Salt and Light.

13 “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.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 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. 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. Matthew 5:13-16 ESV

There are two important questions raised by this section of Jesus’ sermon. The first has to do with who He is addressing. We know that He is standing before a large crowd which Luke describes as “a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases” (Luke 6:17-18 ESV). But we also know that the 12 men He had recently chosen to be His apostles are also part of the audience. So, when Jesus uses the term, “you,” to whom is He referring, the entire crowd or just His 12 hand-picked followers? The answer is most likely both. Jesus intended everyone in the crowd that day to hear His words, but the application would differ depending upon the nature of each individual’s relationship with Him. The crowds were there out of curiosity or, in some cases, need. There were those who had showed up hoping to be healed. Others had come to see Jesus perform a miracle and to find out what all the excitement was about. The 12 apostles were there because they had been called by Jesus and were attracted to His ministry and message. At this early stage in their relationship with Him, they were still ignorant of His exact identity. It is clear from John’s Gospel that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but were probably not fully aware of what that meant. John records that Andrew, after having met Jesus, sought out his brother, Simon, and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ)” (John 1:41 ESV). Not long after this, Philip, having been called by Jesus, found Nathanael and told him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45 ESV). And Nathanael, upon meeting Jesus for the first time, would exclaim, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49 ESV). Their collective concept of Jesus’ identity was still cloudy and a bit unclear. And their understanding of the role of the Messiah would have been greatly influenced by their cultural expectations as Jews. They were looking for a king, a liberator who would restore the Jewish people to power and prominence, overthrowing the Roman yoke of oppression under which the nation had suffered for years. The kingdom for which they hoped and dreamed was an earthly one, similar to that of David’s, when he had reigned in Jerusalem. 

So, Jesus’ words were meant for all to hear, but they would have had different application depending upon the relationship each individual had with Him. Jesus was not ignoring the crowd and talking only to His 12 disciples. But His words would have a special significance for them because of the role they were to play in His earthly ministry – in the days ahead and long after He had gone.

The second question that is raised by Jesus words has to do with what it is He is trying to say. What does He mean and what is He looking for by way of response? There are those who believe that Jesus was simply giving a lesson outlining the expected behavior for one of His followers. They see this as little more than Jesus providing the moral and ethical guidelines for life as one of His disciples. But the problem with this interpretation is that it tends to present the Gospel as little more than an effort in behavior modification. This view overly simplifies the words of Jesus, making it sound like a life of righteousness is achievable through self-effort and personal discipline. But all that Jesus outlines in His message is unachievable through human means. The kind of life Jesus describes is impossible for men to carry out in their own strength. He is presenting a radical new way of living that will be made available only through His eventual death on the cross. He is presenting a brand of righteousness that is unattainable and unavailable apart from His sacrificial death on the cross. There was not a single individual in the crowd that day who could live up to what Jesus was describing as life in the kingdom of heaven. He was demanding of them something greater than they were capable of delivering. He was raising the bar of expectation for beyond their capacity to reach it.

When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” He was describing an aspirational goal for all those who would become His followers. In some ways, Jesus is talking past His immediate audience and addressing all those who would later become His followers after having placed their faith in His atoning death on the cross. There is a sense in which Jesus is addressing two audiences: the one standing before Him on the hillside, and the much larger, universal one comprised of all those who would accept His sacrificial death on the cross as payment for their sins. They would be salt, agents of influence in the world, acting as His representatives and impacting all those around them through their very presence.

But Jesus was also indicating that every single Jew standing in the crowd that day, within earshot of His voice, had been intended by God to be an agent of change as well. They should have been salt. As God’s chosen people, they should have had a positive influence on the world around them. But they had failed. They had lost their saltiness, their distinctiveness, and were “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matthew 5:13 ESV). The Jews were an oppressed people who lived under the heavy hand of Roman rule and had long ago lost their ability to influence the culture around them. But Jesus was saying that all those who are part of the kingdom of heaven will be people of influence, who dramatically impact the world around them. Their very presence in the culture will make a difference. And they will never run the risk of loving their saltiness.

And Jesus informs His audience that all those who are part of His kingdom will be like lights. They’ll make an impact. They’ll create a difference in the world around them. Light is not meant to be hidden. You don’t light a lamp and then stick it under a basket. Light is meant to illuminate and reveal. It is intended to repel darkness. God had chosen the people of Israel to be a light to the world around them, revealing to the Gentile nations what a relationship with Him should look like. They were to have been a model of righteous conduct in the midst of all the moral darkness of the world. But they had failed. Their light had gone out long ago. And John describes Jesus as the light that came into the darkness of the world, the world of Palestine, and the land of the Jews.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

The Jewish people should have been a light to the world, but they were living in darkness. The 12 men whom Jesus had called would eventually be lights in the world, but at this point in the story, they were still living with a darkened understanding of just who Jesus was and what He had come to do. Jesus was calling all those in His hearing to live lives of influence.

let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16 ESV

But what He was asking of them was impossible. They did not have the capacity to pull off what He was demanding. Even the 12 would find the kingdom life Jesus was about to describe as unachievable. It is so important that we recognize that Jesus is describing life in His kingdom that will only be made possible by His eventual death on the cross. The life Jesus describes in this passage will only become available when He completes the task assigned to Him by His heavenly Father and offers Himself as the payment for the sins of mankind. And it will not be until after His resurrection and ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, that the 12 disciples will find themselves empowered to be the salt and light they were intended to be.

What Jesus is doing in this message is describing what is to come. He is setting the stage for what will take place after He has accomplished the will of His Father. The kingdom life is only possible because the Jesus did what He had been sent to do. The ability of the 12 to be salt and light was totally dependent upon Jesus being faithful to His calling. He did what He had to do so that we might do what we were intended to do. His death made new life possible. We can be salt and light because Jesus accomplished His Father’s will and paid the penalty for our sins. He has restored us to a right relationship with the Father and given us the Holy Spirit as the source of power that allows us to influence and illuminate the world around us.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson