Sermon on the Mount

Impact on the World

Photo of Gary DeLashmutt
Gary DeLashmutt

Matthew 5:13-16


Continuing the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus instructs his followers the kind of impact he wants them, and us, to have in the world. Using the analogies of salt and light, Jesus urges them to be involved but distinct, and have their lives reflect the love that they have found in Christ. Do our communities impact others in this way?


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Last time, we began a study on the most well-known teaching Jesus ever gave--the so-called "sermon on the mount" because he gave it to a very large group of people from the top of a hill next to the Sea of Galilee.

I noted that its theme is the kingdom of heaven (a synonym for the "kingdom of God")--see 5:3,10,19-20; 7:21. As God's King, he invites his hearers into God's kingdom and explains how life lived under God's loving rule is radically different than life lived under the assumptions of both religious and secular power structures.

Last time, we looked at Jesus' instruction on how his followers can have the kind of true happiness God wants us to have. Now he turns to instruction on the kind of impact God wants us to have on the world of human society. It is another famous passage--many of you are probably familiar with it--but read it carefully (read 5:13-16).

General Observations

Before we look more closely at what it means to be salt and light, we need to make sure we understand what Jesus is saying here.

By describing his followers as salt and light, Jesus is saying that we possess the essential spiritual resources for the rest of human society ("earth" and "world" clearly refer to the "people" of 5:16). And we have these resources, not because we are so good or intrinsically spiritual--but simply because we belong to him who is the source of spiritual life. Jesus said Jn. 8:12 (read). We who have followed Jesus are the light of the world because he is the true light of the world who shines through us.

By describing the rest of human society as lacking salt and light, Jesus is saying that they are spiritually dead and lost. In spite of their greatness in many ways, they are in dire spiritual straits. They are like meat that is tasteless and subject to decay; they live in the confusion and deception of spiritual darkness. Only when they "glorify your Father" (get reconciled to God by following Jesus) will they be spiritually alive and found. Yet God loves them and wants to be reconciled with them, which is why he reaches out to them through Jesus and his followers.

By calling his followers to be salt and light, Jesus discloses his basic strategy for reaching out to a lost humanity: involvement and distinctiveness. Elsewhere, Jesus calls this being "in" the world but not "of" it (Jn. 17:15-17).

INVOLVEMENT vs. ISOLATION: We are to be in close contact with and personally involved with people who don't know Christ. Just as salt is useless unless it is in contact with meat, just as a lantern is useless unless it is in the presence of darkness--so we are useless to Jesus' mission unless we are in regular, personal contact with lost people. This means that all attempts to isolate ourselves from the world are fundamentally wrong-headed (MONASTIC MOVEMENT; CHRISTIAN CULTURAL "GHETTO").

DISTINCTIVENESS vs. ACCOMODATION: We are to be distinct from people who don't know Christ. Salt can't help meat by becoming unsalty; light can't help darkness by covering itself. So we cannot help the lost people of this world unless we exhibit an alternative.

This is why Jesus' main concern is not how horrible the world is being (what do you expect it to be?), but with whether his people are being what they are supposed to be.[1]

What then does it mean to be salt and light? Is it proclamation or demonstration?

Certainly, it involves talking with people about Christ, sharing the good news of God's grace and how Jesus has changed your life, and inviting people to receive Christ and follow him. Jesus commands us to do this (Lk. 24:47), and this is a key part of the ethos of every healthy church.

Having said this, though, this is not what Jesus is emphasizing when he says we should be salt and light. Rather, he is emphasizing that we should exhibit a way of life that attracts rather than repels people from this message, a way of life that confirms it rather than denies it. Let me show you why this is so:

In context, the salt and light refer to the qualities of 5:3-12--which are primarily character, lifestyle qualities. In other words, Jesus' original audience would have understood the salt and light in this way.

When Jesus uses these same metaphors (as we will see shortly), he refers primarily to lifestyle and character issues.

When the apostles use these same metaphors and elaborate on this passage (as we will see shortly), they refer primarily to lifestyle and character issues.

I think this is a very encouraging passage. Very few of us are powerful speakers, or charismatic conversationalists, or persuasive intellectuals. But Jesus says that we can still have great spiritual impact on people who may never respond to one of the above. If you are willing to get involved with people and show them the life of Christ, you will find many becoming open to the message of Christ that you share in your own personal way. Let's take a closer look at what this kind of life looks like . . . 

Be salty: Exhibit a flavorful life

Salt in the ancient world had two main uses: seasoning and preservation. Meat without salt is both bland in taste and prone to rapid decay. Jesus seems to be drawing attention to salt as a seasoning (5:13 "tasteless;" explain how Dead Sea salt could become unsalty). Life apart from a vital love relationship with God is ultimately tasteless, insipid. Even God's good gifts ultimately lose their flavor when you put them in God's place. Jesus' followers are to exemplify a flavorful life--but they are often insipidity personified. What does it look like to be salty in this sense? Three other passages provide answers to this question . . . 

LOVE RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHER CHRISTIANS: Read Mark 9:50. Jesus uses the same language about unsalty salt--and links being salty with being at peace with one another.

