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“You are the light” versus “Be the light”

"You are the light of the world" versus "Be the light of the world."Matthew 5:14 says, “You are the light of the world” but sometimes you’ll hear people say something like, “Make sure you’re being the light.” Is there a difference? 

The latter is meant to encourage people to make sure they’re putting forth enough effort in their relationships with the Lord. If they’re not working hard enough, there won’t be enough light in the world!

The motivation for this post came from a recent situation I experienced. The Lord provided a ministry opportunity for me, but it came from the Lord and not my own effort. This wasn’t an appointment I could have established by striving to “be the light of the world.” It was an encounter God provided because we “are the light of the world” and He is determined to use us.

People usually mean well when they tell others to “be the light,” but there’s one problem: Matthew 5:14 is a not a command.

“You are the light” is an indicative, not an imperative.

It might sound like semantics, but there’s a big difference between a statement and a command. Since most of us don’t remember all of our 4th grade grammar, it works like this:

  • An indicative states or indicates something:
    • “You’re a student.”
    • “That’s a fast car.”
    • “The cell phone is in her purse.”
  • An imperative is a command or instruction:
    • “Go to the car.”
    • “Put that dish away.”
    • “Be quiet.”

There are plenty of commands (or imperatives) in Scripture, but “You are the light” is not one of them. Instead, these words state or indicate something about believers, as opposed to telling believers to do something.

Are there any really serious problems from making this verse into an imperative instead of leaving it as an indicative? Probably not. But there are minor implications.

  1. First, it’s misquoting Scripture. Just because the implications aren’t terrible from misinterpreting a verse doesn’t make it an acceptable mistake to make.
  2. Second, it encourages people to live out their faith unbiblically.

Instead of trusting God to work through them, people strive to accomplish as much as possible in their own effort. Instead of ministry accomplished through divine appointments and living and looking like Christ, people wonder how much they have to do in their own strength as opposed to being available and willing to simply walk in the works that God prepared beforehand for us (Eph 2:10).

Abiding and resting versus striving and working

Consider John 15:5 which says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”

Jesus’ words contain another indicative. He’s making a statement about those who abide in Him. He’s not telling people to produce fruit and if they don’t they aren’t saved (“in Him”).

The branches on fruit trees aren’t straining to produce fruit. They produce simply by being attached to the tree. That’s Jesus’ point with the verse, that it’s not about some extreme effort in our lives. It’s about us being connected to Him, resting -abiding – in Him daily.

Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Believers produce these fruit by living like their Savior, and being connected to Him.

What did you previously think of when you heard the words, “You are the light.” Did you think of it as command or statement? Do you see any problems associated with switching indicatives to imperatives? Share any thoughts or questions below!

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2 thoughts on ““You are the light” versus “Be the light”

  1. The more we get what we call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him (God) take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. CS Lewis

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