In the first chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-4:25), he introduces us to Jesus Christ as the King of Israel. In the process, he sets forth Christ’s background or genealogy, birth, baptism, temptation, and inauguration. But with chapter 5, Matthew begins his account of the preaching and ministry of the King. As with John the Baptist, Jesus’ message included a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin (cf. Matt. 3:8; 4:18; Mark 1:4, 15). If men were to have a part in the kingdom, they must recognize their sinfulness, turn from their self-righteous works and sources of trust, and trust in the gospel message, the message about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Pentecost writes:
John the Baptist, in announcing the advent of the King and the nearness of the kingdom, had demanded righteousness as a prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom. John made the same demands that the Old Testament made. Christ, in offering Himself as king, made the same demands. Christ said only the righteous could enter Messiah’s kingdom. This concept was never challenged by the Pharisees, with their emphasis upon the traditions of the Law; by the Sadducees, who were concerned with observance of the ceremonies of the Law; or by the people themselves. The only question was that of what kind of righteousness was necessary for entrance into Messiah’s kingdom. As a result of the preaching of Christ, the nation was faced with two differing concepts of righteousness. One was the righteousness of organized Judaism, which taught that a man was righteous if he attended the feasts, observed the rituals of sacrifice, and observed the traditions of the Pharisees. On the other hand, Christ preached a righteousness which came as the result of faith in His own person. Righteousness could not be earned by works of people but had to be received as a gift from God … The multitudes that came to hear Jesus teach did not need to be told that righteousness was necessary for entrance into the kingdom. They would readily have acknowledged this truth, for Judaism taught it. The question in their minds would be, “What is righteousness?” “What kind of righteousness does the law demand?” “Would Pharisaic righteousness admit us into Messiah’s kingdom?” Christ addressed Himself to these questions as He spoke to the curious who were debating the issue of His person.1
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord described the kind of righteousness that was needed to be a part of the kingdom He was offering to Israel. It was a righteousness that must surpass the external and self-made righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). To drive home this fact, He demonstrated through the Beatitudes what that righteousness looked like (5:1-11). At the same time, He was demonstrating the unrighteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees and thus their need of the righteousness that Christ had to give through faith in Him. He was demonstrating the way God’s people, the subjects of the kingdom, should live through their faith relationship with God, but of course, he didn’t stop there.
With verses 13-16, the Lord chose the figures of salt and light to teach the kind of influence those who accepted His word and became His true disciples should have on the world. Looking at His disciples, He said, “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.”
These analogies are just as applicable to us as to the disciples because we are the subjects of the mystery form of the kingdom as described in Matthew 13. We see in these two figures who we are and what we ought to be doing as the subjects of the kingdom of God. So two analogies, salt and light, are used to show our purpose and our obligation before the world as the people of God. God’s rule in the lives of His people is revealed in individuals whose commitment to God enables them to serve influentially as society’s salt and light. Inward and true righteousness is to be expressed in our actions. What is truly important is the way righteous values find expression in our every day lives.
But precisely what do these analogies teach us?
(1) Salt was one of the most important staples of any economy in ancient times. It was not only viewed as a sign of prosperity along with wine and oil, but as a necessity for survival. There was a rabbinic saying, “the world cannot survive without salt” (Sopherim 15:8). “In the hot, dry and windy climate of the Near East, body salts (electrolytes) are quickly lost with perspiration and need to be maintained orally lest dehydration occur. Thus in biblical times salt was recognized as a necessity of life.”2 Salt was so valuable in New Testament times that Roman soldiers were often paid their wages in salt.
(2) Also, because of the lack of refrigeration as we know today, meat would spoil almost immediately without salt. So it was both a preservative and a seasoning agent to add flavor to food.
(3) Salt was taken from the Dead Sea or dug from the marsh areas. This meant it was often impure and mingled with vegetable and earth substances like gypsum. If the gypsum was in sufficient quantities, the salt became alkaline and would lose its salty character, savor, and effect because of this contamination or admixture. Also, in Palestine, flakes of salt form on the rock shores of the Dead Sea at night. In the morning, with the rising of the sun, the salt loses is saltiness because of the heat.
(4) Of course, salt also kills vegetation and in areas where salt exists, vegetation is sparse.
As a result of these conditions, salt came to be used in several ways, many of which became illustrations or symbols of spiritual principles. Let’s look at some of them.
(2) Because salt was a necessary ingredient in any meal as a seasoning agent, it could symbolize the hospitality that helped to develop and cement friendships or relationships. There was an Arab proverb, “there is salt between us.”3
Being possessed of purifying, perpetuating and antiseptic qualities, salt became emblematic of fidelity and friendship among eastern nations. To eat of a person’s salt and so to share his hospitality is still regarded thus among the Arabs. So in Scripture, it is an emblem of the covenant between God and His people, Num. 18:19; 2 Chron. 13:5; so again when the Lord says “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace one with another” (Mark 9:50).4
Without the salt of Christian character, relationships deteriorate and decline.
(3) As a preservative, salt hinders the decay or spoiling of food. It became a symbol of preservation.
(4) As a seasoning agent, it seasons, gives flavor—it makes food more palatable and enjoyable.
(5) As a source of body salts (electrolytes), it creates thirst, it makes people and animals drink fluids to supply life-sustaining fluids. Remember the old saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Well, that is not exactly true because you can feed him salt.
These are some of the symbolic uses of salt, but the question is exactly, in this context, what is our Lord telling us in Matthew 5:13?
This statement by our Lord, “you, you are the salt of the earth,” not only describes what believers are or are to become, but it also teaches and reminds us what the world is in its basic nature and condition and what will happen when it exists without salt.
(1) In this context, “earth” refers to mankind, the world and society. The world and its humanism has often been optimistic about itself—but Christ is here pointing out the true condition and nature of the world of mankind. This statement of the Savior shows us that man lacks something spiritually and morally to preserve himself. It points to man’s sinfulness, the rottenness of the world system without Christ, and the direction it must invariably go without the gospel and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
(2) It teaches that the world left to itself will spoil and will become more and more defiled and putrid. It lacks the moral quality and life that it needs to cement relationships and to protect itself from moral breakdown as depicted, for instance, in Romans 1:18-32. This is easily illustrated. As bacteria at work in meat causes it to spoil and stink, so Satan and sinful humanity are at work to ruin all societies unless God is brought into the picture through the Savior.
