On the eve of his crucifixion, our Lord prayed for his disciples . . . and for you and me. He said: “Father, I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:15-16). There are times when I wish that Jesus might have prayed differently. It’s not that I’m ungrateful. I’m delighted that Jesus asked the Father to protect me from the evil one. But there are times when I wish that he had prayed, “Father, take them out of the world!” But he didn’t. And he won’t. Therefore, although we are not “of” this world, we are still “in” it, and that by God’s design. For his own reasons, God has chosen not to deliver his people from their responsibilities on this earth. So what, then, is our responsibility to this world? What role, if any, is the Christian to play in society?
Radically different answers have been given to that question. Some insist that we are here to transform society, whether through political or social activism. Our duty, so goes the argument, is to alleviate racial bigotry, eliminate poverty, deliver the oppressed, and do whatever else is necessary to rid the earth of injustice and inequity. Others argue that in view of the moral and spiritual decay of society, we must withdraw. “Why polish brass on a sinking ship?” Neither of these answers is of much help. Here in Mt. 5:13-16 we see our Lord’s answer. By means of two metaphors Jesus provides us with a broad outline of our obligation to the people and institutions around us: “You are the salt of the earth . . . . You are the light of the world.”
Before we consider these two statements, it is important to note why this passage follows immediately upon the Beatitudes.
· First, it is impossible to live according to the norms of the kingdom, described in vv. 2-12, in a purely private way. These virtues, in isolation from others, easily degenerate into self-righteousness. Our Lord’s point is that these virtues are to govern not only our relationship to Him but to the world as well. That surprises some people. After all, what possible influence could the people described in the Beatitudes exert in this cold, hard-hearted, tough, dog-eat-dog world of ours? What lasting good can the meek and poor in spirit have in society? People whose pre-eminent passion is for purity of heart, who yearn not for power but to show mercy, are not the sort one normally thinks of as having much of an impact in life. Will they not be overwhelmed, ignored, and exploited? People often listen to sermons on the Beatitudes and nod in agreement, but secretly are saying to themselves: “I’m not about to live like that out there. I’d get mauled!” Aren’t people like this too feeble to achieve anything, especially since they are in the minority? Evidently, Jesus didn’t share that opinion. Incredible as it may seem, he described that handful of Palestinian peasants and fishermen as the salt of the earth and the light of the world!
· Second, what Jesus says here would be meaningless were it not for the fact that the Christian and the world are distinct. “On the one hand there is ‘the earth’; on the other there is ‘you’ who are the earth’s salt. On the one hand there is ‘the world’; on the other there is ‘you’ who are the world’s light” (Stott, 58). Unless we are distinct from the world in such a way that the world knows it, what Jesus says profits little.
In other words, this text is telling us to be what none of us wants to be: different (not odd, strange, weird, or quirky, but morally and spiritually different). It is telling us to do what none of us wants to do: stand out in a crowd. By nature we don’t want to be the salt of the earth; we want to be the earth! We don’t want to be the light of the world; it’s much easier and safer to be the world!
· Finally, these metaphors tell us a great deal about the world itself. It is rotten to the core, ever on the path to deterioration. In addition, it is in utter darkness, blinded to the truth. For all of its pompous claims to be “enlightened” and “progressive”, the world is in fact both darkened and putrefied. It is in a world that is decaying, therefore, that Christians are to be salt, and in a world that languishes in darkness that Christians are to be light.
A. Salt of the Earth – 5:13
Several observations are in order:
1. Jesus does not say, “You are the sugar of the earth!” Of course, Christians ought to be pleasant, but the message we proclaim is fundamentally abrasive and irritating to those who love their sin.
2. Salt was of great value in the ancient world. Often Roman soldiers were paid in salt as wages. But in our day salt has suffered from bad press. Dieticians urge us to cut down on it; nutritionists warn us of its presence in processed foods; and doctors tell us it raises our blood pressure. But what did Jesus intend by this reference to salt?
a. Salt then, as now, functioned as a way of seasoning and giving flavor to food which was otherwise bland. “Can something tasteless be eaten without salt?” (Job 6:6). If this was his point, Jesus is saying that Christians should bring flavor and taste to an otherwise insipid world.
b. Some say Jesus had in mind the use of salt in the ancient world as a fertilizer. Apparently when salt was spread over the ground in small amounts it aided the root system in the absorption of water. Thus the Christian is like fertilizer in a field: he makes the field more receptive to the seed of the gospel. Christians fertilize the field and prepare people to receive spiritual truth. By our presence in the earth we increase the openness and sensitivity of people to the claims of the Word of God.
