The Lamp of Good Works

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)

If you grew up anything like I did, then this teaching of Yeshua is forever engrained into your psyche. When you grow up singing, “This Little Light of Mine,” and doing all of the hand motions associated with it, passages like these quickly embed themselves into your longterm memory. But as a child, I never fully understood what this passage meant. What is the light I am supposed to be shining, and how do I let other people see it?

Of course the standard explanation was, “Let ‘em see Jesus!” But what does this mean? In all practicality, how do we “shine Jesus”? For some it meant inviting as many people to church with you as you can. For others it meant pointing out the sins in everyone else but themselves. Is this really what Yeshua meant when he taught his disciples?

When referencing this passage we often forget one of its major components. We are quick to say we must shine our light, but we neglect to teach the reason for doing so. Yeshua says it is “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” How should we understand this? The Hebrew Scriptures—the Scriptures Yeshua would have studied and taught—give us the key to unlocking this teaching of Yeshua. Proverbs teaches us:

For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light (Proverbs 6:23)

We must understand our Master’s teaching in this setting. The lamp Yeshua speaks of is in the context of the commandments. The light that others will see is the Torah. Yeshua is emphasizing what his Father has already said. When the people of God live out the commandments others will see the light of the Torah and glorify God. They will say, Wow! These people are living right! They are genuine and their God is near them:

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6–8)

But aren’t works—i.e. the commandments of the Torah—the very thing the Apostle Paul speaks against? Didn’t he say, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10)? Are Paul and Yeshua speaking of the same thing? How do we reconcile Yeshua’s teachings with Paul’s?

Almost without exception, Paul’s teachings on the “works of the law” is traditionally interpreted as a polemic against Judaism and Torah observance for followers of Yeshua. This, however, is incorrect. Just like Yeshua, Paul would never teach against obedience to the instructions of God. He recognized it as the standard of righteousness that was given as a gift to the people of God, saying, “the Law [i.e. the Torah] is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). He also says that it is “the doers of the Law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

Paul had no qualm against Torah observance in general. Just as Yeshua, he said that we were created for these good works and that followers of Yeshua should be actively engaged in them:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:8)

We must understand that the good works both Paul and Yeshua speak of are the deeds of Torah. Some practical examples of these are found in last week’s Torah reading (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19): appropriate sexual conduct, respecting the property of others, taking care of corpses, helping out a person in need, not charging our brother interest on loans, fulfilling our vows, not oppressing the poor, not cross-dressing, etc. As we can see, these are commandments which most people would naturally desire to fulfill. Even though they may have an aversion to obeying God’s laws because of poor teaching, they would feel compelled to obey these and others like them. This is what both Yeshua and Paul are speaking of.

So, what is the difference between “good works” and “works of the law” in the Apostolic Scriptures? According to Paul, works of the law are those things which a person does to be legitimized in the eyes of man. His argument was against Gentiles feeling they had to undergo ritual conversion and become legally Jewish in order to be justified in the eyes of both God and man. Good works, on the other hand, are those deeds of the Torah done without a need for self-justification or legitimizing oneself, but as an extension of a person who has already been justified. They are a natural outflow of who they are as an obedient disciple.

Therefore, as disciples of Yeshua who have already been redeemed, our lights should be shining bright. But in order to shine the light of Yeshua we must begin by shining the light of Torah. When we live out the mitzvot (the commandments) we show forth the light of the Torah, thereby bringing glory to our Creator. But if the only thing radiating from us is darkness—a lack of the good works of Torah—then we are bearing “negative fruit.” If the people around us aren’t seeing the fruit of the Torah in our life, then they probably aren’t seeing Yeshua either.