(3) It reminds us that the world is sinful, anti-God, and controlled by forces which will ruin it apart from a preservative force and the grace of God. This is the opposite view of both humanism and evolution in both the biological and philosophical sense. The world is not getting better, but worse and worse regardless of its scientific discoveries, its ability to prolong life, to make life more comfortable, and its many social programs and ideologies (2 Tim 3:1-13). Compare also Isaiah 14:12f; 2 Thess. 2:3-7; I John 2:17; Eph. 2:1-2; 6:12; 2 Tim. 3:13.
(4) Finally, this becomes a warning against placing our trust in man-made systems designed to bring in some kind of world utopia, or solve man’s problems apart from the gospel of the Lord Jesus and His personal return. Man has neither the wisdom nor the ability to solve his problems. This is illustrated in the failure of the League of Nations and it is true today with the United Nations. Man’s programs and efforts are ultimately futile. Man’s efforts to preserve society can be likened to an attempt to preserve meat from spoiling with sand or with salt that has lost its saltiness or has become contaminated and thus useless.
Christ is saying that without salt, because of the basic condition of man in sin and the polluting affect of Satan, the world will become rotten without the proper working of salt. Revelation 6-18 shows us exactly what the world will become in the absence of the Spirit indwelt church which is today restraining the work of lawlessness so active in the world (2 Thess. 2:6-9). But with the body of Christ gone through the event of the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-18), Satan and his man of lawlessness will be free to work his moral ruin without this restraining influence during that time to come called the Tribulation.
What exactly does this declaration that we are the salt of the earth mean to the church? What does this teach us about the Christian community and its purpose and character in the world?
(1) As used by the Lord, salt is a symbol of character, of spiritual and moral fiber according to the standards of the Word of God. Salt in the believer’s life speaks of Christlike living, Christlikeness or Word-filled, Spirit-filled lives that manifest the reality of personal relationship and trust in Jesus Christ.
(2) Salt creates thirst which, when satisfied, sustains life. But it is the water itself or fluids which actually sustain life. The principle is that believers, by Christlike living, by their walk and their words, help to create a thirst in the lives of those around them for the reality of God. This is a thirst which can only be satisfied, however, by drinking of the waters of life received through faith in Christ (cf. John 4:10-15; 7:37-39). When Christ comes into a person’s life He gives them new life and the spiritual capacity for the kind of change that can have a spiritual and moral impact on the world around them. From Luke 14:34-35, it is evident that salt was somehow used for making soil more productive. Tussaint writes: “So the disciples were left here to cause the world to bring forth fruit to God. If they failed in this, they were useless as far as God’s purposes are concerned.”5
Are our lives as believers in Jesus Christ thirst-creating agents? Are we accomplishing God’s purpose for us in a world that, apart from life in God, must putrefy.
(3) Our Lord’s declaration which is literally, “You, you are the salt of the earth” (“you” is emphatic in the Greek text) serves to stress that God intends to use His people, the church, as the salt of the earth. He is saying to us who know the Savior, you and you alone can preserve society and make it productive for God. You and you alone can give or have flavor and meaning in life through your relationship with me. You are the key instrument that I have chosen to create a thirst for God among people in a lost society.
In connection with our witness to unbelievers in Colossians 4:6, in verse 5 the Apostle tells us to do two things:
First, we are to “let our speech always be in the sphere of grace.” Grace often means God’s plan for salvation and spirituality through faith, but here it most likely includes graciousness in one’s words and responses to people. This means graciously using words of God’s grace for the purpose of ministry or building up others. This will also include leveling with people and confronting them in love when it is needed (Eph. 4:15, 29).
Second, he adds, “seasoned with salt.” This is undoubtedly a reference to the character of Christlikeness that needs to pervade our lives along with the content of the gospel of grace, the saving life of Christ. We are to know the Word and use it wisely so that we can know how to speak to men about Jesus Christ but with that we need lives that are flavored with the reality of the Savior’s life revealed in ours. This will season our conversation so that it creates a thirst for Jesus Christ.
An interesting passage that is pertinent here is 2 Kings 2:19-21:
Then the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold now, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” And he said, “Bring me a new jar, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. And he went out to the spring of water, and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I have purified these waters; there shall not be from there death or unfruitfulness any longer.’”
We read that “the situation of the city is pleasant.” In other words as one would pass through the city, things looked okay, but in reality things really weren’t all that good. There were beautiful buildings, trees, crops, flowers, and busy people, but then we are told that “the water is bad (stagnant, stale, infested, bitter), and the land is unfruitful.” In other words, things were growing but before the crops could be harvested they would die, the fruit would drop off, or the plants would wither.
Application: How like man in his self-made solutions to life’s problems when his life is lacking in the reality of a vital faith relationship with the Lord Jesus that results in Christlike character. We try, but without the reality of the Lord Jesus, our system of works, our human good programs, the details of life, and our personal strategies for happiness just can’t cure our own ills and certainly not the moral ills of society which always become decadent without God. Like the city of Elisha’s day, man’s solutions may sound good, they may look pretty, they may satisfy the flesh for a while, but the ills of man only grow worse and worse.
Verses 20-21 “Bring me a new jar and put salt there …” Salt was placed at the source of their water supply, the spring, and their water supply was healed, cleansed, and sweetened, and fruitfulness was the result.
To what does this refer? First, it warns us about our sources of trust, or the sources of our water supply. What well are we drinking from? The well of humanism, that of the world system, or that of our own strategies for handling our lives? See Jeremiah’s warning against building broken cisterns that hold no water in Jeremiah 2:13.
Second, I believe it is a picture of sweetening the life with the risen life of Jesus Christ being poured out in the life of Christians who, as new creatures in Jesus Christ, can drink at the well of God’s Word and walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. As believers we need to learn to die to ourselves and live by faith in the principles and promises of the Word. Only this can bear fruit or make the life fruitful and heal society and preserve it.
This picture needs to become a part of our vision, the vision of who and what we are as the people of God who have been left here to declare the excellencies of His grace (1 Pet. 2:9-10). It shows us our responsibility and one of the reasons God has left us here on earth. In essence it becomes a command for us to function as salt with saltiness.
