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Friday, December 7, 2012

The “Light of the World” Metaphor

Jesus said that believers were “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). From this passage, what did he mean by that image [quoted below]? How might the promises in this passage apply to you when you feel as though your efforts to follow God have little effect on others? 

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:8 NIV). (Serendipity Bible 10th Anniversary Edition, page 1029).

When we ask what Jesus meant when he said the believers were “the light of the world” we must first look to the life of Jesus himself.  He did good works such as healing and encouraging, but he absolutely refused to assume a role that would summon immediate widespread power results—such as becoming a military or political leader.   In a real sense, we must conclude that Jesus wanted to effect outcomes indirectly, or to put it another way, he wanted to change man's perception first and thereby alter his actions.

I think of The Sound of Music when I consider this.  The children were controlled by their father with a strong military hand, but Maria controlled them indirectly through their hearts.  Her object was to affect their perception first and thus have impact upon their actions.  She declined to use the direct “military action” and stentorian whistle of their father.

There is great realism here, for to change behavior over the long run and to ensure real stability, and to do so within a context of happiness, people must want to do rather than be forced to do.  Thus, the signal importance of shifting perception and not just forcing behavior.

The perceptual shift that Jesus desired is aided by throwing light on a situation or “turning on the lights.”  Light does not force one to see, but it does allow one to see.  And in this regard God's grace is important because it is observable that we have very limited control over our perception.  In our present understanding of the matter, salutary shifts in some sense remain a mystery.  The complexities of perception still are largely unknown and beyond direct control or manipulation.  Perhaps that is as God intended when he made us ethically responsible beings.  In any case, it is arguable that “little things” can have great impact upon perception as they mount over time and help bring about perceptual change, and thus the absence of immediate obvious results in Christian witnessing (bestowing light) need not be and invitation for despair.  Jesus acknowledged the necessity of patience and process when he compared the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed which is tiny, but when planted eventually yields a tree in which birds alight (Matthew 13:31-32). 

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