Salt and Light
Three weeks ago, our journey through the Gospel of Matthew brought us to the Sermon on the Mount. Since then we’ve been walking through the Beatitudes, in which we’ve heard Jesus describe His disciples. And repeatedly we’ve heard Jesus say that His disciples are blessed, they have found the good life, because of everything that is coming in their future because of Him.
Several years ago there was a bestselling book called “Your Best Life Now.” The message of the Beatitudes can be summed up as “Your Best Life Later.” And because your best life is coming later, today you are blessed indeed.
In our passage today, Jesus continues to describe His disciples. Notice how verse 13 and 14 begin with “you are.” Just like in the Beatitudes, Jesus is describing those who have attached themselves to Him. But there is quite a shift here. In the Beatitudes, Jesus talked about the blessedness of His disciples. In our passage today, Jesus talks about the responsibilities of His disciples. Here is where we find out what Jesus expects His disciples to do with their blessed life, here and now, today.
And what we find out is that being blessed—having the good life—isn’t something we just enjoy off by ourselves somewhere while the rest of the world does their thing. No; disciples Jesus have work to do. And that work is described for us in our passage with several colourful word-pictures.
Our plan this morning is to walk through these four verses and take note of what there is to see there. Then, we’ll step back and talk about four big truths that stand out to us from this passage as a whole.
Let’s begin our walk-through of the passage in verse 13, and that opening phrase: “You are the salt of the earth.” I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the phrase “salt of the earth,” the way it’s commonly used. Even today people who don’t know the Bible will say things like “he’s a salt of the earth kind of guy.” That phrase usually refers to someone who is humble and upright.
But what did Jesus mean by this phrase? Back in Jesus’ day, salt had many uses. They did use salt to make their food taste better, like us (except they probably weren’t told all the time to cut down their intake).
One of their more significant uses of salt was to preserve food, especially meat. They did not have refrigerators. Meat would rot if it wasn’t eaten right away. And so salt was used to preserve food, stopping the decay, so that it would last and be enjoyed for longer.
We’re not 100% sure whether Jesus is saying that His disciples are supposed to add flavour to the world or stop the world from rotting or some other use for salt. What is clear is that disciples of Jesus are supposed to have an influence on the world. We’re not supposed to hide out all by ourselves, or blend in so that we look the same as everybody else.
We are supposed to have an influence on the world, and we do that by being different. That’s what Jesus tells us in the rest of the verse: “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).
Jesus is emphasizing here just how important it is for His followers to be different, to stick out, to stay salty, so that we can have our proper influence on the world.
We’re going to come back to some of these ideas in just a few minutes, but before we do that let’s keep walking through the passage, moving on to verse 14 to see what Jesus has to say about light.
Verse 14: “You are the light of the world.” Just like salt, light sticks out. It’s noticeable. And just like salt, light was very important in the ancient world.
We don’t tend to think about light very much today, because we can turn lights on and off with a flick of a switch. But in the ancient world, light was so important. They were much more at the mercy of the sun and the moon.
They did have lights for when it was dark, but those lights were not as easy as just pressing a switch. Homes burned little olive-oil lamps—olive oil that came from olives that had to be grown and squeezed out in a press. Light was precious.
I think we still feel this somewhat at this time of year. As things get darker around December 21, light gets more important. People put colourful lights on their homes and up on displays in the Regional Park. And cultures all around the world celebrated light at this time of year before Christmas was ever a thing. We all know that there’s something powerful about light in the darkness.
As Christians, all of this so easily reminds us of Jesus, the light of the world. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone,” as Isaiah said (Isaiah 9:2) and Matthew quoted (Matthew 4:16). “I am the light of the world” Jesus Himself said (John 8:12, 9:5), fulfilling the words God had promised through the prophets. “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” God said to the Messiah in Isaiah 49:6 (c.f. Isaiah 42:6).
But hold on a second. Jesus is the light of the world. And yet here in Matthew 5:14, Jesus says to His disciples that they are the light of the world.
Think of how many songs or Christmas cards or things you read at this time of year talk about Jesus being the light of the world. Now get this: so are you.
I don’t think any of us would think for a moment that this means that we can be lights in the darkness in and of ourselves. Jesus is the light of the world, and our light comes from Him, from His life in us.
But we are the light of the world. Jesus’ disciples join Him in His mission to be a light for the nations.
And just like salt needs to stay salty, so lights need to stay bright. They need to stay visible. They need to shine.
That’s what Jesus tells us when he says, in the second half of verse 14, “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14b). This word picture would have made sense to the Gentiles in the audience. In the ancient world, it wasn’t uncommon to have cities built on a hill, and when everybody lit their lamps at night the whole city would have a glow that you could see from a ways off.
But when Jesus spoke about a “city on a hill,” what do you think His Jewish listeners thought about? Probably Jerusalem. And I think it’s possible that some of them would have remembered prophecies about Jerusalem shining like a light when God came to save His people. Isaiah 62 begins this way: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory…” (Isaiah 62:1–2b).
