Salt, Light, Law, and Surpassing Righteousness – The Sermon on the Mount – Part II


The Sermon on the Mount opened with the character traits of those that are a part of the new kingdom of heaven that has come upon the earth through the person of Christ.  These character traits were embodied in what has commonly been called the Beatitudes.  Following the Beatitudes, Matthew in Matthew 5:13-20 records Christ’s words concerning the way the citizens of the kingdom of heaven are to relate to the world, Christ’s own relationship to the Old Testament Law, and the need for surpassing righteousness to be a part of the kingdom of heaven.  Christ’s statement concerning the need for surpassing righteousness in Matthew 5:20 will serve as a thesis statement for the rest of the body of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus will explain what surpassing righteousness looks like.  In this article I want to drive right up to this thesis in Matthew 5:20 and understand the two key metaphors concerning a Christian’s relationship to the world and Christ’s relationship to the Law.

Jesus gives two metaphors to help us think about the way we are to relate to the world as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  The first metaphor comes in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth…” When we think about salt we usually have several things come to mind.  Here is Salt Lake City we normally think of a large inland lake that has a salt factory, brine shrimp, and flies; however, that is not the normal word association with salt.  Normally people think of salt in regards to the taste it brings to food or the preserving affect it has on food.  I think it is these two aspects of salt that make it an interesting metaphor for Christians.  When we bring the Gospel to people we are acting both as a life enhancer and preserver.  We are preserving people from damnation through the saving Gospel of Christ and we are giving them a taste of the abundant life that is found in Christ.  Jesus continues in the rest of Matthew 5:13 talking about the useless nature of salt that has lost its saltiness.  He asks, “How can it be made salty again?” and goes on to say that it is no longer useful and should be thrown out to be trampled by men.  This is an interesting saying of Christ, but I think it points to an important consideration.  Salt by nature is salty.  Christians by nature act like Christians.  When Christians are acting in a way not according to their nature they have ceased to be what they were called to be and become worthless.  Let us not be entangled by the world and its lusts and become less than what a Christian is called to be.  We are to enhance the world with the Gospel of Christ.  Learn to walk as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven bringing taste and preservation to this world in the form of the Gospel.

Jesus’ second metaphor has to do with Christians being the “light of the world.”  Matthew 5:14-16 explains the depths of this metaphor in two quick pictures.  The first is a city on a hill in Matthew 5:14 which cannot be hidden.  I could not get this verse out of my head as I traveled in Israel.  Driving across the plain of Meggido in the evening I was struck by the many small towns that were lit up on the tops of the many rolling hills.  They truly cannot be hidden from view.  In the same way in Matthew 5:15 a lamp is described as not being hidden under a basket, but being set on a lamp stand.  Again, the light cannot be hidden from view.  Jesus goes on in Matthew 5:16 to give an imperative to “let our light shine before men” with the result that they will “see [our] good works, and glorify [our] Father who is in heaven.”  Like the metaphor of salt, Christians are to be who they are.  By nature if you believe in and are living out the Gospel of Christ you will be light in a dark world.  If you have been trying to cover up your identity then maybe you need to repent.  God wants our earthly lives to shine forth His heavenly reality.

