Matthew 5:1-9, “And seeing the multitudes, Jesus went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Last Sunday I closed our time together with the observation that you would think a group of people who fit this description would be loved… Men and women “poor in spirit” in that they possess true humility… People “who mourn” by having a genuine heart for the hurting and lost… “Meek” people with their strength under the control of a higher will…
People so passionate “for righteousness” that they’re willing to pursue the right things no matter the cost… People willing to end the brutal cycle of pain by being “merciful”… Those with a “pure heart” and honest intentions… People able to remain “peaceable” in the way they engage those they may disagree with… You would think the world would LOVE these kinds of people!? And yet, as we’re about to see quite the opposite is true!
Jesus continues His Sermon on the Mount… Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
As I noted in our initial set-up to what is traditionally known as the Beatitudes, in the way Jesus structures each verse utilizing the same pattern, an easier way of translating this particular idea into English would be, “Those who are being persecuted for righteousness sake are blessed (why are they blessed) for theirs is (present tense) the kingdom of heaven.”
Right from the jump, it’s important to point out how broad this phrase “are persecuted” is in the original language. While in our minds we tend to conceptualize the idea of persecution as a person undergoing the threat of physical violence, harm, or the loss of life (Christian missionaries serving in dangerous places), the word simply refers to those who are being mistreated, harassed, troubled, being pressed upon, or receiving hostility.
Scripturally, we have examples of persecution resulting in real bodily harm, but we have just as many examples of persecution manifesting as the tragic slandering of one’s character, false accusations, threats, unjust imprisonments, verbal ridicule and assault, even economic relegations. My point is that Christian persecution takes on many shapes and sizes.
In America, persecution can come in extreme forms like being gunned down while attending a study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church or during Sunday services at The Sutherland Springs Church, but it can also manifests in the loss of a job, verbal ridicule in the classroom, being canceled from social networks, or the unjust accusation of bigotry on account of your genuinely held beliefs on what God says about marriage and gender.
It also needs to be stated that in this verse Jesus is being very specific with regards to the reason for this persecution. In fact, the blessing of receiving “the kingdom of heaven” is only relevant to the individual who is experiencing “persecution for righteousness’ sake!”
Keep in mind, Jesus isn’t describing a Christian receiving shade because they were actively picking a fight in order to bring attention to themselves, being a weirdo, voted for Trump, or worse still were actively being a pompous jerk. Instead, Jesus is referring to the disciple whose taken a clear stand for what is right and true, and is now suffering as a result.
To this point, the contrast between Jesus and other religious leaders is radicle. For example, Mohammad rallied his followers around the idea of victory and regional domination. And yet, from the very beginning of His ministry Jesus was completely transparent with anyone who’d dare be one of His disciples that being persecuted by this fallen world would be a central component of our citizenship in heaven. “Blessed are the persecuted…”
Because we’ve been called to stand and defend the truth, persecution by a world founded upon a lie is an unavoidable characteristic of the Christian experience.
Let me share with you a few warm passages to substantiate this reality… John 15:20, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” James 1:2-3, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Philippians 1:29, “To you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”
1 Peter 4:12-13, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings.” It really is astounding to think about, but with the exception of the tiny book of Jude every New Testament writer spoke of persecution.
Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you (Jesus now changes from “those who are persecuted” to the singular) when they revile and persecute you (this word “revile” means to taunt, chide, or cast in one’s teeth, to chew out) and say all kinds of evil (literally every form of evil) against you falsely for My sake (the real hatred is directed towards Jesus). Rejoice and be exceedingly glad (jump for joy), for (the reason this person is blessed) great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
One subtly in what Jesus is saying in this passage is this acknowledgment that more often than not persecution is the evidence you’re on the right side of history. If you take a stroll through the many centuries of Church History, this point is inescapable. In a sense, Jesus is saying, “If the world hates you, it means you’re likely doing something right.”
Christian, not only is persecution fundamental to the Christian life, but it should be seen as a badge of honor for Satan only attacks those in whom he’s threatened by!
One commentator wrote, “Christians cannot help but appear as a threat to the legitimating ideologies of those who rule. Christians do not seek to be subversives; it just turns out that living according to the Sermon on the Mount cannot help but challenge the way things are.”
