As we’ve worked our way through Matthew’s gospel, we’ve seen that Matthew highlights connections between the life of the Lord Jesus and the people of Israel in Old Testament times. So, just as Israel came out of Egypt and passed through the waters of the Red Sea, so the Lord Jesus came out of Egypt and passed through the waters of baptism at the Jordan. Just as Israel was tested in the desert, so the Lord Jesus was tempted in the desert. However, whereas the people of Israel were disobedient, the Lord Jesus was obedient to his Father in heaven. And just as Israel began to conquer the Promised Land, so the Lord Jesus appeared as a conquering king who conquered demons and diseases wherever he went. Matthew depicts the Lord Jesus as a new and better Israel.
Last week we began to study the Sermon on the Mount and we once again saw connections with the Old Testament, because in the book of Exodus we read that the people of Israel gathered at a mountain to receive God’s law. And Matthew tells us that the disciples and the crowds gathered at a mountain to receive God’s law. However, on this occasion, the Lord Jesus is not depicted as a new and better Israel. He’s now depicted as Israel’s Lord. He’s the Lawgiver, who has come to this mountain to teach his people God’s will for their lives.
Last week we spent our time on the beatitudes. The Lord Jesus pronounced blessing on his people. Most of the blessings are for the future, when he comes again in glory and with power. But the first and last are for the present. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is — right now in this life — the kingdom of heaven. And blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is — right now in this life — the kingdom of heaven. While we have to wait to receive the other blessings, we don’t have to wait to belong to Christ’s kingdom, because whoever repents and believes the good news enters Christ’s kingdom in this life and becomes a member of it. And in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus teaches his people how to live as members of his kingdom.
And so, today we come to verses 13 to 16 of chapter 5 and to what he says about being salt and light.
So, look with me at verse 13 where the Lord says to his disciples:
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.
So, he begins with a description: You are the salt of the earth. Then there’s a question: If salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? And it ends with the answer: It can’t and therefore it’s no longer good for anything.
Salt is good for many things. We use it as a seasoning. to help food taste better. Fish and chips without salt is bland, but fish and chips with salt is great. And if you watch the Great British Menu or any food competition on TV, chefs are always being criticised for not seasoning their food enough. Without salt, the food does not taste good.
Salt is also used as a preservative. Before there were fridges to keep meat from spoiling, meat was packed with salt and the salt kept the meat from going off. It stopped food from becoming rotten.
It’s also a kind of antiseptic. A little tip for you if you’re ever on holiday in the sun and are bitten by a mosquito: rub some grains of salt into your skin with a finger. It takes the pain away. And Ezekiel 16:4 refers to the practice of rubbing newborn babes with salt. Apparently this was done because of its antiseptic properties.
So, salt is a seasoning. It’s a preservative. It’s an antiseptic. It has many other benefits too. I once started reading a book which was all about salt and its benefits. But salt is so useful, that the book was too long and I gave up reading it.
So, when the Lord refers to salt, he’s referring to something useful. Something beneficial. Something that is regarded as good. He then raises the possibility of salt losing its saltiness. From what I’ve read, salt can’t really lose its saltiness. However, the Bible scholars make the point that salt in ancient times was impure and therefore it was possible for the salt in the salt mixture to be washed away and whatever was left didn’t taste of salt. In that case, it was useless. And if it was useless, you may as well throw it out.
So, that’s the picture the Lord is using. What does it mean? It’s common for interpreters to latch on to the idea of salt as a preservative and to make the point that Christians are to preserve society and to keep it from becoming rotten. However, I don’t think we can be as specific as that. As I say, salt has many uses and the Lord doesn’t make clear which use he has in mind. And therefore I think we should interpret the image generally. It seems to me that when the Lord describes his people as being salt, he means there’s something different about us, something which is good and beneficial for the earth. That is, there’s something in us which is good for the world.
