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Matthew 5:13-20

“The Role of the Law in the Kingdom of God”


The previous portion of the sermon (the beatitudes) concluded with a reference of what the citizens of God’s Kingdom could expect from the world around them. Their allegiance to Christ would result in persecution by unbelievers. Now, Jesus addresses the relationship that His followers would have to the world.

In regard to this, the Scribes and Pharisees, who taught the Jewish people in the first century, had very specific ideas about how faithful Jews were to relate to the unbelieving Gentiles that surrounded them. These leaders taught their people that the Law of God demanded that they separate from the unbeliever and allow as little engagement with them as possible. This viewpoint was correct in some ways, but wrong in others. Their teaching reflected the essential idea that God’s people were called to be holy. It also reflected that the Law of God was given to define what was genuinely holy and what was not. Finally, their teaching was also correct in that it mirrored OT teaching that the people of God were to maintain their distance from those of the other nations; lest the people of those nations influence the Jews with their false religious ideas and their immorality. Their error was a little more subtle. They missed that Israel was meant to have an influence on the unbelieving nations. They were to be used by God in such a way that He would display His reality and nature (Ex.9:16). And there were times when Israel was sufficiently faithful so that they could be used by God in this way (I Kings 10).

In these verses then Jesus revealed how the arrival of the Kingdom of God and its nature shaped the relationship its citizens were to have with the unbelieving world; and how the Law of God fit into this understanding of God’s purpose for His people.

I. The Law and Our Mission in the World: (vs.13-16)

In addressing this issue, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (vs.13). First it must be noticed that in saying that His disciples were the salt of the earth, Jesus used the indicative mood rather than the imperative mood. The point is that Jesus simply makes a statement of fact; He is not giving a command or an exhortation. So, it is not that a disciple of Jesus Christ needs to try to be “salt”, they are salt by virtue of being a follower of Christ and a part of the Kingdom of God.

In the first century Mediterranean world salt was understood to be a preservative and cleansing agent; and this is also the way salt was used in the Jewish sacrificial system (Lev.2:13). Jesus of course is speaking metaphorically since He says that His followers are salt. The idea is that it is the nature of the believer to promote good and restrain evil in whatever culture one might find himself. This takes place as a natural consequence of the believer living in harmony with the ethical and spiritual instruction that is provided in the Scriptures (particularly in the laws which spell out what a believer is to do or not do).

Jesus observed that if “the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” The Greek word translated as “lose its flavor” means to make dull rather than sharp, and carries the sense of losing potency or the ability to fulfill its purpose. Strictly speaking it is true that salt cannot lose its saltiness. This is because sodium chloride is a stable compound. However, Jesus is not trying to convey literal truth about the nature of chemicals, He was speaking metaphorically, and even in that metaphor Jesus is highlighting the absurdity of unsalty salt. Jesus then asks the rhetorical questions, “how shall it be seasoned?” Some interpreters suggest that the subject of the verb “seasoned” is the earth rather than the salt. This would make a great deal of sense to ask how the earth would be salted if the salt lost its potency.

However two things argue against this. First, is that the noun “salt” is the nearest antecedent; second the parallel expression in Mark 9:50 makes it clear that salt rather than the earth is intended as the object. In addition it is difficult to see how the earth would be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Jesus’ question has the obvious answer; there would be no way to restore the salt’s saltiness. Jesus then says that such salt has no useful purpose, and the only thing one can do is throw it out. But, since the metaphor relates to the followers of Christ, how are we to interpret the imagery of throwing out useless salt? The implication is that this describes a false disciple who faces eternal damnation. Not that one loses salvation by not being salt (after all this is not what a believer is called to do, but is what they are by nature); instead if one is not salt, one has never been saved. This interpretation is in harmony with the fact that whenever a person is said to be cast out, it is always a reference to eternal judgment (Matt.8:12; Jn.6:37; 15:6).

Then Jesus says the same basic thing, but using a different analogy; “You are the light of the world” (vs.14a). As with the previous analogy, Jesus was not giving a command, but was making a statement of fact; those who are His followers are the light of the world. In the Scriptures “light” is used as a metaphor for truth and righteousness. And of course it is understood to exist as the opposite of darkness, which is used in Scripture to represent ignorance (due to disinterest or to deception by what is false) and evil. Placing the metaphors together suggest that the follower of Christ promotes what is good and restrains evil by expressing truth and righteousness in their lives and words. Since this analogy is parallel to the one in verse thirteen (both saying the same thing in different ways, it means that the word “world” was used to convey the same meaning as the term “earth”.

