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Light, Salt and Righteousness – Matthew 5:13-20

candle-tipRead this passage in light of the missional nature of the church — a topic discussed in this video of Ed Stetzer, that I recently posted on this blog. Stetzer says, for example, that it’s not so much that the Church has a mission as that God’s mission has a Church.

The mission of God requires a people who are bearers of God’s light and presence in the world. As Christ came into the world to mediate God’s presence to the world, his followers — the disciples to whom this Sermon is addressed — are now to continue and extend that mission.

The church doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to serve the world. It is not ultimately about the church; it’s about the people God wants to bless through the church. When the church loses sight of this, it loses its heart. — Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith p. 165.

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with a series of shocking statements about who had the blessing of God. The blessings of God’s Kingdom were falling upon unlikely people. Jesus now continues with a series of sayings about his disciples and their role in the world. They are people who are sent on God’s mission to bring hope to the world.

Thus, it is important how they conduct their lives.

Matthew 5:13
Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς· ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται; εἰς οὐδὲν ἰσχύει ἔτι εἰ μὴ βληθὲν ἔξω καταπατεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” (NRSV).

Salt preserves. Salt gives flavor. It is an essential. In our day we worry about getting too much salt — but a serious danger would also be not having enough. Or: having salt that looses it’s essential character. The old commentaries spend a lot of time discussing whether salt without saltiness was possible in ancient times. I don’t think it matters. In fact, I like the image better if its taken as an absurdity. What good would salt be if it lost its saltiness? Maybe that is impossible for salt, but it is possible for God’s people.

Adam Clarke

Adam Clarke

The chosen ones don’t advance the mission of God — they don’t become an example for the nations. Adam Clarke writes:

A preacher, or private Christian, who has lost the life of Christ, and the witness of his Spirit, out of his soul, may be likened to this salt. He may have the sparks and glittering particles of true wisdom, but without its unction or comfort. Only that which is connected with the rock, the soul that is in union with Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit, can preserve its savour, and be instrumental of good to others.

In Leviticus 2:13 we read: “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” So, besides the preservative and flavor enhancing qualities of salt (which we can more readily understand) salt also had covenant significance. Adam Clarke quotes Pliny’s Natural History to the effect that “no sacrifice was offered to the gods without the salt cake.” He also quotes Homer and Virgil to show that salt normally accompanied ancient sacrifices. So, beyond the symbolism we easily understand, there was covenant significance: salt had a symbolic significance in the people’s relationship to God.

Jesus’ followers have a mission. Their salvation does not begin and end with themselves. They are to be salt for the world. Yes, I think this is intended to mean that they are a preserving and enhancing presence — but there is more than that. They are to mediate the reality and presence of God in the land (τῆς γῆς).

Scot McKnight in Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary) argues that the reference to τῆς γῆς (usually translated “the earth”) means “the land” and is a reference to the nation of Israel. Thus, it would be a reference to the mission to the Jewish people. He, then, argues that τοῦ κόσμου (“the world”) in verse 14 is a reference to the nations — that is, the Gentiles. That could be, though it is certainly not necessary to see it that way.

Matthew 5:14-16
Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη·  οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον ἀλλ᾿ ἐπὶ τὴν λυχνίαν, καὶ λάμπει πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ. οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (NRSV).

Since Jesus followers are bearers of light, they need to let that light shine. But, this is no attempt to glorify themselves: they shine so that God may be glorified.

Already Matthew’s Gospel has emphasized the coming of light by quoting Isaiah 9:2: “[Jesus] left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” (Matthew 4:13-16 NRSV). Thus, Jesus is the bearer of light. His ministry brings light to those in darkness. The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:4 speaks of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (NRSV). So, in that passage the Gospel (the story of Christ) is light.

Lesslie Newbigin

Lesslie Newbigin

Here Jesus’ disciples are the light of the world. It is a derivative light — a light derived from Christ. Disciples can be “light” in so far as their lives point others to Christ — the source of their light. The candle does not draw attention to itself. It’s purpose is to illuminate. Their role is indispensable. If they do not bear the light of Christ — the light of the Gospel — both in their lives and in their words — the world is left in spiritual darkness. The role of Christians — the role of the Church is to bring light and hope to the world — to make the world a better place, to enable people to live more hopeful and meaningful lives. And, it is precisely by following Christ day by day, that their lives shine.

“The Church is sent into the world to continue that which he came to do, in the power of the same Spirit, reconciling people to God (John 20:19-23).” — Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (p. 230).

