Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-16

The blessed and valued purpose of the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven is to be salt and light to the world.

Podcast URL

The text before us this morning is one that is likely very familiar to all of us. It's a passage that gives us a sense of context and purpose for our existence on Earth as Christians.

God does not save us by his grace through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit through  faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and then immediately transport us up to heaven forever more. We now remain on Earth for the distinct purpose of being what Jesus teaches us in the verses that we are to consider this morning in his great sermon --  we are, as he says, salt and light.

And in order to fully understand the weight and significance and implications of the fact that we are to be salt and light, we need to first get a running start and consider where it is that we are coming from in the course of Jesus' instruction.

We have been considering one of the most important, if not the most important and significant descriptions in all of Scripture of what a Christian is, and how they are to act --  and this description is given to us in the succinct and memorable collection of verses which we refer to as the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes contain a depiction of Christianity in a nutshell. They describe how a person is a part of the Kingdom such that it is distilled down to its fundamental essence.

Or, if we were to connect what Jesus says in Matthew 5:3 through 5:10 with what Matthew tells us was the main mission of Jesus in Matthew 4:17 --  where we read that from the time Jesus began his ministry in Galilee his preaching could be summarized with the small phrase, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And then we see from Matthew 5:3 to Matthew 5:10 that the entirety of what Jesus teaches has to do with those who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, because he says that those he is describing are blessed with possessing it. We therefore can conclude that Jesus is describing not only those who possess the kingdom, but also those who have repented in order to truly be a part of this Kingdom -- which is one and the same person. To have the kingdom is be one who has heeded the call to repent.

John the Baptist told the Pharisees who came to him that they were to bear fruits in keeping with repentance if they were to truly submit to his call for repentance because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. And it is as if Jesus elaborates on what those fruits of repentance are in Matthew 5:3-12.

And the most distinctive feature of the Beatitudes is the fact that 9 times Jesus calls those who are in his kingdom “blessed.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are the meek.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Blessed are the merciful.

Blessed are the pure in heart.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you.

Our possession of the Kingdom of Heaven is all on account of the blessing of God and has nothing to do with our own effort or merit. And it all to us is the greatest of blessings.

As we have studied through what each of the facets of this blessedness entails we have found that there is a degree of blessing that is afforded to the Christian now, in their Earthly experience. But we see in what the Lord teaches that there is also a facet of blessedness that is to be enjoyed later, in the future and eternal implementation of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And especially because we have just finished up with the beatitude which speaks of persecution, it is easy for us to think of our blessings as more future than present -- As more glorious in the age to come then what we are able to experience now. There is certainly good reason to think this way, and it is very much true that the fullness of blessing in the age come will far exceed whatever blessedness we are able to perceive now.

But that is in no way to mitigate how astonishing and glorious a thing it is to be blessed now as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. May we not focus so much on the blessing that is to come that we fail to appreciate the blessing that we presently experience now.

Paul said in Ephesians chapter 1 that we as Christians presently possess all blessing in the Heavenly places in Christ. We have all grace at our disposal. As Warren Wiersbe teaches in his devotional commentary on the book of Ephesians, we need to realize how rich we presently are because of Christ. We truly are currently blessed beyond comprehension.

And our blessedness is not to be regarded as merely one that exists in the spiritual realm only. It would make no sense for us to consider ourselves deeply blessed spiritually but then to live our lives and conduct ourselves in a way which would indicate that we view ourselves as the opposite.

No, to live  in a spirit of gloom and despair reveals the fact that a person doesn't truly grasp the depths of the wealth of blessing that is afforded to every Christian. To live like Puddleglum is to fail to understand the blessing of having the kingdom of heaven.

Even a quick survey back through the Beatitudes can reveal to us how great is the blessing that we presently experience.

To be blessed with the kingdom of heaven not only secures our enjoyment of all eternal glorified aspects of the Kingdom, but it also grants to us assurance and enjoyment of all spiritual realities presently, albeit on a cursed Earth and in cursed bodies.

To be blessed with comfort is to eventually know eternal comfort from all spiritual and physical burdens. But it is also to presently realize the comfort from all spiritual burdens as we grow in understanding more fully the grace of the Gospel.

