I was listening to the radio, and heard a false teacher challenge the Gospel by saying, “If it’s true that all you have to do is believe and you are saved then why doesn’t God just take you to heaven the moment you believe?” One answer to his challenge is found in these verses. One result of righteousness by faith is that one influences those around him. The two metaphors point to two different ways that influence is felt.
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. (Matthew 5:13)
The first statement is that the righteous are the salt of the earth. Notice that it does not say that we are to spread salt but that we are salt. We are the salt which is spread by God. It is an attribute of those who are in the Kingdom of God that they are salt. I frequently made this point while looking at the Beatitudes. These are characteristics which God has placed in his people, not ones which are whipped up or are earned or which some have by natural temperament. It is worth observing that in the Greek, the word “you” is in an emphatic position in the sentence. So, “You, and I mean you, are the salt of the earth.”
The question is to what does the metaphor refer? We are salt: how so? Commonly mentioned attributes of salt include that it is a preservative, that it is a seasoning, that it is purifying, that it was valuable and used as money in Jesus’ day (source of our word salary), some mention that salt makes people thirsty, or that it melts ice.
All of these can be applied in some way to the Christian. Most commonly taught is that the Christian morally preserves the world and that he brings seasoning. At the risk of slicing things too finely, it seems to me that Jesus himself points to the seasoning nature of salt. It is its flavor that Jesus says is its essential value.
Though there are some who call on believers to be “speecy, spicy Christians”, it seems more in keeping with the context to see the Beatitudes as the “flavors” of the Christian. In a similar statement found in Mark, the salt of the believer is internal, showing itself externally by unity and peace among believers. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other. (Mark 9:50) The salt of the believer is the living out of the eternal qualities that God implants in the believer.
You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Likewise, the light that the believer shines is the living out of the qualities. To think that one can keep the characteristics of the Kingdom internal only is the same as lighting a light and then covering it up. It defeats the purpose. God does not leave his light in the world to be covered up.
It seems to me that the City on the Hill is a strong picture. I had a friend who while in the armed forces was assigned to a base. “This base is top secret”, he was told, “You are not to mention the existence of this base to anyone.” Then he visited the nearby town, looked up and saw a huge lighted rectangle on the side of the hill. So much for it being a secret.
In Jesus’ day, the picture had more the impact of people traveling and needing a place to stay as the day ends. They can see ahead that there is a city. The city on the hill evoked safety and welcome – “traveling mercies” in the old cliché. There seems to be an OT parallel. So be sure to do them, because this will testify of your wise understanding to the people who will learn of all these statutes and say, “Indeed, this great nation is a very wise people.” In fact, what other great nation has a god so near to them like the LORD our God whenever we call on him? (Deuteronomy 4:6-7) Israel was given the Law in part so that other nations would see the wisdom of God and be drawn to him. So the Church shines out the reality of God’s work to a world living outside that reality.
The point of the believer’s influence is that upon seeing light and tasting salt people glorify God. It has often struck me that when Jesus performed a miracle, immediately the man stood up, took his stretcher, and went out in front of them all. They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12) Thinking of such miraculous acts, my picture is more along what we see in Acts; a miracle occurs at the hand of someone and people start worshiping the man. In the movie Leap of Faith there is a scene in which to the surprise of everybody, including the scam “evangelist”, a real miracle occurs at a tent revival. The evangelist is quite shaken up by it but one of his tech guys is telling him “If we can get that kid to go on the road with us, we could make a million dollars a day in Dallas”.
The influence of the believer depends on the character of the believer. God has determined that his children will be like his son. People living out their Spirit-given character will find there is an influence. Paul uses the imagery of a fragrance. For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing —to the latter an odor from death to death, but to the former a fragrance from life to life. (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) or, returning to Jesus’ metaphor so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world (Philippians 2:15)