Salt and Light

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus says we his followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That means Christians must be much more than just ordinary, law-abiding citizens.

One of the most important themes in the Bible is that God’s people have been blessed in order to be a blessing. It’s important to remember both parts of that statement, and in the right order. As believers we recognize that our life begins when God blesses us. Before we do anything for God, we have to receive something from God. Biblical faith starts out as God’s grace. That’s why Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with all those beatitudes. Over and over he talks about the blessing God gives – freely and without constraint – to people who repent and believe. God’s blessing isn’t earned or merited. It’s a gift! The only qualification for receiving it is first recognizing your need for it and then admitting that you don’t deserve it.

But after the statement comes the demand: “We’re blessed to be a blessing.” Those who have been given God’s free grace are expected to be giving to others in response. We have been blessed by God because of nothing in ourselves but we have not been blessed for nothing. We have been shown God’s gracious favor so that we may become agents of grace for other people.

So after the beatitudes, Jesus proceeds to tell us in the Sermon on the Mount about the kind of lives he expects us to live, the kind of people he intends us to be. Here’s how he begins:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, 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 in heaven.

Matthew 5:13-15, nrsv


Jesus uses two famous and very colorful metaphors to describe what Christians are to be. In the first he compares us with salt: “You are the salt of the earth.” By that he didn’t mean to say that we’re decent, everyday, ordinary type of folks, the way we use the phrase today. (“Good old Joe; he’s the salt of the earth.”) No, salt was a very powerful symbol. In Jesus’ day it was an important commodity because it was so versatile. We think of it as a seasoning, but to the ancients salt was far more than that.

There were at least a dozen important ways it was used in the biblical world. It had a ritual use, for example. Salt was used in worship services as part of the sacrificial offerings. It had many practical uses as well. Because of its purifying qualities, salt was used as an antiseptic in the treatment of wounds (in fact, it was as an agent symbolizing purity that salt first became associated with the worship of God). Salt is also a preservative – very important in an age with no refrigeration for curing meat to prevent it from spoiling. And finally, salt had agricultural uses. In Palestine, certain salt compounds mined near the Dead Sea were used as fertilizers, a meaning that was almost certainly present in Jesus’ mind when he said that his followers were the salt of the earth.

So his image points to the variety of positive roles that Christians are to play in the world. Jesus wants his followers to be a powerful force for good. Christians are to season, to purify, to preserve, to promote growth throughout human society. On the one hand, Christians should serve to check evil, stop corruption, prevent the world going from bad to worse. On the other, they are to be productive, fruitful, agents of change who encourage what is good and enhance everything that tends to health, righteousness, godliness and well-being. Just as it doesn’t take a lot of salt to flavor a dish or fertilize a field, so even a few Christians in a town or neighborhood or office or factory or school should make it both a better and a happier place.

It is also important to hear the warning Jesus is giving. Salt that loses its flavor – its tang, its “saltness” – is good for nothing. It’s simply thrown out. I don’t think his meaning could be much clearer, do you? If Christians don’t act like Christians, then what use are they? Last year a group from our church went to Trinidad as mission volunteers. The leader of the ministry for which they worked there was a powerful preacher, the son of Indian immigrants who was converted to Christ from Hinduism. He had a simple saying that puts the issue best: Live Christian, Live Christian. If we are not serious about being what we are, that is, becoming more and more in practice the kind of people God has already made us in principle, then our faith is bogus, worthless; it’s a sham. Faith without works is dead, the Bible says, and dead faith is like unsalty salt. What’s the most useless thing you can think of; snowskis in the desert, a flat spare tire, a hairbrush for a man whose head looks like a cue ball? That’s what saltless Christians are like, casual Christians who don’t take commitment to live the Christian life seriously.


The second comparison Jesus makes is to light. “You are the light of the world.” Christians are not only to be active like salt; they are to be visible like light. The purpose of light, whether it’s a flickering oil lamp such as Jesus and his disciples used, or a powerful modern spotlight, is to illuminate. It is to make visible. Light comes in all shapes and sizes and types. But the one thing all lights have in common is that you can see them, and see by them.

