WHO IS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD? YOU, OR JESUS?

salt and light by bernie rosage

 

 

Picture by Bernie Rosage

 

Some Christians act as if Jesus said that we are the “honey-pot” of the world. We think we can just sweeten things up with love. But Jesus used a very different metaphor. Salt is essential to life, but it is also caustic. It has a bite to it sometimes.

 

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Matthew #13 . Matthew 5:13-16

We have come to what I believe is the “theme statement” of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. The character traits of Jesus-followers are listed in 5:1-12. After this, Jesus goes into some specific details about how those character traits play out in various situations. But in Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus explains the point of it all:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:13-16, HCSB)

We need to be very clear here. Jesus is not speaking to “the world” or “people in general.” He is speaking to his disciples: those who have put their trust in him, surrendered their lives to him.So what exactly does Jesus mean when he tells his disciples that they are salt and light?

Salt. Salt accomplishes essentially two things: it flavors, and it preserves. As Christians, we are to have a flavor that is distinct from the world around us. I remember in High School, most of my friends were not Christians. At the time I felt I had a mission to show them that Christians could be cool, and have a good time – basically I wanted to prove to them that being Christian wasn’t boring. So I went to the same parties as my friends. When they drank, I drank, although I never got drunk, even when they did. What I realize now is that I came very close to losing my saltiness in that period in my life. Certainly, no one became a Christian because of me. I see the church at large in America in the same sort of danger of ceasing to flavor society. Many church-goers have the same primary goals in life as anyone else. They and their children look like everyone else, dress like everyone else, talk like everyone else. What is the main difference between Christians and non-Christians in America? Unfortunately for vast numbers it is only the way they spend one particular hour each week.

The world around us cries “Fit in! Fit in! Fit in! Don’t be weird, conform!” But Jesus calls, “Don’t fit in! Don’t conform! Be different!” Frankly, it becomes very difficult for Him to influence the world through us if we are the same as the world. Flavorless salt is good for nothing. The truth is, there is, and there has to be, a fundamental difference between Christians and non-Christians, between the church and the world. If there isn’t, we are useless, good for nothing.

Salt is also a preservative. It was used in Jesus’ day to preserve meat which would otherwise decay. What this means is that Christians ought have influence in society in such a way that culture’s natural slide into degeneracy and decay is arrested. In plain language, we ought to be so different and flavorful that because of us, society stops becoming so immoral, indecent and wicked.

Helmut Thielicke wrote that some Christians appear to think Jesus said we ought to be the honey pot of the world – and sweeten things up with God’s love. But salt is a harsher agent than sweet. Salt is caustic – it bites, just as the true message of God’s judgment and grace has a bite to it that leaves us in despair of ourselves and hoping in Jesus only. We don’t influence society through sweetness, but through saltiness.

LIGHT. Now, when I first read the part about “light,” I am reminded of something Jesus said in the gospel of John:

Then Jesus spoke to them again: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, HCSB)

So which is it? Is Jesus the light of the world, or are we?

Jesus is the light of the world. But now that he has ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to live inside of us, Jesus is the Light of the world – through us. I don’t mean that we take the place of Jesus, or that we should consider ourselves divine or messianic. But Jesus now uses us to show the world His light. Since Jesus talks about lamps, let’s adapt this to modern times. The light from a lamp doesn’t come from the lampstand, or the lampshade, or even the bulb. The light comes from the electricity that runs through the lampstand, up into and through the bulb. We function as the lampstand, or the lampshade or maybe even the bulb. But the light doesn’t come from us – it originates from Jesus, and shines out through us.

This fits perfectly with the entire sermon on the mount. Jesus wants to show his character to the world through his followers. His character is humble, dependent upon God for everything; willing to honestly address grief, sin and brokenness; willing to wait on God to act. The character of Jesus manifested through us desires real righteousness, real right-relationship with God. It is merciful, and focuses on true purity of heart. It seeks to reconcile others to God, and to each other. It endures persecution and suffering with a clear vision of the eternal joy that is our future, if we remain in Jesus. This is what Jesus wants to shine through us.

If salt flavors and preserves, light dispels darkness. Throughout scripture, light is often used as a symbol of truth. So when Jesus calls us the light of the world, he is also telling us that we are the vehicle by which his truth is to spread. We are to share the truth of God’s Word with the world, to bring light into darkness. In other words, we are also to tell others about Jesus.

Tony Campolo once said, “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” I don’t like that quote at all, because it implies that words are often not necessary – and that is false. Every Christian has a responsibility to not only live as salt (Christian actions and lifestyle) but also as light (speaking verbally about Jesus). I can show you Muslims and Hindus and Jews who live morally upright, kind and loving lives (at least on the outside). But they are not dispelling darkness. The apostle Paul writes:

“How then they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14, emphasis mine).

So we need to speak out the truth of Jesus in order to have influence in the world, in order to be light.

Now, all this is a very tall order. It sounds good in theory. But how can we really show the character of Jesus to the world through our messed-up lives?

Sometimes we feel that while salvation is God’s work for us, following God after we are saved is all our work for God. Actually, that is false. Andrew Murray writes:

“The idea they have of grace is this – that their conversion and pardon are God’s work, but that now, in gratitude to God , it is their work to live as Christians, and follow Jesus. There is always the thought of a work that has to be done and even though they pray for help, still the work is theirs.[1]

Murray goes on to explain that as we surrender to Jesus (not as we work harder) His Holy Spirit has more control in our lives, and thus our lives are more and more conformed to God’s holiness. Elsewhere, Murray also writes:

“Oh that you would learn a lesson from the time of your first coming to the saviour! Remember dear soul, how you then were led, contrary to all that your experience, and your feelings, and even your sober judgment said, to take Jesus at his word, and how you were not disappointed. He did received and pardon you; He did love, and save you – you know it. And if he did this for you when you were an enemy and a stranger, what think you, now that you are His own, will He not much more fulfill his promise?[2]

The apostle Paul writes, in Romans 8:31-32

What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

The point is, if we can trust Jesus to accomplish our salvation, we can surely trust him to accomplish our on-going life of obedience to him as well. We need to realize this: through dying on the cross, rising again and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus has made it possible for anyone to obey. Now I am not suggesting that anyone can attain perfection in this life. But the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is such that when we fail, forgiveness is available to us, and we can continue as if we never failed to obey Him. It does not matter how many times we fail, nor how often, or in what way. All that matters is that we receive the love and grace and forgiveness God has made available to us, and so continue on in obedience. And as we surrender ourselves more and more to him, obedience comes more easily and more naturally – not from working harder, but from surrendering more.

Having made that point, the only way we need to fear the high standards of the Sermon on the Mount, is if we attempt to attain them without Jesus and his Holy Spirit.

We might summarize all this with four main points:

1) We ought to live lives that are radically different from the society around us. It should be obvious that we are distinct from the worldly cultures we live in.

2) We ought to seek to influence culture so as to preserve the good in society. This means supporting families and good government, seeking to change laws and practices that are unjust and destructive, and speaking out about right and wrong.

3) We must speak out the good news –all people are sinners, who deserve God’s wrath and the very worst that life can dish out. But God so loved the world that he sent his only son to die for us, so that whoever puts their trust in Him can be saved to new life now, and to eternal life after death.

4) We do all this by relying on Jesus more, trusting him more and more to let His character shine through us.

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[1] Abide in Christ. Andrew Murray, Christian Literature Crusade, Fort Washington, PA, 1968.

[2] Same as above

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