The Jesus Revolution
#5—Being Salt and Light
What’s this? Ordinary table salt. And this? An ordinary table lamp. A couple of ordinary things—you use them every day. But these ordinary things are very powerful change agents. Just a little salt can make a big change in the taste of your food. A little lamp can change a whole room from dark to light. Jesus used these two ordinary change agents to describe you. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. What did He mean? That’s what we’re talking about today.
This summer (I use that word loosely), we’re working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ teaching that describes what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, or life in the Kingdom of God.
Today, we are at Matthew 5:13-16, where Jesus says something remarkable about His followers. Let’s read it together.
Matthew 5:13-16 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
14“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Amazing! Jesus is talking to his band of followers—a group of people who were for the most part young, uneducated, poor and powerless—and He tells them, “You are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.” What if I said to you, “You are the light of the world!”? You would wonder—and so would everyone around you. I imagine Jesus’ followers each wondered, “Me?” And then they looked around at the others and thought, “Them?” They had none of the characteristics usually associated with world-changers! They weren’t rich or famous or powerful. But Jesus called them the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and that’s what He calls you too! What does He mean?
1. You are influential.
“You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.”
Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light to say that His followers are influential. He states it as a fact. If you are a Christian, you are influential; you make a difference just like salt and light. He doesn’t say, “Try to become the salt of the earth or the light of the world,” or “you ought to be.” He says, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” You are influential. Don’t doubt it!
But we do. We doubt that we make a difference. We don’t see ourselves as change-agents. In fact, we see ourselves as “ordinary”. How many of you feel pretty ordinary? I do! And that’s why I think Jesus chose salt and light—two very ordinary things that are very powerful change-agents. You may feel as ordinary as table salt. You may feel as unspectacular as a table lamp. But try living without salt and light for a while and you’ll see what an extraordinary difference these ordinary things make. The Romans had a proverb: “Nothing is more useful than sun and salt (Nil utilius sole et sale).” Very ordinary, but very useful.
ILL: In Elmer Bendiner’s book, The Fall of Fortresses, he describes one bombing run over the German city of Kassel:
Our B-17 (“The Tondelayo”) was barraged by flack from Nazi antiaircraft guns. That was not unusual, but on this particular occasion our gas tanks were hit. Later, as I reflected on the miracle of a twenty-millimeter shell piercing the fuel tank without touching off an explosion, our pilot, Bohn Fawkes, told me it was not quite that simple. On the morning following the raid, Bohn had gone down to ask our crew chief for that shell as a souvenir of unbelievable luck. The crew chief explained that not just one shell but eleven had been found in the gas tanks–eleven unexploded shells where only one was sufficient to blast us out of the sky. It was as if the sea had been parted for us.
Even after thirty-five years, so awesome an event leaves me shaken, especially after I heard the rest of the story from Bohn. He was told that the shells had been sent to the armorers to be defused. The armorers told him that Intelligence had picked them up. They could not say why at the time, but Bohn eventually sought out the answer. Apparently when the armorers opened each of those shells, they found no explosive charge. They were as clean as a whistle and just as harmless. But not all of them were empty. One contained a carefully rolled piece of paper. On it was a scrawl in Czech that read: “This is all we can do for you now.”
The Germans forced Czechs to work in their munitions factories; the Czechs were slaves. But they fought back in their own small way. “This is all we can do for you now.” Do you think they felt like they couldn’t much? Do you think they did? Oh baby! Ask every man who was on that bomber.
Jesus could have said, “You are the nuclear bombs of the world.” Nuclear bombs are big and loud and when they go off, they change everything. But most of us don’t see ourselves that way. “I’m no nuclear bomb—I’m more like a fire-cracker.”
Or Jesus could have said, “You are the stars of the world—you are the kings and queens, the presidents and prime ministers, the movers and shakers of the world.” We think of the Einsteins and Churchills and Lady Gaga—people of enormous intellect or power or…whatever—and we think, “I’m no star. I’m no Einstein, or Churchill, and I’m sure no Lady Gaga.”
So Jesus didn’t pick those kinds of extraordinary change-agents. He knew that we’d disqualify ourselves. He picked ordinary change-agents—salt and light—things that we use so often that we take them for granted, but you wouldn’t want to live without them. “You are like this ordinary table salt. You are like this ordinary table lamp.” Ordinary things that make an extraordinary difference. Ordinary change-agents. You are influential!
In what way? How are you influential?
You are the salt of the earth! What does salt do? Salt seasons and preserves. In Jesus’ day, before the advent of refrigeration, salt was placed on meat to prevent decay, to preserve the meat. And of course, it was sprinkled on food to season, to enhance the flavor. Imagine popcorn without salt…boring! Salt was used for other purposes, but its two primary uses were to season and preserve.