And notice this. The Lord is not challenging us to become salty. He’s not saying to his disciples that they must become like salt. He’s saying that his disciples are salt. His people are already salty. Whoever is a member of his kingdom is like salt. The challenge, therefore, is not to become salty. The challenge is to remain salty. That is, the challenge is to remain what we are. Because we’re united with Christ through faith, we have become different from others who do not believe. And we need to ensure that we remain what Christ has made us.
Verses 14 and 15
So, you are the salt of the earth. And you are the light of the world. That’s in verse 14. So, once again we have a description: You are the light of the world. This is followed by two illustrations to help us understand wha the image means. The first illustration concerns a city on a hill. The second illustration concerns a lamp in a house.
A city on a hill cannot be hidden, because all the lights in the city are shining brightly in the night. When I’m walking our dog in the castle country park early on a winter’s morning, before the sun is up, I look across the city below and that’s all you can see: lights. Street lights and the lights in windows and the lights of cars. And, of course, during the war there was the blackout to make it harder for enemy planes to see where the city was. But normally, a city cannot be hidden, because it’s lit up by all the lights.
And then, when someone lights a lamp in the house, they don’t normally put it under a bowl or basket. If they were to do that, the light would be wasted, because no one could see it. No, when you light a lamp, you set it up on the table so that the lamp will light up the entire room. The light of the lamp needs to be seen. So, you don’t hide it under a bowl. You let it be seen.
That’s the picture the Lord is using. And when he describes his people as light, he’s saying that there’s something about us which is seen. There’s something about his people which is seen by the world. A lit-up city is seen. A lamp on a table is seen. And his people are seen.
And notice again, that the challenge is not for us to become light. He’s not saying to his disciples that they must become light. He’s saying that his disciples are light. His people are already the light of the world. The challenge is not to become light. The challenge is to remain light. The challenge is to remain what we are. Because we’re united with Christ through faith, we have become lights which cannot be hidden and which are seen by everyone. And therefore we need to ensure that we remain what Christ has made us.
And so, we come to verse 16 and to the Lord’s exhortation:
In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Most of the commentators connect this exhortation only to the image of light. But I suspect it’s connected to both images: to the image of light and to the image of salt.
Think about salt again. Salt is useful for many things and it benefits lots of people and it’s good. It’s good that we have salt in the world. And Christ has made his people like salt, because he has made us to do good to others and to perform good deeds and to benefit the people around us. For instance, we read in Titus 2 that Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. And in Ephesus 2, Paul contrasts what we were, before we believed, when we followed the ways of this world and of Satan, and the way we are now, because we are now God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. That’s what Christ has made us. He’s made us people who are eager to do good. He’s made us to do good works. He’s made us like salt, because salt is good and beneficial and useful.
And the world around us will see it, because the Lord has made us lights which shine. Our good deeds, our good works, will shine in the world. They cannot be hidden. Whenever we perform good deeds for the people around us, we’re shining like lights in a dark world.
And what is the end result? What will be the outcome of the good things we do and which are seen by the world? People will praise…. not us. We don’t want glory for ourselves. We don’t want people praising us. No, people will praise our Father in heaven. He gets the glory for any good we may do, because he’s the one who enables us to do good. He enables us by his Son who died for us and by his Spirit who lives in us.
And what are the good deeds we’re to do? That’s what the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is about, because he goes on to forbid, not only murder, but also hatred; and not only adultery, but also lust. And he speaks about divorce and oath-keeping and turning the other cheek and loving your enemy and giving to the needy and prayer and fasting and being generous to others and about not worrying and about not judging one another. He refers to what other people did and to what he calls his people to do, which is always different and better. Throughout the Sermon he explains to us how we’re to live as his people in the world. And by the good deeds which we perform in obedience to his will we will bring glory to God’s name. That’s why God made us; and that’s why he saved us by his Son; and that’s why he is recreating us by his Spirit. And that’s why he made us salt and light: so that we might do good in the world and bring glory to his name.