John Wesley remarks:

As well may men think to hide a city, as to hide a Christian; yea, as well may they conceal a city set upon a hill, as a holy, zealous, active lover of God and man. — Sermon #24 “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, 4”

Matthew 5:17-20
Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας· οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι.  ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν· ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.  ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν.  Λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (NRSV).

Jesus declares that he has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (that is to say: the Old Testament) but to fulfill it. There is a certain range of meaning to the verb πληρόω (translated “fulfill”). (1.) The usage of the word and its etymology suggest that it commonly means “to fulfill, make full; (pass.) to be filled, full, complete (often used with reference to the fulfillment of the OT Scriptures)” — NIV Greek Dictionary from Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance edited by Edward W. Goodrick, John R. Kohlenberger III, & James A. Swanson. so, it could mean: Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures. He came to bring them to their true completion. (2.) In the Septuagint translation of 1 Kings 1:14 we find this: “…καὶ ἐγὼ εἰσελεύσομαι ὀπίσω σου καὶ πληρώσω τοὺς λόγους σου” or “…I will come back to you and confirm (πληρώσω) your word.” So, there is a possible meaning: Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament, but to confirm it.

Hebrew_bible_4The message of Christ comes as a fulfillment of the Old Testament, not its abolishment. Christ’s work and ministry is understood in the light of the Old Testament. It is the necessary backdrop for the story of Christ. It is unfortunate that it so often has such a bad rep in the Church of our day. People often say with scorn: “Oh, that’s just so Old Testament!” Do we realize that these are the Scriptures to which the early Church looked for inspiration and guidance? In our New Testament, when we find references to “the Scriptures” the reference is to what we would call “the Old Testament.”

But, for Christians it is the life of Christ that reveals the true meaning of the Old Testament. Thus, Jesus becomes for us the interpretive key for all of the Bible — we see it all in the light of Christ. And, because we see it all as being fulfilled in Christ, and all as being important to the story, we seek to learn from all of it. All parts of the story do not instruct us in the same way. The story contains good examples and bad examples. There is a progressive revelation in the Bible — where more and more of God and God’s ways are revealed as the story progresses. But, all parts of the story are respected for their place in the whole. And, all of it is seen as pointing toward  Christ. The early Christians, the Jews, the Pharisees, the Essenes, the disciples of John the Baptist, all agreed on the importance and authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. They did not agree on its interpretation. Christians read the Bible in the light of what God has done in Christ.

So, it is never a matter of throwing out some parts of the Bible and keeping others — it is a matter of prayerfully discerning God’s will for our day in the light of Christ. Much of the Old Testament law is no longer directly relevant to us and we do not keep it. But, even those parts of the Bible had their place in their day — in their own culture and time. And, even the least detail is important in the whole.

Because the story of the Bible has come to its fulfillment in Jesus, the whole story is seen differently. We see the Law of God as having its fulfillment in the law of love: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as our self. We see the ministry of the prophets as having its fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus announcing and establishing in its beginnings a Kingdom of justice, peace and righteousness. We see the narrative  — the story — of the Bible as finding its fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Fulfillment may not mean keeping the details of the law — it means keeping the intent of the law. I found this note in The NIV Study Bible:

Jesus fulfilled the Law in the sense that he gave it its full meaning. He emphasized its deep, underlying principles and total commitment to it rather than mere external acknowledgment and obedience.

jesus-and-phariseesBut, how can our “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees“? It needs to be more than a legalistic righteousness — that is to say, it needs to be more than a matter of keeping certain rules and regulations. It is more than outward righteousness, it is an inward righteousness, allowing the Bible to form us by faith. In the Psalms we often read of meditating on the law of God. Psalms 77:12 – “I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.” Psalms 119:15 – “I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.” Psalms 119:27 – “Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” This is more than just a matter of finding a rule to fit each particular case, it is a matter of deeply considering the meaning behind the law — and seeing the kind of person the law calls us to be. Fulfilling the law can put us in a position of going against the letter of the law — as the early Church slowly discovered in advancing the mission to the Gentiles.

The apostle Paul, who was once a strict Pharisee — he says of himself: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” — found a greater righteousness in Christ. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Philippians 3:5-9 NRSV.)

Jesus Christ is the key to the Bible. But, without the Bible we do not have the first Christian’s witness to Christ. We do not have the story that leads up to his coming and we do not have the account of his life and instruction.

The Church is part of the mission of God to bring hope and salvation and justice and peace to the world. Jesus has come that the Kingdom of God would be established among us.

And, we are called, as followers of Christ, to bring that message of hope and life to the world — through our faithful lives and through our faithful witness.

We are called to be a force for good in this world — making the world a better place — and spreading the hope of Christ.

Don’t curse the darkness. Shine some light.


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