Salt and Light
Matthew 5:13-16 NASB
"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt
has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer
good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
(14) "You are the
light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; (15) nor does anyone light a lamp and
put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are
in the house. (16) "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they
may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Christ’s Use of Metaphor
It is easily observed that Jesus was fond of the use of
metaphor, even stretching it out into parables. This occasionally causes some
difficulty for certain Christians who believe that the use of metaphor should
be viewed with suspicion. This is particularly true when the metaphor turns
into allegory. The truth is relatively simple: metaphor is good teaching
technique, especially when you're talking about things which are spiritual.
It's a great teaching tool for those who are simpleminded. There
is no need for a textbook type explanation; it's a simple statement.
There is also the issue of translation. Sometimes that which is
clear in the Greek is fuzzy in the English. Salt, however, is salt.
As has been shown in recent research, the use of metaphor taps
into the human brain at a very deep level. Most of us make frequent use of the
mental working model; the metaphor fits this pattern very well.
Each metaphor has, so to speak, a subject and an object. As
long as we don't turn the object into a literal usage, the metaphor can be
understood in a number of ways. Perhaps that's another reason why Christ used
them so frequently.
It is a characteristic of Christ's teaching that he uses
metaphors that are common and simple. Salt is good example:
It doesn't take a lot of salt to flavor something. It shouldn't
take too many Christians to change the character of the society around them.
Salt is used to cleanse and purify (have you ever gargle with
salt water?) So the Christian should be one who cleanses and purifies the
society around him.
Those who first heard the Sermon on the Mount would also see
that salt was something that was intimately involved in the Old Testament style
of worship. Most offerings required salt in them; God's covenant with Israel
was called a "covenant of salt", because it was intended to be an
eternal covenant. Taken together, we see the character of the Christian is one
which changes the society around them, purifying it. It is an interesting
question as to whether or not this applies to Christians acting as a group in a
But sometimes that characteristic is missing from the
Christian. The salt, per the metaphor, loses its flavor. How can this be done?
One way is by dilution. Salt has a rather strong flavor, but if
you mix it with enough other stuff it can get lost. Similarly, if it's a small
number of Christians we are talking about, it's easy for them to lose their
effect on the society.
The other way is by pollution, or corruption. We see this in the
church which adopts of the ways of the world with a knowing wink. If you think
this doesn't happen today, ask yourselves this: what is the practical attitude
of my church towards divorce? I suspect it will make an interesting comparison
with what Christ taught.
In a phrase which has passed into the English language, we
are to be the salt of the earth. Think about that description for a minute.
When you tell me that someone is "the salt of the earth," you are
usually telling me about somebody who is uncomplicated, loyal and trustworthy,
and, well, "salt of the earth." Does that really describe the
Christian of today?
Christ tells us that we are the light of the world. Very
well then; let's examine the characteristics of light.
It is impossible to have dirty light. It simply doesn't exist.
Light is always pure — and the same should be said for the Christian.
We also use the word to indicate our understanding, as in
"we've seen the light." We use it figuratively to mean that we
understand something. The Christian is to be that light so that the other
people in this world can understand who God is and what he has done for them.
Perhaps you've never thought of it this way, but have you ever
tried to hide a flashlight when it's turned on? If your mother has ever caught
you reading comic books under the bed covers by flashlight, you understand the
problem. Light just naturally shows up and is visible. It should be the same
way with the Christian. You shouldn't have to tried to be the light the world;
you just are. And if you're not, something's wrong.
While he was with us bodily, Christ describes himself as the
light of the world. That alone should be enough to convince you that you should
imitate your Lord, for you now are the light of the world as well. We are to be
the example to the world of what God is like. The only way to do this is the
imitation of Christ; we are lesser lights, but lights nonetheless.
lower lights be burning,
gleam across the wave.
poor fainting, struggling seaman
rescue, you may save.
So what's the point of all this? Simple enough: we are to be
such an example to the world that the world will see our good deeds and praise
and glorify God for them. The purpose of being salt and light is not to bring
credit upon ourselves but glory to God.
Fulfill the Law and the Prophets
Matthew 5:17-19 NASB
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or
the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. (18) "For truly I say
to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke
shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (19) "Whoever then
annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be
called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called
great in the kingdom of heaven.
At first glance, this passage appears to be one of the most
difficult in the New Testament. In fact, it is one of the boldest.
Fulfill the Law
In a very real and explicit sense, Jesus Christ fulfilled
the Old Testament law. What does that mean? To fulfill something implies that
the something was not yet complete. There are two areas in which the law was
clearly not complete:
First, there is the matter of the atonement. Even in the Old
Testament was recognized that the sacrifice of animals was not sufficient for
sin; it was simply the best available. The Jew understood that the animal could
not pay for his sins, but that God accepted that sacrifice is offered in a
proper spirit. The fundamental problem was still there — human life for human
sin. That human life was Jesus of Nazareth, who paid for the atonement of our
sins on the Cross.
While it may be obscure, there is also the matter of the High
Priest. Among human beings it is fairly obvious that God listens only to the
righteous. It's Bad enough when the ordinary righteous (you and me, I hope) go
to speak to him; he might be kind enough and gracious enough to listen. But if
you want to represent the entire people to God the standards are higher. That's
why there was one high priest; in effect God was saying only one man will do.