Jesus illustrated that it was God’s purpose that His followers were to be the light of the world. Jesus said, “a city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (vs.14b). In the ancient world cities normally would be built in the hills or mountains because the greater visibility it afforded was helpful in the defense of a city. The point here is the ridiculous image of trying to hide a city which was specifically built for prominence. In addition, the cities of first century Palestine were for the most part built with white limestone that would reflect either the artificial light within the city or the moonlight and thus the city would be visible for some distance. Since the followers of Christ are the light of the world, it indicates that the world itself is understood to be in darkness. Then Jesus employs a third analogy, “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (vs.15). Jesus says that no one would light a lamp and then hide it under a basket. It would be an absurd and foolish waste of the light that one created. Instead a person would naturally hang the little oil lamp on a lampstand so it would illuminate the entire dwelling. The lamps did not give off much light and anything that would block the light would create a very dark shadow. So the lampstand would be used to elevate the lamp so that its light would extend to the entire one room home.

The point in all three analogies is to stress that it contradicts the whole point of having salt or light, if in fact they don’t provide preservation or illumination. Therefore, it is contrary to what it means to be a follower of Christ for one not to have the impact on the world of displaying the truth and righteousness of God.

At this point Jesus then gives His disciples an exhortation regarding how to exercise their responsibility as the light of the world, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (vs.16). Jesus now applies the meaning of the last two analogies. The reality is that by nature the believer is light (in other words their lives are characterized by truth and righteousness). However, it is possible (particularly in light of the persecution mentioned in verses ten through twelve) to choose to hide the light that is a part of one’s new nature. But rather than choosing to repress the expression of one’s new nature, the follower of Christ is to choose to live in such a way that their inner nature as citizens of God’s Kingdom becomes visible in the things they do, in the way they behave, and in what they say. By doing this they are actively shining the light that is within all true believers. Jesus says that in making that choice it creates the possibility that the unbelievers who interact with believers will see their good works and glorify the Father. The use of the subjunctive mood for the verbs “see” and “glorify” indicate that it is a potential result of a believer shining their light. Unbelievers can choose not to see, and even if they see they can choose not to be moved by what they see. But that is the responsibility of the unbeliever; the calling of the believer is simply to be faithful to be a shining light.

An important point in Jesus’s statement is that the good works that are seen in the believer are attributed to God. The verb “glorify” means to give credit to someone, or to acknowledge some significant thing they have done. The reason that God gets the credit for the believer’s good works is that it is He who produces it in them. The reality is that the more the believer shines, the more evident it becomes that it is God and not the individual who is the source of the light. Therefore there is no place for self-righteousness in the life of those who are citizens of God’s Kingdom. Such a posture only hinders the shining of one’s light.

II. The Law and Our Standing Before God: (vs.17-20)

Jesus next turned to address the place that the Law of God had in the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (vs.17). The Greek word translated as “think” means to suppose or consider something to be true based upon what one has heard or observed. The idea in the word is that of presumption or assumption based upon impressions or expectations, and not knowledge based in fact. This flavor of the word is demonstrated in the other two times Jesus is recorded using this word in Matthew’s Gospel:

  • “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”
  • Matthew 10:34

    In the verse above Jesus had not said or done anything to lead those who heard Him to come to the conclusion they did. Instead it was a false assumption of some of those to whom He was speaking that represented their own Messianic expectations. In the second example we read,

  • “But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.”
  • Matthew 20:10

    Very similar to the first example we see in this parable that the workers who had labored all day drew a false conclusion, based upon what they had observed, which was rooted in their own sense of how things should be. So Jesus starts out this portion of His lesson warning His hearers not to entertain a false assumption in regard to His ministry. Also, since Jesus begins His discussion of the Law by saying He did not come to abolish it; it is logical to assume that He was accused by some of doing precisely that. It was the Scribes and Pharisees whom can assume are behind the slander of Jesus’ ministry, because they did this a number of times in their interactions with Jesus (Matt.12:2; Lk.6:7). One of main areas of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees was over the matter of Jewish oral tradition. The Scribes and Pharisees regarded this tradition as equal in authority with the written Scriptures (Jesus did not). A second area over which there was conflict is that the Pharisees believed in a strict adherence to the letter of the Law, while Jesus tried to teach them that the true meaning of the Law is found in its spirit. The specific accusation is that Jesus intended to “destroy” the Law. The Greek word translated as “destroy” literally means to release something so as to undo what held it together, and so demolishing something piece by piece. The idea in the charge is that Jesus was disavowing various specific aspects of the Law and by doing so He was chipping away at the integrity of the Law until there would eventually be none of it left to be followed. The designation, “the Law and the Prophets” is a way of referring to the OT as a whole, but the emphasis of the Pharisees’ accusation centered in the Law itself.

