City on a Hill
by Jack M. Lane
In Matthew chapter five, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his audience, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” What do you suppose he meant by that?
Here’s a little song you may have heard me sing (sung to the tune of "Happy Birthday"): "Good morning to you, good morning to you. You look like a Christian, and you act like one, too."
What does that mean, to look like a Christian? What does a Christian look like? Well, if what I just sang is true, you look like one. I suppose, what’s even more important than if we look like a Christian to other people, is that we look like a Christian to our Father in heaven.
When God looks at us, what does He see? I believe He has said that He looks on the heart, and not on the outward appearance. For example, back in 1 Samuel chapter 16, God had sent Samuel the prophet to select the one who was to be king of Israel. Samuel went to Jesse’s family, because that’s where God said Samuel would find the new king. Samuel looked at one of Jesse’s sons and thought, “Okay, here’s the guy. Look at this fine specimen.” But God said no.
In 1 Samuel 16:7, God told Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
As it turned out, the one Samuel was to anoint as the new king of Israel was the last and least of the sons of Jesse, the little kid they had out in the field watching the flocks. They didn’t want to bother the great prophet Samuel with “the kid.” Guess what! That’s the one God had in mind.
God looks on the heart. So, if we want to know what a Christian looks like, and acts like, it has something to do with the condition of the heart. You have to have a “heart condition.” God looks on the condition of your heart.
Let’s look at Matthew chapter 23. Jesus was railing one time against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, as he often did. He said, in Matthew 23:25-28:
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
Who’s full of greed and self-indulgence? The cup and the dish? No, Jesus is speaking allegorically, as he often did. It was the scribes and Pharisees who were full of greed and self-indulgence.
26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Jesus was advocating getting cleaned up from the inside out.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.
28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Jesus seemed to feel that what was on the outside—how things and people look to others—isn’t as important as what’s on the inside. If the inside is corrupt and evil, who cares what the outside looks like? As it is with dishware, as it is with tombs down at the cemetery, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
If there is corruption and decay inside the tomb, it doesn’t matter how many coats of Wal*Mart glossy white acrylic you put on the outside. If you look like a Christian, and you act like one, too, you have probably already considered this truth. It doesn’t matter what you look like. What’s important is what’s inside.
And for you young folks, and singles, maybe looking around for a mate, this is an important point to keep in mind. Look at the inside, not just the outside.
On another occasion, in Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus said,
13 You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
Now, that’s a really good point. You are, currently, at this present time, the salt—the seasoning, the flavor enhancer, the savory aspect, the preservative—of this world. What happens if you lose the characteristics of someone who is the flavor enhancer and the preservative of the world? You aren’t good for much after that. So we don’t want to lose our saltiness. We don’t want to become unsavory characters. So let’s be careful that we don’t.
Verse 14: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Jesus is likening us to a city on a hill. We can be seen for miles; people can travel toward us; we are above the lowlands so we won’t flood. You can probably think of other aspects of a city on a hill, and the spiritual application to Christians. If we are the light of the world, and we can’t be hidden, I suppose that means that we shine a light in all directions, and people can come up to the mountain, the mountain of the Lord, and find light.
15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl [the King James Version says “put it under a bushel]. 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 men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
My wife still goes around singing a song she learned at church camp when she was a little girl: “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.”
See what happens? You teach a kid something, they have it for life. Now she has great-grandchildren. And you know what she wants to teach them? “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
Whenever I used to read this passage, I always pictured putting a lit candle underneath a bushel basket and catching it on fire with that candle. The NIV says it’s a bowl. So, what is it, a bowl or a bushel?
Well, I wondered what the Greek word was that is translated in one place as a bushel and in another place as a bowl. I looked it up in Vine’s and found that the word means “a dry measure containing about a peck” (from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.)
So in a biblical context, a bushel is about the same as a peck. I guess you don’t want to hide it under a dry bushel basket. It might catch fire!
How much is a peck? I don’t know. I didn’t study into it that deeply. It’s an allegory, so it doesn’t matter how much a peck is.
