Lessons from Salt, Light, and the Law
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-20)
Our Lord Jesus Christ was truly the Prince of preachers. He who is the subject of all true preaching is also the example all true preachers should follow. He wisely used common, ordinary, simple things, with which all his hearers were familiar, to illustrate and enforce the doctrine he taught. In the passage now before us he used salt, light, and the law to show us the characteristics of true Christianity. He shows us in these verses that the grace of God changes people from the inside out, making them both righteous before God and useful to one another. In these eight verses of Inspiration our Savior teaches us three very important lessons. May the Holy Spirit of God now seal them to our hearts.
First, our Savior here demonstrates the character of true Christianity (vv. 13-16). All that glitters is not gold. “They are not all Israel which are of Israel.” And not all who profess to be Christians truly are Christians. Christianity radically changes men and women. Grace gives men and women new motives and principles of life that set them apart from the rest of the world.
Believers are the salt of the earth. “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men” (v. 13).
Salt has a peculiar taste and quality. Nothing can really imitate it well. When mingled with other things, it imparts some of its taste and preserves other things from corruption. It is useful as long as it retains its savor, its saltiness. But once that is lost, it is useless. But how do these things apply to us?
There is clearly an application here to those who preach the gospel. The preaching of the gospel preserves society from total corruption. It preserves God’s saints from the corrupting influence of the world. And when a preacher departs from the preaching of the gospel, he is utterly useless. However, these words must not be restricted to gospel preachers.
Our Lord’s intention was that these words be applied by every believer to himself. C. H. Spurgeon was correctly noted, “In the believer’s character there is a preserving force to keep the rest of society from utter corruption…There is a secret something, which is the secret of the believer’s power. That something is savor. It is not easy to define it, but yet it is absolutely essential to usefulness.”
This teaches us the necessity of perseverance. If the savor of God’s grace could be lost, it could never be restored (Heb. 6:1-6). Thank God! Grace cannot fail to save a man; but if grace could fail to save a man, there would be no hope for any. You can salt meat. But no one can salt salt. If grace fails, everything fails! Thank God for grace that cannot fail, for salt that cannot lose its savor (2 Cor. 12:9).
Believers are the light of the world. — “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (vv. 14-16).
“It is the property of light to be utterly distinct from darkness. The least spark in a dark room can be seen at once. Of all things created, light is the most useful: it fertilizes; it guides; it cheers. It was the first thing called into being. (Gen. 1:3). Without it, the world would be a gloomy blank.” (J.C. Ryle)
Again, there is clearly a reference to those who preach the gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Christ himself is the Light of the world (John 1:4; 8:12; 9:5). The gospel of Christ is the means by which that Light shines in the world. It is our responsibility to give out the Light. Our object is that chosen sinners, being converted by the light of the gospel, may glorify God, our Father, by repentance and faith in Christ.
Still, these words must not be applied only to gospel preachers. You who trust Christ are the light of the world. The church of Christ is the light of the world. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, so those who trust him reflect the light of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness.
We are to dispel the darkness of ignorance, sin, and sorrow by proclaiming the glorious gospel of Christ (v. 14). God intends for us to be conspicuous in our testimony regarding his grace and his Son (v. 15). Yet, the light of the gospel shines forth, not in our words, but in our works (v. 16). The works by which the light shines forth from God’s elect are not religious works of self-righteousness, or displays of religious devotion (Matt. 6:2-3, 5-6, 16-18), but works of faith and love in the daily affairs of life. Christianity is not a show of religion, but a life of devotion to Christ.
“True shining is silent, but yet it is so useful, that men…are forced to bless God for the good which they receive…when they mark the good works of his saints” (C. H. Spurgeon). It ought to be our constant prayer and desire before God that he would give us grace to be useful to others, to improve the lives of those whose paths we cross, to make them happier and better for having come into contact with us.