As I read through the Beatitudes, I’m struck by the order. Immediately after instructing His disciples to be peaceable (“blessed are the peacemakers”), Jesus follows with “blessed are those who are persecuted.” Again, if with one breath Jesus is calling His disciples to make peace, it’s odd that with the next breath He affirms peace was an impossible aim.
Amazingly, our commission to be peaceable in the battle deepens with the knowledge the attitude of our enemy will not be reciprocated only adding to the contrast. Christian, if you are a follower of Jesus, you should expect to be persecuted. You should anticipate being reviled and falsely accused. Your expectation should be nothing less. The truth is when the persecuted chose to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” there’s no explanation.
Now, within the context of all these internal character traits highlighted in the Beatitudes, and in light of the promise of persecution, Jesus says… Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth (the idea behind the way Jesus says “you are the” is both emphatic and definitive — He’s saying you alone are); but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”
Let’s read a few more verses before diving into our commentary… Matthew 5:14-16, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket (this was a cover used to snuff out a lamp), but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
While Jesus will have many thematic transitions in the Sermon on the Mount where He’ll pivot hard from one topic to another, in this instance, the idea of His disciples being “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” are relevant to the certainty of persecution.
The truth is while there are obvious eternal blessings that result from persecution (in the verses we just read Jesus promised “the kingdom of heaven” as well as a “great reward” when we get there), practically speaking, persecution is far from gratifying in the moment. While the persecuted are blessed, the experience will always be painful and hard.
With that in mind, in this reminder that Christians have been called to be salt and light, Jesus is cautioning against what would be a very natural reaction of His disciples to such a difficult circumstance and hostility — secretism or even worse escapism.
A brief examination of Church History will reveal that when a culture becomes increasingly antagonistic to the things of Christ monastic movements when people deliberately leave society in order to live out their faith in solitude or in a small isolated communities located in remote places tend grow in popularity. America was founded by such people fleeing the Church of English in search of a place they could worship God free of persecution.
According to Eugene Thacker’s book In The Dust Of The Planet, beyond being a religious expression Monasticism is often a counter-reaction to a culture descending into Nihilism.
Case in point, one of the bizarre components to the hippie revolution of the late ‘60s and ‘70s that carried over to the Jesus Movement was the rise of communes where new converts sought to escape the chaos of this world and lure of vice in order to live out a more simple and authentic expression of their Christian faith. While there are many examples of this, probably the best is found today in the faction of Quakerism known as the Amish.
And yet, this tendency to seek an escape from the influences of the larger global community can take on a more subtle expression. You see as a reaction to religious persecution and the fear our children might end up corrupted by the godless, wicked culture around us, there has been a recent push of Christians over the last 40 years to deliberately pull away from society by creating our own schools, universities, sports leagues, media, etc.
Trust me… As a parent who saw the value in moving his two kids from public school into a private Christian environment, I understand these decisions are never linear and instead very complex. And yet, as with all of life, Jesus’ disciples are not called to live in permanent isolated from the world. The Bible is clear while we’re never to be “of the world” we do live “in the world!” How you strike that balance is between you and your King!
Aside from the idea of escapism, I believe the larger tendency, especially in our day in age, is what I’m going to call secretism. I know it’s not a word but let me define what I’m referring to… Out of a genuine fear of persecution or what we call cancel culture, secretism is the act of intentionally minimizing the expression of one’s faith in the public square.
In a sense, while you consider yourself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and have no problems expressing your faith and Biblical beliefs at church, home, or in the safety of fellow believers, in your secular capacities and interacts you intentionally keep these things on the down-low out of a genuine fear of persecution. In a way, you’re a secret disciple.
Keep in mind, secretism is not the opposite of being bullish and bombastic. I am not advocating an in-your-face, take-no-prisoners, compelled-to-comment-on-Facebook-or-Twitter-about-every-social-issue, let-me-share-my-opinion-even-if-you-didn’t-ask, I-enjoy-controversy, I-dare-you-to-fire-me form of Christianity is appropriate or even Godly.
Instead, secretism is way more subtle than that. Secretism is the moment you decide to withhold voicing an opinion or you refuse to take a moral stand because you know what will result if you do. Since you know you’ll receive backlash for believing the Bible is true, you deliberately remain silent out of fear! You count the cost and decide the cost isn’t worth it.
