“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.” – Matthew 5:1-12 ESV
Here, having completed His discussion of the beatitudes, Jesus begins to use the personal pronoun “you” for the very first time. But to whom is He addressing it? Is He talking to the four disciples: Simon, Andrew, James and John? Is He speaking to the more serious-minded followers within His crowd? Is He specifically addressing Jews as the chosen people of God? It would seem that Jesus is speaking to the “blessed”, those who will be approved by God and experience His kingdom life. Jesus has been explaining what the life of the blessed will look like, now He addresses what the goal of that life will be: To influence and impact the world. But in a radical and revolutionary way that is focused on the kingdom of heaven, not earthly kings and physical realms.
In a world in which selfishness and self-centeredness reign, Jesus brings a message that promotes a selfless lifestyle, where emphasis on “me” gives way to a passion for “Him”. The goal becomes God’s kingdom and the message of His Son. The mindset of those who are approved by God moves from a me-centered, inward focus to an outward, other-oriented one where to mercy received from God is shared with all those around them. In other words, the kingdom life of which Jesus is speaking becomes about giving and influencing the world around you, rather than trying to see what you can get out of it. The kingdom life, the life of the blessed, is not individualistic and isolated, but designed to witness to the world around it. It is intended to make an impact.
To make His point, Jesus uses two metaphors: Salt and light.
“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.” – Matthew 5:13 ESV
Is Jesus saying the four disciples are already salt? Is this His expectation of the Jews in His audience?
“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.” – Matthew 5:14-16 ESV
Is Jesus saying they are already light? Do they already have the light of Christ within them? It would appear that Jesus is speaking prophetically, referring to those whom God would give Him as His followers. The apostle John would later recall the words Jesus prayed in the garden on the night He would be betrayed.
“I have revealed you to the ones you gave me from this world. They were always yours. You gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything I have is a gift from you, for I have passed on to them the message you gave me. They accepted it and know that I came from you, and they believe you sent me.
“My prayer is not for the world, but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. All who are mine belong to you, and you have given them to me, so they bring me glory. Now I am departing from the world; they are staying in this world, but I am coming to you. Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are.” – John 17:6-11 NLT
There would be some who followed Jesus who believed in who He claimed to be. But there number was small. The vast majority of those who were in the crowd the day Jesus gave His message on the hillside would later leave Him. They would refuse to accept Him as their Messiah. They would deny their need for Him as their Savior. But there would be those who truly believed Him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). They would be the ones who had the unique pleasure and thrill of seeing Him appear in their midst in His resurrected form. They would be the ones He told to return to the upper room and wait for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This small group of men and women would be transformed into salt and light, agents of change, who would powerfully and radically influence the world around them. The kingdom life, the life of spiritual poverty, meekness, mourning, mercy, purity and peacemaking, will set them apart from the world around them.
The salt (the Church) The earth (the world)
Preserves Prone to decay
Seasons Spiritually bland
The light (the Church) The world (sinful man)
Exposes sin Loves darkness
Reflects the light of Christ Marked by darkness
Lights the way to Christ Blinded by darkness
Jesus is describing the church age, the era that will follow His death, burial and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is the period in which we find ourselves living. When the Holy Spirit came, the church was born. The disciples were empowered from on high, just as Jesus had told them. They were transformed into salt and light, agents of change in a world filled with decay and darkness. They spoke with power. They began to preach the message of salvation found through faith in Christ alone. And later on, the apostle Paul would take that same message to the Gentiles, revealing the truth that Jesus came to redeem men from every tribe, nation and tongue.
Salt was a staple in that day. It was essential for life. It preserved meat. It prevented decay. If added flavor to what would have otherwise been bland and tasteless. Jesus is saying that the blessed will have influence in the world. But He warns against losing your saltiness. But can salt really become un-salty? No. But it can become diluted and contaminated. It can lose its effectiveness. And the apostle John tells us how.
Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. – 1 John 2:15 NLT
Our distinctiveness as followers of Christ can be diluted and diminished by this world. We can allow our love for the things of this world to overwhelm our saltiness. We can lose our influence and find ourselves trampled down or overcome by the ways of this world.
What about light? It is intended to illuminate the darkness that surrounds it. Light exposes what is invisible to the eye in the dark. That is why Paul later wrote:
Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT
The lives of those approved by God will impact others. And the result will be conviction. That conviction will lead some to salvation, while others will respond in anger and resentment, resulting in persecution, reviling and slander, just as Jesus warns. We are not to hide our light, in an effort to escape suffering. We are not to prefer darkness to the light, by hiding our light under a basket. We are to set it out for all to see. The apostle Paul tells us:
For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Cotinthians 4:6-7 NLT
The unique thing about light is that it cannot be overcome by darkness. Darkness is nothing more than an absence of light. Jesus came to bring light into a dark world, and we are to be His agents, His representatives, allowing His light to flow from us into the darkness that surrounds us. Once again, the apostle Paul gives us some powerful words of exhortation:
Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. – Philippians 2:15-16 NLT
We are to be salt and light. We are to be agents of change, forces for good in a world full of crooked and perverse people. Our beliefs should change our behavior. The presence of the Spirit of God within us should make a lasting impact on the world around us. But has our saltiness become diluted? Have we allowed our light to become hidden and ineffective? The kingdom life is meant to be a radically different life. It is meant to make an impact and leave a mark on the world around it. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. If you have been approved by God because you have placed your faith in His Son, you are a citizen of His kingdom and a child in His family. You are to live like a child of that kingdom while you find yourself temporarily having to exist in this one.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.