After a few weeks’ break, we now return to our study of the Sermon on the Mount, and immediately following the Beatitudes, Jesus uses two metaphors to describe His disciples which have become very well known—salt and light. Jesus has just described the character of the people who are citizens of His kingdom, and now he focuses on how these citizens are to influence the world around them.
The point that Jesus wants to makes is that His disciples, though a minority group in the world, can have a great influence on the world simply by living the way that Jesus calls us to.
The first metaphor that Jesus uses—Christians as the salt of the earth—may seem a little strange to us, because we live in a time and place where salt is cheap, readily available, and in some ways, looked down upon (food with high sodium content is considered unhealthy and something that should be avoided).
In contrast to this, salt in the ancient world was seen as highly useful and valuable. It was used for a variety of purposes in the ancient world, including to preserve food, as a cleansing agent, and of course what we know it best as today: a type of seasoning(1). Jesus is indicating that salt is a necessary component of daily life, and that similarly, disciples of Jesus Christ serve an indispensable role in the world, in that we help to preserve the moral value of the world and keep it from corruption(2). Our good influence should help to elevate the morality of those around us.
But Jesus also gives a warning here about salt losing its taste, and therefore becoming useless. The implication is clear: if Christians fail to live in a way that makes us stand out from the world, then we are no longer able to benefit the world.
One final characteristic of salt that is worth considering: it must come into contact with something before it can have an effect on it. Salt doesn’t do your french fries any good until you actually sprinkle it on top. In the same way, for us to actually benefit those around us, we must be willing to interact with them. If we refuse to have any contact with the world, then we cannot effectively be the salt that Jesus calls us to be.
Making a similar point, Jesus now switches metaphors and tells His disciples that they are the light of the world. Throughout Scripture, light is a symbol for that which is right and good, and in the Old Testament, the metaphor of light is associated with Israel, who was to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42.6; Isaiah 51.4-5). This also echoes earlier statements in Matthew, which indicate that Jesus’ ministry was the promised light for the Gentiles (4.15-16). Jesus now tells His disciples that they, too, are to be light.
Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a city set on a hill. In Palestine, cities are often built on the hills, which makes them visible from a distance, especially at night, when lamps are lit. In using this metaphor, Jesus reminds us that the church is incredibly visible to the world. The reality is that people in the world see how Christians behave, and they are paying attention. If we claim the name “Christian”, we have a great responsibility to live according to the values of the kingdom.
As a city set on a hill cannot be hidden, neither do people light a lamp in a house and then cover it over with a basket; after all, that would defeat the purpose of lighting the lamp! Instead, the lamp is placed on a lamp stand where it can give light to the entire house.
Similarly, disciples of Jesus are not to hide their faith or disguise the kingdom values by which we are supposed to live. There is no such thing as being a “secret disciple” of Jesus; if we are truly living as disciples, it will be apparent to those around us. The world desperately needs the light of Christianity and the good influence of people who are following Jesus, but if we only shine our lights when we are at church, then we are about as useful as salt that has lost its taste.
We let our lights shines by living according to the kingdom values that Jesus has already taught. That sort of life is characterized by good works, but those works are not about making ourselves look good, but rather, are a means of glorifying God the Father.
Jesus’ words remind us that although we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we live in a world that does not share our values, but at the same time is in desperate need of our influence. It is very common to hear people of faith complain about how dark the world is. Honestly though, what else should we expect? We should expect the world to look like the world; it is our job as Christians to stand out, live as salt and light, and make a difference in that world.
Jesus makes it clear that citizens of the kingdom have a major responsibility to influence the rest of the world, but we do this not through power or force, but rather through the influence of the good examples of our lives. In a world filled with darkness, there is a desperate need for people who will consistently and courageously stand up and do the right thing. And if we do that, we might be surprised at how many people follow suit!
- Lee C. Camp, “Salt and Light, Salsa and Tortillas,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 96.
- J.W. McGarvey, Matthew and Mark, The New Testament Commentary (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1875), 51; Albert Barnes, Matthew and Mark, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1949), 47.