21 April 2013
"You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matt 5:13-16, ESV)
This week we are moving beyond our study on the Beatitudes further into the Sermon on the Mount. We must not forget, however, that everything that follows the Beatitudes are not "more thoughts from Jesus," but are built upon the ideas of the beatitudes. That is to say, the ability to accomplish what Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount is dependent on our ability to live a life in accordance with the Beatitudes. We must be humble, repentant, meek, righteous, merciful, pure, peaceful, and completely obedient to God's commands. When we are not we find ourselves at odds with the remainder of commands found within the Sermon. Take a few moments in your class to discuss how you and your class members have practiced the beatitudes, or grown in their faith these past few weeks.
As we begin to look at the passage for this week we need to see how this passage fits into the flow of the Sermon on the Mount. We know that we have just come out of characteristics for the Christian Life and soon we will be discussing ethical commands for the Christian Life, especially in relation to the Law, however, what do we do with this passage about Salt and Light? Though this may seem trivial, we must not discount the ordering of the Sermon. The placement of this text creates the appropriate flow from who we are supposed to be (the beatitudes) to how we are supposed to be (Jesus' interpretation of the Law). There is a flow here that finds it center in the mission of God in our lives.
In a sense, the passage today answers the "so what?" question of the beatitudes. We are to live like the beatitudes because God has a mission for us in the world. That mission is presented to us in two metaphors (salt and light) and one correlation from those (our mission in the world.)
Salt—Our Preservation for the World
Though there are two great metaphors in this passage to which we will shortly discuss, we must first notice that the verb tense of the passage does not change from verse 11. In the beatitudes we had general statements given in the third person, but in verse 11 Jesus changes his tone to address his disciples. He says, "you are." So as persecution was a theme that he was presenting strictly to his disciples as an important part of their soon-to-be Christianity, so too is the meaning and force of being salt and light in this passage. We must not dismiss this text as merely a good illustration and an idea. Rather we must understand the force with which Jesus presents it. What He is talking about is our particular vocation in the world. We are to be salt and light, and with that we must move to understand what those are.
The passage then continues with, "you are the salt of the earth." The looming question that should arise in everyone's mind is, "how can I be salt?" What does that mean? The answer to that is found within that nature of salt itself. We must keep in mind the context of the sermon. Our culture and the culture of 1st c. Palestine is quite different. Particularly that means that the way in which we use salt and they way in which they used salt is perhaps not identical.
One of the main uses of salt is purification, especially for meat. If an animal is killed it immediately begins the decaying process. In order to preserve the meat of the animal one must find a way to stop or slow that process. In our time we can easily do this by refrigerating the meat, however by adding salt one can do this as well. Salt works as a preserving agent for the meat, but also as a purifying agent for the meat. In its own attributes it is able to affect and effect the decaying nature of the thing to which it is applied.
Since this is a metaphor it is good to turn to the correlation between the illustration and the meaning of the illustration. If we are to be the salt as this verse implies then there must also be an object upon which we are to work. That object is the world, as we see in the verse "of the earth." Because of the nature of sin, our world is in an ever-downward spiral to chaos. To follow this metaphor, sin has caused our world to decay and eventually it will spoil. Our job as salt in this world is to aid is slowing and stopping that decay. We could say that our job as salt is two-fold. We are to stop putrefaction and begin purification. As Christians we can do this by helping people see their sin and point them to Jesus who can provide healing.
In addition to this function, salt also adds flavor. We all know that if we eat something and it is bland we add a little salt and the flavor is enlivened and it tastes better. Once again, applying this metaphor to our world, we can see that here too we have the ability to be salt for the world. By living out our Christianity in the world we are able to add flavor to the world.
What we must be careful of, and this is the warning in this passage, is that salt can lose its taste. When it does lose its taste it is worthless. The warning for us is that if we are not continually doing our duty to be salt to this world we will lose the ability to be salt for the world. It is a sad day when that happens for we will lose all ability that day to be able to be used by God. The warning exists here to keep us on task to be salt for the world.
