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Salt, Light and Law

Matthew  5:13-20

Lesson audio

The connection between this passage and the Beatitudes is usually overlooked. But Christ has just taught His disciples that they will be persecuted; now, He teaches them what they are to be in the face of persecution.


"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.

(Mat 5:13 NASB)

Let us begin with an Old Testament background, for Christ’s hearers – from then well into modern times – would have understood the common uses of salt which are no longer with us.

  • Indeed, the covenant of the Law was described as a “covenant of salt.”[1] The covenant God made with the house of David is also described as a “covenant of salt.”[2] The symbolism is there for purity and its eternal nature, as we shall see.
  • Every offering – with a slight exception – had to be salted. It is a grand lesson. The exception was the thank offering – one give not as a requirement of the Law, but given in gratitude. Salt was not required; leavened bread was used. The things of God are pure and unadulterated; the offerings of man are made with the symbol of sin (leaven), showing us that even a sinner’s offering can be made acceptable in gratitude.

One thing about salt: a little goes a long way. If you’re a cook, salt is measured in pinches, not inches. Salt, too, has a rough edge in its taste. It is a powerful flavoring – and if you use too much, the recipe is a failure.

See the picture? The salt of the earth is the same way; the church began with but twelve apostles; wherever it goes, its people are “different.” Indeed, the salt of the earth might just be irritating wherever they go. This is one of the “why” answers to persecution.


Other than cooking, there are two primary ancient uses of salt:

  • Salt was used as a cleanser, a purifier.[3]
  • Salt was often used as a preservative (it’s how we got ham).

When the salt of the earth come, they are to lead the people to purify themselves in confession and baptism; thus will they convey eternal life to the world.


Some us get the point; if salt loses its ability in taste, in purifying and preserving – what good is it?

Indeed, we are taught that even our conversation is to be seasoned with salt:

Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

(Col 4:6 NASB)

Salt in the voice is the product of grace for the soul. Grace? Yes. You are the salt of the earth – as opposed to the dirt of the world. Christ has selected you, sought for you and by his blood obtained you. May your speech show it.


"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.

(Mat 5:14-16 NASB)

Light follows salt. As one ancient writer put it, to live well precedes teaching well.

Christ, the light of the world

We must first note the dilemma: Christ is the light of the world. Who are we to say that we are? Christ gives us the answer:

"While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world."

(Joh 9:5 NASB)

We, then, are the imitators of our Lord Jesus Christ – for as He shined first, we must shine the same way.

Consider this: We are placed on a hill; the world will carefully examine our conduct. You might think this unfair; but I say that the hill on which the Christian stands is no ordinary hill, but the Rock, Jesus the Christ. Just as everything He did met with scrutiny by His enemies, so will our actions be examined. Being light is first what we are to the world, and then what we do in it.

The nature of light

Light, as metaphor, includes the nature of purity in light. There is no such thing as dirty light. In the time of Christ, light was mostly sunlight; the rest candles or other fires. His hearers would have known this, and caught the message.

But more than that they would see light as we would in the phrase, “I saw the light.” We still “enlighten” people. Christ’s hearers would have recited the Psalm which declared the Word to be the lamp for my feet, a light on my path.[4]

Obvious implications

Christ has, of course, just finished speaking on the subject of persecution. If you live in a time when Christianity is unacceptable, the temptation is to hide your light – let no one know that He is your Lord. By telling us to put it on the lampstand, Christ tells us that we cannot do this. If you put the candle under the basket, it’s not long before the candle goes out.

Do you not see that persecution makes your light more visible? While others are hiding their light, your light remains – and therefore is seen as brighter. Some of us don’t like that.

But there is a warning here, also. Your works should cause others to glorify God, not be a hypocritical pretense for your own ego. Matthew Henry put it this way:

Mankind, lying in ignorance and wickedness, were as a vast heap, ready to putrefy; but Christ sent forth his disciples, by their lives and doctrines to season it with knowledge and grace. If they are not such as they should be, they are as salt that has lost its savor. If a man can take up the profession of Christ, and yet remain graceless, no other doctrine, no other means, can make him profitable. Our light must shine, by doing such good works as men may see. What is between God and our souls, must be kept to ourselves; but that which is of itself open to the sight of men, we must study to make suitable to our profession, and praiseworthy. We must aim at the glory of God.

If we are to be salt and light, and not be a monument to our own righteousness, we must seek the righteousness of God. Our own is insufficient to bring glory to God. But righteousness has its price tag, too.

Come to fulfill

"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.

(Mat 5:17-20 NASB)

Words for the teacher

A lady of my acquaintance – Catholic, and therefore much less familiar with the Scriptures – told me that her theory of the Law and Christ is this: In the Old Testament we meet the angry Father. In the New Testament we meet the loving Son. It’s a fairly common theory. It’s also wrong.

The truth is that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. All Scripture points to Christ, one way or another. Jesus does see them in opposition but in harmony. He exhibits great care for the Law – and no particular respect for the lawyers.

Thus it is that he cautions the teacher: be careful to keep My commands. Teach the Gospel, and all of it. Do not set aside any of it. You might think this would be fairly obvious – but it’s not.

  • Where is the teaching on divorce? Divorce is as common as water in the evangelical, Bible-believing churches. Christ’s words are sloughed off with the phrase, “Oh, that first century culture.”
  • Where is the church’s teaching on greed, or envy?
  • And – for the most obvious point – has anyone heard about hell lately? It’s passed off as “a Christless eternity.”

The teacher’s reward depends upon how well he conveys the Gospel. In this teacher’s opinion, that means that you make no distinction in which part is “cultural” and which is not. The application of the truth changes; the Truth does not.

This lays upon the teacher a great and heavy burden. But God lays no burden on us without giving us the means to carry it. It is a heavy burden, but our Yokefellow is very strong.

Fulfilling the Law

There are two ways in which Christ may be said to fulfill the Law:

  • First, He is the prophetic fulfillment of the Law. Hundreds of prophecies in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Christ. Most Bibles have a list of these; it is worth your time to examine this. The sheer number – and in some cases the utter improbability – is well noted.
  • Second, He fulfilled the Law as our atonement sacrifice. His death was in accordance with the Law, in great detail.

It can also be seen another way. If you know only the music of Bach, the music of Beethoven seems a real surprise. But you soon would recognize that Beethoven worked in the same musical tradition; he has simply extended and enhanced the ability of the composer to bring his message to us. One craftsman stands on the shoulders of the prior one. Christ is upheld by the Law; He did not disown it. We shall see next week His phrasing of this: “But I say to you…”

The heavier burden

How can our righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees – the right wing legalists of Christ’s day? There is only one way; by His blood. His suffering is our righteousness; it is well to keep it in mind.

[1] Numbers 18:19

[2] 2nd Chronicles 13:5

[3] 2nd Kings 2:19-22

[4] Psalm 119:105

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