In Matt. 5:10-12 Jesus had warned His prospective followers to expect persecution. "Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake" (v. 11; NKJV). And so it has been. Down through the centuries countless Christians have suffered and died for their faith. The trail of blood is long indeed.
But this raises a question: Why? What is the point of suffering and hardship? What is accomplished by exposure to ridicule and abuse, or even death?
It is at this point that Jesus turns our attention to the role of the church in society. And to explain that role He uses two homey illustrations.
In the first illustration He says "You are the salt of the earth" (v. 13). The salt is used to flavor the food. But it does so because it has a distinctive flavor of its own. Thus Jesus asks a pointed question: "but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?" If the loses its flavor, it loses its function. It is, to put the matter bluntly, worthless. "It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men."
We live in a sin-cursed world. Evil abounds on every side. It is the role of Jesus' followers, a persecuted minority in society, to be the "salt," to bring out the flavor of human life, to be an example of what society ought to be like. And in order to do that, the church has to have a distinctive "flavor" of its own. It has to form a contrast with the surrounding society, and when it becomes too much like the world it ceases to perform a worthwhile function. If the church accommodates itself to the world in order to win the world to Christ, it is the world that has won the church to itself.
Jesus then goes on to give a second illustration. "You are the light of the world" (v. 14), He said. "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 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" (vv. 14,15). If a light is to serve a useful purpose it must be visible. It is ludicrous to light a lamp and then cover it up so that no one can see it. It defeats the whole purpose of light.
So too the church's function is to be a light shining in darkness. Human society has rebelled against God and strayed from the truth. It has sunk deep into sin and degradation. Granted, many people think that they are well off – their lives are filled with work and play, material possessions and entertainment. But inside they are hollow men and women, with nothing to live for that the fleeting pleasures of this life. It is up to believers to show them a better way, the way to lasting peace and joy. But we can do it only if we are living the life ourselves. Our words mean nothing, and even worse than nothing, if our lives are not concrete examples of what we preach. We accomplish nothing by trying to be worldly and sophisticated like all the rest. Rather, we need to be living examples of faith, hope and love. It must not be an empty charade, but something real and genuine that flows naturally from within us. Let it shine, let it shine!