We live in a challenging and draining time. The stock market is at a record high, while many small businesses have closed permanently, and those that remain are stymied by short staffing. Inflation is on the rise, supply shortages abound, and real-estate prices have skyrocketed. Additionally, societal problems continue to plague us from mass shootings, concerns over racism and police brutality, to our ongoing struggle to deal with COVID19. Beyond these troubles, ideological tribalism, partisan polarization, and identity politics foment a culture of outrage while tolerance, civility, and compassion have lost their appeal. Brett McCracken described our present
We live in “all or nothing,” “us or them” times. You’re either all with us—toeing the party line on every front—or you’re with them. You’re either trustworthy because you agree with us on everything, or you’re totally untrustworthy and a dangerous threat—even if simply because you dissent from us 5 percent of the time.1
As our society continues to move out of phase with Christian moral sensibilities, unbelievers will likely continue to increase the frequency and intensity of their critiques of us. Gone are the days of tolerance and the ‘coexist’ bumper sticker. Now, it seems like everyone wants to get their boots on their opponents’ necks so that they can force them to do as they want. And yet, as hard as it is in our time, Jesus calls us to be salt and light. Jesus said:
Matthew 5:13. 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.
What did Jesus mean by salt here? Was he talking about salt’s preserving qualities, its seasoning flavor, or something else? To answer this question, let’s consider the roles salt played in the Hebrew Bible:
In the Old Testament, salt is associated with the following meanings: purity (Ex 30:35; 2 Kings 2:19-23); covenant loyalty (Lev 2:13; Num 18:19; 2 Chron 13:5; Ezra 4:14); an element to be added to sacrifices (Lev 2:13); a seasoning for food (Job 6:6). A preservative is the least likely meaning; it is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, but by Ignatius, well after the time of Jesus.2
Although not likely referring to its preserving quality, salt could stand for purity, loyalty, sacrifices, or seasoning. Because of how Jesus talked about salt losing its taste, I’m inclined to agree with Craig Keener who said, “the use of salt here is as a flavoring agent.”3 Jesus wanted his followers to be salty. If they lose their saltiness, then they become as useful as flavorless salt. Can you imagine how pointless tasteless salt would be? You go to shake it onto your scrambled eggs and take a bite, but everything is bland. So, you sprinkle some more on—still you taste nothing but plain eggs. You pour some into your hand and lick it, and still it has no flavor. In such a bizarre situation, what would you do with that salt? You’d probably dump the whole contents of the shaker into the trash and refill it with fresh salt. There’s the punch line. Jesus is saying that’s you! You’re either the briny flavorful person he’s called you to be, or you’re the bland tasteless compromiser that blends right in with the world.
But what is the flavor Jesus wants us to bring to the world? Is it wearing WWJD bracelets, rocking the Jesus fish on our car bumpers, or sporting a clever Christian t-shirt? Thankfully, we don’t have to guess, because our text about the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) comes right after a series of virtues known as the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Jesus had already explained the distinctive flavor of his followers, including humility, mourning, meekness, seeking righteousness, showing mercy, purity of heart, making peace, and getting persecuted for righteousness’ sake. These beatitudes mark us out from the world’s ways of doing life. Richard Hays explains:[T]he Beatitudes pronounce Jesus’ blessing upon those who are meek, merciful, and pure, those who make peace, and particularly those who suffer for righteousness’ sake (5.3-12). The counterintuitive paradoxes of the Beatitudes alert us to the fact that Jesus’ new community is a contrast society, out of synch with the ‘normal’ order of the world. What sense does it make to say, ‘Blessed are those who mourn?’ Such a judgment can be made only in view of the eschatological promise that accompanies it: “…for they will be comforted.” The community of Jesus’ followers lives now in anticipation of ultimate restoration by God. They do not seek to enforce God’s way through violence; rather, they await God’s act of putting things right. To be trained for the kingdom is to be trained to see the world from the perspective of God’s future—and therefore askew from what the world counts as common sense.4
If we are salty, we are a “contrast society.” If we are tasteless, we blend in with society. Jesus calls us to a distinctive calling that is out of tune with those around us, but in tune with the age to come when God makes everything wrong with the world right. He’s calling us to live out now what the world will be like then. N. T.
