13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.
15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
you (v.13) — the disciples, saved Israel
salt (v.13) — most commentaries refer to the property of salt that prevents corruption, but Pentecost has a different take.
While salt is used today as a preservative, it does not seem to have been so used in biblical times. It was the function of salt to create a thirst so that the body might retain the proper amount of fluid to maintain its health. Salt created a thirst which, when satisfied, would maintain life. Believers are in the world to create a thirst, both by their life and by their words, for the One in whom they have found their satisfaction. — Pentecost, page 176
Apart from lack of reference to Israel, this take makes sense in the context of verse 16 which shows that salt and light are to “create a thirst” for the Father in heaven.
In include this quote by Morgan only because he makes a distinction between “earth” in verse 13 and “world” in verse 14 (see quote below) that I thought was interesting.
salt of the earth (v.13) — Men and women are of the earth. It is impossible for us to escape from the material, while we are in the material, and of the material; and we need have no desire to escape from it. But Jesus said you are to be the salt of the earth. You are to live in the midst of men and women who live in earthly conditions, and are material, in order to influence that side of things with an aseptic influence. You are to save men, render possible their salvation by hindering corruption on that side of their nature that is distinctly of the earth. — Morgan, page 47
thrown out (v.13) — Some commentaries say that lack of flavor on the part of “salt” means that a person isn’t truly saved. Others state that it only refers to usefulness and influence and not salvation. But if this is referring to Israel — and it is — the nation certainly has been cast aside for now because of the peoples’ rejection of the Messiah and refusal to obey God. And in the Millennial Kingdom, those who resist the empowering of the Holy Spirit will be cast out.
Example is not enough to save a man, but example is a great force in the growth of the man who is saved. It is a great force also in luring a man toward salvation. We are not called upon in any sense to save men. We are called upon to shine on men, revealing to them the truth concerning human life, the possibilities of human life, the principles that underlie human life, giving them to see what life may be; we are called upon to be light.
Now, notice the sphere of its operation — the world. “Ye are the light of the world,” not the age, but the world, the cosmos. A great word, which includes not merely the life, but the whole created order. Here Jesus declares that His people are to illuminate other men as to their relation to the whole order, of which they form a part, and as to the necessary laws which govern it. — Morgan, page 48.
I don’t think any of the commentaries I’m using manage to find more than a passing reference to the meaning of this passage, so I’m going to try.
Matthew is talking about the Kingdom which God promised would be set up on the earth with Christ on the throne of Israel in Jerusalem and the other nations blessed through Israel. Jesus made it clear that with the coming of the Messiah (Him), the Kingdom was at hand.
By “at hand,” He meant that the point in the prophetic program had been reached where events could have led to the establishment of the Kingdom. Of course He knew in His omniscience that Israel would reject the Messiah and the Kingdom would be postponed. In addition, even if Israel had accepted Him, He would still have had to die to pay for humanity’s sin and the Tribulation (the 70th week of Daniel) would still have occurred to fulfill prophecy.
But at the beginning of His ministry, He was still giving Israel the clear choice to accept Him. In the Sermon on the Mount, He’s giving a picture of the Kingdom when all nations will be blessed through Israel.
I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3).
Behold, I will bring it [Israel] health and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them the abundance of peace and truth. And I will cause the captives of Judah and the captives of Israel to return, and will rebuild those places as at the first. I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned and by which they have transgressed against Me. Then it shall be to Me a name of joy, a praise, and an honor before all nations of the earth, who shall hear all the good that I do to them; they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and all the prosperity that I provide for it (Jeremiah 33:6-9).
Yes, many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord (Zechariah 8:12).
This is why, later in His ministry, Jesus told His disciples, … you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). But as Acts clearly shows, that generation of Israel rejected the Holy Spirit as they had rejected the Father and the Son and so the nation was temporarily set aside (thrown out like salt that has lost its savor), the Kingdom was postponed and the mystery was given to Paul.
When Christ sets up His Kingdom, He … will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). When that happens, Israel will definitely be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
None of this is to imply that there is no application in this passage for us. We should live in such a way that people come to glorify the Father through our testimony. But it’s tricky and dangerous to apply a passage to ourselves if we don’t first understand the primary audience and application. In this case, it’s Israel and the Kingdom.