The King's witnesses - Matthew 5:13-16

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the Riverside Church service on 21st June 2015.

Click here to read the bible passage. Click here to use larger text.

An audio recording of this sermon is available.

Click here to download and save for future listening


The King’s Witnesses

Matthew 5:13-16

One of the greatest desires of many church leaders and many Christians is to be relevant to the world. This ambition is driven by different motivations.

For some the underlying motivation is for people to know God and they fear that some of the bible’s message and the bible’s morals are out of touch with our modern society. And so if God is to be embraced by 21st century Westerns then both the message and the morals need to be updated - or so it is claimed.

Others are driven to the pursuit of relevance by the fear of declining numbers. Falling congregations mean less money, and less money implies job cuts. And so in order to increase their numbers some church leaders are happy to change the ancient revelation for something much more in keeping with the times.

How is the message changed? Normally in two ways. Either by outright denial of certain doctrines or by focusing our communication on whatever the culture is talking about.

I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new year address a few years ago. What a great opportunity to talk about Jesus and his salvation? What did he focus on? Recycling. I almost through something at the TV.

How are the morals changed? There is a gradual acceptance of what the culture thinks is now normal and healthy.

How are we to respond to this ‘relevance project’? Of course our desire is to be relevant. The question is ‘how?’ That’s what I want to show us from this section of the Sermon on the Mount.

You’ll see from your handout that there two big ideas that I want us to get clear in our minds. This

1. We are relevant when we remain distinctive from the world (Vs 13)
2. We are relevant when we remain close to the world (Vs 14-16)

First of all, we are relevant when we remain distinctive from the world (Vs 13)

Look at verse 13. Read verse 13a.

Jesus declares that a group of people are the salt of the earth. This raises two questions. Who is Jesus talking to? What is he talking about?

Who is Jesus talking to? Remember the context. At the beginning of chapter 5 we see that Jesus left the crowds and was now addressing his disciples. Those who had already committed themselves to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

He now looks at this little group gathered on a hillside in the obscurity of the Israel and declares that they are the salt of the earth.

What is he talking about?

One of the dangers we face at this point is to think of how we use salt and then read this back into the bible. The Reader’s Digest website advertises 60 different uses of salt. But even if we opt for the most popular use in our culture which is probably for tasting food, how do we know if that was a significant use at the time of Jesus?

A better way would be for us to consider how salt was used in the 1st century world of Jesus, and also how salt was used in the Old Testament, the part of the Bible that formed the background to Jesus’ ministry.

I think there is a significant overlap in these two areas which helps us understand what Jesus meant by calling Christians the salt of the earth.

The most common use of salt in the first century world was as a preservative. To stop meat from decaying.

What about in the Old Testament? There are different uses but a large number of the OT references focus on this same idea of preserving something from decay.

Leviticus 2:13, ”Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.”

God's covenant was to be a lasting one. The people must not let it decay. Putting salt in the sacrifices was a reminder of this. 

2 Chronicles 13:5, “Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt?”

So when Jesus declares that his disciples are the salt of the earth I think he means that Christians are the only ones who can stop the spiritual and moral rot on our planet. What a grand vision for the followers of Christ!

Education is not the answer. The UN is not the answer. Our national government is not the answer. Only the Christian community can do it!

The question is how? How do we stop the rot?

In the two ways already mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes.

• By living Jesus’ morals
• By speaking Jesus’ message - peacemakers and the reference to the prophets in verse 12

What do we know about Jesus’ morals and his message? They are different from the morals and the message around us. There will always be pressure for us to change them in order to be ‘relevant’.

But if that’s the decision we take, look at what Jesus says in the rest of verse 13. Read verse 13.

If salt loses the very thing that makes it salt then it is useless. 1st century ‘salt’. Had more than sodium chloride in it. The sodium chloride was the most soluble part and so the ‘salt’ could lose this. When it did it was useless, only good to be thrown out and trampled into the ground.

The same with us. If we lose the very things that make us who we are - the message and the morals of Jesus - then we are useless. If we compromise then we will be a waste of space. The challenge is to believe that by being faithful to the message and morals of Jesus then we will be the most relevant we can ever be.

My time on BBC Radio York last week.

The world desperately needs us to stay the same. Any deviation from the Bible will lead to indifference from the world and the judgment of God on the church.

So let’s pray for the courage to stick with Jesus’ revelation and the confidence to believe this is is for our good and for the good of the world.

Second, we are relevant when we remain close to the world (Vs 14-16)

Look at what Jesus says about his disciples at the beginning of verse 14.

It’s easy to think of different uses for light. It can reveal what is hidden. It is a way for talking about knowledge rather than ignorance - e.g. he is in the dark about this or she shone a light on this for me. What does Jesus mean here?

A helpful background to this phrase is the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah 8:19-22, “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?  20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.  21 Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God.  22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”

Isaiah 9:1-7, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan —  2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.  3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.  4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.  5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.  6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

Isaiah 42:1-7, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.  2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.  3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;  4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”  5 This is what God the LORD says — he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:  6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,  7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”

Isaiah 60:1-3, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.  2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.  3 Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

What does all this mean? Jesus is the light of the world in fulfilment of all these promises. After his return to heaven, it will be his followers who will be the light of the world.

What does this imply? Only Jesus’ new community will be able to rid the world of their spiritual darkness. Not only is the world in a state of decay, it is also in a state of darkness. Christians are the only ones who can get rid of it.

The question is how? Let’s read on to find out.
Look at how Jesus continues in verse 14. Read verses 14 and 15. Jesus’ uses two examples to make his point.

• A city on a hill. It can be seen for miles around. This is a great advantage for people who are in the dark and who want to find the destination.

• A lamp should be put on a stand.

What’s Jesus’ point? Look at verse 16.

Let your light shine is not about doing good deeds or living in a distinctive way. The light will reveal those good deeds for what they are but it is not the good deeds themselves.

This implies that letting your light shine means to talk about your faith in Jesus Christ.

We’ve already considered the importance of speaking. But as well as reinforcing this essential characteristic of our discipleship, Jesus now adds something crucial. We must let our light shine before men. We must remain close to the world if our distinctive message is to be heard.

What a challenge to not withdraw from unbelievers! There is the danger of this as we get closer to the Christian community. That’s when we become irrelevant.

We will be useless if we are close but have nothing to say and nothing to show. But likewise, if we have everything to say and everything to show but nobody can hear us or see us, then what’s the point? So let’s endeavour to be in the world and not of the world!

What will our speaking achieve? Two things are mentioned here.

First, our gospel words will remove the darkness of ignorance.

Second, our good deeds will be rightly understood. Imagine you never said why you were different or why the church community were different, what might people conclude? That you were a good person or perhaps a manipulating person. We want people to know that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has done this in us by his Spirit! We want him to get the praise, not us!

In conclusion

Are you an individual who desperately wants the decay to stop and to be rescued from the darkness? Then come to Jesus. Only he can do it!

Are you a Christian who desperately wants to stop the moral and spiritual decay, and who passionately wants to see people released from the darkness of spiritual confusion? We need to do two things in the power of the Spirit.

• We must remain distinctive from the world
• We must remain close to the world

If we do these things we will be faithful to Christ and so relevant to the world.

Let’s pray.

Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.