This is Guthrie Chamberlain, Your Guide to Wisdom
Sermon on the Mount 3 – A Christian’s Influence: Salt and Light – Daily Wisdomhamberlain, and we are on Day:
Sermon on the Mount – A Christian’s Influence: Salt and Light
Last week we learned that the beatitudes describe the essential character of the disciples of Jesus, including us. As we continue with the verses today, the salt and light metaphors indicate their influence for good in the world, even today.
Yet, the notion that we, as citizens of God’s kingdom, can exert a beneficial influence in the world should cause us to pause and consider if this is true. What possible influence could the character traits described in the beatitudes exert in this challenging, harsh world? What lasting good can the poor and the meek do, the mourners and the merciful, and those who try to make peace, not war? Would we not simply be overwhelmed by the floodtide of evil? What can we accomplish if our passion is an appetite for righteousness and our weapon is a pure heart? Are we too feeble to achieve anything, especially if we are a small minority in the world? Consider, though, how vast the army of citizens of God’s kingdom grows each day. More than we can imagine.
It is evident that Jesus did not share our skepticism. When God became human in Jesus Christ, it was to continue His plan to establish His kingdom on earth, which began in Eden. It was only delayed because of sin. We read last week in verses 10-12 that the world will undoubtedly persecute the church, yet it is the church’s calling to serve this persecuting world with good deeds.
To define the nature of our influence, Jesus used two domestic and everyday elements as metaphors. At the time of Christ’s life on earth, every home, however poor, used, and we still use both salt and light. During his boyhood, Jesus must often have watched his mother use salt in the kitchen and light the lamps when the sun went down. Salt and light are indispensable household commodities. Nothing is more useful than ‘salt and sunshine’ The need for light is evident. Salt, on the other hand, had a variety of uses. It was both a condiment and a preservative. It seems to have been recognized from time immemorial as an essential component of the human diet and seasoning of food. In particular, refrigeration was used to keep meat wholesome and prevent decay in the centuries before refrigeration was invented. Indeed it still is. If properly cured, meat can keep nearly indefinitely. Can you imagine a slab of bacon or ham without salt? It makes my mouth water just thinking about it. (hold up bacon)
The fundamental truth behind these metaphors, common to them, is that the church and our modern culture are distinct communities. Further, the metaphors tell us something about both communities. The world without Christ is a dark place, with little or no light since an external light is needed to illuminate it. True, the world’s elite are always talking about how enlightened they are, but much of its boasted light is, in reality, darkness. “There is none so blind as those who refuse to see.” The world without Christ is a world that is decaying. The notion is not that the world is tasteless and that Christians can make it less bland. It is up to the citizens of God’s kingdom to stop the decay and preserve the earth. Like a slab of meat, modern culture cannot prevent itself from going bad. Only salt introduced from outside can do this. As the agent to build God’s kingdom, we who make up the church are placed in the world with a double role. We are to be salt to arrest, or at least hinder the process of social decay, and as light to dispel the darkness.
When we look at the two metaphors more closely, we see that they are deliberately phrased to parallel each other. In each case, Jesus first declares (‘You are the salt of the earth,’ ‘You are the light of the world’). Then he adds a provision, the condition on which the declaration depends (the salt must retain its saltiness, and the light must be allowed to shine). Salt is good for nothing if its saltiness is lost; light is good for nothing if it is concealed.
“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.
The affirmation is straightforward: ‘You are salt to the earth.’ As citizens of God’s kingdom, we not only contain salt, which is God’s spirit in us, we are salt. The culture (or earth) is in decay, like rotten fish or meat. We, the church, must hinder its decline and preserve God’s culture.
Of course, God has set other restraining influences in the culture through family and governmental structures. He has established these institutions in his common grace, which curb man’s selfish tendencies and prevent society from slipping into anarchy. Although recently, we have seen a decline in the impact of this influence. If you remember back to week one, King Solomon said, ‘The is nothing new under the sun.’ The governments of the world have the authority to frame and enforce laws. Also, there is the home, including marriage and family life, which helps maintain order and structure. These exert a wholesome influence on the culture. So as these institutions decline, so will the culture.
Nevertheless, God intends the most potent restraints within sinful society to be the redeemed, regenerated, and righteous people. We, as citizens of God’s kingdom. We, as His disciples, are to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent.
However, salt's effectiveness is conditional: it must retain its saltiness. Now, strictly speaking, salt can never lose its saltiness. I understand sodium chloride is a stable chemical compound resistant to nearly every attack. Nevertheless, it can become contaminated by a mixture of impurities and become useless, even dangerous. During Biblical times, it was thought that what was popularly called ‘salt’ was a white powder (perhaps from around the Dead Sea) that contained sodium chloride and had many impure elements since there were no refineries. The sodium chloride was probably the most soluble component of this mixture and the most easily washed out. The residue of white powder still looked like salt and was doubtless still called salt, but it neither tasted nor acted like salt. It was just road dust. Knowing this information can help us better understand the verse.
Christian saltiness is Christian character depicted in the beatitudes, committed Christian discipleship exemplified in deed and word. For effectiveness, Christians must retain their Christlikeness, as salt must retain its saltiness. Not all of us have the same character traits mentioned in the beatitudes. For some of us who are more hard-headed, God may use a grinder to help refine us. Let me illustrate with these containers of salt. (use the salt grinder and free-pouring container)
If Christians become assimilated into the non-Christian elements of our culture and become contaminated by the world’s impurities, they lose their influence. (Mix dirt into salt) The influence of Christians in and on our culture depends on their being distinct, not identical. If we Christians are indistinguishable from non-Christians, we are useless. We might as well be discarded like saltless salt, thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Let’s move on to our next metaphor in Matthew 5:14
“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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Jesus introduces his second metaphor with a similar affirmation: you are the light of the world. True, he was later to say, ‘I am the light of the world.’ But since we as believers are ‘in Christ,’ we are too, shining with the light of Christ, shining in the world like stars in the night sky.
What this light is, Jesus clarifies as our ‘good deeds.’ Once others see your good deeds, he said, they will glorify your Father in heaven. It is by such good deeds that our light is to shine. It seems that ‘good deeds’ is a general expression to cover everything a Christian says and does because they are a Christian, every outward and visible manifestation of his Christian faith. Light is a common biblical symbol of truth. In the Old Testament prophecy about Christ, God’s Servant would be ‘a light to the nations’, fulfilled not only in Christ himself, the light of the world, but also by Christians who bear witness to Christ.
With both the salt and the light metaphors, they are tied to a condition. If salt can lose its saltiness, the light in us can become darkness. But we are to allow the light of Christ within us to shine out from us, so that people may see it. We are not to be like a town or village nestling in a valley whose lights are concealed from view, but a town built on a hill cannot be hidden and whose lights are clearly seen for miles around. (Take the light out from under the bowl and place it on top)
Then people will see us and our good deeds, and seeing our good deeds will glorify God. For they will inevitably recognize that it is by the grace of God that we are what we are, that our light is his light, and that our works are his works done in us and through us. So it is the light they will praise, not the lamp which bears it; our Father in heaven whom they will glorify, not the children who are imagers of God and exhibit a certain family likeness. Even those who condemn us may end up praising God for the very righteousness which they persecute us in Matthew 5:10-12
The salt and light metaphors that Jesus used have much to teach us about our Christian responsibilities in the world. So let us learn three lessons about being salt and light as Christ’s disciples.
There is a fundamental difference between the Christian counter-culture and the modern culture, between the church and the world.
True, some non-Christians adopt a deceptive veneer of Christian culture. On the other hand, some professing Christians seem indistinguishable from non-Christians and deny their Christian name through their non-Christian behavior. Jesus said we, as citizens of God’s kingdom, are as different as light from darkness, as different as salt from decay and disease. We serve neither God, nor ourselves, nor the world by attempting to eliminate or even minimize this difference. We become tasteless and hidden believers.
This theme is essential to the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is built on the assumption that we, as disciples of Christ, are different, and it calls us to be different. Throughout its long and chequered history, the greatest tragedy of the church has been its constant tendency to conform to the prevailing culture instead of developing a Christian counter-culture.
We must accept the responsibility that this distinction puts upon us
In each metaphor, we bring the affirmation and the condition together that causes our responsibility to stand out. Inexorable logic follows. You simply must not fail the world you are called to serve. You must be what you are called to be. You are salt, so you must retain your saltiness and not lose your Christian flavor. You are light, so you must let your light shine and not conceal it in any way, whether by sin, compromise, laziness, or fear.
What message do we have for our modern culture? So many within this culture feel strangled by ‘the system,’ crushed by the machine of modern technocracy, overwhelmed by political, social, and economic forces which control them and over which they have no control. They feel themselves victims of a situation they are powerless to change. What can they do? In the soil of this frustration, revolutionaries are being bred, dedicated to the violent overthrow of the system. Although we have seen it in the past, recently, these flames of discontent are being fueled again.
As citizens of God’s kingdom, we feel frustrations, although from a different perspective. From the same soil, revolutionaries of Jesus can arise, equally dedicated activists—even more so—but instead of violence, cancel culture, or wokeism, we are committed to spreading his revolution of love, joy, and peace. This peaceful revolution is more radical than any violent program because its standards are incorruptible and will change hearts and minds. Have we lost our confidence in the power of the gospel of Christ? We can have more impact with God’s Word than modern culture with all its violent groups, agendas, theories, and divisions.
