Be Humble, Be Salt and Light

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101You 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)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Beatitudes introduce the Sermon on the Mount, where themes in the Beatitudes get expanded and anticipate Jesus’ life and ministry. Some of these same themes are highlighted, for example, on the night of Jesus’ arrest. From the Beatitudes to the sermon to the cross, Jesus’ primary theme is humble witness.

Context of the Sermon

The centrality of Christian witness in Jesus’ teaching is immediate and obvious, starting in the verse after the Ninth Beatitude where Jesus teaches about salt. Salt is a gregarious because its usefulness comes only in combination with food—no one eats salt by itself. Salt is used to enhance the flavor of foods and to preserve them. Metaphorically, “the disciple is to the people of 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).

The centrality of witness is reinforced 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. At the same point Luke’s account is a discussion of enemy-love (Luke 6:27–28), because without enemy-love no one can witness.

Witness is also a key to Isaiah 61:1:

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)

The Messiah is anointed to “to bring good news to the poor” (‎לְבַשֵּׂר עֲנָוִים; “lebaser anavim”), a clear reference to witness. Notice that the Hebrew expression is only two words: the word for poor (“anavim”) which can mean “poor, afflicted, humble, meek” (BDB 7238)  and the word for “bring good news” (“lebaser”). If humble witness describes the Messiah and his job description, then the expression is unambiguous and applies to  Jesus (Schnabel 2004, 3).

Context of the Final Hours

On the night when Jesus knows that he will be arrested and his last minutes are precious, he undertakes two conspicuous acts of humility: he washes the disciples feet at the Last Super (John 13:4-5) and he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:39).

The Gospel of John records that Jesus knew that he would soon be betrayed and die (John 13:1–3) and, while a condemned man is normally withdrawn, paralyzed with fear, and bitter, Jesus calmly 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)

Slaves washed most feet in the first century because most people walked barefoot (or wore only sandals) and shared the roads with work animals (who often fouled them), which made dirty, stinky feet the norm. As far as we know, none of the disciples were slaves or owned slaves, but accepting a task reserved for slaves would not have been a popular object-lesson. Peter objected at first, but when he later understood the message about humility, he let Jesus wash his feet (John 13:8–9).

Foot washing is not recorded in Luke, but Luke records Jesus’ teaching about humility:

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)

The importance of humility in Christian leadership and service is clear in Luke without mentioning foot washing. While foot washing demonstrated humility before his disciples, humility before God was demonstrated in the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39) Jesus repeats this prayer three times in Matthew, underscoring the importance of this prayer (Matt 26:42–44).

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane displays piety, courage, and humility. It also highlights the importance of pain and suffering in sanctification. In suffering, do we turn to God like Jesus or turn into our pain? When we turn to God in spite of pain, we demonstrate our faith and our identity draws more closely to Christ.


Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

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

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

Be Humble, Be Salt and Light

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: Publisher site:


You may also like


  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

Leave a Reply