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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20

Last week it was poetry; this week it is simile. The creator of thought is the master of language; we shall see how he lays out the Christian life in short sentences.

First, in the passages that follow, note the tense of the verb. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. It is a present tense; it is descriptive; it is simple. He did not say “you will become”; or “you should be” -- he says you are. This, as we shall see, has serious implications for the Christian who does not want to be too serious about his religion.


(Mat 5:13 NIV) "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

We use the expression, “salt of the earth,” to this day. But like many other expressions it has changed meaning over time. How would those who heard Jesus have reacted to this now common expression?

Salt is a preservative -- literally and figuratively

Salt was used in ancient times to keep things from spoiling. Indeed, the Apostles closest to Jesus were fishermen; the fish they caught were salted and then taken to Jerusalem for sale.. So the hearers would probably have taken this simile to mean that they are to “prevent decay” -- a point which has great relevance to our society today. Are we, as Christians, supposed to act in such a way as to prevent or halt the moral decay of our society? If so, how?

There is another aspect of preservation which has deeper meaning. In the Old Testament the covenant between Israel and God was spoken of as a “covenant of salt.”[1] Later on, the promise to David that his heirs would inhabit the throne of Israel forever was referred to as a “covenant of salt.”[2] In this we can see that Jesus is associating us (the joint heirs of the kingdom) with this promise to the house of David. The preservation spoken of is, therefore, an eternal one.

Salt is associated with purity

In the Old Testament we see several uses of salt as a purifying agent. We are shown these examples:

·         Elisha purified a spring by salting it.[3]

·         The ceremonial incense used in the Tabernacle required “salt, pure and holy.”[4]

·         The cities of Israel’s enemies during the conquest were sown with salt as a symbol of purifying the land.[5]

·         It was in common use as an antiseptic (like we gargle with salt water); for example, babies were rubbed down with salt at birth to prevent infection in the umbilical cord area.[6]

Salt as purifying agent means that we are to be a purifying force in our communities. We often see this as an impossibility; how can so few do so much? We forget the third use of salt -- as flavor.

Salt as flavor

(Col 4:6 NIV) Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

We often forget that the free gift of God is grace. It is the greatest of gifts, and yet we mention it so seldom. Here, truly, is the salt we bring. I submit to you a radical proposition: the preservation and purification of our society does not come from moral outrage and protest marches -- it comes from the grace of God flowing through us. You do not come clean by promising not to get any dirtier.

A thought: our society’s great shame today is that it has no shame. Perhaps it has no shame because it sees no way to deal with guilt -- so we deny sin. Would we deny something so obvious if we saw a way to deal with it? Perhaps the shortage is not morality, but grace -- from our conversation.

“but if...”

Many of us are convinced that once we become a Christian, we are bound for heaven, no matter what we do. “God will forgive -- it’s his hobby.” But is this really so?

(Heb 6:4-8 NIV) It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, {5} who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, {6} if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. {7} Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. {8} But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

This, it might seem, means that anyone who falls away is immediately doomed. We may search for “how many times” in the Scripture; what we will find is not a rule but a person:

(Luke 13:6-9 NIV) Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. {7} So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' {8} "'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. {9} If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'"

Our Lord is patient and slow to anger -- but not forever.

The Romans had a saying: only two things are pure -- salt and light. We must now pass to light.


(Mat 5:14-16 NIV) "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. {15} Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. {16} In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

From the earliest portion of Genesis light is associated with God. As such, it is used as the picture of purity and righteousness, of godliness.[7]

·         We are told that God is light.[8]

·         We are told that God is the “father of lights” from whom comes everything good.[9]

·         God dwells in “unapproachable light.”[10]

·         Indeed, we are told at the resurrection the light of the New Jerusalem is not sun nor moon but God himself.[11]

So we have a picture that God is intimately bound up, at least symbolically, with light. As Jesus is indeed God in the flesh, it is not surprising that he too is associated with light:

·         Literally, he shows this at the Transfiguration.[12]

·         He declares himself to be “the light of the world”[13] -- but only as long as he is in the world.[14]

So we have light as the symbol, the figure, of God. But to create light is to create the possibility of darkness. As light when created also creates the possibility of “not-light”, i.e., darkness, righteousness, when created in the universe (and especially in fallen man) creates the possibility of “not-righteousness” -- i.e., evil. The only “cure” for darkness is light; the only cure for evil is righteousness. We may then take light as the symbol it is and note something utterly astonishing: Jesus now applies it to us.

