Don’t Waste Your Life (Part 5): Salt and Light
Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as retold by Matthew in chapter 5 provides such a wealth of instruction in how we are to view our lives in the light of Scripture that it is worth exploring this further. In the so-called Beatitudes listed in the verses 3-12, our Saviour delineates the Christian character as those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek etc. But then in the verses 13-16 He challenges us to consider how we must manifest this, or, in the words of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones (p149), “having realised what we are, we must now go on to consider what we must be.” A closer analysis of these words will help us understand how we are to constructively use our lives as co-workers in God’s Kingdom.
So first of all, what exactly is our calling, our mandate in the light of the Sermon on the Mount? Let’s examine how Christ’s words in Matthew 5:13-16 sheds light on this question. When He is saying that we Christians are salt and light, he is not only saying something about us — He is also saying something about the condition of the world in which we live. First in regards, to salt, Jesus is probably implying two or three things, and possibly all three. Salt was used in Bible times to flavour and season food, making it more palatable and appetising; which is to say that to God, the world is tasteless, it is bland, it is unappetising, wholly and entirely without flavour. This analogy makes sense, because people who do not believe in God, live their lives without giving God any pleasure or delight. Their lives fail to give God glory or honour or praise. Their lives are anything but palatable or pleasing to God. But salt also has a second major purpose. Salt was used as a preservative for meat, to prevent it from rotting and decaying. We’re not so familiar with this attribute of salt since we have freezers to keep our meat fresh. But in Jesus’ days, when fish was caught or meat freshly butchered, they would always pack that meat in salt to keep it fresh. Drawing this analogy through to the world, Jesus is implying here that the world is dead in sin, subject to decay, corruption, to rotting and spoiling. So either way, whether Jesus is emphasising the use of salt as a flavouring influence or as a preservative, the basic idea is the same — without the presence of salt, the world is an awful place to be.
And finally, salt also has the characteristic to make one thirsty. With reference to the Beatitudes, we are told that “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” The effect that we are to have on our neighbour is that we are to provoke them too to hunger and thirst for God and for righteousness.
Jesus also mentions that Gods’ people are the light of the world. The purpose of light is straight forward. Light enables us to see in an otherwise dark place. In Jesus’ days this would have meant lighting a flaming torch or a candle to make light in a dark place. For us it is merely the flick of a switch and instantly there is light in the room so that we can see. Jesus was implying that the world around us is immersed in darkness. The people stumble about blindly in the darkness, hopelessly lost and without any real direction in their lives.
Can we agree with that analogy, that the world around is tasteless, flavourless and hopelessly dark? Sociologists would have us believe that we’re still ascending the evolutionary scale, ever evolving into a more improved, autonomous being. And people are quick to point out that even amongst those who are not practicing Christians, there are millions who still do good in this world, who make personal sacrifices for others, who dedicate their lives to spreading love and kindness and goodwill in their neighbourhood, trying hard to make their corner of the world a little brighter, a little “saltier”. How do we respond to that? Do we really believe that the world around us with all its excitement and glitter and attractions is in reality tasteless, flavourless, subject to corruption and rottenness, hopelessly lost in an oppressive and overwhelming darkness?
As believers we can respond with what God’s Word teaches us about that pervasive power, the lethal influence of sin in people’s lives. Consider what Jesus Himself says in John 3:19-20. “This is the verdict, Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil, hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed”. Consider also what Scripture says in Romans 1:21, “...that, although sinful man knows God, he refuses to glorify Him as God or give thanks to Him. Instead, his thinking is futile and his foolish heart is darkened.” See also Romans 3 where Scripture chronicles the effects of sin on the whole being.
This is the commentary which Jesus provides about the world in which He lived and we still live today. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was not saying this in a pessimistic way, or to be condescending or judgemental — He was saying this to instruct His people and with the best interests of the world at heart. For was He not Himself the “Light of the world”, Who came into the world so that those who were living in darkness could see the great Light? And so when we consider the sad and lost state of this world, we must not do so with scorn or with derision, or disdain for its people, with a sort of a “the devil may take them” attitude. Jesus didn’t think that way and He doesn’t want us to either.
