by Phil Johnson
he qualities Jesus blesses in the beatitudes are not the same attributes the world typically thinks are worthy of praise. The world glorifies power and dominion; force and physical strength; status and class. By contrast, Jesus blesses humility, meekness, mercy, mourning, purity of heart, and even persecution for righteousness' sake.
Collectively, those things are the very opposite of political clout and partisan power. Jesus is describing people who are willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for the sake of true righteousness. They are peacemakers, not protestors; poor in spirit, not affluent and distinguished; people who are persecuted, not the pompous and the power mongers.
And yet, notice. These poor and oppressed people are the ones Jesus is addressing when he says in Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth"and in verse 14, "You are the light of the world." He begins addressing them directly in verse 11: "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
To whom is he speaking? The believers in His audience, those who exemplify the traits He blesses in the beatitudes. Those who were persecuted for righteousness' sake. Those who were reviled for His Name's sake. They were for the most part simple, common peopleeveryday people from among "the multitudes" (v. 1).
According to Mark 12:37, "the common people [were the ones who] heard him gladly." Not the priests and the leaders of the Pharisees. Not the Sanhedrin. Not men like Pilate, or Herod, or Caiaphas. Not men with worldly influence. Not even a class of clergy. Certainly not political agitators. But the common people. And to them, He says, "You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world."
It was significant and probably shocking to the multitudes that Jesus employed such expressions to describe them, because the title "light of the world" was an honor certain eminent rabbis liked to bestow on themselves. Spurgeon commented on this passage, saying:
With great pomposity they spoke of Rabbi Judah, or Rabbi Jochanan, as the lamps of the universe, the lights of the world. It must have sounded strangely in the ears of the Scribes and Pharisees to hear that same title, in all soberness, applied to a few bronzed-faced and horny-handed peasants and fishermen who had become disciples of Jesus. Jesus, in effect, said,not the Rabbis, not the Scribes, not the assembled Sanhedrin,but you, my humble followers, you are the light of the world.Of course, Jesus also claimed that title for himself in a very special and unique sense. It was one of His most explicit claims of deity (John 8:12). He is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9)the source of all true light. He is like the sun, compared to which we are merely candles. But even as candles, we give off light, and even the faintest light of the smallest candle is capable of piercing and dispelling total darkness. The collective light of many candles has a still greater influence. That is how Jesus pictures our role in a sinful, dark, and fallen world.
He gave them this title, not after he had educated them for three years, but at almost the outset of his ministry; and from this I gather that the title was given them, not so much on account of what they knew, as on account of what they were. Not their knowledge, but their character made them the light of the world.
The metaphor of Matthew 5:13 has similar significance: "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men." Salt has several properties, but perhaps the most important (in a first-century culture especially) is that it acts as a preservative.
Verses 13-14 are declarative: "You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world." The only imperative in this context is verse 16: "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."
In other words, Jesus was not commanding His followers to be salt and light. He was saying that if you are a true believer, you are salt and light. He's urging us not to lose our savor or hide our light. Salt is what it is by nature. Light is what it is by nature. You can contaminate salt or hide light, but you can't make sand into salt or turn a stone into a candle. So He doesn't "command" us to "be salt"; He says we are salt and cautions against losing our savor. He doesn't command us to be light; He says we are light and forbids us to hide under a bushel.
And what is supposed to happen when we let our light shine before men? They see our good works and glorify God. This is not about wielding political clout. It's not about organizing protests against ungodliness. It's about how we livethe testimony of our lives. It's about exemplifying the same traits Jesus blessed in the beatitudes. That's how we let our light shine, and that's the saltiness we inject into an otherwise decaying and tasteless society.
Christ has made us different from the world, and we should simply be what we are. We're salt in a decaying and tasteless culture, and we're light in a dark world. If we give up (or cover up) what makes us distinctive, we lose our savor and forfeit our only real influence. If we have to squelch the heart of the message Christ has called us to proclaim in order to advance some political or moralistic agenda, we're guilty of hiding our light under a bushel. Those who think the church can have a greater influence by adopting a worldly strategy are actually undermining the only valid influence Christians can have on society.
When we merely imitate the world by jumping on every worldly bandwagon, when we make worldly alliances to advance political causes, or when we adopt worldly strategies to win the world's approval, we forfeit our distinctiveness. The contemporary evangelical movement is guilty of that kind of compromise on multiple levels. We've put sand instead of salt in the salt-shaker, and we have put bushel baskets over our candles.
Here's the remedy: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." It speaks to us on an individual, as well as a collective, level. It describes what we must do corporately as a church; it gives a much-needed corporate corrective to the evangelical movement as a whole; but notice: it also reveals what you and I need to be doing as individuals.
Do you want your life to count for eternity? Do you want to maximize the influence of your life on your children, your neighbors, the people at work, people in your community, and ultimately the whole world? Here is Jesus' strategy for spreading the light, one candle at a time. This is what He calls you and me to do: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."