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Matthew 5:13-16

Text Comment

v.13     Salt in the ancient world had two purposes, to flavor food and to prevent meat from rotting.  It is probably impossible to tell from this much later vantage point which use of salt would have come first to the minds of the Lord’s disciples.  Even the early fathers, who lived in that same world and would have thought of salt in the same way, disagreed about which of its powers the Lord was referring to.  Origen thought Jesus means that his disciples have a preservative effect upon the world.  Hilary thought it is the delightful taste that is in view. We should simply content ourselves with the idea that salt was essential in several ways for the life of the ancient world.  The Lord is saying that Christians have an important necessary effect on the world.  Pure salt cannot actually lose its salinity – it is chemically stable – but this proverb about salt losing its saltiness was already in common use in the Judaism of that day.   The salt in use in Judea and Galilee was quite impure.  It was derived by evaporation from material dug from the shores of the Dead Sea and so what was called salt included other minerals such as gypsum. That mixture could lose its salinity if the sodium chloride gradually was leached out of it.

v.15     The word for lamp used here designates the ordinary household oil lamp.  When it was lit it was placed upon a stand or hung in some way to give the maximum amount of illumination to those in the room.  What the NIV translates as “bowl” was the common wooden vessel used to measure grain.  It held about a peck or about two gallons of dry measure.  Obviously no one could see the light of a lamp if it were covered by such a vessel.

v.16     Jesus himself was the light of the world, we read in John 8:12, but now that light shines in the world through the Lord’s disciples.  It was already Israel’s calling in the ancient epoch to be a light to the nations and as we read in Acts 13:47, the Lord’s disciples have been made “a light for the Gentiles, that [they] may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”

The aim of a Christian’s good works is not to parade his own virtue but to “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive,” as Paul puts it in Titus 2:10, or to “make bonnie the doctrine” as the Braid Scots version translates that verse.  This is the very opposite of what Jesus will condemn in 6:1, the desire for praise that leads some religious people to practice good works.  The point is that God should be praised, not that we should be praised!

Following the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes, which describe the character of the follower of Jesus Christ and the reward of his life, there comes now an introductory statement concerning the ethical demand of the kingdom of God, the obligation of the followers of Christ to live a distinctly Christian life.  After describing the rewards Christians will receive for following Christ, he turns now to their obligations.  And, first, he puts those obligations in a very general way.  The rest of the sermon will flesh out what it means to be salt and light, or better, how to be salty and how to bring illumination to the world.  Remember the Lord here, as throughout this sermon, is addressing his disciples.  But now he becomes still more directly personal.  He looks them in the eye, he looks you in the eye, and says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Greek is not a word order language like English.  The changing spelling of words, especially the endings of words, what is called inflection, indicates their use in the sentence and so permits words to be placed in any order.  That makes for ease in placing emphasis on certain words.  This was the day, after all, before you could use italic or bold type or underlining to emphasize a word or phrase.  In Greek you emphasized a word, characteristically, by putting it first in the sentence.  The first word in v.13 is You!  And, again it is the same in v. 14.  The first word is You!  It is in the English translation, of course, but might very well not have been first in Matthew’s Greek.  It is not the Pharisees that are the world’s salt and light.  It is not the devotees of some other religion.  It is You, you Christians, you followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

I want you to see the emphasis on that point here. It is the chief matter in this text.  Not only that Christians are the world’s salt and light and only they, but that they are, in the nature of the case, the salt and the light. You will see that the Lord’s statement is in the indicative not imperative.  He is not saying that you ought to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  You are!  A lamp gives light.  It cannot help but do so.  That is what light is and does.  Salt seasons and preserves.  It cannot help it.  That is what salt does.  And you are the only salt and light the world has.

Take careful note of the Lord’s assumptions.  The world is corrupt.  It needs salt to be preserved.  It leaves a horrible taste in the mouth; it needs seasoning.  And it is dark, very dark.  It needs the light.  The world, of course, does not admit this.  It speaks of the beginning of the modern period of world history as “The Enlightenment!”  But whatever its claims, human life has been as dark since the enlightenment as ever it was before it and in many places and many times much darker.  The world may claim that it has no need for salt or light, but its own struggle with the rot and with the darkness proves it isn’t so.

