If you hang around Christian circles long enough, you may hear someone talking about the need for Christians to be “salt and light” in the world. Or, if you’ve been a Christian since early childhood, you probably remember singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” But what do these metaphors actually mean? Let’s dig a little deeper. By identifying His disciples as the “salt and light” of the world (Matt.5:13-16), Jesus was saying some pretty strong things about the condition of the world and the Christian in the world.
The Condition of the World
Let’s start with salt. In many cultures, it’s an insult to ask your host for salt at the dinner table, because you’re implying that the food is bland and tasteless. Yet, in a way, this is exactly what Jesus is implying, because He knows that, without the seasoning of God’s grace, the world is prone to bland moralism, and that without the flavor of God’s truth, it’s prone to tasteless immorality. Furthermore, in Jesus’ day, salt was primarily used as a preservative. They didn’t have refrigeration, so they would rub salt all over the meat to help prevent it from decay and disintegration. Jesus is also saying that the world’s various social, political and economic systems, when left to themselves, are subject to go from bad to worse.
Now, what about light? Well, why would the world need light if it were not in the dark? But what is the significance of darkness? Darkness is a place of confusion. Jesus is saying that the world is “in the dark” on what really matters, confused about the big questions of life, such as: Where does morality come from? Where did we come from? What were we made for? Where are we going? But darkness is also a place of hiding. Going all the way back to Adam and Eve, you see that sin causes people to try and hide the truth from each other and from God. Moreover, darkness is a symbol of hopelessness. In the midst of a broken world, many people live without a sense that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, at this point you may be thinking, “Well, this is depressing. Why are you sharing all this?” Because Jesus knows that the tendency is to live with a false optimism, believing that the world is okay on its own and that it is prone to goodness and therefore does not need salt and light. But Jesus also cautions against the other extreme, which is a monastic escapism, where you look at the decay and darkness and just retreat into a holy huddle. Jesus is calling for another way of living, a spiritual realism. In short, Jesus wants Christians to be in the world, but not of the world.
The Christian in the World
On the heels of the beatitudes, Jesus now issues a new identity. It’s on the basis of already being blessed and accepted that Jesus challenges His disciples to understand themselves as seasoning, preservatives, and lights. Jesus says in effect, “In me, you’ve now become agents of transformation in the various spheres of influence that you have.” Christians are called to be different because, in Christ, they are already different. But still, what does this look like practically?
Well, take Jan for example. Jan was a Christian lady who began working a very tiring job where the boss never encouraged the employees. So, each week Jan made a point to write a simple encouraging note or do a kind personal gesture for each of her coworkers. Jan did this for 13 years until she suddenly died in a car accident. As you might guess, Jan’s funeral was filled with people she had worked with, who stood up and shared how Jan had made their world a little bit brighter. And then one man got up and said, “I never shared this with anyone, but one morning before work, my wife told me that she was leaving me, and two days earlier I had been diagnosed with a terminally ill disease. My world was crumbling all around me, but I told no one. I arrived at the office and there on my desk was a little envelope. I opened it up. It was from Jan, and it read, ‘The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. He helps those who are weak, and to him who has no might, He increases strength. When you are weak, God is strong.’” And the man said, “That day, for the first time, I knew there was a God, and I began to turn to Him. I’m sure going to miss Jan.” Jan was missed because she lived out her identity in Christ as a “preservative” in a job that was prone to discouragement. She was the seasoning that brought her office the flavor of God’s encouraging care.
Like Jan, in a world that’s subject to decay, Christians are called to press into the brokenness and seek to preserve it and season it with the character of God. In a world of confusion, Christians are called to bring the truth of Christ into every sphere of life. In a world of hiding, Christians are liberated in Christ to be open and honest about their weaknesses and struggles. In a world of hopelessness, Christians are called to sacrificially give their live to serve those around them, because, like Jesus, they know that their labor is not in vain and there’s a better world coming.
In essence, Jesus says to every Christian, “I’ve blessed you to be a blessing. I’ve lit you to shine your light; not like grand fireworks that bring attention to themselves but like humble spotlights that bring attention to God.” The encouraging reminder of simply being salt and light is that you don’t need to do great things to change the world, you just need to be who Christ has called you to be, in the place He’s called you to be.
Jeremy McKeen is the Lead Pastor of Truth Point Church, a church in West Palm Beach he started with his wife Lindsay just over 2 years ago. The church’s mission is to point people to the truth of the gospel. Jeremy received his B.A. in Communications and Philosophy from Florida Southern College and his MDiv. from Knox Theological Seminary.