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Distinct Disciples: Salt and Light


February 5, 2023 |Distinct Disciples|Matthew 5:13-16

JD Cutler



This is the second in a three week look at Matthew chapter 5.

Our section today has often been treated as separate from verses 1-12 and its following verses 17-20. When in reality it is tied to verses 1-12 and taken together, they form the introduction to the sermon on the mount.


Last week we saw that the beatitudes introduce the character of someone who is in the Kingdom of God, and they are best understood when we replace the word Blessed with Flourishing. They form a picture of someone who, having been brought into the kingdom of God by the new covenant, thrives in this world that is no longer our home.

We saw that to thrive in the kingdom looks very different than to thrive in the world. This is best summarized in the last two verses we examined, verses 11 and 12.

If you remember, I said last week these verses serve as the linchpin that connects the beatitudes with our text today.

Jesus ties these statements to the beatitudes by using the same language of flourishing and connects it with our text today by changing the subject from blessed are the and those to blessed are you, making way for and setting up his two you are statements in verses 13-16.

As a way of introduction, let’s see if we can dig into this connection a little more.

In the beatitudes Jesus has been describing a kingdom minded disciple, someone who recognizes their own spiritual bankruptcy, someone who is broken over sin, someone who has moved from demanding their way to the meekness that trusts God’s provision and plan, someone who has an increasing hunger for God’s righteousness, both in their life and the world. He goes on to describe their interactions with others, they will be merciful, their motives will become increasingly pure, they will be makers of peace wherever they go, and the righteousness of God will become more and more evident in their life.

The flourishing Jesus describes is possession of the kingdom, comfort, satisfaction, and mercy from God. They will bear the title sons of God and they shall see him more clearly than those outside of the kingdom. But Jesus also describes what may happen in the face of this flourishing. They may be persecuted for it. This is his emphasis in verse 11 and 12.


Matthew 5:11-12 (ESV) 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Rather than seeing being reviled, persecuted, and being falsely accused as negative, Jesus invites us to see them as part of our flourishing.

Rather than seeing being reviled, persecuted, and being falsely accused as negative, Jesus invites us to see them as part of our flourishing.

This is where we ended last week. It leaves us with a pretty large question looming.

If the result of kingdom living is persecution and revilement, why not just withdraw?


You may have never asked yourself that question overtly, but it may be at work in your life nonetheless in one of two common ways.

Withdrawing from the world in your daily life.

Obviously we don’t mean withdraw in the monastic sense or the desert hermit sense, or even the Amish or Mennonite sense. Not total or almost total withdrawal from society, but in the practical sense. Your closest friends are Christian, you only spend significant time with fellow believers, if someone asked you if there is a non-believer you spend significant time with, you would be hard pressed to answer, right?


Then there is the other way, you don't withdraw from the world, you just try and live incognito. You don’t talk about your faith, you don’t bring up Jesus, you keep your church life and your regular life separated as much as possible.

I mean these are two ways you can avoid the kinds of things Jesus talks about, right? It’s hard to be persecuted and reviled when you aren’t around the world or if the world doesn’t know you are different.


So why not, why shouldn’t we just withdraw and form Christian communities apart from the world.

Jesus doesn’t give the disciples long to wonder, he immediately gives them the answer.

Because they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

That is they are different or distinct from the world and yet they are to be in the world.


There is a popular Christianese saying ‘in the world, but not of the world’ You’ve heard this right?

I am grateful for David Mathis’s article from desiringGod where he points out that this may not fully capture what Jesus is saying. I mean, I get the sentiment but it seems to focus on the wrong thing, it can lead us to think of our predicament as stuck in the world. When comforting a friend we might say, Remember, we are stuck in this awful place, although we don’t belong to it, when in reality Jesus teaches something very different. His emphasis is that we are not of the world, but we are sent into it.


That statement hits us differently, doesn't it? All of a sudden, I am not stuck in this world in which I should not fit, but I am sent into it intentionally because I am distinct from it.


It is your distinction as a disciple that Jesus is teaching here.

