The Character of a Disciple
by Will Washington
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
My first job in high school was at the YMCA, and one of the first tasks I had was coaching at the youth summer football camp. I remember one particular week when I was coaching 4th graders. We had just been given our scrimmage teams, and as someone who was (and still is) too competitive, I immediately evaluated my players in the hopes of having the best team of the week and achieving 4th grade YMCA football coaching glory. As I looked at my players hoping for future 5-star recruits, I quickly came to the disappointing realization that, on the surface, my team looked unathletic, small, and not a big threat to win any games. However, once the games actually began, it turned out to be the best team I ever coached because of their discipline, intelligence, and team-first mentality as they cruised to win every game. It was a clear coaching lesson to me that oftentimes, looks can be deceiving and power can come from unexpected places. They had everything they needed to make an impact on the field; their coach just didn’t realize it at first because it is easy to overvalue the wrong things.
The same concept can be true in the Christian life. After hearing Jesus’ teaching on the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12 which emphasizes things like humility, love, and trust in God as the essence of a flourishing person, it does not take us long to realize that this description of a person is radically different than the characteristics our society values in people (things like appearance, power, success, and human approval). Thus, similar to my initial doubt about my 4th grade football roster because of external appearance, it raises the question, how could disciples of Jesus who embody these countercultural qualities make any difference at all in a competitive, power-hungry world that rewards values that are quite different than those in Jesus’ value system? The people in the Beatitudes don’t seem like winners who influence society.
In the next part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a surprising answer by teaching that the character of a disciple of Jesus leads to the influence of a disciple of Jesus.
In verse 13, Jesus calls His disciples to be like salt in the world, having a seasoning and preserving effect, which implies a decaying world. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “Happiness is the great question confronting mankind. The whole world is longing for happiness, and it is tragic to observe the ways in which people are seeking it.” The things people think will bring life actually bring decay, but Jesus has graciously given life to His disciples. In a world that is upside-down, He has turned His people right-side-up and invited them to live abundantly (John 10:10). As such, we do not run from the world or neither are we contaminated by the world, but instead, we overcome evil with good as we live where God has placed us in the world (Romans 12:21).
This type of influence is only possible as Jesus changes our hearts from the inside out the more we are soaked in the good news of the Gospel. In one part of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes the process of Christian change and writes of the seemingly small moments of change in our lives, “But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.” In other words, Jesus’ intention is not mere surface-level behavior modification, but a heart that is transformed by a relationship with Him that changes us from the inside-out and sends us into the world “to follow Jesus in His mission to love people, places, and things to life” (as Scott Sauls has put it).
In verse 16, a summary verse of the section, we see that our influence depends on our character. Love, joy, and peace in Christ bring blessing to us, and God uses these things to bring salvation to others and glory to Himself. It’s not about following rules to earn God’s acceptance, but it’s a way of being in the world because God already accepts us, so we are living out of our identity as His beloved children. As promised in Ezekiel 36:26-27, the Holy Spirit changes our hearts, so it’s not about following rules, it’s that out of a changed heart that delights in Jesus and knows His delight for us, we obey Him and live differently and magnetically where He has placed us.
To bring this together with a previous devotional I wrote about Matthew 5:3, the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12) are a description of a grace-affected person and an invitation to flourishing, and the salt and light statements (Matt. 5:13-16) are the spreading of this grace and flourishing to the world through our lives and words.
This reminds me of another work by C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair in “The Chronicles of Narnia” series. Here is an interaction between Jill and Aslan the Lion:
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.”
There is no other stream than a relationship with Jesus Christ and knowing His love in the Gospel (John 7:37-38; John 14:6). As we drink deeply from the only fountain that will satisfy us, we will increasingly become sources of life with the people and in the places that God has placed us.