3. Law and Grace, 5:1-7:29

ii] The persecution of the righteous, 5:11-20

b) Salt and light


Continuing with the Sermon on the Mount and the issue of the persecution of the righteous, Jesus addresses two qualities which prompt persecution, namely, being salt and light.


God's children, as they live within a corrupt environment, are the salt of the earth and a light to the world.


i] Context: See 5:11-12.


ii] Structure: The light of the world:

Setting, v1-2;

The beatitudes, 3-10;

A model exposition of the last beatitude, v11-20:

Suffering persecution, v11-12;

Righteous living in a corrupt world, v13-16;

the parable / saying of the salt, v13;

the parable / saying of the light, v14-16.

Righteousness and the law, v17-20.


iii] Interpretation -

The two parables of salt and light set the direction of the sermon on the Mount. The new Israel (Christ and those in Christ) is the salt of the earth, it is a covenant compliant people in full possession of God's promised blessings. The new Israel (Christ and those in Christ) is a light to the nations, a radiance of God's righteousness to a broken world.

Dumbrell, in The Logic of the Role of the Law in Matthew, Novum Testamentum, 23/1, 1981, divides 5:1-20 into three sections; the re-identification of the true Israel, v3-12; a definition of the nature and function of the true Israel, v13-16; and the eschatological validity of the role of the law, v17-20. Dumbrell argues that the salt and light images have quite different intentions, salt illustrating the nature of Israel, and light illustrating her purpose. Both images serve to house an abstract truth, indicative in form, in the sense that they both describe a truth (the nature and function of discipleship, cf. also Strecker), but do so without denying the imperative, ie., what is, and what should be, stand together. So, salt illustrates the new Israel's nature, while light illustrates her purpose / function.

Drawing on the covenantal image, "the salt of the covenant", Lev.2:13 (Israel as the salt of the land), Jesus restates Israel's nature as revealed in the beatitudes, namely the state of being a people of covenant compliance, right before God, possessing the promised blessings of the covenant. With the indicative there does seem to be an implied imperative, the be what you are, namely the requirement for covenant fidelity, since saltless salt is good for nothing. With "light" there is a definite imperative, "let your light shine", but not so with salt; there is no "be salt." Covenant fidelity rests on divine mercy appropriated through faith, a faith like Abraham's. The righteousness that God requires is found in God himself, or more particularly, in Christ. The new Israel, in Christ, stands in the faithfulness of Christ, and so is "blessed", v3-10. The old Israel stands outside God's mercy in Christ and is therefore no longer salt, but dross to be cast out and trampled underfoot.

As for Israel's purpose, her covenant function, she is to be a light to the Gentiles. The splendor of Zion is to the whole world, drawing the nations to her brightness, to the righteousness of God in Christ. Here, the indicative is followed by the imperative, "let your light shine."

Of course, the Israel Jesus is referring to is the new Israel of covenant fulfillment, the Israel that now welcomes the stranger within its gates (the Gentiles). This new Israel is primarily realized in the person of Jesus; he is faithful Israel because only he has been covenant compliant and so therefore only he can appropriate the full blessings of the covenant, namely life. It is only through a relationship with Jesus that his disciples become God's faithful Israel, and this as a gift of divine mercy. As for historic Israel, she is now a deserted city.


The parable of the salt: This parable is found in all three synoptic gospels, Mk.9:50, Lk.14:34-35. All three versions are slightly different, giving different applications. If there was some common form of the parable it may have gone something like " Salt is good, but if it looses its saltiness it is good for nothing, but to throw away." Of course, the image is such a common one, Jesus could well have used it differently in different situations.

The idea of saltless salt was well understood by people of the time. Leached rock-salt may look like salt and was once mostly salt, but now all that is left is a chemical residue which can no longer preserve, purify, savor or fertilize (salt was used in small quantities to fertilize the ground). Such salt is worthless other than to be mixed with mud and used to waterproof a roof and then trodden underfoot.

Mark's application of the parable is rather vague. "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other", Mk.9:50b. This seems to stress fellowship within the Christian community. Luke uses the parable without a direct application, but its context seems to dictate a dependence on the salt of Christ. A disciple who "does not carry his cross and follow" Jesus, 14:26, is as saltless salt. Such a person is good for nothing, but to be "thrown out."

In Matthew the indicative is dominant, "you are the salt of the earth", and as salt, expect to be persecuted.


The parable of the light. This parable appears also in Mark, 4:21, and Luke 8:16 and 11:33. Only Matthew gives a clear and direct application. The other gospel writers imply an application.

In its historical setting, Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles. God's truth to the world was hidden in the corruption of Israel's institutions and public life and in its failure to proclaim the truths of God's revelation beyond the covenant community. Israel was to be the "light of the world", "a city on a hill", a lamp "on its stand." This was Israel's purpose, but it failed. Of course, as noted above, light is a common element of life and Jesus may well have used the image differently in different situations.

