"Salt and Light"
(Delivered Sunday, September 5, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
Over the past several weeks, we have been studying The Beatitudes - that wonderful portion of Jesus' majestic Sermon on The Mount in which He describes the character and the blessedness of a true disciple of His. It's been a rich and rewarding look at the teaching of our Savior; and, I trust, an encouragement to all of us be all that He calls us to be.
But even though we have completed our study of the beatitudes themselves, we are not yet finished with what they have to say. So far, Jesus has told us what a true disciple of His - that is, someone who lives in accordance with the pattern described in those eight beatitudes - is in relationship to Himself. Such a person, Jesus affirms, is richly "blessed"! But then, He goes on to tell us, in Matthew 5:13-16, what the person described in those beatitudes is in relation to this world. In this closing passage, His beatitude-living church is presented as something unlike anything else on earth. In fact, He describes His collection of true disciples as the most important thing in all the realm of humankind.
As His followers, these words of His both place upon us a high honor, and confront us with a sobering challenge. Our Lord and Master speaks directly to us, and says,
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. 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 (Matthew 5:13-16).
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As followers of Jesus, we live today in the midst of a world that can be characterized by two things: moral corruption and spiritual darkness. Those two, horribly destructive dynamics describe the normal state of things all around us. But by grace, God has chosen to place His love upon us and save us from the destructive course of this world through the blood of His Son. And now, though we once went along with the flow of this world, we ourselves have been redeemed from the moral corruption and spiritual darkness that characterizes it; and today, we live on this earth as people who are destined for eternal glory in heaven. He saves us to be His Beatitude people! How we should praise Him and thank Him every day for His grace to us!
But do you realize what these striking words from the Savior are telling us? They are teaching us that we are not saved by God's grace for ourselves alone. They are teaching us that God did not ignore this world when He saved us. They show us that He has saved us in order to make us into something that this fallen world desperately needs; and that He then leaves us in this world to be, in the very midst of it, that which He has made us to be. Because life on this earth is characterized by moral corruption, God has redeemed us in order to make us "the salt of the earth" - that which purifies and cleanses and seasons this earth; that which serves as a preservative to prevent corruption. And because the people of this world live in spiritual darkness, God has redeemed us in order to make us "the light of the world" - that which pierces the darkness and gives illumination to those who need it; that which exposes sin, and that serves to reveal truth and grace and salvation.
Look carefully at what Jesus says in just the opening words of this passage. He says, "You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world." The personal pronouns are plural and emphatic - as if He were pointing right at all of us as His redeemed people, and declaring to us, "YOU ALL - YOU are these things!" He doesn't say, "Everyone in the world is the salt of the earth and the light of the world"; but only a specific group and no one else - His disciples! Brothers and sisters in Christ; that's true of us right this very moment! What an honor we have! . . . to be the most important and most needed thing in this world!
Note also that He says, "You ARE" these things; not that He wishes we were these things, or that we ought to work hard to become these things; but that we already are - at this very moment - the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We don't have to work hard to become salt and light. I'm glad, aren't' you? How long would THAT take, if it were up to our doing? How hard would we have to work, if it were up to us to make ourselves into the salt of the earth and the light of the world? It would never happen! But here, our Savior teaches us that that's what we already are by His grace!
And note that He says, "You are THE salt of the earth . . . You are THE light of the world . . ." We're not "A salt and light", but "THE salt and light". He is not saying that we, as His disciples, are just one among several other groups of religious and philanthropic organizations that serve as His salt and light in this world. He speaks of us in exclusive terms. We are THE ONLY salt and THE ONLY light from God that this world has.