I read this past week a fascinating article on Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine.  The first issue of Playboy was published 50 years ago this month.  It was the leading edge of what has become the pornography culture in which we live today.  Ours is a culture in which a woman singer’s sexual attractiveness is infinitely more important than her voice, a culture in which, feminism notwithstanding, women are expected to be thin, infertile, and always available, a culture in which women will be considered sex objects, pregnancy will be widely considered a disease, and abortion will come to be considered the ultimate cure.  It comes as no surprise to learn that the Playboy Foundation provides large grants and donations to organizations that promote abortion:  The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Pro-choice America.  What would people have thought if, in December of 1953, they could have seen what the Playboy philosophy would become in American culture over the next 50 years:  such a huge number of Americans now being born out of wedlock, unmarried mothers the head of vast numbers of American homes, venereal disease in epic proportions, AIDS, a largely sexually transmitted disease – no, a disease transmitted largely by promiscuous sexuality (the very promiscuity that Playboy encouraged) – the new “black death,” abortion now a commonplace of our culture no matter the moral and spiritual devastation that it is wrecking upon our national soul and upon the lives of countless men and women, and marriage now so dubious an institution in the public eye that we are no longer sure either that it is really necessary for the public good or that it requires a man and a woman to contract?

When Hefner and his cronies tell you that the greatest beneficiaries of the sexual revolution were women, you are permitted to scratch your head.  The porn culture demands and celebrates skinny bodies, hour-glass figures, no babies, and men who are unwilling to commit to anything more than an impermanent sexual relationship.  According to Hugh Hefner, that is what women really want!  Hefner wrote that with straight face in a cover story in Vanity Fair last March.  American women, here is the man who has created the world in which you now live.  How well he understands you!  How deeply he cares for you!  Nevertheless, American women are now marching to the beat of this dirty old man.  You may well ask:  how did this happen?

Like the rest of the porn industry, the Playboy empire has found that to continue to make money it must continue to move into harder and darker forms of porn.  Playboy began by trying to maintain the façade of serving a “gentleman’s” interests.  That sounds more than faintly ridiculous today.  Hefner promised that the sexual revolution, the promiscuous lifestyle would make us happy and healthy.  Are we better off? Was it ever likely that the world would be a better place because men were being encouraged to remain forever carefree, irresponsible, indifferent to the needs of a woman’s heart as he took his own pleasure in her body?  When men were, for all intents and purposes, encouraged to remain forever boys?  Are people happier for having learned to think of themselves as slaves to their sexual appetites?  Have we become a better, a more noble people by trading sexual partners at random?  And why is it that still, after all this preparation and education, against the grain of all of this “enlightenment” and “modern philosophy” the average Playmate’s ambition remains “to have a family”? Is it likely that she will manage to succeed at marriage and family with the sort of man she is likely to marry and with the sort of past he and she will carry into their union?  To ask such questions is to answer them.  What we have seen over these past 50 years is putrefaction, pure and simple.  The rotting of human life.  No wonder the world needs salt.  And it is darkness, deep darkness; darkness so thick one can cut it with a knife.  No wonder the world needs light.  [Read Mercer Schuchardt, “Hugh Hefner’s Hollow Victory,Christianity Today, December 2003, 50-54]

The world needs salt and light.  The Lord takes that as a given and we should have no difficulty seeing that it is so.  And so what does that mean for us?  Well it means that we must retain our Christian distinctiveness.  That is the idea behind the Lord’s warning about salt losing its saltiness or a lamp being put under a bowl.

Light like salt affects its environment by being distinctive, by being something apart from it, different from it. As one commentator puts this point,

“The most obvious general characteristic of salt is that it is
essentially different from the medium into which it is put.  Its
power lies precisely in this difference.  So is it, says Jesus, with
his disciples.  Their power in the world lies in their difference
from it.”  [Tasker in Morris, 105, n. 48]

And the same thing may be said about light.  It is its distinctiveness, its difference from the world that gives it its influence in the world.  That is what the Lord is telling us.  We are salt and light precisely because of the way the kingdom of God has made us different from the world, precisely because of the differences that Christ’s presence in our lives has produced in us.  It is by that difference that the disciples function as salt and as light, preserving, adding taste, providing illumination.  The disciples who are visibly different from other men, different in the ways that Christ makes men and women different, will be the ones who have these salutary effects on worldly men.  It is in a Christian’s distinctiveness that the world can see the truth about God and Christ: that is, the truth about God’s love, about sin and salvation, about hope, about love, and about faithfulness.  That truth stands out so that they can see it and, in comparison, see the lack of it in themselves.

