MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 30, 2001 FROM MATTHEW 5:13-16
(Eleventh in a series on the church)
As we finish the year 2001, we do so with our eyes once again trained on what the Bible says about Christ’s church. Up to this point we have for the most part looked at what God calls the church to BE. First, we looked at the essential nature of he church. We saw that the church is the ecclesia, the gathering of God’s people on earth. The church is the dwelling place of God or his earthly temple. God’s place of residence on this planet is in his church. We saw more of what God calls his church to BE when we examined the character of the church. We’ve seen the church is called to reflect the very character of Christ. The church is otherworldly—we are not native to this planet and should not greatly value the things of this world because we are citizens of heaven, sojourning here. The church reflects God’s power and hope as his New Covenant people. We are people who have the Holy Spirit within us, living in supernatural power with his law on our hearts and minds. The church reflects God’s holiness in that we are his saints or holy ones who live separated, increasingly sanctified lives. A third way we have seen what the church is to BE is in how we relate to God. The church is the bride of Christ which means that we are in a loving, submissive relationship to Him. The church is made up of the children of God as he has adopted us into his family and now protects, provides and disciplines us. The church is a kingdom of priests, a priesthood of believers who live as holy and acceptable sacrifices offered up to him. Finally, the church is made up of disciples of Christ who relate to God as their Master. The call of a disciple of Christ is to surrender everything to Him so we might more and more know life and joy in the Holy Spirit.
All of those facets of the church in some way express what God has called the church to BE. The reason we have spent so much time on what the church is to BE is because if the church is BEING what it is called to be in its essential nature, its character and its relationship to God, it will of necessity be DOING what God has called it to do. Today, we place so much stress on doing—there are so many things we have to DO for God. What we are to BE is often ignored. God calls us to be his people and as we are living faithfully before him, He is more than faithful to show us what we are to do. This is the biblical pattern seen in Ephesians 2:10. Paul says of the church, “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Notice, Paul first says who we are. We are God’s workmanship and we are created in Christ Jesus. That’s who we ARE. Flowing from who we are is what we are to do—we are created to do good works. That’s what we DO.
It’s crucial to have as our foundation, who we are in Christ as his church—who God made us to BE because how we understand who God made us to BE will have a profound impact on what we do and how we do it. For instance, if Mount of Olives conceives of itself fundamentally as being social club, then our worship will be insincere and we will not do very much in the way of missions and evangelism because a social club doesn’t exist to worship God or preach the gospel to others, it exists for itself. If the church conceives of itself fundamentally as a convert-winning organism, then there will be (if it is impassioned about its identity) many people who hear the gospel and some will genuinely respond in faith. But there will also be many false converts because the emphasis is on making converts instead of obeying the Great Commission and making disciples who will glorify God by reflecting His character and continuing His ministry. The believers in a church where the fundamental emphasis is on evangelism tend to be more shallow in their understanding of God and therefore more vulnerable to doctrinal error because the over-riding focus is not so much on knowing and loving God, but on rescuing people from hell. If we see ourselves primarily as some sort of advanced theological institution with a unique calling to set everyone else in the body of Christ straight, then will be loveless and vulnerable to pride because “knowledge puffs up.” We will also be unfaithful in making genuine followers of Christ.
If however we as a church see ourselves as Christ’s many facetted jewel placed on earth to know and glorify God by showing the world the character of Christ and carrying on his ministry, then we will BE like Christ. We will also DO what Christ did while he was on earth because we will in fact BE his body, expressing his character and continuing his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. This morning, we will look at a biblical designation of the church from the teaching of Jesus that illustrates how who we ARE dictates what we DO. Our text is Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus says, “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. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
Jesus says to those in the kingdom, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” He doesn’t say “Aspire to be the salt of the earth” or, “Try really hard to be the light of the world.” No. He makes the bold pronouncement—this is who you are—you ARE the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And the implicit truth connected to that is, because you ARE salt and light, you will DO certain things because salt and light have inherent properties they display. In the ancient near east, salt was a flavoring, but the predominant use of salt was as a preservative. There was no refrigeration so perishable items like meat spoiled quickly. Salt was rubbed into the meat and that helped keep it from spoiling. Jesus says to his church, “you are in this earth as salt to keep it from rotting.” The church of Christ has been placed on earth to BE salt and because of who we are as salt; we WILL have a certain impact on the culture.