While I completely understand the appeal of secretism and acknowledge that my livelihood is not on the line when I take such a moral stand, the truth remains the same. Persecution is the expectation. We’ve been called to a higher ideal. And being muzzled is not an option. It’s out of love for our fellow man we must defend God’s definition of marriage and gender.
Whether it be this dramatic and extreme act of seeking to escape from a hostile society or the more subtle approach of secretism (concealing one’s faith in the face of hostility or a certain persecution), Jesus cautions against both tendencies by pointing out, as His disciples, we “are the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world!” There is an important reason we’re called to stand even in the face of opposing social forces.
Before we unpack what Jesus was describing by invoking these two items (salt and light), there are four broad observations I should make about them both… First, as with the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t telling His disciples to go out and do something in particular. Instead, He’s pointing out what His disciples were to be. As long as we being the men and women God has called us to be we “are the salt of the earth and the light of the world!”
With this in mind, the fundamental question we’ll need to consider isn’t are we being these things, but how well are we doing at being! This is why Jesus will describe salt that has “lost its flavor” and is therefore “good for nothing but to be thrown out” — as well as a light that’s useless in that it’s been “hidden” by being “placed under a basket.”
Secondly, as a central component to salt and light, keep in mind, they are both items that are experienced and not heard. Salt can only provide flavor if it’s tasted and light can only illuminate when it’s set into a place to be seen. Again, salt serves no purpose if it’s never shaken out of the shaker and light redundant if it never shines out into the darkness.
Thirdly, the way in which Jesus structures this entire section indicates apart from His disciples these things would not exist in this world. As I mentioned earlier, the idea behind “you are the” is both emphatic and definitive. Jesus is saying you and you alone are. Understand, as the citizens of heaven we bring to this world something totally alien. In fact, it cannot and will not exist if the disciples of Jesus don’t bring it!
Finally, in order to emphasize who His disciples were to be, Jesus choses two natural elements mankind could not create on his own. Without boring you, we only have salt through the organic process of weathering and volcanic activity. And, at best, light exists as waves of electromagnetic radiation (energy) coming from matter visible to the human eye.
The reason this point is really critical to your understanding of Jesus’ larger point centers on the reality you are only able to become salt or light through an act of God. Christian, as with the Beatitudes, you simply cannot be salt without God making you into salt and you cannot be the light apart from Him speaking forth a light inside of you.
In the ancient world, salt (or more accurately sodium chloride) was an essential staple to life and therefore an extremely valuable commodity. Since salt slows down decay and can be utilized as a disinfectant because of its antiseptic and preservative properties, for centuries it was used to keep meat from rotting as well as to treat wounds on a battlefield — which, while able to slow infection, was incredibly painful (i.e. pouring salt in a wound).
In Jesus’ day, historians believe even a portion of a Roman soldiers pay was in salt. It was that valuable. While we don’t exactly know the origins of the phrase “to be worth one’s salt,” we do know it refers to a person who is effectively earning their salary. In fact, our English word “salary” derives from the Latin salarium — sal being the ancient word for salt.
When Jesus tells His disciples “you are the salt” He’s describing the practical way in which all of our lives are to impact our individual worlds. As “the salt of the earth” our lives are to have a redemptive quality in that we function as a societal preservative.
Active in this world whether it be in the halls of political power, the boardrooms of public and economic sway, the seats of education, or simply as cultural influencers living out our daily lives, the disciples of Jesus should be slowing the rate of moral decay. It’s one of the reasons, as Americans, its important to vote our consciences at the ballet box.
To this point, it’s not an accident we see a direct correlation between the number of Christians in the Western World and the erosion of our moral framework. As our influence wains, it should be no surprise we’re drifting further away from God’s ideal. In fact, the Bible says the only thing holding up the unveiling of the Antichrist is our Christian presence.
In addition to being a societal preservative keeping our world from falling off the cliff, as “the salt of the earth” our lives should also possess an antiseptic characteristic. While the world has been sickened by sin and possesses no real antidote, the disciples of Jesus have been left on this earth because we have the cure! You posses the remedy!
As Christians, we’re to be the people the brokenhearted can come to be made whole. We are to be those the lost seek out to be found. We’re to be the people those with questions are able to come looking for answers. We’re to be the citizens of heaven where the damned can come to encounter the King! In a very practical way, until the King arrives, we, the citizens of heaven, should be making the world a better place.
