************ Sermon on Matthew 5:13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on February 11, 2001
"The Salt of the Earth"
I The Important Role of Salt in the Ancient World
A Salt. It is one of the most important compounds in man's existence. Without salt the human body would cease to function. Without salt most foods would lose most of their savor.
In the ancient world covenants or treaties were usually ratified by the exchange of salt. The salt symbolized the endurance and faithfulness both partners would show to the covenant.
Salt was also the basis of much trade and commerce. Areas that were rich in salt traded this compound for gold, silver, and fine cloth. For ancient governments salt was an important source of tax revenue. In Tibet, Ethiopia, and other parts of Africa, salt cakes were used as money. In the Roman army a soldier's pay included an allowance of salt. Our English word "salary" reflects this; it comes from the Roman word "salarium" which means "allowance of salt"; imagine Amy's surprise if we give her a box of salt instead of a paycheck as her salary at the end of the month.
Salt, then, was a very important commodity in the ancient world.
B Why was salt so valuable? What was it used for? Long before freezers and refrigerators were invented and long before people were able to put meats, fruits, and vegetables into sealed jars, there was only one thing that kept food from spoiling: salt! Only salt kept vast stores of food from rotting. Only salt stood between people and hunger during the winter months or dry season.
In many places in the Middle East land is quite acidic. The only way this land could become productive was by spreading a little bit of salt on it. In this way the salt acted like a fertilizer and promoted life and growth.
However, too much salt can also destroy land. In the ancient world it was the practice of conquering armies to spread large volumes of salt on the agricultural land of a defeated enemy. This would render the land infertile for at least 10 years.
Salt, then, prevents decay and, in small quantities, it acts as a fertilizer. For this reason many ancient people praised their god or gods for the gift of salt.
II Christians Are the Salt of the Earth
A In our text Jesus identifies His followers as salt. "You are the salt of the earth," says Jesus. "Earth" in this statement does not mean our planet; nor does it mean fertile farm land. Earth, in this instance, means man or humanity. "You are the salt of humanity," says Jesus.
Everyone listening to Jesus knew salt to be important and valuable. So Jesus was saying His followers are important and valuable people.
Christians are the salt of the earth. This means that in the world of men the followers of Christ have two essential things to do.
B The first thing we do as the salt of the earth is hold back or prevent decay. Just as salt in the ancient world was the only thing which prevented food from spoiling or going rotten so the Christian, empowered by the Spirit, is a barrier between the world of men and complete decay, complete rottenness, and complete destruction. God has chosen to make the Christian His front line of defense against Satan and all evil in the world of men. It is the Christian who is appointed by God to fight against wickedness and all the forces of darkness.
But this is a rather negative way of describing a very positive task. Instead of saying the Christian holds back or prevents decay we should say, instead, that the Christian preserves life. The Christian is a preservative that keeps life good and wholesome and beautiful – he or she prevents decay and destruction.
I'm reminded here of Oscar Schindler. Do you remember "Schindler's List" and the amazing story of the German who used his wealth and wiles to rescue 1,200 Polish Jews? What a noble effort that was. Oscar Schindler prevented destruction and preserved life.
Or, consider what happened when the Roman Empire became Christian:
Topic: ChristiansBecause of Christianity, decay and destruction were stopped and life was preserved.
Many permanent legal reforms were set in motion by Emperors Constantine (280?-337) and Justinian (483-565) that can be laid to the influence of Christianity. Licentious and cruel sports were checked; new legislation was ordered to protect the slave, the prisoner, the mutilated man, the outcast woman. Children were granted important legal rights. Infant exposure was abolished. Women were raised from a status of degradation to that of legal protection. Hospitals and orphanages were created to take care of foundlings. Personal feuds and private wars were put under restraint. Branding of slaves was halted.
I'm also reminded of Joseph in Egypt. After interpreting Pharaoh's dreams he managed and organized Egypt's resources so that when the 7 years of famine came there was enough food to prevent starvation and death not just among the Egyptians but also among his own family (Genesis 41).
I also think of Queen Esther who interceded with the king and prevented the death and annihilation of the Jews by Haman (Esther 4-6).
As the salt of the earth, then, Christians hold back and prevent decay and destruction; they preserve life.
Without Christian culture and Christian hope, the modern world would come to resemble a half-derelict fun-fair, gone nasty and poverty-racked, one enormous Atlantic City.
C The second thing we do as the salt of the earth is promote life and growth. Just as salt can function as a fertilizer and thus enable the growth of plant life, so we as salt bring life to the world. Once more God has chosen us to be His standard-bearers. Through us as salt the world of men can hear the Gospel of grace and salvation. Through us the world, by the operation of the Spirit, can move from darkness, death, and sin to light, life, and peace.
As the salt of the earth, then, Christians have two very important roles: to preserve life – or prevent decay – and to promote life and growth.
D In actual fact it is God Himself Who is the salt of the earth. It is God Himself Who preserves life and promotes life and growth.
What God has done is called us to be like Himself. He is salt and we are to be salt. In other words, we don't turn ourselves into salt; God does. It is God Who has chosen us, Who makes us, Who ordains us, and Who equips us to be the salt of the earth. In union with God through Christ His Son, His saltiness must become our saltiness. What we must do, then, is let God have His way in our life. We must live and function as the salt of the earth.
III Living as the Salt of the Earth
A How is it that we must live and function as the salt of the earth? In what way are we to preserve life – or prevent decay – and promote life and growth?
Christians preserve life – they prevent destruction and decay – by resisting sin, evil, and wickedness in our land. All across our land and even within the church we see sin and immorality becoming more and more acceptable. If God's people live and function as salt then they are like the watchman on the walls of Jerusalem who call the people to arms because of the enemy's approach. Or, if God's people live and function as salt then they are like Phinehas at the time of Moses. Remember that story? An Israelite man openly brought a heathen Midianite woman into his tent. When Phinehas saw this he could not stand the thought of such wickedness and sin against the holiness of God. So do you know what he did? He took a spear into his hand, went into the tent, and drove the spear through both the Israelite and the woman he was in bed with (cf Numbers 25).
Or, consider this contemporary example of someone acting as salt.
In 1992, disgusted with the topics he saw on Phil Donahue's talk show, Richard B. Neill, a Christian and a Fort Worth dentist, launched a personal campaign to get four sponsors of Donahue to pull their advertising dollars. Some three-and-a-half years later, Neill's persistent outcry resulted in 221 sponsors and the television stations in New York and San Francisco dropping the show. The decline in ad revenue and viewership eventually made Donahue call it quits.
John Stott, from Great Britain and a leading Reformed theologian, has these challenging words to say to the church today:
Topic: ChurchA very good question. As we look at the decline of society and morals we need to ask, "Where is the church?" Why aren't we acting as salt?
Subtopic: Compared to Salt
Title: Where Is the Church?
You know what your own country is like. I'm a visitor, and I wouldn't presume to speak about America. But I know what Great Britain is like. I know something about the growing dishonesty, corruption, immorality, violence, pornography, the diminishing respect for human life, and the increase in abortion.
Whose fault is it? Let me put it like this: if the house is dark at night, there is no sense in blaming the house. That's what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is, "Where is the light?"
If meat goes bad, there is no sense in blaming the meat. That is what happens when the bacteria are allowed to breed unchecked. The question to ask is, "Where is the salt?"
If society becomes corrupt like a dark night or stinking fish, there's no sense in blaming society. That's what happens when fallen human society is left to itself and human evil is unrestrained and unchecked. The question to ask is "Where is the church?"
As salt, Christians must also do what they can to preserve life. The most obvious instance of life that needs to be preserved today is life within the womb. This means we need to speak out against abortion. This means we need to whole-heartedly support the work of Tulare/Kings County Right to Life. And, we are also to fight forced death at the other end of life – euthanasia of the aged and the terminally ill.
Christians not only preserve life – or prevent decay – but they also promote life and growth. The most obvious way to function as salt here is to engage in and promote the cause of missions, evangelism, and witnessing. I think here about such things as: paying our ministry shares for Home Missions, World Missions, and the Back to God Hour; financial and prayer support for the many missionaries we support through Faith Promise; inviting your unbelieving neighbor to our worship services. What better way to promote life and growth then to be used of and by the Lord to bring someone to repentance, faith, and obedience!