The people who live in unbelief are sinners just like us, in desperate need of grace. They are sinners walking in darkness who need the light of Christ to shine on them, to illumine their foolish hearts and darkened minds. They are sinners who need the purifying salt of Christ’s righteousness to arrest the corruption and decay within them, to purify their hearts so that their words, thoughts and actions are palatable and pleasing to God — just as we need that!
We, who are so rich in God’s covenant, really need to do better on this score, because it’s so very easy for us to turn our backs on this world. When we hear of the terrorism, the shooting, maiming, killing, stealing, raping and the molesting that goes on in the world around us, we often want to stop caring and pray that the LORD would come quickly and destroy this evil and corrupt world. But that’s not what Christ prayed for in His High-priestly prayer. He prayed (John 17:15–18), “My prayer is not that You take them out of this world, but that You protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth, Your Word is truth. As You sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus has sent His Church into the world for a purpose, and as long as He tarries, so long as it is day, that purpose remains, that calling persists. And that brings us to how we are to exercise this calling.
Let’s have a look at the context of the verses 13-16; they come right on the heels of the Beatitudes, and this supplies us with a very valuable perspective. The virtues, the disciplines of the Christian life — like humility and meekness and mercy and making peace — they are not only meant to be exercised here in the fellowship of the Communion of saints, but are designed to be put into practice out there — amidst unbelievers in the world. So when Jesus speaks about His Church, His own people, living as the salt of the earth and the light of the world, He’s not bringing a new message, He’s referring to the Beatitudes where He has already provided them and us with all we need to know to be a powerful influence on this world. The word “Beatitudes” can also be explained as the way to happiness or to blessedness.
By showing meekness, we communicate to the world that we Christians are not proud; we are not puffed up with holier-than-thou attitudes. Rather, we are gentle and mild, patient and trusting. We are willing to sacrifice for others, we are willing to serve in whatever way we can, we remain calm when inconvenienced and treated unfairly. We resist, e.g., feelings of road rage, even if someone cuts us off unfairly at the roundabout. Seeing such an attitude displayed has a powerful preserving and brightening influence on a corrupt and dark world.
Likewise, when we truly hunger and thirst after righteousness, and when we are merciful, and pure of heart, we show by our righteous deeds, we show by our sanctified living, by our pure speech, by our kind deeds of love and mercy, that we love the Lord, and that our faith is real — that we serve the One Only True God, and that He holds the central place in our hearts and in our homes. Seeing such an attitude displayed has a powerful preserving and brightening influence on a corrupt and dark world.
And when we live as peacemakers in this tumultuous world, when we willingly and gladly suffer the mockery of fools, when we turn the other cheek to one who wrongs us, when we refuse to let anger and hatred and malice and envy well up within us, when we answer criticism with a gentle response, when we endure persecution with rejoicing and gladness, this too has a powerful preserving and brightening influence on a corrupt and dark world.
The beatitudes are indeed essential guidelines to blessedness, to true happiness and fulfilment, but they are so very far removed from what the world sees as guidelines to happiness and fulfilment. Their beatitudes would probably read something like this:
Blessed are the rich, for they can have everything they want; blessed are the powerful, for they can control others; blessed are the sexually liberated, for they can fully satisfy their desires; blessed are the pop stars, for they are envied. Isn’t that the world’s way, the way of life to which also Christians are naturally inclined, rather than the way of sacrifice?
But does the world’s “me first” philosophy really bring happiness? You do not have to be a Rhodes’ scholar to see through the façade. It is an empty promise leaving in its wake broken marriages, derailed children, drug dependency, misery and despair. In Romans 1:25 Paul calls it a lie. But we are to be different, to live the promise and the antithesis God put into place in Genesis 3:15. Paul pleads with us, “Therefore I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test what is the will of God — His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).
In essence then, Jesus Christ has called us to live out only what He, by His Word and Spirit, has worked in us. When Jesus asks for His Church to be salt and light in this world, He is not asking us to do anything more than He has expected from the very beginning, that is: To be faithful and to walk before Him in obedience. To be unashamed and unafraid to live for Christ in a world that tramples on the Salt and that rejects the Light. For our Saviour also attached a serious warning of the consequences of not striving to be a salting salt in the latter part of verse 13: “But if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” That would be wasting our lives!