Salt, Light, and Human Beings

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Matthew 5:13-20

When Christians perceive a great evil looming over society, we sometimes feel as if we must crusade against it. We conduct marches and hand out educational tracts. We wield politics and the media against our foe. All of this—the marches, the tracts, the politics, the media—we credit to Matthew 5:13-20.

“Jesus said that we must be the salt of the earth!” We chant. “We must be the light of the earth!”

But Jesus never commanded this of us.

Our sermons, commentaries, and summaries of Matthew 5:13-20 reveal that we read the passage out of context. How? For one, this passage is referenced much more often than the scriptures that come before and after it. Many people have trouble identifying the context of this passage. Which scriptures come immediately before? Which come immediately after?

The Beatitudes come before this scripture and Christ’s examination of the law (“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder…”) comes after. As we learned last week, the Beatitudes examine God’s character. We learn that God comforts those who mourn, gives the earth to the meek, rewards the merciful with mercy, and calls the peacemakers his children.

Nowhere in the Beatitudes does it say that God blesses those who raise their weapons in his name. In fact, the Beatitudes explicitly promise the opposite of this: God blesses those who are persecuted and who suffer for the sake of righteousness.

But isn’t the protestor persecuted when the world lashes back at their protest? Doesn’t the politician suffer for the sake of righteousness when he is met with slander for enforcing what is right, true, and good?

These questions only show that we misunderstand the definition of righteousness. Human beings cannot be righteous—nor can we understand what righteousness is. The only righteousness that we can reveal and understand is Christ’s righteousness, and this righteousness only appears by mirroring God’s character into the world.

Does the crusader mirror God’s character into the world?

Christ did not lead protests. He did not fight for “righteousness.” Instead, he withdrew to Galilee, he turned away from the crowds, and he spoke with his disciples. The crusader, then, reveals our own character, not God’s character. Being persecuted means to suffer because one has mirrored Christ into the world. But the crusader is not suffering because they mirror Christ; the crusader is suffering the consequence of forcing himself upon the world.

As Christians, we must be careful when we read the Bible. Jesus says, “you are the salt of the earth.” This is very different than “you should be the salt of the earth.” We do not have to try to be the salt of the earth because we are the salt of the earth. This does not change if we do good things or if we do bad things. In Matthew 5:13-20, Jesus is not lauding the church; he is identifying a problem within it.

People who have never travelled to the Middle East commonly mistake the salt in this passage as a seasoning. “Christianity,” many commentaries conclude, “is a pinch of seasoning that brings out the flavor of a dish.” But Jesus lived in the desert. Salt is not considered to be the seasoning of choice in the desert. Salt makes people thirsty and, in a desert, water is scarce.

In Jesus’ culture, salt was more commonly thought of as a preservative; salt prevented food from rotting quickly. When Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth, he doesn’t mean that we are the flavor. He means that our purpose is to slow the steady decay of Creation which was begun by the fall. But the salt has lost its saltiness.

Anyone who knows anything about salt would be baffled by this claim. Salt is one of the most stable compounds in the world! When salt is placed in water, the water becomes salty. Salt without saltiness is just as ridiculous as lighting a lamp for the sole purpose of hiding it beneath a basket!

We light a lamp to see the room around us! In the same way, Jesus says that we should let our light shine so that people can see the Father through us.

Now, if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that this command is terrifying. We have not done anything good! We don’t want to show people the way we live because the way we live does not glorify God!

Human beings bringing shame to God? Human beings hiding away from the world and robbing God of his glory? This is just as inconceivable as salt losing its saltiness or a lamp being placed beneath a basket!

Jesus’ disciples are Jewish. When Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, so that they might see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven,” their first thought is “I have broken the law!” Jesus is not changing the subject when he begins to talk about the law; he is addressing their concern.

After all, every human being has broken the law; we have all lost our saltiness. How can our saltiness be restored? Should we get rid of the law?

“I have not come to abolish the law,” Jesus said. The solution is not to change the law; the law is not the problem. The heavens and the earth were created through the law. The law is the revelation of God’s character and, as we learned before, the revelation of God is woven into all of creation. Eliminating the law would result in the destruction of Creation.

