February 8, 2004
Welcome back to the Jesus Curriculum. We’re studying Matthew 5-7, also known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s one of the lessons Jesus taught to those who followed him. Here Jesus introduces them to something called God’s Kingdom. That’s why we’re calling Matthew 5-7 “The Kingdom Handbook”, because in it Jesus tells his followers what they need to know as citizens of God’s Kingdom.
For the last three lessons, we’ve been looking at the Beatitudes, nine values that characterize God’s Kingdom.
The Kingdom isn’t something you qualify for by leading an upright life and performing great acts of service for mankind.
Instead, the Kingdom belongs to those who are spiritually bankrupt, to those who are filled with grief because of what sin has done to our world, and to those who cannot handle on their own everything life throws at them.
The Kingdom is the place where we will finally have justice, but at the same time we will be forgiven of all our mistakes and misdeeds. This is possible because Jesus himself died for us, satisfying justice and providing us with his own purity, allowing us to enter into God’s presence absolutely perfect.
In the meantime, while we wait for the Kingdom, we live here on this earth. As kingdom citizens we work for peace between God and man and among men. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we also expect that our efforts will be answered with persecution, with insults, and with slander. We will suffer for doing the right thing and we will suffer just because we are associated with Jesus.
Making these observations about what life on earth is like for a citizen of the Kingdom, Jesus naturally goes on to discuss the issue of living on earth more thoroughly.
In the next verses, 13-16, Jesus uses two metaphors—two word pictures—to describe the role his followers will play during their “layover” here on earth. These are also characteristics of Kingdom citizens. If you are a follower of Jesus, these two pictures tell you what you’re here for.
Jesus says you are salt and light.
For the next two weeks, we’re going to study these two pictures. They are found side-by-side in Matthew 5:13-16. This week, we begin with the first picture in verse 13:
Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth.
Salt was very common in Jesus’ day, but also a valuable substance.
Sometimes Roman soldiers were paid in salt (Pentecost, p. 78) and if one of them was not performing his duties well, it was said that “he wasn’t worth his salt”.
Just like today, salt was used to flavor food and it was also used to preserve foods. There was no refrigeration, so, for example, fish that were caught in the Sea of Galilee were packed in salt and sent to market in Jerusalem. The salt kept the fish from spoiling.
That is the image Jesus uses to describe his followers. You are the salt of the earth. You add distinctiveness to the flavor of life on earth and you help to preserve human society; you keep it from spoiling. What is it about a believer that makes life more palatable and pure? I think that it’s clear that Jesus is talking about the basic goodness that should characterize those who follow him and obey his teachings.
If you’re following Jesus, putting his words into practice in your life, then you will become like Jesus—basically a really nice person, mostly pleasant to be around, helpful, compassionate, truthful, honest, kind and loving. Your life will be characterized by two things: the presence of good deeds and the absence of vices. You will be the kind of person that others are attracted to just because you are such a good person.
Please be careful here. Jesus is not saying that if you work hard at becoming a really good person then you will earn a place in the Kingdom. He is saying that if you have a place in the Kingdom (which comes only through God’s grace), then you will become a really good person as you allow Christ’s character to be formed in you. Christ’s followers will be good people.
The cumulative effect of that kind of goodness has an effect on the world. Through their moral decency and charitable works, believers have made this world a much better place to live. Many of the world’s hospitals, orphanages and universities were opened in the name of Christ. Missionaries have brought literacy, medicine, education, and practical training to millions of people in the name of Christ. American believers in particular have been extremely generous in their gifts to the world.
It is true that self-proclaimed “Christians” have also murdered, stolen and fought wars in the name of Christ. There have been unbiblical, selfish, misguided attempts to promote racial and gender discrimination (and even slavery) with the claim of biblical authority. These people acted in the name of Christ, but they did not obey the teachings of Christ.