It also tells us we are to be unlike the world, to be different. Not odd, just distinct. As we learn in Romans 12:1-2, the means to this distinctive living is twofold: (1) total commitment, living sacrifices (vs. 1) and (2) daily renewing of our minds in God’s Word (vs. 2).
The problem is that it is so easy for us to live and think like the world, to accept its standards, its methods, its values, its aspirations, its conduct. We might compare the Lord’s challenges on this very issue in Luke 22:24-26 and Matthew 6:24-33. It is a warning against being like the world.
But Matthew 5:12 also tells us that we are to be out in the world—distinct—yet making contact, not isolationists. It shows monastic withdrawal is all wrong. You can’t function as salt if you stay in the salt shaker, isolated from the world. Salt can’t preserve or flavor or create a thirst in what it doesn’t touch.
In summary, Matthew 5:12 teaches us the following:
(1) As Christians we are to be a productive and preservative force in society. We are to restrain the movement toward moral, spiritual, and political decay. This means involvement in our society in those ways available to us to slow down the moral decay all around us. But how? By voting, by writing letters to our congressmen, and by the various avenues open to us in our society, but especially and primarily by promoting the gospel of Christ through our witness in the world and by prayer (1 Tim. 2:1f).
(2) By the stability and character of his life, the believer is to show that life without Jesus Christ is flavorless and insipid. The world is craving after money, things, power—but none of these can give true happiness and flavor to life. Our life in Jesus Christ should show this.
(3) Our lives are to be such that they create a thirst for Jesus Christ and a thirst for something the world cannot give. We are to witness for Christ by life and by lip—by word and by works, by our manner of life and by the message of Jesus Christ.
We need to each ask, are there conditions in my life that ruin my ability to create a thirst for the Savior? Have I allowed the stagnant waters of the world to contaminate my life in Christ? Or, have I allowed the gypsum or the earth substances of the world to contaminate me?
The bold statement, “You are the salt of the earth,” is quickly followed by a statement of contrast. This introduces a warning to the people of God. Salt can become tasteless. As we read these words, we are reminded of a very important principle of Scripture and one that points to a peril of life.
The principle is this: Privilege never guarantees success and the Peril is we can abuse our privileges and blessings.
By God’s matchless grace and as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have been bought with a price and delivered from the slave block of sin. We have been translated out of Satan’s domain and into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. We have been born into the family of God and made adult sons of God with all the rights and responsibilities that go with being the sons of God through faith in Christ. We have been given eternal life, indwelt by the Spirit of God, and made partakers of a heavenly calling.
But with such blessings and privileges always come responsibilities and a certain and definite accountability. In this regard, it would be helpful to note a number of passages: Eph. 4:1f; 5:1f; 2 Cor. 5:17-20; Col. 1:9f. But with this comes a parallel responsibility to walk circumspectly, carefully, because of the dangers that lie in wait to deceive, deter, and destroy. So over and over again we are warned about the many forces that lie in wait to hinder our walk with God, to contaminate our lives with the world, and ruin our function and purpose as God’s people. A classic passage that warns us about the ever present possibility of abusing our privileges is 1 Cor. 10:1-12.
As God’s people we are the salt of the earth, but there is a danger. Salt can become tasteless and when it does, it also becomes worthless, good for nothing (cf. Matt. 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34-35).
But the question is how? How does salt become tasteless or lose its saltiness? And what does this mean spiritually speaking to a believer’s life according to this analogy or picture?
(1) How Salt Becomes Tasteless
As mentioned previously, salt was sometimes taken from the Dead Sea or dug from the marsh areas. This meant it was often impure because it became mingled with vegetable and other substances from the earth. It was a problem of adulteration or contamination.
Even salt from the Dead Sea was sometimes mixed with gypsum and, if in sufficient quantities, the salt became alkaline and would lose its salty character, its savor, and its effectiveness because of its adulteration. So what exactly is the Lord talking about?
(2) The Spiritual Analogy and Meaning of Tasteless Salt
Just as salt could become contaminated in ancient times with substances from the earth, so by the process of spiritual adulteration or contamination with the world and its substitutes for life without God (religionism, ritualism, asceticism, materialism), we can lose our saltiness or Christlike character. This refers to the old problem we sometimes describe as worldliness, a life contaminated by the world system and its values and belief systems.
(3) Definition and Explanation of Worldliness
When most people think of worldliness, they associate it with a list of do’s and don’ts, especially things associated with the fast life, the kind of life you see depicted in movies and on TV. If we attend church somewhat regularly, if we read our Bibles, and pretty much conform to a set of religious standards, we usually never consider ourselves to be worldly. But that is a far too limited view, in fact it is a false view of worldliness. Our conformity may itself be a form of worldliness in the form of external religiosity like that of the Pharisees Christ referred to in Matthew 5:20. So what do we mean by worldly?
First, the meaning of “world.” In the NT, world is the translation of the Greek kosmos which means “an order or arrangement, ornament or decoration.” Our word cosmetics comes from this word. It is the opposite of chaos.
Second, a brief overview of how “world,” kosmos, used in the Bible.
This world system is promoted by Satan and conformed to his ideals, aims, methods and character. It is in opposition to God, to the Word, to grace, and the causes of the Savior. It is used by Satan to seduce men from God and to contaminate their lives with Satan’s system and values. Ultimately, the design of this world system is the elimination of dependence and trust in God, His Word, and His grace through the person and work of the Savior. A further design is to nullify, as much as possible, the impact of the church on mankind by contaminating it with the world system.
So, what is worldliness? Worldliness is anything that excludes the person and plan of God, or which excludes God’s viewpoint in any way. Worldliness exists when anyone at any time seeks to handle any part of his or her life without God, or a deep trust and dependence on the Lord and the principles and promises of Scripture.
Please note something: God has acted in the person and work of Jesus Christ and given us the principles and promises of the Bible as a means of reconciling us to Himself, of removing our fears, of building our trust, and of establishing a personal relationship with Him.
Scripture was never given to become a religious set of rules and regulations by which man is to attempt to become accepted with God. Seeking acceptance in this way is independent, man-centered living, and is nothing more than a form of worldliness because it bypasses God’s grace and relationship with Him through faith in His Son.
Worldliness exists, therefore, when we accept the standards, values, priorities, and methods of the world as our own and as our means to remove our pain or fear or meet our needs, needs like security, significance, and satisfaction in life. So the statement, “but if the salt has become tasteless,” is a warning against the problem of contamination with the viewpoint and ways of the world.