That man is Jesus of Nazareth.
A more detailed and full explanation of this is given in the
letter to the Hebrews. The reader is encouraged to explore the subject.
Fulfill the Prophets
The question of how Christ Jesus fulfills the prophets is
much easier to answer. Prophets, after all, are in the business of prophecy.
There are quite literally hundreds of prophecies about the Christ to come which
have already been fulfilled. Space does not allow us to provide a complete list
of these prophecies; most of you will have a Bible with printed assistance in
it; start with that. There are three things, however, that I think are most
The prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Holy One of
Israel. Christ fulfilled this.
The prophets foretold the coming of the kingdom of God — and
Christ fulfilled this by establishing his church.
The prophets foretold that there would be a new covenant. We have gone
from the covenant of law to the covenant of grace.
We are, of course, rushing through this at a horrific pace.
To do so we have touched only the highlights.
The problem most people have with this entire section is
that they seek some sense of fulfillment which is a matter of putting round
pegs in round holes. God is not so limited as that. When he fulfills, he does
so in the same sense as he did at the beginning: as a creator. It is an
Note, please, that what Christ does is completely in accord with
the Old Testament. Despite what some modern scholars think, there is no sense
that the God of the Old Testament is indeed a cruel and was somehow appeased by
his disobedient son sacrificing himself. The two of them are one; Therefore the
Way, Christ goes about fulfilling the law and the prophets is completely in
accord with the Old Testament. He has not invented a "new morality."
He has amplified and brought to fruition the morality already proclaimed. This
is why we use the Old Testament as a guideline what is right and wrong, even
though we are under the New Testament.
There is a sense of style about this too. If you enjoy listening
to Bach, Haydn is a natural step. His style is different, but he speaks in the
same musical tradition. So do Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. In our time we have
seen musicians deviate from this great tradition and wonder why their works do
not sell. There's a lesson in here someplace. Christ does not innovate as much
as he completes.
You might interject that Christ has created the church, which is
an entirely new thing. Not so. If you understand the nation of Israel to be the
people of God, then you understand the church to be an extension of that
concept. The house of Israel includes all the Jews — anyone from any of the 12
tribes. The house of God, the church, includes all who call him Christ and mean
it. It is an extension, and a very logical one, of the original concept.
Exceed the Righteousness
Matthew 5:20 NASB
"For I say to you that unless your righteousness
surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom
When Christ first said this, his hearers were probably
astonished. But there is any one thing the Pharisees were noted for, it was
their righteousness. When the Pharisees observed one of the Old Testament laws
it was done with complete meticulousness. They probably thought that no one
ever exceed such righteousness. But as Christ points out over the course of his
ministry there are several flaws in these people. We may identify four as being
particularly deadly to the Christian.
"Say and do not." The Pharisees preached a good sermon
but didn't always follow what they preached with their practice. That happens
to anybody who preaches; it's when it doesn't bother you that it's deadly. It
didn't bother them.
They did things for show – particularly items of religious
ritual. They wanted people to know how religious they were. As Christ said,
they had their reward for this.
They kept some parts of the law quite strictly — and for other
parts they found loopholes. The most prominent example would be in caring for
Finally, there was their great love of money. Sadly enough, the
interpretive having a large amount of money as a clear sign of God's favor.
It's fairly easy to tell people not to fall for these
things. It's easy to tell them that you can exceed the righteousness of the
Pharisees if you don't follow these things. The hard part is to look within
yourself and see whether or not you have the same failings.
The problem in this passage, of course, is it seems to
demand of us a complete and perfect righteousness. The Pharisees were the most
righteous people the ancient Jews knew. In their view, being more righteous
than that was for all practical purposes an impossibility. The point can be
Ever since the time of Saint Augustine we have considered the
concept of original sin. Basically, this means that you are born with the sin
of Adam within you. You therefore have no chance whatever to be completely
righteous. Therefore, this command of Christ is impossible to fulfill. (It
should be noted that there are some Protestant denominations who do not agree
about the existence of original sin.)
More to the practical point, the Scripture assures us that all of
us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It doesn't matter whether
or not you had original sin; if you're old enough to read this, you are a
sinner. You are not perfectly righteous. (Neither am I.)
These thoughts do not exempt us from attempting to be reasonably
righteous. The Christian knows that true and perfect righteousness is the work
only of God by the grace of Christ. Without the Cross there is no true
righteousness. But that doesn't mean we should go around sinning like idiots;
rather, we should be as righteous as we are able to be. As my drill Sergeant
used to put it, "get with the program."
Recipients of Grace
As every Christian should know, it is possible to be more
righteous than the Pharisees; more righteous than the most righteous person you
know. That method depends not upon our efforts but upon the love of God, poured
out for us at the Cross. The God who is entitled to pass judgment upon our
actions sent his son to die at Calvary so that we might be the recipients of
his love, not his judgment. Only in the blood of Christ can we have the
righteousness which God demands. By his love he has found a way to do this.
That way is called grace, and we must ever remember that it is by grace we are
saved, through faith, not by what we do. Be as righteous as you can be; ask God
for his aid in your righteousness — but remember the source of true
righteousness: the Cross.