You are the salt of the earth. God wants you to be a seasoning influence on the world around you. You are to spice up life and make people thirsty for God. Jesus said that His followers are to life what salt is to food! You are the spice of life, baby! You put the joy and sparkle and zest into living! You bring God’s joyous presence with you wherever you go! You make life better!
And God wants you to be a preserving influence on the world around you. You and I are to live in such a way that we arrest the tide of moral decay in our culture. We are to have a purifying and preserving influence on people. God sprinkles you around the neighborhood to save others. You are the salt of the earth!
And you are the light of the world! What does light do? Light illuminates. Light makes it possible to see; light makes invisible things visible.
You are the light of the world. As the light of the world, you make the invisible God visible to those around you. You live in such a way that others can see God’s love and life through you, and are drawn to Him. Light illuminates. You are the light of the world!
That’s what salt and light do; how do they do it?
How do salt and light make a difference?
Salt and light are influential in these two ways. First, by being different. Salt seasons and preserves because it is different from what you put it on. You don’t salt your salt. You put salt on food because it is different from the food and so changes it. It has to be different to make a difference. That’s why Jesus said that salt that loses its saltiness is worthless. It has lost its uniqueness, the salty difference that changes things. Unsalty salt changes nothing. Same thing with light—light is different than darkness, so when the light goes on, it changes everything.
ILL: My most dramatic experience with this happened in the Kuna caves (pictures), outside of Boise. Out in the desert, there’s a hole about six feet across; you climb down a ladder into a huge underground cavern. At one end, it narrows down to a tiny opening, just big enough to crawl into. You have to army crawl through a wind tunnel about a quarter mile, and then it opens up into underground lava tubes that are twenty feet high and twenty feet wide, and miles long. Very cool.
It was the first and only time I’ve experienced absolute darkness—the total absence of light. When we turned out our flashlights, you couldn’t see anything, not even your hand in front of your face. There was no light—zero. It was disorienting. And then I saw something—a weird green luminescence moving a few feet away. It was my friend’s watch face—one of those glow-in-the-dark deals. In any normal light situation, you’d never notice a glow-in-the-dark watch face, but it absolute darkness it stood out like a beacon. Why? Because light is different than darkness, and a little light can make a big difference.
Both salt and light make a difference by being different.
Second, they make a difference by being there, by being contact with the thing they are changing. You can have a salt shaker full of salt, but it won’t make a difference until you sprinkle it on your food. It has to come in contact to make a difference. Same thing with light. Jesus said that you can light a lamp, but if you put it under a bowl, it does no good. You have to let it shine, let the light penetrate the darkness.
You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. You are world-changers, difference-makers. But to make a difference, you have to be different. The only way we can make a difference is if we are different, living salty lives with a Christ-like tang, living lives bright with the presence of God. And to make a difference you have to be in contact with a world that needs changing. You’ve got to get the salt out of the shaker and the light from under the bowl.
You are influential just by being different and being there! One more thing about your influence.
Notice the scope of your influence: the earth, the world.
Notice that Jesus describes the scope of your influence. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Holy smokes! The earth! The world! This is huge! You are going to help change the world! Some of you are checking out, just like those first followers of Jesus did. You’re thinking, “Oh this is just one of those pep talks—‘you can change the world’—but we’re all know the truth. We’re not world-changers.” Oh, but you are. Do you how to change the world? One person at a time. You influence one person who influences another who influences another who influences another. And one person at a time, we will change the world.
ILL: In 1855 Edward Kimball, a Sunday school teacher in Chicago, led a 19-year old shoe-clerk to Christ. The shoe-clerk eventually became a world-famous evangelist who led thousands of people to Christ. His name was Dwight L. Moody. Moody Bible Institute just down the street is named for him. In 1879 Moody influenced the well-educated and cultured British theologian Frederick B. Meyer to change his preaching style and emphasis. Later on a preaching trip to America, Meyer influenced a discouraged young preacher named Wilbur Chapman to become an effective evangelist. As his work grew, he needed an assistant and hired a former baseball player with a high school education to help him. His name was Billy Sunday, and he eventually led more than a million people to Christ. In 1924, while Sunday was preaching in Charlotte, North Carolina, a prayer group was formed, that later invited another evangelist by the name of Mordecai Hamm to preach. It was while Hamm was preaching that a teenager named Billy Graham gave his life to Jesus. And Billy Graham has told more people about Jesus than anyone in history! It all started Edward Kimball, a Sunday school teacher who led a young man to Christ. (Of course, it really started before Edward Kimball—some unknown person led him to Christ.)
Jesus is saying that we can all be Edward Kimballs! You can influence one person who influences another and somewhere down the line it might be the next Billy Graham or Mother Teresa. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. You are influential—far more influential than you know!