If that’s true, then Jesus is saying that those days have already begun. The physical city of Jerusalem was overrun with corrupt leaders and Roman soldiers. But Jesus’ disciples themselves, Jews or Gentiles, had become that city on a hill, reflecting God’s salvation and glory to all who will see.
And they can’t be hidden. In fact, it’s silly to suggest that they could be hidden. That’s the point of verse 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” (Matthew 5:15).
I acted this out with the kids on Monday: we turned off all of the lights and I light a big match to light up the room, and then immediately I tried to hide it under something. And they thought it was funny, because it is funny. Jesus is using humour here to show how ridiculous it would be to do that. You don’t light a lamp and then try to hide it somewhere. You put it on a stand so that the whole house can see the light.
And that’s what Jesus’ disciples are to be like. That’s the command of verse 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.”
Let it shine. Verse 16 shows us what this actually means. What is our light? It’s our good works. That’s what people see. Not our nice buildings or our riches but our righteous behaviour. Our acts of kindness and service to others. Whatever we are and whatever we do that reflects God to others.
And our good works will result in people giving glory to our father in Heaven. I just love that phrase. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9) Jesus promised. And here, He’s already started. He’s already started to call His disciples Sons of God. Because if God is our Father, than who are we? His sons and daughters.
Now what we've just done is taken a very brief tour through this passage, looking at the basic meaning of these verses and words and seeing where they point to Old Testament prophecy.
What we're going to do now is step back and look at this passage as a whole and consider four big lessons from Jesus to us this morning coming out of these words.
1: Disciples of Jesus Need to Be Different
The first big lesson for us this morning is that we need to be different. Salt is different from the meat it’s put on. Light is different from the room that it illuminates. They both stick out. They don’t blend it. They get noticed. And that’s what makes them valuable.
We shouldn’t be surprised that disciples of Jesus are to be different. Isn’t that what the Beatitudes showed us? Disciples of Jesus are so different from the world. We are poor in spirit while the world is arrogant and boastful and self-sufficient. We mourn over sin while the world celebrates sin. We are meek and hungry and thirsty for righteousness and merciful and pure in heart and makers of peace and are persecuted.
Someone who is like that will stick out. They will be different. And that’s the point. Because we’re salt and light. We’re supposed to be different. Our difference is what makes us valuable.
Now maybe this is a hard pill for you to swallow. Maybe you like the idea of blending in, of enjoying Jesus to yourself. I think this would have been a hard pill to swallow for some of Jesus’ listeners. They probably weren’t expecting that following Jesus would make them stick out and be different from everybody else, including their families and their nations.
This idea of being different and sticking out is especially challenging given what Jesus said in verses 10, 11 and 12 about persecution. If following Jesus makes things hard, then it’s going to be mighty tempting to put that lamp under a basket, cover it up, and don’t attract any attention to yourself.
So-called Christians all over North America do this every day. And when we send out our missionaries around the world, they often carry this idea with them.
I took a class on missions several years ago and was horrified to learn that all around the world today, North American missionaries actually encourage new Christians to keep their faith a secret. Don’t let anyone know. Keep going to the mosque, keep acting like everybody else, because otherwise you could get persecuted.
But that just doesn’t fit, at all, with Christ’s words in our passage today. A disciple that blends in with everybody else is just un-salty salt that is “no longer good for anything,” as Jesus said in verse 13. Jesus intends for His followers to be noticed. To stick out and to be different. This difference is what makes us valuable.
So this is our first lesson. Disciples of Jesus need to be different.
2: Disciples of Jesus Influence the World
The second lesson for us here is that disciples of Jesus will influence the world. Just think about what salt and light do: they change things. Salt makes meat taste better and keep it from going bad. Light changes a room dramatically.
Disciples of Jesus make a difference in the world. They have an influence on their environments.
This is different from saying that disciples of Jesus are going to change the world. Jesus doesn’t seem to be telling us that as we go out there, we’re going to turn the whole world into one big salt shaker, or that the lamp is going to make the whole house catch on fire and become one big light.
The word-pictures of salt and light suggest to us that we’re going to be a small but powerful minority in this world. We’re going to make a difference.
And history is full of stories of simple men and women who made an incredible difference in this world just by following Jesus and being faithful to Him.
So let me ask you this question. If every Christian in Nipawin stopped acting like Christians, and if we all just started living like everybody else, would anybody notice a difference? Would our town miss the influence that we had on our families and our workplaces and our social circles? Would they miss all of our good works? All of our righteous living?
The answer should be yes. If every Christian in this town stopped acting like a Christian it should be as dramatic as turning off a light switch or snuffing out a lamp in a dark room. It should leave everybody saying, “What changed? Who turned out the lights?” The good works that we were doing should leave a massive hole that would be very noticeable.
Disciples of Jesus make a difference. In our righteous living, in all of the differences spelled out in the Beatitudes, in all of our good works, we have an influence on the world.
3: Disciples of Jesus are Missional
This is our third lesson from these words of Jesus: disciples of Jesus are missional. We are on mission with Jesus. Our mission is to be salt and light. To let our good works shine so that others would glorify God. And this salt-and-light mission is for everybody. Not just some of us.