c. We also know that salt served primarily as a preservative. In a climate such as Palestine, before the advent of refrigeration, salt was essential to prevent meat from decaying. If this is what Jesus meant, the point would be that Christians are to serve as a deterrent to the moral and spiritual deterioration and decay of the world. Why is this world not worse off than it is? God restrains sin and corruption in various ways: the state or civil government; the home; the direct influence of the Holy Spirit on human hearts; etc. But he primarily restrains sin through you and me! Believers are “to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent” (Tasker, 63). In Judges 9:45 Abimelech “razed the city and sowed it with salt.” Here salt was both symbolic and a means of rendering the ground infertile for the future. Likewise, the Christian is to make the world around him/her less fertile for sin. We are to live in such a way that we reduce the frequency of sin not only in our own lives but also in the lives of others.
How do we do this? (1) Merely by our presence: when a believer enters a crowd, conversation takes a turn, jokes aren’t told, a sinful plan may be stalled, etc. (2) By active involvement in the legislative process, seeking laws that would curb moral perversity, abortion, economic injustice, racial inequity, etc. (3) The most fundamental way in which “Christian saltiness” is manifested is in our living out the beatitudes day by day.
Illus: Salt and pepper shakers come in all shapes, sizes, colors: birds, ducks, cats and dogs, people, buildings, etc. But salt is useless as long as it remains in the shaker. Salt is no good unless it is dispensed, notwithstanding the beauty of the container. Likewise, we are useless to Christ if our saltiness as Christians is never dispensed beyond the confines of a church building. Often church buildings and religious activities and the other trappings of ecclesiastical pomp and circumstance are little more than shakers that contain the salt. “God intends us to penetrate the world. Christian salt has no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt shakers; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop it going bad” (Stott, 65). Remember: we are not the salt of the church, but of the earth!
We must also remember that the effectiveness of salt is conditioned on its retaining its saltiness. Strictly speaking, salt cannot lose its saltiness. Sodium chloride is very stable and is resistant to breakdown. But salt in Palestine was often mixed with other chemicals and became diluted. But Jesus did not intend for us to haggle over the chemical properties of his metaphor! His point is that if we cease to function as salt, and instead become as the world, of what use are we? To function as a preservative we must retain our purity, our distinctiveness from the world.
Illus: James Boice entitled his sermon on this passage: “Do you make men thirsty?” Good question! Are you like salt on their souls? Do you present the sort of witness so that, when you leave, people say: “I want that. I want to be like him/her.” We can’t quench their spiritual thirst, but we can direct them to Jesus who can. As Howard Hendricks once said, “People insist that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. But you can always feed him salt!”
[If the metaphor of salt portrayed the Christian relationship to the world somewhat negatively, as a preservative influence or something which retards sinful decay, the metaphor of Christians as light is more positive.]
B. Light of the World – 5:14-16
We are only the light by derivation. Jesus is the only real light of the world. We are light because we are in him (cf. Eph. 5:8). He is the sun, as it were, and we are the moon who reflect his presence and power. In his absence we are but sinful shadows.
For people in the ancient world who knew nothing of electricity, this metaphor probably had greater impact than it does on us today. Jesus’ point is that “light” is worthless if it is not visible. He gives two examples.
1. A city set on a hill – His point is that we, his followers, are that city! We are not tiny villages nestled away in a valley, obscure and little noticed. We are set atop a hill, a city whose light signals its presence for miles around.
2. A lamp –No one in his right mind lights a lamp only to hide the light he has lit. Did God redeem us, shed the light of his Spirit in our hearts, only then to cover us over in the darkness of silence and passivity? How, then, should we shine as lights?
a. We are to expose darkness and error: denounce it, reveal it, separate from it.
b. By our works of compassion and mercy to those outside the church we shed abroad the light of Christ’s love and grace.
c. We do so also by our works of compassion and mercy to those inside the church. Tertullian wrote in @200 a.d., “But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’”
d. We do so by our spoken witness: evangelism. A secret, silent Christian is as incongruous as hidden light.
The purpose of it all is stated in v. 16. See also 1 Pt. 2:12 (“Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good [Gk. kalos, not agathos; the former goes beyond the idea of moral goodness or ethical righteousness and includes the element of aesthetic worth and beauty; hence, a goodness that commends itself to the beholder by its nobility and attractiveness) deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation”). How do unbelievers “glorify” God? Jesus (and Peter) envisions us as the agents through whom others will come to acknowledge God as savior. Whereas our witness may often bring hateful opposition (5:10-12), by God’s grace it may also bring salvation.
We are to exercise a double influence on the world. Negatively, we are to be a deterrent to sin, retarding the decay of moral and spiritual standards. Positively, we are to be agents through which the light of Christ shines. It is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth and goodness. We as God’s people are to do both.