Salt & Light: Historical Sermon Illustrations from Matthew 5:13-16

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, 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)

To this day, I remember a well-meaning college student teaching on this passage at an event when I was part of a youth group. With all the wisdom of a church father, they read the passage and then waded into interpretation by saying: “Christians are here to give flavor to the world” as they attempted to explain the meaning of “you are the salt of the earth.” I remember how strange and unhelpful that was for years to come. However, for all the weird and uninformed hermeneutics available, there are some great historical examples of references to this passage that will be sure to add flavor to any sermon or Bible study. 

“Lighting the Way”

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells of the suffering of faithful Christians through the ages. Describing one particularly faithful English Christian, the author writes: “He was a good salt of the earth, savorly biting the corrupt manners of evil men; a light in God’s house, set upon a candlestick for all good men to imitate and follow.” Dr. Rowland Taylor, who the author declares was so good at pointing to Christ, was burned as a martyr on February 9, 1555. In the same book, a later story tells of two Christian friends who are tied up to be burned back to back on the same stake: Dr. Ridley and Mr. Latimer. When a lighted stick was laid at Dr. Ridley’s feet, the account says that it caused his friend Mr. Latimer to say: “Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out.” They died as martyrs on October 16, 1555. Yet, even in their death, they hoped to proclaim the light of Christ! What a humbling story!

“A New World”

In 1630, the soon to be citizens of the Massachusetts Bay Colony gathered around the Puritan Pastor John Winthrop on board the ship Arabella. The sermon he delivered was entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and it spoke of the vision of what “could be” in this new land. In the sermon, Winthrop calls on the colonists to make their new settlement a “city on a hill” as he quotes from Matthew 5:14. While many people reference this quote when talking about American exceptionalism, it can be better understood as Winthrop’s ideal vision of how a society that honors God can be a beacon of hope to a faithless world making the line less about government and more about personal faith lived out for all to see – which, after all, is the point of Jesus’s original words in the first place.

“Historical Perspective from Reverend G. Cambell Morgan”

G. Campbell Morgan, who lived from 1863-1945, was a British evangelist, preacher, and author. He explains Matthew 5:13-16 by summing up everything Jesus has said in Matthew five up to this point:

Having declared that the supreme matter in His Kingdom is character, and having described that character in the Beatitudes; the King showed that the purpose of the realization of character, in the subjects of his kingdom, is that they may exercise an influence upon those who are outside the Kingdom […] Salt is needed where there is corruption. Light is needed where there is darkness. Jesus, looking out over the multitudes of his day, saw the corruption, the disintegration of life at every point – its break-up, its spoliation; and, because of His love of the multitudes, He knew that the thing they needed most was salt in order that the corruption might be arrested.[1]

Bonus Illustration

Though not a historical theology story, the following illustration describes the historical use of salt that has been lost to modern generations:

Many of you may know about the Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder as she tells about her days growing up in the backwoods and prairie towns of the American Midwest. In the first book of the series, The Little House in the Big Woods, Laura talks about growing up in a cabin in Wisconsin in the 1800s. Getting and keeping enough food to survive the winter was a major part of their lives. In one part of the story, her father Pa goes fishing and comes back with a wagon full. They eat some, but Laura says most of the fish were packed in salt to be eaten later. Why salt? It preserves those things around it. It keeps it from decay and from rot.

In the world, the Christian often finds themselves living among a lot of decay and rot. Christ calls us to offer a way of preservation in a world bound to corruption when he says “you are the salt of the earth” in Matthew 5:13.


[1]From G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Matthew (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1929), 45-46.

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