(4) Illustrations of Worldliness
33 And they came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. 35 And sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.” 36 And taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.”
38 John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who shall perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. 40 For he who is not against us is for us. 41 For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward. 42 And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 (where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.) 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell, 46 (where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.) 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, 48 where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
The unsalty condition our Lord was referring to in verse 50 is seen in the self-seeking of the disciples who had been arguing over who would be first in the kingdom (vs. 34). Carnality or the works of the flesh like jealousy, envy, ambition, lusts for position, power, prestige, and the details of life are all forms of worldliness and stem from the standards and methods of the world. They contaminate our lives and ruin our capacity to function as the salt of the earth.
34 Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned?
Here, salt that has become tasteless is a picture of half hearted discipleship. Without wholehearted allegiance to the Savior, without total availability and involvement with the Savior as our primary pursuit, we very quickly lose our saltiness, our capacity to follow the Lord which means the inability to function as salt because we are more interested in ourselves than in Him and His purposes. We become contaminated by the pursuits, values, and priorities of the world.
There are two problems here: fear and self-determination. For many people, Christianity is simply a means for selfish ends. Salt is a symbol of the character of Christ. And how did Christ behave? He was always totally committed to the will and plan of the Father, but that was because He completely trusted in the love, provision, and perfect plan of the Father, and because He was able to see beyond the immediate pain (Heb. 12:2-3).
When the disciples were so surprised by the fact the Lord was conversing with the Samaritan woman and were requesting Him to eat, He answered them with these words, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John4:34).
If we are not careful, we can live the reverse of God’s plan and thereby lose our saltiness. In today’s world of self-centered living, “our relationship with ourselves becomes the centerpiece of our lives—thought about and worked on more than our relationship with God. He becomes a treasured resource for honoring what we see as our highest purpose (liking ourselves), and we worship Him for being so good to us, privately thinking that it is rather fitting for Him to do so. And we give ourselves to others in acts of responsible kindness, always being careful to become a victim of no one.”6
Modern Christians tend to make satisfaction their religion. We show much more concern for self-fulfillment than for pleasing our God. Typical of Christianity today, at any rate in the English-speaking world, is its massive rash of how-to-books for believers, directing us to more successful relationships, more joy in sex, becoming more of a person, realizing our possibilities, getting more excitement each day, reducing our weight, improving our diet, managing our money, licking our families into happier shape, and whatnot. For people whose prime passion is to glorify God, these are doubtless legitimate concerns; but the how-to-books regularly explore them in a self-absorbed way that treats our enjoyment of life rather than the glory of God as the center of interest.7
This question is designed to get us to reflect on how we can deal with this problem of contamination. It may also suggest the difficulty of this. It is very hard, indeed, it was impossible to separate salt from the substances of the earth. You can sift gravel and sand, but how do you remove gypsum or dirt from salt? Likewise, apart from divine intervention or the power of God’s Word, it is impossible for us to separate ourselves from the contamination of the world system.
We cannot produce salt nor can we separate the gypsum of the world from our lives by our own abilities or processes, but we can have fellowship with the Savior by living in His Word. We can feed on the Word, and learn to abide in Him and rest in His control and provision no matter what comes. If we will learn to count on His love and grace, learn His Word, and pray for His purposes, then He will produce His life in ours and cleanse us from the attitudes and values of the world.
Salt or the character of saltiness is produced and maintained through fellowship with Christ—through a Word-filled, Spirit-filled life. By fellowship with the Savior, by dying to self, by learning to live by faith, by making fellowship with God our goal, rather than self, we can make our lives salty again.
The Consequences to Be Concerned About: “it is good for nothing anymore …”
Life is full of consequences, some immediate, some less immediate, and some very remote, even into eternity. But the subtle and deceptive thing about consequences is that we don’t immediately feel the consequences as when we break the law of gravity. We think we are getting by, but in reality we are not. Eventually, we will reap the consequences either for good or evil, depending on how and what we have sown.
Ecclesiastes 8:12-13 Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God. 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow. (NIV)
God has not left us here for our comfort or to pursue life on our own. Instead, He has left us here for a very special purpose, to know, love, and serve Him. But our ability to fulfill that purpose as the salt of the earth is dependent on the spiritual quality of our lives, on our saltiness. Life is not without its consequences. We reap what we sow, some in this life, and some in the future life. One day we are all going to be held responsible for what we have done with the stewardship of the life that God has given us.
Romans 14:11-12 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12 So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Webster defines light as, “something which enables you to see” or “that which makes vision possible.” In other words, light and sight go together. But this means you must have some kind of instrument that can use the light so that vision is possible, like an eye. Matthew 6:22 says, “the lamp of the body (i.e., the instrument of light and thus sight) is the eye.”
This very simple definition does not explain light scientifically, but it does point us to the key issue and meaning of light. So, because of light, man can see the world around him in all its brilliance, colors, and details, assuming his eyes are functional. Light is a means of vision for without it, no matter how good your eyes, you could see nothing. But without eyes, no matter how good the light, no vision, or if the eye is weak or bad, one’s sight becomes blurred or distorted.
Likewise, our Lord said in Matthew 6:22-23, “if your eye is clear (healthy, single), your whole body will be full of light (sight, vision, and so understanding), but if your eye is bad (sick, unhealthy), your whole body will be full of darkness (no vision, no sight, and so no understanding).” So also, compare Luke 11:33-36.
Luke 11:33 No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand, in order that those who enter may see the light. 34 The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light; but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness. 35 Then watch out that the light in you may not be darkness. 36 If therefore your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it shall be wholly illumined, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays.
So light, because of its implications and natural figurative uses, is a very important word in Scripture and we do well to take heed to God’s use of light in the Word. The concept of light, enlighten, lamp, or lampstand occurs in nearly 300 verses in Scripture. It is a very instructive figure.
Genesis 1:3 Then God said, “let their be light; and there was light.”
Until God spoke, the universe was in total darkness and formless and void. It was without life and without purpose. For it to fulfill God’s purpose, it had to have light. Of course, the source of light is God, specifically, the word of God. God spoke and light energy and all the electromagnetic forces and energy connected with it were put into effect. The creation of light brought about the energizing of the physical cosmos.
