Salt and Light


Matthew 5:13–16 “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. 15 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. 16 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.

Our Lord in his beatitudes discussed the character of those who would be his disciples. They are a people meek and pure, concerned about sin and righteousness, and rejoice when they are persecuted for the sake of Christ. It is appropriate that the outward evidence of such character should be stated, and Jesus proceeded to do so.

   The Salt of the Earth. Because they are possessed of such characteristics the disciples of Jesus can be described as the salt of the earth. Good people must mingle with the bad in this present world, but ought to exert influence for righteousness rather than being influenced for evil. Christians are to be salt with all the automatic pervasive influence typified by that compound. There can be no question about it: decency, purity, and godly lives set an example for others and have an effect in their own quiet way in every generation. The reference to salt is not to the responsibilities of Christians teaching the gospel principles to the lost, but rather to the direct contact their manner of life makes with the society of which they are a part.

   An application of Jesus’ figure demands that we examine ourselves, asking if our lives are such that they do for society what salt does for meat. Do we exemplify the traits of discipleship to such a degree that wicked people are made uncomfortable in their wickedness and feel constrained to improve in our presence? There is no substance more distinctive than salt, and no manner of life ought to be more distinctive than the conduct of Christians. If we lose our distinctiveness we are like the salt that has lost its saltiness and is good for nothing.

   It is interesting that the entire phrase, “loses its flavor,” comes from a single Greek word. It is the same word rendered elsewhere “become foolish” and is used of a loss of wisdom. If intelligence is not used for its proper purpose it is turned from wisdom into foolishness and is good for nothing. By a figurative extension the same word describes salt that is not able to serve its normal and proper purpose; it becomes insipid and is good for nothing. When Christians cease being salty they have no purpose for existence in the world.

   In a day when refrigeration was not available, salt was valued for its ability to preserve. Salt was rubbed into the meat so that it could be kept for a long time. Salt was also used, then as now, for enhancing flavor in food. But when salt was rubbed into meat it was not absorbed by the meat so that it lost its saltiness; rather remained salty, and because of this could preserve the meat. When salt is put on food to improve its taste, the food does not destroy the salt, but the salt enriches the food. So, as disciples of the Lord Jesus we ought to overcome, improve, and help the world to be better. If instead we are overcome, degraded, and changed by the world we become fit for nothing in the eyes of the Master.

   The Light of the World. Another figure used by the Master to describe the outward evidence of discipleship is light. Light serves people and nature in many ways. It is used for guidance by one who is making his way through a darkened path or channel; for a warning of danger spots; for revealing what is otherwise hidden; and for illuminating objects that are in shadow. In nature the great light bearers warm the earth and provide for growth and health. Without stretching the figure beyond Jesus’ intent, it seems proper to say that a righteous life will serve  comparable purposes.

   The emphasis of 5:14 is the visibility of light. It is to be seen, just as a city set on a hill cannot be hid but glows so as to be seen around the countryside. If a disciple’s manner of life is fully in accord with the character described by Jesus it will be seen. It will stand out in the midst of a dark world, and its goodness will be easily distinguished from the evil all around.

   Verses 15 and 16 bring out and emphasize the disciple’s duty and his personal responsibility to make the light visible. Just as one does not light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand so that all who are present may benefit from it, so we are to quietly yet positively live in the world, not hidden away as recluses. We are to let our godly character manifest itself in good works. These works may be pursued in the family circle, in the neighborhood and community, in the school, and in the church. These works will include gentle helpfulness to those in need, the moral distinctiveness that benefits a confused generation, and preaching the good news to those burdened with despair.

   Our light is to shine to the end that people, seeing our good works, may glorify the Father. It is not the function of light, Christian light, to attract people to itself, but rather to illuminate the work of God’s grace in us, so that others will be constrained to glorify him. When we live and labor as we ought, people will be able to see that we have a Helper who enables us to be different from the world. They will thus be attracted to the One whom we claim as our Friend and our Lord.

   It is all a matter of being and doing. If we are what we ought to be, then we will do what we ought to do for Jesus’ sake and in his name.