Salt & Light

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

September 20, 1998

Salt & Light

Matthew 5:13-16

A well-known little poem about the Christian life goes as follows:

We are living a Gospel

A chapter each day,

By deed that we do,

By word that we say;

Men read what we live,

Whether faithless or true,

Say! What is the Gospel

According to you?

This morning I want to talk with you about what this little poem point out – what is the Gospel message according to your life.

Please turn with me to Matthew 5. We had been studying in the section of the Sermon on the Mount called “The Beatitudes” before I went on vacation. You may have thought that we concluded our study of it when we talked about verses 10-12 about having joy in the midst of persecution. While those verses concluded the statements of blessing that are received by those that have the characteristics of righteousness described in each beatitude, the thought of the section continues on through verse 16. It is not until verse 17 that Jesus makes a transition to a new idea. Follow with me as I read from verse one of Matthew 5 so we can be sure to have set the context of our study of verses 13-16 this morning.

1 And when He saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 And opening His mouth He began to teach them, saying, 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 “Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “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.

By now we are all very aware that the theme of the Sermon on the Mount deals with the nature of true righteousness, and that the Beatitudes are statements that describe the blessings that the truly righteous receive. True righteousness is not a matter of outward conformity to a list of rules and regulations – that is what the Scribes and Pharisees had – it is a matter of having a changed heart. Each of the Beatitudes, except the last one, describes a character quality of the person that has a changed heart. These are not characteristics that you can generate yourself, instead they are marks of the working of the Holy Spirit in your life. These are evidences of a person being regenerate, born-again, made alive in Christ, being a true Christian.

Only the last of the beatitudes does not describe a character quality, instead it describes the result of having the quality of character described in all the previous statements. The person who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness (vs 10) is the person that is poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart and a Biblical peacemaker.

Notice that verses 13 & 14 begin with statements of fact just as all the previous verses do. You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world. Verses 13 & 14 also continue the second person plural, “you,” from verse 11 – Blessed are you when . . . Jesus is not bringing up an unrelated thought when He talks about salt and light in verses 13-16, instead He is continuing to describe a characteristic of those that are truly righteous. They are the salt of the earth and they are the light of the world. In fact the grammatical structure lends an emphasis on the fact that they are the only ones that are these things. You could translate these verses, “You are the only salt of the earth . . . you are the only light of the world.” The only unresolved question is how that salt and light are going to be used. The conclusion to the section is His command to us to use these characteristics properly.

Stated another way, if you are truly righteous, if you are truly among the saved, then you will give evidence of that by having or at least have developing in you the characteristics of the beatitudes. You will be poor in spirit, mournful over sin, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart and a Biblical peacemaker. As a result of having those qualities, the world, which does not have those qualities, will hate you and persecute you and say all sorts of evil things against you falsely because they hate Jesus Christ whom you represent and whom you are like in character. In addition, if those characteristics are yours, then you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world. The only question remaining is willing you continue to be salty and will your light shine in such away that other men will see it and give glory to God your Father.

But what does Jesus mean that the Christian is “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world?” And what dangers do we face in losing our effectiveness by not being these things.

The Salt of the Earth

In our day we have a different perspective on salt than what was thought at the time of Christ. We use it in many of the same ways as they did then, while we think of salt as a common commodity we do not consider it valuable. We can purchase salt for only pennies a pound, but in the ancient world it was very costly. In a period of ancient Greek history salt was considered so valuable it was called, theon, divine. The Romans believed that nothing was of more value than salt except the Sun. Roman soldiers were even paid in salt – which is where the saying, “not worth his salt” comes from. It was considered a staple of life along with oil and wine and was often given as a reward for good service. An Ancient Near Eastern custom still practiced among some Arabs today is that a pact of friendship is sealed with a gift of salt.

In Jewish culture salt was used for many purposes – to season food for man (Job 6:6) and beast (Isa. 30:24) and to preserve food from becoming putrid (Exod 30:35). The goodness that it brought is seen in the figure of speech used in Col. 4:6 that Paul’s tells Christians to “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” Salt was recognized as having medicinal value since babies were bathed in it and rubbed with it (Ezek 16:4). It was also required as part of several sacrifices including cereal offerings (Lev 2:13) and the burnt offering (Ezek 43:24). Num. 18:19 and 2 Chron. 13:5 record that the agreement between God and His people was termed a “Covenant of salt.”

With this in mind we can understand that regardless if the people were Roman, Greek, or Jewish, those that were hearing Jesus say, “you are the salt of the earth” understood that He was talking about a valuable commodity.