2. Influence can be lost.
“If the salt loses it saltiness…don’t light a lamp and put it under a bowl.”
The second lesson from these words of Jesus is that influence can be lost. Salt can lose its saltiness. A light can be put under a bowl and hidden. You are influential, Jesus says, but don’t lose your influence.
ILL: A few years ago, a poll reported that 40% of Americans consider themselves to be born again Christians. They claim to have a transforming relationship with Jesus. If this were true, then at least 40% of Americans would be salt and light. What would happen if you put 2/3 of a pound of salt on a one pound steak? The salt would overwhelm the steak! It would be inedible! Salt is so powerful that a little goes a long way. So why aren’t the 40% of born-again Christians having that same kind of overwhelming influence on the other 60% of Americans?
Maybe it’s because influence can be lost. Jesus suggests two ways that influence can be lost…
Influence can be lost by compromise.
Jesus warned about losing your saltiness. Salt is sodium chloride (a very stable chemical compound), and pure salt can’t lose its saltiness. It’s either salt or it’s not. But people in Jesus’ day got their salt from the Dead Sea and it wasn’t pure. The salt could leech out, leaving behind a white substance that still looked like salt but wasn’t salty. It was possible for this impure salt to lose its saltiness, and it became worthless and was thrown out. The idea is that for salt to lose its saltiness means that it ceases to be different, it ceases to be what it really is.
The surest way to lose your influence is by compromise. When you compromise the core values that make you different, that make you who you are as a Christian, you lose your saltiness and sacrifice your influence. You all know stories of Christians who sacrificed their influence by compromise: pastors who had affairs, Christians who cheated for financial gain. When that happens, not only is their influence sacrificed, but God’s reputation takes a hit. If our good deeds can prompt people to praise God, our bad deeds can prompt them to mock Him! My compromise can give others an excuse to dismiss God. Perhaps that is why Jesus said:
Luke 14:34–35 Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
Notice that in Luke’s version of this saying, Jesus adds one interesting phrase: unsalty salt is “fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile.” You know you’re worthless when you’re not even fit for a manure pile. Jesus is saying, “You ruin manure!” That’s bad! When you ruin manure—that’s bad!
There are some of you today who have lost your saltiness—you’re sacrificing your influence through compromise. You’re compromising, making wrong choices, and you know they’re wrong. Please, don’t throw away your influence. Don’t lose your saltiness and become good for nothing! If 40% of Americans are born again, why aren’t we having an overwhelming influence on the other 60%? Because of compromise. Because we’re not that different. Because we’re more concerned about fitting in and being accepted than standing up and being counted.
Influence can be lost by isolation.
A second way influence can be lost is by isolation. Jesus said that a light can be hidden under a bowl and no one benefits. Salt can be kept in a salt shaker. Some Christians lose their influence because they compromise and aren’t different any more—they’ve become just like the world they are trying to change. But some Christians go the other way. They maintain the difference but they hide in the church. They keep their salt in the shaker, their light under a bowl. They have no influence because they have no contact with a needy world.
Did you know that many Christians have no significant relationships with non-Christians? All of their friends are other Christians. Oh, they know people who are aren’t Christians, but their contact is very limited or shallow. There’s really no chance for the salt to make anyone thirsty, or for the light to shine. It is possible to have a fortress mentality—to hide in the church, to see the world as a dangerous place, and the church as safe. But Jesus didn’t mean for the church to be a rest home for saints; it’s a rescue mission for sinners! Jesus didn’t mean for the church to be a fortress to keep the world out; He meant for the church to be a force that invades the world and changes it! Don’t lose your influence by isolation!
Let me ask you a question: if you think the world is a mess, whose fault is that? Here’s what John Stott says:
And when society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not rather reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?
Where is the salt?
So Jesus says that you are influential, but influence can be lost: lost by compromise or isolation. Don’t lose your saltiness or keep it in the shaker; don’t hide your light under a bowl.
3. Make the most of your influence.
“Let your light shine!”
I’ve got to point out that here, Jesus says to let your light shine “before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”; and in the next chapter (Matthew 6), He says, “be careful not to do your good deeds before men to be seen by them.” Do them before men; don’t do them before men. What’s the deal? The difference is in the purpose. Here in Matthew 5, we let our light shine, we do our good deeds before men so that our Father in heaven is praised. In Matthew 6, we’re told not to do our good deeds before men “to be seen by them” and win their applause. Let your light shine not so you can be praised, but so God can be praised. The difference is in the motivation and who gets praise.
So here’s a question: what kind of good deeds would make people praise our Father in heaven? There are two words for “good” in Greek; one means good in quality; the other adds the idea of beauty. That is the word used here: doing something good and beautiful for God. What would those good or beautiful deeds be? It will probably be different for different people, but here are some pretty common ones: Feeding the hungry, correcting injustice, helping the poor, the sick, the orphan and widow, the oppressed; strong character, good relationships.
