Salt and Light

Carl Bloch's painting depicting Jesus sitting before a crowd and delivering the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

In the Sermon on the Mount, right after Jesus covers the Beatitudes, He turns His attention to the way we present ourselves to the world. These verses are the natural outcome to our living as He describes in the first twelve verses of Matthew 5. In those verses, Jesus tells us to strengthen our relationship with God through humility and a hunger for righteousness. Then He teaches that we should take God’s grace and forgiveness and share them with others in our own conduct. This will lead us to stand out from the crowd in our priorities, our attitudes, and our conduct.

Matthew 5: 13 – 16:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Salt and Light

Salt preserves, and light guides. Both are usually used to improve our lives. In contrast, both can be unpleasant if used incorrectly or overmuch. Neither do any good if they are hidden, and both require us to take action if we’re going to make use of them. Here, Jesus doesn’t talk about how these things can be used improperly; instead He focuses on salt and light as good things.

With salt, it’s no good if it loses it’s flavor. For us, that means that we are unhelpful when we cease to behave in the ways Jesus teaches us to. When we stop hungering for God’s word, when we stop showing mercy and forgiveness, when we let the negativity of this world turn us sour — then we stop profiting God’s purpose for us.

Light provides sight and it is necessary for life to grow. Light guides, and light travels. If we are that light on the hill, then that means we are going out and guiding others to Christ. We’re opening their eyes and then helping them grow in God’s word. His light shines through us in a way that others would want to learn more about our God.

Seasoning and Illuminating

What can you do to help do these things? How do we flavor and preserve the world around us as well as providing light and life? The first and easiest application is to make Jesus part of our everyday conversations. We should be sharing Him with others — not in a hostile argumentative way but in way that opens paths and allows others to see God’s light in our words. This then may lead to further study that allows for nourishment and growth.

Then, our actions must agree with our words. In the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t stop at merely hungering for righteousness. It’s not enough to know God’s word. We must live in a way that shines a light toward God. Our conduct must always be gracious, peaceful, and merciful. We should be keeping ourselves pure of heart and reputation. The way we treat other people testifies to the extent we have allowed Jesus to change us.

Worship helps us keep our flavor, and it energizes us to keep shining our lights. Even correction can help us grow stronger. In Acts 18, when Priscilla and Aquila take Apollos aside to help him better understand baptism, we see him then fellowshipping with other Christians and spreading his knew knowledge to others. What’s important in this correction is that Priscilla and Aquila come to Apollos, they correct him gracefully and peacefully. This grows, rather than extinguishes, his light.

Our words and our conduct travels far and wide. These can season others’ live. They can help point others to God. They can grow others’ faith. One example of this is in Acts 16 when we meet Lydia. Here, one woman hears God’s word from Paul and opens her heart. She then shares that word with her family, and God’s word would continue to travel from there. This is a repeated pattern in the New Testament — one person responds to the gospel, and that leads to others who lead to further others. It’s the simple way God travels from one person to the next.

Living to Guide

Sometimes we lose our spiritual seasoning. Sometimes we hide our lights. When we do, we need to seek forgivenesses, forgive ourselves, and then get back to work. We are God’s mouths in this world. We are His arms and His legs. He trusts us to do His work in this world so that others may find Him. We do that by seasoning the lives of others through our behavior and then shining God’s light for them. We use this light to guide others to Him as a beacon of hope in a world so full of darkness. Let’s work together to light our lights and season our conduct so that we can point others to God.

lesson by Alan Miller

Shine God’s Light

photo of two lamps shining on a snowy night
Photo by Hide Obara

C.S. Lewis is commonly attributed with saying, “Don’t shine so others can see you. Shine so that through you, others can see Him.” Whether or not he actually ever said this is debatable, but the sentiment is sound. It means that we shine our lights so that we can direct attention to God rather than drawing attention to ourselves. Jesus said it this way in Matthew 5:14 – 16:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

That should be our single motivator, that we shine our lights in a way that give honor to our Heavenly Father and motivates others to want to learn more about Him. That is our mission in this world, and that is our challenge — to shine in such a way that others, through us, can see Him.

How Do We Shine?

In the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells the gathered assembly to shine, He immediately begins to contrast shining God’s light with the conduct of the scribes and the Pharisees. In Matthew 5:20, Jesus tells the crowd that their holiness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, and chapter 6 sees Him criticizing these religious leaders for their motivations.

