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Jesus Words On Being Salt and Light: Matthew 5:13-16

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: The Christian's Influence

Lou Nicholes, a Christian missionary and author, once wrote something about Matthew 5:13-20. He said this:

"To demonstrate the influence Christians should make on this world Jesus used two common illustrations of salt and light. G. Campbell Morgan once said “The world needs salt because it is corrupt and it needs light because it is dark. We are God’s salt to retard corruption and His light to reveal truth. One function is negative and the other positive. One is silent and the other is verbal. By the way we live we retard corruption and by what we say we give light. The implication in this passage is that when a Christian loses his “salt and light” he is worthless."

These concepts of salt and light were used by Jesus a number of times to refer to the role of His followers in this world. They are figures of speech known as metaphors. Metaphors are words that describe one thing by comparing it to another. It's like calling yourself a pig if you eat too much or saying a person such as Hitler, is a monster because he did something horrible.

These particular metaphors of being salt and light, which we are referring to today, can be found in what is possibly the greatest sermon ever given, and certainly one of the most famous, the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is found in Matthew 5-7 and is Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. It's focus is how to live a life pleasing to God and it gives the characteristics of Christian discipleship.

As the followers of our Lord, being members of the Body of Christ in the 21st century, we are just as much to be salt and light today as those to whom these words were originally given 2000 years ago.

Let us take a closer look at what Jesus was attempting to tell His followers in this famous sermon. And from that we discover how it should change the way that we live our daily lives in this world in which we have been placed. This world that truly needs the gospel of Jesus Christ.

However, before we do this, let's take a short look at what it was like to live in the ancient world before the gospel literally changed it forever. The more we look at it the more we understand what a difference Jesus has made on the societies of this world. Further, it demonstrates the need for us to continue to be salt and light today.

I. The World Before the Gospel Message

By saying that the Christian is salt and light in this world is to say that it, apart from Christ, is rotting and dark with sin.

The ancient civilizations before the birth of Christ were harsh places in which to live. Slavery, immorality and oppression were institutionalized into society. In antiquity killing was viewed with indifference. In his book: 'What if Jesus Had Never Been Born' pastor D. James Kennedy had this to say:

“Life was expendable prior to Christianity’s influence… In those days abortion was rampant. Abandonment was commonplace: It was common for infirm babies or unwanted little ones to be taken out into the forest or the mountainside, to be consumed by wild animals or to starve… They often abandoned female babies because women were considered inferior”

Not only that but in the Roman world, some of the greatest sports that the people could experience were the gladiator games in which men fought each other to the death, or fought wild beasts, in pitiless slaughters in an arena. The Roman philosopher Seneca once said of those who fought beasts that:

"In the morning men are thrown to the lions and bears; after mid-day, they are thrown [at will] to the spectators."

And it wasn't just that Romans that demonstrated the rotting and darkness of this world apart from Christ. Earlier in history, in the Canaanite religion the chief offerings that the people were to make to their god Molech were their own children on the burning hot arms of the altar that was erected to this horrid deity.

Also, in the ancient world, in general, with the possible exception of Egypt, women had no rights and were treated no better than slaves by their husbands. Here is what one writer in the July-August 2010 edition of Faith Magazine has to say about the subject:

"Feminine honor was being damaged by the custom of polygamy which was generalized in many regions, while, in other places, polyandry was in force. Equally degrading was incest, especially common in Persia, but also in Greece.

In India, among the cruel pagan practices spanning millennia, custom demanded that the widow be burned alongside the body of her husband.

In Athens, to prevent partiality toward daughters in questions of inheritance, the law fell into an even greater aberration in encouraging incest to resolve such problems, even demanding the destruction of two already constituted homes, if need be."

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Children too had no rights in the ancient world. The father had totalitarian authority over them. In Rome, the father had the right to reject his newborn son and sell him into slavery. He could also condemn his child, or wife for that matter, to death if he so chose.

In Sparta, the state had the right not to tolerate anyone who was deformed or ill-constituted in any way. So, the father was therefore ordered to make such a child die.

Pedophilia, or the practice of having sex with children, was rampant in the ancient world apart from the gospel of Christ. Just to name one example of this, in Greece pederasty, or the sexual corruption of boys, was a legalized practice. Any man who was not a slave was allowed to do it.

All of these things mentioned here are just a few illustrations of the truth of what the world was like apart from the coming of Christ. And, as our society moves more and more away from Judeo-Christian values and truths, it is all the more reason for us to be the salt and light that our Lord asks us to be.

We are already seeing a lot of changes in our society as it becomes more pagan. Things that would not be acceptable just a few years ago are now, not only tolerated, but celebrated. And the values that once were rightly celebrated are seen as obsolete, or worse yet, evil.

With all of this in mind, let us look at Matthew 5:13-16 and find out what more we can learn about these pronouncements by our Lord Jesus Christ.

II. The Salt of the Earth (13)

The first thing that Jesus said can be found in verse 13. He tells His listeners:

"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?" It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men."