To be blessed with inheriting the Earth means that we will one day have a physical, tangible, geographical inheritance on the new Earth. But we presently are blessed in that we now live with the certain hope of this inheritance and with the opportunity to increase it by our faithfulness.

To be blessed with satisfaction means that we will one day on the new Earth have the ability to continually yield righteousness without any hindrance whatsoever. But it also means that right now we can enjoy small tastes of satisfying righteousness --  we can right now yield fruit of the Spirit as we walk in it, putting to death the desires of the flesh. And this is a most satisfying thing for the Christian.

We are blessed with mercy in that we  have eternal pardon from hell, and in the fact that we have present pardon from God's displeasure. Never will we have the frown of God upon our lives, all because of the  glorious obedience and merit of Jesus Christ.

We have the blessing of seeing God in that we will one day have face-to-face fellowship with God and with Christ. But we also have this blessing in the sense that we now as Christians have the ability to see Christ by faith through his word.

To be blessed by being called a son of God means that we will have honor, exaltation, and inheritance as the adopted children of God. But we also perceive this blessing now in the fact that we have public recognition of our God-like character, which is something that is not natural to the unbeliever.

And as we learned in Matthew 5:10-12, our future reward is great, which is immense blessing to us for eternity. But we also perceive this same blessing in the fact that we have present assurance of our connection to others in the Kingdom, and in the fact that we have the ability to have true lasting joy in the face of persecution.

There is an incalculable degree of blessing that is ours presently.

And I believe that it is about this present blessedness that Jesus continues to teach in the next few verses following the Beatitudes. When he discusses the fact that his Kingdom citizens are salt and light, he is setting before us not only our purpose in the world, but also how it is that we ought to regard ourselves as those who are truly blessed in this world.

We hear people all the time talking about blessedness pertaining to wealth or to family or to status or position or rank, but the truest kind of blessedness actually has very little to do with those things. What we see in scripture is that when God blesses a person, they are not only blessed with his favor but they are  blessed in order to accomplish a purpose.

Israel was called of God and blessed as a people, not because of their inherent worth or of their excellence above all the other nations of the Earth. But we read that Israel was blessed of God in order that the nation might serve a purpose in the world. Deuteronomy 28:1 indicates that the blessed nation, by obeying the commandments of the Lord, would be set high above all the nations of the Earth.

And in verse 10 of that chapter Moses said that all nations would see that Israel was called by God because of how he blessed them as a people.

In a similar way we find that the church as a corporate body is blessed by God not only with his favor and supernatural means of grace -- the gifts, the Word of Christ, the Holy Spirit, corporate fellowship and worship. But we also see that as a corporate entity the church is not only blessed but is also given a purpose, a mission.

We are the workmanship of God as Paul says in Ephesians 2:10.

We are a chosen race royal priesthood a holy nation a people for God's own possession that we might proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light,  as we read in 1 Peter 2:9.

The blessing of God is not only to be enjoyed but it is also to be fulfilled in obedience to the purpose for which the blessing was given.

And I believe that it is this reality that Jesus is getting at when he moves from the blessedness of being one of those in the kingdom, and what that looks like, to his discussion of how his people are to be salt and light in the world.

We are certainly blessed, but we are blessed for a purpose.

As I alluded to before, I think it is true that we sometimes as Christians have the mindset that we have an inferiority to the rest of the world, in the sense that we have little to offer because we don't fit in, because we are headed for a kingdom that is not of this world.

It might be easy to get trapped in this way of thinking when we survey the news headlines, and we see how it is that righteous thinking and practice is marginalized in our society.

You may have friends or family who think you to be completely strange because you hold to what they consider to be a traditionally narrow perspective on marriage or fundamental individual rights.

And because you cannot compromise your biblical views on morality, you might think that the collective thought of our culture leaves you and your “views” without an audience. But what is actually true is that the Christian’s way of thinking is far more valuable to the world then the world’s way of thinking.

Paul said in Philippians 2 that we have the mind of Christ. We are commanded to be renewed in the spirit of our mind. In 2 Corinthians 10 Paul said that it was his duty and obligation to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

And we are blessed by God with a new system of values and thoughts that is in line with what God thinks in values, and this is of utmost value in the world today.

