When you visit Rome today, on the top of just about every building in the modern city, you’ll find crosses.
Everywhere you look there are crosses.
But if we could go back in time to about 64 A.D., we’d find the city of Rome nearly burned to the ground by Nero. Imagine we’re there. Nero needs a scapegoat, and he decides to blame the destruction on this new Jewish cult from Palestine. The cult is called the Christians. So Nero announces that the Christians burned the city of Rome, and he sends his henchmen throughout the city, rounding up the Christians. Their fate is grim — death by burning and by lions. Nero makes sport out of persecuting the Christians.
And yet, within 300 years, there were Christian crosses everywhere in Rome. How did that happen? It happened because the followers of Jesus embraced the teachings of Jesus at such a significant level that they took the label that he gave them seriously — disciples. And over time they changed the world.
Jesus introduced the value system, the worldview, the habits and the behaviors that were going to turn the world upside down. He described his followers using two word pictures.
First, he said: “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).
Salt is a preservative. Jesus challenged his followers by saying they were the preservative of the entire earth. If you don’t preserve it, the earth rots and culture begins to stink. Through Jesus, we learned that God actually loves us. And suddenly, we each have value, and we have worth. Therefore, I better be careful how I treat you, and you better be careful how you treat me. “By this one thing all people will know that you’re my follower: how you love, how you treat, how you appreciate, how you care for one another,” Jesus said.
Second, Jesus said his followers are to be the “light of the world, a city placed on a hill that cannot be hidden. ... In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14, 16).
Our response as Christians often sounds like: “Leave me alone. I don’t want to be the salt and light of the world. I just want to be a Christian and go to heaven when I die. I prayed the prayer. Now I just want to raise my family and go to heaven when I die.” But the teachings of Jesus say, no, I don’t know who taught you that. You’re the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.
This is so powerful. Jesus wants our good deeds to be so extraordinary that people begin to connect the dots between our lifestyle and our father in heaven. Jesus wants our light to shine to make people go: “What’s up with you?” And when it’s appropriate, you connect the dots for them so that they begin to give credit not to you for your good deeds, but your father in heaven.
In the first century, those followers of Jesus got after this. They lived their lives in such a way that the non-believing Roman-Greek community began to connect the dots. And in a matter of just a few hundred years, the world turned upside down, not because of good preaching, not because of good teaching, but because of men and women who followed the teachings of Jesus and took seriously the admonition to be salt and light.