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13. A Pinch of Salt in the Recipe for Persecution (Matthew 5:13-16)

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When a foreign national lives in our country, but is as an employee of his home government, when he gathers information and builds relationships here for the benefit of his home government, and when he acts as a public representative of his home government, what do we call him?

When he does all these things but keeps his foreign allegiance secret, what do we call him?

The one guest is an ambassador, while the other guest is a spy. Now which guest would you prefer to have as your neighbor?

Outline of Matthew’s Gospel

Outline of Matthew’s Gospel from the standpoint of discipling the nations

    1. First hinge: Matthew 4:18-5:1 – Jesus called together His disciples, then He demonstrated His ministry style (4:23); when He saw the multitudes, He sat down and taught the disciples (5:1).

    2. Second hinge: Matthew 9:35-10:5a – Jesus demonstrated His ministry style (9:35); when He saw the multitudes He felt compassion for them, then He called together His disciples and gave them authority (10:1) and taught them (10:5ff).

    3. Third hinge: Matthew 28:16-20 – Jesus called together His disciples, and by implication gave them authority to make disciples of all nations in His name.

The progression seems to be that Jesus made disciples through teaching by example and by word; then He sent His disciples to teach by example and by word, and finally He sent His disciples to make disciples. Jesus made disciples and ministered, then Jesus sent the disciples to minister, then Jesus sent the disciples to make disciples.

Our text comes just after this first hinge in the Gospel of Matthew. We are listening to Jesus give instruction to new disciples, disciples who have seen His works but now need to hear His message. The message commences with a description not of outward works that should characterize disciples, but with beatitudes that describe a fundamental change of heart. There is so much to be noticed in the beatitudes, but I want us to begin reading them now asking ourselves, “Why would anyone suffer persecution for living out these heart attitudes?”

Matthew 5:3-12

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn,

For they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek,

For they shall inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

For they shall be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful,

For they shall obtain mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart,

For they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,

For they shall be called sons of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”164

Notice that there is nothing objectionable in the beatitudes that would lead to persecution.165 The cause of persecution is made specific in Matthew 5:11, “because of Me.” Persecution of itself does not bring blessing, but persecution for the cause of righteousness in Christ Jesus carries the promise of blessing.

Notice in Matthew 5:12 that the persecution of the prophets is mentioned. What makes a prophet a prophet – what he does or what he says? What got the Old Testament prophets into trouble and persecution – their actions or their words? In the New Testament, what caused John the Baptist to suffer persecution and death – his actions (baptizing Jesus, for instance) or his words? It was not their actions but their prophetic words. “Because of Me” assumes a vocal witness to Jesus, otherwise how could the disciples be said to suffer on His account?

Salt and Light

As we approach our text, we cannot help but be influenced by the temperature of the culture around us. We are being told that our calling as salt and light primarily references good works. The world would like for Christians to remain in our corner doing good and to stay out of the arena of public speech. The world is very happy to honor Christians who live lives of superior goodness, as long as we keep our mouths shut about sin and righteousness and judgment. I am sure that names immediately spring to mind of Christians who are honored by the world for their good works, primarily because those Christians have not been bold about proclaiming Christ.

I was very interested to see that Time magazine’s cover this week features “Missionaries Under Cover.” When I read Time, I feel as though I am reading the very spirit of this world, and so it impressed me greatly to find that some missionaries are looked upon favorably by the world. One of them, Edward Miller, is presently in Iraq trying to provide food for Iraqi psychiatric patients, but Time reports:

One thing is not on his to-do list: evangelizing …

Back in Baghdad, Mennonite Committee employee Miller feels no impulse at all to share his faith with his clients … he says, “You have to realize that Christianity has been part of the Middle East for 2,000 years. People here know all about my religion and don’t need me to explain it. I don’t feel I have anything more to teach the Muslims than they have to teach me.”166

Missionary Miller is in no danger of being persecuted for Jesus’ sake. So long as he neglects the testimony of the gospel, he may even win the world’s applause, but can he really be salty or bright? Let us look at these three verses again.

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

In both proverbs, Jesus makes His true disciples the subject and the fallen world the setting:you are the salt of the earth … . you are the light of the world.” There is much speculation in scholarly literature about the points of similarity between the nature of salt and the nature of the disciples of Jesus, but the main point is abundantly clear: we are in marked contrast to the world. Salt contrasts with bland food and light with darkness. Wherever light enters, darkness is automatically dispelled. Paul asks in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” Light and darkness cannot abide together because they are antithetical to one another.

The second point of similarity is that we are not only in contrast with the world, we are a marked improvement. Salt contrasts with bland food for the benefit of the eater; light contrasts with darkness for the benefit of those who are in darkness. Just as very little salt goes a long way to flavoring a recipe and as very little light is necessary to penetrate darkness, even so just a few genuine Christians in a community improves greatly the morale of the whole society. When my wife and I were planting churches in East Africa, we found that even when two per cent of the members in a village were abiding in Christ, the pagans began to feel uncomfortable doing their acts of wickedness in public. People began to feel the need to find a place away from the community center in order to indulge themselves in their sins.