The Scriptures teach us that God is light (1 John 1:5), that He dwells in light unapproachable (1 Tim. 6:16), that Christ is the light of the world (John 1:7, 9; 8:12), and that God covers himself with light as a garment (Ps. 104:2). The Psalmists declare that the Lord is our light (Ps. 27:1) and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105). Thus, we are told to walk in the light of the Lord and as children of light (Isa. 2:4; Eph. 5:8).
All of this serves to remind us that God is the source of all light, physical and spiritual. (1) He is the creator and author of the eye by which light is utilized for vision. (2) He is the creator of the immaterial and spiritual makeup of man by which, like the eye itself, man can see—have spiritual sight, know God, and walk wisely. (3) He is the author of the Bible, God’s illuminant to our path.
In Genesis 2:7 we are told that when God created Adam, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (neshamah, literally, “the spirit of life,” a synonym for the Hebrew, ruach, “spirit”). Proverbs 20:27 says “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts of his being.” “Spirit” is again neshamah, which is seen as man’s inner spiritual instrument of light or vision, the product of the creative activity of God. However, because of the fall and man’s resultant spiritual death, and because of the blinding activity of Satan, this light has been extinguished from the standpoint of understanding spiritual matters, and so, man needs spiritual regeneration and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in order to see and understand spiritual truth (cf. Eph. 1:17f; 2:1; 3:18; 1 Cor. 2:14-16; 2 Cor. 4:3-4).
All light, therefore, comes from God, and if man is to find light in the figurative sense, he must come to God as the source of light. The tragedy and the judgment of God on man is that the light, Jesus Christ, has come into the world, and man consistently loves darkness rather than light. Why? Because his deeds are evil; he doesn’t want to be exposed or to change (John 3:19).
As light was essential for all organic life to exist, as God had to create light before he could create vegetation, so spiritual light is essential for spiritual life as well.
This is the light of the day, of the sun, the moon, and the stars (Gen. 1:4-18, Ps. 74:16; 136:7). This may be further divided into two more categories. (1) Real lights—lights as the sun and stars which give off light, which are sources of light. These are self-luminous heavenly bodies created by God, and (2) reflective lights—the moon and other planets which can only reflect the light of the stars.
When natural light fails because of the rotation of the earth on its axis as created by God, man, through discovery and invention, has come up with temporary substitutes—the candle, oil lamps, or anything that burns, and electricity (cf. Ex. 25:6; 35:8; Lev. 24:2; Matt. 5:15). Artificial light also has an application figuratively speaking in the Bible.
Light created by God for special purposes. There are six or seven references in Scripture to miraculous light:
(1) light in the homes of the Israelites during the plague of darkness (Ex. 10:23),
(2) the burning bush by which God made Himself known to Moses (Ex. 3:2),
(3) the pillar of fire by which God led Israel (Ex. 13:21),
(4) the light which announced the birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2:9),
(5) the light which engulfed Saul of Tarsus at his conversion (Acts 9:3; 22:6; 26:13),
(6) the light by which Jesus was transfigured (Mt. 17:2), and
(7) the light of the star which guided the wise men to the birth place of Jesus (Matt. 2:2, 9). This was probably not some ordinary star or natural configuration of the planets, but a supernatural star for the purpose of guiding the magi from the East to Jesus.
The figurative use of light in Scripture.
(1) The operational or active use: One of the properties of light is its ability to illuminate, expose, guide, and direct. Also, without light, most forms of life could not live. Light is essential for the sustenance of life. No vegetable or animal life was created by God until after light was created. So light stands for the concepts of illumination, explanation, exposure, and life support or sustenance (cf. Eph. 5:13; Ps. 119:105; John 3:19-21; 8:12). The following verses of Scripture illustrate this use of light.
Ephesians 5:13-14 But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. 14 For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.”
Psalm 119:105 Thy word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path.
John 3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil.
John 3:20-21 For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
John 8:12 Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
By contrast darkness stands for the opposite: obscurity, delusion, confusion, camouflage, and death.
(2) The intellectual use: Light is also used in Scripture for that which corresponds to reality: truth versus error, or distortion, or perversion, or falsehood. A person who has the light is one who has the truth; he is one who has the facts according to reality because they are no longer hidden or unknown but have been revealed, exposed, and seen by the light (Eph. 5:9-14; Matt. 4:15-16).
Ephesians 5:8-14 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), 10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; 12 for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. 13 But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. 14 For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.”
In contrast to light, darkness stands for error, falsehood, fiction, perversion, distortion, fallacy.
(3) The moral use: light is also used of that which is morally right, good, and orderly (cf. Eph. 5:8f with John 3:19-20 and Gen. 1:2-3). Without light there can only be chaos, confusion, disorder, and evil. Everything good is lost and distorted (cf. Gen. 1:1f; 1 Tim. 6:16).
John 3:19-21 And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.
Some Specific Uses: in the sphere of these three figurative ideas, light is used in the following ways:
(b) of Christ Himself as the light of the world (John 8:12),
Note: this last use stresses not only our function, illumination (exposing, revealing, guiding, and preserving through righteous lives), but the condition of the world—in darkness and without God’s Sun, the Lord Jesus Christ (Mal. 4:2; Isa. 60:19-20).
Malachi 4:2 But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.
Isaiah 60:19-20 No longer will you have the sun for light by day, Nor for brightness will the moon give you light; But you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, And your God for your glory. 20 Your sun will set no more, Neither will your moon wane; For you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, And the days of your mourning will be finished.
Psalm 18:28 For Thou dost light my lamp; The Lord my God illumines my darkness.
Psalm 36:9 For with Thee is the fountain of life; In Thy light we see light.
Proverbs 6:23 For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light; And reproofs for discipline are the way of life,
Isaiah 2:5-6 Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord. 6 For Thou hast abandoned Thy people, the house of Jacob, Because they are filled with influences from the east, And they are soothsayers like the Philistines, And they strike bargains with the children of foreigners.
Matthew 5:16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Luke 11:35 Then watch out that the light in you may not be darkness.
John 12:36 “While you have the light, believe in the light, in order that you may become sons of light.” These things Jesus spoke, and He departed and hid Himself from them.
John 12:46 I have come as light into the world, that everyone who believes in Me may not remain in darkness.
Romans 13:12 The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Consider the warnings of Isaiah 5:20; 50:10-11 (like comparing a flashlight with the sun).