But rather than withdrawing or hiding that distinction away, we are called to be fully present in the world as disciples of Jesus.


This distinction is what we are going to be looking at today.

As we open our text this morning, we are going to look at the presence of a distinction, the perception of that distinction, and the purpose of the distinction along with three corresponding statements.


Matthew 5:13-16 (ESV) 13 “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.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 16 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.


The Presence of Distinction

When the disciples flourish in the kingdom they will be distinct from the world.


Jesus gives us two pictures of his followers. In verse 12 he says you are the salt of the earth, and in verse 14 he says you are the light of the world.


These dual metaphors are linked in the way that they are presented. This is consistent with Hebrew and Greco-Roman wisdom literature, there is a dualistic nature here representing one truth. The psalms and proverbs use similar language when it repeats a thought using different metaphors, ultimately pointing back to a singular truth.


Now, I am sure you have heard sermons that address the intention of these metaphors.

Salt represents preservation and light represents revelation, or something similar.

And while we can make some educated, biblical, applications from these metaphors that can be helpful describing the Christian life, when it comes to the interpretation of salt and light in reference to the way Jesus uses them, we have to keep in mind that, one, the way he uses them here demands that we treat them homogeneously and two, the context of the sermon on the mount and particularly the placement of these metaphors matters.

I believe it is the distinction and purpose of the disciples that he is highlighting with these pictures. Let’s look at them, first as a whole and then individually.

The first thing to note is that they are in the indicative tense, that is they are presented not as imperatives, be salt and be light, this is not a command, but rather they are presented as statements of fact. Disciples are salt and disciples are light.

To say it another way, by our relationship with Jesus and our entrance into the kingdom of God by the new covenant we are something that we were not previously. The reason for this is stated in Jesus’ conclusionary statement in verse 16 when he says, in the same way. Here is the application of the metaphors. Anything that we think salt and light might represent has to align itself firmly with Jesus’ application if we are going to understand it correctly. Understanding now that although they are very different metaphors, but that they are united in usage and in application, let’s turn to each one respectively.


Jesus says in verse 12- you are the salt of the earth,

Salt- this is where we have to be careful, because according to my studies there are at least 11 ways salt was used in both Jesus’ day and in the Old Testament.

Seasoning, preservation of food, sealing of covenants, accompanying the OT sacrifices, eating salt with someone representing loyalty to that person, and so on.


Then there is the matter of the word Jesus uses here for, the english expression ‘salt has lost its taste’ comes from two greek words, salt and the word mōrainō (More Rhi No) which means ‘to be foolish or to act foolishly. Literally ‘foolish salt’. You see why, if we divorce this statement you are the salt of the earth, we can begin to stretch what it means.


It is the context that helps us understand what Jesus means when he says, how then will its saltiness be restored. Jesus says, here how could it be seasoned with salt, using the word ‘to salt’. It would then seem that understanding salt as a seasoning would be the best interpretation of what Jesus means.

We understand seasoning with salt as adding something distinct that changes or enhances a dish. In the same way Jesus says that his disciples are to be distinct from the earth, as in the systems and people of the earth. They are like salt in that when they are present in the world, it is noticeable.

We understand that right? We immediately notice if salt is missing when we taste a food. Or when we cook, we take a bite and say, that needs salt. There is something distinct about it that we miss when it is not there.


Jesus says in verse 14- you are the light of the world

Light is a little easier to understand than salt, but again context helps us understand that by light he means something undeniably distinct. You cannot hide a city on a hill. The light is visible and distinct from the surrounding darkness. It’s hard for us to really picture this because of how much light we have. The light of buildings, of street lamps along the road, of our cars and other vehicles. But think about traveling pre-electricity, a city bustling with life and light would stick out from the surrounding area easily. Or have you seen the pictures of the earth from space? There are large dark areas and then these little groupings of light visible from space, obviously distinct from the less populated areas.

