Sermon preached on Matthew 5:13-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/23/2014 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Salt and Light
Last week we concluded the opening section of the Sermon on the Mount, known as the Beatitudes. We now head into verses 13-16. As we do, let me remind us what the Sermon on the Mount is about. This will help introduce our topic for today. The Sermon on the Mount is very much about the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus started his ministry by announcing the coming of the kingdom. And this sermon is teaching connected with this announcement. We saw in the Beatitudes a description of the people who belong to that kingdom of heaven. We said that it was describing the Christian. Christians are those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. As such, the beatitudes are descriptive, at least in part, of the Christian. And so the Sermon on the Mount is about the kingdom of heaven and what it means to be a part of it. And yet, this is not something that is merely theoretical or something for a distant future. No, this sermon shows us that we live on earth differently because we belong to the kingdom of heaven. Let me say that again. Because we belong to the kingdom of heaven, it will affect how we live on earth. So then, in these verses for today, we begin to see that. Two analogies are given here. They describe what we are to be on earth as those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. We are to be salt of the earth and light of the world.
Our first point then for today is to recognize this new identity that we have in Christ. I just said that we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world. But let me clarify. This passage isn’t saying that this is something that the Christian needs to become. No, it says that this is something we already are. It doesn’t tell us to become the salt of the earth in verse 13. It says we are the salt of the earth. In verse 14, it doesn’t say that we should become the light of the world. It says we are the light of the world. This is our first point then for today: to recognize our new identity in Christ.
You see, to talk about us being salt and light in the world is to realize that the world is full of people who are not salt and light in this world. People who need this salt and light, but aren’t that themselves. When someone is first becoming a Christian, the Bible says that this is them going through a new birth — we become some new and different. The old man is crucified with Christ, doing away with our old body of sin; that we would not be slaves of sin any longer; that’s what Romans 6:6 says, for example. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, it says that the Christian is a new creation. There are a number of descriptions like this; things that describe the new identity of a Christian. Well, that is what we have here. We have become in Christ, the salt of the earth. We have become in Christ, the light of the world. The Holy Spirit has worked this new birth in us, and drawn us to faith in Christ. As we find this great salvation, we are being transformed. This is what has made us now as salt and light. This means that we are different now. We saw this in the beatitudes. The unique ways in which a Christian can be described. Now with the description as salt and light, we especially see the Christian in bold contrast to the world around him.
I will clarify a little further when I talk about this new identity in Christ. When I say that it’s a new identity in Christ, I mean a few interrelated things. I mean that we find this new identity through the gospel of Jesus Christ that unites us to Christ by faith. I also mean that this makes us part of Christ’s kingdom. To be in his kingdom of heaven right now, is to be citizens of heaven living on earth. That makes us like ambassadors of heaven. So we are living out the values of heaven, here on this earth, in a way that the unsaved world does not. Lastly, to have this new identity in Christ, also gets at the fact that Christ is in us by his Spirit. We then can be salt of the earth and light of the world because he first is those things.
As to the light of the world, that was Jesus’ explicit confession in John 8:12.
Jesus says there, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” We are the light of the world as Christ who is that light has come into us with his light of life. Christ in us, makes us the light of the world. As to the salt of the earth, we don’t have a record of Jesus calling himself that explicitly. But clearly, he lived as such. His “saltiness” was seen in how he challenged the religious status quo and in all his teaching ministry. His saltiness was seen when he stopped and showed compassion and helped those in need. His saltiness was seen when he invested in the lives of his disciples to train them in godliness. This will hopefully become more clear in a moment when we turn to talk more about what it actually means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But in this first point, as we see our new identity, I wanted us to appreciate the source for this new identity. Christ is salt and light to this world. He is in us as Christians. And so we are salt and light to this world.