    Having denied the accusation, Jesus went on to say “I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (vs.17b). The Greek word translated as “fulfill” means to fill one thing with something else, to bring something to completion, to live up to a promise or an obligation. The use of the word here is best understood in terms of bringing something to its intended end, the accomplishment of its purpose, or bringing something to realization. The idea that Jesus had come to destroy the Law could not have been further from the truth, for Jesus had come to bring into realization everything that was revealed in the Old Testament. His life and ministry would fulfill the Messianic prophecies, as well as the imagery of the feasts and ceremonies. His death would bring to realization the atonement for sin pictured in the animal sacrifices. His character, choices and actions would be the embodiment of all the ethical instruction of the Old Testament.

    To further dissuade His hearers from thinking He had come to destroy the Law, Jesus added; “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (vs.18). The Greek word translated as “assuredly” is the root for our English term “amen”, and is an emphatic saying that stresses that what follows is solemn truth, and must be accepted. The two clauses introduced with “till” are parallel and essentially synonymous. Thus, they both in two slightly different ways emphasize the same thing; the ongoing validity of the Old Testament. Therefore, Christ is saying that the passing away of the heavens and the earth will coincide with the ultimate realization of all that the Old Testament has foretold (see Matt.24:34). The Greek word translated as “pass away” literally refers to one thing or one person passing by another. It came to be used metaphorically for dying or passing from existence. And so Christ uses this verb to convey that the Law of God will abide until the removal of the present heaven and earth. Jesus’ point then is that the Old Testament will remain valid until the end of this age. To further stress this point Jesus did not speak of the Law and Prophets as a whole, He said that not even one jot or tittle would by any means pass away (and said so using a double negative to stress this point as much as one possibly could). Matthew’s Gospel was written in Greek and therefore the record of this sermon is a translation of what Jesus said in Aramaic. The “jot” refers to the “yod” the smallest of the Hebrew letters. And the “tittle” refers to a small mark that differentiates one similar Hebrew letter from another. These would represent the smallest notations in the Hebrew language and so Jesus was saying that there would be no change in God’s Word even in the tiniest way. This language also indicates that God when He originally inspired the Scriptures, not only inspired the words the authors used but even the letters.

    In light of the critical role that the revelation of the Old Testament plays in Christ’s Messianic ministry, He tells His disciples that “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (vs.19). The expression “these commandments” refers in a general way to all the commandments contained in the OT. The Greek word translated as “break” means to loosen something which is fastened, to free something from whatever kept it bound; thus to release or to sever something from the constraints that were previously upon it. Therefore, as applied to commandments, it would mean believing or teaching that the commandment is not binding upon oneself or someone else. This word was used by the Scribes and Pharisees to refer to those things that they taught that a person was free to do. In light of the language, Jesus was not referring to an occasional violation of a commandment He is condemning doing away with a commandment of God, regarding it as null and void and no longer in existence or applicable. The idea of a ranking of the commandments into levels of higher or lower priority was common in first century Judaism, and Jesus holds to this view though His understanding of which are of higher priority differed radically from that of the Pharisees. Clearly, Jesus was admonishing His disciples not to conclude that the Law was of no value and was to be set aside. This was a needed warning since many in the history of the church have done just that. Since both those who stay faithful to the commandments and those who do not, are both said to be in the “kingdom”, the distinction Jesus makes is not between those who are saved and those who are lost, but is a distinction in standing among God’s people. The point of the statement is that it is in harmony with Christ’s purpose as the King of God’s Kingdom to promote obedience to God’s ethical commandments. Those who obey and teach them are living in harmony with God’s intentions for them; those who disobey and teach others to do the same are working at cross purposes with Christ.

    Christ brings His point about the crucial nature of Old Testament commandments to its climax by stating, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (vs.20). Since the issue at hand is entering the Kingdom of God, Jesus is now addressing the distinction between those who are saved and those who are lost. Jesus states that righteousness is needed in order to enter into the kingdom. He also identifies the standard for just how righteous one must be; specifically more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees. But in practical terms what does that mean? The answer is revealed as the sermon progresses. Much of the sermon makes a contrast between God’s view of what is righteous against the popular consensus taught by the Scribes and Pharisees. The rest of the sermon reveals that there are two ways that Jesus’ statement is to be understood. First, one must be perfectly righteous, not simply relatively righteous in order to gain entrance into the Kingdom. The way one gains that righteousness is by seeking it from God rather than attempting to manufacture it on one’s own. Second, in practical terms, it is a righteousness that flows from the inside and reflects a changed heart, rather than a righteousness that is superficial and hypocritical. The idea in the sermon is to turn the hearts of the disciples to Christ as they recognize that the standard of the Law is impossible to fulfill on one’s own, and one’s only hope is for Christ to provide the salvation that His followers can never earn for themselves.


    Christ’s disciples are light to the world because their lives reflect the holiness of the Law. Righteous-ness as defined by the Law is the entrance requirement for the kingdom of God; it is a righteousness we cannot manufacture on our own.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael Huard

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