Elsewhere Jesus talks about the people of the world being in spiritual darkness, so we understand here that the light he is referring to the spiritual light we reflect from the actual light of the world, Jesus. We were talking about this with Lilly and obviously the moon is a great picture of this. There are nights where we can see almost clearly in the dark when the moon is full and bright, but the moon doesn’t produce it, it merely reflects it and it is most effective when it’s position is just right in reference to the sun and our location on earth. The brighter it is, the more distinct it becomes from the darkness of the sky at night, right?


So it is the distinctiveness of the disciples that Jesus is referring to here, like the distinctness of salt in a dish or the distinctness of light in a dark place. But before we move on, I want to share a very important truth with you that should encourage us. It doesn’t take much salt or light to make a difference does it?

A little bit of salt or a little bit of light can make a huge difference because of its distinction.

A little bit of salt or a little bit of light can make a huge difference because of its distinction.

Salt- 2% in dough (bread and pizza) Sometimes salt is absorbed and it’s influence permeates and sometimes it stands out but in both instances it is valuable for its distinction.

It does many things, controls fermentation, strengthens gluten, improves crust color, and of course modifies flavor.

Light- it doesn't take much light to dispel darkness does it? Ask any kid with a night light. A little light is all it takes to permeate the darkness.


In the same way, as a follower of Jesus, as a disciple, you are distinct from the world.


Jesus not only tells his disciples that they are distinct, he illustrates how failing to be distinct renders them useless for the kingdom.


The Perception of Distinction

That distinction is supposed to be visible to those outside the covenant.

Unsalty salt- Matthew 5:13 (ESV) 13 “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.

As we noted, salt had many significant uses throughout the history of man. Interestingly enough, salt is one of the essential ingredients to mankind thriving. Throughout man’s history, the availability of salt has been pivotal to civilization.

But Jesus says, what good is salt if it is no longer salty?

We have to understand that the salt that was available to the people in Jesus’ day was impure and exposure to moisture could leach out the salt, leaving behind worthless material. Furthermore, it wasn’t just not good, it could be harmful to the vegetation, so the only thing it was fit for at that point was to be thrown onto the path to be walked on. In another place, using the same metaphor, Luke records Jesus saying 34 “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? 35 It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”


In the accompanying metaphor of light, Jesus goes into greater detail.

Hidden light- Matthew 5:14-15 (ESV) 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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.

Unlike salt, light cannot lose its lightness. You have to intentionally cover it, which Jesus says no one would do. No one lights a lamp and then covers it. Rather it is placed on a stand and gives light to the whole house. This was another familiar metaphor in Jesus’ teachings, in which he used various locations all pointing to the same thing.

Mark- no one brings in a lamp and puts it under a basket or the bed

Luke- no one, after lighting a lamp puts it under a jar, or puts it under the bed

Luke- no one after lighting a lamp puts it under a basket or in the cellar

In all the references he makes it always ends with, rather they put it on a stand.

That is, the light is placed so that it can have maximum impact on the room and all those who enter and see by it.


What is Jesus’ point? Without the distinctive nature and flavor of salt and without light being visible, they are useless and purposeless.

The disciples are distinct from the world and if that distinction isn’t seen, what good is it?

One commentator in my study said it this way: Jesus desires no diluted christians and no invisible Christians.

Why? It is their distinction that will impact the world for the kingdom of God. It is the distinctions that make the kingdom of God attractive to those outside of it.

Martin Lloyd Jones quote- He once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message through it may hate it at first.”


Isn’t this similar to what Jesus said in some of his final teaching moments with his disciples? In the upper room, after he has washed their feet, after Judas leaves to betray Jesus, he tells his disciples.

John 13:34-35 (ESV) 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

How will people know that they belong to Jesus? By their love for one another, how will they know they love one another and more so that their love is the kind of radical love Jesus loved them with? By their actions towards one another.

To say it another way, as disciples live out their faith in front of the world, their distinction will be obvious, as obvious as salt in a dish or light in a room, people will notice, and that is Jesus’ point.

The inference is if your life as a follower looks no different than that of the world around you, then as a disciple, you are as useless and purposeless as 'unsalty' salt or hidden light.