So then, let’s move then on to our second point for today. I want us now to consider what it actually means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. What does it mean in general, and what will it look like to live out this reality of being salt and light? I’ll start with a general description, and then we’ll dig deeper into each metaphor of salt and light. So then we get a bit of a big picture definition of this in verse 16. In talking about shining our light, it defines that as the world seeing your good works. And so this is the big idea. In a world clouded by spiritual darkness and moral decay, we live righteously, and it has a positive effect in this world. This sermon on the mount then talks extensively about what that looks like. What does it look like to live lives full of good works in a dark and degenerate world? Answering that question will help you to know how to be salt and light in this world. In other words, the big idea about being salt and light in this world is simply this: To live overtly as a Christian in this world, with all that entails. It’s taking those qualities mentioned in the Beatitude and embracing them in a way that’s visible to the world. It’s about a life of confessing our sin and need for Christ’s forgiveness and grace. And it’s about a life that is lived as a disciple of Christ; learning from him both truth and righteous living. And it’s a life of allegiance to God, expressed especially in his regular worship. As we live out our Christian life, not in secret, but in this world, it will have an effect. But we live it in the world. This is why monastic movements or Christian communes that try to pull out of society are fatally flawed. We are not of the world. That’s what makes us salt and light. But we are to be in the world. That our light can shine before men, and that our salt doesn’t lose its saltiness, etc.
So then, let’s dig into the metaphors each specifically. Let’s start with salt. What does this metaphor specifically tell us about our identity and our relationship to the world? Well, salt is both a flavor enhancer and a preservative. In some sense, those can be interrelated too. Your meat’s flavor will taste a lot better if it’s not rotten. And when we think about salt, we realize how powerful it is. A little goes a long way. And a little can affect the whole. Just sprinkle a little into your water or your pot of soup, and the whole thing is affected. In terms of taste, you can definitely taste the difference. In terms of preserving, it is a very effective preserver, to help foods last longer before spoiling. And so salt is strong, distinct, and effective.
So then, what does it look like for you as a Christian to be salt in this world? It’s about how a Christian’s convictions, worldview, ethics, and especially the truth that he bears, “influence” and “flavor” the world around him. And so let me offer some examples. In terms of the gospel: Say you are with some unbelieving people, and they start talking about death and its uncertainty, then as salt of the earth, you can’t help but share about your hope to them. Or in terms of ethics: You are with some unbelieving people and they start engaging in some immoral thing and you can’t help but swim upstream against the tide. You won’t participate. In that, you might even help to restrain the degeneracy of others when they see how you won’t go along with their evils. Or in terms of your worldview: The way you look at life and the world around you comes out as distinctly different in conversations you have with unbelievers. That will affect them. They may not immediately agree, but you leave an impression and a mark on them. That’s you “salting” them! Or in terms of the choices that you make — when they are different than others and others see that, it is something they notice. Particularly, as they observe that the reason you chose something different is because you are a self-professing Christian who on the one hand boldly claims their need for divine forgiveness, and on the other hand is someone seen as really hungering and thirsting for righteousness. These are some examples of how you live in a “salty” way as someone who is salt of the earth.
The opposite to this saltiness, of course, is that your Christian hope and living becomes diluted in your own life, and hardly present, if at all, in your interactions with others. Such a person might be a “complacent Christian”: Someone whose Christianity does not make much meaningful effect in their life. Their Christianity doesn’t flavor their own life, so it certainly doesn’t flavor others. Or, such a person might be a “closet Christian”: Someone who lives in such a way that he is not flavoring the world around him. They keep their Christian faith a secret for the most part. They hide whatever would be distinct about them. They are not the contrast that salt is supposed to be. A third possibility is that someone might be a “syncretistic Christian”: Someone who adulterates his Christianity with other religions or contradictory worldviews, instead of allowing his Christianity to boldly have its effect on the opposing belief systems in the world.
So this is a little bit about being the salt of the earth. As we mentioned, we can see how Christ was indeed salt of the earth. Let us now turn to consider what it means to be the light of the world. What does this metaphor contribute to how we think of our role in the world? Well, remember what light does. It illumines and exposes. It makes you see clearly the reality all around you. It shines on that which is otherwise dark. And that tells us that we are the light in this dark world. A world that would stumble around without us. Of course, the world claims otherwise. For example, at the time of the Enlightenment, the world was saying that finally they had come into maturity. Finally, through the light of reason, all the real troubles in this world would soon be solved. But such Enlightenment has yet to deliver on its promises.