Should we lower the demands of the law, then? Should we make the commandments easier for us to follow?

No, this solution does not work, either. “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says. Changing one’s expectations of salt will not restore the salt’s saltiness.

Human beings are the problem.

1) God created human beings to be the light of the world. Our purpose is to mirror him into creation.

2) When human beings turned to sin, the reason for our existence was eliminated. We were no longer able to fulfill our purpose. In fact, we began to lead all of creation away from God, resulting in the gradual deterioration of creation.

3) Now, all of Creation groans because it wishes to see God and worship him. We are the only thing that keeps it from doing so.

4) To counteract the sin eating away at Creation, God gives the law to Israel. The law prevents the world from rotting faster, but it cannot halt decay altogether. Israel is expected to act as a model for the nations; teaching the rest of the world how to slow the sin that eats away at them.

If we try to keep the law by lowering the standard, we will not keep the world from decaying. This defeats the purpose of the law.

Christ is the only solution to the problem

Christ completes the law. The law cannot solve the problem of original sin; it can only slow the consequences. Only through Christ can the problem be resolved. This is why Christ speaks of both salt and light.

Salt preserves; light reveals the truth.

Christ is the light.

As human beings, we need his light. We are not the light, but the lampstands that the light is placed upon (an image repeated in Revelation).

The law is like Christ’s clothing—it is too big for us. We can try to fulfill the law, but our fallen nature makes this an impossible task. Like a child wearing the clothes of an older sibling, we may try to change the clothing to better fit us. Alteration is fine for clothes, but not for the law!

The law fits Christ perfectly. When he wears it, we see the way it is supposed to look. We cannot wear the law, but we can do what we were created to do: to welcome his rule, to invite him to make his home in us, and to allow him, the light, to shine forever in us. Through his light, the world sees God. How the world responds to God, however, is another question entirely.

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What is the Underground Church? (Introduction to Preparing for the Underground Church, Part V)

(Part V of VII of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay to Rev. Richard Wurmbrand’s Preparing for the Underground Church. To order a print or electronic copy of the bilingual Korean/English edition of Preparing for the Underground Church, including Pastor Foley’s introductory essay and a foreword by Voice of the Martyrs historian Merv Knight, visit Amazon or click here to visit the bookstore page on our website. For Part I of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay , click here.) 

Our picture of the underground church owes more to imagination than reality. As a result we can’t imagine preparing to join it. When we hear the phrase “underground church” we imagine a ragtag band in hiding, moving about furtively in darkness to evade detection by a mighty power capable of destroying it. We envision people sneaking out of their homes to attend worship services in the forest, or whispering hymns and reading the Bible by candlelight under blankets in their homes.

These images are not total fabrications. But neither is the underground church defined by its ragtaggedness, its furtiveness, or its proximity to destruction. The underground church does not owe its existence to persecution at all. Persecution only reveals the underground church; it cannot create it.

The underground church is the indissoluble structure of Christ’s work that is revealed when the public church can no longer sustain itself, either due to devastating attack or collapse from within. It is revealed under such circumstances, but it is created when Christians jointly submit to the Lord’s summons, “Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.”[1] Thus, it is the underground church not because it is in hiding but because, like a seed planted in the ground, it is that part of the church which has already died to the world. Because it has already died to the world, it is impervious to the world’s attacks. It is able to remain standing when the rain comes down, the streams rise, and the winds blow and beat against that house.[2]

This accounts for the difference in the way the public church and the underground church respond to persecution. The public church responds to it like a public organization. In the face of attack it protects its interests, its assets, its rights, its way of life, and its beliefs. It acts out of a very real sense of fear of losing these things. That fear becomes palpable in the battles the public church wages against those who threaten it: court cases, protests and demonstrations, and attempts at public persuasion and education. Anger and desperation bubble to its surface, wounding the public church’s Christian witness to the whole society. It wins some skirmishes, loses others, each one strengthening public opposition against it. Eventually it begins to turn on itself, with whole segments—prominent churches, theologians, and denominations—justifying compromise with its enemies and loudly denouncing the segments which refuse to do the same. Ultimately these defectors become persecutors as well. Meanwhile, the rest of the church spends itself—financially, physically, spiritually—as it desperately seeks to save its own life. Its theology and practice become distorted by defending itself and its practices, drawing Christianity carelessly around itself like a blanket in the process so that the faith serves the church. This is the progression that is already underway especially in America as the public church continues to stagger under the blitzkrieg onslaught and infiltration of the sexual revolution that caught it unaware.