But notice that the light is not equated with good works. In verse 16, the light illumines the good works in such a way that men notice them and give glory to our Father in heaven. What is it that lights up our works to the glory of God? The longer I studied this passage, the more I came to believe that it is our verbal testimony to Jesus Christ that illumines the works and causes them to be for the praise of His glory. Many are doing works that the world calls good but that do not cause the world to glorify God; in fact, such works often have the unintended effect of glorifying the worker! Good works by themselves are not light; they must be illuminated by words that direct attention and tribute to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Salt also, as it is used elsewhere in the New Testament, is a word picture for speech rather than for works.

3 meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, 4 that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. 5 Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one (Colossians 4:3-6).

In Colossians 4:6, Paul calls for gracious speech, seasoned with salt. The context is speech that makes manifest the mystery of Christ’s gospel. It was his speech that got Paul chained and put in prison. You would think that Paul would be asking prayer for deliverance from prison, but for him it was far more important that he make manifest the gospel and that the Colossians also have a vocal and effectual apologetic. It is salty speech that results in persecution for Christ’s sake even today.

A third point that both proverbs have in common is irony. In my opinion, the scholars work too hard to uncover the reason for the salt losing its flavor, etc.167 The fact is that salt should never lose its flavor, any more than light should lose its light. Salt is salty; light is light. How could it be otherwise? It is ironic, totally unexpected, to find salt without saltiness and light without light. So also is it unthinkable that a follower of Jesus would be without a clear testimony to His glory.

Who Is the Light of the World?

Even though the context of these proverbs convinces me that Jesus is primarily exhorting us to confess His name rather than to do good works, the grammar forces me to go deeper. Throughout John’s Gospel, the “Light of the world” is Jesus. John describes Jesus with these words: “He was the true Light which coming into the world enlightens every man” (John 1:9). Jesus Himself says in John 8:12: “I am the Light of the world.”

If Jesus is the Light of the world, why does He say in Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world”? We can’t all be the light of the world, because John is very explicit about saying that John the Baptist “was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of the Light” (John 1:8).

Jesus answered this question for us in John 8:12 when He said, “He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.” The disciple of Jesus has light in himself because he is in Christ, who is the “Light” of the world. You are the light of the world because Christ is in you, and He is Light.

The sad converse of this truth that Jesus’ disciples are the light of the world is that the world is in darkness. How is it possible for someone to go from darkness into “having the light of life”? Jesus calls you and me to place our faith in Him, because He died for our sins according to the Scripture, and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scripture, and was seen of many witnesses. When you place your faith in Jesus and His death on the cross for you, Jesus promises you eternal life in Him. Then you too will have the light of life. The followers of Jesus are in Christ, and because we are in Christ, we are the light of the world.

Words or Works?

Now in Matthew 5:13-16 when we are described as salt and light, is Jesus describing our words as being salt and light, or our works? Neither. The longer we study this passage, the more we are forced to the conclusion that Jesus is not strictly describing either words or works. Just as He did so powerfully in the beatitudes, Jesus is describing an inward character transformation that precedes and motivates both the words and the works.

Listen carefully to these statements, Christian: “You are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world [emphasis mine].” Not what you say, not what you do, but who you are in Christ. When Jesus says, “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works,” He cannot mean that we should do our works visibly before men. Because in the same sermon at Matthew 6:1-4, He says, “do not do your charitable deeds before men to be seen by them … that your charitable deed may be in secret [emphasis mine].” Not what you do, but what you are in Christ will illuminate all of your actions, so that when men see your good works, they will glorify your Father in heaven.

Notice that the cults and man-made religions follow a philosophy of ministry that is directly opposed to the teaching of Jesus. Mormonism and Islam both teach that charitable deeds should be done publicly as a way to promote the religion, but they do not permit the testimony of Jesus to be taught. Jesus’ doctrine, however, is rather to hide the charitable deeds and make manifest His testimony. His own example bears out this same remarkable philosophy, because whenever He did a great miracle or act of mercy, His practice was to instruct the people to keep His works quiet, but to proclaim boldly the kingdom of God. When we follow His doctrine and example, we make our works inconspicuous and His testimony manifest, and that is how people who see our good works will end up glorifying our Father.

When we are at our saltiest and our brightest, men must either persecute us for Christ’s sake or else glorify our Father. In John 10, there was a division among the Jews because of Jesus’ sayings (10:19), and some took up stones to kill him. Jesus asked them, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” But they answered, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy and because You, being a man, make Yourself God” (10:32-33). The question was not what Jesus did or what He said, but who He was. Not words, and not works. Essential character.

An Inward and On-going Transformation

We have passed through three levels of gradually deepening understanding of Jesus’ proverbs of salt and light, but I do not want to go on before cracking open the window on a fourth level of understanding that continues to elude me. This truth that is so difficult to comprehend is that we are the light of the world, not only because Christ abides in us and we in Him, but also because we are being transformed into His image who is the Light of the world. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:15-18, says this:

15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. 16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.

