You Are Salt, You Are Light

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

‘You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

‘You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’

Matthew 5.13-16

Why is this passage so important for us? Why is it so urgent? As Christians we must never lose sight of the fact that we are in full-flow in Christ’s unfolding worldwide mission. He has global ambitions, and that comes out plainly in these verses (‘salt of the earth… light of the world…’). But crucially, for us, Jesus is very deliberately and boldly pointing the finger in our direction. He is addressing you. ‘You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.’ Whatever you thought your life was about, these words must redefine your life purpose. 

It is also crucial to understand that Jesus is not laying down a command or an exhortation here. He is not saying ‘This is what you could be’ or ‘This is what you could do’. Instead, he’s pointing out a plain fact about you as a Christian. You are salt, you are light. Your entire understanding of your relationship to the world must be shaped by knowing, first of all, who Jesus says you are.

However, the passage highlights two enormous negatives, two great dangers that hinder our effectiveness. We are going to consider these in turn.

1. You must not blend into the world, but rather be different

In saying ‘You are salt’ Jesus is drawing attention to the powerful everyday uses of salt. Salt is particularly important for two things; first, its taste (think pretzels, chorizo, kettle chips), and second, its preserving power. It stops meat from going rotten. In other words, salt enhances and salt purifies.

Then Jesus asks, what if the salt is no longer salty? Our first reaction might be to think that salt cannot lose its saltiness. But salt from the Dead Sea was in fact a mix of different minerals, and if the salt content was leached out the remaining minerals were not at all salty. They were useless.

Christians can lose their saltiness. How?

(i) Christians lose their saltiness when they are morally compromised. Hypocrisy is hugely damaging. If we do the same things everyone around us is doing we lose our credibility; our message is made ineffective. 

But this isn’t just about public sins (the ones people see), it also applies to private sins (the ones people don’t see). You may think that your private life has no effect on others if it doesn’t directly touch or hurt them. The truth is very different. If you are nurturing sin in your heart there is simply no way you can remain salty as a Christian. Your passion for Jesus will fade or die completely. Your integrity is destroyed as your life is torn asunder. Perhaps even the anointing of God’s Spirit on your life is withdrawn.

What do you need to repent of that you might be more salty?

(ii) Christians lose their saltiness when they are doctrinally compromised. A church that simply echoes back what the culture is saying, perhaps in some lame effort to be ‘relevant’, is utterly useless, perhaps even dead. Sadly, that has been the story of the decline of Christianity in the West: that as churches have accommodated their message to the spirit of the age, they have been ignored and emptied. They have lost their saltiness and are rendered utterly uninteresting and bland.

This can be true also at the level of the individual. Do you know what you believe and why you believe it? Paul encourages us that we ought to be able to articulate our faith well:

‘Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person’ (Colossians 4.5-6).

Salty speech is persuasive, winsome, and most of all, true. If we are to be able to give a defence for our beliefs (1 Peter 3.15) we must know what we believe and why we believe it!

2. You must not withdraw from the world, but rather be involved in it

When Jesus says that we are light, his main intention is to encourage us to let that light shine (v.16) instead of hiding it (v.14-15). He encourages us to let our faith and our lives get up in people’s faces.

Now, before we think about that a little more we need to step back and understand what this image of light means. Jesus is drawing the image from his Old Testament, and there we find light signifying three things. 

(i) Light speaks of purity instead of filth. While people do their best to cover up their shame and guilt, there are few people who do not feel ashamed of something, guilty about something. This creates despair as people ask, How can I be free? How can I be forgiven?

(ii) Light speaks of truth and knowledge instead of ignorance. We talk about ‘enlightenment’, but for all our accumulation of scientific and factual knowledge the world has not, and cannot, advance in understanding the why questions that govern our sense of meaning and place in the universe. These questions can only be answered by revelation — or indeed, light — from above. And so, any thinking person will at some point confront questions of life and death and feel a desperate desire to know truth.

(iii) Light speaks of God’s presence instead of abandonment. To exist in the dark is to exist outside of God’s love and the brightness of his favour. It is to feel that you are spiritually in the cold, alone, and utterly abandoned. And while every person seeks to answer this problem by pursuing all kinds of temporary fixes, they will still be aware of this vacuum.

Onto this theological backdrop of light as purity, light as truth, light as presence, we now need to hear the words of Jesus: ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12). Indeed, Isaiah spoke prophetically of Jesus in this way:

‘I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
        I will take you by the hand and keep you;
    I will give you as a covenant for the people,
        a light for the nations,
        to open the eyes that are blind,
    to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
        from the prison those who sit in darkness.’ (Isaiah 42.6-7)

A world without Jesus is a world of filth, ignorance, and total abandonment. But Jesus has stepped into the world as the light in order to give us purity, knowledge of God, and a sense of acceptance and love.

And now we come to you, Christian. Jesus says ‘You are the light of the world’. He is involving you in his great call to bring people into the light of his truth.

Despite this enormous privilege, we as Christians are tempted to withdraw and hide our light. We do this because of fear, or because of comfort, or because we just don’t care enough for the people around us who feel they are in darkness. We must hear again what Jesus is saying to us. He does not want us to withdraw like monks into some sort of spiritual isolation. Rather he wants the salt to be rubbed into the meat, he wants the light to be put on a stand to give light to the house.

What does Jesus want of you?

If we could bring it all into focus, I would argue that there are three legs to the stool that speak of the three essentials for mission. 

First, we must pursue holiness in order to be useful. Second, we must pursue truth in order to be powerful. Third, we must pursue love in order to be attractive, and to cause people to be attracted to God the Father. Jesus finishes this section like this:

‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’

Ultimately, it is all about drawing the gaze of the world toward the God we serve.