Recently when I got home from my church in the evening, I turned on my computer to check my email and a couple of other things. Correction: I tried to turn on my computer. My computer was dead. It was the casualty of an electric storm. The weather had been calm when I left and was calm when I got back, but such had not been the case while I was gone.
Now my storm began. Surely not all the contents of my computer were lost—those Sunday school lessons like this one I had printed and passed out over the years? And so on. My surge protector had failed me. All the files on the computer hard drive were lost. Had I had the good sense to back them up? A faint hope lingered in my mind.
Not very long, I was sad to learn. Soon my spirits were bonding with my computer. Would it be a wipe out for them as well?
What came to me when I realized my computer was dead was what I had been thinking about in Matthew 5. Having begun His ministry in Galilee, Jesus had withdrawn from the multitudes to a mountain with His disciples to teach them. The setting must have been important to receive even so brief a mention: “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set [seated], his disciples came unto him” (Matt. 5:1).
The passage doesn’t give the size of His audience, but the group must not have been huge. Jesus sits down to teach His listeners as a rabbi in a synagogue would. He is instructing disciples, not an undifferentiated gathering of the curious.
What would follow was a teacherly sermon, if sermon is the preferred designation. Perhaps lecturish exhortation comes closer. Jesus was speaking to serious listeners on the path to discipleship, if they hadn’t fully arrived.
The Sermon on the Mount—I’ll use the familiar term—begins with a declaration we call the Beatitudes. Immediately after the Beatitudes, which describe what God expects of His followers and what they can expect from Him and from the world, Jesus elaborates their role in the world, their impact on the world around them. His disciples will be different from the world and will engage with it so as to affect it. That is the plan.
Jesus uses two metaphors. A metaphor is an imaginative comparison. Something is said in terms of something else. First, Jesus’ disciples are “the salt of the earth.” The human world would be in a bad way without salt. Salt has many important uses. But to the present purpose, people of Jesus’ time would carry a pouch of salt on a journey with them. It was not ordinarily pure salt. Over time, moisture in the atmosphere would cause the salt to diminish leaving the impurities behind. The salt would “lose its savor” (5:13). It would eventually need to be thrown away.
Can a Christian lose his distinguishing savor? Just momentarily—though that is bad enough? Can the loss be such that he “is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men”? I believe the Lord is speaking here not of salvation but rather of usefulness. The depleted salt is useful only to keep weeds down in a walkway.
Paul slightly modifies Jesus’ metaphor in 2 Corinthians 2:14–16.
Now thanks be unto God, which always causes us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved and in them that perish. To the one we are the savour of death unto death, and to the other of life unto life.
What the Lord depicts to His disciples is a tall order, as we say. But Paul concludes the passage with a recognition of the challenge: “And who is sufficient for these things?” We must wait for the answer to come in the next chapter. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to think any thing as of [due to or coming from] ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God” (2 Cor. 3:5).
I wish I could say I had never lost my savor or fragrance among those who know me as a Christian and among those who don’t. I didn’t have to do so. Yet I have never been willing not to get it back. Our God is good at damage control. It starts with confession and apology and continues with new resolve.
Jesus has been dealing with the subject of identity. What is a Christian? How do others see him? How does he impact on the world? The next metaphor carries the thought forward: “Ye are the light of the world.”
Jesus had said this about Himself in one of the great commanding statements in the Gospel of John. Notice here the distinction between the Son as the sun and the lesser lights on a hill and the even lesser in a house. These lesser lights serve travelers outdoors and persons indoors, showing them their locations in the dark. A lamp performs its role upon a lampstand, not under a peck-measure basket. Jesus’ disciples are stationed, “set,” to illuminate. They have a God-assigned role to “shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
It may strike us as odd, this reference to good works. We have been taught to question meritorious works in salvation. When Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, the stress on works in the epistle of James shocked him, and he questioned whether the book really belonged in the canon. William Tyndale showed keen insight when he remarked that whereas it is our faith which justifies us to God, it is our works which justify us to men.
Jesus’ comparison of a believer’s role in the world to that of lights in darkness set on a hill or on a lampstand is often applied to the spread of the Gospel, and not wrongfully so. I think it follows from both metaphors considered together that what Jesus is describing is the impact of a disciple’s total being and his total life on a wondering world—his unignorable personal fragrance and radiance.
I can imagine it being said, “Yes, that’s a fine ideal. But the Christians I know seem not to care.”
That may be mostly the case. Truly many Christians do not. But this one does. And he knows many that do. The Lord is in the business of forming complete persons (Eph. 4:1) for the astonishment of the world. Granted I’m not there yet, but this passage helped to hold my feelings in check when my computer went bust.
The word frustrated can take either of two senses. It can mean “temporarily agitated by disappointment.” Or it can mean “thwarted.” How is your surge protector working today? Are you only slammed? Or are you jammed? The two are not the same.