Salt and Light

What does it mean to let your light shine before men? The song, “This little light of mine,” gives one impression. In Matthew 5:11–16 we see a richer, more powerful, and brighter picture.

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Isaiah prophesied that the glory of the Lord would rise over his people. Jesus knew his Scriptures. His words reflect Isaiah 60 as well as other passages, and his original hearers would have heard those echoes. The prophet had looked ahead to the darkness of Israel’s captivity in Babylon, but also held out the certain hope of the restoration. But God was going to do something greater than the return from exile under Ezra and Nehemiah. That would be a foretaste of the promised light that could be fulfilled only in the coming of the Messiah. Matthew had recognized that as he described the beginning of Jesus preaching as taking place to fulfill Isaiah’s earlier, but similar, prophesy about the light shinning on Galilee of the nations. The light is not a literal dawning of day, nor a figurative picture of an enlightened teaching or period. Rather, the light is personal—it is the coming of the King. He identified himself as the light of the world, John 1:12; 9:5. The only way to come into his kingdom is to come to the light, to turn away from darkness and trust in him.

That glorious light shines in the kingdom which Jesus was building by his death and resurrection. You might expect Jesus to say at this point, “I am the light of the world.” However, speaking to his disciples, he says, ‘You are the light of the world.” Not only is the coming of Jesus light, but as he proclaims the good news of who he is and what has come to do, as he makes the claim that he is the King, as he brings his disciples in the first century and you into his kingdom, that is how he makes his light shine in the world. You (plural) are the light. As you proclaim his kingdom and as your lives reflect that, you are a shinning light. “The subject of this discourse, and the aim of the discipleship which it promotes, is not so much the betterment of life on earth as the implementation of the reign of God. The goal of disciples witness is not that others emulate their way of life, or applaud their probity, but that they recognize the source of their distinctive lifestyle in ‘your Father in heaven.’” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 177).

Similarly, you are the salt of the earth. Do not lose your saltiness. Salt that stops being salty sounds strange. Salt in Israel in Jesus’ day cane from the Dead Sea area in rock form, often laden with impurities. You could have a chunk of what seemed to be rock salt, but out of which all the salt had leached, leaving something that looked like salt, but was tasteless and useless. You are cautioned not to use too much salt, but salt was used, not only for flavoring, but as a preservative, especially for meat. Salt that was no longer salty was useless, and just had to be discarded. Only as you remain connected to the Savior can you have an impact on the world around you. Don’t compromise. Don’t let your distinctiveness disappear.

Your presence as the kingdom of God impacts the world. To be salt, no less than being light, results from being the kingdom of God in this world. Imagine the growth in wickedness if God’s people were taken away. Think of Abraham bargaining with God to spare Sodom for the sake of Lot and his family. One of the reasons God has not brought just judgment on the earth is that his people still have a preservative impact on the world.

Do your good works to the glory of God. Shine! You are salt and you are light. Those are statements. But “let your light shine” is a command. You are light. Don’t hide it. It would be strange to light a lamp—and then cover it with a measuring basket. Instead you place it to give light. Similarly, a city on a hill cannot be hidden. The light from each of the houses shining together, make the city impossible to miss. Particularly when you realize that your light is not a candle struggling not get blown out, but rather is a a reflection of the glory light of the Messiah, your light has a powerful impact. It cannot be hidden. It must not be hidden. There may be reasons you would be hesitant to let your light be too conspicuous. Jesus has just spoken of the the persecution and suffering that comes your way because you belong to him. In spite of that, let your light shine.

How do you make your light shine? Perform your good works before men—to the praise of God. The message, the good news, of the kingdom certainly needs to be proclaimed. That’s what Jesus was doing. He commissioned his disciples to do that. Those who hear the good news and respond, those who enter his kingdom behave differently from what they were by nature in the world. They live to the glory of God. On a mountain 2,000 years earlier God summoned the people he had redeemed to live to his glory. And he gave specifics in the Ten Commandments. The sermon on this mountain also has an emphasis on obedience. “Starting from Matthew 5:13, the whole Sermon on the Mount is one impressive exhortation to do ‘good works’ (Matt. 5:13), to do ‘justice’ (5:20; 6:1; 6:33), to fulfill ‘the law and the prophets’ (5:17–48; 7:15), to go through ‘the narrow gate’ and upon the ‘narrow path’ (7:13,14), to bear ‘fruit’ (7:16–20), to do the Father’s will (7:21), and to ‘hear and do’ Jesus’ words (7:24–27; cf. also Luke 6L17–49).” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 241). In fact, as Jesus peels back the external additions which the scribes had added to God’s commands, he shows how utterly sweeping they are. Appropriately we reject the idea that our good works can earn eternal life. That idea is heresy. It denies the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection. But avoid the danger of downplaying or even denying the importance of good works in the lives of God’s people. To do good works to the glory of the Father in heaven is why Christ gave his life in your place. Can the way you carry out your daily affairs be described as good works?

At first glance, the command to do them so that men may see them seems like a contradiction of what he says in Matthew 6:1. But the contradiction is only apparent. There the motive for the works is to receive praise from men. Here the goal is that your actions will lead men and women to understand the source of the change in your life and to give praise and glory to God. That involves their coming into the kingdom, and having their voices join in songs of praise, of seeing their lives reflect the glory of the God who shines his light in dark places. The small, simple things that you do as the people of God have a powerful impact. You, together with all of God’s people, are the salt that affects the world, the light that drives out darkness. You are that as you reflect the glory light of the Savior.

As you go about you ordinary, daily activities this week, ask yourself: Does what I am doing reflect the glory light of heaven? Am I different enough to attract the attention of the world? That may lead to suffering. But it may lead to increased praise to God as the Spirit shines the light of Christ into the hearts of those who see your good deeds.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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