There was a veil laid upon my heart between the Word of God and my mind, such that I could not receive its truth (2 Corinthians 3:14). But when I turned to the Lord, that veil was taken away so that I could gaze deeply into the Word. That Word is now for me not veiled but bright as a mirror in which I see, not the image I expected to see, but the glory of the Lord. It dawns upon me as I gaze into His glorious image that I am seeing the reflection of my own unveiled face. Because of the Spirit of God dwelling in me, my face glows even more gloriously than the face of Moses did (2 Corinthians 3:7-8). The longer I continue to look into the mirror of the Word, the more I recognize that there is a transformation taking place deep within me that will continue until Christ is fully formed in me, and I am like Him because I see Him as He is.

Paul goes on to say in chapter 4:

3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. 5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.

The fourth level of understanding the salt and light proverbs of Jesus focuses not on works or words but a character that is being transformed more and more into the image of Jesus Himself. Our hearts contain more and more the light of the knowledge of the glory of God; our faces shine more and more with the face of Jesus Christ. But withal, the treasure is in a most unlikely clay jar, so that when the world sees it they will glorify our Father who is in heaven, since they must recognize that the excelling power is of God and not of us.

No Room for Hypocrisy

Jesus had complete integrity. All that He said and all that He did flowed out of His character as the Son of God. This is what made Him the Light of the world, and this is why He becomes so angry at the hypocrisy of those around Him. This is why it is crucial for believers to move beyond the interpretation of His proverbs as primarily having to do with outward acts of righteousness rather than an inward transformation.

Nicodemus is typical of those who do the works but are afraid to name the name of Jesus. He is remembered as the one “who came by night.” Or how about “Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38-39)? They did the good work of burying Jesus, and they did their good work in secret – not because of humility but because of cowardice. These are lighted lamps with cast-iron lampshades, and Nicodemus and Joseph were not alone in their hypocrisy. John makes this observation on the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:42-43):

42 Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

I realize that there are many hypocrites today (as in Jesus’ day) who are only too happy to confess Him, but by their actions, they deny Him. Nevertheless, that type of hypocrisy does not seem to be His focus here with the proverbs of salt and light.

Nick and Joe Today

In our day, Americans are especially susceptible to the hypocrisy of Nicodemus and Joseph. We find it easier to go about our own business than to represent our true homeland. We say, “Well, if I do my business with excellence, God will know that I intend it for His glory.” Sure, but then you will not be an ambassador for Christ but a spy. “I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” Sure, but at least you know the gospel. How hard is it to say, “Jesus died for my sins according to the Scripture”? “Well, but I could lose my job.” On the contrary, it is highly unlikely that any American could lose his job for saying, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God who rose from the dead.” If you do lose your job for your testimony, you have grounds for a lawsuit. What we really mean when we say, “I’m not allowed to give the gospel at work,” is that we might lose our opportunities for promotion – in fact, we might be persecuted for Jesus’ name’s sake.168

A zealous Christian woman once came to her small group for prayer. She was a healthcare professional working in a public school where one of the students had terminal cancer. Here was a child who needed the Light of the world desperately, but she was a public employee and not permitted to evangelize. We prayed for her and gave the only advice the Bible gives, “When they tell you to speak no more in this name, speak anyway.” Her courageous witness had much to do with young Harry trusting in Jesus. But it did not stop there. Whenever Patty would encourage Harry with words of Scripture, Patty’s two co-workers would listen; Harry himself began to be a bold witness among his friends and once even shared his faith in a public meeting. Patty got invited to his home and was able to meet his Buddhist parents. And to this day, Patty has never been fired, demoted, or reprimanded. But what if she had? Wouldn’t Harry on his way to heaven be worth it?

Patty, you are the light of the world. Not just because of your work of mercy, nor yet because of your faithful witness, but because Christ Jesus, the Light of the world, lives in you and has made you His ambassador. And you refuse to hide it.

163 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 19 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Colin McDougall on June 29, 2003.

164 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New King James Version. Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved.

165 Peter makes this point when he quotes the persecution beatitude in 1 Peter 3:13-14. Notice that Peter references this beatitude in the context of vocal apologetics (3:15). We will see more of this later.

166 David Van Biema, “Keeping the Faith Without Preaching It,” Time 161.26 (June 30, 2003), p. 40.

167 The fact that this is a third class condition in Greek has led scholars on something of a goose chase to discover instances where salt loses its savor. Norman Hillyer is correct when he recognizes, “The stability of sodium chloride as a chemical compound has raised a problem about salt being said to be liable to lose its quality of saltness.” But then he goes on to list four colorful accounts of how salt reportedly lost its savor in New Testament Palestine. “Salt” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986), p. 446.

168 Some feel that bold statements of the gospel in public are unwise or unproductive. We would do well to notice that the armor of God is intended for all believers to put on (Ephesians 6:10-17) so that they may engage in the spiritual warfare of prayer (Ephesians 6:19), praying especially that we may boldly proclaim the gospel (Ephesians 6:19-20). Notice that Paul’s preaching cost him his job advancement as a lawyer, his social position as a Pharisee, and landed him in jail. His concern was not that he was unproductive or unwise but that he might not be speaking boldly enough!

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