Isaiah 50:10-11 Who is among you that fears the Lord, That obeys the voice of His servant, That walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. 11 Behold, all you who kindle a fire, Who encircle yourselves with firebrands, Walk in the light of your fire And among the brands you have set ablaze. This you will have from My hand; And you will lie down in torment.
Walking by our own sources of light is worse than trying to walk by a flashlight in comparison with walking in the light of the sun.
Isaiah 5:20-21 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And clever in their own sight!
Compare these verses with the plea of Isaiah 2:5, “Come, house of Jacob, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
After using the figure of salt to express the function of the subjects of His kingdom in the world, the Lord said to the disciples, “you, you (emphatic pronoun in the Greek) are the light of the world.” What was He saying? How could the disciples be the light of the World? By application, since this applies to us, how can we be the light of the world? We can obviously get the general gist of this, but to better grasp this truth (or to let it grasp us) we looked at the use of light in Scripture for background and insight. The light/darkness analogy is common in Scripture.
In this passage Christ teaches us that those who believe in Him are the light of the world. But we must remember that we can function as such only because of our essential relationship to Him. He alone is the true light of the world since He is God, the source of light, and the Logos, the revelation of God.
With this picture, He seeks to get us to face our purpose and function as His people, “to let our light shine,” but we can do this only to the degree that we receive light from Jesus Christ who is to us what the sun is to the moon or what a match is to an oil soaked wick in a lamp. Our true responsibility is to reveal the Lord Jesus, to give off the light of His glorious life.
Christ said with emphasis, “you, you are the light of the world.” This stresses you and you alone. This means that if man is ever to find solutions to his problems in any area of life—spiritually and morally speaking—it must come through the ministry of the body of Christ as it reveals the Lord Jesus to a world that lies in darkness. The church alone has the answers of life because it alone knows the Savior who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).
It is interesting how the world is always talking about its enlightenment or its awakening. It has great hopes in its programs for reform and change, but the only enlightenment it ever really finds that brings real spiritual aid to society is through those who know Christ and know the Bible.
Francis Schaeffer illustrated this in How Should We Then Live. There was the period of the Renaissance to the south in Europe, the period of the so-called Enlightenment, but its base was humanism and it really led to darkness and distortions. For instance, the French Revolution was based on the ideas of humanism and it failed. It was hideously cruel and bloody and it failed to lead to freedom. But to the north there was the Reformation based on the light of the Word which had a completely different result.
When men or a society rejects God’s light and seeks to walk by their own firebrands, as Isaiah 50:11 warns, they must eventually lie in torment, a torment of their own making as we see so prominent in our society today. We have basically abandoned our Christian heritage and the light of the Lord and the moral, political, and social breakdown we see in our society is the result.
The phrase “of the world” again serves to emphasize the spiritual condition of the world—it lies in a state of spiritual darkness. No matter how hard it tries, if it acts autonomously from itself, only darkness can result. Satan masquerades as an angel of light. As such, he has his false prophets of religion and humanism and mysticism, but they lead men away from God and into darkness. Only God, as He did in creation, can break through the spiritual chaos and darkness of the world and bring cosmos (order), light, and life.
So, there is a world out there, lying in darkness and it will only experience genuine light to the degree that the church, the body of Christ, reveals Christ and the truth of Scripture.
This is the primary purpose and function of light though it may also be used for heat or warmth. The world is dark, in chaos, in death, and cold without the Savior.
To emphasize our function and purpose, the Lord used these two figures from life, a city set on a hill, and putting a lamp under a peck measure. In the process, He demonstrates to us just how ridiculous it is for the subjects of His kingdom, a kingdom of light, to fail to function as designed. But this is precisely the problem. The church and believers are like this. We are failing miserably to let our lights shine.
“A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (vs. 14b). What does this say to us? A hill elevates anything placed on it, like a city, to the view of everyone around it. It makes it stand out—clearly visible—which of course is the function of light. As mentioned earlier, Webster defines light as, “something which enables you to see” or “that which makes vision possible.” In other words, light and sight go together. Our purpose is to give sight to a world in darkness.
Pentecost writes: “One who travels the Holy Land is impressed with the fact that multitudes of villages were built on the tops of the hills … When night came, the light in the houses on the hill could not be hidden. From a great distance, one knew the location of the next village because of the light from that hilltop.”8 In other words, the cities became a beacon for travelers who could literally travel from city to city by the light of those cities.
When we are truly Christian, or when we abide in Him who is the light, and experience His life and character in ours, it elevates us and makes us distinct in the sense of more visible. It is something which you cannot hide—it becomes obvious to all around you. You can’t hide a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course, this is the issue—are we really walking with Jesus Christ, or is our relationship superficial?
Man’s typical use of a lamp (vs. 15). This presses the issue even more and shows how ridiculous it is for the believer in Jesus Christ to fail in his purpose.
Why does anyone light a lamp? Obviously it is done so it may give off light to a room. A man does not light a lamp which is designed to give light to the inhabitants of a house in darkness and then put it under a peck measure, i.e., a container like a wash tub that snuffs out its light. To do this is ridiculous beyond measure. Yet this is exactly what the believer can do with his or her life. God has made us to be lamps in Jesus Christ and He left us here in the world that we might give off the light of the glory of Jesus Christ. But, by the peck measures of carnality and worldliness, by our apathy, materialism, fears, and our various other strategies by which we seek to protect ourselves or live life, we cover up our lights and fail in our purpose.
Then what are we? We are good for nothing. Like salt which has lost its savor and like a lamp stuck under a tub, we become ridiculous for we are wasting our very purpose for living as the children of God.
This second illustration of the lamp is very specific and when compared with the rest of Scripture, it provides us with some instructive truths to live by or apply.
(1) Explanation of the Lamp: Lamps in biblical times were a light holder. It was a light bearing instrument consisting of a bowl made of pottery with a pinched rim for holding the wick which was made of twisted flax. Later these gradually changed from the open-type bowl to an enclosed bowl for holding the oil with a hole at the center of the top for adding oil, and a long projected nozzle or spout which held the wick.
(2) The Meaning of the Figure: In addition to the central fact we are to bear light, the lamp figure illustrates HOW believers can become and function as the light of the world. When we compare this figure to the rest of the Bible, we find the following concepts:
PRINCIPLE: Without the Holy Spirit and His control, there can be no light. We become a lamp under a tub.