We are to pray that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ The life of heaven—the life of the realm where God is already king—is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount, and these ‘beatitudes’ in particular. They are a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth.5
I love how Wright put that! We “live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future.” This means our calculus for deciding what to do is not the immediate reward or consequence of an action, but how well it fits in with God’s vision for the future. To live this way is to be salty.
A few years ago, my wife and I visited Austin, Texas. While we were there, we encountered a strange slogan on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and in storefronts: “keep Austin weird.” This quirky saying expresses a similar idea to Jesus’ declaration that we are the salt of the earth. Small businesses and the culture at large in Austin prides itself in being weird. Can we say the same about Christianity? If we swap out Christ’s teachings for the world’s fads and whims, we will blend in better, but at what cost? A compromised Christianity is as useful as flavorless salt. Think about it for a moment. You are following the teachings of a middle eastern guru who lived twenty centuries ago. That is weird! Just own it! Keep Christianity weird. Don’t tone down the saltiness.
That Jesus called us to be the salt of the earth is both good and bad news for us. On the one hand, it is an awesome calling far beyond what most of us could ever hope to imagine: we get to represent the coming Kingdom as ambassadors, bringing the messianic age’s culture to bear in our world today! On the other hand, our distinctive flavor also means that we are going to stick out in any society. This isn’t necessarily problematic, depending on how tolerant the society is. At best, the world perceives us as weird, at worst as a threat to eliminate. Perhaps this is why, just prior to telling us “You are the salt of the earth” in Matthew 5:13, he had twice brought up the topic of persecution:
Matthew 5:10-12. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus fully expected that his followers would suffer persecution. Suffering because of your stand for Christ is normal. Did you hear that? Getting ridiculed, excluded, or beaten up is normal for those who follow Jesus. The world reviles, persecutes, and utters evil against us because of righteousness’ sake and because of our association with Jesus. We do not seek negative attention, but when it comes, we can take comfort knowing that the world persecuted the prophets before us in much the same way. What’s more, Jesus tells us to “rejoice and be glad” since our reward is great (Matthew 5:12). Knowing that we have rewards stored up in heaven to be revealed on the last day should bolster our courage to do what is right now.
So, Jesus wants us to be salty—distinctive in our lifestyle of obedience to his teachings. He also says that living this way results in persecution. Does that mean we should cloister? Should we build hidden communities in caves, atop cliffs, or in deserts? Should we keep our faith and moral commitments private? Jesus’ next statement helps us answer these questions:
Matthew 5:14. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
If Christ’s followers are hidden away from society, how could they possibly perform their role of illumination? Jesus is clear here, moving from light to a city on a hill. He doesn’t want his followers to be in the closet, hiding their identity and distinctiveness from society at large. Now, of course there are times to get away, and we certainly see Jesus do that occasionally in the Gospels. However, the majority of Jesus’ ministry was in touch with the public. People knew him, talked with him, touched him, brought their children to him, ate and drank with him, and argued with him. In fact, one of the criticisms the Pharisees levelled at Jesus was that he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Jesus shined his light as our example.
In considering the next phrase, “a city set on a hill,” I’m reminded of Isaiah’s prophecy about how God intends to lift Zion above the other hills and have all nations stream to it.
Isaiah 2:2–4. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
What a beautiful vision of the future! God does not limit His dream for our world to just ethnic Israel, but envisions all nations flowing to Zion to learn His ways. The city on a hill attracts people to it. They want to come and learn His ways. The result of this is the establishment of peace forever. In fact, across the street from the United Nations headquarters in New York City, you can see the words of Isaiah 2:4 carved in stone. Although for the UN, this text serves merely as inspiration, for believers we know that this is actually going to happen. God is going to extend His reign to our world, starting with Jerusalem. And, when He does, people will be drawn to Zion.
What’s more, this city on a hill is also the city of light as we can see in another of Isaiah’s prophecies:
Isaiah 60:1–3, 19-21. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. 3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising…18 Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.
The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified.
The “you” here is Jerusalem in the end times, God’s ultimate city on a hill. (See Isaiah 60:14.) It will enjoy God’s own glory in its midst. This city on a hill will also shine forth so brightly that it will outshine even the sun and the moon. With violence gone and the nations at peace, God’s holy city will stand as a beacon of radiating light to the world in the age to come. This is God’s dream. It will come to pass.