The usage of salt in the ancient world gives us some insight about what Jesus meant by his analogy. One of the first things we think about is that salt adds flavor to food. Christians are to add a divine flavor to the world. However, this analogy has to be cautioned with the fact that the world finds us boring. We are considered stuffy, restrictive – a rain storm on the world’s parade. The flavor the righteous adds is real, but it is not what the world is looking for. The world is bent toward hedonism – finding whatever pleasure they can wherever they can. They want to be entertained or find excitement. They are dependent on something outward to bring meaning and joy to life. But the Christian has a savor that is internal. We do not need to be chasing around after the things the world strives for. A truly godly individual can find great joy and beauty in just being still before God. We have an excitement about life that can continue despite outward circumstances.

One of my concerns about modern American Christianity is this movement that replaces worship with entertainment. Yes, worship and our lives should be dynamic and vibrant. We should not be like the clergymen of whom Oliver Wendell Homes reportedly said that he might have entered the ministry except these men always looked and acted like undertakers. Christians should be alive and vibrant – but that should be internally generated as we focus on God – not by putting on an exciting show. Let me be frank, neither I nor the musicians nor anyone else who steps up on this platform during a worship service is here to entertain you – we are here to prompt you to think deeply about God. The ones that are really on stage are you folks sitting out there as God watches from heaven and observes the worship of your heart. The Christian is salty – they add flavor to life. That flavor is not the hot spices the world looks for, but the savor of something that is a pleasure to have around.

This aspect of being salt may be seen in the story of two sisters that had grown up and then moved to different cities. After some time had passed, they had both returned home for a visit. One of them had become a Christian. After a few days the other sister said, “I don’t know what causes it, but you are a great deal easier to live with than you used to be.”

Another aspect of salt, and probably the main emphasis in what Jesus was saying here, is that it is a preservative – it prevents putrefaction. Remember that in that time there was not refrigeration and the major means to keep things from rotting was the use of salt. A piece of meat left out will soon begin to rot, but a piece of meat rubbed with salt will not. It is this same quality that gives it its medicinal value – even though it does sting when it is put into a wound. Christians do sting the world and prick its conscience. The worldly people are uncomfortable in the presence of holiness. But again, that is part of its preservative influence because it retards moral and spiritual decay.

Many people are using this passage of Scripture to advocate political activism. Like I have said before, there are a lot of good things about being active politically – mainly because we have both that privilege and responsibility in this nation – but we must be very careful from thinking that politics will be the salvation of our society. I pray that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned, but I am even more concerned that the hearts of people that try to justify killing the unborn would be changed. We may win a political battle and restrict abortion, but politics will not change the attitudes and bent of their hearts to righteousness.

England was in deep trouble in the mid-18th century. Simply put it was in nearly complete moral corruption. Drunkenness and debauchery were common place. Crime of all sorts continued to climb. The thought of the day was that those who were involved in such things did so either because it was genetic (a widely held view) or because of environment. The solution proposed based on either view was to deport those who committed any crime to a far away place and allow England to be purified in the process. Our state of Georgia was originally populated on that basis, and the country of Australia was founded as a penal colony. The results were nonexistent. Crime continued, moral depravity grew worse. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written concerning this, “Most competent historians are agreed in saying that what undoubtedly saved [England] from a revolution such as that experienced in France at the end of the 18th century was nothing but the Evangelical Revival [George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers]. This was not because anything was done directly, but because masses of individuals had become Christians and were living this better life and had this higher outlook. The whole political situation was affected, and the great Acts of Parliament which were passed in the last century were mostly due to the fact that there were such large numbers of individual Christians found in the land.” The true hope of preserving our nation is not in politics, but in revival in both Christians who are spurred to live in holiness and many people who get saved. The moral nature of our nation is in trouble not because of a lack of Christian Political Activism, but from a lack of Christians living in holiness.

True Christians affect others, not because they may be in a position of power to make rules, but because of who they are. We need to be men and women like Bishop Evin Berggray of the Norwegian Lutheran Church during WWII who was held a prisoner by the Nazis. It is reported that his 11 man guard was changed constantly to prevent their coming under his strong spiritual influence. Or like Gordon Maxwell, a missionary to India, who once asked a Hindu scholar to teach him the language. The Hindu replied, “No Sahib, I will not teach you the language. You would make me a Christian. Maxwell replied, “You misunderstand me. I am simply asking you to teach me your language. Again the Hindu responded, “No Sahib, I will not teach you. No man can live with you and not become a Christian.

Jesus says that “You are the salt of the earth.” The emphasis is on being what you are, not on doing something.

Jesus also says that the truly righteous are:

The Light of the World

This is much the same as being salt in many respects with just a different emphasis. Again, the emphasis is on being what you are and not on doing something. You ARE the light of the world. Salt has the more negative emphasis of preservation while light has the more positive emphasis of proclamation.

