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Matthew 5:13-20

Lesson Focus

At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants us to know who we are. We are salt and light because we are followers of the Law of God. Only we haven’t always understood the Law correctly. Jesus is helping us see what the Law means so that we can be salt and light.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that we are the salt and the light of the world.

  2. Understand that the Beatitudes describe for us some of the ways we are to live as Salt and Light.

  3. Be encouraged to intentionally live as Salt and Light.

Catching Up On The Story

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy. By far, Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish of the gospels. His intended audience is familiar with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The genealogy situates Jesus’ birth right smack in the middle of the ongoing story of God and his chosen people. In addition to the genealogy, Matthew also begins detailing how prophecy has been fulfilled by certain characters' actions in the story. Matthew will make extensive use of Old Testament scripture.

We move from the birth narrative to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist begins to prepare God’s people for the coming of their Messiah by calling them to repentance. Turning needs to take place for God’s people. John is quite clear in his preaching. Those who begin to produce the fruit of righteous living will be safe when God’s Kingdom comes. Those who do not produce fruit will find their very existence in jeopardy.

John is not the main show, however. He baptized with water, but one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Enter Jesus. As John is at the river baptizing people, Jesus arrives and requests to be baptized. Jesus gets baptized not because he needs to stop sinning and turn towards God but to show his full commitment to the will of God. As Jesus comes up from the water, a dove descends on him, and God the Father proclaims from heaven that he is pleased with Jesus, his beloved Son.

Jesus moves on to the wilderness, where he will be tested. Will Jesus, amidst great temptation, continue to remain faithful? Of course, the answer is yes. Jesus emerges from the wilderness temptation, ready to call his first disciples. As he moves through the countryside, performing great acts of healing, his fame begins to spread. Soon enough, large crowds are following him wherever he goes. Jesus then begins the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon begins with the Beatitudes and is a collection of Jesus’ teachings intended to help Jesus’ followers grow in discipleship.

Last week we examined the Beatitudes in depth. We first discovered that before there is any talk about what we ought to do, Jesus comes to us amid all our brokenness and promises to be with us and for us forever. We are now called to hand out the things we have received because of God’s grace to those around us. We discovered that the Beatitudes are cyclical: the more grace we get from God, the more we can give. The cycle ends only if we stop responding to God’s grace.

Matthew 5:13-20*

13 “You all, you are the only 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 underfoot.

14 “You all, you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it under the bushel basket but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, all of you, together, let your light shine before others so that they may see your kind of good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not ever think that I have come to eliminate or throw away the Old Testament (law or the prophets); I have come not to destroy it but to make it stand tall, filling it up completely (fulfill).

18 For Amen, I want to tell you something very important, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one dot of an i or a cross to a t, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 So, whoever loosens up on even one of the least of these commands, 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. 20 For I want to tell you something extremely important unless your righteousness exceeds that of the bible teachers (scribes) and the super religious leaders (Pharisees), you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

*This translation is a mashup of Frederick Dale Bruner’s work and my own.

The Text

At the outset, it must be said that Jesus is addressing the disciples. The Beatitudes and what follows are words meant to be heard by those whom Jesus has already called to follow him. The disciples have heard the call of Jesus and have responded. We, too, have listened to the call of Jesus and have responded!

As we read and study the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to keep the order of things in focus. First, Jesus calls (4:18-22). Second, Jesus blesses and affirms those he calls (5:3-12). Next, Jesus explains who we are because we have been called and blessed (5:13-16). Finally, we will be commanded to continue to be who we are called and blessed to be. The commands will come later, only after we are encouraged and confirmed in who we are. God’s grace, if we are willing to let it, will enable us to do what God now commands us to do.

The Salt:

If we are paying close attention to the original Greek, the verse should sound like this, “You all, you yourselves (the pronoun “you” in this section is always plural) are the salt of the earth….”

A couple of things are important to notice here. First, Jesus is talking to those whom he has called. The address is made not to individuals but to a group of people who have been gathered together for a purpose. In our context, the “you all” is us, the local church, who belong to the Church of the Nazarene and the larger universal church. Jesus is addressing us as the church. Of course, we always hear this statement as individuals, but we cannot forget our place in the larger Body of Christ.

Second, Jesus is saying that we are the salt of the world. Three things are important here. First, we are the salt. It isn’t that we “should be” or “ought to be” or “could be” the salt, or even “you have the salt,” but we are the salt! By our response to the call of Christ, we have become the salt of the world. Salt is what we are. Second, we are the salt of the world. The definite article “the” is emphatic. When a definite article is emphatic like this, it means that what is referred to is the only one. Jesus is saying that we are the only salt that the world has. There is no other.

Finally, we are the only salt of the whole world. Even by the time Matthew wrote this gospel, the message of Jesus had only spread a little bit beyond the boundaries of Israel. And yet, here Jesus proclaims that those whom he calls are very special for the whole world.