As we rub up against the culture, we will act as de-putrefying agents. We will keep the culture from rotting away. This world is filled with sin--rot-inducing, life-destroying, beauty-defiling sin. As the church acts as salt in the society, the rotting will stop or at least dramatically slow, the defilement will be limited and the destruction will be curtailed because that is what salt does in society. Jesus also calls us to be the light of the world. The sin of this world also darkens it—it darkens minds, it darkens ideas of what is good and what is evil—it darkens people’s understanding of God and who He is. Because sin darkens, God has placed his radiant church in the world to overcome the darkening power of sin. His church shines the light of Christ to illuminate people’s minds with the truth of the gospel. His church radiates the light of truth to expose the darkness of this world’s immorality--to help people know what is truly good and truly bad. His church shines the light of God’s character, his law, his love, and his ministry as his people do their good works before others. That enables people to see what God is like as his church reflects His character and ministry before their sin-darkened eyes.
That is the general meaning of these metaphors or designations for the church as salt and light. But Jesus doesn’t simply make the pronouncement about the church being salt and light and leave it there. If you look at the text, that is actually the shortest part of the text. Jesus’ burden isn’t simply to pronounce who the church is in its role as salt and light. The majority of his teaching is devoted to what follows these simple, short pronouncements of who we are as salt and light. Most of the text is devoted to, “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.” And, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deed and praise your Father in heaven.” That’s Jesus’ main point, so we are going to make it our main point as we examine this truth of the church as salt and light.
From this text, we could state Christ’s main burden this way, “a church which is not faithful in preserving and illuminating the world is not only useless, it is also inconceivable.” That’s the message of this teaching as Jesus gives it here. Jesus says salt without saltiness is useless. It’s only good to be used as paving material for people to walk on, but as a preservative it’s useless. We are here to preserve a rotting world and the warning here is, “don’t lose your saltiness.” The question at this point is, “If we are to be salty, what does that look like?” How does Jesus define saltiness here? The answer is in the context. This teaching on salt and light is part of a larger teaching called the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is all about the Kingdom of God. This section on salt and light has to do with, as one scholar puts it, the witness of the kingdom. The kingdom of God on earth (which includes the church) witnesses to the world by being a preserving salt and a shining light for Christ. The section just before this one we call “the Beatitudes” and that section shows forth the prevailing norms or attitudes of those in the kingdom of God. It portrays the very heart of Christ’s church. It’s as that heart is lived out in the world that the church witnesses to the world. You cannot separate the beatitudes from this section on salt and light. As you understand what the beatitudes are saying, you understand what it means to be salt and light.
The prevailing attitudes and behaviors of the kingdom of God are as follows. The church as part of the kingdom is poor in spirit. That is, the church is made up of people who have seen something of the enormity of their sin and understand they can in no way be acceptable to God unless God does something to pull them out of the squalor of the sin they love so dearly. There is an ongoing awareness of our tremendous spiritual poverty that can only be filled with Christ and his continual work in our lives. This means that the church is a fundamentally humble, God-dependent organism—not trusting in our own abilities and resources, which we have become convinced, are depraved and totally inadequate before God. The church is filled with people who mourn and are comforted. This is a logical extension of the first beatitude. We not only mentally and theologically understand our own sinfulness and spiritual weakness, we mourn about it. We live lives marked by continual repentance before God. This doesn’t mean we obsess about our sin; we don’t wear it on our sleeve like a badge of false humility. We simply live with a deep awareness of it and mourn the wickedness of it and God ministers constant comfort to our souls.