Bridging off that idea… As “the salt” we’re to provide “the earth” a taste of heaven. In a sense, you and I have been called to be the flavor of Godliness. Our lives should be holy, but they should also be fun and exciting — enriched by the Holy Spirit. You see there should be something fundamental to our very DNA absolutely foreign to the unbeliever.
Have you ever noticed movie theaters offer bottomless popcorn for the whole family at a reasonable price only to then gouge you on the small soda? They do this because they know the salted popcorn will make you thirsty! As such, when the world spends time with the disciples of Jesus they should leave the experience with a thirst for God.
While we understand sodium chloride is a stable compound and therefore cannot lose its fundamental properties, in the time of Christ, salt was able to “lose its flavor” by picking up additives and impurities overtime. In fact, there was a room in the Temple where they would keep flavorless salt to de-freeze the courtyards during the winter months. The salt was “then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”
Christian, when you give your life to Jesus and are reborn through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit you are not only righteous before God, but you become “the salt of the earth.” This is permanent. “You are the salt” and that cannot change. And yet, according to Jesus, your effectiveness as salt is directly determined upon purity. Never forget, the only thing that can limit your saltiness is when you allow additives (worldliness) to dilute your witness.
Following salt, Jesus continues in verse 14, “You are the light of the world!” What makes this such an interesting statement is that, in John 8:12, when Jesus famously declared, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” roughly two years have transpired since He gave the Sermon on the Mount!
Traditionally, because Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” and that illustration ends up dominating the New Testament, we end up explaining this earlier statement made to His disciples as the instruction to allow “the Light” or His presence to shine through.
While I’m sure there is a measure of truth to this approach, the simple fact remains that we cannot detach ourselves from the fact Jesus said this to His disciples years before He extended out the analogy of light as a reference to Himself.
Breaking this analogy of His disciples being “the light of the world” down to its basics, we understand light accomplishes really only one practical function. Light enables sight. Without light, our eyes would have zero functional purpose. We could not see anything. It’s only because light emanates from all matter that the physical world around us is knowable.
Again, understanding that apart from the presence of His disciples, “the world” would remain in complete darkness we realize our importance. To illustrate this particular idea, Jesus introduces a picture everyone living around the Sea of Galilee would have known firsthand. He says in verse 14, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
One of the challenges to navigating a body of water so far below sea level was that the low pressure zones would block out the night sky while also creating a daunting midst on the water. Without the ability to see the stars above or the towns that littered the shoreline, storms at night were very hard to maneuver if not for the cities on the surrounding hillsides.
When Jesus says to His disciples “you are the light of the world” He’s saying our lives fundamentally emanate something into this world that could not be seen any other way. We provide a world in darkness insight into what would otherwise be unknowable. Our lives present to this world the evidence of a spiritual reality and His heavenly kingdom.
With the idea that a light enable something to be seen, notice what Jesus equates to being the light. He says in verse 16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.” Again, within the context of persecution, Jesus is encouraging His disciples to “let their light shine before men” and not “hide it under a basket.” In fact, because our lives enable the world a glimpse of the truth, our lives should be on display — “on a lampstand.”
Not to beat a drum but light came into existence for one reason… “God said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.’” Light simply cannot exist apart from a work of God. For the Christian, there is no question our lives are only able to emanate Christ because we’ve been filled with “The Light of the world!” And yet, never forget the practical exhortation of Psalm 119:105, “God’s word is a lamp to my feet and a light unto my path.”
In the end, what’s the ultimate purpose in being “the light of the world?” Jesus answers this rhetorical question, “That they (the lost world apt to persecute the light) may see your good works (your life being evidence of His kingdom) and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Let me close by pointing out how radical a statement this was in the moment… When Jesus mentions “glorifying your Father in heaven” this is the very first time God was referenced as being our Father. In fact, this will become a consistent theme in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus will bring this up 3 times in chapter 5, 12 times in chapter 6, and on two additional occasions in chapter 7 which is more than the entire Old Testament combined.
In light of the persecution the disciples of Jesus were sure to face from this world, our Lord wanted us to know the God of heaven should be viewed as our Father! Everything we will ever face on this earth must first come our way through the will of a Father who loves us!
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