Salt and Light – Matthew 5:13-16
As we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, this post will look at Matthew 5:13-16. In the Beatitudes, Jesus describes the characteristics of His followers. In these verses, He is instructing how they are to interact and impact the world around them.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (HCSB)
In this passage, there are two main themes, salt and light. In addition, there are two supporting themes; the ideas of being thrown out and trampled on and a lampstand/city on a hill. Each of these themes will now be looked at in greater detail.
You are the salt of the earth.
Salt – There are seven different ways to understand the meaning of “salt” in this passage. Three or four are more apparent and contain a stronger argument for accepting their meaning. However, all could be applied to the understanding of this passage. Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
- Salt is connected with the idea of purity or purifying something. Joining this understanding with the word means that Jesus is instructing His followers to be examples of purity. Even our speech should be pure. Paul addresses this in Col 4:6, Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. In today’s world, standards, in general, tend to be low. However, Christians are called to the highest of standards in their lives. This is especially true for honesty and moral issues where temptations exist all around us (Barclay).
- Salt is a preservative. Before refrigeration was used, salt was the principal method for preserving food and preventing it from rotting.
- Apart from Jesus, the world is rotten with sin; it is spiritually dead.
- Jesus calls for the disciples to arrest corruption and moral decay in the world.
- Salt doesn’t do any good sitting on a shelf; it must be applied to be effective.
- Christians must allow God to “rub” them into the world.
- It means we must be “Christian” wherever we are and whatever we do (Boice).
- Just as salt was rubbed into meat or fish to slow the decay, the disciples influence the moral decay of the world in the same way.
- Christians are called to have a “preserving” effect, through the power of the Holy Spirit, on the world around them. Christians must be the cleansing effect on society by defeating corruption and making it easier for others to be good (Barclay).
- Salt is not needed in heaven, but it is necessary on the earth.
- Disciples perform God’s work on the earth.
- The lost world needs the influence of Christ’s church (Weber).
- Salt is added to food to enhance its flavor.
- God’s Kingdom and everything about it is far from boring; it is a joyous and fulfilling life.
- But followers can live like a spiritually dead person.
- Believers are called to live according to their new nature, not the old self.
- Christians should be filled with joy, purpose, and hope regardless of the circumstances, they are different, and that should be readily visible.
- The Christian who does not live according to their “salt nature” is useless is advancing God’s Kingdom (Weber).
- Christians are to lend flavor to a flavorless world through the power of Jesus and the Gospel message.
- The world will never be satisfied without Jesus.
- Our lives should be a testimony of the fullness and satisfaction of living in union with Jesus (Boice).
- Our lives must exhibit a difference from the lost of the world; if it doesn’t, are we any different than they are?
- Salt is an essential element of the human diet added as a seasoning. The disciples would “season” the world around them (Wilkins).
- Salt makes you thirsty.
- As a disciple, do you make anyone thirsty for Jesus?
- Do you exhibit joy, satisfaction, and peace, even when things are not going well?
- Doing so makes the lost “thirsty” for what we have.
- Our responsibility is not to satisfy our thirst; it is to point others to Jesus, so their thirst is quenched.
- When we do that, Jesus’ life and character will flow out of us, and others will see and be drawn to it (Boice).
- As a disciple, do you make anyone thirsty for Jesus?
- Salt is readily available.
- Jesus is saying He delights in using the common, not the special.
- He didn’t say we were the gold or platinum of the earth.
- It is from the common things that God brings the greatest glory to His name 1 Cor 1:26-29, 26 Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. 27 Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. 28 God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world —what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, 29 so that no one can boast in His presence.
- In small quantities, salt could be used as a fertilizer. The disciples would enhance the growth of God’s work in the world (Wilkins).
- Viewed in a broad sense, salt was a vital necessity for everyday life. In the same way, the disciples are vitally important to the world in a general religious sense (Wilkins).
- In addition, salt was part of an Old Testament covenant with God as outlined in Leviticus 2:13, You are to season each of your grain offerings with salt; you must not omit from your grain offering the salt of the covenant with your God. You are to present salt with each of your offerings.
But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled on by men.
Just as “salt” has numerous meanings in this passage, “losing saltiness” also has several meanings. However, Jesus is not talking about a true follower losing their salvation. Let’s look at the idea of “losing saltiness” in detail.
- Losing saltiness means to “become defiled.” The believer is no longer pure in their actions or motivations.
- Salt can lose its “saltiness” by being mixed with other substances and becoming worthless as a preservative. If a follower of Jesus conforms to the norms of the world, they are being mixed and lose their saltiness.
- Believers who fail to arrest corruption become worthless as agents of change and redemption.
- Christians may make peace with the world and avoid persecution, but they are then rendered impotent to fulfill their divinely ordained role and will ultimately be rejected by those they sought compromise with (Blomberg).
- Jesus may be engaging in hyperbole here. Genuine disciples would never lose their saltiness, but those who were not truly transformed would be exposed as their external covered wore off, and their true nature was revealed. These false disciples would then be trampled on.
- However, in Jewish synagogues, there was a custom that if a Jew became an unbeliever and then returned to the faith, before being accepted back into the synagogue, they must, in penitence, lie across the doorway and invite people to step on their back as they entered. Some early Christian churches adopted that practice for a period of time. In effect saying, “trample upon me (salt) which has lost its flavor.”
14You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Light is used to illuminate the darkness, expose what is around us, reveal the truth, and expose danger. The contrast between light and dark is a profound metaphorical contrast between good and evil.
