Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16)
In the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), Jesus described the characteristics of the Kingdom of Heaven’s citizens. Shockingly, the kind of people God values in his Kingdom are quite different than the kind of people the world values. Jesus now turns to address the role that his followers are to play in a world that deems their lifestyle undesirable and perhaps even dangerous.
Followers of Christ should have a positive effect on the world.
A major theme of the Sermon on the Mount is the difference between Jesus’ followers and the rest of the world. These chapters are thus filled with calls to be different from worldly ways of living, whether religious or secular.
When considering our call to be different from the world, it can be tempting to equate this with a call to withdraw from it. Certainly, we would be different if we completely withdrew from society. But there is a purpose to our being different that withdrawal doesn’t achieve. In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus makes it clear that our distinctness is for the purpose of positively engaging the world, not avoiding it.
Jesus turns to salt and light to illustrate this. Salt served many roles in the ancient world, but its role as a preservative seems to be foremost in Jesus’ mind. Just as salt preserves food and prevents it from decaying, Christians who live out the characteristics listed in verses 3-12 are to prevent moral and spiritual decay in society. Sometimes this happens on a large scale, such as when William Wilberforce, fueled by his faith, helped to end the slave trade in England. Often this happens in small, everyday ways: by living and speaking in line with the gospel, we help to make those around us “less fertile soil for other ungodly influences.”
It can be difficult for us to fully appreciate the “city on a hill” illustration in verse 14. In their rural context, Jesus and his followers often experienced darkness in a way most of us in an industrialized age never experience. The absence of light pollution, combined with a cloudy sky, could make for nights so dark that you couldn’t see three feet in front of you. A shining city of a hill would be a great relief and guide to one who found themselves in such darkness. Such light, unable to be hidden, would interrupt what would otherwise be total darkness.
In the same way, Christians are to bring relief and guidance to a world drowning in darkness. But note that the light we’re to shine does not originate with us; we’re to let it shine through us (v. 16). Jesus himself is the light of the world (John 8:12; Isa. 49:6), and as we live out his character modelled for us in the Beatitudes, the light of the world will be visible through our lives. And those who benefit from that light won’t praise us but our God.
This call to be different will often be challenging, as evidenced by the fact that it will at times result in persecution (5:10-12). But it is the path Jesus himself walked, and so we must too. We will be visible to the world by being different from it, and these differences will attract some and repel others. To downplay these differences and conform to the world is to compromise our mission, rendering us as pointless as a lamp that’s lit and then hidden (v. 15) and as useless as salt that’s been added to and no longer able to prevent decay (v. 13). “Cease to be different, and we cease to be Christians.”
- In what contexts of your life are you tempted to “put [your light] under a basket”, i.e. minimize or hide your faith from others? Why?
- What are some ways that Christians today can lose their “saltiness”? What ways of conforming to the world around do we need to be on guard against?
- How can your community group serve as salt and light this week?
Matthew 5:16 – “‘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.’”