Because it is the teachings of the Bible (almost exclusively among the world’s beliefs) that elevated women to their proper place as human beings equal in value to any man. The Bible inspired the prohibition of slavery and promotes the equal treatment of all people on the planet because they are all equally valuable to God. The Bible formed the basis of western law and inspired democratic freedom. The Bible has been a reliable moral compass that has served mankind well for thousands of years despite all the attempts to distort it or misrepresent it. The Bible teaches the principles of honesty, fidelity, respect for others, respect for property, justice, generosity, and non-retaliation. The Bible promotes peace and encourages men to treat each other with kindness, patience, compassion and understanding.
Those who follow Jesus and put the words of the Bible into practice have had and continue to have a tremendous impact on this world for good. That is what Jesus means when he says, “You are the salt of the earth.”
If we follow the Kingdom Handbook, “conforming to kingdom norms”, then, as one writer says, we will be “a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing or non-existent.” (Tasker) And we will greatly benefit the world by the good deeds we do. You are the salt of the earth: a preservative, a flavor enhancer. As you follow the teachings of Jesus, pursuing good deeds and personal purity, you make this sorry world a much better place to live.
Notice the end of the verse:
But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?
It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
Salt in Jesus’ day was not the kind of pure salt we have today. It was mixed with impurities and if it was exposed to moisture for a long time, the salt could leach out, leaving only sand behind—it lost its salty characteristics. When that happened, the “salt” became worthless. It no longer tasted good. It no longer preserved anything. You just threw it out on the ground with the rest of the dust. You’ve all seen a saltshaker with grains of rice in it to absorb the moisture. Well, picture a saltshaker where all the salt has been shaken out and only rice is left in the shaker. That’s the idea here. It’s no longer real salt; it’s just tasteless trash.
That can happen to us too. If our goodness is compromised—if we stop doing good or if we permit moral corruption in our lives—then we cease to become salty—we cease to have the purifying and enhancing effect on the world that Jesus intends his followers to produce while they are here.
OK, so we know what Jesus says we should be: an influence on the world that makes it more pure and palatable. But how do we go about that? How do we function as the salt of the earth? How can we have a positive influence on the morality of a crooked and depraved society?
In the rest of the time we have, I’d like to look at some of the things we’ve tried. I believe that unfortunately many of the things we’ve tried have failed and I’d like to talk about why they have failed. And then I’d like to suggest what we need to do—what I think Jesus had in mind when he told us through this metaphor that we should have a positive moral impact on our world.
Here’s one of the things we’ve tried: confronting sinners and condemning their behavior. This is a picture from CNN of a member of Operation Rescue. He’s standing outside Disney World, protesting on “Gay Day”, a specially organized event for homosexuals at Disney World. (Read quotes from article.)
Just this last year we had a similar event at the Ballpark in Arlington when the Rangers had a “Gay Day” and it, too, was marked with protests by some local churches.
The ProtestGayDay website says, "We praise God that through the media we were able to deter the homosexuals from buying the tickets. …Three young men got saved and came to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. 10 adults and 2 children were spared from unknowingly participating in festivities with homosexuals. Several Christians were enlightened to the need to stand against immorality. Thousands were exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Concerned Women of America reported: “Despite claims from the Resource Center of Dallas that they would draw 1,000 homosexual baseball fans to Sunday night’s game, the group was able to sell only 200 tickets for the special roped-off section. …300 Christians rallied outside the stadium in protest of what was billed in the media as “Gay Day at The Ballpark.”…The 8 by 4 foot neon green sign outside the Texas Rangers’ Arlington stadium near Dallas on Sunday night pro-claimed the outcome: “Christians 300, ‘Gays’ 200, Jesus wins.”
While homosexuals seem to inspire the most attention, groups like this have also been active in protesting in front of abortion clinics as well.
Perhaps you can think of some other examples, but it seems to me that homosexuality and abortion have become the two hot-button issues that Christians are concerned about today. Does it seem strange to anyone that Christians organize protests about homosexuality and abortion, but don’t call for protests and marches against greed, gossip, adultery, lying or self-righteous pride? Maybe it’s just me.
Please don’t misunderstand. I think the Bible is clear that homosexual behavior is wrong and that killing another person—even one who is not yet born—is wrong. I believe there is no question that the Bible identifies both these actions unequivocally as sin.
