“Shine before men,” but “not to be seen by them”

by William J. Stewart

In His teaching from the sermon on the mount, among other things, Jesus addressed our conduct before men. At first glance, the two statements which are in our article title today might appear to be opposed to one another. The Lord expects that we “shine” before men, but at the same time warns us “not to be seen” by them. Huh?? We will use our time today to look at these words carefully, and to see how we are to accomplish this in our lives day by day.

In Matthew 5:14-16, we find the words of Jesus: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” There is no doubt, we are called to be a visible example before the world. Solomon penned, “…the path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18). The apostle Paul spoke of Christians as “…blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” (Philippians 2:15).

We need to be examples in the world. In 2 Corinthians 3:2, Paul speaks of the brethren there as “…our epistles written in our hearts, known and read by all men…” And again, “…you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, not written with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (v 3). We need to be cautious how we walk, for we walk as representatives of God before the unrighteous of the world. The Christian’s life is as a glass house, open for all to see. We may not perceive it to be so, but it is. Perhaps not all will, but some who are outside of Christ will seek opportunity to speak evil of the children of God. Both Peter and Paul commanded that our conduct and speech be above reproach, that no opportunity may be given (1 Peter 2:15; Titus 2:8). So cautious we need to be; for even David, who is identified as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) supplied an “…occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme…” (2 Samuel 12:14). By his wayward actions. May we not do so.

The key to the visibility of our conduct is in the last phrase of Jesus’ command: “…that they may see your good works and GLORIFY YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN.” The reason we are to shine before men is to bring glory to the name of God. Jesus became our example in this, for the works which He did brought glory to His Father (Matthew 9:8; Mark 2:12; Luke 13:13). Certainly, our works are not the equivalent of the Lord’s, but the purpose is the same—to glorify the name of God among men.

This command is in agreement with the Lord’s words in Matthew 6:1, where we read, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Jesus has already told us our conduct which is done before men is to bring glory to God, not to ourselves. If the motive for our deeds is “…to be seen by them…”, then we have no reward from the Lord. Jesus continues, “Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (v 2-4). The texts are in harmony regarding the selfless manner with which we are to do good. What servant toots his own horn when he has done what his master commanded him to do? Neither should we draw attention to ourselves when we have done what God has commanded us (Luke 17:10).

Certainly, one contrast is evident. Matthew 5 speaks of deeds which are carried out openly, where no effort is made to conceal the thing done, but rather, the action is used to direct glory to God. Matthew 6 deals with works that are done in secret, and intentionally so, avoiding the attention (and praise) of men, but gaining the full attention (and praise) of God. The writing of Solomon is brought to mind, where we are told, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Just as there is “…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…” (v 7), there is a time to do good deeds in secret, and a time to do them openly. Solomon doesn’t say so, but certainly the Lord has in His discourse. We see the same in the life of Christ, as some of His works were done in secret (Matthew 8:4; 17:9; Mark 7:36; 8:26), and some were done openly (Matthew 9:6; John 10:38).

It would be conjecture on my part to lay out specific guidelines by which one should determine when to do works openly as commanded in Matthew 5 or in private as commanded in Matthew 6. The Scriptures do not give instruction regarding when to do one or the other. I would suggest that every opportunity to do good is unique, and that the child of God should consider the manner which is best suited to the situation, whether openly that God be glorified among men, or silently, that we might do secretly that which He who sees in secret will reward us for. In either case, we must be careful to always deflect any glory which results to the Lord (note, sometimes the things done in secret become known to others).

Friends, may we be diligent workers before the Lord. Do what you do with all your might. If openly to glorify God; give your all. If in secret, do not hold back. May we be effective servants of His, brought lights in a world of darkness, illuminating the path which God would have all men walk.

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