Mark uses the parable to teach a truth about the mystery of the kingdom. Jesus presents the gospel in parables (in riddles) to draw out the true seeker. The purpose of the parable is not to confuse, but to separate the hearers. It is God's intention that the light of the gospel should not be hidden under a bowl, but placed on a lamp stand for all to see. The parable proclaims the gospel for those who have eyes to see. So be careful what you see; "consider carefully what you hear."

Luke presents a similar teaching in 8:16, while in 11:33 he again makes the same point, but in a different context. The saying follows the "sign of Jonah" discourse. The sign of Jonah is not his three days in the belly of a "big fish" (to represent Jesus' three days in the tomb), but his preaching to Nineveh. Similarly, the sign is imaged in the wisdom of Solomon displayed to "the Queen of the South." The sign to this "wicked generation" is the sign of a proclaimed word from God. In this sense, God does not hide his word under a tub, but lifts it high for all to see.

When it comes to Matthew, the light, a light that is and must shine, amounts to the gospel, the announcement of the righteousness of God found in Christ. Jesus is "the light of the world" and thus "the light to the nations", and in him we are that light. So shine, and know that in shining there is persecution.


iv] Synoptics:

There are limited parallels with Mark, more with Luke (even the gospel of Thomas). It is generally felt that the prime source is Q, with few commentators accepting the priority of Matthew (the Griesbach hypothesis). Mutual independence is not widely accepted, but should not be rejected.


v] Exposition: A simple verse-by-verse exposition of this passage can be found in the linked pew-level Sermon Notes.

Text - 5:13

Salt and light, v13-16: i] In the parable / saying of the salt Jesus announces to his disciples that they are the salt of the earth. The Bible tells us that Israel was the salt of the earth, but now Jesus announces to his disciples that they are the salt, they are God's special covenant people and this through their relationship with Jesus. They are the new Israel in Christ, standing in the faithfulness of Christ, and therefore eternally "blessed", cf. v3-10. The new Israel (Christ and those in Christ) is the salt of the earth, it is a covenant compliant people in full possession of God's promised blessings, v13; to be otherwise is not to be salt. The context reminds us that the world reacts negatively to saltiness.

umeiV "you" - Emphatic by position and use.

este (eimi) pres. "are" - Indicative statement, not "be salt", but "you are salt". See above. The prophetic nature of the statement is lost with "you are like salt."

thV ghV (h) "of the earth" - [the salt] of the earth. "The human world." The genitive is adjectival, possibly attributive, limiting "salt" = "earthly salt", but then in what sense is this true? Maybe verbal, objective, "for everyone on earth", CEV, although "salt" is not really a verbal noun. Better taken as possessive, "you are the earth's salt", Phillips.

de "but" - but/and. Transitional, introducing a contrast.

ean + subj. "if" - if [the salt]. Introducing a conditional clause, 3rd. class, where the condition has the possibility of coming true, "if, as may be the case, ..... then .....", although Zerwick suggests a distinction between the usual an + subj form, with this form expressing a future possibility, an "eventual" condition, #320.

mwranqh/ (mwrainw) aor. pas. subj. "loses its saltiness" - becomes foolish = tasteless = saltless. Probably "is of low grade", Albright, ie., polluted / diluted, see notes above.

en "how" - in [what way]. Instrumental, expressing means; "by what means will it become salty again?" The question implies that it can't; "what can ever give its saltiness back again?", Barclay.

alisqhsetai (alizw) fut. "can it be made salty again" - will it become salty. The subject is possibly thV ghV, "the earth", "how will the earth be made salty", but more likely to alaV, "the salt".

eti adv. "no longer" - [it is good for nothing] any longer, still. "Useful".

eiV "for [anything]" - into. Here expressing purpose / end-view / goal, "for / in order to"; "to no purpose is it still useful" = "it has become (better "is") worthless", TEV.

ei mh "except" - except. Introducing an exceptive clause which establishes a contrast by designating an exception. The saltless salt is useless, except for one possible use, namely being trampled under foot. See notes above. "But".

blhqen (ballw) aor. part. "to be thrown" - having been thrown. Attendant circumstance participle expressing action accompanying the action of being trodden under foot; "good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot", AV.

exw adv. "out" - outside. Adverb of place.

katapateisqai (katapatew) aor. pas. inf. "trampled" - [but] to be trampled on. Rather than purpose, the infinitive here may express the result of the saltless salt having no useful purpose, "and consequently trampled under people's feet", although it more properly forms an infinitival phrase, object of the verb iscuei, "useful", standing in apposition to "to/for nothing"; "it (the salt) is strong / useful to/for nothing, except/but to be / that it be trampled on." "If the salt should become (be) tasteless, what can make it salt again? It is completely useless and can only be thrown out of doors and stamped under foot", Phillips.

