16 May 2008

Light in a Dark World

Part 2 of a Series
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 people—everyday 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.

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.
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.

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 live—the 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."

Phil's signature


Staci Eastin said...


Solameanie said...

If I had to choose between being salt and embalming fluid, I believe I'll choose the salt, thank you.

I had a really good analogy to make here too, but I've been on a bit of a snark lately so I'd probably best not say it. I want to hold on to the edification of this post as long as possible, LOL.

donsands said...

wonderful post, and exhortation. Encouraging too.

Jesus also said, "You shall bear fruit, and your fruit shall remain."

We are the branch, and the fruit comes from the vine's being connected to us. We can't muster up fruit on our own, but it will appear as our branch abides in the vine.
And as out shining glorifies our Father, so our fruit glorifies Him as well.

Tim Pauley said...

So, in a practical sense, how do we act as salt and light relative to the specific issues with which we are all concerned (abortion, family, etc)? We make sure we are living out the qualities Jesus described in the Beatitudes.

John Piper has a good piece on how we then might influence American politics:

“I'm not thinking there should be another party, just truth. It seems that the Christian church should not--as a church--join partisan politics. Rather, we should be speaking prophetically to issues that relate to what Christ's will is. Then we should just let the chips fall as they may. If it sounds Republican or Democratic or Independent, so be it.

“Gather the issues together and meditate on them. Weigh them in the balances of the Bible. And then speak prophetically about them. That would probably do more for exalting Christ than it would for exalting any of the candidates, which is what we want to do anyway.

“Ultimately we want to communicate--even while engaging in politics--that politics are not the main issue on this earth. Knowing the Creator is the main issue, as well as being reconciled with him and glorifying him in all that we believe and say and do. That's what the church needs to constantly be calling people to.”


lawrence said...

fantastic post...

Anonymous said...


Stefan Ewing said...

Being still a relatively new Christian, I think this is the first time I've read or heard a proper (and convicting) exegesis of these verses. There is a lot of food for thought here: a lot of treasure to be mined from one of the shortest passages in Scripture!

Chris said...

A timely message to hear, especially for those of us in a state like California! This post reminds me that the world will continue to go in its own direction downward until the last day, many people will indeed reject the light, some will come to it, and that WE are to remain faithful, humble, peaceful and loving amidst the darkness that surrounds us--as salt--until the day of our Lord.

Hadassah said...

Best post ever. EVER.

The Kratzers said...

Nice post, being salt and light is simply communicating, living, and putting on display God's truth, when you do this, you act as salt and light and achieve spiritually what salt and light do physically. Nothing but God's truth can do spiritually what salt and light do physically.

Would love to be on your blogroll.


Chris Kratzer

garretts5 said...


FX Turk said...

Phil --

I read this post and agreed with everything its says in parts and pieces, but there were two perspectives in it that I'd like to see if you have any comments on.

The Free Grace perspective

From their perspective, they could look at this and say that you have tangled discipleship to Christ up into a kind of moral work, so grace is no longer free.

I know what I would say to that, but I'd love to see what you would say to that.

The Emerg*** perspective

(BTW, I think it was you who coined the "emerg***" euphemism for them, and I love it)

From their perspective, I think they would say, "this is really what we've been saying all along. Being a Christian doesn't mean joining the Republican party, and it does mean being something in this world which is harder than living in suburbia."

How would you react to the idea that your post here is perfectly compatible with Emerg*** views on the Christian faith and life?

Anonymous said...

If we give up (or cover up) what makes us distinctive, we lose our savor and forfeit our only real influence.

Phil, the implications and applications of that statement of principle are huge. From attempts at political influence, to approaches to ministry, to contextualization of the Gospel. Why does the world see us as different? Because we ARE different. And if we seek to not be different, then we seek to be something we are not. We lose our saltiness and dim our light.

jeff said...

Well said. The reason for us as Christians to do good works is not to display our own righteousness, but to glorify God to others. In order to do that, we must not insist on having our own way and forcing our beliefs on others, which we know is impossible. But with Holy Spirit power, we can display uncommon good will to all men. God helpl us to be salt and light.

CR said...

RC Sproul is on a good series right now his most recent radio message on the Superiority of Christian Belief on how Justin Martyr defended the truth claims of Christianity to the emperor. Several points that Martyr made:

(1)Martyr argued to the emperor that spiritual kingdom is not of this world (not in an earthly sense) so Christians were not trying to overthrow emperor's seat of authority as the emperor of Rome.

(2)Christianity is not a threat to the state if the state is interested in piety, wisdom and righteousness. Christianity confers invaluable efforts to the state, in that Christians were the emperor's best allies in securing good order.

(3)Christians were models of civic obedience. They paid their taxes to those that the emperor appointed them to be paid to...Christians certainly worship God only, but in other matters Christians would gladly serve the emperor recognizing him as an emperor and a ruler of men, and praying along that with their imperial power they would be found to have a sound mind.

RC Sproul concludes his message with an embarrassing note. Martyr argued to the emperor as proof for the truth claims of Christianity he invited the scrutiny of the Roman Empire on the sexual behavior of Christians. He tells them to check the lives, marriages and behavior of Christians and that they would see something that is extraordinary. Sproul correctly admits, in my opinion, that that is a truth claim that cannot be made of the church in America today. If we ask the world to examine the behavior of professing evangelical Christians in America, it would be evidence against the truth claims of God.

Jim Crigler said...

Phil ---

I liked this post with regard to what we (as Christians individually and as the Church collectively) shouldn't be doing. But I found it vague in terms of what we should be doing. Since we, your readers, don't know (ahem) the cardinality of the set of posts in this series, I'm hoping you will be addressing it going forward.

Anonymous said...

I will take action right now to proclaim the truth.