Another element to being salty is being meek. Those in the church, because we have been shown our own sinfulness and mourn it, we don’t go around condemning others. We give out the truth, but don’t destroy people like the Pharisees did with blunt, hard-edged, legalistic rules. We are meek, gentle because we know we are in no position to sit in judgment on another’s sin. We minister in a spirit of humility and gentleness. Another aspect of this saltiness is the church hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Our awareness of our sin makes us hungry and thirsty for righteousness. We are zealous for it because we know we have a desperate need of it and it is found only in Christ. We are to have a voracious appetite for Christ and drink deeply of Him and his righteousness. We seek him first, above all else. You are salty if you are merciful. Salty saints are quick to offer mercy to others. We serve a God who has given us countless second chances and we extend that to those around us. The true church is filled with those who are pure in heart. Those who are pure in heart ruthlessly root out the hypocrisy we see in ourselves. We are ever growing in our desire to be genuine and authentic, without sham or deceit. We don’t play games—we are repelled by that kind of phoniness in others and ourselves. We seek to be single-minded in our devotion to Christ—we are becoming more and more sincere about Christ and the things of the kingdom.
Another element of being salty is being a peacemaker. The church is to follow its Head, the Prince of Peace in this regard. We are to work for reconciliation. We are to hate division unless that division comes from God. We also seek to make peace between God and man by bringing sinners the gospel so they can by his grace call an armistice to the war they have been waging against him and plant the white flag of surrender in their hearts. A final element of what it is to be salty is to be persecuted. This only makes sense. When a person or church is humble, mourning, meek, God hungry, merciful and a pure in heart, peacemaker, all those qualities run against the grain of the world’s character. That means that as we are faithful to display those qualities, the world will oppose us and beat us up in some way. The church, as it is faithful is persecuted. Paul says in Second Timothy three that “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”
So when Jesus warns us against losing our saltiness, he is saying, don’t stop acknowledging and grieving over your sin. Don’t stop being gentle with other sinners—lose your hard edges, but speak the truth in love. Stay hungry and thirsty for the righteousness found in me—be merciful and give others the same kind of mercy I have given you. Be genuine and transparent in your faith and life—be peacemakers and when you are persecuted (and you will be clobbered if you live like this) rejoice in your suffering. Jesus is saying in this teaching about salt, “If you stop living out the beatitudes, you are useless because its only people who are salty who are actually being used to preserve society with my influence working in and through them. If you stop living out the norms of the kingdom, you are not good for anything as a preservative—you are useless to me.”
Jesus makes a slightly different point in his teaching about the light. “A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 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.” To be light in the context of the Sermon on the Mount is also to live out these beatitudes. The underlying assumption here is light cannot be hidden unless you want to hide it and it’s inconceivable that you would want to hide it once you’ve lighted it. Cities in the ancient near east were made out of white limestone and when they were elevated by being built on a hill, it was impossible to hide them. You don’t build something out of white rock and elevate it on a hill if you want to hide it. He goes on to say that it is inconceivable that someone would light an oil lamp, the only purpose of which is to illuminate things, and then put it under a bushel basket. If you wanted to cover it up, why did you light it? It’s illogical, it’s inconceivable. A “concealed light” is a contradiction in terms in normal contexts. There’s no reason to light it if you’re going to conceal it. So Jesus, on the one hand, with the salt designation warns against becoming useless by losing the qualities that show what the Kingdom of God is like. On the other hand, with the light designation, Jesus goes even further. He says it is inconceivable for a follower of Christ to want to obscure the light of Christ within them as they express the character and ministry of Christ.
So Jesus concludes the teaching in verse 16, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” The second point and the application of this teaching on the church as salt and light is, live in a manner consistent with who God made you in Christ. In other words, Jesus is saying as Paul will after him, BE who you are. God made you salt and light and since you are useless if you lose your saltiness and it is inconceivable that you would hide the light of Christ’s life within you—let who you are in Christ be seen by what you do—your good works. And by good works, the context tells us that means those works which naturally flow out of hearts that are poor in spirit, mourning over their sin, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking and persecuted. As you ARE those things, good works will naturally come forth because a good tree produces good fruit. If you have a good tree, it will by its nature produce good fruit.