...if your life as a follower looks no different than that of the world around you, then as a disciple, you are as useless and purposeless as 'unsalty' salt or hidden light.

Through Jesus’ metaphors we see that not only does a distinction exist between the disciple and the world, that that distinction should be visible to the world, which according to Jesus' final statement has a purpose.


The Purpose of Distinction

The visible distinction is ultimately for the glory of God.

Matthew 5:16 (ESV) 16 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.


Jesus begins his applicatory statement when he says, in the same way, or in this manner.

In the same way as what? In the same way as a lamp on a stand gives light to all in the house, or in the way salt seasons all the food it is put on, live your life in such a way that your light shines before others.

What is the distinction that Jesus says will be seen by the world?

Your good works.

Now we have to stop here for a minute and ask an obvious question for the student of the bible.

Doesn’t Jesus say some 30 verses later, in the same sermon, (ESV) 1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people? Doesn’t he say to not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, to pray in your closet, and to hide your fasting?


There Jesus is referencing our outward religious duties, specifically giving, praying, and fasting, and he condemns not their visibility but why we are doing them.

He says watch out when your motive for good works become desiring people to see them and praise you for them, which as you can see is an entirely different purpose than what Jesus states here.

I believe in chapter 6 he is warning us of trying to impress our fellow brothers and sisters with our religious duties and here he is talking about our distinction in the world.

Here he says, as you live in the light of Christ and as your life is distinctively different from the world, people will notice, not because you are trying to get them to, but because it is so radically different from the world and they will give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

So then, what are good works?

The Westminster Confession of Faith devotes chapter 16 of the confession to answering that question. I would encourage you to look that up and read it this week, but let me give you a summary statement from what it says.


Good works are actions that God has commanded us to do in his holy Word that are fruits and evidence of a true and living faith.

Let’s unpack that for a minute. Good works then are not whatever we think are good works, not even things done with great zeal and passion, but only things done in obedience to what God has commanded us to do in his word. They are things produced in and through us by the Holy Spirit’s work in our life, therefore they can be mimicked by unbelievers but never reproduced because they do not have the spirit as their power or the glory of God as their purpose.


To go back to our analogy of the moon, our light of good works merely reflect the glorious light of Christ to a dark world and should be evident to anyone who knows us that they are just that, a reflection of a much greater light. It is by this that men may see God in us and give him glory. We know that the disciples understood this, at least at some point because Peter, the spokesman for the 12 disciples writes in his first letter about this very thing.


Listen to what he says as he draws heavily from Jesus’ teachings here.

1 Peter 2:9-12 (ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.


The life of the disciple, and especially the distinct nature of it, finds its purpose in the glory of God. Jesus says it another way in those final moments we talked about earlier.

John 15:8 (ESV) 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.


Why is this so important? Because your distinction, your good works, are not about you getting the glory or the credit, we don’t follow Jesus and obey the commands of scripture to get anything, but rather that God may get glory.

That is to say once again, from this pulpit, it is not about you. You are salt and you are light, but you are those things because you have been redeemed by a gracious and loving God who has made you into something altogether different, and when you walk in accord with that new reality, the potential for God’s glory in the world is the greatest.


Conclusion:

This is why when faced with the reality of persecution, of revilement, of false testimonies against us, we do not withdraw, we do not sink back, but we press on, rejoicing not only because of our future hope but because it will all be used for the glory of God.


Here is where we will close. I believe that the Bible teaches that God has providentially and intentionally placed you where you are. Like the master chef applying salt where it is needed or like putting a lamp in just the right place to provide the most light, God has placed you where you are needed. As a disciple you have purpose.

Are you fulfilling that purpose? Is your life distinct from the world in the way it should be?

If not, why not?

Have you withdrawn from the world by refusing to engage non-believers, or worse, have you so compartmentalized your faith and hidden your walk that non-believers cannot even see the distinction. God help us.


If you are his, you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world, so live your life in obedience to God before the world so that they may see it and give glory to God. Amen?



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