Light is an often used analogy for the nature of God and the nature of a Christian. 1 John 1:5-7 tells us that “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we fellowship with Him and walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Jesus came into the world to “shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79), and in John 8:12 Jesus said that, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” We are the light of the world because God shines His light through those that have received it through Jesus Christ. Christ is the true light, we are only reflections of Him. As the moon reflects the sun, we reflect God’s Son, Jesus Christ, by what we say and do.

The nature of light is that it exposes the darkness. There are many who think they have a light by which to guide themselves through life, but they are like those Paul speaks about in Romans 2:17f. They boast confidently about being guides to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, but their very lives prove they are in the darkness themselves. The light of the Word of God exposes even the dark recess of the heart as well as those things out in the open. By being the light of the world we expose the sinfulness around us. And in a sense there is a preserving effect in that. Just as roaches that infest a building will scatter when the lights are turned on, so evil scatters when the light is turned on it.

We are also the light of the world because we have the light of God’s Word to share. David called the scriptures a lamp to his feet and a light to his path (Ps 119:105). The Bible tells us how to live godly lives and bring glory to His name. We are light in a very positive sense because we guide people by that light to God. Light lets us see the truth.

There is a danger however in

Losing our Savor, Hiding our Lights.

Jesus says in this passage that the truly righteous are these things – they are salt and they are light. They do not have to become these things, they are them by virtue of being a true Christian. But there is a danger.

Our saltiness can be lost by contamination with the world. If salt is mixed with impurities it loses it desirable qualities and can actually taste bad instead of good. When that happened in the time of Christ, it becomes useless for its intended work and it was cast out into the street where it would become part of the road that people walked upon.

As Christians we are salt. But the question is what is the strength of our saltiness. Are we pure salt which can have a great effect on things – or have we become contaminated with impurities? Have we become like the world which we are supposed to be cleansing? There is a danger of being influenced by the world instead of influencing the world and losing our ability to affect those around us. We could find ourselves useless for the cause of Christ. Don’t be like the story Dr. Philpot tells of being called to the bedside of a young girl who was dying. He read, plead and prayed with her that she would see her need for the savior and turn to him. Finally in desperation he called the mother in, and she with heart breaking in sorrow also pleads with the girl to accept Christ as her savior. The girl listened stonily, and then she said these indicting words to her mother, “Mother, you can’t talk to me now. You haven’t lived the life before me!”

You are the salt of the earth. Stay useful in the cause of Christ and don’t get mixed up with the world. And if there are worldly things you are mixed up in, repent and remove yourself from them before your testimony is compromised anymore.

You are also the light of the world. You do not have to do anything for people to see it. Like a city on a hill they will see it naturally without any effort on your part. But there is a danger if you become concerned about what people might think of you – and then hiding your light from them. That takes the effort. There is a story told of a young man that entered military service. His first night in the barracks camp he was tempted to lay aside his normal habit of reading his Bible and getting on his knees to pray beside his bed before going to sleep. But risking the possible jeering of the men around him he told himself, “I am a Christian, and I ought to give these fellows a testimony. I won’t strike my colors; I’ll do just as I did at home!” And he did. As he kneeled and began to read and pray, the barrack got very quiet. The next night when he went to do the same again, eight other young men grabbed their Bibles and did likewise. Within a month he had the respect of every man in the outfit and he influenced many of those men for Christ. He was light, all he had to do was not hide it. Do we let our light shine? Or do we hide it?

Jesus’ command to us in verse 16 is really very simple. “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.” Do not hide your light. Let people see who you are in Me. Let them see the good things you do, i.e., the things that are beautiful and attractive – so that they may give glory to God the Father. If you are living in true righteousness as expressed in the Beatitudes, then there is little danger of your pride getting in the way, because your goal and purpose in life is bringing honor to His name and being a blessing to all. You are salt and you are light. Don’t become contaminated and don’t hide your light, and you will bring glory to God.


A Hindu woman was converted to Christ, primarily through hearing the Word of God read. As she walked with Christ she was persecuted by her husband and suffered much at his hands. One day a missionary asked her, “When your husband is angry and persecutes you, what do you do?” She replied, “Well, sir, I cook his food better; when he complains, I sweep the floor cleaner; when he speaks unkindly, I answer him mildly. I try, sir, to show him that when I became a Christian I became a better wife and a better mother.” The consequence of this was that though the husband could withstand all the preaching of the missionary, he could not stand the practical preaching of his wife, and he gave his heart to God because of her.

May the same be true of us as we live our lives in such a way that men will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.

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