NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 13: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its taste, it cannot be made salty again. Salt is useless if it loses its salty taste. It will be thrown out where people will just walk on it.”
When reading this verse it is quite easy for most Christians to think that Jesus was automatically applying it to them. But we must remember that He was speaking to an exclusively Jewish crowd. So how did they understand His reference to their being the salt of the earth? We find our first clue in what God said to His people through Moses: “You are to season every grain offering of yours with salt — do not omit from your grain offering the salt of the covenant with your God, but offer salt with all your offerings.”1 Then what the LORD said to the children of Israel through Aaron: “All the contributions of holy things which the people of Isra’el offer to Adonai I have given to you, your sons and your daughters with you; this is a perpetual law, an eternal covenant of salt before Adonai for you and your descendants with you.”2 And Abijah, the new king of Israel reminded his people while standing on Mount Zemaraim: “Don’t you know that Adonai, the God of Isra’el, gave rulership over Isra’el to David forever, to him and his descendants, by a covenant of salt which is unbreakable?”3 The Jews understood this very well. They were God’s chosen people. They were part of the covenant in the same way salt was to the grain offering. Thereafter, salt became a metaphor of their part in God’s covenant.
We read where they lamented the passing of great teachers such as Rabbi Meir, Rabbi ben Zoma, Rabbi Yehoshua; Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and others, and how their absence left everyone in limbo so that there were no more tellers of parables, no expositors, and no goodness.4 This was their way of saying that like salt that loses it savor, so the Jewish spiritual community had lost its savor. But to comprehend it as a figure of speech, we must also understand it in its literal sense. Also, another Rabbi is quoted as saying: “All dishes require salt, but not all dishes require spices.”5 Commentators add that this is why salt should be pounded with a pestle and mortar and be ready before the Festival. But while on the same subject, another Rabbi states: “All spices lose their flavor, but salt never loses its flavor.”6 Jesus was trying to tell His listeners that they were the salt that preserved the covenant between them and God. But if that salt becomes tasteless and has no affect, how can it ever be rejuvenated. And what does that do to the covenant? If it does not recover its saltiness, then it will be thrown out and replaced. So what Jesus was trying to get them to understand is that He came to them first, but if they reject Him, then they are of no use.
In light of all this we might say that Jesus was also referring to His new believers as the salt represented in God’s new covenant. Taken this way, it certainly gives what Jesus goes on to say new meaning. For if we who are the salt of the new covenant lose our flavoring or purifying power by becoming lukewarm and indifferent, how then can we be re-flavored or re-purified? For instance, if the human body loses it’s life essence, it cannot be reanimated simply by stuffing it with feathers or embalming it with fluid. Therefore, the only thing left to do is either bury or cremate the corpse. But Christ is more explanatory than that. As a parallel, we could say, “If a flame loses it’s heat, how can it be made hot again.” Heat is the very substance and essence of the flame, just as saltiness is to salt. When it loses its saltiness, it becomes nondescript, worthless and useless. When a Christian stops being Christ-like, they become worthless and useless in the world. Just like salt brings out the best flavor in the food, so we Christians are supposed to bring out the best in society. Throughout this portion, Jesus does some excellent preaching using the O.T. Scriptures for His text with an up-to-date exegesis. Let’s see how His outline conforms to the original Ten Commandments:
1st Commandment – Remember your covenant with God (v.13).
2nd Commandment – You are the upholders of the Law. (vv.14-20)
3rd Commandment – Loveless use of sacred things devalues the gift. (vv.33-37)
Christian principles acted out in Christ’s life. (vv.38-42)
Christ’s life which is stated as a Christian principle. (vv.43-47)
A hypothesis which can only become a reality in Jesus. (v.48)
6th Commandment – Murder is first committed in the heart before carried out in the flesh. (vv.21-26)
7th Commandment – Lust enters the mind through the eye then into the heart before being performed by the body. (vv.27-32)
Verses 14-16: “You are the light that shines for the nations to see. You are like a city built on a hill that cannot be hidden. People don’t hide a lamp under a bowl. They put it on a lampstand. Then the light shines for everyone in the house. In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and give praise to your Father in heaven.”