This is teaching us that Jesus' church of genuine believers - called out of darkness and into the light of salvation, filled with and empowered by His Holy Spirit - is the most precious, most valuable, and most relevant thing on the planet! The world itself may think very little of the church. It may ignore the church as quaint and irrelevant - useful for nothing except for few sentimental and nostalgic reasons. It may very often view the church with frustration and anger, because it stands in the way of what it considers to be 'progress'. It may even maliciously hate the Church and seek to destroy it. But don't let the hostility of the world make you feel unimportant or irrelevant, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; because the truest thing that can be said of us is not what the world says, but what God says. The world may reject Jesus' church of redeemed people; but the whole time long, His church is the very thing that the world most needs to have living on it. The church's existence on this earth is God's merciful gift of grace to the world; because the Church is the only "salt" He has provided for its moral corruption, and the only "light" He has provided for its spiritual darkness. Sin has made this world a corrupt and dark enough place as it is. But how much more unspeakably corrupt and dark this world would be if God had not left His church to live upon it!
And with that in mind, pay careful attention to the command that Jesus gives at the end of this short passage. It's the only command found in a passage that is, otherwise, focused on simply telling us what we are. He says, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Because of what we are in Christ, we are called to live with diligence in this world and behave like what we are! We are commanded by our Savior to behave as salt on this earth and as light in the world - because God has provided no other salt or light for the world than us!
What a great honor; but what a great obligation! What hope does this world have, if we do not behave faithfully like what we are?!!
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Let's look a little closer at the two things that Jesus says that we are in this world. As we do, may the Holy Spirit use Jesus' command to spur us on to make the positive difference in this world that our Father has saved us to make.
First, we see that . . .
1. WE ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH (v. 13).
I wonder how many of us have used salt in some way before we came here this morning. I wonder how many us will be using salt in some way before the day is over. Pretty much all of us, wouldn't you say? I would suspect that salt is near the top of the list of most commonly used things in the world.
Think of the different ways we use it. In our culture, we tend to think of it, first of all, as a seasoning for our food. Have you ever tried to eat French fries that weren't salted? They're pretty awful! Just the right amount of salt adds a great deal of flavor and enjoyment to that which is, otherwise, bland. The Bible even speaks of salt in this way. Job said, "Can flavorless food food be eaten without salt? Or is there any taste in the white of an egg?" (Job 6:6). It teaches us that, when we speak to people about the grace of God, we're to let our speech be characterized with an attractive sparkle and amiable flavor. And it uses "salt" as a metaphor of this. Paul writes, "Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one" (Col. 4:6). As "salt" on this earth, Jesus' followers are certainly to, as it were, "season" the earth with their presence - making it a better place to be.
But a much more common use of salt, in many parts of the world - and particularly in the culture of Jesus' day - was as a preservative that prevented the advance of corruption and decay. Since there were no refrigerators or freezers in those days, people would salt their food and meat in order to prevent it from spoiling. Salt, then, not only had the positive effect of enhancing flavor, but also of preventing rot. I believe that, for both reasons, God often required that the grains and meats that were offered as sacrifices be offered with salt (Lev. 2:13; Ezk. 43:24). Sometimes, the Bible describes the covenant that God makes with His people as "a covenant of salt forever before the LORD" (Num. 18:19; 2 Chron. 13:5); because the presence of salt, as a preservative, symbolized purity and durability. It also prevented the spread of infection and promoted healing and cleansing. The Bible teaches us that, after birth, a brand-new baby was carefully washed in water and gently rubbed with salt (Ezk. 16:4).
So, metaphorically speaking, the church - as "the salt of the earth" - is given by God to serve as that which prevents the corruption of sin and wickedness from spreading in culture. We are here to prevent the world from going completely bad!
I believe that the Bible gives us a very miniature illustration of this in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul was dealing with many questions that the Corinthian believers had; and among them was the problem of how things should be handled when someone becomes a believer while their spouse remains an unbeliever. Paul wrote to tell them, ". . . If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy" (1 Cor. 7:12-14). Paul was not saying that the presence of a believing husband or wife results in the automatic salvation of other members of the household; they all still need to believe on Jesus personally. But nevertheless, the presence of the believing wife or husband has a 'sanctifying impact' on the others.
