Being Salt and Light: How should Christians relate to the world? Should we avoid it altogether, or live fully immersed in it, looking no different than the culture around us? In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes his followers as the salt and the light of the world- two things that are useless if kept separate from the world around them, but are also capable of bringing incredible change to it. Recorded on July 10, 2022, on Matthew 5, by Pastor David Parks.
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This message is part of our sermon series “The Unexpected Way,” from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. The way of Jesus is totally unique, it’s different from every other way of life, philosophy, or religion. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way.
Last week, we started the new annual theme for our preaching ministry of Learning the way of Jesus. And we said that for the next year, basically, we’ll be seeking to answer the question, “If the gospel is true, how then should we live?” And we said that the answer is rooted in learning a new way of life, the way of Jesus. Before anyone was called a Christian, they were called followers of The Way because they followed the way of Jesus. To kick off this new theme, we started our first sermon series exploring a very famous teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount. And we’re calling this series The Unexpected Way because what we’ll see in this series is that the way of Jesus is radically different from every other philosophy or religion that has ever existed. It’s not at all what we’d expect. And the reason is because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way. Last week, we started this series by considering the passage known as the Beatitudes which showed us 8 unexpected blessings in the way of Jesus. These blessings reveal just how different the values of the kingdom of God are compared to the ways of the world. If you missed that message, you can always go back and watch or listen online. Today, we’ll seek to answer the big question, “How should Christians relate to the world?” For 2000 years, Christians have wrestled with how close or how far away they should be from people who are not trying to follow the way of Jesus and the various systems/organizations they create/maintain. At one extreme end, some Christians have thought we must completely withdraw/separate from the world. Do not engage, don’t try to change things, just try and find a place where you can practice your faith in peace. Why? Because the world is evil and will corrupt you if you aren’t careful. How should we relate to the world? Avoid it! On the other extreme, other Christians have thought that there’s virtually no difference between Christians and non-Christians and that the ways of the world, including our cultural values/ideas/practices, are totally acceptable and good. Of course, not everything is perfect, but just think of all the things in the world which are good and beautiful or are just cool. Don’t you want to be part of that? How should we relate to the world? Accept it! But do either of these extremes line up with the teaching of Jesus? If the gospel is true, how should Christians relate to the world? Avoidance? Acceptance? Something else? As is so often the case, the way of Jesus is not at all what we’d expect. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Matthew 5:13.
Matthew 5:13–16 (NIV), “13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Matthew, also known as Levi, was a wealthy tax collector before he became a disciple and Apostle of Jesus. Now, Matthew would’ve had an interesting take on this question of “How should Christians relate to the world?” And the reason is that as a tax collector, Matthew would have become very wealthy, but he would not have been well-liked by the people of his community. Because tax collectors in their day were Jews who were willing to work with the occupying Roman Empire to collect taxes on behalf of the foreign oppressors. And the way they made their money was by adding to the Roman tax (in other words, to increase the taxes of their neighbors) so that they would become wealthy at others’ expense. How do you think you’d feel if you saw him coming to your door? Not a lot of joy in your heart, probably. But then Matthew became a Christian and he began to learn the way of Jesus, and everything in his life started to change. For him, part of the way of Jesus meant he needed to leave his career, he left his tax collection booth and all the wealth that came with it. It’s not that paying taxes is a bad thing, but in their day it was legal extortion. Going from tax collector to Apostle was a huge change for Matthew. Probably many of his peers, other tax collectors in the area, his Roman supervisors, and his Jewish neighbors would have all wondered how he was going to relate to them now. Surely, this teaching of Jesus would’ve been helpful for him, as well. Let’s start again with v. 13.