- Isaiah talks about Jesus being a light to the world in Isaiah 49:6, He says, “It is not enough for you to be my Servant raising up the tribes of Jacob and restoring the protected ones of Israel. I will also make you a light for the nations, to be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”
- Jesus is the light of the world, John 8:12, Then Jesus spoke to them again: “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.” John 9:5, As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
- The “world” is spiritually dark.
- Many prefer the “dark.”
- But most will not admit it.
- Evil is an irreducible component of man.
- Jesus’ life and message of salvation bring light to those in darkness.
- The “light” of Jesus reveals evil and sin in the world, and there are only two possible reactions.
- Hate Christ. If you don’t turn to Him, the implication is that you turn from Him.
- You realize your depravity and fallen nature and turn and embrace Him, allowing Jesus to bear your sins and transform you.
- Light is not inherent in the believer; it is a reflected light, the character and nature of God.
- They can reflect the light to the extent they receive it. This requires being open to receiving instruction (light) and obedient in following it.
- Then reflect it to others.
- Jesus’ followers should reflect the light of Jesus.
- The Christian acts metaphorically as the moon; the moon reflects the sun into the darkness.
- The question is, what type of moon are we?
- Are we a full moon that reflects the full nature of Jesus?
- Are we a half or a quarter moon?
- Or a new moon, invisible.
- The same question applies to the church at large (Boice).
- Christians must let their good works shine in a lost world, so that others may praise God.
These works (fruit) should be viewed as fruit of repentance glorifying God and not self-glorification (Blomberg) Matthew 3:8, Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance.
- It is a present state, “you are,” not a future promise.
- Believers who don’t shine their light are going against their new nature as God’s new creation.
- Believers are to make sure nothing comes between them and the source of the light (Weber).
- 2 Cor 3:18, We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit.
- Phil 2:13-16, For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. 14 Do everything without grumbling and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world. 16 Hold firmly to the message of life. Then I can boast in the day of Christ that I didn’t run or labor for nothing.
- Jesus leverages the Old Testament Jewish understanding of the concept of light:
- Jerusalem was a light to the Gentiles.
- Famous Rabbis were called a “lamp of Israel.”
- People never lit their own light.
- God lit Israel’s lamp.
- The light that shown from a nation (Israel) or God’s people (Jews) was a borrowed light.
- A city on a hill can’t be hidden. It is easily seen from a long distance. This is in direct opposition to a city in a valley. It can’t be seen unless you search for it.
- Lamps provide the most benefit when they are located where they can provide the most illumination.
- Light is something meant to be seen. Christians and Christianity are meant to be seen. There should be no secret disciples or invisible churches. A Christian should be more visible in the world than they are when physically inside the church. Jesus said His followers were the light of the world, not the light of the church.
- Light is a guide. Christians are to illuminate the way to Christ by living as examples. This often requires making a stand against a particular action or activity and requires moral strength and courage.
- A light can be a warning. We are to act when we observe others heading down a road of despair. However, this must be done in the right manner. Warnings are not to done in anger, irritation, criticism, condemnation, or in a manner to hurt. The only way to be effective is to warn in a spirit of love (Barclay).
- The lost need to see our good deeds, but those deeds also need to be attractive. It should be done in the spirit of joy and not with a cold heart.
- The deeds are to draw attention to God, not ourselves.
- Christians are never to think of what they have done. Instead, they are to think about what God has enabled them to do.
- Matthew 6:1-6, Be careful not to practice your righteousnessin front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.2 So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward!3 But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.5 “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward!6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Application: How can we apply the message to our lives?
- Are we living as the salt of the earth?
- Do we practice purity? We can ask this question in many areas of our lives; the music we listen to, the shows or movies we watch, the clothes we wear (to include any messages printed on them), what we put in our bodies, the conversations or jokes we tell or tolerate. We can, and should, examine each of these areas. If we let a little spoilage enter our lives, it can lead to a bigger problem that soon consumes us. At what point do we say, “hmm, I went too far?” The best solution is never to let it happen in the first place.
- Do we confront the sin in the world in a manner that is constructive, rather than destructive? Not saying anything about a situation is the same as condoning it, which means you accept it. There are only two sides in the eternal spiritual struggle. Choosing to not fight against sin is the same as being on the side of sin.
- Do our lives reflect the joy of being a Christian, and do we draw others to Jesus through our lives? There are two Gospels, the informational and the incarnational. Often, we are more effective with the incarnational method.
- Are we reflecting the light of Christ to a lost and dying world?
- Are we a new, quarter, half, three quarter, or full moon? It may not be possible to always be in the full moon state, but we should never be in the new moon.
- Do the lost around us even see a difference between the unbeliever and us? It is a sad statement that many supposed Christians are no different than those who don’t follow Christ. If we don’t reflect a difference, why should they even be interested in finding out about Jesus?
- Do we let the things of this world block the light of Jesus? Do our activities and friends make it difficult to spend time in Scripture, prayer, and quiet time? There are many “innocent” idols in our modern world. However, the definition of an idol is anything that prevents us from focusing on and spending time with God. Root out the idols in your life.
- Give praise to God in all things.
- It should never be about us unless it’s our testimony. Even then, the focus must quickly shift to where we were to where God has brought us through His grace.
- It’s not about being a better you; it’s about being a better follower of Jesus and living our lives to glorify God, spread the Gospel, and build the Kingdom.
- Never think you don’t matter in the spiritual battle between good and evil. God often uses the small things and small people. God can and will use us to accomplish His work in the world, if we submit to Him. Often, the smaller you become, the more effective His work in you will be. Our lives are to be a picture frame within which Jesus is to be seen. God is not interested in us being a gold or beautifully carved frame. He wants us to be empty frames because when we come to God with an empty frame, He will put Jesus there. And when people look at you, they will see Jesus.