In the sermon on the mount Jesus called us salt and light, then condemned whoever sets aside the least of God’s commands. Does that mean that Christians should put to death idolaters, Sabbath breakers, adulterers and those who dishonor their parents, sacrifices animals, be circumcised, rest farmland every seventh year, observe the new moons, build leafy huts for the feast of tabernacles, pay wages daily and use no leaven at Easter?
To let us know that we already are salt and light, and introduce our relationship to the law.
We will examine salt, light and the law.
Salty Bible Study
In Matthew 5:13 is a description of salt losing its saltiness. In our world that doesn’t happen without a chemical reaction of some kind. Our science of chemistry defines a salt as a compound that results when an acid reacts with a base. The most common salt is table salt or sodium chloride. Another common salt is a road salt, calcium chloride. However, what Jesus meant by salt cannot be defined by modern language. It was probably a mixture of calcium sulfate and our table salt. Calcium sulfate is gypsum and used to make plaster of Paris. This mixture could lose the salt component and thus its saltiness. All this proves a very important step in studying the Bible: get our definitions right. Careful research rather than jumping to hasty conclusions helps us understand the Bible so much better.
Jesus' Salt was not our Salt
Bible critics often claim that the Holy Scriptures say something they do not. Any of us can be guilty of inserting our culture into the Bible. For instance, when Jesus said "if the salt has lost its flavor..." (Matthew 5:13), it is wrong to mistake that as sodium chloride. That's our language. What Jesus meant by salt was not sodium chloride, but a substance that usually came from the Dead Sea that contained some of what we call salt but also contained white gypsum. That "salt" could lose its saltiness, because the gypsum content became too high as the other leached out. Our "salt" does not normally lose its saltiness. Salt has a different meaning today. We cannot retrofit today’s meaning as some have done trying to claim that Jesus didn't know what he was talking about.
In Matthew 5:14 Jesus told his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and are the light of the world. This was no encouragement to become something that they were not yet, but to be what they already were. The same applies to us today. We are the salt that gives the world a good taste and the light that brightens this dark planet. When we are not ourselves, what we have been called to be, our communities suffer. Salt preserves. When we fail to live up to our calling, our nations rotten from the inside out and are not preserved. Light helps us see. When we fail to rise up and be the light of the world, others cannot see God in us. Let’s wake up and be who God says we are. Let’s be ourselves.
The secret Christian
Have you ever heard of secret Christians? Few people know that they are Christians and if asked they may hide their faith. Membership in some Christian societies is also exclusive and people must be invited. Even some churches are like that and it contradicts what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:15. He told his disciples that they were a city on a hill that cannot be hid. The followers of Jesus Christ are a light that is meant to be seen, not hidden away in secret. What exactly about the church is to be seen? Is it our fancy buildings, our church music, our TV shows, our political commentaries or something else? Jesus specifically mentioned that we are to let our good deeds be seen, not to show off, as he later explained, but so that others may glorify God.
Do good things
In the beatitudes Jesus taught his disciples some of the most important fundamentals of Christianity: recognizing their spiritual poverty, mourning world ills and their own sins, humility, craving to do the right thing, showing leniency to the undeserving, filling their hearts with clean things, willingness to take a loss for the sake peace and being harassed or criticized for doing what's right. Then, in Matthew 5:16 he said that they were the salt of the earth and light of the world. How does that work in real life? Jesus encouraged those disciples to go and do something about the wonderfully deep blessings associated with being a follower of Christ, good deeds. Christianity is not just about sitting in a church building, worshiping, singing, and being taught the saving words of Jesus. It is also about doing good things.
Evangelism by good works
Inactive Christianity is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Inactive Christianity is incomplete, weak Christianity. Thinking that we can “just believe” is not enough. Wanting to “just worship him” is only a start. Jesus encouraged his disciples to also do. In Matthew 5:16, he gave his disciples exactly that encouragement, to do good works. But what are good works? Is that obedience to the law or is that helping our neighbor? In this passage, that description is not limited to either of these conditions. It simply says that we ought to do good works, unspecified. That can mean being honest in our business dealings, using appropriate and inoffensive language, being commendable in our charity, honorable in the way we speak of others and praiseworthy in our community life. Sometimes the most effective form of evangelism is doing good works.
Jesus & the law
The Old Testament law is variously understood by Christians. Jesus gave his interpretation in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17 he began to touch on that topic. Jesus did not say that obedience to the law is no longer required because of faith. He did later explain how some of those laws should be applied. Yet, almost no Christian sacrifices animals or mandates circumcision. Should we? Did Jesus divide his commentary into defunct ceremonial versus still binding moral laws? No. He spoke of the law as a unit, and that he did not come to abolish but to fulfill. Until heaven and earth disappear, the law applies. How can our righteousness be greater than that of devout Jews? In the Church, we obey the law on a higher plane in a temple not made with human hands.
