You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
What you have in these four very simple verses is the picture that our Lord gives of the Christian’s function in the world. If I could reduce it down to one word, it would be the word “influence.” Our Lord is saying that the Christian who lives according to the Beatitudes is going to influence the world as salt and light. In all that a person does and that a person is, or is not, the sum total of our character, consciously or otherwise, affects other people. Philosophers have put it this way: “No man is an island.”
One of my favorite stories out of Greek mythology is recorded by Dr. Biederwolf in a rather old book, and this is what he says:
In all that a man is or is not; in all that he does or does not; in the sum total of his own character, consciously or otherwise, his life is affecting other lives.
The story is told in mythology of a goddess who came unseen, but was always known by the blessings she left in her pathway. Trees blackened by forest fires put forth new leaves as she passed by, in her footprints at the brookside violets sprang up, the stagnant pool became a spring of sparkling water, the parched fields blossomed as the rose, and every hillside and valley blushed with new life and beauty. (“Illustrations from Mythology V1,” page 67)
He then goes on to tell the story of a second princess:
About her was an atmosphere as sweet-smelling as the garments of Aphrodite. She seemed as beautiful and as pure as if “fresh from a bath of dew” and her breath was as sweet perfume of the richest rose. But strange enough, in the atmosphere that she carried about with her was the contagion of death. From her infancy this beautiful woman had known no food but poison. She had been reared upon it, and had become so permeated with it that she herself became the very essence of it. She would breath (sic) her fragrant breath into a swarm of insects and behold! they lie dead at her feet. She would place the loveliest flowers upon her bosom, and lo! they fade and fall away. Into her presence came a humming-bird; it fluttered, poised a moment, shuddered and fell in death.
And how like this poisoned princess is every man whose influence is a blight and curse upon his fellow-men. We live, and the atmosphere we exhale is richly laden with the fragrance of virtue, or with the poisonous perfumes that consume. (ibid., pages 67-68)
As an illustration of this, consider President Woodrow Wilson’s story about encountering D. L. Moody at a barber shop:
A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself, and sat in the next chair to me. Every word that he uttered, though it was not in the least didactic, showed a personal and vital interest in the man who was serving him; and before I got through with what was being done to me, I was aware that I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr. Moody was in the next chair. I purposely lingered after he left, and noted the singular effect his visit had upon the barbers in that shop. … I felt that I left that place as I should have left a place of worship. (Quoted by Daniel Koehler, “D.L. Moody in the memory of his contemporaries”)
What message do you leave the world? When you pass by, what are you saying? Years ago, Elihu Burritt wrote this:
No human being can come into this world without increasing or diminishing the sum total of human happiness, not only of the present, but of every subsequent age of humanity. No one can detach himself from this connection. There is no sequestered spot in the universe, no dark niche along the disk of non-existence, to which he can retreat from his relations to others, where he can withdraw the influence of his existence upon the moral destiny of the world. Everywhere his presence or absence will be felt. Everywhere he will have companions, who will be better or worse for his influence.
It is an old saying, and one of fearful and fathomless import that we are here forming characters for eternity. Forming characters! — whose? our own? or others? Both; and in that momentous fact lie the peril and responsibility of our existence. Who is sufficient for the thought! — thousands of my fellow-beings will yearly, and till years shall end, enter eternity with characters differing from those they would have carried thither had I never lived. The sunlight of that world will reveal my finger-marks in their primary formations, and in all their successive strata of thought and life. (“Thoughts and Things at Home and Abroad,” page 90)
This is precisely what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 5:13-16. He’s talking about influence. He’s talking about how you and I affect the world. Our Lord is calling on us to influence the world we live in, just as He was influencing those disciples gathered with Him as He preached to the multitude.
This blog post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1979, titled “You Are the Salt of the Earth.”
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