Regardless of how the world wants to make you feel marginalized, if you have been born of God then you have been blessed as a highly valuable member of your society.

This is what Jesus makes clear when he tells his people that they are salt and light. They are blessed with purpose and they are blessed with value. You have a purpose to carry out in the world, and you are to consider yourself to be an objective benefit to the world because of it. You have been both equipped with blessing and tasked with a valuable commission.

And why is it that this is the case? Why is it that we are to see ourselves as objectively valuable in the world?

Well the reason is because of what Jesus teaches us in these verses before us today. He teaches us by the metaphors that he uses that we are not only to carry out a specific purpose for his glory but also that the duty we are to carry out in the world is one of extreme benefit and value. As Christians we are irreplaceable in the world.

This isn't an arrogant statement, nor is it presumptuous. It's merely understanding what Jesus is teaching.

If he wanted us to consider ourselves as inferior, inept, worthless, disregarded people, then he would have used different metaphors. But his choice of illustration teaches us without doubt that our purpose in the world as those who are a part of his kingdom is high, noble, valuable, and absolutely necessary.

Salt is a mineral that we might take for granted, but in ancient times it was an utterly irreplaceable commodity. It was a substance often used for gifts of honor to rulers and the wealthy. If you had a large stockpile of salt, then you were a prosperous person indeed in these days. It has even been said that disagreements over salt might have led to war.

In an ancient natural history textbook, Pliny the Elder made this observation: “There is nothing more useful than salt and sunshine.” So not only is salt a valuable and necessary item, but light is considered an irreplaceable thing as well.

Ancient mariners were utterly dependent not only on the light of the stars and the moon at night time, but when a storm was raging in the cloud cover was dense, they relied upon lights that they could see from the shore in order to ensure safety of their vessels.

So without salt and without light, life in the first century would have been far more difficult. These two things were of utmost necessity and of irreplaceable value. And it is these things that Jesus chose to compare his followers to.

So let's begin by reading what it is that Jesus tells us we are as his people, here in Matthew 5:13-16.

“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.”

This text very clearly breaks down into two distinct sections, each of which begin with Jesus making a metaphorical statement about those whom he has been referring to in the course of his sermon.

He says in verse 13, “You are the salt of the earth.” And then in verse 14 he says similarly, “You are the light of the world.”

I should note that the original wording here indicates the same thing that we found in the majority of the Beatitudes -- that Jesus is actually emphasizing the “you” in each statement. He’s saying, in effect, “You and you alone are the salt of the earth...You and you alone are the light of the world.”

And any given commentary on this passage of scripture will yield a host of ideas regarding what these metaphors actually refer to. Salt could refer to preservation, to cleanliness, to tastefulness, to irritability, or to other similar things that salt does. And light could represent illumination, proclamation, exposing sin, guidance, or even annoyance.

We could tease out each of these potential metaphorical principles to see how Christians could typify any of them, but I want to focus our attention more narrowly on just what the text before us actually seems to indicate is the metaphorical aim. Jesus doesn't just say you are the salt of the earth and then stopped his commentary. Nor does he indicate that we are the light of the world and then move on to his next thought. He elaborates slightly on each picture so as to give us further clarity into his precise  meaning.

First of all, when we consider his statement when he says that we are the salt of the earth, we notice that he explains his statement by talking about how salt can lose its taste such that its saltiness cannot be restored and the salt will be left useless.

The NAS translates it this way -- “if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?”

The NET Bible says, “if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again?”

The word that is translated in the ESV as “lost its taste,” and in The New American Standard as “become tasteless,” is actually a word that is related to the Greek word “moria”, which means foolish. It's where we get the English word moron from. It means that the salt has lost all credibility with respect to modifying what it has been put upon. It is foolish salt. It is phony salt.

So we shouldn't necessarily look at how the English translations before us have rendered this word as pertaining to taste or flavor, and then conclude that Jesus is teaching us that Christians are to make the world taste better. It's not a bad translation necessarily, but it seems to read a more modern use of salt into how it can be compromised.

In ancient times, salt would rarely be put on food in hopes of making it taste better as we do today. But it would rather be rubbed on food in order to prevent it from going rancid. Meat would be cured with salt in order that it might not spoil quickly.

