We can only imagine their expressions of bewilderment as they listened. We have grown up hearing it. We memorize it, put it on the refrigerator door, tape it to the truck dash, and hang it on our walls. We struggle to understand it, attempt to rationalize it, and sometimes just ignore it. Casually we call it the Sermon on the Mount. Somehow giving it a label seems to make it more achievable, but imagine how it must have shocked those first Jewish listeners. It was an astonishing message then. It still is today.
In this message, Jesus gave two little illustrations of His coming kingdom, and with each example, an inclination His kingdom would struggle with. Examine again His familiar words:
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
-Matt. 5:13, 14
Jesus said that His kingdom was going to be both Salt and Light; two elements that we are very familiar with.
Many good illustrations have been made concerning salt and Christ’s Kingdom; but notice the warning. He said salt can lose its savor! His believers, His own kingdom can become ineffective and useless. What did He mean?
Chemists today tell us that salt is unchanged by time, and salt well preserved does not lose its saltiness. So what was Jesus saying? As men in Jesus’ day transported and traded salt and spices, there was always a danger of contamination with foreign material. We picture caravans of camels, plodding through desert sandstorms. Great care must have been taken to keep cargo pure since seasonings lose their effectiveness if they become impure or diluted. Perhaps Jesus was simply saying that salt’s usefulness is in direct proportion to its purity.
In this illustration, we sense God’s longing for holiness and purity. A desire for a kingdom totally separated unto Himself. Obviously Jesus knew what was on the horizon. Satan has spent the last 2000 years trying to dilute God’s salt. For long periods of history the “church” and the civil government have been so entangled that an unbeliever looking on couldn’t be sure which was which. Using God’s name, men have pillaged villages, tortured “heretics”, and fought “holy” wars. This strange marriage of “church” and state was tremendously confusing to the seeker. Salt had lost its savor!
Today in America, we have separation of church and state, yet this confusion still exists. The seeker can become frustrated and discouraged when, despite all the words, the lives of professing believers are no different than his own. Our society chases after fashion, luxury, and wealth. So do professing Christians. The world uses divorce if a marriage isn’t enjoyable. But the divorce rate among “Christians” is said to be even higher than the American average. The worlds uses courts, and force to achieve its end. Is nominal Christianity any different? Men are claiming the name of Christ, while ignoring His teachings. Recently an author interviewed in a secular news magazine stated that the weakening of Christianity has come from within “the churches themselves, when they started focusing on loving Jesus, rather than listening to Him.” Jesus plainly said that those who love Him will keep His commandments, yet as this author points out, Christianity has so diluted the gospel that verbal adoration is replacing simple obedience to what He says. Salt has lost its savor!
Examine Your Salt!
It is tempting to look around, nod wisely, and agree that professing Christianity has certainly lost its effectiveness. But before you condemn professing Christianity, remember: you too are a professing Christian! Take a walk back through the “basic” teachings of Jesus. Walk slowly. Let His words challenge your heart.
They are just simple teachings, but have you mastered loving others like you want to be loved? How about loving your enemies? Can you say you have achieved this while still struggling to speak well of brethren who hold a different viewpoint? Can you cheerfully lend money hoping for nothing again? How about continuing to loan “your” possessions, though they repeatedly come back damaged? And if “your” belongings are stolen, are you tempted to ask for them again?
Have you found a comfortable interpretation for not laying up treasure? One that conveniently allows for continued accumulation? How about His lesson regarding the coat and cloak; when a man sues you for $10,000 do you offer him $15,000? Are you actually walking closer to Christ’s teachings than the professing believers you scorn?
Just how pure is your salt? Are there areas where you have slowly given ground to the values that surround you? Do these teachings of Jesus just look nice on a plaque, or are they actually the guiding force of your life? Has your salt become diluted? Salt can lose its savor!
Jesus went on to say that His kingdom would be like a city set on a hill. Perhaps you have been driving late at night and seen the glow from a city in the distance. The glow you are seeing is the side effect of the lights’ primary purpose. The lights may be illuminating a used car lot, a factory, or a football field. But as these lights perform their principal purpose they also create the glow, or byproduct, that you are observing.
Think of this as Passive Light. God is slowly transforming us into the image of Jesus. As He works, the attributes of Jesus will shine like a city in a world growing darker with dishonesty, pessimism, and fear. Jesus said this kind of light can’t be hid. People will ask questions! The Apostle Peter said to “sanctify the Lord God always in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:” 1 Peter 3:15 Sometimes we speak of this verse as though the main point is to always have the right answer. But perhaps the primary emphasis is on sanctification. Maybe Peter is saying that the man who really sanctifies the Lord in his heart had better be ready to give an answer, because he will be getting questions!
Take this as a personal challenge. Are you getting questions? Does your outward light--your countenance, integrity, and speech--differ radically from unbelievers around you? Salt can lose its savor!
Jesus went on to speak of a type of light that can be hidden:
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Matthew 5:15,16
Think of this as Purposeful Light: A man gives thought to how he places a candle. He observes the need and places it strategically. Jesus is saying, let your light shine in a way that will do the most good. These verses tell of God’s desire that His followers intentionally inflict damage to the kingdom of darkness by shining effectively. But He also addresses another tendency His kingdom would struggle with. Jesus’ command to let this light shine tells us it is possible for His people to hide it. Not only are we in danger, like salt, of losing our purity and separation, we can also neglect to let our light shine. Light can be concealed!