But this is not the way of underground church, which is characterized by its disciplined love of Christ and its theology of suffering love. The underground church is the church of one love, and that love is not itself. Because it has already died, it does not seek to defend or preserve itself. Instead, it is free to serve only the Lord. It remains solely focused on hearing and doing the whole word of God, stewarding the theological heritage that has been entrusted to it—its “hope”—so that nothing is added to it and nothing in it is neglected. It is not caught unaware by the opposition of the world because it has taken to heart the Lord’s admonition, “In this world you will have trouble.” It does not operate out of fear because it has taken to hear the Lord’s consolation, “But take heart! For I have overcome the world.”[3] It abides by the Lord’s command to put down its sword, so it does not take up the world’s “swords”—its  courts, its media, its politics—but instead is armed with only the blood of the lamb and the word of its testimony.[4] When reviled, it reviles not; when cursed, it curses not; when persecuted it blesses; when murdered, it forgives. It does not entrust itself to the world because it knows what is in the world’s heart. It does not hide. It carries out its work in full awareness of the opposition of the world, and it strategizes accordingly. It always serves, even its enemies, but always as unto the Lord, i.e., it does not serve the world by becoming like it. It joyfully pays the price for not compromising with the world, considering it all joy when it suffers because it has been counted worthy to suffer for the name.[5] It is always prepared to give the reason for the hope that it has, when the world calls it to account. But it does so “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”[6]

In short, the underground church does not “engage” the sexual revolution and its incursions at all. It simply continues to be the church. It does not draw Christianity around itself as if the faith were its servant. It remains awed and honored by the catholicity of the faith and thus refuses to become the church of one issue. It knows that what is required is not to die defending the faith but to die practicing it. That death may happen in an instant through a bloody martyrdom, or it may happen daily, through dying to self and to the world, which are also martyrdoms it has been taught to esteem.

If the underground church is most often portrayed in history as without buildings, legal sanction, or earthly resources that is only because it has learned to “throw off”—not its capitalist overlords or oppressive morality or purportedly outdated sexual ethics, but rather “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” so that it may

run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.[7]

The underground church is that part of the church which has learned that it is not called to defend buildings, denominations, assets, ways of life, or its own interests. To prepare for the underground church, then, does not mean to prepare to fight against the sexual revolution but rather to prepare not to. It means to prepare for the removal, the collapse, the challenging of the Christ-inspired public church sculptures that sit atop the underground church but which ultimately are not constitutive of it. To prepare for the underground church means to prepare to be fully Christian in the full glare of day when every vestige of honor has been stripped from us by the world and there is nothing to clothe our nakedness but the Lord’s own glory.

[1] John 12:24, KJV.

[2] Matthew 7:25.

[3] John 16:33, NIV.

[4] Rev 12:11.

[5] James 1:2; Acts 5:41.

[6] 1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV.

[7] Hebrews 12:1-2.

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What Is the Kingdom of Heaven?

To watch other Voice of the Martyrs videos, visit the Voice of the Martyrs Video Page!

Matthew 5:1-12

Often, we read the Beatitudes as a list of commandments. We think that Jesus is telling us, “Be meek!” and “Be merciful!” When we read the Beatitudes like this, we become depressed.

“I am not meek,” we think. “I am not merciful. I must repent!”

But this passage of scripture is not about us. This scripture is about God.

First, we learn that God does not like crowds. The scripture says, “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside.” When Jesus saw the crowd, he turned away from them. Human beings like crowds. We want other people to appreciate us and cheer for us.

But God does not want this.

Jesus also does this in the gospel of John when a crowd is trying to make him King and declare him a prophet. He leaves the crowd and withdraws to a mountain. Even though the crowd wants to raise him up, Jesus leaves them.

God does not like large crowds. He also does not like large armies.

When Gideon went to war against the Midianites, God told him that he had too many soldiers. God would only allow Gideon to fight with three hundred men.