PRINCIPLE #1: This portrays the need of the believer to trim from his life those things which hinder his walk with the Lord and so also his capacity to function for the Lord. This requires honest confession of sin and root problems, putting to death the old lust patterns of the sin nature via reckoning and relying on the Spirit Himself (Rom. 8:13).
PRINCIPLE #2: When we refuse to trim our wick, the Father, like the old lamp lighter of days gone by, must come along and trim and relight the wick through divine discipline or testing and trials to get us to function so those sitting in the dark can see and can come to know Jesus Christ (John 15:1f; Heb. 12:5f).
In ourselves we are simply earthen vessels, just old clay pots, but so designed by God and recreated through spiritual regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we can give off the light of Jesus Christ.
Genesis 1 teaches us that in the beginning, when the world was “formless and void,” that also “darkness was over the face of the deep.” Then God simply spoke, and light was created. This entire narrative of creation traces how God transformed the chaos into cosmos, turned darkness into light, and altered that which was unprofitable and without life to that which was good, profitable, and full of life. He created the sun, the moon, and the stars to give light to the world. But the narrative of Genesis 1 not only gives us the history of creation and the origin of light and life, but it was designed to illustrate spiritual realities throughout the history of man and redemption.
So the universe, and in particular, the creation narrative is designed not only to reveal the glory and majesty of God, but to also reveal His redemptive purpose and plan to bring light, life, and meaning out of what is darkness, waste, and vain or without purpose. Therefore, one of the great declarations of the Bible is that “God is light.” He is the one who, as light Himself, created it and dispels darkness.
When we study the nature of light we find something very interesting. Science tells us that light is composed of three rays, or groups of wave-lengths, distinct from each other, not one of which without the other would be light. Each ray has its own separate function. The first originates, the second formulates, illuminates or manifests, and the third consummates. The first ray, actinic light, often called invisible light, is neither seen nor felt. The second, luminiferous light, is both seen and felt. The third, calorific light, is not seen but is felt as heat. Light is probably one of the best illustrations of the trinity or triunity of God.
The analogy could look something like this: Actinic, neither seen nor felt, could be a picture of the Father. Luminiferous which is seen and felt could be a picture of the Son, and calorific which is not seen, but felt could picture the Holy Spirit. Regardless of this analogy, in Scripture, light is used to portray the character of God as good and holy, totally set apart from sin, but it also portrays Him as life-creating, life-giving, and life-transforming.
Thus, Jesus Christ, the Son, in His incarnation is called the “light of the World” (John 8:12; 12:46) because He came to reveal God and to give man life and life more abundantly. He is also called “the Sun of Righteousness” in Malachi 4:2 as the only one who, through His two advents, will bring righteousness and peace to a world that lies in the chaotic darkness of Satan’s domain.
So also, the gospel is called “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4), and the Scripture is portrayed as an instrument of light which illuminates our path as the following illustrates:
Psalm 19:8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
Psalm 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.
Psalm 119:130 The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.
Proverbs 6:23 For these commands are a lamp, this teaching is a light, and the corrections of discipline are the way to life,
The story of man’s redemption ends with anticipation of a new day, a time when all darkness will be removed, both physical and spiritual. There will no longer even be the need of the sun.
Revelation 22:5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
But in the meantime, during this time of darkness, the Lord has given His church a key role. As Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness, so the Lord Jesus told his disciples, “you are the light of the world.” As believers who possess the Savior and the indwelling Spirit, we are now called upon to be the light of the world like the heavenly luminaries which get their light capacity from the sun. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, so we are to reflect the light of Jesus Christ.
This naturally brings us to our next verse, the command or exhortation of verse 16.
(1) First, let’s notice that this is a command, the permissive imperative in the Greek. It means, permit your light to shine. Don’t do anything that will cover it up or snuff it out. This is not an option for any of us. To fail in this is to disobey God and miserably fail in our purpose in the plan of God.
(2) This command, then, also becomes a warning and strongly reminds us of this ever present possibility. Like the moon which can eclipse the sun and bring darkness over the earth, so we can allow conditions to exist which eclipse God’s light into our lives and thus our ability to let our light shine.
(3) Finally then, this tells us to use our God-given capacity as lamps and to let our lights shine, but this warns us, according to the analogy of Scripture, to walk in the light of the Sun of Righteousness.
So what exactly does it mean “to let your light shine …”? Is this just a command to witness? NO! We let our light shine when we manifest good before men, but what does this mean? The Pharisees tithed, gave to the poor, prayed, were religious, worshipped, and followed the details of the law. The Pharisees had good works, but concerning them the Lord said in Matthew 5:20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” As the spiritual leaders of the nation, they not only failed to point the nation to Christ, but they put Him to death. So just being religious and having religious works means nothing.
I believe the Lord is talking about a way and quality of life that is so different from that of the world, including the religious world, so distinct, that it shines like a light in the darkness.
But what is that? It is the character of Jesus Christ, the character of the kind of life expressed in the Beatitudes of 5:3-12. It is a style of living that relates everything in life to faith in God’s supply and which sees everything in life in the light of the greater purposes of God and His sovereign control.
Typically and by contrast, man’s style of relating to the problems and needs of life is through some form of self-protection, some human strategy for defense or security and happiness which he invariably turns to as a solution to his pain and fears and wants. But because these human solutions are the firebrands of his own making (Isa. 50:11), it leads to all forms of evil, things like covetousness, hatred, revenge, fraud, murder, gossip, and worry. Walking by one’s own firebrand causes people to neglect spiritual values and loved ones in the pursuit of the details of life. As with the Pharisees, even religion or religious endeavors very often fall into this same category.
Though it has already been mentioned, Isaiah 50:10-11 has an important word here. The context, verses 4-9, is one of great contrast. The servant of the Lord (Messiah) rises early to listen to God that he might love others, even in the midst of harm and pain. How? By living by faith in the Father’s supply. So read again the warning of vss. 10-11.
What does it mean “to light our own fire”? It means to light our own firebrands so we can walk by our own light. It means we turn to our own solutions or lean on the arm of the flesh. It means we trust in ourselves rather than in the Lord. But the results are never good. It means we will eventually lie down in torment, the bed of our own making. It’s the age-old law of sowing and reaping.
