of view. The matter upon which He was discoursing was not the conspicuousness of the Church or the individual Christian as such, but the duty of this church to render itself conspicuous by letting its light shine. The Christian, being light, must emit light, may not cover his light by his vices. Doing so, he places himself under a bushel.
By others it is maintained that Christ meant to caution his people against retreating from the affairs of the larger world into the smaller circle of their own. Doing so, they place their light under a bushel, come down from the crest of the hill to the valley below. The believer, Christ is supposed to have meant to say, should cast him in the deep stream, or take his seat in high places, enter, let us say, politics, engage in big business, join the union, in a word, mount himself upon the candlestick. If one of the gifted God’s people could persuade his countrymen to elect him president of our own United States of America, the angels in heaven would rejoice, so it is argued. For this particular disciple, having been raised to the aforesaid height, would be shedding his light over the vast expanse of our land from one of its borders to the other.
It is altogether possible that such a one would be hailed by men as a great light. It is a matter of doubt, however, whether the light radiated would continue to be the light of Christ. The world refuses to come to this light, so that this particular disciple might soon conclude that he had better ‘place his pure light of heaven under a bushel, would he get along. Be this as it may, it must be supposed that Christ was urging His disciples to make themselves conspicuous in the aforesaid sense when He said, “Let your light shine.” This, of course, is no plea for the view that the believer may not take a hand in helping to run the affairs of the state, that he may not hold office. The question confronting us in respect to the matter at hand, is whether Christ in this particular discourse or in any other discourses of His, urged His followers to seek places of prominence in this world. Fact is, no such admonition ever passed from His lips nor from the lips of His servants—the apostles. Paul does say: “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands as we commanded you; that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of no man” (1 Thess. 4:14, 15). And again: “Now we command you brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourself from every brother that walketh disorderly, for yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for naught; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you; Not because we have not power; but to make ourselves an example unto you to follow us. For even when we were not with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. . . . (2 Thess. 3:6-13).
Here the believer is told how he should conduct himself as a member of society. He may not lead a shiftless life, eating the bread of another. But nowhere in Scripture is he told that he should contend with his fellows for a place in the limelight for the reason that the world may know he is on earth. The matter Scripture stresses is godly conduct. To let our conversation be in heaven is the great injunction of the Lord. “If ye be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things of the earth. For ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth. . . . But now ye also put off these: anger, malice, wrath, blasphemy, filthy communications out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds. . . .
Put on therefore as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another, if any man hath a quarrel against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also ye do” (Col. 3).
Once more, a city on a hill cannot be hid. A city will not be passed by unnoticed. Not in Christ’s day at least when travel was slow and dangerous and the attending difficulties many. A city spied in the distance was therefore a welcome sight. Behind its walls the weary wayfarer would retreat for the night and be safe against the prowling beast. Add to this because of its position alone, the city set on a hill is most conspicuous so that it cannot in truth be hidden. In the last instance, however, it was God’s city of light on earth—the church—that Christ had before His eye, so that the thought circulating through His speech must be, then, that the church, by reason of its emitted light, is as conspicuous as a city set on a hill. The individual Christian is here enjoined to render himself noticeable not by seeking places of prominence in the world, but by radiating the light kindled within his bosom by the Spirit of Christ, in that particular station in life where Providence placed him. It is a mistake, then, to appeal to the aforesaid Scripture in support of the contention that the believer should aspire to a seat in Congress or join himself to a labor union in order to provide himself with an opportunity for letting shine his light.
Christ does not say, it should be noticed, that the burning candle and the city cannot be hidden. Had He said so, He would not have added, “Let your light so shine.” The burning candle can be placed under a bushel, and the city might have sprung up in the valley. As the measure in this case would hide the candle, so the hills would hide this city. The believer, too, can hide his light by projecting that part of self which ought to be put off, to wit, the old man of sin. And the church, likewise, ceases to be seen when it loses sight of its calling, and involves itself in the secular affairs of this life. Ascending the hill to its crest, coming from under the bushel to mount the candlestick are processes constituting the other side of the mortification of earthly members. In a word, the church: is the city on the hill when it preaches and lives the Word, and the burning candle mounted upon the candlestick is the emblem of the believer whose conversation is in heaven.
