In one of His better-known teachings, the one commonly called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made a couple of interesting statements about His disciples. He told them that they were “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13 NIV) and “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14 NIV). Though we have four gospels, the statements He made in these two verses are only found in Matthew’s gospel. There are no exact parallels in any of the other gospel accounts. But what did Jesus mean by these statements? Surely His words are significant. They seem to be word pictures concerning some of His purposes for His people in the world. As we seek to understand the significance of these statements we will take them in reverse order, that is, we will first consider the implications of being “light” and after that of being “salt.”
The word “light” appears very early in Scripture. The first mention of it is found in Genesis 1:3. In this verse the Lord calls forth light; when He does, it comes into existence. After this initial mention of light, the word appears many other times in the Bible. Sometimes it is used to describe the light that the Lord created in nature (Gen 1:14–19). At other times it describes light created through natural means, such as lighting a lamp (Luke 11:33). It is also used to describe a matter that a person might not consider of great importance (1 Sam 18:23 KJV) or it can be used to describe something that is not heavy (Matt 11:30; 2 Cor 4:17). So light is a very versatile word in Scripture.
In addition to its significance in the natural realm the word “light” is also used in Scripture in reference to the spiritual realm. This is sometimes done by contrasting it with darkness. We will turn our attention now to the spiritual significance of light. Scripture describes God as light (1 John 1:5). Jesus also said that He is light, in fact, “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5 NIV). These texts thus set the standard. Scripturally speaking, light, like God, is good. This connection is not surprising, light is a characteristic of God. What may be surprising is that Jesus said His followers are to be “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14 NIV). We might not have expected Him to say that. This is because we know that we are flawed human beings. Even as Christians we sin, to claim otherwise is to deny Scripture (1 John 1:8). We also know that in the Bible, sin is equated with darkness (Eph 5:11). We are not completely pure as the Lord is, for “in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 NIV). We are at best flawed images of God.
So for a believer what does it mean to be light? How are we to live up to Jesus’ words? What characteristics are to mark our lives? Fortunately Scripture does supply us with some answers to these questions. In a very general sense as light was markedly different from darkness in the creation account (Gen 1:3–5), the life of the believer is to be very different from the life of the unbeliever. In the immediate context of Matthew 5, where we find Jesus’ statement about His followers being “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14 NIV), we learn that light is meant to be seen. That being said it should be obvious to the world that we are followers of Christ. Our faith should not be hidden but readily observable and in marked contrast to the darkness of the world around us. One of the things that people should see is our good works (Matt 5:16). When we do them properly people will praise our God (Matt 5:16). The apostle Paul tells us that we are to “live as children of light” (Eph 5:8 NIV). This is to be an ongoing characteristic of the life of the child of God, it involves living in “all goodness, righteousness and truth” (Eph 5:9 NIV). Paul further wrote that we should not participate in the works of darkness but instead “expose them” (Eph 5:11–14 NIV). Stated differently, we should show sin for what it really is. So to be light in the world we have the twofold responsibility of displaying the character of God (righteousness and holiness) and exposing the darkness of sin. We can do this if we follow the instructions of the apostle John, who wrote that we should “walk in the light” (John 1:7 NIV).
Jesus also said that His followers are to be “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13 NIV). The word “salt” is used less frequently in Scripture than the word “light.” At times when it appears it is describing literal salt or a body of water with that name (Deut 3:17; Josh 15:2 KJV). The number of verses that refer to the spiritual significance of salt are very limited and most of them come from the gospels, from the lips of Jesus Himself (Matt 5:13; Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34). So what does it mean for us as Christians to be the “salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13 NIV)?
In the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery under the entry for “salt” it says that the positive uses of salt, emphasized in Scripture, refer to its abilities to season, preserve and purify (page 752). If we think about these purposes with reference to our Christian lives we can come up with some practical applications of God’s intent for us in this world. We have the ability to impact an unbelieving world in a number of ways. In keeping with the positive uses of salt mentioned above one thing we can do is make the righteous principles of God’s Word known. We can stand for truth. But in addition to declaring the truth, we also need to live it. If we are consistent it speaks volumes to a watching world. If we fail to be consistent it can have a very negative effect upon our unbelieving friends and neighbours. Be assured: they are watching us. However, if we really want to impact our world we need to intentionally work on the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20). We need to use all of our influence to lead others into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. When a person truly comes to faith in Jesus they are changed; their eternal destination is changed (John 5:24) and so is their temporal life (2 Cor 5:17).
Jesus’s stated purpose for us as His people is that we be salt and light. Please note that His words were not directed to any special class of Christians. Jesus did not address them only to one gender, ethnic group, or to Christian leaders. His statements are applicable to all of His followers, including modern-day believers such as you and me. May God help us not to fail in fulfilling His purposes for us, that we may truly be salt and light in the world. It is part of our mission and in keeping with our calling to make disciples and be ambassadors for the Lord (Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 5:20). The world needs our influence, let us influence it for good.