Jesus said that God’s people are a city on a hill, a blessed people who are called to be a blessing to others, giving forth light and hope. What does this mean in an Old Testament context, one that lies behind the words of Jesus? And what does this mean for us today?
The call of God to be a city on a hill starts with God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will be blessed and will in turn bless all the other nations of the world. God’s “chosen people” were to be the means by which all nations come to know the one true God and his will for all people. Israel was chosen for a vocation: to be a light of truth to the nations that dwelt in darkness and deception.
Yahweh promised that if Israel walked in God’s ways, then he would pour out tremendous blessings on them and tremendous blessings would be poured out through them to the other nations. This blessed-to-be-a-blessing covenant is depicted by the city of Jerusalem, which sits on Mount Zion, as a city on a hill that shines in the darkness to draw and illuminate the nations. This is the background to Jesus’ teaching that his followers are to be “the light of the world” and a “city on a hill.”
In the ancient world you could see a city on a hill lit with candles for miles away. When you saw that faint glow on the horizon, you knew you were approaching your destination. This is precisely what Yahweh had hoped the descendants of Abraham would be, a blessed people who bless the world by shining like a city on a hill for the whole world to see.
This hope is expressed throughout the Old Testament, but it is strongest in the book of Isaiah. For example:
Isaiah 2:2-3 In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
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.”
The “holy mountain” motif runs throughout the Old Testament. All ancient near east peoples believed gods live on mountain tops. Different gods had different mountains as their habitation. The chief gods of Ancient Near East nations were what scholars call “mountain deities.”
In John 4, a Samaritan woman asked Jesus which mountain God should be worshipped on, since the Samaritans believed God lived on Mt. Gerizim, not Mt. Zion. But Jesus told her that a time was coming when worshipping the true God wouldn’t be about where you were. True worship is worship done “in spirit and in truth,” regardless of where you are. The true God does not live on a mountain!
Jesus embodies and fulfills Israel’s mission of being a city set on a hill and a light to the nations. Jesus is everything God had hoped Israel would be: the light of revelation to the Gentiles. IN the Lord we are light. We are incorporated into Christ Jesus, who is the light, and that makes us children of the light. Therefore, we are called and empowered by the Spirit to live out the fulfillment of God’s dream to have a people who would be a beacon of light, love and truth to a world that dwells in darkness.
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