And so salt that lacked the curing power that it should inherently possess --  if it had been contaminated with other impurities --  then it would be no longer useful in order to keep bacteria from having a field day on unrefrigerated meat.

So it might be better to think of the Lord's question here as not one of whether or not salt is tasty or flavorful, but rather one that asks if salt is useful as a preserver or not. When salt is useful as a preservative it is of extreme value, but when it loses its effectiveness as a preservative it is good for basically nothing, at least in the time in history in which Jesus lived.

Jesus asks, “how can its saltiness be restored?” And the answer to his rhetorical question is that the salt-ness of salt as a preservative cannot be brought back if it is lost or compromised by impurity. We know this because Jesus makes the statement at the end of the verse where he says, “it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.”

Salt that doesn’t preserve goes from being a highly valuable commodity to being worth nothing more than dirt.

And I hope that we can clearly now see the point that Jesus is making regarding the purpose of the Christian on the Earth. We are to act as a preserving agent, keeping the world from spoiling.

Lloyd Jones says this, “I wonder how often we conceive of ourselves in this way, as agents in the world meant to prevent the process of putrefaction and decay?”

This is a helpful question for us. But I think the most important one that we need to ask ourselves is this, “I wonder how often we see evidence of ourselves as agents in the world which prevent the process of putrefaction and decay?”

What is true about our speech and actions as we interact with those in the world that keeps them from acting more wickedly than they otherwise would? Do we have the effect of holding back wickedness that would otherwise flow freely from others? It's not a bad thing when work Associates no not to speak certain jokes around you. Or when they know that their language ought to be less crass and profane. It is good when friends of yours know that it is pointless to try to talk about the latest televised filth around you, because you regard it to be objectively terrible, as it certainly is.

One of the merciful things which the providence of God has granted to the world is the preserving effect of Christians. Were it not for God's restraining mercy in providence and in the righteous desires of his people, the world would be far more wicked than it already is.

And we must remember that this is not merely coincidental, it is purposeful. our Lord and Master has blessed us as those who are a part of his kingdom with this preserving duty.

I should also point out that this blessed preserving purpose is not only Christ’s design, but if a person claims to be part of the Kingdom but is in no way functioning as a preserving bulwark against the tide of iniquity in this world, then notice what Jesus says is actually true of this person -- They are thrown out and trampled under people's feet. There is no blessing afforded to such persons. There is no Kingdom that belongs to such people. Those who are a part of the Kingdom will by necessity function as salt, as a preserving agent against the stream of wickedness in this world.

Likely it’s to a smaller degree than you would like, but if you are one of Christ’s people then you can see that you have a preserving effect upon those around you who do not believe. Your home is sweeter than if you weren’t there. Your workplace is more honest. Your neighborhood is more patient.

Christian, you are blessed with being a person of value to the earth that preserves it from wickedness. And Jesus also says that we are the light of the world.

If any Pharisees were listening to the sermon, they would likely be infuriated at this statement. because Jesus is talking to a crowd of likely Jews and Gentiles. And he's speaking in Galilee, not in Jerusalem. And he says nothing about ethnic Israel.

Isaiah 60 paints a glorious picture about what the future holds for the nation of Israel. Verse 1 says, “Arise, Shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” And then in verse 3, “And nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.” The prophecy concerns the time in which the nation of Israel will enjoy prosperity beyond measure, such that all the nations of the world will be attracted to the glory of Jerusalem.

And for those who were the studious keepers of the law mixed with the traditions of men, namely the Pharisees, it would be horrifying to think that the office of “light of the world’ would be given to any except through ethnic Israel, and would be granted anywhere except in Jerusalem. But here we see that Jesus is saying that anyone from any nation can be rightly called the “light of the world.” And he's teaching it far removed from the Jerusalem context, in Galilee of the Gentiles.

This is not to say that the prophecy of Isaiah 60 concerning the light of Israel is completely fulfilled in what Jesus is teaching here in Matthew chapter 5. But in the same way that ethnic Israel will be a people which outwardly and physically manifests the light of God to the world when Jesus returns and does bring the kingdom to them --  in a similar way the church -- made of people from every tribe and tongue and nation -- manifests the light of God to the world by their inward and spiritual radiance.