The city on the hill cannot be hidden. A church emitting its light will not fail to attract attention to itself. By the world, this city is cursed; the walking altars of Jehovah despised. The prophets were, Christ was. So too, (His followers, especially in the first few centuries of our own age. The eyes of the world were upon the disciples of Christ of that day. For they let shine their light. Were they men of high estate, these disciples? Not according to the testimony of the apostle which reads: “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are caked: but God hath chosen, the foolish things of the world to confound the things, which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:21, 26). It was these foolish men after the flesh, men devoid of power, ignoble and weak things who in that day attracted to themselves the attention of the world.
History cannot once be appealed to in support of the contention that the candle on the candlestick is the big and useful man to whom the world will lend an ear and for whom it makes room. The joint testimony of history is that the city on the hill is the persecuted church, constituted of such as had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonments. The light of the church shines brightest when its members are men of low estate, occupying humble places. There is a reason then why the Bible turned out to be a written record of God’s message to a persecuted church, to a church buffeted by a world incensed by the living testimony of the just.
Let your light shine. A very necessary admonition. For the inhabitants of the city on the hill may be tempted to hide their light under a bushel for more than one reason. As was said, the light emitted incenses the adversaries of the Lord, who, infuriated by the light, lay siege to the city of God. In order to pacify the wolves without, the citizens of the city of God may be tempted to obscure their light. This may not be done. Let your light shine.
There may still be another reason why believers should want to render their light inconspicuous. It may happen that the crave to again sit at the fleshpots of Egypt becomes strong. In the city on the hill are no fleshpots, but the manna from heaven, good for food, and the pure water from the rock. However, when in a carnal mood, the citizens of the celestial city go to weeping and say; “Who shall give us flesh to eat. We remember the flesh which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, besides this manna before our eyes.” However, these fleshpots and cucumbers, and leeks and melons and onions and garlic thrive in Egypt. The Egyptians must be pacified, their favor won, before they can be expected to admit the citizens of the aforesaid city to their fleshpots. This is done. Lights are placed under measures and simultaneously the Egyptians lauded as a people of superior virtue, shaming by the fine moral quality of their deeds many a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. The Egyptians are told, further, that they are the blessed of the Lord. This flattering speech has its desired effect. The wrath of the adversary subsides. The long standing feud comes to an end. Light and darkness lock arms and make for the coveted fleshpots. With the aid of the good will and support of the Egyptians, the citizens of the city of light prosper, grow fat, and become famous and the world deems them worthy. But let it be born in mind that while the flesh was still between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a great plague (Num. 11:33).
Cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic—it is all good food. However, if not a gift of grace, if secured at the expense of a principle, we die while we eat. “And while the flesh was yet between their teeth. . . . the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.” If the flesh and the cucumbers arid the onions and the garlic are ours because of our having obscured our light, we may feel assured that we shall come to grief.
Seated at the Egyptian fleshpots, the citizens of the city of light feel ill at ease, as is evident from their attempt to compel Scripture to sanction their upward climb. We, so they say, are the light of the world. A city on a hill may not be hid. Nor do men light a candle and put it under a bushel but upon a candlestick. Hence, we have found our place. Forsooth, a nauseating distortion of Christ’s words, indicating a shifting of emphasis from heavenly to earthly treasures, and the loss of both the desire and the inclination to serve as heaven’s channel for heaven’s light. True, it takes courage and means self-denial. For “this is the condemnation that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth, the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God” (John 3:19, 20). And the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months (Rev. 11:12). And they went up on the breath of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them (Rev. 21:9).
Let your light shine. Light is life revealed. Let your light shine that men may see your good works. All the organs of self-expression are involved in this command,—the tongue, the hand, the eye, the foot. All must be placed in the service of the new man in order that this man may shine forth. “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (Heb. 12:12). “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing” (Isa. 35:5, 6). “I thought on my ways and turned my feet unto my testimonies” (Ps. 119:59). “I have refrained my feet from evil ways that I might keep thy word” (Ps. 119:21). “So our eyes wait upon the Lord our God until he have mercy upon us” (Ps. 123:2). And my tongue shall speak of thy righteousness and of thy praise all the daylong” (Ps. 35:28).
“And glorify thy Father in heaven.” The light emitted attracts, then, as well as it repels,—attracts, draws those foreknown before the world’s foundation. By the light of the church Christ draws all men—such He loved unto death—to Himself. These men, and none other, glorify God, so that this Scripture can neither be quoted in support of the view that the reprobate wicked, as a result of having been brought under the influence of Common Grace, glorify God when they see the good works of Christ’s followers.
The light shed, finally, is the believer returning to God whose workmanship he is. The good deeds done image the glories of God. He, then, is glorified.