Here are two observations about this point of application Jesus makes. First, we are to shine our light or do these good works before men. Christ clearly understands that we are to BE this kind of person who does these kinds of good works in the context of sinners. The light is to shine in darkness and the salt is to be rubbed into the rotting tissue of the world. The church is to come together and love one another by encouraging one another and teaching and correcting and rebuking and praying for one another. However, the mission of the church is to glorify God by being salt and light in the context of the rottenness and darkness of this world. The church can easily become and has become ingrown. The church does not exist for itself and it does not exist for sinners—it exists for God. It is His; He bought it with the blood of His Son. God calls His church to show forth his character and his ministry before a world of sinners so that they can see Christ in us and some will come to know him as they see the Beatitudes lived out in our workplaces, our neighborhoods and our communities.
The North American church today has been compared to a football team that gets the ball and huddles together in church to get the equipping they need for ministry, but we never break out of the huddle! It appears our mission is like one gigantic huddle with no one ever moving out for God to reach sinners. Sometimes, we bring sinners into the huddle at church and hope they will hear the gospel from the preacher and that is appropriate but the fundamental task of the church leadership is according to Ephesians 4:11, “To equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” And this ministry is all about teaching others how to more and more faithfully live out the norms of the kingdom found in the beatitudes. God has designed a very effective way of reaching sinners. It’s much more effective having 300 believers being witnesses as salt and light in the countless contexts of work, home, neighborhood and community God has placed you in, than to try to funnel a few sinners into one place to hear a message from someone who, though called to do the work of an evangelist, is fundamentally charged with equipping, not the sinners but the saints.
That’s not to say bringing sinners to church is wrong—it’s wonderful. But there are assumedly 300 people here who know the message of the gospel and it is generally more powerful for the sinner when a non-professional they know and can relate to tells them what Jesus has done in their life than when a “professional” whom they have never met gives them the gospel. The data is clear; many more people come to Christ through personal evangelism than at a church or even through huge crusade evangelism. Jesus is saying in this teaching that we must break out of the huddle and own up to our responsibility to be salt and light in the world--to live out the kingdom norms before others and give them the gospel in word and deed.
A second observation about this charge Christ gives to us to shine our light by doing our good works before men is: these good works will be of a clearly supernatural quality that point unmistakably to God’s work in your life. Notice the ultimate reason why we live as salt and light is so these people will “see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” This is a powerful text because if you are simply being a nice person on a purely human level—doing all sorts of nice things, the persons who see those nice things will praise you. It’s only natural to see someone doing nice things to say, “Oh, they are such a sweet person.” That’s not what Jesus says will happen if we are truly being salt and light. He says they will “see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” That implies that as we live out the attitudes in the beatitudes, our lives will ring of such a supernatural quality, that God will be glorified as they see HIS work in you. They will see our good deeds and glorify God. Our lives will be a glorious display of God’s power and work, and for those who he has appointed to eternal life, they will see Christ in us and receive Him as their own Savior and Lord.
Where are we? Do our lives reflect the poor in spirit, mourning, meek, spiritually hungry, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker attitudes of the beatitudes? Jesus says in this teaching if they don’t we are useless to God. He also says it is inconceivable that if we have these qualities, we would ever seek to hide them. Our call in this is three-fold. Our call is make sure we have them—that God has done a work of saving grace in our life as evidenced by the presence of these qualities. Our call is to grow in them, that we might become more salty and more radiant witnesses for Christ. And our call is to let the light of Christ in us shine to a world that is rotting at an accelerating pace and is more and more being enveloped in spiritual darkness. May God show us the truth about ourselves and may others praise God for the good deeds He is doing through us.
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