Question: "What does it mean that a city on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14)?"

Answer: Jesus Christ began His great Sermon on the Mount by teaching the Beatitudes, a list of blessings that define the inner character of a genuine servant of God (Matthew 5:1–12). These verses also illustrate God’s kingdom principles, which are directly opposite of the world’s value system. To the casual listener, this countercultural teaching could suggest that Christ expects His disciples to withdraw from the world. But in Matthew 5:13–16 Jesus follows up immediately with an illuminating segment, leaving His true followers with no doubt as to His intended meaning: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (verse 14, NASB95).

Jesus compared Christians to a city on a hill that cannot be hidden because kingdom people are meant to be a beacon in the night, providing spiritual light to a lost and dying world. Jesus said in John 9:5, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” To His disciples, He explained, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus is the light that illuminates our lives. Everyone who puts their faith and trust in Him “will no longer remain in the dark” (John 12:46).

As long as we live on this earth, we are meant to have an influence on the people around us. The apostle Paul taught, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).

The purpose of light is to give direction by making it possible to see. At night, a city on a hill shines its light in all directions from an elevated position. The light can be seen far and wide, illuminating the way for many travelers and showing them which way to go. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Toward Jesus, and ultimately into a relationship with God the Father, is the direction in which people ought to walk.

The apostle John said of Jesus, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4–5). As Christians we are to make the light of truth visible—by sharing the gospel of salvation in Jesus, and through the way we live our lives—thereby providing direction and guidance for those who are lost and living in darkness.

Isaiah foresaw the coming of Jesus Christ as the dawning of a great light seen by “people walking in darkness . . . those living in the land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2; cf. Matthew 4:16). Saul of Tarsus had been walking in profound spiritual darkness, persecuting Christians. When Jesus Christ appeared to him, Saul saw “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me” (Acts 26:13).

The Lord allowed Saul to remain temporarily blinded by the light, as a symbol of his sightless spiritual state. That day God told Saul, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16–18). From the moment God removed the blinders from his eyes, Saul began to preach the truth that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:17–31).

Saul, who later went by the name of Paul, went on to become one of Christianity’s most zealous messengers. Everywhere he went, Paul taught Christians to “live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Philippians 2:15, NLT).

The Christian life is meant to have a visible impact and not to be lived in secret, hidden from the world. Jesus said, “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:15–16, NLT). There is no such thing as covert Christianity or clandestine discipleship.

Paul advised Timothy, “Never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord” (2 Timothy 1:8, NLT). We must not hide our devotion to Christ. Instead, we are to remain humble while doing everything we can to attract, influence, and guide others toward the truth: “For the Lord gave us this command when he said, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth’” (Acts 13:47, NLT).

When we live as true disciples of Jesus Christ, obeying the principles of God’s kingdom, we become like a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. In fact, as new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), it is now part of our nature as kingdom servants to be the light in the world. The light we shine does not come from us but instead is a reflected light coming from our source—“the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).