If being salt is a negative influence --  where we prevent the world from going the direction it wants to go --  then being light is a positive influence, in that we direct the world where it ought to go.

And in the same way that salt will by necessity act salty, or else it is not true salt and is discarded, there is no way that light can be hidden. There is no way that the effect of light in a darkened world can be mistaken or invisible.

This is why Jesus says that a city set on a hill cannot be hidden. The light which is emitted from a city that is set high above a valley below cannot be hidden. There's no way, unless a person is deliberately shielding his face from it, that the light from an elevated city can be missed.

Jesus continues teaching this very same thing in verse 15.

If you have a lamp in your house, it is utterly ridiculous to think that you would ever place a covering over it after you turn it on. This would completely defeat the purpose of having a lamp -- The purpose of having a lamp in your house is so that when it is dark outside your able to light in the entirety of your house with the lamp.

Most houses in first century Israel were fashioned such that there was one main room in the middle of the house with a few ancillary rooms off of it. This way, a light could be placed in the center of the main room without having to light a lamp and every other room as well.

And in verse 16 Jesus tells us that in the same way that a city high on a hill cannot be hidden, and in the same way that a light shining in the middle of the room fills the entire house, our light as Christians is to shine before others.

There's to be no hiding and no dimming. There's to be no covering or smothering. We are just simply allow the light of our good works to shine in order that those around us might give glory to our Father who is in heaven.

Even in the way that Jesus words this we can see that these good works are not to our credit. They are not of our own solitary effort. The good works which we perform, Jesus implies by the way he says this, are the product of something deep down inside of us. He says to let our light shine.

It is our words and our works that shine. Our light is composed the things we say and do. But there's nothing which we say as a light in a dark world that we came up with on our own. And there's nothing that we do as light in the midst of darkness that can be attributed to our own personal accomplishment.

We used to be darkness, and we used to walk in darkness. We used to love darkness, as Jesus says in John 3. And the only thing that changed is the fact that we were born again -- not of flesh or of our own desires, but by the will of God .

And with this new birth came a new heart with new desires and new affections --  things that were created after God in true righteousness and holiness. And so as this new regenerated heart inside of us yields the light of spiritual righteousness in word and deed we must realize that the whole production is on account of the grace of God.

And because it all is accomplished by the grace of God, everything is done to the glory of God.

And so here we can start to see and extremely important principle if we are to do what Jesus tells us to do here in verse 16 -- How is it that someone can look at my life and as a result give glory to God? I know that in me there dwells nothing good. And if I perform a work of the flesh that stands out in the mind of somebody else, then who is it that has received the glory for it? Me.

So we can only accomplish the goal of having others give glory to God as a result of our works when we are accomplishing works motivated solely by the grace of God.

So what are some examples of works which are accomplished Solely by the grace of God, and order that others who see them might be moved to give glory to God Alone?

Matthew 9:1-8

“And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.”But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.”And he rose and went home.When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.”

The point here is that the crowds saw the tangible results of Jesus’ miracle-working power. And they realized that the walking of the man was only because of God -- therefore they gave glory to God.

Galatians 1:11-24

“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”And they glorified God because of me.”

Saul’s conversion and subsequent change in life, now being known as Paul, was such that those who saw him in his new behavior ended up glorifying God because of him.

The truth of being called salt and light by Jesus is both challenging and inspiring.

We are challenged because we know that our lives are to have certain effects. We are to preserve in the sense that we keep the world from being more evil than it would otherwise be. To whatever extent God’s providence permits, we should be living and speaking in such a way that aims at holding back the tide of iniquity around us.

And we should be living and speaking as light of the world so that attention and focus is pointed to God. People ought to see us and hear us and not only be convicted of their wickedness, but also be turned to the only explanation for how we can act as we do -- we can only be explained by the work of God, thus he should be glorified in us.

But we are also inspired as we remember that for Jesus to call us salt, we realize that he sees us as highly valuable to this world. And for him to call us light, he sees us as utterly irreplaceable and necessary in this world.

Although we have the hope of glory which awaits us in the future manifestation of the Kingdom, we have astonishing blessing to know and experience now. And we do not have this blessing merely to enjoy personally, but it has been given to us in order that others might glorify God as he by his grace works righteousness through us.