Matthew 5:13 (NIV), “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Let’s pause here. So this is the first of several metaphors that Jesus uses to describe who his disciples are (identity) and how they/we are to relate to the world around us. And what does Jesus say? You are the salt of the earth. What does this mean? For the past 2,000 years, many people have pointed out that there are two common uses for salt: 1- preserving and 2- seasoning. So first, preserving: Until very recently in the scope of human history, people didn’t have electricity in their homes that could power a refrigerator or a freezer. And that meant that, especially during winter months, you’d have to find ways to preserve/save food or you would be in very real danger of starvation. One of the methods of preservation that goes way back is adding salt to meats or in pickling different foods. We know now that salt reduces water content in food which can make it spoil more quickly and it also inhibits bacterial growth. In other words, salt prevents corruption of the food that you or your family worked so hard to hunt or grow. How should Christians relate to the world? Jesus says you are the salt of the earth. So part of the identity and calling for disciples of Jesus is one of preservation. Just as salt prevents corruption and spoiling, so Christians are to act as a preservative in their communities, workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. To say nothing of the whole rest of the Sermon on the Mount, even just thinking about what we’ve covered so far in the Beatitudes of Jesus, think about what would happen in a workplace if you had a few Christians who were committed to being humble, gentle, honest, merciful, and peacemakers, and yet resilient in the face of persecution? Those few Christians would be a bulwark against corruption. They would make it hard for the culture to become completely toxic.
Second, over the years many people have pointed to the other use of salt with food as a seasoning. Now, I love to cook, so this is kind of an area of expertise of mine. What happens when you fail to add seasoning? Your food all tastes very bland. You will not win friends or influence people. You may not be invited back to the potluck. And what is the number one seasoning used in just about every dish? Salt. Jesus knew this. It was the same in his day and it is for us today. Not only does salt help with preservation but as a seasoning, it works to enhance the flavor of the dish. Pretty much whatever you’re cooking, salt makes it better. Now apply this meaning to the metaphor. How should Christians relate to the world? Jesus says you are the salt of the earth. The other aspect of the identity and calling of a disciple of Jesus is to enhance/improve whatever environment they find themselves in, to add flavor and richness, to make it better. Just think of all the beauty and goodness that God created in the world. But then think of all the ways that sin has corrupted or distorted the world as well. Christians are to be the salt of the earth, preserving the beautiful/good/true and working to fix/restore/redeem that which is broken/unjust/false. Jesus goes on to say, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Now many people have tried to understand how salt could lose its saltiness. Some have pointed out that the type of salt they would’ve had in their time and place would not have been pure and could lose its saltiness, but I don’t think that’s the point. I believe the point Jesus is trying to make is that if a disciple of Jesus isn’t acting as the salt of the earth, preserving the good, protecting against corruption, and working to enhance and improve things wherever they go, then are they really a disciple of Jesus? Can you be a disciple who is to be salt and not be salty? Maybe so, but then who wants to be ineffective or unproductive in their faith and life? Salt that isn’t salty is useless, it’s just dust at that point. But is a Christian who is unproductive useless and deserving of being thrown out and trampled underfoot? I don’t think so. This is an example of the hyperbole that Jesus often uses in his teaching to make a dramatic point. In other words, pay attention to this, this is important. You are the salt of the earth. Ok! Second metaphor, look back at v. 14.
Matthew 5:14-15 (NIV), “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” You, disciples of Jesus, are the light of the world. What does that mean? We considered the properties of salt, now let’s consider two basic properties of light: 1. revealing 2. life-giving. If we didn’t have light, obviously we wouldn’t be able to see anything. Bats might be able to use their echolocation and dogs probably could use their sense of smell, but we’d be literally lost without light. But when we have sunlight or light from a lamp or the little flashlight on your phone, we can see what’s in the room with us or we can see what’s ahead of us on the path or we can see where we’ve come from. Light reveals the truth of our situation; light reveals reality. Long before there was ever a flashlight on your phone, light was a common metaphor in the Bible. Most often, light is a metaphor for truth. In Psalm 119, King David wrote, “Your word [God] is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” God’s word becomes a light which reveals what is true so that we might know the way we should walk through life, a way that is in line with reality. What happens when you don’t have light? Obviously, you’re in the dark. But what happens in our minds and imaginations when we’re in the dark? All our worst fears come screaming into our heads. Every shadow we see becomes a monster, and every strange noise we hear becomes our imminent death. Fear is one of the main byproducts of the dark. But what happens when you switch on the light? Fear disappears. You see that the shadow was only your shirt hanging on the dresser or the noise was just the dishwasher you forgot you turned on before bed. So how should Christians relate to the world? As light. As people who love the truth and speak the truth in love. Not as people who exaggerate or stretch the truth or only selectively share some of the truth. But as honest people who help reveal reality to others in a way that calms their fears, gives them courage and hope, and helps them to see what path might lead to a flourishing life and not toward destruction. Disciples of Jesus are responsible for revealing to the world what is true, not using the truth as a weapon to wound, but as a tool to build others up in love.