If you look at our passage, Jesus did not say, “I’m so glad you all want to follow me. Now a select few of you might be interested in joining me in my mission and actually making a difference in this world. If that’s you, then I’m going to have some special meetings next week where I’ll talk about salt and light, if you’re in to that kind of thing. But the rest of you, you can just go and enjoy your blessed life all by yourselves.”
That’s not what He said. He said that every single one of His disciples has been given the mission of being salt and light. The mission of making a difference in this world. The mission of good works that bring glory to God.
There used to be this idea here is North America that being a Christian meant going to church on Sunday and staying away from alcohol and dancing. And then if you were really spiritual you’d read your Bible and pray every day. And then if you were really spiritual you’d be one of those missionaries who would actually go make a difference for Jesus in some part of the world.
And when those missionaries came back we’d have a potluck for them and politely watch their slides and maybe give them some money, but that was it. They did their thing, and we did ours.
And you know who I think invented this way of thinking about things? Satan. Satan loves keeping Christians out of the game and making Christians think that Jesus can be their own personal little secret. Satan loves making Christians think that pastors and missionaries make a difference for Jesus so that everybody else doesn’t have to.
According to Jesus, there is only one type of Christian: namely, a disciple. And disciples have joined Jesus on His mission of being the light of the world.
Some of us, like Melita, will go to other countries to shine the light of Jesus there. Some of us will stay in our native country. But we have the same job.
I had so much joy this past year doing a membership interview with someone and I asked them, “What do you hope to contribute to Emmanuel Baptist Church as a member?” And the first thing they said was, “I want to represent the church well in all of my interactions with others in the community.”
I love that. That’s someone who gets this—that being a disciple of Jesus means, first and foremost, that we have a mission to the world around us.
I know how hard of a shift this can be to wrap your head around. And I don’t have any better way of helping you see and understand this than to repeat these words of Jesus. So hear these words, right from the mouth of Jesus right to you today. This is Jesus revealing His will for your life. This is your king giving you your orders.
And what does He say? He says this: “You [—yes, 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 [—yes, 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 [—yes, your—] light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13–16).
Jesus has spoken. Will you obey?
4. Disciples of Jesus are Motivated by God’s Glory
There is one final stop for us to make this morning. And I think this last point gets to the heart of why we so often don’t care about making a difference in this world. It’s because we think that life is all about us. We think that our comfort and our feelings and our rights really matter a lot.
And many people in North America have been tricked into thinking that Jesus came to basically help us out with this. Jesus came to help us have a more comfortable life. Jesus came to help us feel better about ourselves. Jesus came to be the cheerleader that we never had.
If you walk into a Christian bookstore and look at lots of the titles on the shelf, if you listen to a lot of Christian music and listen to the kinds of words that are being sung, it’s not hard to find this idea that it’s all about us.
But this last phrase in verse 16 shows us, from Jesus’ perspective, who it’s all about: “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 5:16).
You and I were made in the image of God. From the very beginning, our whole purpose was to represent God and bring Him glory in all that we do. Just like a statue honours the person it was made of. You and I were made to be living statues of the living God, honouring Him in everything that we do.
And disciples of Jesus understand this. They understand that Jesus came and saved us to set us free from slavery to ourselves, and to cause us to see and love God’s glory the way we should.
I think we all know, deep down inside, that the greatest moments in our life have not been when it’s all about us. The greatest moments in our life have been when we’ve been amazed by something else great and wonderful.
Some of you have been to the Grand Canyon, and you know what this is like. You know the sense of awe that comes over you when you walk up to the railing.
When we were there a few years ago, we were there with a lot of people. And you know what? People weren’t talking about themselves. Nobody gets to the edge of the Grand Canyon and has a desire to talk about themselves. We go to be amazed by glory.
And friends, the Grand Canyon is just a little arrow pointing up, reminding us of how great is the God who made all of this. You want to know what another of those arrows is? You. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are one of the most incredible things that God has ever made.
You want to know another one of those arrows? Christmas. When God kept His promises and the long-awaited one was born while the angel armies shouted “Glory to God in the highest.”
You want to know the biggest arrow of them all? The cross, where God demonstrated His absolute justice and His absolute love as the Son was crushed to save for Himself a people who will love Him for eternity.
And today disciples of Jesus have been called to join the mission, individually and as a church, bringing glory to God through a life of good works. Our job is to walk around like arrows pointed up, drawing attention to the God who made us and the God who saved us.
Listen to these words from 1 Peter chapter 1 that sum all of this up so well:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:9–12).
So, here’s a suggestion for you as we close. It’s Christmas this next week and as you drive around this week anytime past 5:00 you’re going to see all kinds of lights lighting up the dark. Remember this: that’s what you should be like.
In your family, in your school, at your job, in your town—wherever that is—if you are a disciple of Jesus, you are the light of the world. If you’ve been hiding under a basket, it’s time to repent and it’s time to shine.
“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 5:16).