Jesus: Be Humble, Be Salt and Light

Life_in_Tension_web“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.” (Matt 5:13 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The importance of Jesus’ teaching on the poor in spirit comes in his expanding on it and living it out.  What comes immediately after the Beatitudes? What were some of Jesus’ last acts during his time on earth?

The Beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew interprets the Beatitudes in the context of discipleship with special reference to Isaiah 61:1 which reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” (Isa 61:1 ESV)

The Hebrew for “to bring good news to the poor” is rendered in two words [1]. The word for poor (ana) can mean “poor, afflicted, humble, meek” (BDB 7238) [2]. The other word means bring good news. Matthew with his focus on discipleship turns after the Beatitudes to the task of bringing good news. The task of disciples is evangelism which itself expands on the first Beatitude [3].

Matthews uses Jesus teaching about salt, found also in Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34, to point to the centrality of evangelism. Salt is a gregarios; its usefulness comes only in combination with food. No one puts salt on their table to ingest alone. Salt is used to enhance the flavor of foods and to preserve them. Matthew’s point is that: “The disciple is to the earth what salt is to food.” The disciple who refuses to be salt, is useless and stands under judgment—”good only to be thrown out and trampled” (Guelich 1982, 126-127). Matthew goes on to reinforce his discipleship theme with a second metaphor about light (Matt 5:14-16). Clearly for Matthew the tension between the disciple and the world is real, ongoing, and at the core of the mission. Luke’s discussion of enemy-love, which immediately follows the Beatitudes (Luke 6:27-25), also embodies this tension [4].

Jesus himself exhibits “poor in spirit” through at least two significant acts of humility on the night of his arrest: the foot-washing ceremony at the Last Supper (John 13:4-5) and the prayer in the garden at Gethsemane (Matt 26:39).

The Gospel of John records the Last Supper in great detail. Details begin John observing that Jesus’ was aware that he would be betrayed and would die (John 13:1-3). Under such circumstances, we might expect him to be withdrawn, paralyzed with fear, or bitter. Instead, Jesus begins an object lesson about humility:

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him…If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:3,4,14 ESV)

Foot-washing was the ultimate act of humility in the first century. Animals commonly shared the same roads as people and most people either wore sandals or walked barefoot. Dirty, stinky feet were the norm and slaves did the foot-washing. This is why Peter objected to Jesus washing his feet (John 13:8). He was also probably not anxious to get a lesson in humility because he was Jesus’ right hand man and leader among the disciples.

Luke overlooks the foot-washing, but records the lesson in humility. He writes:

“And He said to them, The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors. But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” (Luke 22:25-26)

Both passages focus on the importance of humility in Christian leadership.

While Jesus’ object-lesson in foot-washing demonstrated humility among Christian leaders, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane demonstrated humility before God. Jesus prays: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew records Jesus repeating this prayer three times (Matt 26:39,42,44 ESV) [5].  While this prayer can be taken as piety or courage [6], it demonstrates the ultimate humility to be willing to die for others, including God, for purposes that are not fully understood [7].

The early church clearly got the message about being poor in spirit.  For example, humility is a character trait instrumental in the Apostle Paul’s ministry. He writes:

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11-13 ESV)

What Paul is saying here is that humility is a core principle in his ministry practice.  His evangelism depended on his humility.  This point was made over and over in his work with the church in Corinth where he refused to accept a salary, in part, so that the Gospel could be freely and rightly preached [8].

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matt 5:3 ESV)


[1] לְבַשֵּׂר עֲנָוִים (Isa 61:1 WTT)

[2] This word is familiar because it appears also in Numbers 12:3 cited in a previous post (Jesus’ Mission Statement Gives Us Hope;

[3] “The first Christian missionary was not Paul, but Peter and Peter would not have preached a ‘missionary’ sermon at Pentecost if he had not been a student of Jesus for three years.” (Schnabel 2004, 3)

[4] Luke’s focus on enemy love right after the Beatitudes may lead some to jump immediately to the double love command in Matthew 22:36-40.  But enemy love is qualitatively different—evangelism hangs on loving one’s enemies—people you have no attachment to.  The real question for the modern church is:  why is the double love command not the centerpiece of the Beatitudes?  The fact that it is not suggests that the priorities of the modern church have been misplaced.

[5] Also see Mark 14:36 and Luke 22:42 which place the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

[6] Neyrey (1998, 110,152) sees both courage and piety.

[7] The Apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, both echo Jesus’ humility citing Proverbs 3:34: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” (1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6).

[8] Act 18:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 11:6-9.


Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Schnabel, Eckhard J. 2004. Early Christian Mission. Vol 1: Jesus and the Twelve. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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  1. Humility is also important from the perspective that Satan has on many occasions tempted God’s people and Christ by appealing to our egos. Examples of this were evident in the Garden of Eden, temptations to Christ during his fast in the desert, and through our physical/psycological desires for power, wealth,and notoriety, or extreme desire for sexual gratification. Though humility is not all that is needed to resist these temptations, it does predisposition us to recognize these threats our spiritual growth and to our discipleship.

    1. Thanks for the insight into sin. In my next week’s post I talk about how humility is basic to other teaching in the New Testament, such as John’s teaching about love. Why does Jesus not mention love in the Beatitudes? The modern church has hung everything on love. The answer from a look at 1 Cor 13 seems to be that agape love is essentially “humble love”–I did not see that coming! Thanks again. Stephen

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