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Sermon on the Mount

Salt and Light

Matthew  5:13-20

Lesson audio

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. Why?

·         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 political democracy.

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.

Let the lower lights be burning,

Send the gleam across the wave.

Some poor fainting, struggling seaman

You may 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 pertinent:

·         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[1]. 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.

Creative Endeavor

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 artistic endeavor.

·         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 of heaven.


Literal Sense

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 their parents.

·         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.

Completely Righteous

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 rather deep.

·         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.

[1] Jeremiah 31:31-34

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