As we have said already several times, the unifying theme of this famous sermon is the Lord’s statement in 6:8:  “Do not be like them!”  And here, in the opening summary statement, we have that point made powerfully.  Do not be like them.  Salt is not meat, it is added to meat and rubbed into it; it has its own identity separate from and distinct from the meat it savors and preserves and Christ’s disciples do as well and must not lose that distinctiveness.  A city on a hill is a city that can be seen.  It is a place apart.  And so a lamp shining in a dark room.

“Let your light shine,” therefore, means “live so as to demonstrate the presence and the reality of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Draw the attention of those who know you, who observe your lives, to God, to his grace, his glory, which are revealed and can be seen in the life of a faithful Christian.  Non-Christians will be able to tell that the unique character and quality of a Christian life is the result of his or her relationship to God, the Christian’s heavenly Father.  Salt penetrates food and both seasons it and preserves it.  Christians penetrate human society and both give a tang to life and act as a preservative against the corruption caused by sin.  And their lives and their words cast light on what the world thinks and does.  It shows the world for what it is and the way to something better. [Morris, 104]

But, here is our problem is it not?  We think: we can’t be the world’s salt or light.  I cannot be these important things.  No unbeliever is going to look at me, listen to me, observe my life and think that only the living God can explain what he sees and hears.  No unbeliever is going to find my life the proof positive that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  I’m not nearly a good enough Christian to have that effect on people; I don’t live nearly a consecrated enough life to draw the attention of people to the heavenly Father.  I don’t love others as I should, I don’t speak with the kindness and sympathy and understanding and wisdom with which I should.  I’ve got problems and everybody can see that I do!  Maybe I can put money in the offering plate to pay for someone else being salt and light, but I can’t be those things myself.  I have too many needs of my own to convince the world that I have the solution to its problems!

Well, no, that is not right.  You must stop thinking like that!  It is natural enough and, to a degree, perfectly understandable that you should think like that.  You are, after all, as a real Christian poor in spirit, you mourn, you hunger and thirst for the righteousness you have not yet obtained.  Jesus said as much in the opening of the sermon.  You can’t help but feel that you ought to live a much better life than you do and that your failings outnumber your virtues.  I don’t deny that they do.  But Jesus knew that.  He knew about his disciples’ lives.  He knew what manner of men and women they were. He knew how thickskulled his disciples were.  He knew how they struggled and would struggle with the desires of the flesh.  He knew how hard the world would pull at them and how often they would bend to its influence.  He knew how self-centered they would remain in many ways.  He knew how many problems they would have to face.  He knew how hard it was to live a holy life and how imperfectly his people would live it.  But knowing all of that, he still said to them, You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Remember, salt is an ordinary thing.  It is commonplace.  No one thinks much about it. So far as I know there is not in the literature of the world a famous and beautiful poem written in praise of salt.  And the same might be said about the lamp.  The little household lamp of the ancient world was a common thing.  These ancient oil lamps exist by the thousands on the antiquities market today.  Even so old they are of little worth.  We ought not to think that Jesus is speaking of one of those laser shows that begins a professional ballgame or even the brilliant chandeliers that sparkle in a church sanctuary.  His comparison was to the little oil lamp that illuminated the rooms of a house.  When the darkness is as deep as it is in this world, a common oil lamp is light indeed!

Listen, I know people, I know some of you who came to Christ in some significant measure because of the influence of the lives of Christians that they knew, that you knew.  You felt that there was something different about them, something better, something they had that you did not and wanted.  You perhaps couldn’t have said precisely what it was at first, but it was a goodness, a confidence, a moral rectitude, a certainty about the future, a spirit of love and kindness.  Whatever, you were attracted to their lives.  After you became a Christian you discovered that these people were perfectly ordinary.  They had their shortcomings and from time to time didn’t adorn the gospel of Christ by their words and deeds.  But none of that could diminish the fact that they were still different and you had detected that difference while an unbeliever.  You detected Christ’s scent on them.  I know a missionary whose life was profoundly influential in the salvation of a man many of you know, who eventually left that mission for another because the other missionaries had such a hard time getting along with him!  Get the point?  The darkness out there is so deep that even a 30-watt bulb like you and I lightens up the room!