Now I’m thinking, there’s an old, old song that says, “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” So, now I have to worry about whether that song is redundant, if a bushel and a peck are about the same thing.
Do you ever get to those times when you just have to stop studying, and get up, and go take a walk, or just do something else?
Okay, that was fun. Now let’s review. What have we seen so far? We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. We are a city on a hill. We need to be seasoning to the people around us. We need to give light to everyone in the house. We need to let our light shine before men. We need to have good deeds. People need to see them. People need to see our good deeds, so they can give God the glory.
Do people see us doing good works? I think what the church is doing on an international level is superb! The various programs the church does are doing so much good, in so many places, in so many ways.
Of course, Jesus did warn us not to do our alms in public. In Matthew chapter 6 he said:
Matthew 6:1: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
But wait a minute! We just saw, in verse 16 of the previous chapter, that Jesus said, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Now he says, in Matthew 6:1: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Do you see the difference? Motivation. What’s on the inside. If you do good things to be seen by men, to gain their glory, you won’t be gaining God’s glory, and God won’t be gaining much glory either. Don’t do things for the purpose of being seen by men. Do things for the purpose of having men praise God because of what you are doing.
So, continuing in verse 2:
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
We don’t want to be aggrandizing ourselves in the eyes of others. I don’t think any of us would take on an imperious tone and proclaim, “Here, God has sent me to give you this gift.” I just don’t think we’d do that. But the scriptures are pretty clear that we are to give to those who need help. We are to lend without really expecting to be paid back, if that’s what’s called for. And when we give to the poor, we are actually loaning the money to God, who pays us back with interest!
I’ve heard it said that if you cast your bread upon the waters, it’ll come back buttered. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It may be just hyperbole, or a poetic way of saying something.
I’m going to assume our motives are pure. We are to do good deeds, not for the purpose of making ourselves look good in the eyes of others, but in order that people can see the good work being done and glorify God.
I’ve known a lot of people over the years who would insist, “We don’t earn our salvation. So we don’t do good works in order to be saved!” My response is, “Of course we don’t do good works in order to be saved. We do good works because people need help!”
A lot of people have a focus that’s mainly on themselves. Sometimes I feel the need to remind folks once in awhile that the focus is supposed to be on others, on the people around us, and how God can bless other people through us.
Many of us need to be reminded at times that we are a city on a hill. We’re not a candle under a bushel basket.
The idea about not putting your candle under a bushel not only includes the idea that the light is hidden, but also that the candle might be extinguished by placing it in a place where it doesn’t get enough oxygen.
Would anyone light a candle, then put it in a place where the flame will go out? Unfortunately, that has happened. We can see it a lot in the gospels. Jesus hit it head on time and again.
To the scribes and Pharisees, the posturing, pretending religious leaders of the official state religion, Jesus said, “Clean up your act. Get rid of the filthiness and decay inside.” To the gentle, teachable, trusting, loving followers among God’s people, he said, “You are good. People need to see that you’re good.” To the “bad guys,” Jesus said that their religion, or at least the way they practiced their religion, needed lots of improvement. To the common folks, Jesus said that they could let God do, through them, what God wanted to do through them, if they would only let God do it.
So that sort of brings us around full circle. Yes, it’s important what we look like to God. If He looks at us and thinks that we look like a Christian, and we act like one, too, that’s good. But here’s Jesus saying, over and over, in different ways, that it really is important how others see us. We are to let our lights shine, and do good deeds, so that others will see our good deeds and give glory to God.
We are a city on a hill, which can’t be hidden. A city on a hill can be a useful landmark. So I’m going to go way out into left field for this next analogy. If we are a landmark, how would someone give directions using us as a landmark?
Picture someone a long time ago, in the holy land, saying to a traveler, “Journey three days until you arrive at Lachish, then turn toward the east and proceed another day’s journey.” Instead of that, someone today might say, “See that guy over there? He’s a Christian. Measure your life by what he does. Try to be like him.” That’s what I’m picturing, if we are a landmark, a city on a hill, that can’t be hid.