God has a desire that His light pierce the darkness of men’s hearts. He desires that we give thought to our candlestick. That we enter into the conflict between light and darkness, intentionally shining for Him in a darkening world. These verses speak of concern for others, fervent prayer, and purposeful conversations. They also warn against basking in praise. The Father, not His people, is to be glorified. We are hiding His light when we, like a bushel, “absorb” the glory rather than pointing others back to God. Remember the warning: Light can be concealed!
Jesus had a desire that we possess His burden for others and purposefully take His message to them.
“The servant was always sent out among the people; he was not to station himself somewhere, and thus wait, or rest contentedly until the people would chance to come to him; no, his message was urgent, it was one of good news and glad tidings, and without any waste of time; he must go out among them from one class to another, and proclaim it to all.”
Again, examine your daily life. Do you really have this kind of a burden for the souls of men around you? Are you fervently praying for them? Is it possible that Jesus could work day after day beside a man who is on a downward path to hell, and never mention that fact to him? Consider your candlestick! Are you giving thought and prayer to its placement? Light can be concealed!
Salt and Light. While there may be other interpretations, in one sense these elements represent both the offensive and defensive mission of Christ’s Kingdom. Every kingdom struggles to balance these two objectives and God’s kingdom has been no different. Peter Nead in addressing this balance said this:
“The church should be much concerned and engaged with God for the conversion of the world; and as the minister is the means appointed for the teaching of the nations, the church should have an eye in that direction. She should see that there be no lack of laborers; and above all, she should see that they be sound in the faith.”
Notice the balance: much concern for the souls of others, but also sound in the faith. Paul reminds the church at Philippi of this balance with these words: “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation …” Notice the radical separation. Lives that are separated unto Jesus Christ and therefore shockingly different from the surrounding culture. These words remind us of salt.
But Paul continues; “among whom ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the Word of life;” Phil. 2:15,16 These words speak of offensive warfare. Notice the words, holding forth. He wanted them to hold forth the Word of life, the Lord Jesus Himself. These are words that speak of intentional light.
This same equilibrium is needed as we reach out in other ways. The Apostle James says: Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world. James 1:27
Observe again the balance. He speaks of assisting the fatherless and widow, terminology used repeatedly throughout the Old Testament to describe the destitute and downtrodden. These words remind us that just as God has always had a heart for the underdog, His followers will as well. They are words that speak of seeing the need and reaching out.
But James goes on and says that this man will also keep himself unspotted from the world. He is consciously following a different path than the culture that surrounds him. This man is purposely keeping himself from society’s mindless chase after sports, pleasure, wealth, and fashion. These words speak of defensive warfare. They speak of salt.
This balance between salt and light has created tension throughout church history. Many have focused outward, concentrating primarily on sharing, caring, and reaching the lost. But while focusing on reaching some have lost their balance, losing their grip on holiness and separation. Others, in their desire to avoid that error, have found themselves concentrating on separation. They have focused inwardly, and over time have gradually lost their burden for others. But what would happen if the church had both?
As we look back, two periods in church history stand out as examples where both existed. One of these is the first few generations of the Early Church, and the other the first part of the Reformation. During both of these times believers were radical promoters of holiness, separation from the world, and adherence to the teachings of Jesus. They were possessors of salt! But these believers had more than just salt. They were also very active in speaking to anyone who would listen. In fact, when they were apprehended, many times authorities ordered their tongues removed. It was the only known way to keep them quiet! They were intent on telling others about Jesus until their last breath. And remember--many of them would never have been tortured if they would have simply remained silent. But they refused to be silent; they believed in being Light!
Salt and Light
Consider Satan’s perspective. Which do you think Satan is most fearful of? A church that focuses inwardly on preserving, but has lost its zeal for reaching out to others? Or a church that focuses outwardly, but due to its lack of adherence to scriptural teaching, confuses the very people it is trying to reach? After all, neither is doing much damage to the kingdom of darkness. But believers during the years mentioned zealously embraced both of these teachings of Jesus! Jesus hadn’t said that His kingdom would be salt or light; He said His kingdom would be salt and light. Jesus emphasized both, and these believers did too. Perhaps Satan isn’t too concerned about either of these principles alone, but notice how he responds when he sees them combined!
Satan saw this potent combination as a threat to his kingdom, and His rage erupted immediately. He attacked the church in these eras with tremendous fury. Believers were burnt at the stake, thrown to lions, fried on hot metal plates and flayed alive. They were drowned in rivers, thrown into vats of boiling oil, and chained down while rats consumed their flesh. They tasted Satan’s fury unleashed!
Why was Satan’s anger so intense? What caused him to react so violently? While it would be simplistic to conclude that all persecution is a direct result of this combination, it would also be foolish to ignore the connection. Perhaps Satan understands that neither piles of salt nor light alone provide much risk to his empire. But he cannot ignore the fact that these two combined have the potential of turning his empire upside down!
Salt Within and Light Without
Today the choice ours. We can ignore defense like the men of Ai. We can run out with zeal to conquer for the kingdom, only to look back with regret at the smoke ascending from our posterity. Or we can be like the ten men sent to spy out Canaan. They simply decided the enemy was too great, their God too small, and offensive warfare too risky.
But perhaps God is calling us to be like Nehemiah’s laborers on the wall. The Bible provides them as an example of offense, defense, and trust combined. They moved out in fear, believed God’s Word, and “everyone with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.” Neh. 4:17
So go forth and build in the name and power of the Lord Jesus. Have salt within and light without. Rest assured this is still God’s vision for His kingdom. Press forward with joyful confidence, believing that He that is within you is greater. But as you pursue both salt and light, make no mistake. All who live Godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. Expect it!