Light—Our Purpose to the World
The next metaphor we come to in this passage is on light. This is probably one of the most illuminating metaphors in the entire Bible. With it we not only see this allusion in Matthew 5 but we have the corresponding passage in Luke 11:33, Jesus claiming to be the Light of the World (John 8:12), the admonishment to be sons of light (John 12:36), and the command to walk in the light in 1 John 1:5. Light is an important metaphor to which we must pay special attention.
When we think about light we must come to it on a basic level. Light is "something that makes things visible or affords illumination." When there is no light there is only darkness. We remember the words of Genesis 1:2 where the world was in darkness until verse 3 when God said, let there be light. There is no such thing as darkness, but only the absence of light (just as there is no such thing as coldness but only the absence of heat). Therefore, by its nature, light is the substance that comes into darkness and provides illumination and visibility.
With this basic understanding of light we must now understand the metaphor in relation to the world and us. We are to be the light of the world. Once again we can see in this illustration that Jesus is alluding to the reality of the world's sin. It is in darkness. It knows not what to do because it has no light. It is our task to go to the world and provide light to it. This is a direct gospel correlation. The dark world needs the light of the gospel that is only accessible from those who have it and take it to the world.
This brings up two important thoughts from this passage if we are to understand our purpose in lighting the world. First, we must make sure that we do not hide it. The verse says, "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket." It would be foolish to spend energy and resources to light a lamp or a light and then to hide it. In essence it would remove the only purpose for the light's existence. Think of a flashlight in the dark woods at night. You would not bring it with you to turn it on merely to put it back in your pocket. When we light something we hang it out in front of us so that we can see.
The second thing to understand form this is that it is for others to see, "and it gives light to all in the house." Our purpose of lighting the world is to help them see the light of Jesus Christ. We must remember that the only way that we are the light of the world is because Jesus is the light of the world. Our ability to be light is found only in Him. So that when are provided light we must take it to those who are in darkness. There is a great gospel work to be done by purposing our lives around providing light to the world.
Mission—Our Profession in the World
Finally, we must see that these two metaphors come together in the last phrase, "so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." All of what we have been discussing find it finality in this phrase. The preservation and purification of salt and the purpose of lighting the world are the only true professions of Christians. All other vocations are secondary to this great work mandated by Jesus here. That is to say: being salt and light means being constantly on mission.
The first few words of this phrase are a purpose clause. They mark off this part of the sentence from has preceded it to let us know the main point. Knowing this grammar helps us interpret this passage correctly. We could probably teach for days on salt and light and might even miss the main point. Jesus brings us this clause to help us understand that being salt and light is about two things: showing our good works to the world and bringing glory to God by doing so.
First, when we show our works to the world we are on mission. It is true that there have always been those like the Pharisees of the New Testament who tithed, fasted, and prayed well beyond what was required. We might call these people legalists. They live their religion for others to see. This is not what Jesus has in mind here. The good works that Jesus has in mind here is the life that we are to live that he just outlined in the beatitudes. When we live like this, even though it may bring persecution, we know that the world will see the light of Jesus Christ in our lives and will be salted by our actions. Our basic mission endeavor is to live like Christians in the place God has put us. In our offices, homes, and communities we are to live out the Christian faith so that others can be changed by it. For some of these we come in contact with they respond with persecution, for others they recognize the change the gospel has brought to our lives and want it for themselves. We do not know the extent to which our lives can affect others so we must strive to be as consistent in our day-to-day witness as possible.
Finally, we see that the ultimate purpose of being salt and light is that when others see our good works they glorify God. This means that by our good works, our saltiness and illuminating efforts others can come to know God as their savior. Our ability to change the world is found in the basic way in which we live our life on constant mission that ends in the glory of God through the salvation of those we touch. Encourage your classes to be salt and light this week by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and living out the beatitudes daily.