In calling us the light of the world, Jesus is really making a promise to us. Nobody, he observes, lights a light and then covers it up with a basket. You can’t hide a light – or at least it’s stupid to try. A light is like a city set on a hill. Once it’s there, everybody can see it; in fact, that’s the reason for its being there. No one in her right mind would walk into a room, turn the light on, and then completely cover it up so that the room falls dark again. Well, Jesus won’t do that with us either. “If we will be serious Christians,” says one Christian commentator, “Jesus promises to take care of our effectiveness” (F. Dale Bruner). In other words, if we will be the salt of the earth, he’ll make sure that we’re also the light of the world.


So what can we conclude about our responsibilities if we want to be real Christians who live the way Jesus intends us to? Let me suggest four things. First, as Christians we have to live a life that is distinctive. Our lives need to stand out. They need to be different. They need to shine like stars in the middle of a dark and crooked world, to use the apostle Paul’s analogy (Phil. 2:15). Are we really and truly different from those around us? Not different/odd; different/better. The greatest thing about light is that it contrasts with the darkness. Even a single candle can be seen for miles on a really black night. Even a single life, if it is being lived in an intentionally Christian way, will sparkle with silver and gold against all the dirty grays of the world.

So ask yourself, “Does my life contrast with the darkness around me?” You will never have much positive impact on the world if you are exactly like it! How should we be different? Well, think of the beatitudes. The world is proud and ambitious. We are to be meek and humble. The world is cruel, full of hatred. We are to be peacemakers. The world is intoxicated with the pursuit of pleasure and material things. We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness. This is such a basic point: knowing Jesus Christ should make me different from those who don’t know him. And if it doesn’t do that, what good is it? What good am I?

Second, the Christian life must be an exemplary life. As everyone knows, people are much more affected by our example than by our words. Our lives should speak to our neighbors about Christ’s love before our lips do. In some parts of India, a disproportionate number of doctors and nurses are Christians. People in the wider culture have come to expect that. They have learned that Christians are the ones who can be trusted and counted on to care, even where others might not.

That’s how it ought to be everywhere Christians live and work. We should have a well-deserved reputation in our communities for honesty, love, compassion and good works. When people are in trouble, they should naturally think of turning to the Christians. Our lives should, in a positive way, present a problem for our non-Christian neighbors. They should be asking questions from observing us. “How can he be that way, so kind and helpful? What’s he trying to do? What makes her so cheerful despite all her troubles? How does she do that? Where does her goodness come from?” “Set an example,” Paul wrote Timothy, “in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12) The same is said to every follower of Jesus.

Third, Christians must live lives that are productive. Our responsibility is to permeate our society for blessing. We have to be not just distinctive (different from the world), and exemplary (better than the world); we have to be good for the world. And to do that we have to be involved in the world. The world – that is to say, human society, peoples’ lives – that’s the place where Christians belong. There’s a well-known book about evangelism called Out of the Salt Shaker. That title gets it exactly right. Christians aren’t meant to be cooped up together inside their churches, only associating with other Christians. Salt has to be introduced into the food in order to do any good. Fertilizer is meant to be spread around on a field, not kept in the bag, bonding with the other fertilizer. So with us. We’ll only begin to be productive when we start to live with and for our non-Christian neighbors and friends, using whatever talent, skills, training and influence we have for the good of others.

And finally, a Christian’s life must be an attractive life. Our words and our actions should draw the hearts of others the way light draws the eye. “Humanism” is a negative word to many Christians, but in a sense Christians of all people should be the most dedicated humanists. We should represent everything that is best about humanity, we should be human-kind’s leading advocates, we should show forth what human beings are meant to be.

Several months ago we aired on Words of Hope the testimony of an Iranian Christian martyr named Mehdi Dibaj. Shortly before his murder, Mehdi talked about being the light of the world. This is what he said:

You are the light of the world,’ Jesus says. Sometimes the lamp is in the house, and next time in the park, sometimes in the university, and other times in jail. Wherever they put the lamp, it must shine. So don’t hide your light, let it shine for all. Let your good gifts glow for all to see so that they will praise your heavenly father.

He’s right. Everywhere you go: the house, the park, the university, even in jail, you can shine like light and lead people to glorify God. Wouldn’t you like to live like that? You can, if you are a Christian. You simply have to be what you are.

Name Christian? Live Christian.