Salt, does two things. We stated earlier that it acts as a preservative for foods to slow down spoilage. But it also is a way to enhance the flavor. However, it is no doubt that Jesus' primary idea was it's use as a preservative. Christians in a society, living out their Christianity, serve to keep the world from completely decomposing and being destroyed.

It is interesting that our Lord talks about salt losing its savor or saltiness, thus becoming tasteless. The truth is that pure salt cannot lose its flavor or effectiveness. But He wasn't talking about pure, undiluted salt here. The salt that was gotten from the Dead Sea area is contaminated with gypsum and other minerals. Too much contamination by other things can cause it to have a flat taste and be ineffective as a preservative. Mineral salts that were contaminated in this way were often used to keep footpaths free from vegetation. But it couldn't be used for anything else.

Christians contaminated by the world also lose their effectiveness to help preserve it. They may not, as G Campbell Morgan suggested, be completely useless in a spiritual sense but they have a limited ability to bring glory to God by what they do and say and how they live.

We are living in a society today that, much like in Jesus' day, has many competing world-views. Sadly, however, the folks at Barna Research Group have found out that only 17 percent of Christians who consider their faith important and attend church regularly actually have a biblical worldview.

Barna's research found out that there was agreement with ideas unique to nonbiblical worldviews among many practicing Christians. For instance, 61% of Christians agree with ideas that are rooted in what has become known as New Spirituality. This movement, like it's predecessor the New Age Movement, has ideas that are totally unbiblical and heretical.

Not only that but many Christians today have their ideas mixed up with those of other religions. For example, 38% of practicing Christians are sympathetic to at least some Muslim teachings.

These are just a few statistics found out by research on today's modern 'Christian Church' in America. All of these things tell us that, rather than being an influence on the world, the world is bringing it's influence on the Church. Christians are losing their saltiness. And the world all around us is decomposing.

III. The Light of the World (14-16)

Next Jesus calls His disciples the light of the world. In verses 14-16 of Matthew 5 Jesus says:

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

In today's modern world it is hard to know what it looks like to be totally without light. We literally have lights everywhere. From our coffee pots to our refrigerators, our cars and our houses. There are lamp posts and stop lights. We have lights that come on at dusk and go off at dawn to keep our property illuminated 24 hours a day. Our world is full of lights.

Most of us go through our lives rarely seeing total darkness. The closest thing I have ever experienced of that is the natural environment of a cave. I've been in caves in Virginia and Kentucky that are so far underground that they have no natural light. While on a tour of these caves, the group that I was in were being lead by someone who talked about the cave and the formations that we were seeing.

Somewhere along the tour the guide would turn off the artificial electric lights that illuminated our path. And the darkness was so thick you could feel it. You literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face.

Then the tour guide lit a match and immediately everyone's eyes moved toward the direction of the light. It dispelled the darkness and we could see again.

When Scripture talks about darkness it is normally a symbol for evil. Usually it is referring to a sinful path. Jesus is the light and Satan is darkness. Spiritually blind people are living in darkness. They can’t understand the gospel or biblical things. They can’t see. They are blind and they don't realize that they’re on the path that leads to hell.

In John 8:12 Jesus tells His followers:

"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

This tells us that we have no light of our own. Just like the moon reflects the light of the Sun that shines on it, the Christian is to reflect the light of Christ. It is He who leads us down the path of righteousness.

It is interesting that Jesus also says in John 14:6 that

"I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes unto the Father but by me."

When He uses the Greek word for 'way' here, He is literally saying that "I am the road." Our Lord is not only the one who illuminates the path or road to heaven and to God the Father. He indeed is the only path or road to get there.

So the Christian, in leading a godly life, gives to the world convincing evidence of salvation by the grace and power of God. The world can see that we are different in some way and this gets their attention.

Just as a city on the top of a hill can be seen for miles, so they can see the light coming from us as they watch from a distance. They are drawn to God's light in us just as they would be to the light of a match in total darkness. And this ultimately brings glory to Him who is the source of all light.


As we look at these metaphors of what we are as followers of Jesus Christ, notice that the Lord doesn't begin with the sentences: "You should be the salt of the earth" or "You should be the light of the world." He says to us "You are, these things." As soon as people hear that we are Christians, they already have a picture in their minds as to how we are to behave in this world. And if we don't act the way they know we should act, they will see in us a reason not to follow the God whom we love and serve.

The Christian really is the only Bible that some people will ever read. We are the only true picture of God they may ever view. The question is: "Can He be seen in a positive way through us?"

It's not a question as to whether or not we are going to reflect God. All people who call themselves Christian already do. It is rather a question of, do they see an accurate reflection of God's true glory and love in our lives.

We have an awesome responsibility to be the salt of this unsavory and rotting society. And we have an obligation, given to us by the Lord Himself, to be the light in this dark world. Let us respond to this message from Jesus and take that obligation extremely seriously by serving Him with our lives.

© 2021 Jeff Shirley

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