Illustration and Application: What’s going on in your life right now? Are you handling your problems by your own strategies? Are you seeking counsel from God’s Word to light your path? Are you applying biblical principles? Are you resting by faith in God’s supply? Remember that obeying biblical principles and trusting the Lord go together. To let our light shine means we must:
(1) Stop quenching the Spirit by trusting in our own solutions. It means we walk in the power of the Spirit by faith, that we walk in the light of God’s Word, that we walk in dependence on the Lord so we can be productive and shining lamps.
(2) Perhaps this also means to stir up the gift of God in you, allow it to burst into flame. This is why we are here. This should be the great purpose of our lives.
Notice He does not say “start shining,” but “let your light shine.” We are not to become ostentatious show offs, but we are responsible to allow God the Holy Spirit to reproduce the light of Christ within us. A light does not call attention to itself. It points the way through the darkness and spotlights the path or some object we want others to see, specifically, the PORTRAIT OF CHRIST. We are to spotlight God’s truth, the Lord Jesus.
“Before men.” This warns us against isolationism or monasticism. The Lord wants us to make contact with the world. This unites two doctrines: separation and penetration or evangelism.
Penetration --------------> Contact --------------> Evangelism (Matt. 28:19)
Separation --------> Distinctiveness --------> Nonconformity (Rom. 12:2)
We are to be like cream which separates from milk.
“In such a way.” “Such” is the Greek outos an adverb describing manner. “In this manner,” or “in this way.” Here our Lord is showing us that the manner in which our light shines is just as important as the fact of letting it shine. He is not merely saying “let your light shine,” but “let it shine in this manner.” But what is that?
“That they may see your good works.” “That” is hopos, a very strong conjunction of purpose. There is to be a special purpose behind allowing our light to shine. This stresses the fact we are each here for a purpose and this purpose should have a pervading, overriding influence and force over all we do. All that we do should be in line with carrying out this purpose, i.e., the things we think and say, the places we go, the things we do—everything! Everything we do should be done to enhance our light-bearing capacity. Light-bearing is primary, never secondary. It’s no side issue.
The meaning of the words “good” and “works.” “Good works” is kala erga.
Kala (the accusative singular of kalos) means “lovely, beautiful, helpful, honest, useful, and well adapted to its purpose or end.” Kalos is a characteristic New Testament word to describe a quality that should be characteristic of a Christian’s life. In the New Testament kalos occurs no fewer than 100 times.9 Originally, it referred to beauty of form.10 It was used of a beautiful woman, of a safe harbor, of good fruit, or good seed. In this word there is a stress on the outward appearance and on the usefulness of something to fulfill its purpose.
But perhaps we can best grasp its meaning when we compare it with agathos. Agathos is that which is practically and morally good; but kalos is not only practically and morally good, but that which is also aesthetically good, lovely, winsome, and pleasing to the eye.11 It has been called the word of winsomeness!
Ergon means “work, task, employment, a deed, actions or acts,” or “that which is wrought or made, a work.” So “works” can refer to our work, employment, or our craft, or to our Christian deeds—moral good, Christian love, help, and ministry. Regardless of the specific application, the point is that our works are to be done in such a way that they, in a winsome manner, attract and point men to Christ as the source and energy for our lives.
Too often, Christians, even by their moral good and ministry, repel men and people. They have agathos works, but not kalos works. We can be just like the religious Pharisees. Or we can engage in Christian activities, church and Sunday School, but we can so lack in Christian character in other ways (in attitudes, in faithfulness, honesty, punctuality, and integrity) that we kill our testimony.
Remember, the analogy being used here is that of light. As with light which exposes and reveals, this would take three primary forms in our lives:
(1) It means the exposure of evil. By the believer’s good works, his honesty and Christlike character, he will expose fear, anxiety, lack of purpose, false values, dishonest practices, gossip among friends, loose talk, racial prejudice, greed, selfishness, and on the list can go. In this it will also mean taking a stand for what we believe.
(2) It means personally sharing the gospel. Sharing the gospel with others as the reason for the difference or the cause of your good works and distinct life-style. One’s life is to become a catalyst, a means of building bridges into the lives of others so we can eventually share Christ.
(3) It will mean helping others grow in their faith. Just as a plant will grow even in a dark cave if a bright enough light is provided, so others should be able to grow because you have shared your knowledge and relationship with Christ with them.
“And glorify your Father …” The second verb points us to the ultimate purpose of seeing our good works. There is to be a specific goal behind displaying our good works, but this means more than just seeing our good works. The result that God wants is that men might, through these good works, come to glorify Him and this means drawing them to Jesus Christ because they have seen Him as the source and means of the good works or of a life which is different and dynamic. God is glorified when men accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.
This means the way we display our light or the good works is critical. It should be done in such a way that men ultimately come to know that our light is Jesus Christ, that the means of our good works is not us, but God’s grace in Jesus Christ within us. So again, as we rub shoulders with men, we must somehow communicate with them that Jesus Christ is the one who makes our lives different. We need to look for opportunities in our conversations to include biblical truth to show that our faith is the reason for how we live and what we do.
ILLUSTRATION #1: You are going to be moving to another state. In your conversation your neighbor or another friend says something like, “boy I know you hate to move, it’s so hard on the kids and so hard to leave friends.” This is a golden opportunity to let your light shine … “Yes, its hard, but you know the Lord is teaching me to live this life like a sojourner because this life is passing away and our greatest reward is in heaven. God doesn’t want us to get too attached to things and places down here, so we might be more effectively used by Him. He has promised to supply all our needs, and besides our permanent home is in heaven if we have trusted in Christ. John, what is your relationship with Jesus Christ?”
ILLUSTRATION #2: Let’s say you break a priceless vase or piece of china, or lose a good bird dog, and someone says to you, “Oh, I’m so sorry, you must just feel terrible about it.” Again this is an opportunity to say, “Well of course I hate to lose it, but I am not going to allow it to upset me because it is just part of this world that is passing away anyway. According to the Bible the real imperishable and eternal values are in heaven. So I want to trust the Lord in this.”
Life is filled with such opportunities but they too often go unused and our light, our character as a reflection of Jesus Christ, gets pushed under a tub. People often can see a difference—but they never find out that the difference is Jesus Christ. They think we are different simply because we are one of the nice guys. We get the credit and not God so He is not glorified.