The emblems our Lord used here of salt and light are instructive. Christ is the salt of the covenant (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19; Mark 9:49). Our Savior, as we have already observed, is the light of the world. It is because Christ is in his redeemed (Col. 1:27), and only because Christ is in us that believers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Were it not for the fact that Christ’s seed are in the earth, the whole world would be in a state of putrefaction and utter darkness (Phil. 2:15).
Second, in verses 17-19 our Lord shows us the unity of the Old Testament and the New Testament. — “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
This is a point of great importance. The Bible is one Book, not two. The religion of the Old Testament and the religion of the New Testament are the same. Totally disregard as false any religious teacher or any doctrinal system that would teach you to despise, disregard, or ignore any part of Holy Scripture, suggesting that it applies only to people of another age. The Book of God was written for you and me (Rom. 15:4). Be sure you grasp and firmly hold to the unity of God’s Holy Word.
The Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled all the types and requirements of the law and all the promises and predictions of the prophets. He fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies, all the types of the ceremonial law, and all the requirements of the moral law as our Mediator (Matt. 2:6; Luke 4:16-22; Acts 4:27-28; Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; Rom. 10:4). In all things he magnified the law of God and made it honorable by his obedience and death as our Substitute (Isa. 42:21). Nothing can be more blessedly comforting than beholding the Son of God by faith as our law-surety, and our law-fulfiller. As such he is the Lord our Righteousness, and is the “end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”
Let me be perfectly clear. God’s people do not, in any way, despise or disregard his holy law. We rejoice in the fact that in Christ we are free from the law. The Scriptures plainly declare that believers are not under the law (Rom. 6:14, 15; 7:1, 9; 10:4). We have no curse from the law (Gal. 3:13), no covenant with the law (Heb. 8:10-12), and no constraint by the law (2 Cor. 5:14).
Yet, every believer loves and delights in God’s holy law (Rom. 7:22). The law is God’s measure, the only measure of right and wrong (Rom. 7:7). The law shows men their sin and their need of Christ as their Redeemer and Savior (Rom. 3:19-20; Gal. 3:19-22). And the law restrains wicked men from the wickedness that is in them (1 Tim. 1:8-9).
Let no one imagine that the gospel lowers either the law of God or the holiness of his saints. Nothing can be further from the truth. The only person who truly fulfils and honors the law is the sinner who is saved by grace, through faith, without the law (Rom. 3:31). And the constraint of grace in the heart is far more powerful than the constraints of the law written in stone (Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 8:9).
Third, in verses 19 and 20 our Savior demonstrates to all the necessity of an infinitely meritorious substitute. — “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Robert Hawker, in his commentary on these two verses, wrote…
These are very strong expressions of Christ, in proof that nothing short of a whole and complete obedience to the law, can justify a soul before God. And hence the presumption of the Scribes and Pharisees. Oh! the folly of the Pharisees of the present hour! Oh! the blessedness of being found, as Paul was (Phil. 3:8-9), in Christ’s righteousness!
The scribes and Pharisees were, in their day, the most highly respected and admired religious leaders in the world. Everyone stood in awe of them. But our Lord Jesus said to his disciples, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Those words must have been astounding to the people who first heard them. The scribes were the religious scholars of the day. They were the men who copied and expounded the Scriptures. They gave their lives entirely to this one great work for God and his people. They consecrated themselves to this one noble work.
The Pharisees were the strictest sect of the Jews. No one exceeded the Pharisee in outward morality, obedience to the law, saying of prayers, tithing, sabbath keeping, Scripture memory, personal righteousness, and public approval. Yet, our Lord declares, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you cannot be saved!”
Is the Son of God here telling us that we must do more and be better than the scribes and Pharisees? Is he saying that we must gain a greater measure of personal holiness than those men had? Not at all. In fact, he is saying just the opposite.