After these two very important metaphors on the Christian’s relation to the world Christ speaks out one of the most loaded and important texts in the New Testament.  Understanding the way the New Testament works with the Old Testament can be one of the hardest theological questions someone can pursue.  There are many nuances to understanding how the Bible fits together, but Christ’s words in Matthew 5:17-18 should be our starting point.  Christ in Matthew 5:17 says that He came not “to abolish the Law or Prophets but to fulfill.”  This is profound!  So often the Sermon on the Mount has been interpreted as abolishing the Law and the Prophets and here Jesus is saying, “No! The Law and the Prophets stand; I fulfill them! They are about Me!”  He goes on to say in Matthew 5:18 that not a letter or stroke of the law will pass away until all is accomplished.  Matthew 5:17-18 reveals three really important points about Christ.  First, He has just validated most of the Old Testament as trustworthy.  The Hebrew Bible, which was the Old Testament only, was broken up in three sections: the law, the prophets, and the writings.  The law being the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the prophets being the major and minor prophets.  The writings include poetic material like Psalms and Proverbs and history writings like Kings and Chronicles.  Jesus has just validated a huge section of the Old Testament referring to the Law and the Prophets.  Secondly, Christ’s statements tell us that the Old Testament is about Him!  He fulfills what the Old Testament is recording and prophesying!  You want to understand how the Old Testament and the New Testament fit together?  They both witness to Christ! You want to follow all the commandments of God? Then hide yourself in Christ’s righteousness.  Calvin says of Matthew 5:18, “God enjoined ceremonies [OT Law], that their outward use might be temporal, and their meaning eternal.  That man does not break ceremonies [OT Law], who omits what is shadowy, but retains their effect.”  The effect that the Law has is to point us to the need for a sacrifice for our sins.  By believing in Christ and His work on the Cross we are accounted as righteous because of what Christ accomplished.  Christ work is our righteousness, and like Abraham, when we believe the testimony of God about Christ in His Word (Old and New Testament), we are accounted righteous.  This is profound; through Christ’s righteousness we keep every demand of God.  Thirdly, we see that Christ knows that everything will be accomplished.  He has insight into the ability of God to accomplish what He has recorded in His Word.  We can take great joy in knowing that the Word of God will be accomplished.  We can organize our lives around the truth of the Word of God because it will be accomplished by God.  Matthew 5:19 flows right out of an understanding of these principals.  If God’s word witnesses to Christ and records what will be accomplished by God then failing to follow His commandments and teaching others to do the same renders us a judgment as least in the kingdom of heaven.  However, we will be great if we keep the commandments and teach others to do the same.  The citizens of the kingdom of heaven will be who they are and keep the commandments of God’s Word out of a love for the Son and the Father.  What we do with God’s Word as a believer is serious business and here we are reminded that we will be judged for our use of God’s word in our own life and in the life of others.  The Bible is about Christ; He fulfills every word.   If we place our faith in Christ then we must submit ourselves to His Word and teach others to do the same.

Finally, Jesus turns up the heat in Matthew 5:20 saying that to enter the kingdom of heaven your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees.  It is interesting to note that in the Greek text there is a double negative in this sentence basically saying you will “not not enter the kingdom,” or you will “definitely not enter the kingdom.”  Interestingly the same construction also occurs in Matthew 5:18, the letter and stroke “will definitely not pass away.”  With both of these construction the surety of events referenced is enforced.  Now we give the Pharisees, and by extension the scribes, a bad rapt for being Law abiding prudes. However, if we are honest, they look a lot like what we like to picture as the model Christian.  They are moral, they follow all of God’s commandments, they have vast, if not all, of the Bible memorized, they believe in a resurrection, and they are urgently seeking the Messiah.  But they have one fatal flaw that we will be looking at through the next couple sections of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Pharisees were standing in their own ability to fulfill the Law with a heart that was far from the Lord.  Jesus is saying here, you have to be more righteous than the Pharisees and scribes, and the only way to do that is through the Gospel.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross we get His righteousness and He gets our sin.  When God looks at us, if we have placed our faith in Christ, He sees the righteous work of Christ.  When we place our faith in Christ we not only receive the cleansing of sin, but the Holy Spirit gives us a heart of flesh and a desire to follow the commandments of the Lord (see Ezekiel 36).  We are actually then able to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees because of what God does in us.  He cleanses us, He brings us to life with a new heart, and He causes us to want to follow His ways.  Salvation can only come about through the work of God in our hearts.  There is no other way to have surpassing righteousness.

In Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes, we have seen the character traits of the citizens of the kingdom of God.  In Matthew 5:13-20, we have looked at the way citizens of the kingdom of heaven relate to the world as Salt and Light.  In addition, Christ gave us the starting point to understanding His relationship to the Old Testament Law.  He is the fulfillment!  Finally, in Matthew 5:20, Jesus lays down His thesis statement for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount by saying citizens of the kingdom of heaven have to have righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees.  Do you have this surpassing righteousness?  Next time we will look at how Jesus explains what this surpassing righteousness looks like.


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