As someone from the Midwestern part of the United States, this command at first seems counterintuitive to me. One of the things that I think Americans generally, and Midwesterners in particular, deem offensive is someone who is a boasts about themselves, who not only does good things, but then goes on to tell other people what they have done.
Jesus had gone to Galilee, was healing people, and he was beginning to become known around the area. At this time, as he was standing on the side of a mountain, his disciples came up to him and sat down and Jesus began teaching them.
Fairly early in the course of the teaching, Jesus tells them that, as his disciples, they are the light of the world and that they should let their light shine for the world.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
My natural inclination is to go the other direction and, instead of allowing a light to shine, to still want to do something good but to be completely anonymous and hide the deeds. So, this command feels a little strange to me.
I think I begin to reconcile this though by looking at what Jesus has been doing up to the point that he begins teaching. What we see is that he has already been performing many different types of miracles, healing people and curing them of all sorts of different types of sicknesses. These are things that only God can do. Only God can provide the type of power required to miraculously and instantaneously heal someone from the disease that they have.
As Jesus was healing people, he was demonstrating the power of the Kingdom of God. He is showing that he himself is the King of that Kingdom, as he is the one who has and is demonstrating that power. Like any king, Jesus has the ability to designate and delegate that power, but here, he is simply helping the disciples to understand the nature of their identity. Eventually, he will ask them to act in the same way that he has acted by demonstrating the power and giving them the authority and ability to heal others just as he has, but for now, he wants them to know that they are the hope and light of the world.
Of course, this isn’t just about healing people. This is about the way that they will live their lives. Everything that they do will be seen, and it is what others see that will help determine the extent to which others will give glory to God.
And that is what this is all about in the first place, and is truly the explanation. Jesus is assuming that the glory that is received when the light is shone is not intended for this disciple who is being told to shine the light. Instead, he says that it is God who will receive the glory for their actions. Others will look and see these ordinary people, people who come from everyday types of backgrounds, who are living lives of hope, lives of power inside of the Kingdom of God, lives that actually give life to others, and they will rightly recognize that this has nothing to do with that individual person but have everything to do with what God is doing in them and through them. And when they see this, they will glorify God, not the person who is shining the light that they have been given.
So what does that mean for us? Do we just walk around and trying to just find opportunities to do good deeds? To look for ways to shine the light?
I think that is certainly part of the equation, but personally, I’ve tried this and doing it exclusively, and I think that it falls short. Instead, I think that you have to be intentional. You have to plan and execute. And you have to speak and tell the stories of God as well. Otherwise, at least in my experience, we have days that turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years that do not have the impact that we really hope for. The light shone can be very small, and therefore the glory that God receives is similar. We must be intentional in the deeds that we act out, speak of the stories where we saw God acting, and give Him the glory for what He has done!