uJpo + gen. "by [men]" - by [men]. Expressing agency. "Men" is a generalization; "by human feet", Cassirer.


ii] Matthew goes on to record the parable / saying of the light. Unlike the other gospel writers, Matthew applies the parable, cf., v16. The new Israel (Christ and those in Christ) is a light to the nations, a radiance of God's righteousness to a broken world ("God's dynamic fidelity to his covenant promises", Dumbrell; "God's saving righteousness", Schreiner). It is impossible for this light not to shine, just as it is impossible to build a city on a hill that is hidden, or to light a lamp to give darkness. So, let your light shine - be what you are.

umeiV "you" - Emphatic by position and use.

este (eimi) "are" - Again indicative, "you are the light". Again addressing the disciples, although as above, Jesus is the light of the world (cf. Isaiah 42:6) and disciples are light in him.

tou kosmou (oV) "[the light] of the world" - [the light] of the world. As above, adjectival, probably possessive, "you are the world's light", Phillips.

keimenh (keimai) pres. part. "[on a hill] / built [on a hill]" - lying [upon a mountain]. The participle is adjectival, limiting "city"; "a city which is set / is lying on a hill."

krubhnai (kruptw) aor. pas. inf. "[cannot] be hidden" - [is not able] to be hidden. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of the negated verb "is not able".


oude .... all "neither ..... but" - nor ..... but. Counterpoint construction. The counterpoint construction links the clauses concerning the city and the lamp. Together they "represent parallel impossibilities", Nolland. "Neither does someone light their house by removing all the light bulbs. The light bulbs are left fitted so everyone can see."

kaiousin (kaiw) pres. "light" - [nor] do they light, burn. Unlike aptw, "touch = light", this word emphasizes the action of keeping the lamp burning.

lucnon (oV) "a lamp" - an oil lamp. Accusative direct object of the verb "to light."

uJpo + acc. "under" - [and place it] under. Spacial.

ton modion (oV) "a bowl" - the basket, grain bucket. A basket particularly used for measuring grain. Sized at 9 liters.

all (alla) "instead" - but. Adversative.

epi + acc. "on" - upon [the lampstand]. Spacial; "upon".

kai "and [it gives light]" - and [it lights]. Here probably standing in for wJste, giving a final, or consecutive sense. Most likely consecutive expressing result.

toiV "-" - [all] the ones [in the house]. The NIV treats the article as an adjectivizer, turning the prepositional phrase, "in the house", into an attributive adjective limiting the adjective "all" which serves as the substantive "everyone".


ou{twV adv. "in the same way" - so, in this way. This modal comparative is backward referencing here; "in like manner."

lamyatw (lampw) aor. imp. "let [you light] shine" - let shine. Imperative, "shine your light", TH.

uJmwn gen. pro. "your" - [the light] of you. The genitive is adjectival, probably possessive, the light possessed as a derivative characteristic, but possibly attributive, idiomatic / producer, "the light which shines from you".

emprosqen + gen. "before [men]" - in front of, before [men]. Spacial. As the city and the lamp is visible to "everyone", so the light which radiates from the disciple should shine "for all to see", TH.

o{pwV + subj. "that [they may see]" - that [they may see]. This construction usually forms a final clause expressing purpose, "in order that", possibly hypothetical result, "so that".

ta kala erga "good works" - the good works [of you]. Accusative direct object of the verb "to see." A phrase common in the NT, occurring about thirty times, but with the works defined by the context. The "good works" here are usually explained in ethical terms: "living according to the perfection of the kingdom and thus manifesting the righteousness of the Torah, according to the correct interpretation, examples of which are shortly to emerge", Hagner, so also Davies & Allison. Yet, this ignores the light's "mission perspective", Nolland, and this in the revelation of a particular "righteousness." This "missionary function", Luz, is not fulfilled through the application of the ethical demands outlined from v21 onward, given that any attempt to live out this exceeding righteousness is doomed to compromise and failure. The "good work" is the revelation of the righteousness of God, "his saving activity", Talbert, evident in Christ. This work, this function of the new Israel, is realized in making known the gospel, a work that is indeed good/worthy.

doxaswsin (doxazw) aor. subj. "praise" - [and] may praise, glorify. "The deeds (works) of Jesus' disciples glorify, not the doers, but the one who gave the promise of sonship", Strecker.

ton + dat. "[Father in heaven]" - [the father of you] the one [in heaven]. The article serves as an adjectivizer turning the prepositional phrase "in heaven" into an attributive modifier limiting "Father"; "your Father who is in heaven." The Father reigns in his heavenly kingdom. The use of "Father" expresses "the distinctive relationship which exists between God and those who, through their response to Jesus' message, have become subjects of his kingdom", France.


Matthew Introduction



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