What Does it Actually Mean to Be a Light to the World?
My latest book, What Jesus Expects of Us, focuses on a few aspects of our lives as disciples of Jesus. We are to be people of faith and hope. We are to act, not sit idly by. We are to go all in for our Lord. But there is more, much more. We are to not only grow in our own discipleship, but we are also to make disciples, for that is our Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). And this must begin with an invitation to join the family of Christ.
The Book of Acts tells the story of how this commission was carried out in the first 30 years after Jesus. Jesus was crucified and resurrected in 30AD or so. About three years later, Saul, a zealous Pharisee who was present at the martyring of Stephen, was on his way to Damascus to round up more Christians. While on the road to Damascus, Saul was visited by Jesus, transformed, and would thereafter be known as Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles. For the next thirty years, Paul traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean founding new churches, making disciples, teaching, and baptizing. The book of Acts tells us how the invitation to follow Christ was taken by Paul and others to much of the Roman Empire, even to Rome itself.
The people of God are charged with inviting everyone, in all places, at all times, to accept Jesus’ invitation and enter the covenant community of God’s people. As Jesus so neatly put it in his Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). We are to be that light, drawing the world to Jesus Christ.
We know we are to be the light to the world, but we are often unsure as to how to go about it. Sometimes we think it means we must pull people out of their homes or stand on street corners passing out tracts. Sure, we ought to invite our neighbors to church with us and share the Good News with strangers, but the biblical understanding of invitation, of being the light to the world, extends to every part of our lives. We invite when we worship, when we learn, when we love, when we care, when we serve, when we work, when we play – all of it is to be an invitation and a witness to others.
Let me give you one example. We often don’t think of our own worship as an act of evangelism or invitation. But, when a person who is not a churchgoer visits our worship services, they are looking for three things. They want to feel the presence of God. They want to see the Christian church living out its faith – kindness, love, patience, service to others, and so on. Finally, they want to see the relevance of the faith for their lives. Every Sunday, each of us is an important witness to the reality of Christ’s love and invitation to all persons. Just as sports heroes are unavoidably role models for our youth, we are always, in all times, and in all places, witnesses to the living reality and glory of Christ’s sacrificial love. The only question is what sort of witness we will be.
Peter understood this when he wrote to Christians suffering for their faith, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (1 Peter 2:11-12). Paul understood this when he wrote to the troubled church in Corinth, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1). Paul calls us to imitate Christ in all we do so that the glory of God will be visible to all and that all will be saved.
Again, what does it mean to be the light to the world? It means that we are to lift Jesus up for all the world to see, so that all the world might be drawn to him, enabling all the world to see his saving love. Because Jesus announced and inaugurated the arrival of God’s kingdom, we live in the “bright interval,” as N. T. Wright calls it, between Easter and the final, great consummation of the story, the renewal of all creation and the “new heaven and new earth” (Rev 21:1) The early Christians found great joy because they understood that they lived not in the last days but in the first days of a new age. We live in such days as well and we should find such joy, a joy that will shine for all to see, drawing them in, inviting them to join us in the community of God’s servant people.