Imagine being an early disciple of Jesus, a Jew in northern Palestine in the first century. You have grown up under the power of the Roman Empire and never traveled more than 50 miles from your home. You are a virtual nobody. Then you hear Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-16). Jesus did not say, “You are the salt of Palestine or the salt of Capernaum, but you are the salt of the earth. With these simple words, Jesus laid out the vision of his kingdom. “Salt of the earth…light of the world,” – it is through you, my disciples, that my kingdom will cause the world to glorify God. Amazing.
Understanding “Salt of the Earth”
I am amazed at the different ways salt has been interpreted over the years. There are lengthy descriptions of how salt was a preservative in the first century and therefore we are to be a preservative to a corrupt world. While it is true that salt was used as a preservative, that is not the sense in which Jesus uses the metaphor. Look carefully at the words, “but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” Salt transforms that which it touches. Salt makes that which it touches salty. We are here to make salty people! Jesus said, people who are not salty are good for nothing.
Notice that Jesus does not say, “You have salt” or “you need to put some salt on people.” He says, “You are salt.” Salt and light influence people and change the nature of people. Jesus is describing who we are; he is giving us our identity. Just think of the two metaphors: you are salt, you are light. This is who you are.
Please allow me to be blunt. Many, many Christians have forgotten this vision. We have lost sight of who Jesus said we are. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. The picture, indeed, is amazing. But even more amazing is how many churches, claiming to be followers of Christ, put little or no effort into using their lives to salt the earth or light the world. How can that happen when the Sermon on the Mount, the “manifesto of the King,” tells us that this is our purpose?
You see, salt must touch that which it flavors. If the salt is left in the pantry, the food will not be flavored. Salt must touch the food. Therefore, if we are the salt of the earth, we must touch the lives of people. Salt is worthless until we touch a life. Our houses are pantries in which salt is kept. We either invite people into the pantry or we get out of our pantries to touch a life. Jesus was accused of being “a friend of sinners” (Lk. 7:34), and indeed he was. He touched sinners and changed them.
Now notice: “If the salt has lost its taste…it is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” Okay, who are we to God if we have lost our flavor? Who are we to God if the salt remains hidden in the pantry? Jesus is giving a strong warning here. Many come together as God’s people come, assembling in beautiful buildings, rejoicing in their salvation and enjoying the pleasure of being a spiritual family, but they are salt that has lost its flavor and light that is dimmed. On Sundays and Wednesdays the walls, the carpets, the pews, and the saved are evangelized, but the salt remains in the pantry, and the earth and the world are not transformed.
However, we need to also look at the positive side. When Jesus said, you are the salt of the earth, he implied confidence that through his disciples the world would be salted. We may not have confidence in ourselves, but Jesus made us salt, and he said that through us the earth would be salted. Indeed, if we live salty lives, the world will glorify the Father.
You Are the Light of the World
In some ways, calling disciples the light of the world is more amazing than the salt metaphor. This is a direct reference to the words of the Father to the Messiah recorded in Isaiah 49:6:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
The proclamation is that God would make Jesus the light of the world so that salvation would reach to the end of the earth. But Jesus did not stay on this earth. Jesus spent his short ministry teaching his disciples how to be light. Therefore, in Acts 13:46-47, Paul quoted Isaiah 49:6 and said, “For so the Lord command us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth.’” Though Isaiah spoke of God making Jesus the light, Paul understood that through the work of Jesus we all have become light to bring salvation to the end of the earth.
Consider that Jesus calling us light is exclusive: you alone are the light of the world. There is no one else who is light. If we alone are the light of the world, what a challenge! What a responsibility! What a purpose! What an honor given us by God to be his light! God did not save us to gather in our meeting places and “high-five” each other because we are saved. He saved us and created us salt and light so that the world would glorify him. We need to be careful lest we become self-centered. Before all else, our salvation is about God’s glory. He created us salt and light, “so that men might give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
It is time we got out of our pantries. It is time we stop covering our light with a “basket.” If the salt loses its taste, who are we? If the light does not show the way, it is darkness, and all the solemn assemblies will not change that.