When he sees the crowd, Jesus goes up into the mountains. To be with Christ, we must follow him up into the mountains. Humans sometimes think that God must be drawn to crowds. But this scripture teaches us that God goes into the mountains—we must come to him.

In movies, Jesus stands in front of a large crowd. He shouts the Beatitudes so that the entire crowd can hear him. But in the scripture, Jesus sits down and speaks. He does not shout.

Jesus talks with the crowd about the Kingdom of Heaven.

Where is heaven? There are three popular answers to this question and all three answers are wrong. People say that heaven is “up there”, or “in the future” (i.e. “I’m going to heaven when I die), or “completely invisible.” Usually, when people describe something in this way, they are describing something that they made up.

Why would we risk our lives for something imaginary?

We must turn to the Nicene Creed to discover what heaven is. The Nicene Creed says, “we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Many people think that the Nicene Creed is repeating itself when it says “heaven and earth” and “seen and unseen.” “Everything in heaven is unseen,” we think, “and everything on earth is seen.” But every word in the Nicene Creed was carefully chosen. The Nicene Creed does not repeat itself.

Not everything in heaven is unseen. Jesus, for example, is in heaven, but he is visible. Visibility is proper to the nature of a human being, just like being wet is proper to the nature of water. Because Jesus is fully man—he has two distinct natures: man and God—he is also fully visible. When Jesus dies and is resurrected, he does not abandon his human nature; he redeems it. Because of this, Jesus is visible and Jesus exists in heaven. Therefore, there are some visible things in heaven.

Likewise, not everything on earth is seen. For example, we know that Satan and one-third of God’s angels were thrown out of heaven and are forced to reside on earth. These angels are not visible, but they are on Earth. Therefore, some invisible things exist on earth.

When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, then, he is not talking about an invisible place or a place that exists high up in the sky. He is also not talking about a kingdom that will come in the future. Often, we feel that God must exist separately from the world because the world we see is filled with suffering, starvation, and illness. When we think this way, we conclude that the Kingdom of Heaven is not on Earth. We conclude that the Kingdom of Heaven is a world that will only exist in the future. But this way of thinking is done from our perspective out; we must examine the scripture to see if the Kingdom of Heaven is actually limited to being a future event.

In the scripture, Jesus turns away from many crowds. But where did these people come from? At this time in the scripture, Jesus was in Galilee. He was telling everyone to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. At hand means “at present” or “within reach.” So when Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is not saying, “the poor in spirit will be blessed.” He is saying that God is blessing the poor in spirit right now.

Jesus does not call the Kingdom of Heaven invisible or upcoming. He refers to the Kingdom of Heaven as existing today. This is because the Kingdom of Heaven is not an invisible reality; it consists of all that submit to his reign, visible and invisible, in heaven and on earth.

God created heaven and earth. He created human beings to mirror God and reign in his image on earth. When human beings fell, they began to lead earth astray. This is an important insight for two reasons:

1) Many Christians mistakenly believe that the physical world is a temporary trap for spiritual beings, but this is a gnostic belief, not a Christian one. The Gnostics believed that the physical world was evil and that the spiritual world was pure. The Christian does not believe this. The Christian believes that God made the physical world to reflect himself, too. Jesus is not trying to free the earth from being physical; he is making God’s reign visible on earth so that it may be welcomed.

2) Many Christians mistakenly believe that the Kingdom of God is the same thing as the church, but the Kingdom of Heaven contains more than human beings. Scripture says that all of creation is groaning and longs for Christ’s reign. All of creation belongs in the Kingdom of Heaven. Dogs, trees, grass—all were created by God’s own hand and participate in the Kingdom of Heaven. Nature wants to welcome God, but is frustrated in its worship by the Fall. This is evident in scripture where nature continually bends to the will of God. The rivers become blood for God, the stars fall for him, and the storms calm at Jesus’ voice. Nature longs for God; we human beings are the broken piece.

If Jesus was proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was invisible or upcoming or somewhere other than here, he would be a very bad king, indeed. But his kingdom is visible and his kingdom is now and his kingdom is among us. His kingdom consists of more than human beings, for the Kingdom exists anywhere that Christ’s reign is welcomed.

 

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