Liberal or literal
How liberal or literal was Jesus’ approach to the Old Testament law? We might think that he was rather persnickety in Matthew 5:18, insisting that not one smallest pen-stroke of the law would disappear as long as heaven and earth exist. Is the Old Testament law now even more binding? He said that our righteousness must surpass that of Jewish religious leaders. How? Did he break the law against collecting food on the Sabbath or was he obedient to a higher principle (Matthew 12:1-13)? He often showed how the spirit surpasses the letter of the law. The rest of the New Testament carries that discussion further and perhaps the most poignant example is the law of circumcision, whereby a literal interpretation is no longer relevant for the Christian, but a more liberal interpretation, a circumcision of the heart.
Law liberated from literalism
Christians hold varying opinions about which Old Testament laws to obey. Laws like making a burnt offering twice a day, sounding silver trumpets at feasts, making an offering after childbirth, leaving field corners unharvested for the poor, resting farmland every seventh year, observing the new moons, building booths for the feast of tabernacles, building guardrails on flat-roofed homes, paying wages daily, circumcising all males, using no leaven at Easter, using a second tithe for feasts and no tale-bearing are usually ignored. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus said that even the least laws would remain as long as heaven and earth do. How do we obey them? Jesus taught the law in a transformed manner, in the spirit and not the letter. Rather than a simplistic, literal understanding of the law, an era of a deeper, liberal application had begun.
Do Christians obey the Ten Commandments
Does Jesus demand we obey the Ten Commandments (Matthew 5:19)? The word commandments does not mean the Ten Commandments. That makes the Bible say what it does not say. The phrase law and the prophets means the entire Old Testament with over 600 commandments. Deuteronomy expands the ten via many more commandments. No Christian keeps the Ten Commandments as the law teaches, not even those who practice the original Sabbath day. If they did, they would put to death idolaters, Sabbath breakers, adulterers and those who dishonor their parents. That’s what the law demands to keep the Ten Commandments in the letter. Jesus explained how Christians keep the spirit of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. Christians fulfill the law in spirit not the letter. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
What Jesus did not say
It is as important to notice what Jesus did not say as much as what he did say. Many people assume that he came to do away with the Old Testament, but the phrase the law or the prophets refers to the entire Old Testament, and Jesus did not come to abolish them but to fill them to the full (Matthew 5:19). What did he not say? He did not address the Ten Commandments as some assume but commandments. In the law and the prophets, the Old Testament, there are 613 commandments. He commended those who practice and teach them in a manner surpassing the righteousness of the Pharisees, explaining that anger and verbal abuse are murder, lustful looks and divorce are adultery, not to seek an eye for an eye justice and that we should love our enemies.
Deuteronomy and the Ten Commandments
Deuteronomy expounds the Ten Commandments (#1 6-11; #2 12; #3 13:1-14:21; #4 14:22-16:17; #5 16:18-18:22; #6 19-21; #7 22:1-23:14; #8 23:15-24:7; #9 24:8-16; #10 24:17-26:15).1 No Christian keeps the letter of the law, not as Deuteronomy demands. How do Christians keep the law if not in the letter? Some claim to keep it in the letter and the spirit, but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). The only option left is keeping the law in spirit. Three commandments teach us how. Circumcision is no longer required in the flesh in the New Testament, but in the heart (Romans 2:29); there remains a Sabbath rest in Jesus for eternity (Matthew 11:28; Hebrews 4) and love fulfills the whole law (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14).
1Hill, Andrew E. & Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. Zondervan Publishing House. 1991. 58.
The purpose of stop signs
What is the purpose of a stop sign? Let’s imagine a stop sign at an intersection in the middle of nowhere. For half a minute before approaching the stop sign someone could easily see whether or not there was traffic coming from the left or the right. Imagine a police officer on the side of the road watching the intersection. Will you stop completely or slowly roll on through the stop sign? If the officer operates on the letter of the law, he may ticket you. If he operates on the spirit of the law, he may realize that you drove in a completely safe manner and let you go. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus began such a discussion on the law. Which is better, a burdensome, legalistic interpretation, or a liberal approach which understands the purpose of the law?
We Christians fulfill the law via Jesus’ law of love. We don’t need to put to death idolaters, Sabbath breakers, adulterers and those who dishonor their parents, sacrifice animals, be circumcised, observe the new moons, build leafy huts for the feast of tabernacles, pay wages daily or use no leaven at Easter. The law can teach us, but it is only the shadow of things to come. The cross is the reality. Love fulfills the law, all of it.