Jesus is sitting on the side of this mountain teaching His disciples in view of many other people. He has introduced this “Sermon on the Mount” by declaring blessing to the oppressed, poor, and downtrodden. In this section, Jesus begins the instructive portion of the sermon. He is explicitly addressing His disciples (v. 1), those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (v. 6), and those who will be persecuted because of Him (v. 11). This instruction applies particularly to those who are being saved, “the elect” according to Matthew’s language in chapter 24, verse 22. This message is for Christ’s disciples, and the world (those not yet in Christ) is observing and listening. This particular passage deals explicitly with the relationship of Christ’s disciples, His church, with the world.
What do you think the true Christian’s relationship with the world ought to be like?
“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. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 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. 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. Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 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. 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. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Use of the Old Testament
Matthew has already used the illustration of light in chapter 4 and verse 16. There, he quoted Isaiah 9:2, which he uses to make the point that, by Jesus’ settling in Capernaum, a great light dawned upon the people. This dawning light was accompanied explicitly by Jesus beginning to preach the message of repentance (4:16-17).
Even though there are no explicit allusions to the Old Testament text in this part of Jesus’ sermon, Jesus is explicitly referring to the shining of this light by preaching this message of repentance. In Isaiah 9, it is evident that the world is preserved and illuminated and brought to repentance by God’s message (Isa. 9:8-9).
Jesus is instructing His disciples according to this Old Testament truth, that they might remain faithful to God’s message in the whole of the Old Testament. This would also apply to the New Testament text. It is almost as if God considers His word to be of utmost importance.
The church in view
Christ began with announcing blessing, which only comes from Him, and now takes the time to describe the relationship His disciples have with the world. This will provide the framework for the rest of Jesus’ sermon as He addresses particulars about the Law, of works, of organized religion, of religiosity, concerning worry, concerning judgment, and concerning prayer.
In this passage, we are getting at the essence of what it means to live like a Christian. This comes after true repentance (4:17) and as we hunger and thirst for righteousness (v. 6). Root produces fruit (7:15-23). Jesus’ sermon consists of a constant “root produces fruit” anthropology. Let’s observe Jesus’ statements in this context together.
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.
The characteristic of salt that Jesus is explicitly referring to is its usefulness (perhaps in its preserving and/or flavoring properties). When Jesus states that when salt becomes tasteless, it is no longer good for anything, He is referring to the salt being compromised by any number of external things. The Greek, μωραινω, literally means to taint and so render something useless. It is where we get our word “moron.” When Jesus refers to His disciples as the salt of the earth, the statement has something to do with their being useful in the world and not being tainted. Salt becomes tainted when something is added (like the other minerals in the dead sea close to where Jesus was teaching). “Salt of the earth,” was an illustration that Jesus used to introduce the theological and practical point that He makes later in the passage.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 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.
In the same way, Jesus uses the illustration of light to introduce this theological and practical point. Christ’s disciples are light and are on display before the world. No one hides a light because the light is what provides that people are able to see.
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 disciples are to let their light shine before people so that people can see their good works. The light is something other than the good works. It is the light by which good works are seen. The light by which works are seen and God is glorified is not the works themselves. There is a different illuminating agent within the disciple of Christ.
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 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.
People will often isolate Jesus’ teaching about His people being salt and light from His statements about the Law and the Prophets. These teachings cannot rightly be isolated from each other. Because these verses are so often used and taught out of context, we often hear that it is Christians who are the preservatives of the world keeping it from evil and that it is somehow by our good works that people see God. These interpretations contradict Scripture (comp. Mat. 6:1-24, Eph. 2:8-9).
We must consider these verses in context. The Sermon on the Mount stretches from Matthew 5:1 to Matthew 7:29. Here, there is a reason Jesus talks about the Law and the Prophets directly after giving these illustrations of salt and light. There is something about the Scriptures that makes Christ’s disciples salt and light. We see Jesus directly apply these two illustrations in His next phrase.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. God was fulfilling His covenant. The whole of the Law points to Jesus and draws us into repentance. It is a mirror, not a checklist.
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.
As we interact with the world, God’s word is made known for what it is and we desire for the world to know God’s law. This means that we cannot annul it or hide it or explain it away or leave part of it out or add to it for the purpose of our being accepted or of making it more palatable or to convince people of some conviction we have. Those who annul God’s word in any way as we interact with the world will be least in the kingdom of Heaven. Those who expose (what we mean by exposit) God’s word shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven. Notice that there is nothing in this passage about anyone losing salvation or not being saved because he or she taints or hides the word of God. Salvation is by grace. Those who are faithful to God’s message, denying themselves and not exalting the traditions or teachings or theologies of people, will be called great in God’s kingdom. Those who are unfaithful by tainting or hiding any part of God’s word will be least.
Our being the salt and light of the world has to do explicitly with making God’s word known without annulling it in any way or to any degree. This is why Paul would write to the Corinthian church, instructing her not to “exceed” the words of Scripture (1 Corinthians 4:6).
If a disciple, the salt of the earth, loses his or her saltiness, this explicitly means that something has been added to the word of God and has so compromised the message of God through that disciple, rendering that disciple useless in this world for God’s purpose explicitly of salvation through (not by) repentance.
If a disciple, the light of the world, hides that light by withholding any part of God’s word, the Law, then he or she is not letting his or her light shine. God’s word is the only sufficient light by which we can see and help others to see. This is why we do everything we can to exposit the whole counsel of Scripture.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
We do not go beyond or take away from what God has given, in context here to mean in the Law or God’s word, because our righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees if we are to enter the kingdom of Heaven. The source of our righteousness is not us. God is the source and He has given His word for the purpose of our conviction and humility and so that we might repent (4:17), not so that we might in some way become righteous. The effect of our being salt and light is not that people would flock to a church building. The effect is that people might hear God’s word and come to genuine repentance before God.
This is the purpose of our good works, that people would see them in light of God’s word and glorify our Father who is in Heaven.
Jesus confirms His commitment to the Law and, from the very beginning of His preaching ministry, makes it known that He desires His disciples (Christians) to be just as committed to God’s word alone (neither tainting it nor hiding it).
The world in view
Our relationship to the world, then, is primarily that of going out a proclaiming God’s word. His word is the light within us. His word is primarily made known through His people, who are themselves described as light. Though God can sovereignly ordain any method to spread His message, His normal method is by the proclamation of His people. By this light, people are able to see and be preserved. Secondly, we are to do the good works that God has prepared for us. It is by the light of God’s word within us that people see our good works and glorify God. This means a couple of things for us.
First, the most important thing that we can do as Christians is know God’s word and hide it in our hearts. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This is why the preaching and teaching ministries of any healthy church are her foremost ministries. This is why we are dedicated to expository preaching and teaching. This is the best thing that we can do to equip the saints for ministry. It is where Jesus begins when instructing His disciples during His public preaching ministry.
Second, we strive to understand the text without tainting it or hiding it in any way. This is very easy to do, but we do not want to become useless concerning God’s kingdom on this earth.
Third, we do not simply do good works. Good works should always be accompanied by God’s message because God’s message of repentance is the light by which people see our good works and glorify the Father.
- Does this truth mean that it is wrong for a Christian to pursue any other discipline than Biblical study?
- Is it acceptable to use any resource other than the Bible from which to derive the primary teaching of the church?
- What would be considered “adding to” or “taking away from” God’s word?
- Is it acceptable to have any secondary or tertiary teaching or discussion in the church that is not an exposition of Scripture?
- Why do you think Jesus describes the relationship of the disciple to the world as that specifically of making God’s word known?