Living For God and Living In the World (Matt 5:13-16)

Bible Passage: Matthew 5:13-16

The theme of these verses is how Jesus’ disciples are to relate to the wider culture in which they live. Through history, Christians have swung to extremes on this, at times retreating from culture and living at arms length from the world (this can be known as separatism or the ‘Christian bubble’) and at other times embracing culture wholesale to such an extent that there is very little that distinguishes the Christians from those around them (this can be known as syncretism). The vision that Jesus articulates here using two images is different to both. Christians are to be in the world and making a difference, but are also to be distinct from the world.

Salt of the Earth: The first image that Jesus uses to show how Christians relate to the world is salt. There are many different uses of salt, both in the ancient world and today, but the reference in this verse is almost certainly to salt as a preservative. In an age with no refrigerators or freezers, meat and other foods would quickly go bad and have to be thrown out. One of the few ways that this rot could be prevented was by packing the food in salt, which would prevent the decay. This is the image for how Jesus sees his followers in society. There is something of the people of God, spread through the wider society that has the effect of preventing the moral decay of society by modelling the life of the kingdom and inviting people to that life. This saying is followed by the warning that if salt loses its saltiness then it is no longer fit for purpose. Where Christians live likes indistinguishable from those around them then they no longer serve as this salt of the earth.

Light of the World: Jesus calls his followers the light of the world (a title he also uses for himself in John’s gospel). This image would have been familiar to the hearers as Jerusalem was often referred to in this way, both literally because of its status as an elevated city that could be seen for miles around, and spiritually because of Old Testament promises like Isaiah 42:6 and Isaiah 60:3. This link to Jerusalem is reinforced by the reference to a city on a hill. What Jesus is saying is that his disciples are to fulfil the purpose that Jerusalem had claimed for itself, to bring light to the world by living in such a way that God can be seen. The life of the kingdom is to be lived publicly in a way that shows God to those around. When faith is kept private it is like putting a lamp under a bucket and fails to fulfil the purpose as a light of the world.

Potential Applications:

  • These verses challenge how we relate our faith to the wider culture around us. Do we tend to separate, syncretise or engage in the way Jesus talks about.
  • There is a call to repent here for those who have ‘lost their saltiness’ and whose lives have not been distinct from those who do not know Jesus.
  • This teaching makes us think about how public our own faith is. What is one step we can take? It may be as simple as telling workmates/coursemates that we are Christians, sharing something God has been teaching us, offering to pray for someone, inviting somebody along to a meeting or something else.