In Pursuit of Righteousness
This morning we continue our look at the Sermon on the Mount. For several weeks we looked the Beatitudes, the opening section listing eight behaviors that were especially blessed by God, behaviors that He wants to manifest in each of our lives, things like meekness, mercy, making peace, and hunger and thirsting for righteousness – this is what the Christian life should look like for every man, woman, and child who has been born again in Christ.
But up until this point, Jesus’ Sermon has been primarily centered on us individually. You are blessed with the blessings. The behaviors are manifested in your life. Now we begin to see how the presence of these behaviors and blessings in your life has an essential impact on the world around you. We learn God has a plan to make a difference in the world through us as we follow Christ. Remember, we receive the love of God, the blessings from God, and then we reflect them to others. We receive and then reflect. This is what we were made for. This morning the emphasis is on that reflection and the impact it has on other people. Read with me, if you will:
Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; 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.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot [the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet] or one tittle [like the dotting of an i or the crossing of a t] will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
Often, when we read a passage like this, we focus on what it seems to be saying about us. So, it natural for us to hear this and immediately begin to think about what it means to be salt and light, and to worry: have I lost my saltiness, is my light hidden, am I righteous enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? But I want to suggest that we actually take a different approach this morning and begin by noticing what this passage is telling us about life apart from Christ. What is this passage telling us about the world?
And the answer is: Jesus says the world is dark and polluted, rotting and decaying, and even the most religious people in it have no hope apart from Him.
Let’s talk about the imagery He uses here, and let’s start with salt. Salt was often used as a preservative to keep meat from spoiling. It’s easy for us to forget, but we didn’t have electricity until the 1800’s and the household refrigerator wasn’t invented until 1913, we didn’t have separate freezers until 1940. And here’s where a little local history ties in.
One of the foods Virginia is famous for is country ham, also known as Virginia ham, or more specifically Smithfield ham – some of you might even have Smithfield bacon at home in your fridge or maybe you’ll have a Smithfield ham this Christmas. Smithfield is a town down near Hampton Roads or Virginia Beach where they have been making salt-cured ham and bacon products since the 1700’s. You might not realize this, but Virginia is on the same latitude as Southern Spain and Italy where some of the most famous salted meat products in the world come from – expensive hams like the Serrano and dried meats like prosciutto.
Of course, salting works with other meats too including fish, and this kind of food is still a staple in the diets of many regions around the world. If you’ve ever had corned beef – it’s beef that was preserved by salting.
But why is salt used this way? Because, salt kills bacteria and preserves the food. The salt draws water out of the meat which makes it difficult for microorganisms, fungi, and other pathogens like Salmonella or the bacteria that causes botulism to grow – stuff that would cause the meat to go bad. The salt causes osmosis, which effectively dehydrates and kills the bad stuff.
OK, so what does all of this have to do with church? It sounds great for a church potluck, but what about the worship service, which is what we’re here for. Well, Jesus is telling His disciples, they are to be, we are to be, the salt of the earth. He’s saying the world is dead and decaying, and unless something is done, unless salt is applied, it is going to turn rancid and putrefy – that’s what untreated, unrefrigerated meat does.
And He’s saying the world is dark. It needs light. And that is one role of the church and of individual Christians, to be light in a dark world.
So let me ask: do you agree with Jesus’ assessment? This is critical. Because He is saying there is a problem and that those who follow, serve, worship, and obey Him are part of the answer. But if you don’t see the problem, you won’t value the answer. It won’t mean much to you. So, do you think the world is dark and rotting? Do you think it needs some salt to prevent or slow the rotting, do you think it needs some light to drive out the darkness? Have you experienced the rot or the darkness in your life? There are beautiful moments in life to be sure, wonderful moments and people, but have you seen dark side too?
Even if you personally think everything is just fine, look around and listen a bit and you’ll discover that there all kinds of people, Christians and non-Christians who are in absolute agreement: this life is unbalanced, unfair, hurtful, mean, even down right oppressive, depraved, and sadistic at times.
The world is full of people who feel like outsiders; people on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum who feel left out and left behind by the ‘progress’ of the world. Look at our last election – you had liberals and conservatives who felt their voices weren’t being heard by their parties, their concerns weren’t being addressed, and there was anger, there was protest. You have people worried about when a robot is going to take their job. People driven from their homes by civil war and terrorist groups. People who feel crushed by social, political, and economic forces that they have no control over or ability to overcome. They feel powerless to change the system and are increasingly tempted to look to pain killers and drugs to numb themselves, or violent resistance and protest as a final resort. They would be happy to tell you the world is rotting and dark.
But what can be done? The point Jesus is making is: the world cannot save itself. It needs salt to be applied from the outside, it needs light to shine and darkness cannot create light. The world needs intervention, it needs an antiseptic – it needs you and me as we follow Christ – because it cannot save itself. Even when the world makes great advances, it still suffers.
