The Sermon on the Mount, Part 14

How to be Salt and Light - four friends strengthening each other and bringing light into the darkness

How to be Salt and Light


You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt becomes flavorless, how can it be made salty again? 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–they put it on the lamp stand so that it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they can see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus’s disciples were probably shocked to hear him describe them with such lofty titles as “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” The men and women on the hillside were new believers. How could Jesus describe these often confused and perpetually fumbling followers as the salt of the earth and the light of the world?

Jesus could confidently describe his apprentices as salt and light because Jesus is the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

His disciples are salt and light because they are identified with him. The men and women on the hillside may have been full of wayward beliefs and practices, but they had given their heart and allegiance to Jesus, and they trusted in God for all their needs. In other words, they followed the lead of their master– Jesus frequently confessed that he was completely dependent on his Heavenly Father to sustain him.

The metaphors of salt and light also give us insight into what the beatitudes are all about: the beatitudes are identity statements–first about Jesus, then about those who follow him. Jesus is the salt. Jesus is the light.

  • The apostle John opened his gospel with this declaration: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4).
  • John uses the image again in chapter 3 when he explains why Jesus was so hated and persecuted: “God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light because their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants” (3:19-21).
  • Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus applied the image directly to himself: “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness because you will have the light that leads to life” (8:12).

So before we look into the finer points of what Jesus is teaching, let’s consider the most foundational lesson here: Jesus is describing who he is. He is speaking about his identity and the identity of those who will become his apprentices. Jesus’s emphasis is not on what we do, but on who we are in him. That’s why Jesus’s statement in John 9:5 is so interesting. He tells his disciples, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Jesus made that claim 2,000 years ago. He is no longer in the world physically, but he continues to be the light of the world because he is shining his light through his followers. It is essential that we understand this connection, or we will never comprehend how weare the light of the world. In and of ourselves, Christians have no light to illuminate the world’s spiritual darkness, but in Christ we are light because he is light.

What might that look like in everyday life? The images of salt and light hold no mystery: they describe how Christians will influence their neighbors in positive ways. How does that happen? What makes it possible for disciples of Jesus to help others?

  • The most obvious lesson is found in how salt and light are fundamentally different than the environments they move into. Light is not a type of darkness. It is completely different.
  • The second big lesson comes from the first: not only are salt and light different, they are perceived to be different by the environment they enter. When salt is added to raw fish or meat, there is a reaction. The chemical composition of the food begins to change and the process of decay is slowed. When light comes into the darkness, there is a reaction–the darkness disappears. And Jesus says the same thing will happen when his apprentices are in the world. Their presence will cause a reaction. Sometimes the reaction will be positive, and sometimes the response will be persecution. But there will be a reaction and there will be change.

And that’s why Jesus came–he came to change life as we know it. He didn’t try to place his values alongside the values of his culture. Instead, he set up a radically different culture that is based on the values described in the beatitudes: his disciples will be humble, repentant, merciful, gentle, godly peacemakers, and as they live out these values they will become salt and light in their neighborhoods. Those around them will notice the difference, and they will be faced with a choice. Some will be drawn by the light, and others will be offended by its brightness. That’s the way it was with Jesus, and that’s the way he says it will be for his people. They will be different, and they will be recognized as different.

Jesus created the church to be the kind of nurturing culture he describes in the sermon. Some churches are admirable examples of Jesus’s grace and goodness, but I think there is cause for concern about contemporary Christian culture as a whole. I say that because I see and hear the same things from Christians that I see and hear from everyone else: there is complaining and blaming and fears about everything from terrorists to the economy. Many who profess to be Christians are quick to judge and gossip and believe the worst about others. We enjoy the same off-color humor and “reality” shows as everyone else. We often worry about the future and feel guilty about our past. We are busy and in a hurry all the time, and most of us can’t find the “off” switch. The list goes on and on. Have you also noticed this, or is it just me?

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said, “but if the salt becomes flavorless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” Here’s what Jesus is saying: if we who identify ourselves as Christians are content to just blend into our culture and embrace its values, we won’t be mocked or persecuted. We will simply be ignored because we are irrelevant. May the Lord give us eyes to see who we are in Christ.


Next: I came not to abolish, but to fulfill.

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