The Pharisees had an attention problem. In their conduct, they were drawing attention to themselves at the expense of God. They made themselves look very good, but they were doing it in a way that was putting a stumbling block before others. It’s a problem we can still have today — that fine line between righteous conduct and self-righteous conduct.

How do we shine righteous lights with the right focus? How do we avoid being Pharisees?

1. Shine with Humility

When Paul writes to the Ephesians about their spiritual conduct, he says that humility is key in the beginning of chapter 4. In Colossians 3, the same apostle writes that we should clothe ourselves in humility and kindness. In each of these cases, Paul is writing about spiritual unity and how we should be putting others before self. This means we shine our lights in such a way that God and others come before self. This isn’t about making me look good.

This isn’t about the kudos I can receive or about how smart I can make myself look. It’s about how I can lift you up and let God touch your life, in even the smallest of ways. We sometimes sing, “This little light of mine,” and the words of that song are inherently humble. I recognize my light is small compared to the darkness around me. I realize my light is small compared to the Father’s, but it serves it’s purpose, and that purpose is His.

2. Shine for Others

The opening of Romans 15 reads:

“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’”

Christ is our ultimate example, and can you think of anything He did purely to satisfy Himself? Can you think of any public work He did solely to earn praises from men? Certainly, praise followed some of His actions, but that was never the point. His conduct lifted others up more than self, and He was always pointing their attention back to the Father.

If we can get rid of those feelings that tell us we need to vindicate ourselves, that we need to put someone else in their place, or that we need to prove ourselves in some way, we can come a long way in putting others and God first. Our lights should be guiding others to Christ, and we can only do that if we hold them away from ourselves.

3. Shine Indiscriminately

We sometimes sing, “All around the neighborhood, I’m gonna let it shine.” Another version we have at home reads, “Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.” The light of our conduct should not only be humble and focused on God and others. Those others should include anyone we meet, regardless of how deserving we think they are.

Look at the people Jesus shined God’s light for: social outcasts like Samaritans and tax collectors, wrongdoers like the man on the cross or the woman taken in adultery, and the destitute — both spiritually and materially. There was never any question about whether someone was deserving of His light; it was available to all. My favorite example of this is Christ appearing to Saul in a great light, despite his history of persecuting, imprisoning, and possibly killing Christians. If the gospel light could convert a man like that, who are we too put limits on it? The blessed gospel is for all, and that begins with shining His light for all to see.

Hiding Under Bushels

Sometimes, though, we face obstacles to shining our lights. We hide it under a bushel. Do you ever think about that verse of the song? “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.” What does it mean to hide our light under a bushel? Well, the bushel (or basket, as Jesus says in Matthew 5:15) is anything that obscures our light, and it is something that we actively place our light behind. When we hide our light under a bushel, it’s not an accident; we do it purposefully.

So what’s the bushel? Sin is an obvious answer that obscures our lights. But what about fear, prejudice, or anger? Can we hide our lights behind bushels of judgmental attitudes, impatience, or frustration? That bushel is anything that comes between God’s light and my sharing it with someone else in word or deed.

I may treat you hostilely because of your position on some social issue: that’s become a bushel I’ve hidden my light behind. I may hold a grudge that causes me to treat you differently than other Christians: that’s become a bushel. Uncontrolled anger may cause me to lash out: that’s become a bushel. I may treat someone more harshly because of their social standing, their race, or their religion: I’ve let prejudice become a bushel obscuring God’s light.

In Matthew 5, not long after Jesus talks about being lights to the world, He has this to say in verses 29 – 30:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

It might be that what I need to cut out of my life are those things causing fear, anger, prejudice, impatience, or any of those other bushels under which I hide my light.  If we are going to shine our lights indiscriminately, putting others and God before self, we may have to burn some bushels out of our lives so that our lights remain healthy and unobstructed.

The Source of Our Light

All of this comes down to truly understanding and accepting the source of our light. Returning to our friend C.S. Lewis, he wrote in Mere Christianity:

…The Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.