I believe that Jesus is telling us that, in the same way, the presence of His holy church on the earth has a 'sanctifying impact' on the culture in which it is found. By our reverence for God, by our passion for holiness and moral purity, by or obedience to our Savior's commands, by our practical love for one another and for those who are around us, by our willingness to be the servants of others, by the Holy Spirit living the life of Jesus through us and displaying His fruit in us, we have a 'sanctifying impact' upon this earth. May we increasingly be "salt" in this way!
Sometimes, being salt requires that we directly confront sin, and stop the spread of wickedness in a direct and confrontational way. This is where "salt" shows its 'irritating' quality. Salt, as we who live in the Northwest know, can not only heal wounds, but it can also dissolve slugs! I remember when my family and I went camping along the Oregon coast once. We stayed in a campsite that, as it turned out, was infested with slugs. They'd crawl out from the bushes and high grass in the early morning dew, and would be all over everything. But I came up with a solution. I went to town and bought a container of salt; and I poured a line of salt all around our campsite. In the morning, we found that a few slugs had crossed our "salt barrier"; but they didn't make any further progress after they had done so! In a similar way, the church serves as "salt" - making a line, as it were, that prevents sin and moral corruption from slithering in and spreading into every area of culture.
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Now, this leads us to an important matter when it comes to our role as "salt" on this earth. As we read on, we find that Jesus asks a question: ". . . But if salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men." This underscores for us the fact that, if we are to be effective as "the salt of the earth", we must not lose our distinctiveness and purity as "salt".
My understanding is that, as a chemical compound, sodium chloride, is very strong and stable. It doesn't really lose its quality as "salt" in and of itself. But it can and does lose its "salty" impact - its "flavor" - when it becomes mixed with impurities that contaminate it. Then, it no longer has the effectiveness of salt. Apparently, this is true of much of the natural salt that is found around the Dead Sea - not far from where Jesus spoke these words. The salt around that area is so mixed with other minerals and contaminants, that it is little more than useless white powder. And what can you do with it? You really can't 'salt' salt! You'd not only fail to 'salt' the bad salt, but you'd also end up contaminating the good salt!
As believers, we are always "the salt of the earth" - no matter what. We are, in fact, the only "salt of the earth" that there is. So long as we are in Christ, we will never 'not' be salt. But we lose our effectiveness as salt when we become mixed up and contaminated with the elements of our culture. We end up becoming indistinguishable from the people of the culture themselves - the very people God has saved us to serve as "salt"!
Sometimes, as believers, we are pressured to become as much like the unbelieving people of our culture as we can be. We watch the same shows on television. We listen to the same music. We pick up the same talk. We wear the same sorts of fashions. We visit the same places. We spend our money in the same ways. And to the degree that the sinful elements of our culture have taken up so much of a residence in us that we are no longer distinct from its moral corruption and decay - to the degree that the values and priorities of the world dictate our own life-style conduct and our beliefs - then, to that degree, we've become 'contaminated salt'. We've become impure. We have lost our flavor and our effectiveness; and we no longer make the impact on this world that God has left us here to make.
Let me ask you; are you living a life that is distinct and separate from the sinful things of this world? Do you live a distinctive life in your home and with your neighbors? Are you the same at home as you seek to be perceived at church? When people put the pressure on you in the workplace to compromise with respect to God's holy standards for you and in your obedience and devotion to Christ, to you stand firm? Does your conversation with your friends reflect the speech of the Savior, or does it reflect the influence of the world? Are you distinct in what you watch on television, or in what you pay to see in the theater, or in what you read? And when it comes to the matter of standing up for righteousness in our culture, do you conform yourself with the word of God, or with the values and priorities of this world? Have you lost your effectiveness as "salt" because you've tasted too much of the world's "sugar"?