My question is, “By protesting and marching with inflammatory and offensive placards, by writing unkind editorials, by boycotting businesses who make charitable contributions or try to provide equal benefits to all their employees, by treating this as a war of us vs. them, are we effectively making this world a purer and more palatable place?” I think not. On the one hand, I believe that these protests do very little to promote morality. On the other hand, I believe these protests do much to communicate a false impression to the world that Christians are unloving, unkind bigots who hypocritically believe they are morally superior and are selfish and insensitive enough to think that their views of right and wrong should be forced upon others.
Sometimes the desire to promote morality in our society motivates the Christian community to try to legislate against sin. I believe there is a legitimate place for morality in politics (and we’ll talk about that in a minute). But I also believe that we have not been either careful, fair or kind in some of the laws that the Christian community has promoted and endorsed.
What does the Bible say about this warfare against sin in society?
I think it’s interesting to notice that even Jesus didn’t approach the issue the way we do and he didn’t tell us anything that would indicate we should. Jesus said once,
John 3: 17 God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
If anyone had the standing to condemn the world over its sin, it was Jesus. And yet he did not. If that is what we are supposed to be doing, then why didn’t Jesus do it? And why didn’t he specifically tell us to? This verse immediately follows a verse that you’ve probably heard of:
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
It’s clear in the Bible that the message of Jesus and his followers to the sinful world is one of love and forgiveness, not one of condemnation and confrontation.
But you might be saying, “Yes, the message is all about forgiveness. But these people don’t know that they need forgiveness and they won’t know unless I tell them.” You know what? The Bible says that job belongs to someone else.
John 16:8 When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment:
It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convince people that they are guilty and need forgiveness. That’s not our job. That shouldn’t be our approach. Instead, we are there to offer forgiveness to those who recognize they need it. Remember this verse from last week?
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 God ... gave us the ministry of reconciliation: … We are . Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.
The preachers in the early church took a much different approach than the protestors of our day. They lived in a society that was terribly corrupt; a society in which abortion was commonplace and homosexuality was accepted as an alternate lifestyle. And yet the New Testament says ab-solutely nothing about any protests, confrontations, boycotts, or petitions against sin in society. When speaking to unbelievers, they did not con-demn their sin. They did not even try to point out how sinful they were. They only stressed that God was offering them forgiveness and pleaded with them to turn to God and accept his forgiveness for their sins.
There are many passages in the New Testament that confront sin and talk about how inappropriate it is. But you know what? As far as I know, every one of those passages is addressed to Christians and deals with the issue of sin in the church among believers. They do not reproach unbelievers for their sin. Rather, they plead with them to accept forgiveness if they recognize they need it.
That brings us to the question of what we need to do in order to be the salt of the earth, in order to have purifying and palatable influence on the world. First, I believe we need to
Philippians 2:14-15 Do everything without complaining or arguing,  so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.
The word “in” here actually means “in the middle of”, like salt rubbed into the meat. When you live in the middle of a crooked and depraved society, it can be difficult to maintain the kind of goodness that Jesus teaches us to pursue. It’s easy to let our moral standards lapse. It’s easy to take care of ourselves instead of serving others. In other words, it’s easy to lose our saltiness.
But if we really want to have a moral influence the world, the biblical way to do it is to actually live moral lives ourselves.
You know, I think I’ve mentioned this before, but as a parent I’ve noticed that kids worry a lot about whether their brothers and sisters are doing what they’re supposed to do. They come in and say, “Mom, Johnny’s got one of those things you told everybody not to touch.” I get really tired of all the help I get from my kids raising my other kids. I find myself saying like a hundred times, “Look, you worry about you. You’ve got more than enough work to do making sure that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and not doing what you’re not supposed to do. Leave your brother alone.”
You know, I think that might be good advice for us as Christians. Is there some reason, biblical or otherwise why we can’t concentrate on our own morality and quit worrying about whether or not the sinners are sinning?