And so humans are in darkness without light from above. In a physical sense, we’ve come to appreciate light. Physical darkness tends to either limit us, or even scare us, given that criminals often crave the darkness as the hope of committing a crime and getting away with it. Likewise in a spiritual sense, we need light. We need the light of divine revelation to tell us about God, and about how to be in relationship with God, and even to expose our evil deeds. We often refer the Scriptures, and Jesus himself, as that light. And so we can appreciate that as we share Christ and God’s Word around us, that this is the spiritual light the world so desperately needs.
And yet, as true as it is that shining this light involves telling people about Jesus and the Bible, we can’t miss that Jesus talks about in more basic terms. As we mentioned, he talks about shining you light in verse 16 as something by which people will see your good works and praise your Father in heaven. This is important to notice. Let me try to connect the dots here. We’ve experienced the light of Christ in our lives, yes even through the Word. Christ living in us means we are the light now. With that light in us, it will transform our lives. We’ll be people that are different than the world now. We’ll be truly growing to love the things of God. We’ll desire good works. So then, given that reality, to shine that light is to live in such a way that people see the light within you at work. This is not saying that you should pretend to the world that you don’t ever sin anymore. That would be a lie. That would not be a good work for them to see. Rather, it’s about exposing to others that God’s light is at work in you.
That means that when God’s light exposes some sin in you, you will need to confess it. If you are in public, trying to live as the salt of the earth, and you suddenly lose your temper and blow up at someone, how will you respond? It’s my prayer that as a Christian who has the light of Christ in your heart, that such light will expose that sin in you. That you’ll be able to see clearly that you did wrong in your angry outburst. So then, let your light shine by right then in public admitting you should not have blown up like that, and that as a Christian you want to ask for forgiveness. It is the light within you that exposed your sin and called you to turn from that. We shine that light in the world when we help people to see how that light is at work in your life, calling you to good works, even when you don’t live it perfectly. The transforming light of Christ in you should be allowed to shine. So that hopefully people will see it, and want it in their lives too.
So then we’ve talked in our second point for today a little bit about what it means to be salt and light in this world. Let’s now turn in our third point to briefly notice why we should shine our light and why we should express our saltiness in this world. There are four reasons, or rationales, that we find here. They build on each other. Let me step us through them.
First, this is our identity. This passage is clear. We are salt. We are the light. That’s who we are. That’s why we should act like it. Second, it’s literally foolishness to act inconsistent with what we are. It’s ludicrous to think in verse 13 about salt losing its saltiness. Salt is salty; it must be salty; how can it not be? It’s ludicrous to think otherwise. In the same way, a city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Think of a dark countryside, with a city on a hill in a distance. The light of that city will shine forth. And since the city is on the hill, you can’t hide it. It’s ludicrous to think otherwise. When we went to China, we went sailing down the Yangtze River which is a huge river in a canyon somewhat like the Grand Canyon, but there were often cities on the tops of the canyons. You could see those cities for miles away; you couldn’t just hide them or their light. They were cities on a hill. Or likewise, you wouldn’t take a lit lamp and put a basket over top of it. That would be ludicrous to think otherwise. That’s the point here, it’s foolishness to act inconsistent with what we are.