So we are not helpless and powerless after all! For we have Jesus Christ, his gospel, ideals, and power. Through Jesus’s teachings, when we apply them to our lives, we are all the savory salt and brilliant light this dark and decaying world needs. But we must be salt ourselves, and we must let our light shine.
We must see our Christian responsibility as twofold
Salt and light have one thing in common: they give and expend themselves. The function of salt is to provide flavor and prevent decay. The function of light is to illuminate the darkness to find our way.
So Jesus calls his disciples to exert a double influence on the secular community. It is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth, beauty, and goodness. We are called to be both salt and light to the secular community.
Take first our vocation to be salt. The apostle Paul paints a grim picture at the end of the first chapter of his Roman letter of what happens when society suppresses (out of love for evil) the truth it knows by nature. It deteriorates. Its values and standards steadily decline until it becomes utterly corrupt. When men reject what they know of God, God gives them up to their distorted notions and perverted passions, until society stinks in the nostrils of God and all good people.
As disciples of Christ and as citizens of God’s kingdom, we are placed in secular society by God to hinder this decay process. God intends us to penetrate the earth. Christian salt has no business remaining snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt cellars; (display salt containers). Our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat to stop it from going bad. When society does go bad, we disciples tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather condemn ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?
What does it mean in practice to be the salt of the earth? To begin with, we disciples should be more courageous and outspoken in standing for truth. But, unfortunately, it may be that the standards of our modern culture have slipped for want of a clear Christian protest.
Christian salt takes effect by good deeds as well as our good words. God has created the government and the family as social structures to restrain evil and encourage goodness. Christians are responsible for seeing that these structures are preserved and operated with justice. Too often, evangelical Christians have interpreted their social responsibility in terms only of helping the casualties of a sick society, and have done nothing to change the structures which cause the casualties. Just as doctors should be concerned with treating patients, preventive medicine, and public health. We, as disciples, should concern ourselves with what might be called preventive social medicine and higher standards of moral hygiene. However small our part may be, we cannot opt-out of seeking to create better social structures which guarantee justice in legislation and law enforcement, the freedom and dignity of the individual, civil rights for minorities, and the abolition of social and ethnic discrimination. We should neither despise these things nor avoid our responsibility for them. They are part of God’s purpose for his people. Whenever Christians are conscientious citizens, they act like salt in the community. To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness.
But fallen human beings need more than barricades to stop them from becoming as bad as they could be. They need regeneration and new life through the gospel. Our second vocation is to be ‘the light of the world.’ The truth of the gospel is the light, contained in fragile earthenware lamps, yet shining through our very earthiness with the more apparent brightness. We are called both to spread the gospel and frame our manner of life worthy of the gospel.
So then, we should never put our two vocations to be salt and light, our Christian social and evangelistic responsibilities, over against each other as if we had to choose between them. We should not exaggerate either, nor belittle either, at the expense of the other. Neither can be a substitute for the other. The world needs both. It is bad and needs salt; it is dark and needs light. Our Christian vocation is to be both. Jesus Christ said so, and that should be enough.
A Christian’s character is organically related, as described in the beatitudes, and a Christian’s influence is defined in the salt and light metaphors. Our influence depends on our character. But the beatitudes set an extremely high and exacting standard. Therefore, as a conclusion to this message, it may be helpful to consider what we just learned and note the incentives to righteousness that Jesus gives.
First, this is the way we will be blessed. The beatitudes identify those whom God declares to be ‘blessed,’ those who please him, and who themselves find fulfillment. True blessedness is discovered in goodness and nowhere else.
Secondly, this is the way the world will best be served. Therefore, Jesus offers his followers the immense privilege of being the world’s salt and light if they only live by the beatitudes.
Thirdly, this is the way God will be glorified. Towards the beginning of his ministry, Jesus tells his disciples that if they let their light shine so that their good deeds are seen, their Father in heaven will be glorified. At the end of his ministry, in the upper room, he will express the same truth in similar words: John 15:8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
The metaphors of salt and light are the signs of a remarkable and Christlike life and Christian counter-culture. It brings blessing to ourselves, salvation to others, and ultimately glory to God.
Thank you so much for allowing me to be your guide, mentor, and, most importantly, your friend as I serve you through this Wisdom-Trek podcast and journal.
As we take this trek together, let us always:
Live Abundantly (Fully)
Lend to others Generously
Lead with Integrity
Leave a Living Legacy Each Day
I am Guthrie Chamberlain….reminding you to ’Keep Moving Forward,’ ‘Enjoy your Journey,’ and ‘Create a Great Day…Everyday’! See you next time for more wisdom from God’s Word!