I want to say two very important things to you. I’d like to look you in the eye as I say them but I can’t do that to everyone at the same time. So, after I have said them, I would like you to turn to the people next to you and look them in the eye and say these two things. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
Read Matthew 5:13-16.
There are three parts to what Jesus says here. First, there is a statement about influence. Second, there is a condition. Third (and this occurs only in the second statement) there is a description of the result.
The statement about influence.
Salt and light have one thing in common: they are extraordinarily powerful agents of change. They are both common, everyday things but they are astonishingly powerful in what they do.
What does salt do?
- Preserves. Salt rubbed into meat can stop it rotting. The natural thing is for meat to go off. It doesn’t take long. But salt has the extraordinary quality of being able to prevent that and, in some cases, can preserve meat indefinitely. What an incredible power that is.
- Draws out the flavour. It makes food better than it would be naturally.
- It acts as an antiseptic.
- Heals. Somehow salt enables the body to repair itself. Humble salt has healing powers.
- It is essential for life. You will not survive very long without salt. Who would think that a sodium atom bonded to a chlorine atom would be the agent for many life-giving processes?
If you try to identify the world’s biggest achievers, salt is right up there. And Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” You have that sort of influence; you play the part of salt in the life of the earth.
What does light do? Can you imagine living in a world that was permanently pitch black?
- Dispels darkness. Darkness seems such a powerful, frightening, threatening, claustrophobic force, but light a match in a room and darkness flees. How powerful is light?
- Eliminates fear. You can be very frightened but someone turns on a light and suddenly all is OK.
- Brings understanding. We say, “I see.” We talk about shedding light on something.
- Shows the way; shows us what we should do next when, otherwise, we might have no idea.
- Threatens evil. Evil loves the cover of darkness. We talk about bringing something into the light, meaning to expose it and defeat it.
- Like salt, light is essential for life. Photosynthesis depends on light. No light; no photosynthesis. No photosynthesis; no food. No food; no life.
- Put people into darkness and within a short time they start hallucinating and losing their minds.
Light changes everything, and Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”
We could find spiritual parallels for each of those things. Christians are like salt in that they help prevent the moral decay in society. Christians are like light; they bring truth into a dark world. Those comparisons might be valid but I think the bigger point is that both are powerful agents of positive change. Jesus says to Christians, “You are capable of changing the world. And you are to change the world. Do it.”
The implication of the images is that the world is rotting and the world is a dark place. The world cannot stop itself from going bad any more than meat can. It doesn’t have any resources within itself to stop itself decaying. It needs something very different from itself, something from outside itself. It needs salt and light, and Jesus says that you are that salt and light.
That is the statement about influence. What about the condition? Christians have influence only if they fulfil two conditions. In the section about salt, there is a “but”. “You are the salt of the earth but if the salt loses its saltiness, it is utterly useless – good for nothing except throwing out.”
To do its work, salt must be salty. Christians must be Christian. To make a difference, we must be distinctively, and boldly, what we are meant to be. Salt must be salty.
It is actually physically impossible for salt to lose its saltiness but one explanation is that salt at the time of Jesus was possibly quarried, for example, from around the Dead Sea. It was a white powder and called “salt” but actually had a lot of other stuff in it – little bits of sand and rock etc. They didn’t, after all, have highly refined salt like we do. Within that mixture, the salt was possibly the most soluble and so it might be leached out leaving only other minerals until what was called “salt” actually contained no salt. It was just sand and grit and totally useless. Rubbing grit into your meat is not going to preserve it. It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under foot.
Whether that is the exact explanation or not, it is pretty clear that Jesus is talking about salt that loses its distinctiveness; loses the very thing that make it salt. In other words, Christians who lose their Christian-ness; who become watered down; are no different from the rest of the world; who compromise. One commentator has written, “the disciple’s power in the world lies in his difference from it.” (Tasker) It is only by being distinctively different from the world that we will have an impact on it. The church is meant to be a Christian counter-culture.
We talked about this a bit last week when we said that the early Christians were persecuted primarily just because they were different. They weren’t evil. They just had different values, a different lifestyle, a different Lord.