We live as the salt of the earth when we offer prayers of intercession for the world; when we pray to God to work in hearts with His Word and Spirit; when we ask God to be patient so that the ungodly can have time repent.
You know what happened in India a couple of weeks ago: an earthquake that left death and destruction in its wake. Your deacons, through the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, are actively promoting life and growth by assisting the rebuilding of living quarters, by distributing food and clothing, by comforting the afflicted. By supporting this and other relief work with their prayers and gifts God's people are living and functioning as the salt of the earth.
B I admit, this is a tremendous challenge that Jesus has given to us: to function as the salt of the earth; to preserve life – or prevent destruction and decay – and to promote life and growth. We are badly outnumbered by unbelievers. They are so many and seem so strong and we are so few and seem to be so weak and ineffective. But the task is not impossible. Jesus tells us that a little bit of old dough can leaven all of the new dough and cause it to rise (Mt 13:33; cf I Cor 5:6ff). Or, as any cook can tell you, a little bit of salt can season the whole pot. Jesus assures us that Christians, though they may be few, can have a tremendous effect.
Topic: ChristiansOf course Christians make up more than two percent of the American population. How come we don't have more of an impact?
Title: Let It Shine
Robert Bellah, a sociologist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, is very interested in the influence of religion on the community. In an interview in Psychology Today he said, "We should not underestimate the significance of the small group of people who have a new vision of a just and gentle world. The quality of a culture may be changed when 2 percent of its people have a new vision."
IV We Must Not Resist Our Saltiness
A Jesus answers this question for us in the last part of verse 13. There Jesus gives us a warning about salt losing its saltiness:
(Mt 5:13) But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.The Lord speaks here about the frightful possibility of the salt losing its taste. He warns us about the danger of not living and functioning as the salt of the earth.
B Now any chemist knows it is physically impossible for the salt to lose its taste, its saltiness – for if it does, it isn't salt anymore. The molecular structure of salt is such that it cannot lose its saltiness. So what is Jesus referring to?
In those days salt was not artificially prepared as ours is today. Instead, it was obtained from evaporated pools by the shore of the Dead or Salt Sea. This salt crust, dug up from the surface of the soil, is never pure, but contains impurities. Eventually, these impurities would work their way to the bottom of the salt barrel and would have to be thrown out.
The fact still remains, though, pure salt cannot lose its saltiness. God's power in our lives never weakens. God's Gospel of salvation is indestructible.
How, then, are we to interpret the warning of Jesus? Jesus isn't saying that salt loses its saltiness. But what He is saying is that men lose their faith. Salt doesn't lose its saltiness but men do lose their vision of the Kingdom and the urgency of its message.
Another thing: salt doesn't lose its saltiness but Christians do lose their preserving power and their ability to promote life. This happens when we start tasting like the world. When we start to think and act like our non-Christian neighbors then we have lost our saltiness; when we start to think and act like our non-Christian neighbors then we have lost the power to save. For, you see, salt only acts on things that are not salt; it only acts on things that are different from salt. Salt does nothing to salt, but it can do something for meat or beans. Therefore, God's people need to be different from the world to live and function as salt.
Tell me, can we function as the salt of the earth when our Sundays are exactly the same as our unbelieving neighbor's? Can we function as the salt of the earth when we watch the exact same TV programs and movies that everyone else watches? Can we function as the salt of the earth when our language and our tempers are exactly the same as that of any man of the world? Young people, young adults, can you function as the salt of the earth when, like most young people and young adults in our land, you try to get your dating partner into bed?
When this happens, when salt is not salt anymore, when Christians no longer bear the imprint of the Kingdom of God, when believers are no longer marked as being different and separate from the world, then, says Jesus, they are worthless and good for nothing "except to be thrown out and trampled by men."
God has made Christians into the salt of the earth. Now the question must be asked:
-do you live and function as salt?
-do you let God's power come through you to preserve and promote life?
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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