Let your light shine! Make the most of your influence. Here’s how.
You make a difference by being different. The saltier you are, the more influence you have. The brighter your light, the more influence you have. So don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to be stand out or swim against the current.
ILL: Craig Groeschel has a new book out: Weird: because normal isn’t working. I love the title! His point is that the way most people are doing life isn’t working any more—he talks about time, money, relationships, sex and values. In each of those, Christians are called to be different (counter-cultural)—we manage our time and money differently, we treat relationships and sex differently, we live with different values. We’re weird—in a really good way.
Many of us spend most of our lives trying to fit in, not stand out; trying to be normal, not weird. After all, normal is cool, weird is uncool. While we’re all trying so hard to fit in with everyone else, Jesus comes along and says that the way everyone is going (the wide and easy way) is the way to destruction, but the way to life is narrow and hard. Weird…in a really good way. Jesus says to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to forgive those who hurt us, even when they keep doing it. Weird…in a really good way.
When you begin to follow Jesus, you leave normal behind and you become different—weird in a really good way.
Here is how Peter put it:
1 Peter 1:15-16 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
The word “holy” means different or unique. God is holy. God is utterly different from us. God is infinite, we are finite. God is perfect, we are imperfect. God is righteous, we are sinful. God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent; we are omni-nothing—God has no limits, and we have many. You get the picture: God is different than us. That’s what holy means. And this holy God calls us to be holy, to be like Him. This is holiness: being different. Different values, beliefs, behaviors. Be different—weird in a really good way.
Romans 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Don’t conform to the world around you; don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold. But let God transform you from the inside out, change you and make you different. Be different! And if you are different, you will make a difference.
ILL: The following was inscribed on the tomb of an Anglican bishop in the crypts of Westminster Abbey:
When I was young and free and
My imagination had no limits,
I dreamed of changing the world.
As I grew older and wiser,
I discovered the world would not change,
So I shortened my sights somewhat
And decided to change only my country.
But it too seemed immovable.
As I grew into my twilight years,
In one last desperate attempt,
I settled for changing my family,
Those closest to me, but alas,
They would have none of it.
And now as I lay on my deathbed
I suddenly realize:
If I had only changed myself first,
Then by example I might have changed my family.
From their inspiration and encouragement
I would then have been able to better my country
And who knows, I may have even changed the world.
Want to make a difference? Be different. Let God change you and the change will ripple out.
To make the most of your influence you not only have to be different, but you have to be there. You have to be in contact with the people you hope to influence. When God changed the world, He became a man, Jesus, and lived among us. God came near. He was called “Immanuel” which means “God with us.” This is how God changes us: He comes near, He is with us. We call this “the Immanuel principle”.
The Immanuel principle is very different from the fortress mentality. God didn’t stay safely ensconced in heaven, and we can’t stay in the church if we’re going to change the world. Jesus said in John 17 that we were to be in the world but not of the world. Different but there. I’ll finish with this story that beautifully illustrates “different but there”.
ILL: In 391 AD, a little Syrian monk named Telemachus believed that God spoke to him and told him to go to Rome, capital of the empire. Telemachus had devoted most of his life to serving God as a monk, isolated from the rest of the world. The call to Rome was a surprising change, but he obediently set out on foot. The call to leave his monastery for Rome would change the world.
Months later, Telemachus arrived in Rome on a holiday and was swept up in a huge crowd going to the Coliseum. He found a seat with everyone else, and wondered what would happen. He was horrified by what he saw. Human beings—gladiators—were forced to fight wild animals and each other to the death for the entertainment of the crowd. Telemachus watched until he could stand no more, then the little monk jumped onto the field and ran out crying, “Stop! In the name of Christ, stop! This is not right! In the name of Christ, stop!”
At first, the crowd thought he was part of the show—a clown who was joking with the gladiators—and they laughed. But as Telemachus continued to cry, “Stop. In the name Christ, stop!” they realized it was no joke and the laughter turned to jeers and then calls for his death. Suddenly a sword flashed in the sun, and the little monk fell bleeding to Coliseum floor. A hush fell over the crowd, and they heard the little monk’s dying words, “Stop! In the name of Christ, stop!” And he died. In the silence that followed, people began to get up and leave. And within a few months, the gladiatorial battles began to decline and soon stopped all together. Why? Because one man dared to stand up and be counted. One man dared to be different and be there.
You could be that one man, that one woman that changes our world—if you have the courage to be different and be there.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are influential. Don’t doubt it! You are ordinary change-agents. God can do extraordinary things through ordinary people who are His.