I believe that the apostle Peter taught us something of the secret of usefulness in this world as "salt". He said, ". . . Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts . . ."; that is, set the Lord Jesus Christ apart in your heart as Lord over all your life. Let Him have rule over every area. And then, Peter says, ". . . and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you . . ." (1 Peter 3:15). When we set Christ apart as Lord over our hearts, and when we set ourselves apart for Him, the world will ask what it is that's so different about us! We will be serving as "the salt of the earth".
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; to be effective as "the salt of the earth", we must be "pure salt" - not mixed with the contaminates of this world. We must be distinct. May God search our hearts and our lives; and show us where we are not pure before Him! And may we repent of the sin He reveals in our lives so that we may be useful to Him in this world.
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One of the things that makes "salt" effective is its close presence to that which it seeks to purify. It can't have things mixed up with itself, or else it will become impure and ineffective. But at the same time, it must have contact with the things it purifies, or it will remain ineffective by simply sitting there alone. Likewise, as "the salt of the earth", we must be, as they say, "in the world, but not of the world". We have to be up close and personal with the lost people of this world and the culture in which it lives, or we cannot be effective as salt.
But just as the secret to effective salt is "contact", the secret to the effectiveness of the next thing is "contrast". This leads us to Jesus' next affirmation of what we are . . .
2. WE ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD (vv. 14-16).
When I was little, I was given a glow-in-the-dark ring. I would put it on, then hold it up as closely as I could to a bright light-bulb (without burning my hand, of course); and then I'd hold it up to my eye. In the bright light of the room, it looked like just any old ring. But then, I'd run to the darkest place I could think of - the hall closet. There I'd sit - in the deep darkness of the hall closet, surrounded by coats and shoes; and I found that it was so dark inside that just that little bit of light from my glow-in-the-dark ring would be enough to light up everything else in the closet.
That's what light does. It drives out darkness. Darkness cannot coexist with even a little bit of light; and the darker the darkness, the brighter the light shines. And here, Jesus tells us that we - His church of the redeemed - are "the light of the world."
Now; as soon as we hear that phrase, we might suddenly have a problem. "Wait a minute," we might think; "I thought Jesus said that He was the light of the world!" And, of course, He did. In John 8:12, Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life."
But we also read that He said, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:5). So He was only the light of the world as long as He walked in the world. Later on, He told the people who were doubting Him, "A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does no know where he is going. While you have light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light" (John 12:35-35). Apparently, He was the light of the word so long as He was in the world; but the time was coming when He would leave the world.
And so; what does that make us when He calls us the light of the world? Well, it certainly doesn't mean that we are the light of the world in the same way that He was; because He alone is the light-source. Rather, it means that, now that He is gone from the world and has returned to His Father in heaven, we are the bearers of His light in the world.
You can think of it this way1: While Jesus walked on this earth, He was like the sun. He was the source of the light that lit up the whole world. But in the same way that, when evening comes, and the sun is gone from the sky, and the moon rises in its place to 'reflect' the light of the sun onto the world; so, now, the church is "the light of the world". The church now serves to 'reflect' onto the world the light of Him who is the true light. He shines upon us; and we shine upon the world. Paul wrote, "For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus" (2 Cor. 4:6).
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What does light do? In a positive sense, it illumines. It pierces the darkness and reveals things as they really are. In that sense, the light of Jesus pierces the spiritual darkness by showing people the truth of their need, and by showing how that need is met in Jesus Christ, and by showing people how to follow that light to the way of salvation. John spoke of Jesus, in John 1:4-5, by saying, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it" (that is, the darkness did not "overcome" it).
But there's another thing that light does; in a negative sense, it exposes something that was intended to be hidden. John speaks again of Jesus and says, "And this is the condemnation, that light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds where evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed" (John 3:19-20).
God has called us to be "the light of the world" - pointing people to the way to salvation through Jesus, and exposing the depths of the horribleness of the sins that He died to save them from. But people who love sin hate that light! They want to snuff it out! And so, we're often tempted to try and hide it - which is exactly the opposite of why God has made us light in the first place!