Third, we should shine and express our saltiness because we want to be useful and not useless. This is where the first two reasons come together in the third. Your identity is who you are; it’s foolish and ridiculous to act contrary to it. If you try to, you will only find yourself useless or worthless. That’s what Jesus says about unsalty salt in verse 13. It’s good for nothing but to be thrown away and trampled upon. It’s become worthless. Salt’s identity and value come together; it needs to be salty or it’s of no use. But if it is salty, then it is of good use! The same with the light. If you take that light and hide it under a basket, it has become useless. Lights are meant to be shining bright. It betrays its very nature and identity to hide the light. You just end up in the dark! That makes the light useless. Instead go the opposite direction Jesus says in verse 15. It’s not enough to just not cover the light. Instead lift it up; elevate it on a lamp stand so that it will be most useful! By raising it up, it’s like the city on a hill. It’s elevation allows it to be most useful; not hidden at all! So, these first 3 reasons all come together. You are salt and light. That’s your identity. It would be ludicrous or hypocritical to act contrary to your identity. You would be useless in God’s kingdom if you do. So instead, shine on before this world. Salt the world around you! Be useful in the way God intended yourself to be.
A fourth reason why we should shine and salt like this is at the end of verse 16 — that people might praise your Father in heaven. In other words, as we are salt and light, it can bring people to God in worship. It can evangelize and/or edify others around us. You are salting those without salt, and they can come to taste the goodness of God. You are bringing light into the darkness, and that can bring people to see and know the light of Christ. And so by being salt and light, people through your intentional presence in their live, might end up “tasting” and “seeing” that the Lord is good.
Wisdom will recognize an important contrast that just happened between these verses today and the final ones of the Beatitudes. If you are a Christian, living as salt and light in this world, sometimes the result is that people around you come to know the Lord. They come to a point of praise toward God. Other times, living the same way can spark people in the world to persecute you and speak evil of you. For some, your good works can elicit a good response from them; for others, your righteousness might cause people to hate you. Wisdom tells us that we need to recognize the reality of both of these responses. Rejoice when you see the positive response. Recognize God’s light shining through you, and the Spirit at work to change hearts around you. But when you see the negative response, even then you can rejoice and be exceedingly glad, because great is your reward in heaven. But then pray for those enemies and do good to them; yet God might use you as salt and light in their life to bring about a positive response from them.
Saints of God, we’ve been reminded today of God’s grace. We are people who’ve been in darkness, and God’s has shined the light of Christ in our lives. We are people who’ve been rotting in spiritual disease, tasteless of any good thing, and God has salted us with Christ and his Word and his Holy Spirit. We’ve had a radical change of identity, and it’s by grace. And that change has enabled us to be salt and light in this world. This is an amazing, wonderful, gracious, thing. Let us live as such. In light of his great grace to us, let us delight to be useful. Let us delight to live consistent with this new identity. All to his glory and praise — and indeed may it even bring more of that about.
I will give you one final word of caution here, however. We will see when we get to chapter 6 an important principle that is in tension with this passage. When I say in tension, I mean that two principles that are both true, but they can push on each other. They are not contradictory, but maybe to the simple, they can seem that way. But to the wise, they are seen to complement each other wonderfully. Matthew 6:1 Jesus says, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.” Contrast that with verse 16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.” Two important complementary truths. Our passage for today calls us to live as a Christian in a way that benefits others and so others see God’s work in your life, that God would be praised. But chapter 6 warns us against that pride that comes when we crave other’s praise, so we do our good works specifically so they can see it, with the desire and goal for them to praise us.
And so there is a way you can visibly live out your good works that is wrong and a way that is right. At the heart of this is your motivation and your goal. On the one hand, are you embarrassed or hiding your Christian life? Are you acting more like a pagan or unbeliever? Do you not proactively and zealously live out your faith? Do you not look to live in such a way that God is exalted for what he’s doing in you? If so, this passage speaks to you! On the other hand, are you doing your good deeds, not to bring glory to God, but to bring glory to yourself? Are you doing your good deeds so others will see clearly how good you supposedly are, instead of seeing the grace of God? Are you seeking the praise of man or God? If so, the Matthew 6:1 call to secret good deeds is what you need to hear! This is a fine distinction, but an important one. Both teachings are in the same sermon!
Let us then pray for wisdom as we seek to live this out. And pray that God’s light and his salt in your life will help you to discern even the inner motivations of your heart. That God would humble as needed, and that he would be exalted more and more, in our own hearts, and before the world around us. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.