In the late 18 and early 1900’s people believed science and technology were going to save the world. They saw all kinds of inventions, seemingly magical things like electricity and telegraphs, telephones, phonographs, and automobiles and airplanes it was all wonderful and you had all these advances in science and medicine and people believed, they honestly believed these inventions were going to solve all the world’s problems – that science and technology and education were going to be the saviors of the world. And some people still believe that today.
This is what was called the ‘modern era’ and people had great hope for their modern inventions and discoveries. But you often hear the term post-modern nowadays because the bubble of enthusiasm was deflated as people became disillusioned with all these new discoveries. It turned out they may have changed a lot of things about life, but they brought a lot of problems too. Industrialization produced new material goods, but then materialism set in and the evil in the hearts of greedy men was exposed as factory owners exploited labor forces in pursuit of greater and greater production levels with all these fancy machines and all of this electricity. And then, the world was drawn into the first World War where all of this new technology and manufacturing of machinery was used to wipe out millions of men on the battlefields of Europe.
According to the Department of Defense, there have been 59,574 US casualties in all conflicts since September 11. Now, fifty-nine thousand is a tremendous and terrible number, but the total number of casualties from World War I approached 40 million human beings as things like machine guns, airplanes, and tanks entered the battlefield for the first time in large numbers and we came up with terrifyingly efficient ways of piercing human flesh.
Half of those were injuries, half were deaths, and the deaths were split almost evenly among the military and civilian populations – in other words, nearly 10 million military personnel and an another 10 million civilians died on top of the 20 million who lost arms or legs, were paralyzed, or in some manner bore the marks of war in their bodies for the rest of their lives. It was a shocking revelation that apparently, all we had done with all of these ‘advances’ and inventions, was to become really good at hurting and oppressing one another.
Today things are equally as bad, just in different ways. We come up with all kinds of sophisticated communications technologies and networks and then use them to hack into banking systems, shut down energy grids, and influence elections. Groups like ISIS use You-tube to show the world the beheading or burning alive of infidels. Kids in middle school send each other graphic pictures of themselves, and 9, 10, and 11 year olds are using Google to find pornography online. So, was Jesus right? Is the world a dark place? Does it need light? Is the world rotting? Does it need salt?
Of course it is, and it always has been. This is the effect of sin on human beings individually and in general – this is what happens when people turn their backs on God and try to live without Him or try to craft a god of their own choosing.
So, how should we respond, what should we do differently? Well, thousands of years ago, God communicated a perfect way of living to Moses who delivered it to the Jews. God told them: this is Who I am, and this is how you are supposed to live. I am coming to you, I will do special things for you and through you, but this is how you are supposed to live.
This is what Jesus is referring to when He brings up the Law and the Prophets and says they’re not going away. These were the Scriptures that guided the daily lives of the Jews including groups like the scribes and the Pharisees who took special pains to attempt to live “good” lives. The problem was, even people who were super dedicated to being really religious still weren’t good enough to make God’s cut. Notice Jesus said your righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Fortunately for us, Jesus also says that when you come to Him and admit your sin, when you surrender your life to His leadership and service, He gives His righteousness to you, and as we see here, He actually fulfilled the whole law.
When you go back and look at those instructions God gave to Moses, you find they fall into three main categories. God gave a moral law to govern our actions and daily lives. He gave a civil law and He gave a ceremonial law that related to how people were to worship God.
In other words, and this is VERY important to understand: when we speak of “the law” we’re talking about God’s instructions for how people should live, and God’s instructions are an expression of His nature and desire. When Jesus came, He perfectly lived all of this out, He fulfilled it, He lived exactly as the Father desired.
But only Jesus could do that. The Law was meant to help people see that we need a Savior, Galatians tells us it’s a tutor to bring us to Christ. It wasn’t meant to be 30-day spiritual self-help plan. And here is where the Pharisees and others went wrong – they focused on the letter of the law and thought it was enough, they tried to find a way to be able to say – they did it, they conquered it, they upheld the law.
So, for instance, God said don’t commit adultery. And they said, OK we won’t do that, and that makes us good, right? But then Jesus came along and explained – oh, sure, you haven’t actually committed physical adultery, but have you looked at a woman to lust after her? Have you committed adultery in your heart? You might not be rotting on the outside, but are you rotting on the inside? And He used the imagery of white-washed tombs – they like nice from a distance, but inside they’re still full of dead bones.
When you start to look at God’s demands for morality at the level of the heart and the mind, the level of your desires and thoughts, you quickly realize how hard it is to keep the law. Yet Jesus did – He was always in step with the Father, He always did what pleased the Father. And this is why, when the disciples said, “Show us the Father,” He was able to say – I’ve been with you this long and still you want to see the Father? I’ve been showing you what the Father is like this whole time. “He who has seen Me, has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). The moral aspects of the law teach us how to act, and Jesus acted like God, because He is – He fulfilled the law for us.
Well, what about the civil aspects of the Law? They all fell apart because the people didn’t faithfully follow God so that by the time Jesus arrived, the Jews were under Roman political rule and were looking for someone to liberate them. Jesus came as their King, (remember the triumphal entry?), but He was rejected. So He introduced a new system of government: the Church – a global entity without geographic boarders with Christ as the head and Christians as citizens so that, as Americans, we have a President who serves a four year term, but we also have a King whose throne will never pass away. And the law that governs this new kingdom is greatly condensed: love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, and everything else falls into place. In fact, Jesus said these two commandments summarize all of the Law and the Prophets (Matt 22:40).
Which leaves us with the ceremonial aspects of the Law dealing with how to worship God. This included the whole system of priests and offerings and sacrifices. And now, when you read the New Testament one of the themes you find repeated everywhere is: Jesus came to fulfill all the ceremony we see in the Old Testament. He is our High Priest, He is our sacrificial Lamb, He is our offering and our Passover. Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the ceremonial system of Judaism and is the real thing that all the symbolism and patterns pointed to. But He didn’t wipe all of that stuff out when He came, He didn’t say, “Oh don’t worry about any of that, it was all wrong.” No, He fulfilled it. He said all of that was to help you understand Me – when you understand the Passover, suddenly you appreciate Calvary even more.
And so, today, the law still has value to us, because it teaches us what God is like, and what His expectations are. Commands like honor your father and mother, do not worship idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t steal, don’t lie, are still in effect – they are summarized as “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor,” but the details are still there and they’re still valid. In fact, the Scriptures plainly tell us drunkards, thieves, people who engage in sexual misconduct of all kinds, idolaters and others will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10). Your life should be known by righteousness as you follow Christ, not the particular sin that you so often indulge in.
But the only way you’re ever going to be righteous enough is to come to God and be accepted through Christ who offers to cover you with His own righteousness. No one, not even the most dedicated of the scribes and Pharisees were good enough, righteous enough, on their own.
Christians, it’s no good wishing the world was different. This is the way it is, but we are invited to make a difference. When we follow God and allow Him to teach us, equip us, and assign us, when we submit to and obey Him, we give the world something it does not have: we give it flavor, we give it light, we give it good works that glorify our Father.
One commentator noted:
“Our Christianity should be visible in the way we treat a shop assistant across the counter, in the way we order a meal in a restaurant, in the way we treat our employer, in the way we play a game or drive or park a car, in the daily language we use, in the daily literature we read. A Christian should be just as much a Christian in the factory, the workshop, the shipyard, the mine, the schoolroom, the surgery suite, the kitchen, the golf course, the playing field as he is in the church. Jesus did not say, ‘You are the light of the Church’; He said, “You are the light of the world,” and in a man’s life in the world his Christianity should be evident to all.”
Have you ever entered a conversation and suddenly people stopped talking about a subject, or said, “I’m sorry.” Or switched words and used others in stead? The presence of a Christian can have that effect.
Have you ever spoken up and later had people come to you and say, “I’m so glad you said something.” We need people who are willing to be a preservative, to be a light, to oppose darkness and rot. There are people in the world around you who want your light, want your guidance, want your example to follow, but they’re too intimidated to stand up or change or resist on their own.
This morning Jesus is calling you to be the kind of person who makes it easier for others to be good.
If you sense a difference between you and the world, a difference between you and your friends or family or the people in your class or group, or on your team – that difference you sense is good, it’s supposed to be there, it means you have something to offer. You’re not just meant to live for heaven, you’re meant to have an impact on the things that are going wrong here.
Listen to what God’s Word has to say to Christians about the world and their place in it:
1 Peter 2:9 God has … “called you out of darkness into His marvelous light”
Col 1:13 [God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, 14 in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.
Rom 13:12 Let us cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light.
Christian, you need to know, you have a role to play in life. You are valuable. You’re essential, EVEN if you don’t feel it. You are there to preserve, to shine light, to pray and intercede. You are essential to the preservation of the world. And I know that’s hard at times, it’s hard to be different. It’s hard to stick out. But there is a difference between you and the others around you because there is a difference between them and Jesus. And the more you reflect Him, the greater that gap is going to be. They’re perishing, they’re in darkness and God wants to preserve and guide them through you. He wants to use that difference for their good.
So, let me ask: do you really care about the people around you? Do you believe some of the things they’re interested in are harmful or hurtful? And if so, then doesn’t your ‘purity’ or ‘prudishness’ or innocence or holiness, the difference between you and them, actually help them? Yes, it’s awkward, but are you are keeping them from sinking?
The world is dark and polluted, rotting and decaying, and even the most religious people in it have no hope apart from Christ, but if you receive your righteousness from God through Christ, you can reflect it to others and be a source of blessing, preservation, guidance, light, and hope for them, and you bring pleasure to your Heavenly Father in the process.
This is the life God wants you to live – a life of knowing Him and making Him known. A life of being helpful, genuinely helpful to those around you, even when if it stings when the salt gets in their wounds, even if it’s blinding when the light shines in their eyes – you get to be one of the ways they learn about God, and you get to be one of the ways God protects them, ministers to them, and calls them to Himself.
As you prepare to leave here today, I want to encourage you to ask God: where does the world need salt and light right now, and how can you provide it by following Jesus?