The beatitudes reveal two sobering truths about the citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom. First, they are not great by any standard of this world. They are not the rich, the powerful or the wise. Rather, they are poor, gentle and hungry. Second, they are going to be hated and persecuted by the world. Why, what is their crime? Only that they choose to follow Jesus and seek to live by His standard of righteousness. This sets the stage for another shocking truth: the objects of this world’s hatred and scorn are in fact the world’s only hope!
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5.13-16)
The purpose of salt and light.
Jesus couldn’t have chosen two simpler items to illustrate the affect His people have on the world. Yet, their importance may be lost on us given the differences in time and culture. For us, the primary value of salt is its flavor, a seasoning that improves bland food. However, since there was no refrigeration in Jesus’ day, salt was the primary means of preserving food. But salt could lose its “saltiness”, rendering it useless if contaminated with impurities.
Light is taken for granted in our modern world. Light is generally available to us at all times. We walk into a room in darkness, but with the flick of a switch the room is completely illuminated. Not in Jesus’ day. One lamp might be the only source of light in a house, so it must be kept in a prominent place. Those in the countryside might only have the light of the moon and stars, but could see the light of a city even a great distance away, using its illumination to guide them.
Salt and light are inherently good and absolutely necessary because in their absence deterioration and darkness reign. Thus the necessity to keep salt free of impurity and of making sure the light does not become dim. Without salt and light, man is lost.
Kingdom citizens ARE salt and light.
Jesus did not say that His people “should be” the salt of the earth or that they “could be” the light of the world. He said His people ARE salt and light. They are these things because they embody the principles laid out in the beatitudes. In other words, the fact that God’s people are poor in spirit, mourn over their sins, act gently toward others, desire nothing but righteousness, are purely devoted to God and strive to bring God’s peace to others, makes them salt and light. Yes, the world hates them for these qualities, but these qualities are the only things that can preserve and illuminate a corrupt and dark world.
The imagery of light is also significant for our understanding of the relationship between God and His people. Both Jesus and God are “light” (see John 1.4-5; 1John 1.5) and now we see that their people are as well. Disciples don’t merely reflect their light, they become the light. Since God’s people are recreated in His image (Eph. 4.23-24; cf. Matt. 5.48) no distinction is made. God is light and, in Him, disciples are as well!
Keeping the salt pure and the light bright.
Jesus’ purpose in Matthew 5.13-16 was not to tell His disciples to become salt or light; they already are. He’s emphasizing that they must maintain these qualities so that they can help the lost in this world. How can this be done? A few suggestions:
- Avoid hypocrisy. The name of Christ isn’t to be worn lightly. His people are His representatives in this world, so each time they proclaim the name of Christ they are asking others to see Christ in them. What will they see? A person who mourns over their sins or one who makes excuses for them? A person whose desire is conformity to God’s will (righteousness) or someone obsessed with the things of this world? Are they showing the light, or something else?
- Turn your light outward, not inward. Times of worship can have a positive influence on those who are seeking truth (cf. 1Cor. 14.23-25), but most of the world will never enter the doors of an assemblies. The light of disciples must be turned toward them, they must take the light to them in their schools, jobs and communities. The light will shine brightest in a dark world.
- Don’t lessen the standards of the Kingdom. Disciples want others to be saved, to have a relationship with Jesus. And that would be so much easier if they didn’t overly emphasize things like mourning over sin and hungering for righteousness. Disciples can gain more converts by lessening the standards of the Kingdom, but they won’t have been converted to Jesus.
- Don’t hope for popularity. Remember, disciples are going to be hated. The world should benefit from their influence. As salt and light disciples would hope the world would appreciate and love them. It won’t (vss. 10-12). But disciples retain their saltiness and brightness in the hope they can preserve and enlighten a few others in this dark and dying world.
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