Second, light as has life-giving properties. What would happen if our sun, suddenly stopped shining? First, we wouldn’t know about it for a little over 8 minutes because that’s how long it takes light, traveling at the speed of light, to travel the 93,000,000 miles between the earth and the sun. But then what would happen? All life on earth would almost immediately cease to exist. We require the sun, at just the right distance from the earth, to keep us in the very narrow temperature range that human beings need to sustain life. The heat energy that comes with sunlight is required for life, but when we get that life-giving heat, what happens? We get a world that is teeming with life! We get rainforests and oceans and farms and fields. We get huge creatures down to little bugs that love to live in the dirt. God intended this world to be full of life and provided all the right ingredients for life. But, again, our world is subject to corruption because of sin. So life has not become easy. In fact, life is painful and very difficult at times. So how should Christians relate to the world? However and wherever we find ourselves, we are to be the light of the world; we should be about and pray for and work towards flourishing life. This was the original task for human beings, created by God in the image and likeness of God to be the stewards of God’s good world. But this work is all the more needed ever since the fall to sin. So where there are broken things, they need to be fixed. Where there are diseases, they need to be healed. Where there are broken relationships, they need to be helped. Where there is poverty and need, they must not be ignored. Where there are injustices, they need reforms. Where there is violence, they need peace. And so on. This is what it means to be the light of the world: to reveal what is true and work to bring life. But what happens if we live like this? What happens if we take seriously the teaching of Jesus to be salt and light? Look at v. 16.
Matthew 5:16 (NIV), “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” The result, Jesus says, what happens when we live like this, is first, that other people will see. A town built on a hill is in plain view for anyone nearby, it’s not hidden. A lamp on a stand gives light to the whole house, it’s not meant to be a private light for personal use only. In the same way, Christians are not meant to be hidden, we are meant to be helpful and active, working for flourishing life wherever we might find ourselves. These deeds are meant to be seen, not for our glory, not to raise our status or be good PR for the church, but for the glory of God. That’s the second result of following this way. Not only should people see, but they will glorify your Father in heaven. God is glorified when we live as salt and light. The truth that we have in God’s word and the good works we are able to do in the world does not lead to a boastful or prideful spirit. Why? Because we know that we have been saved by grace through faith in the true light of the world. We are not saved by our goodness or even our potential for goodness. This frees us to be salt and light without needing the credit. To serve and love other people, regardless of whether or not they understand or love us in return.
Probably every generation of Christians has wondered how they should engage with the broader culture of the world. Should we accept it and pretty much look and act like everyone else? Or should we avoid it and run away from our culture to be as different as possible? Or is there some other way? There is much to say about this and much wisdom that is required to know how to handle the many cultural issues/situations we might face as followers of Jesus. But one thing is for sure, the metaphors Jesus uses of being salt and light are incompatible with completely withdrawing or avoiding the world, our culture, and people who are not trying to follow the way of Jesus. Why? Because salt is only helpful and effective if it’s in the dish. It has no preserving or seasoning properties if it stays with the other salt in the salt shaker. It must mix, we must mix or we’ll never do what Jesus wants us to do. Light is only helpful when people can see it and feel its warmth. But at the same time, the way of Jesus is so radically different, that there would be no way to follow Jesus and remain the same as our culture. This is why we must, as followers of Jesus, understand that we are together learning the way of Jesus. We will need to help each other and encourage each other along the way. We can look to and learn from those who are, by the grace of God, a few steps ahead of us on the path. And we must help those who are a few steps behind us as well. This is who we are and this is what we are called to do. This is the way. Let us pray.