I hope, at the very least, that when people look at us they see happy, smiling people, positive people who look to the future with hope and confidence. People who can be brave in the midst of trials because they know that God is dealing with them like sons, and giving them the discipline they need to become sons in whom He will be proud, as it says in Hebrews chapter 12.
Not only our Father, but Jesus also has a hand in our discipline. Jesus says in Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”
So, are all the training lessons in life from the Father? Jesus says he takes a part in our discipline program. He’s helping us to grow up, as a good older brother should!
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,
2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
Do you know anyone who is disobedient? Of course you do. So do I. We all do. They are following the ways of this world, and they are following the ways of the spirit ruler of this world.
3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.
6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, …
Are we seated with God in the heavenly realms right now? Of course not. We’re seated in Sacramento, California, about as far from the heavenly realms as we can get. Paul is speaking figuratively, because this is God’s plan for us. God tends to call things which are not as if they are (Romans 4:17), because God is looking at the long picture, down the road, and your place in His plan. He did raise us up and make us alive in Christ when we came up out of the waters of baptism. In God’s eyes, and in Paul’s writing, we are, as it were, sitting with Him, in Christ.
6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Paul surprises a lot of today’s no-law, cheap-grace types by saying that, yes, we were saved by grace, but it wasn’t because we are such great people. Rather, He did it for His own purposes, so that we can do various good works He has prepared for us to do. That’s a bold new concept for a lot of people. Maybe, just maybe, we weren’t called to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Maybe, just maybe, God has called various people around the world to be in certain places, at certain times, to do certain things.
There are times when I catch myself saying, “Why did I have to go through that particular experience? If only I’d been somewhere else, if only I’d gotten out of there sooner, if only I – this or that.”
You know what my wife keeps reminding me? We needed to be where we were, going through what we were going through, for God’s purposes. Because we were there, then, we can be here, now. Because we learned this, we can teach that. Because others did good deeds toward us, we can do good deeds toward others.
Paul says, in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
In all things? Yes, in all things. No matter what we’ve been through, no matter what we’re going through now. We have been called according to His purpose, and He has created good works for us to walk in. I think I can see that His purpose is for us to walk in the good works He has prepared for us to do.
If God prepares something for us to do, all we have to do is show up for work and do what we’re supposed to do.
Don’t get me wrong. I love coming to services and Bible studies. But if that’s all we’re doing, we may be missing something. We’re supposed to bloom where we’re planted. If we are candles, or lights, that are lit and set up on our candlesticks, do the people around us know that? Will people look at our good works and glorify God in heaven?
Okay, let’s suppose I now have you whipped up into a frenzy to get out and do something really great. What should we do? This would be the part of the presentation where I start listing things you could be doing on a personal level at home, in the neighborhood, in the city, or county, or state, or country.
So what is it? What should we do? I have no idea. How should I know what you need to do in your house? That’s between you and God. Maybe you’re already doing a great work for God. Got time to do more?
Maybe you’re already quietly going around, doing good deeds without fanfare, and you don’t have time for any more. Okay, if you’re tapped out, that’s fine. Just leave your options open.
You are a city on a hill. Jesus was talking to a group of people, so in English it might be better translated as, “Y’all are a city on a hill.” The whole bunch of you. “All y’all are a city on a hill.” Collectively.
So individually, we are a part of a city on a hill. Put us all together, and we make a mighty fine city. But what do people tend to do? Separate into neighborhoods, build walls between groups within the cities, have turf wars, keep ethnicities apart. And when we get so busy shining our lights on ourselves, the effectiveness of the light from the whole city gets—shall we say it?—put under a bushel.
So, here’s my conclusion: Let’s start thinking in those terms. Let’s use the analogy of being a city on a hill. Let’s look at our personal marching orders to do good works, for the glory of God, not ourselves. For the furtherance of the kingdom, not for our own aggrandizement.
Be salt. Be light. Be filled with good deeds toward others. Illuminate the world. Don’t be hid.
“Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”