So what is the saltiness of Christians? What makes Christians different? It is their Christianity; their believes and actions; their godly character. It is all the things that Jesus talked about in the Beatitudes: their awareness of their need of God, grief because of evil, meekness, righteousness, mercy, sincerity, peacemaking, a willingness to stand by Jesus even when that means persecution. The distinctiveness of Christian is their Christ-likeness. Or, other writers refer to it simply as “virtue”. Disciples can have impact only when they retain their virtue. Lose that; become little different from the world and we become useless. Only by being genuinely and unreservedly Christian can we change the world.
I said that it is physically impossible for salt to lose its saltiness. Salt that loses its saltiness? No, no, doesn’t make sense. Maybe in the same way we are meant to say, “A Christian who isn’t Christ-like? A Christian without these sorts of virtues? No, no, doesn’t make sense.” A Christian without godly character is an oxymoron – or maybe just a moron!
When Jesus talked about light, the condition was “as long as it is not hidden”. It is a bizarre thought that you would light a lamp and then put a bowl over it. That defeats the whole purpose. Lamps are intended to shine. Christians are intended to be very visible.
If the saltiness of the Christian is his/her character, Jesus here defines the light as good works. Our character is revealed through our actions. People can see the character of the person through the lifestyle and the works. If someone followed you around for a day or a week and wrote down everything you did, then sat and said, “This reveals the character of this person.” would he see Christ-likeness? Would he see something distinctively different from what he sees in other people?
Jesus said, “Let the world see your good deeds. Let your light shine.” We immediately feel nervous. Are we really meant to make a display of our good deeds? Didn’t Jesus say (in the very next chapter) not to do that; not to make a great show of our giving and our praying and our fasting? Aren’t we meant to not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing? Shouldn’t our goodness be secret and hidden?
The difference between chapters 5 and 6 is the motivation. It is a heart thing. In chapter 6 Jesus says “Do not do these things so as to be seen.” That’s the motivation: I want people to see me and admire me. But chapter 5, it is entirely different; God gets the glory. We will come back to that.
In this passage about salt and light, Jesus is saying, “If you are a Christian, then, before people’s eyes, live a Christian life. Don’t hide it. Don’t pretend you are not a Christian. Live the life of mercy and sincerity and peacemaking etc…” God says that you are a light in the world. Don’t hide under a bowl. That is bizarre. God wants the world to see the light of your Christian life. John Stott has said, “We serve neither God, nor ourselves, nor the world, by attempting to obliterate or even minimise the difference.”
If you are not sure about whether our good works should be public, just ask yourself: Did Jesus hide His good works? There were times when He told a healed person not to tell anyone but by-and-large His good works were extremely public. Go and be like Jesus. Follow His example.
The statement: Jesus says, “Christian, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
But two conditions: Do not compromise. Do not lose your saltiness. Be a Christ-like Christian. And secondly, let it be very visible. Do not hide who you are. Let your actions be a demonstration of your Christian character.
Then comes the result. People will see it and they will glorify God. Can you accept that as a promise from God? You live boldly and publicly as a Christian. People will see that and they will glorify God.
You don’t have to worry that people will think you are arrogant. If you are being Christ-like, they won’t see any arrogance. They will see humility and meekness but they won’t see arrogance. They will see wonderful things and they will say, “This is not natural. It is not natural for this person to be like this. No mere human could do that. This has to be God. Isn’t God extraordinary? What an amazing God if He can create this sort of amazingness in this person.”
I have repeated some ideas ad nauseam but here is a summary:
- Christ-like character (as described in the Beatitudes)
- made visible through a Christ-like life of good deeds
- Not compromised. Be bold. Be salty.
- Not hidden. If you are a Christian, be seen as a Christian.
- Will change the world. You might not be famous or start a major revolution but you might change one person here; one person there; one person there; one person over there. Salt works invisibly.
- In such a way that God will be glorified.
Can you think of examples of people who through Christian godliness have caused people to glorify God?
- The disciples?
- Mother Teresa?
- Billy Graham
- They don’t need to be famous.
I called this sermon “When godly people lead godly lives…” How would you finish that sentence?
How about: “When godly people lead godly lives, godless people see God in them and praise God.”?