It’s this knowledge that helps us be humble in shining our lights — that our good deeds are not our own but come from the Father. We mirror that light to others. Just as our sun’s light is for all, so too is God’s light. It is intended for everyone regardless of their race, their past lives, or even their initial willingness to receive. Finally, the sun’s light is of no benefit to itself, nor is God’s light for Himself. It’s selfless in nature, and that should cause us to be selfless as well, living in a way that deflects attention and praise from self and directs all glory to God.

lesson by Robert Smelser

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

stained glass depicting the pharisee and publican

Luke 18:9 – 13:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Self Righteousness and Contempt

Luke gives us the meaning of this parable upfront. This is a message for us when we become too proud in our righteousness and look down on others. In the Pharisee’s prayer, notice how much he talks about himself. “I am not like other men.” “I fast.” “I give tithes.” He obviously feels that his works justify him.

The other issue we see is that he holds others in contempt. “I thank you that I am not like other men … or even like this tax collector.” He can’t help but scorn the tax collector, even though he’s standing right there. This parable exaggerates self-righteousness, but how many of us fall into the same sins as the Pharisee every day?

Righteousness in God Rather Than Self

We don’t often read through this and say, “I am exactly like this Pharisee.” However, we might still be trusting in ourselves and holding others in contempt. This Pharisee is focused purely inward. He clearly falls under the doctrine that God helps those who help themselves. His focus avoids thankfulness for or trust in God. Instead, it’s all about what he has done, how sinless and righteous he perceives himself to be. It’s almost as if God should be impressed to have such a servant.

Contrast this with Gideon in Judges, where Gideon has a great force to overcome. God, though, keeps whittling down the numbers on Gideon’s side so that these soldiers cannot boast in their own accomplishment. In the end, Gideon’s army pares down to three hundred, and there was no way they could deny God’s power in their victory. The same is for us today. We need God, and we should be testifying of the power and grace of God in our lives.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be doing good works. That would be contrary to much of what Jesus and His apostles teach us. But we have to be aware of our place as good and faithful servants working in the field of our Lord. We have to put these things in perspective of all God has done, and we should find our righteousness in Him rather than ourselves.

Comparative Morality

In this passage, we see the Pharisee proclaiming his righteousness in comparison to other men. Contrast this with II Corinthians 10:12 – 13 where Paul says he wouldn’t dare compare himself to others. God doesn’t care what we look like in comparison to others. His concern is how we measure up to His standard.

We read things like, “Be holy as He is holy;” “Imitate me as I imitate Christ;” “You shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” We have a clear standard of righteousness, and that standard should humble all of us. It doesn’t matter how many people we can compare ourselves to. All that matters is how we measure up in God’s eyes.

Symptoms of Pride

When I focus on self and I’m comparing myself favorably against others, it makes it easy to feel self-righteous. It gives me pride. What’s harder is measuring ourselves against a perfect standard — a standard we may never reach in this life. That results in humility. This humility then results in us finding our comfort and our peace in Him.

Pride is a challenging thing to discover in ourselves, but we can see its symptoms in things like fault-finding in others. It makes me miss the personal application of a lesson and instead apply it to what others are doing wrong. It can also manifest itself in superficiality. We become more concerned with how others see us rather than how we really are. Our outward appearance does not match our inward struggles, and we become concerned whether or not others know just how hard we’re working for God.

This superficiality can then lead to a craving for attention. We want others to acknowledge our apparent spiritual strength. But, in all of these things, pride then leads us to neglect. We want to bee seen associating with certain types of individuals but distance ourselves from those we view as unsavory. And how do we measure who’s worthy and worthless? By our own standards.

A Standard of Humility

How then can we be more like the tax collector, who Jesus says went home justified in his humble attitude? We begin by spending more time studying about Jesus. The more we learn about Him, the more we have to look beyond ourselves and trust less in ourselves. It is only in Him that I can approach the throne of grace. It is only through Him I can be saved.

When we become more like Jesus, we will do more to lift others. It’s not about thinking less of ourselves, but rather it’s about thinking of ourselves less. We should be spending less time focusing on self and more time and energy thinking about and serving others.

Philippians 2: 3 – 8:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus in not only our standard of righteousness; He is our perfect example of humility. He did not come to this word to die for Himself. He did it for us — for all of us. He did not come to lift Himself up, but to lift us up. When we spend time studying about Christ and then serving others, then we will grow humility in our lives and live more like our Savior, the perfect servant who humbled Himself for our sakes.