First of all, the light in us, that has Jesus as its source, can't be hidden. It's silly to even try. Jesus says, "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." He compares us with a huge city that is situated high on a hilltop. It can't be hidden from view; and neither can Jesus' light in us.
Jesus Himself couldn't be hidden. The Bible tells us that there were times when He sought to travel into a town or stay in a house without the mobs of people knowing about it; "but He could not be hidden" (Mark 7:24). He said, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself" (John 12:32). And we who bear His light cannot be hidden either. Paul says that he and his fellow apostles "have been made a spectacle to the world" (1 Cor. 4:9). And he said that we, who follow Jesus, are an 'epistle' "known and read by all men . . ." (2 Cor. 3:2). When we walk around and live in this spiritually dark world, while at the same time trying to cover-up and hide the light, we just end up looking ridiculous in the sight of the world.
And second of all, we weren't saved in order to hide the light but rather to let it shine brightly. Jesus said, "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."
The kind of basket that Jesus spoke of was a common household basket that was used to measure grain. And I've often thought to myself what would happen if someone DID try to light a lamp in their house and place a basket over it. Pretty soon, not only would the flame of the lamp give off light, but so would the basket! And perhaps even eventually the whole house! When we, who bear the light of the world, try to hide it from the world, we're working in a manner that is very much contrary to our intended design! How foolish we would be to try to do that! And what's more, how unloving and irresponsible we would be with respect to those very people upon whom God is intending the light of the world to shine!
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That leads us, then, to the command: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." And once again, we might see a problem. We might say, "I thought Jesus said, in Matthew 6:1, 'Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.' Is there a conflict here?"
No; there's no conflict. It all boils down to 'motives'. In the Matthew 6 passage, Jesus warns us not to do our good deeds before men "to be seen by them". In that case, the motive is to draw all of the attention to ourselves as 'light-bearers'; and Jesus warns that there's no reward from the Father in doing that. But in this morning's passage, Jesus calls us to do allow men to see our good deeds "and glorify your Father in heaven". The motive in that case is to draw all the attention to the 'light-source'.
And isn't it wonderful that Jesus doesn't command us to become light? We couldn't possibly do that. He has already made us to be the light. And isn't it also wonderful that He doesn't command us to climb up on the lampstand? He's the one who puts us where He wants us to be. All He commands us to do is shine; and not try to hide the light.
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We don't have to make ourselves "salt" and "light". If we're in Jesus Christ, "salt" and "light" is what we already are. But as I've studied this passage, I have wondered if there was anything that we should do to behave more like salt and light in this world. And I've come to the conclusion that the context of this passage gives us the answer.
What does it mean to be "salt"? It means that we are God's only provision of a preserving agent in this world that prohibits its moral corruption, keeping the world from going bad. And we retain our "flavor" and our effectiveness as salt in this world when we do what Jesus said in the first four beatitudes: that is, when we come before God "poor in spirit"; when we present ourselves to Him with genuine mourning over our sin; when we come before Him with meekness and humility; and when we truly hunger and thirst for righteousness. If those qualities are true of us, then we are being distinct. We are going in a completely different direction that this world. We are being salt.
And then, what does it mean to be "light"? It means to so shine and reflect the holiness of Jesus that people see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. And we faithfully shine that light - and avoid hiding our good works under a basket - when we do what Jesus said in the last four beatitudes: that is, when we show mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God; when we seek after purity of heart just as we have been declared pure in God's sight by faith; when we work to be peacemakers just as we now have peace with God; and when we display joy over our future reward, whenever we are persecuted for righteousness sake because of our identification with Christ.
So long as there is moral corruption and spiritual darkness in this world, "salt" and "light" will be needed. And God has provided us to be that "salt" and "light". Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, may we grow continually to serve in the wonderful, exciting, extraordinarily relevant role God has given us. May we behave more and more like "salt" and "light" in this world.
1From an illustration given by Donald G. Barnhouse; cited in James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on The Mount (Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1972), p. 80.
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