The Master is telling us that it is utterly impossible for any man to gain favor with God on the basis of his own, personal righteousness. There never has been a child of Adam upon this earth good enough, righteous enough, holy enough to inherit or inhabit the kingdom of heaven, and there never shall be.
You and I must get every thought of personal righteousness out of our minds, and the very word “good” out of our vocabulary, when we think or speak of any human being in God’ s sight! We have no righteousness of our own before God, and no ability to produce righteousness. Indeed, “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6) before the holy Lord God.
If we would be saved, we must have the righteousness of God in Christ imputed and imparted to us. It is this righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees! Do what you may, without the righteousness of God in Christ, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. And the only way anyone can get that righteousness is by faith in Christ. Only God can give us the righteousness of God. Let me show you five things from the Word of God about this matter of righteousness.
1. God demands perfect righteousness (Lev. 22:21). He says, “Walk before me and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1). He will accept nothing less. Without perfect righteousness no one can ever enter into heaven (Rev. 21:27; 22:11-14).
2. You and I have no righteousness and no ability to produce righteousness. We used to be righteous; but we lost it in Adam’s fall. We cannot do righteousness (Rom. 3:9-19). Even our imaginary righteousness is sin (Isa. 64:6).
3. The Lord Jesus Christ, by his obedience to God as our Representative and by his sacrificial death as our Substitute, has established and brought in everlasting righteousness for God’s elect (Jer. 23:6; Dan. 9:24). In his obedience to God as our Representative he lived the life we could not live. In his sin-atoning death as our Substitute he paid the debt we could not pay, making full satisfaction to divine justice for us. In order to enter that perfect kingdom we must be made perfectly righteous by the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 5:19; 2 Cor. 5:21). It is Christ himself who is that Holiness we must have, without which no one shall ever see God and live (Heb. 12:14).
4. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to God’s elect in justification (Rom. 4:3-8). Our sin was imputed to Christ at Calvary. Though he never committed sin, he was made to be sin, and became responsible under the law for our sins as our Substitute. In exactly the same way the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to all who trust the Lord Jesus Christ, though we never have performed a righteous deed. Just as the law punished Christ for our sin, which was legally imputed to him, the law of God rewards every believer for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
5. The righteousness of Christ is imparted to redeemed sinners in regeneration (2 Pet. 1:2-4; 1 John 3:4-9). “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). If I am born again by the Spirit of God, I have a new nature created in my soul; a righteous nature is imparted to me, by which I reign as a king over the lusts and passions of my flesh. Yes, God’s people do sin. Sin is mixed with all we do so long as we live in this body of flesh. But sin no longer reigns over us. We are no longer under the dominion of sin (Rom. 6:14-16; Gal. 5:22-23). The believer’s life is a life of faith, godliness, and uprightness.
In verse 18 our Lord Jesus uses the word “amen,” here translated “verily,” for the first time. Our Master’s use of this word is very significant. This is one of his precious names, by which he distinguishes himself as the Christ, our God-man Mediator (Rev. 3:14). Using it as he did throughout his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus puts his name to that which he declares (Isa. 65:16). He is declaring that the thing stated is certain, sure, and true, as certain, sure, and true as him who is “the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the beginning of the creation of God.”
Our Lord frequently began his discourses with this word and often repeated it —“Verily, verily, I say unto you.” Yet, no one else in the Scriptures ever used this word as he did, introducing a statement with it, as if to give what he was about to say his own divine oath, attaching his honor as our God-man Mediator to the certainty of what he was about to declare. All the promises of God are “yea and amen” in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20.) Strictly and properly speaking, they are his promises, for he is himself the one great promise of the Bible. Therefore, it is written of God’s elect in Isaiah 65:16, “That he who blesseth himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of truth.” That is to say, “in the Amen.”
Whenever we use this sacred name by which our Savior identifies himself, in public worship and in private, let us remember our blessed Savior with faith, love, adoration, and gratitude. No one should say “Amen” in the church ignorantly (1 Cor. 14:16).