That raises the question: what does it mean to be salt in our world? Salt is and has been used to flavor and preserve food. It highlights the true nature of the food. It keeps food from spoiling and going bad. At the same time, salt does not exist for itself, but for the food it means to flavor and preserve. What does this mean for us? It means that by responding to the call of Jesus, we are the only real thing that flavors and preserves the world. We are called not to exist for ourselves, but to exist, through the power of the One who calls us to bring flavor and life to our world.

We must be wary, however. If we exist to be salt for our world, bringing it flavor and preservation through Christ, and we lose our flavor, what good are we? Nothing! If we cease to continually respond to the call that Jesus has placed on our collective and individual lives, then we cease to be for the world what we are to be. We are then good for nothing but to be thrown away!

The Light:

In the very next verse, Jesus shifts the image. Just as we are the only salt of the world, we are the only light of the world. The force of the original Greek in verse 14 is the same as in verse 13. “You all, you yourselves are the only light of the world.” Like salt, light does not exist for itself but to illuminate the darkness. Jesus reasons that a person does not light a lamp and then hide it so that the light might be nice and cozy all by itself. No, one lights a lamp so that it might give light to the things that need light.

Jesus moves on. In the same way that we are the light of the world, we are to let our light shine so that others may see our good works and give glory to God in heaven. Our saltiness and light belong together and have a purpose: to bring glory to God the Father. Our faithfulness in continually responding to the call of Christ leads us to the completion of good works. If we are salt and light, we will do the things that salt and light do. We will flavor, preserve and illuminate our world. These are our good works, and we do them not because we ought to but because it is the natural outflow of who we are as salt and light. We do them not to bring glory to ourselves but to point the way to the Father.

The Law and the Prophets:

Before Jesus goes any further in his sermon, he gets rather forthright about his intentions. Undoubtedly, Jesus would like everyone to know he is not doing something new. He has not come to throw out any of the law; rather, he has come to fill it full up.

Imagine the law being an un-inflated balloon. It exists, you can touch and feel it, but it does not exist in its fullest potential state. If you came upon this balloon and did not know its true purpose (to be inflated), you would surmise all sorts of things about it and its uses. Jesus proclaims that he has come to fill that law balloon up fully. The law, in a way it has never been before, will be understood for what it was truly intended to be. Jesus clarifies the law for us.

In this way, Jesus is helping us understand the law. What will follow in the Sermon on the Mount will be the breath of God inflating that law balloon. If we are attentive, we will begin to see God’s law take shape, and we will start to understand it and live it out. Indeed, our doing and teaching of Jesus’ understanding of the law validate our place in God’s Kingdom. Keep in mind, this is not to say that our doing the law gives us entrance into God’s Kingdom. Rather, as we explored last week with the Beatitudes, our work is always in response to the work of grace that Jesus has begun to do in our life. We are poor in spirit. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. Yet, we are seekers of peace and steadfastly loving and faithful because God has made us so. This new understanding of the law is bound up with what Jesus has proclaimed in the Beatitudes.

So What…?

What does it mean to be the Salt and the Light of the world? This is where we head back to the Beatitudes. As followers of Jesus, we flavor, preserve and illuminate the world by being poor in spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and being merciful and pure in heart. We are salt and light when we are persecuted for righteousness sake and when people speak ill of us, and we choose to respond with grace and love.

The images of Salt and Light are meant to be redemptive images. The world needs salt and light; it requires people who mediate God’s presence and show his character. No, we are not the saviors of the world. But Jesus is making it clear that we have significant roles to play as redemptive agents in our world. In a way, when we proclaim that we are the salt and the light, we proclaim that we are, for our day, Jesus with skin on. We are called to continue Jesus’ mission on his behalf. Obviously, we cannot be salt and light apart from God and God’s assistance. We must remember those whom God calls; God equips.

Here’s a list of ways you and your group might live in our world as salt and light:

  1. Depend on God for all your needs. Identify those who have been oppressed or disadvantaged and truly depend on God to fulfill their needs. Begin to provide for the needs of those who are being oppressed.

  2. Come alongside those who have suffered a loss in their life, be it the loss of a loved one through death, the loss of a spouse through divorce, the loss of a child through rebellion, or through a million other kinds of loss. Come alongside that person in solidarity, offering comfort and prayer. Become a truly faithful friend.

  3. Seek to offer forgiveness and reconciliation when you have been wronged. Resist the temptation to seek revenge. Repay violence and anger with acts of love.

  4. Seek to do God’s will by restraining your desires for things that are not God’s will.

  5. Show compassion to people, especially people who you think deserve no compassion and mercy.

  6. Show love to those who are hard to love.

  7. Be a non-anxious presence amid conflict. Seek to actively work for the resolution of conflict and violence in your daily life. Seek to bring reconciliation to all your strained relationships. Help others to find reconciliation as well.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. What does it mean for us to be the salt of the world?

  2. What does it mean for us to be the light of the world?