Additionally, God included this same idea in the mission of His suffering servant. Here are two examples:
Isaiah 42:6. I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations,
Isaiah 49:6. He says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
As the representative Israelite, the suffering servant’s aim is not only to bring God’s light to His own people, but to bring salvation to the end of the earth. Jesus incorporated these prophecies into his own messianic mission. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ effectively expanded salvation to nations. Glen Stassen and David Gushee nicely explain how these Isaianic texts make sense to us today as a city on a hill.
Isaiah 2:2-5 and 49:6 serve as the Old Testament backdrop to this particular image of an eschatological city on the hill (Jerusalem), blazing with the light of God’s salvation, presence, justice and peace, and drawing people of all nations up the hill and into its gates—people seeking to share in the glorious shalom experienced there…Disciples are a ‘city on a hill’ in the Isaiah 2 sense only if we invite and draw people of all nations ‘up the hill’ and through the gates into an experience of shared eschatological community. Much as the neon sign of a hotel invites the weary traveler to rest, so is our light to be an invitation…Disciples of Jesus—like their Master—participate in the fulfillment of this eschatological vision through their deeds of peacemaking, their justice-doing, their feeding of the hungry and their care for the sick. It is the joy of this way of life and its fruit that draws men and women to the city on the hill—to the community of disciples.”6
God’s ultimate dream is to have a city on a hill, radiating light so that nations stream to it (Isaiah 2:60). He baked this goal into the suffering servant prophecies (Isaiah 42; 46). Jesus, then, turns to us, his disciples, and brings us into his own messianic mission. He calls us “the light of the world” and “a city on a hill.” We share in the prophetic ministry of demonstrating to the world God’s end-times wholeness and glory in our present. We are the trailer for the big movie, the appetizer for the main course, and the sign for what’s coming down the road. This is an awesome responsibility. We’re called to embody God’s future Kingdom in the present by how we live now, both individually and communally. Still, that’s not all Jesus said about light. Here’s the rest of it.
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.
If we are the light and the city, then we are both visible and attractive. A light exists to illuminate; that is its purpose. Putting a basket over a lamp is absurd. I take from this that our faith is not a private matter. We’re supposed to be visible like a light or a city. We want others to taste and see that the LORD is good. We shine our lights when we are at home, in our neighborhoods, on the job, and with our friends. We have an illuminating, prophetic, and public role to play, just like Jesus.
As salt, we are different. As light, we are visible. As a city on a hill, we attract outsiders. What a powerful combination of callings we have! If we cease to retain our distinctive flavor, then we just end up promoting the same ideologies as the world. If we hide our light under a basket, then we become inwardly focused, resulting in nitpicking and infighting. If we balk at our role as a city on a hill, then we become a holy community that proudly proclaims our superior take on life in offensive and judgmental ways. We need all three for this to work correctly. Jesus calls us to be holy, outward focused, inviters of the nations. When we do all three, we may still face rejection and persecution, but our potential to reach people skyrockets.
In thinking through the history of Christianity, I was reminded of an awesome description of the third century church from the Epistle to Diognetus. It nicely summarizes how the church managed to be salt and light in the Roman Empire when persecution was all too common.
Diognetus 5:1–17. For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.7
These Christians were weird in how they thought and lived, yet they went out of their way to avoid antagonizing their society. They didn’t compromise their salt, but they also did not shy away from shining their lights. This got people’s attention, both good and bad. During the third century, Christianity grew by leaps and bounds. However, persecution flared up from time to time in various locations. This may be a good example for us. Do you think it’s worth it to participate in the mission of bringing salvation to the ends of the earth if it also means that you or those you love may suffer as a result? Or would you rather play it safe by becoming bland or hiding your light under a basket?
1 Brett McCracken, “We Need Prophets, Not Partisans,” The Gospel Coalition Blog, March 2, 2020.
2 Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 469.
3 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2d ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 56.
4 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (NY: HarperCollins, 1996), 97-8.
5 N. T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone: Part One (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 38.
6 Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 471.
7 Epistle of Diognetus in Apostolic Fahters, 3rd ed., trans. Michael Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).