Now our Lord turns from salt to light. In the Jewish mind of that day, they saw themselves in the role as salt, seasoning and preserving the land God had given to them. But they also saw themselves as a light to the rest of the world, as spoken to the prophet Isaiah: “I will also make you a light to the nations, so my salvation can spread to the ends of the earth.”1 In fact, Rabbi Gamaliel and others were discussing the rights of inheritance, and Rabbi Gamaliel said: “Look at the end of the book, wherein it is written, I came not to destroy the Law of Moses nor to add to the Law of Moses,2 and it is written therein, A daughter does not inherit where there is a son.” Those listening to Gamaliel were so impressed, that one of them said: “Let your light shine forth like a lamp.”3
1 Isaiah 49:6 – Complete Jewish Bible
2 Cf. Matthew 5:17
3 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 116b
So when we combine this with the scriptures mentioned before,8 our Lord is quoting words that His audience had heard before, not something He was making up on the spot. We have already seen that light represents enlightenment as to God’s truth and plan of salvation. Here again, the Master uses light as a metaphor. We see this illustrated elsewhere in Isaiah: ”I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness. I will take you by the hand and guard you, and I will give you to my people, Israel, as a symbol of my covenant with them. And you will be a light to guide the nations.”9
Using light in this manner may also be our Master’s inference to what the Psalmist said, “A light shines in the dark for those who are good, for those who are merciful, kind, and fair.”10 In that sense, God’s glory is the source, Jesus is the conduit, and we are the light bulb. Solomon understood the importance of light: “Don’t take the path of the wicked; don’t follow those who do evil. Stay away from that path; don’t even go near it. Turn around and go another way…The path of those who live right is like the early morning light. It gets brighter and brighter until the full light of day. But the path of the wicked is like a dark night. They trip and fall over what they cannot see.”11
To further illustrate His point, Jesus mentions the effect of a city built on top of a hill, especially at night when all the oil lamps are lit. Even though the traveler may only have moon light or star light on their path, the illuminated city serves as a beacon to guide them. Therefore, it’s not only important to know where you are at, but know where you are going and the direction you are headed in. As such, we can easily imagine believers as lights for others to follow and as beacons so that those who are lost can find their way to Him who is the way, the truth and the life.
Then Jesus segues from lit city to lit lamp. In His day, this would be either a candle or oil lamp. Such light sources were lit to provide illumination in the house for everyone, not just the person who lit it. Likewise, says Jesus, this light is not just for you, it’s for all those around you. This was the theme of what Isaiah said: “If you do these things, your light will begin to shine like the light of dawn. Then your wounds will heal. Your ‘Goodness’ will walk in front of you, and the Glory of the Lord will come following behind you.”12 And Jesus seems to be giving the same encouragement here to His followers that we find expressed in Isaiah’s clarion call, “Get up and shine! Your Light is coming! The Glory of the Lord will shine on you. Darkness now covers the earth, and the people are in darkness. But the Lord will shine on you, and his Glory will appear over you. Then the nations will come to your light. Kings will come to your bright sunrise”13 In other words, let the glory of God shine in your words and deeds; don’t try to hide it. I’m sending you out as lights in the world so they can see the truth and come to salvation. Just in case someone thought Jesus was making these things up or inventing new ideas, He assures them that all of this has been said before.
In Daniel we read: “The wise people will shine as bright as the sky. Those who teach others to live right will shine like stars forever and ever.”14 So Jesus was echoing what Daniel had said about those who live right and teach what is right. This was something He expected His disciples to do from now on, so that they could be a light to those in spiritual darkness, just as He had been to them. John Gill quotes from one of the Jewish paraphrases of the Song of Solomon where it says: “How beautiful are the great ones of the congregation, and the wise men, who sit in the Sanhedrin! for they are those ‘that enlighten the world’, the people of the house of Israel.”15 This idea of those who spread insight and wisdom from God’s Word serve as lights in the world was not foreign to Jewish thinkers.
Taken altogether, in our Lord’s teaching there is a message for all believers. The way we live, work, act, and speak as motivated and anointed by the Holy Spirit serves as God’s flavoring in the society were we live. If we stop being God-like and Christ-like in our attitudes and actions, then God’s influence loses it savoring. In the same manner, as lights that shine forth the truth of what Jesus came to teach and do, we are not to hide this light for the sake of blending in with those around us who walk in the darkness that comes from not knowing God or what Jesus the Christ came to do in providing a path to salvation. So when we neglect God’s Word and have little interest in studying what He came to say, then that light grows dimmer and dimmer. God help us all to tap into His Word each day to renew our light so that it may shine for His glory, honor and praise!
1 Leviticus 2:13
2 Numbers 18:19 (Complete Jewish Bible).
3 II Chronicles 13:5, (CJB).
4 Jewish Mishnah, op. cit., Third Division: Nashim, Tractate Sotah, Ch. 9:15
5 Rabbi Huna in the Babylonian Talmud, op. cit., Seder Mo’ed, Tractate Beitzah, folio 14a
6 Rabbi Hisda in Ibid.
7 Isaiah 49:6 – Complete Jewish Bible
8 Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5
9 Isaiah 42:6 – Complete Jewish Bible
10 Psalm 112:4
11 Proverbs 4:14-18
12 Isaiah 58:8
13 Ibid. 60:1-3
14 Daniel 12:3
15 Canticles 4:1