The Christian’s Responsibility to a Decaying and Dark World (Exposition of Matthew 5:13-17)

Over the last couple of months you’ve probably heard about William Wilberforce due to the recently released movie Amazing Grace. This movie tells the story of Wilberforce’s role as a member of the British Parliament to outlaw slavery. He was and is a tremendous example of an individual Christian taking his responsibility to a decaying and dark world seriously. WORLD Magazine editor Marvin Olasky wrote in a recent edition of WORLD:

Wilberforce emphasized teaching about Christianity but not imposing it, and wrote that Christians should “boldly assert the cause of Christ in an age when so many who bear the name of Christian are ashamed of Him. Let them be active, useful, and generous toward others. Let them show moderation and self-denial themselves. Let them be ashamed of idleness. ….” “Humble Courage” WORLD, February 10, 2007, 44.

Wilberforce realized that as a Christian, he had a responsibility to the world, and the world is a better place because of it! Wilberforce is just one of thousands of examples that could be given of Christians throughout the centuries who built hospitals, established schools, and fought social injustice. We too have a responsibility to a dark and decaying world. It is a responsibility of preservation and proclamation.

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. 14 You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

I. The Christian’s Responsibility of Preservation, v. 13.
First, Jesus declares his disciples to be “the salt of the earth.” By using this term to describe his followers, Jesus implied their distinction from the world. Salt is always in contrast to what it is placed on. We are to be in the world, but not of it. Our role is to be that of salt in the ancient world. The main function of salt in the ancient world was of preservation. In a world without refrigeration, this was very important. In order to preserve meat salt was rubbed on it. This prevented the decay that would have necessarily come without the salt’s influence.

The phrase “if the salt loses its flavor” is a translation of a phrase that literally says “if the salt becomes foolish”. The Gk. word moranthe has the idea of “failing to be what it should be.” Most translators relate this to salt losing its taste, but it can simply refer to salt losing its intrinsic properties.

This is an impossibility! Salt doesn’t lose its chemical properties, either of taste or preservation. Salt is a very stable ionic compound called Sodium Chloride (NaCl) made up of one Sodium atom and one Chlorine atom. Some have argued that what Jesus is referring to here is salt becoming diluted by being mixed with other impurities. But I think Jesus’ point here is that salt cannot lose its properties (see the next verse on a city on a hill that “cannot be hid”). Salt is salt! Hypothetically, if salt were to lose its properties, it would be “good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”

If I’m right in my interpretation of verse 13, then Jesus is telling Christians that since they are salt, they need to be who they are. An unsalty Christian is a useless thing indeed!

Jesus is telling us here that our presence in the world as Christians is to preserve the decaying of the world. By calling us “the salt of the earth,” Jesus is implying that the earth is rotting and in need of preservation. Sadly many Christians have become unsalty and refused to be what they are called to be. One of the reasons that God has left us here on earth is to have a positive influence upon the world. We are to be a means of God’s grace that keeps the world from being as bad as it could be were we not here. Paul in Colossians 4:6 says that our speech should be seasoned with salt in order to minister grace to our hearers. Here Jesus is saying that we are the salt which ministers his grace to the earth.

We’ll talk more about how we can do this in a few moments.

II. The Christian’s Responsibility of Proclamation, vv. 14-16.
Next Jesus declares his followers to be “the light of the world.” Again Jesus’ use of this term indicates that his followers are to be distinct from the world. Nothing is so distinct as light and darkness. We are to shine as lights in a dark world. The Bible tells us that God is light (1 John 1:5) and that Jesus is the Light of the World (John 8:12 and 9:5), but here Jesus’ followers are said to be the light of the world. This is possible because Jesus has sent His Spirit to shine through us. Consider the following verses:

1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;

Ephesians 5:8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.

Philippians 2:14-16 Do all things without complaining and disputing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

We are the light of the world! We must therefore “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness,” “walk as children of light,” and “shine as lights in the world.”
Jesus illustrates our calling by stating that “a city set on a hill cannot be hid.” In the ancient world, in the daytime as one traveled he could see a distant city on a hill whose stone walls reflected the light of the sun. At night, the same cities would be visible from a distance by the burning lamps in the homes which shone light out their windows. A city on a hill could not be hid and neither can a genuine Christian!

But Jesus brings this section to a close with a final illustration. Unlike salt which cannot lose its saltiness and a city on a hill that cannot be hidden, a lamp can be hid. But it is utterly foolish to do so. Here Jesus drives his message home. Don’t hide who you are. Don’t fail to be salt and light in the world. Lamps would be place on a lampstand (a strategically placed shelf high enough to provide light for the room). The word translated “basket” (NKJV and ESV) or “bushel” (KJV) refers to a measure of grain of about eight quarts. This was a common utensil in a first century home. Jesus says you wouldn’t take that basket and place it over your lamp. It is unthinkable for a Christian to not be salt and light in the world. It is a dereliction of duty.

Conclusion:
Jesus’ conclusion to this section is a fitting one: “Let your light so shine among men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Implications and Applications:
Implication #1: Distinction from the world
Implication #2: Involvement in the world
Our eschatology sometimes prevents us from being involved in our world. I believe the Bible clearly teaches and observation shows that things are not getting better and better, but worse and worse. However, we should not use these convictions to cause us to neglect our equally clear duty to be salt and light in the world.

We have unique opportunities in the United States that most Christians throughout the centuries have not had. We have the opportunity to be directly involved in governing ourselves. Everyone of us (18 and older) has a vote. We also have the opportunity to

  • Be involved in community life.
  • Volunteer as a servant at a local ministry.
  • Coach a Little League team.
  • Start a business and run it with integrity.
  • Run for political office

In short, stop complaining about the sad state of the world and get involved!

The ultimate goal: “glorify your Father in Heaven”! Do what you do in such a way that God receives the glory. How? When someone asks why you serve tell them about the gospel! Don’t take credit! Don’t be useless! Don’t be “good for nothing.” Be good for something: the glory of God!

May we realize that we as Christians have been entrusted with a responsibility to the world in which we’ve been placed. William Wilberforce once stated:

The national difficulties we face result from the decline of religion and morality among us. I must confess equally boldly that my own solid hopes for the well-being of my country depend, not so much on her navies and armies . . . as on the persuasion that she still contains many who love and obey the Gospel of Christ. I believe that their prayers may yet prevail.
Quoted in “Humble Courage” WORLD, February 10, 2007, 44

May all God’s people say “Amen!”

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