We are the light of the world? Of course. We are the body of Christ. While He was in the world, he was the light of the world. He is gone to the Father; we are his body; we are the light of the world. Whether we like it or not. So then what shall we do to be light?

Light is intended to be a guide:

(Psa 119:105 NIV) Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

Are we then the lamp for the feet of others, a light for their path? Do we show them the way of salvation?

Light is a symbol of purity

·         Jesus was described as “light in the darkness” which the darkness could not overcome.[15]

·         The main reason is this: light does not create what is -- it makes it visible.[16] By showing what is we drive it out where grace can cleanse it.

Light is intended to be seen

Here we go again. It seems that God wants what I do to be seen! Couldn’t I just stay home and be a nice guy? No!

·         Note that the light is intended to be seen by the world -- not just by the church. If your works are on display on Sunday morning only, and the world sees them not, you have failed in your purpose as light.

·         The deeds are to be seen so that men may glorify God. The purpose is not so that they’ll think I’m a wonderful guy -- it’s so that they’ll know He’s a wonderful God.

Matthew Henry sums it up this way:

Mankind, lying in ignorance and wickedness, were as a vast heap, ready to putrefy; but Christ sent forth his disciples, by their lives and doctrines to season it with knowledge and grace. If they are not such as they should be, they are as salt that has lost its savor. If a man can take up the profession of Christ, and yet remain graceless, no other doctrine, no other means, can make him profitable. Our light must shine, by doing such good works as men may see. What is between God and our souls, must be kept to ourselves; but that which is of itself open to the sight of men, we must study to make suitable to our profession, and praiseworthy. We must aim at the glory of God.

This lays upon us a terrible burden. How can anyone be so righteous as to do so well? In what possible way can I be “this good?”

Fulfilling the Law

Christ came to fulfill the law:

(Mat 5:17-20 NIV) "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. {18} I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. {19} Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. {20} For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

How does one “fulfill” a law? Most of us can see the sense of “obey” the law; but “fulfill,” as a verb, doesn’t make much sense. We need to remember that the Old Testament Law was not just “Thou shalt or shalt not” but also included an elaborate ceremonial set of regulations -- all of which revolved around the idea of atoning for sin. The law also includes the idea of “what will happen if” and “what will happen when.” Christ fulfills the law in two senses:

·         He fulfills it in the sense of sacrifice: he is our atonement for sin.

·         He fulfills it in the sense of prophecy; he is the culmination of the Old Testament.

Now we see how to obtain a “righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.” Their righteousness was one of rules and regulations; by following the law and offering the right sacrifices they felt they were right with God (or therefore righteous). The Law was the gift of Christ; they confused the gift with the giver. A better way is come, and we must take it. How are we to achieve this righteousness?

The Pharisee and the publican

(Luke 18:9-14 NIV) To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: {10} "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. {11} The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. {12} I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' {13} "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' {14} "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Faith without works is dead. We have our righteousness; He is Jesus Christ. Now, we must go out and be salt and light -- and give God the glory.

[1] Numbers 18:19; see also Leviticus 2:13 for the phrase “salt of the covenant”

[2] 2 Chronicles 13:5

[3] 2 Kings 2:19-22

[4] Exodus 30:35

[5] Judges 9:45

[6] Ezekiel 16:4 mentions this in passing

[7] See, for example, Ephesians 5:8-9

[8] 1 John 1:5

[9] James 1:17

[10] 1 Timothy 6:16

[11] Revelation 21:23

[12] Matthew 17

[13] John 8:12

[14] John 9:5, 12:35-36

[15] John 1:5 -- have you noticed how taken John is with this symbolism?

[16] The argument is taken from Ephesians 5:13-15

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