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Think of the struggle we are witnessing in our culture over the question of identity. Today, people are on an endless quest of finding an identity in those things that they believe will make them happy. The culture tells people to turn inward and follow the desires of the heart to define one’s identity. And once people believe they have found their true identity, notice how passionate they are to make it known.
With all the challenges surrounding identity, we often tell Christians to be careful of these alternative identities proposed by the world and to pursue the identity we have in Christ. But what is our identity in Christ? Have we thrown this phrase around too loosely without helping people understand precisely what we are talking about? It is not enough simply to tell people that they have a new identity in Jesus. Great attention needs to be given to help people understand what this identity is so that it will be valued and exercised. When we understand how Jesus defines our identity, that understanding forms the foundation for how we are to live in this world as His followers.
jesus defines our identity
As Jesus opens His Sermon on the Mount, He declares that Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It’s easy to pass over this statement without realizing that Jesus defines our identity as Christians in this world with the metaphors of salt and light. In the Beatitudes that precede His definition of our identity, Jesus describes what we are by God’s grace. Christians are characterized as meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers, and as those who rejoice when persecuted. The Beatitudes are not imperatives telling us how to achieve this blessedness. Jesus is describing certain qualities that define the character of true believers, who are blessed by God. In what follows, Jesus expresses how these qualities are demonstrated before the world and reveals what believers accomplish.
Jesus first describes believers as salt in this world. Salt in the ancient world was used to prevent the decay of foods and flavor them for better taste. People commonly knew that gypsum and other minerals would dilute the potency of salt and make it useless in the preservation of foods. Jesus used this familiar phenomenon with the added concern that if the salt loses its taste, it is “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt. 5:13). Believers are like salt in this world. Their distinctive character, through good works, preserves and flavors this world to prevent its decay.
The second metaphor describes believers as light in this world. I have a common first-century lamp that was used in Jewish households to provide light in their homes. The lamp is small and unassuming. One day, I put a small amount of oil in the lamp with a wick, turned off the lights, and lit the wick to experience how people in the first century, without the benefit of modern electricity, lit their homes when it was dark. This lamp, though small, enabled me to see throughout the entire room. Jesus expresses how inappropriate it would be in a dark place to hide a lamp under a bowl. The intention of light is to provide a way for people to see where they are going (John 11:9–10). This is precisely what Jesus is after in calling believers “light”: they show people the way to salvation in a dark world.
There is no question that Jesus is reacting to the hypocritical religion of the Pharisees who made public display of their religious devotion to receive the praise of men. But a strange irony is found in an insincere public display of commitment to God, since it is intended to glorify oneself in its pursuit. The effect is that of hiding the true character of a Christian; he is salt without saltiness, a lamp hidden under a bowl. All religious devotion that is not intended for the glory of God does not display a sincere witness to those who observe its superficial display. It has the effect of hiding what is true and genuine from the world.
The Pharisees in all their religious show did not lead people to glorify their Father in heaven. Jesus exposed them as hiding true religion under the false pretense of religious devotion. Jesus is concerned to describe what a believer truly is and the consequences that result in the world.
a look at a true christian
The world in which we live is blighted by sin, and people live in darkness without knowing the true way to God. People are searching, as they did at the Tower of Babel, to find a way to heaven. But Jesus specifically prayed in the High Priestly Prayer for His followers not to be taken out of the world (John 17:15). The metaphors of salt and light that Jesus uses in Matthew 5 to define our identity help us understand why believers are left on this earth.
The Lord always intended for His people to be salt and light in this world. In the Old Testament, when God made a covenant with Israel, it was often referred to as a covenant of salt (Lev. 2:13). The covenant of grace made with Abraham was intended to include all the nations of the earth, and the reference to the covenant’s being made in salt reminded Israel that they had a preserving presence among the nations as God was fulfilling His plan to bring salvation to all nations.
An appointed day is coming when Jesus will bring an end to this present world in judgment. Until that day, believers preserve this world from its ultimate decay into sin. There is a peculiar character of Christians and their presence in the world that stays what is passing away. As the author of the well-known hymn “Abide with Me” writes, “Change and decay in all around I see.” When we live as true Christians, pursuing the good works that glorify our heavenly Father, we accomplish the preservation of the world. Take Christians out of this world, and everything would quickly fall into irreparable ruin.
Likewise, Israel was designated as God’s light to the nations, a light that offered hope of the Savior to come. Isaiah 49:6 states, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Along with preserving and flavoring the world, Christians also give this world the only true Light.
Jesus said of Himself that He is the “light of the world” (John 8:12). As the Lord is our light and salvation, we as His followers are the ones through whom His light shines in this world to make Jesus known. This is the reason that Christians are designated as light in the world who are to walk as children of light (Eph. 5:8). Christians have a distinctive witness as Christ’s light. It is God who has commanded that light shine out of darkness, and our purpose is to give “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Deep within the Christian’s heart is a burden that people would know the forgiveness of sins and peace with God that Jesus brings through His life, death, and resurrection. Yes, Christians influence the world in many different ways, including political involvement, providing help to the poor, and other ways that demonstrate compassion for the needy. But the primary way that believers are light in this world is through making known the good news of the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. This hope drives the Christian in this life and provides a witness to the world of the only true light shining in darkness. Through this witness, eternal life is given to all who believe.
The overall picture in Jesus’ use of salt and light is clear: Christians preserve and flavor the world with their presence in how they live by doing good works, and they give great light to those in darkness through their witness of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfills this calling and enables the new covenant church to accomplish this vocation when believers are sincerely behaving as salt and light in this world.
Christian, this is your identity in this world: you are Jesus’ salt and light. A Christian who is not salty or who hides his light under a bowl is a contradiction in terms. Christians preserve the world and offer a message of hope, not with false displays of external piety but with a sincere love for those who need salvation. When Christians demonstrate the precious identity that they have been given in Jesus Christ, a great difference is made in this world, one that results in the glorifying of our Father who is in heaven and the salvation of people from their sins.