As we saw two weeks ago, peace means more than the absence of conflict. It means the presence of relational closeness and harmony. Being salty, then, involves having close love relationships with other Christians. Read Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21,23 and note the connection between love relationships between Christians and people in the world being drawn to God.

Why? Because everyone desires healthy close relationships. When they don't have this, but see others who do, they become open and curious about how we can have this (HOME CHURCH TESTIMONIES).

Do you have this? If not, the place to begin is by joining a home group. And if you are in a home group, you need to work at building some through-the-week, Christ-centered close friendships.

RADICAL COMMITMENT TO CHRIST: Read Lk. 14:33-35. Jesus uses the same language again--this time linking it to radical, costly commitment to himself. You may ask, "Is he saying I have to give my possessions to a commune and take a vow of poverty?" No, the rest of the New Testament affirms the validity of private property. But he means something far more radical. He means that everything you possess--not just your money and material possessions, but also your time, your talents, your relationships, your plans, etc.--you should voluntarily give over to him to used as he sees fit for the advancement of his purposes (OWNER vs. STEWARD).

What is unsalty is nominalism. When I was a kid, that's what I saw--people who obviously lived for tribalism and materialism like everyone else. Who needs the excess religious baggage?

But when people see that your commitment to Christ actually changes you in these areas, they take him more seriously (ESPECIALLY FAMILY MEMBERS & LONG-STANDING FRIENDS) because they see you have found a cause worth living for. This explains the popular appeal of movies that center around living for a cause greater than yourself ("BRAVEHEART;" "THE PATRIOT;" "GLADIATOR"). Have you done this?

LOVE & ACCEPTANCE OF NON-CHRISTIANS: Read Col. 4:5-6. Paul uses this same image of salt as seasoning--this time referring to the way we speak to people who don't know God. While we may disagree with many of their beliefs and behaviors, we have to communicate an attitude of grace--that they are precious in God's eyes, that he loves them and is prepared to accept them as they are if only they will come to him through Christ. This is what opens doors to sharing the good news with people (4:6b).

Jesus was great at this. No one was more righteous than he was, no one lamented the destructive effects of sin more than he did, no one was more straightforward that God wants to change our moral lives--but his love for them came across so clearly that he became known as "the friend of sinners." They were attracted to him as strongly as they were repelled by the Pharisees, who are the antithesis of this salt.

Unfortunately, American Christianity has a lot of unsalty Pharisees. People who not only condemn homosexuality, but hate homosexuals. People who not only condemn abortion, but shout epithets at those entering abortion clinics. People who put up insensitive posters and bumper stickers like "WHAT PART OF 'THOU SHALT NOT . . .' DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND? ." This is why the biggest single barrier to winning people to Christ in this culture is other Christians!

Would your non-Christian neighbors, work associates, etc.--regardless of how much they may disagree with your beliefs--say that you genuinely love and accept them?

Let your light shine: Exhibit a morally illuminating life

Remember the total darkness in the ancient world. When you are in total darkness, you get lost and damaged . . . That's how it is living without God--you don't really know how to live, relate, etc. You get confused, lost, and damaged. What is needed is light--someone who exemplifies how to live life in a way that works. Paul and Peter develop this in two ways . . . 

SEXUAL PURITY & MATERIAL GENEROSITY: Read Eph. 5:3,4,8-11. When Paul says we should "expose" the unfruitful deeds of darkness, he means we should expose by positive contrast the emptiness of this way of life. Notice the two areas he zeroes in on.

We are to exhibit a high view of human sexuality, so we don't relate to others or talk about them as sexual objects.

We are to reject materialistic greed, so we practice material generosity by living below our means and giving to the poor and needy (MORE ON THIS LATER).

EXCELLENCE IN SOCIAL ROLES: In 1 Pet. 2:12, Peter clearly echoes Jesus without using the metaphor of light (read). In the following verses, he connects this to excellence in our social roles (2:13-3:7). Paul does the same thing in Titus 2,3; Col. 3:17-4:1; Eph. 5:22-6:9.

AS A CITIZEN & NEIGHBOR (Titus 3:1,2): Are you respectful and cooperative to the governing authorities? Or do you mock them and make their jobs difficult? Are you a friendly and helpful neighbor?

ON THE JOB: Are you hard-working, respectful, and honest on the job, or are you known as a pilfering, contentious goof-off (Titus 2:9,10)? Does your boss wish he/she had more employees like you, or do you make life miserable for him/her? Do you treat your employees/associates with dignity and fairness, or do you use them (Eph. 6:9)?

WITH YOUR FAMILY: Are you committed to love and invest in your non-Christian spouse and children (1 Pet. 3:1,2,7)?


SUMMARIZE: The issue is not perfection, but direction. I wonder how many of you came to Christ largely through the influence of Christians who were salt and light to you. I want you to listen to the story of a friend of mine who was very far from God when someone in this church was salt and light to her (VIDEO TESTIMONY).

GOSPEL: If you're tasting the flavor, like the light--why not come to the Source?


[1] "When society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat for going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?" John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. 65.