“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.”—John Winthrop
In my weekly Bible reading, I recently came across the following verse: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, 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 who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16, ESV).
Amid the world’s present landscape of darkness and difficulty, I hear Jesus making us mindful of our responsibilities. Cities built on hilltops are visible from great distances. A city set on a hill finds inspiration in the city of Jerusalem, God’s holy hill. This hill was not visually impressive nor especially grand, but as I explore Zion’s sprawling knoll throughout scripture, it looms larger and larger until it stands majestically, taller than the highest of the mountains (Micah 4:1–8).
As described in Isaiah 2:2–3,
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that He may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.ESV
Jesus reminds those in His audience that God has chosen them to spread His blessing throughout the earth (Genesis 12:3). In ancient times, those who populated the hilly area of Jerusalem dwelt in the place God desired to dwell. We are told that the temple windows were made to let the interior light out—to disseminate the light of the lampstands throughout the world, illuminating courtyards and city streets. From a distance, one could see this glow on the horizon and know that they were approaching the city of God.
American Founding Father John Winthrop wrote a famous sermon in 1630 that uses Jesus’ phrase “a city upon a hill” to convey the expectation that the new American colony would shine as an example of love and godly charity. Boatloads of Puritans came to the New World because they wanted freedom to practice their religion. They saw themselves as the New Israel and their city as the New Jerusalem. They created a society that combined church and state, seeking conformity to their true orthodoxy. Winthrop’s political vision has been used by countless politicians to inspire the belief that America’s historical exceptionalism has been granted by God. Winthrop believed this nation had been chosen and blessed by God—a city on a hill that would shine for all the world to see (Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, John M. Barry, 2012, p. 349). Many still believe that America is this city set on a hill and that the church’s job is to keep it shining.
I see in Winthrop a man of genuine conviction who eloquently called for us to love one another by renouncing selfishness. He wrote, “We must love one another with a pure heart fervently.” We have all been affected in some way by the Puritan struggle to create a godly society—both religiously and politically—to become a model of justice and liberty for the world. Applying the words of Jesus to our national narrative toward the alleged goal of creating a city on a hill, however, is flawed and contains hypocrisy. The failure to model a community of charity and shared obligation has led us to wars, injustice, and intolerance of our fellow humans. Today, we are divided by gender, race, economics, and politics, yet the darkness emphasizes our enduring yearning for light. I am reminded that dark times present opportunities for hope, opportunities for a shining light to make a difference.
So, what is the context underlying the words of Jesus? The city upon a hill has been almost completely lost to us, diluted by centuries of impotent religion and politicians puffing themselves up with the notion of ushering in enlightenment to advance civilization. The meaning of Jesus’ city on a hill dates far back in Israel’s history, when God makes a promise to His people: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, ESV). This Old Testament promise indicates that Israel will become a place of otherness, a place unlike any other because God’s presence resides powerfully there and the world will take notice. Israel is called to be a beacon for the other nations, yet looking at history, we can see how it fails. As the light of the world, Jesus calls us to shine the light that He is (John 8:12). He shows us what true people of God, who are defined solely by the love of God, look like. Jesus transcends our political left and right, but we are not to think of Him as completely apolitical. As author and theologian Eugene Peterson says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses” (Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, 2011, p. 117). Problems only arise when we try to impose our views on others, demanding conformity and cooperation through political means. We are not called to exert pressure to enforce light (Zechariah 4:6).
So, how are we to determine what a city on a hill should look like? How can we shine a light that reveals the goodness of God’s love to others?
I think we fail to consider something important about this light shining on a hill. When used as a metaphor for enlightenment, light is often misinterpreted. Such light is not information, knowledge, or understanding, nor is it intended to illuminate others. In scripture, light is connected to living and doing. Light is a symbol for life, recalling the creative act of God speaking light into existence (Genesis 1:3). Light is about life and creation (John 1:1–9). Jesus uses the imagery of light to make us mindful of our responsibilities. We are not to improve conditions by being mere transmitters of knowledge. Our influence upon others depends less on our perspectives than on what we are and what we do. The presence of God is attracted by a consistent life characterized by goodness and love acting as a power in the world. Generosity and kind deeds bring light. Truth, peace, and even life itself shine. Jesus’ words were meant to inspire us to good works for the glory of God. Light shines forth from truth and deeds motivated by love. We are responsible for living in a relationship with God, so we can bring illumination.
In the last book of the Bible, the city on the hill is presented as a single united metropolis, thronging with people from every nation, and as the dwelling place of the light of God’s presence: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:23–24; 23, NRSV). Jesus is portrayed as the lamp of the city, whose flame is the glory of God, and is thus the key to understanding how God’s character shines into the world.
The image of a lamp physically disconnected from its flame is significant. A lamp consists of oil, a wick, and a vessel. When the wick and the oil are brought together in the lamp they convert into an illuminating flame (Leviticus 24:1-4). What attracts the gleam of God’s glory, which will ultimately illuminate this world? Matthew identifies the fuel that generates light with good works, but this is much more then just simple deeds. The distinct goodness of God’s self-sacrificing love is displayed on Calvary’s hill, as Christ’s love attracts this flame. His costly love reveals the true character of God and all He desires His people to be to extend that true character. In this relationship of love, God’s glory arises as a beacon of light to a world in darkness (Isaiah 60:1). We seek God’s goodness and love so that the glimmer of His presence will adhere to us, continually shining forth and thus attracting others. Can you imagine how beautiful and bright this light would be if everyone had their lamps trimmed and blazing? The light could not be hidden. There would be a city full of people lighting the earth with the radiant glory of God—a revelation of His character of love. By God’s grace, we can start now, shining the light of His splendor from one end of the world to the other. Now is not the time to hide our light under a basket. God’s goodness and love create a relationship that will brighten all our lives. Let nothing extinguish that light.
Craig Ashton Jr.