Research shows that the incidence of adultery, pre-marital sex and divorce is roughly the same inside the church as it is in society as a whole. Christians can be ungenerous, stingy and hard to please. We’ve got a man in our church that says, “When I go to work in someone’s home, I hate to see that fish symbol on their door, because I know they are going to be a pain to work with.” It is a shame that often society cannot tell the difference between the behavior of a Christian and the behavior of a non-Christian. If followers of Jesus are to be the salt of the earth, we must begin by working on our own morality. Personally, I think we’ve got more than enough to keep us busy. At least I do.
Can you imagine what kind of impact the church would have on society if Christians really practiced what they believe, if they purged themselves of sin and concentrated on being good, decent, kind people?
I believe that God’s instructions to us are not arbitrary. He told us to avoid sin because it isn’t good for us. If the church was pure, then I think people in the world would see that and long for the sense of peace and fulfillment that they saw in the church. I think you wouldn’t be able to keep people away. All by themselves (along with the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives) they would begin to recognize the futility of sin and they would long for forgiveness and the life of kind, quiet integrity that they might see in the church—if we passionately pursued our own personal morality.
What is the Holy Spirit saying to you right now? Is there something that you need to surrender? I’m not going to picket your house. I’m going to remind you that Jesus offers you forgiveness so you can be rid of the sin that feels comfortable but is eating away at your soul. The church is meant to be a place where sinners are forgiven and then commit themselves to living a life of moral purity. That’s how we will influence our world.
A second thing we need to do is
We live in a somewhat unique government. In a sense, we the people are the rulers of our country. As Christians, I think it is appropriate that we ask ourselves, “What kinds of laws should a Christian ruler make?”
We don’t have time to go into a lot of detail about this issue but I think it is very appropriate that we vote, write, speak, and persuade other citizens to pass morally upright laws. There are just two observations I’d like to make about how we do it.
First, I think we need to be kind. We are called to be peacemakers not rabble-rousers. Again, let me remind you about a verse we saw last week,
1 Peter 3:15-16 Do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.
For the Christian, I believe there is no place at all in the political process for cruelty, anger, or belligerence. If we cannot speak about politics kindly then let’s not speak about it at all.
What about protests? I don’t know. It depends what look like. Are they kind and respectful or belligerent? If someone did the same thing to our church because they disagreed with what we believed, would you con-sider it persecution? If so, then what authority do we have for persecu-ting those who disagree with God that a certain behavior isn’t sin?
The second observation is that we need to be concerned with biblical morality as a whole. Political conservatives are usually focused on two or three moral issues and almost completely ignore some others. The Bible does teach that homosexual behavior and abortion are wrong. But it also teaches that it is wrong to deny justice to the poor, or to discriminate against a person because he has a different parentage, or to abuse the environment, or to wage war for selfish or capricious reasons. It also teaches about many other sins, the kinds of things that none of us want our government to police, prosecute or punish.
Some of these moral issues are priorities for political liberals. And yet the war cry of the political conservatives is so loud in the church that often these other “liberal” moral issues get lost in the din.
If this is how a believer feels about the political views of the typical evangelical church, just imagine how we come across to unbelievers.
I believe there is a place for a Christian to promote morality in society through the political process. But whether we like it or not, we live in a country that is ruled by the majority of the people. And the law of our land says that, whether or not it conforms to biblical teaching, the majority gets to decide what will be allowed. Is there any reason that we cannot join in the dialogue and advocate our personal support for a particular moral position without demonizing those who disagree? That would be an appropriate way to influence the morality of our society—as one citizen, respectfully expressing a personal opinion that is informed by the teachings of Jesus in the Bible.
The existence of moral laws will not bring morality to our society. But, if we pursue our own personal morality, if we live like the good, decent, honest, generous, upright people that God wants us to be, then we will have an purifying and palatable effect on the world. We will be the salt of the earth.
1 Copyright 2004 by Lewis B. Bell III. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the The Kingdom Character series delivered by Chip Bell at Fellowship Bible Church Arapaho in Dallas, TX on February 8, 2004. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with credit.