Salt & Light: The Penetrating Influence of Character

You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

(Matthew 5:13–16, ESV)

A cultural fad of our time is the focus on influence. With a goal of attracting attention, people’s desire to be an influencer often drives them to unhealthy extremes—and often for the wrong reasons. Jesus opened his Sermon on the Mount with a series of beatitudes that define the character of people who are assured of possessing the kingdom of God. Like the rest of his teachings, those descriptions were countercultural in his day and remain so in ours. The assigned roles of salt and light show that Jesus wants his followers to be people of character who rightly influence the world. Embedded in Matthew 5:13–16 are four applications that, if understood, will produce a more wholesome influence.

First, we must affirm the call to be identified with Christ, recognizing that as followers of Christ, we are spiritually different from the world we are to influence. In both of the metaphors and the emphatic “you,” Jesus contrasted the disciples he addressed with the people for whom salt and light are to have their purposed effects. The contrast is one of essential character. The Lord intends his disciples to influence the world, not the other way around.

Second, we must accept the responsibility of being salt and light. One aspect of the “salt” imagery suggests preservation, with the purpose of slowing deterioration. The function of “light” is illumination, which dispels darkness. The former speaks of the ongoing effects of sin on the earth; the latter indicates the absence of truth in the world of humanity. The influence Jesus wants his followers to exert is to address the desperate needs of the world.

Third, with our responsibility for being salt and light comes the cautionary warning to avoid the pitfall of compromise. On the one hand, salt is compromised when diluted by an admixture of foreign elements. Its effect is minimized, preventing it from achieving its intended savory influence. Such is the failure of an indistinct lifestyle which presents no noticeable difference between a Christian and the unbelieving world. On the other hand, light is compromised when its essential function of illumination goes intentionally unused. This is the tragedy of an unspoken witness from fear of intimidation, or an apathetic retreat into self-protective isolation. Jesus said both salt and light are worthless when not employed to fulfill their intended purposes.
Finally, to emphasize the importance of the previous three points, Jesus challenged his followers to advance the cause of God’s glory by living lives of character and witness so that others would come to believe in Jesus and glorify God. The apparent contradiction between the prohibition against displaying good works to attract personal praise from people (Matt 6:1) and the command to let good works be on display before people (Matt 5:16) is resolved by the transformed motives of a redeemed heart. At the core of his instruction, Jesus commanded his people to actively influence the world by their example of godly character and testimony. A faith so lived will be effectively reproductive as others also come to glorify their heavenly Father.

About the Contributors

Mark L. Bailey

Dr. Bailey assumed the role of DTS Chancellor after serving for 19 years as the Seminary’s fifth President, and continues his role as Sr. Professor in the Bible Exposition department. In addition to his years at Dallas Theological Seminary, he has pastored various churches in Arizona and Texas. He was a seminar instructor for Walk Thru the Bible Ministries for twenty years and is in demand for Bible conferences and other preaching engagements all over the country and world. His overseas ministries have included Venezuela, Argentina, Hungary, and China. He is also a regular tour leader in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Rome. His board service includes Bible Study Fellowship, Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, and Word of Life.