But it is also true that we can underestimate what we ourselves have to give simply because we forget that we know Christ and have his Word in our hearts.  It is not only that you don’t have to be very bright a bulb to bring light to this dark world.  There is more brightness in us than we know, if only we will “let our light shine” as Jesus says.

The perfect illustration of this in my mind is the life of Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper was a brilliant man.  From his student days he was a cut above everyone else.  He was to become one of the major religious figures of the last decades of the 19th and the first few decades of the 20th century.  He was a philosopher and theologian whose books are influential still today.  I just read a large new book about Kuyper’s thought.  He was a politician and political party leader.  He was a member of the Dutch parliament for many years and was sometime Prime Minister of Holland.  He was a newspaperman, founding, editing and writing for one of Holland’s most influential daily newspapers as well as a weekly religious paper.  Much of his influence on the modern world was exercised through his work as a journalist.  He was an educator and the founder of a great university; for years its professor of theology.  He was a family man: a faithful husband and loving father whose children continued his legacy in important ways.  He was, in other words, a man of extraordinarily impressive parts, as they used to say.  A giant intellect, a voracious appetite for work, a driving will that swept all before it.

But do you know where all of that began?  Kuyper graduated from years of liberal and skeptical theological training at the University of Leiden in 1862.  His first job after receiving his doctorate was a pastoral charge in the Dutch village of Beesd.  Kuyper was a man of his time.  A Reformed minister, he was not a Christian and had little loyalty to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.  But a few of the parishioners in his village church did.  Most did not and they would have been happy had their pastor continued to preach his ethical sermons.  They even warned him about the few religious zealots in the congregation.  Those zealots hadn’t Kuyper’s university education or doctorate.  They hadn’t his intellectual and cultural sophistication.  But they had faith, living faith, where he did not.  Kuyper would pay his calls on them, even argue with them.  But he found in them something he didn’t find in the rest of his congregation:  real conviction and a real religious life.  One of them, Pietronella Baltus, an unmarried peasant woman in her early thirties, would concede nothing to her young pastor’s theological liberalism.  She confronted him about his unbelief in Holy Scripture and his lack of saving faith in Jesus Christ.  How, she would say, could a man who had never found the way himself point others to it?  And, at last, the young preacher realized that he was confronted with a choice:  he must either oppose these people or accept that what they said was true.

In successive conversations she warned him that he was preaching false doctrine and that he was himself in danger of judgment.  Her biblical forthrightness, together with the piety of her life and that of others in the church who thought and spoke as she did, convinced Kuyper that he lacked what they had and what they had was the truth.  At Beesd the young theological doctor became a Christian, his preaching changed dramatically, and, from that point, the rest of his life was devoted to championing the faith he found in that village congregation.   As he later wrote, “Their unwavering persistence has been the blessing for my heart, the rise of the morning star in my life.”  [In F. Vanden Berg, Abraham Kuyper, 33]  Unwavering persistence.  Now that isn’t what you think first about when you consider how you, as a Christian, are salt and light.  But I know that about many of you:  you are nothing if you are not persistent!

Now, how easy would it be for a city sophisticate like young Abraham Kuyper – having written prize winning essays in Latin – to dismiss the counsel of a peasant woman delivered in her country dialect?  But she was salt and light and she had her effect by the grace of God.  She was different.  She was distinctive in a world of unbelief.  Her life had a savor and brought an illumination that Kuyper had not experienced before.  One of the world’s most brilliant and sophisticated men was won to Christ, and his great influence exerted in the world on behalf of the kingdom of God, through a simple and uneducated woman.  [Cf. Joel Beeke, ”The Life and Vision of Abraham Kuyper,” BOT 483 (Dec 2003) 12-14.]  Is that not wonderfully encouraging?

Christ does not tell us here that in order to be salt or light we must become something that we are not.  He says, rather, that we must be what we are. Christ has made us distinctive.  His presence in our lives is the preservative and the savor, the illumination that the world needs.  It isn’t us, it is Christ and the Father that the world needs to see and there is enough of both in us if only we will be sure to live our lives openly as Christians before the world.

And what better way to be sure that we do that than simply to remember every day that as we walk the streets of Tacoma and Seattle we have got the reputation of God and Jesus Christ and the gospel in our hands!