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Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


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13-16. We have here the practical application of the foregoing principles to those disciples who sat listening to them, and to their successors in all time. Our Lord, though He began by pronouncing certain characters to be blessed—without express reference to any of His hearers—does not close the beatitudes without intimating that such characters were in existence, and that already they were before Him. Accordingly, from characters He comes to persons possessing them, saying, "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you," &c. (Mt 5:11). And now, continuing this mode of direct personal address, He startles those humble, unknown men by pronouncing them the exalted benefactors of their whole species.

Ye are the salt of the earth—to preserve it from corruption, to season its insipidity, to freshen and sweeten it. The value of salt for these purposes is abundantly referred to by classical writers as well as in Scripture; and hence its symbolical significance in the religious offerings as well of those without as of those within the pale of revealed religion. In Scripture, mankind, under the unrestrained workings of their own evil nature, are represented as entirely corrupt. Thus, before the flood (Ge 6:11, 12); after the flood (Ge 8:21); in the days of David (Ps 14:2, 3); in the days of Isaiah (Isa 1:5, 6); and in the days of Paul (Eph 2:1-3; see also Job 14:4; 15:15, 16; Joh 3:6; compared with Ro 8:8; Tit 3:2, 3). The remedy for this, says our Lord here, is the active presence of His disciples among their fellows. The character and principles of Christians, brought into close contact with it, are designed to arrest the festering corruption of humanity and season its insipidity. But how, it may be asked, are Christians to do this office for their fellow men, if their righteousness only exasperate them, and recoil, in every form of persecution, upon themselves? The answer is: That is but the first and partial effect of their Christianity upon the world: though the great proportion would dislike and reject the truth, a small but noble band would receive and hold it fast; and in the struggle that would ensue, one and another even of the opposing party would come over to His ranks, and at length the Gospel would carry all before it.

but if the salt have lost his savour—"become unsavory" or "insipid"; losing its saline or salting property. The meaning is: If that Christianity on which the health of the world depends, does in any age, region, or individual, exist only in name, or if it contain not those saving elements for want of which the world languishes,

wherewith shall it be salted?—How shall the salting qualities be restored to it? (Compare Mr 9:50). Whether salt ever does lose its saline property—about which there is a difference of opinion—is a question of no moment here. The point of the case lies in the supposition—that if it should lose it, the consequence would be as here described. So with Christians. The question is not: Can, or do, the saints ever totally lose that grace which makes them a blessing to their fellow men? But, What is to be the issue of that Christianity which is found wanting in those elements which can alone stay the corruption and season the tastelessness of an all-pervading carnality? The restoration or non-restoration of grace, or true living Christianity, to those who have lost it, has, in our judgment, nothing at all to do here. The question is not, If a man lose his grace, how shall that grace be restored to him? but, Since living Christianity is the only "salt of the earth," if men lose that, what else can supply its place? What follows is the appalling answer to this question.

it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out—a figurative expression of indignant exclusion from the kingdom of God (compare Mt 8:12; 22:13; Joh 6:37; 9:34).

and to be trodden under foot of men—expressive of contempt and scorn. It is not the mere want of a certain character, but the want of it in those whose profession and appearance were fitted to beget expectation of finding it.

14. Ye are the light of the world—This being the distinctive title which our Lord appropriates to Himself (Joh 8:12; 9:5; and see Joh 1:4, 9; 3:19; 12:35, 36)—a title expressly said to be unsuitable even to the highest of all the prophets (Joh 1:8)—it must be applied here by our Lord to His disciples only as they shine with His light upon the world, in virtue of His Spirit dwelling in them, and the same mind being in them which was also in Christ Jesus. Nor are Christians anywhere else so called. Nay, as if to avoid the august title which the Master has appropriated to Himself, Christians are said to "shine"—not as "lights," as our translators render it, but—"as luminaries in the world" (Php 2:15); and the Baptist is said to have been "the burning and shining"—not "light," as in our translation, but "lamp" of his day (Joh 5:35). Let it be observed, too, that while the two figures of salt and sunlight both express the same function of Christians—their blessed influence on their fellow men—they each set this forth under a different aspect. Salt operates internally, in the mass with which it comes in contact; the sunlight operates externally, irradiating all that it reaches. Hence Christians are warily styled "the salt of the earth"—with reference to the masses of mankind with whom they are expected to mix; but "the light of the world"—with reference to the vast and variegated surface which feels its fructifying and gladdening radiance. The same distinction is observable in the second pair of those seven parables which our Lord spoke from the Galilean Lake—that of the "mustard seed," which grew to be a great overshadowing tree, answering to the sunlight which invests the world, and that of the "leaven," which a woman took and, like the salt, hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened (Mt 13:31-33).

A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid—nor can it be supposed to have been so built except to be seen by many eyes.

15. Neither do men light a candle—or, lamp.

and put it under a bushel—a dry measure.

but on a candlestick—rather, "under the bushel, but on the lampstand." The article is inserted in both cases to express the familiarity of everyone with those household utensils.

and it giveth light—shineth "unto all that are in the house."

16. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven—As nobody lights a lamp only to cover it up, but places it so conspicuously as to give light to all who need light, so Christians, being the light of the world, instead of hiding their light, are so to hold it forth before men that they may see what a life the disciples of Christ lead, and seeing this, may glorify their Father for so redeeming, transforming, and ennobling earth's sinful children, and opening to themselves the way to like redemption and transformation.

Mt 5:17-48. Identity of These Principles with Those of the Ancient Economy; in Contrast with the Reigning Traditional Teaching.

Exposition of Principles (Mt 5:17-20).

17. Think not that I am come—that I came.

to destroy the law, or the prophets—that is, "the authority and principles of the Old Testament." (On the phrase, see Mt 7:12; 22:40; Lu 16:16; Ac 13:15). This general way of taking the phrase is much better than understanding "the law" and "the prophets" separately, and inquiring, as many good critics do, in what sense our Lord could be supposed to meditate the subversion of each. To the various classes of His hearers, who might view such supposed abrogation of the law and the prophets with very different feelings, our Lord's announcement would, in effect, be such as this—"Ye who tremble at the word of the Lord, fear not that I am going to sweep the foundation from under your feet: Ye restless and revolutionary spirits, hope not that I am going to head any revolutionary movement: And ye who hypocritically affect great reverence for the law and the prophets, pretend not to find anything in My teaching derogatory to God's living oracles."

I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil—Not to subvert, abrogate, or annul, but to establish the law and the prophets—to unfold them, to embody them in living form, and to enshrine them in the reverence, affection, and character of men, am I come.

18. For verily I say unto you—Here, for the first time, does that august expression occur in our Lord's recorded teaching, with which we have grown so familiar as hardly to reflect on its full import. It is the expression manifestly, of supreme legislative authority; and as the subject in connection with which it is uttered is the Moral Law, no higher claim to an authority strictly divine could be advanced. For when we observe how jealously Jehovah asserts it as His exclusive prerogative to give law to men (Le 18:1-5; 19:37; 26:1-4, 13-16, &c.), such language as this of our Lord will appear totally unsuitable, and indeed abhorrent, from any creature lips. When the Baptist's words—"I say unto you" (Mt 3:9)—are compared with those of his Master here, the difference of the two cases will be at once apparent.

Till heaven and earth pass—Though even the Old Testament announces the ultimate "perdition of the heavens and the earth," in contrast with the immutability of Jehovah (Ps 102:24-27), the prevalent representation of the heavens and the earth in Scripture, when employed as a popular figure, is that of their stability (Ps 119:89-91; Ec 1:4; Jer 33:25, 26). It is the enduring stability, then, of the great truths and principles, moral and spiritual, of the Old Testament revelation which our Lord thus expresses.

one jot—the smallest of the Hebrew letters.

one tittle—one of those little strokes by which alone some of the Hebrew letters are distinguished from others like them.

shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled—The meaning is that "not so much as the smallest loss of authority or vitality shall ever come over the law." The expression, "till all be fulfilled," is much the same in meaning as "it shall be had in undiminished and enduring honor, from its greatest to its least requirements." Again, this general way of viewing our Lord's words here seems far preferable to that doctrinal understanding of them which would require us to determine the different kinds of "fulfilment" which the moral and the ceremonial parts of it were to have.

19. Whosoever therefore shall break—rather, "dissolve," "annul," or "make invalid."

one of these least commandments—an expression equivalent to "one of the least of these commandments."

and shall teach men so—referring to the Pharisees and their teaching, as is plain from Mt 5:20, but of course embracing all similar schools and teaching in the Christian Church.

he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven—As the thing spoken of is not the practical breaking, or disobeying, of the law, but annulling or enervating its obligation by a vicious system of interpretation, and teaching others to do the same; so the thing threatened is not exclusion from heaven, and still less the lowest place in it, but a degraded and contemptuous position in the present stage of the kingdom of God. In other words, they shall be reduced by the retributive providence that overtakes them, to the same condition of dishonor to which, by their system and their teaching, they have brought down those eternal principles of God's law.

but whosoever shall do and teach them—whose principles and teaching go to exalt the authority and honor of God's law, in its lowest as well as highest requirements.

the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven—shall, by that providence which watches over the honor of God's moral administration, be raised to the same position of authority and honor to which they exalt the law.

20. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—The superiority to the Pharisaic righteousness here required is plainly in kind, not degree; for all Scripture teaches that entrance into God's kingdom, whether in its present or future stage, depends, not on the degree of our excellence in anything, but solely on our having the character itself which God demands. Our righteousness, then—if it is to contrast with the outward and formal righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—must be inward, vital, spiritual. Some, indeed, of the scribes and Pharisees themselves might have the very righteousness here demanded; but our Lord is speaking, not of persons, but of the system they represented and taught.

ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven—If this refer, as in Mt 5:19, rather to the earthly stage of this kingdom, the meaning is that without a righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees, we cannot be members of it at all, save in name. This was no new doctrine (Ro 2:28, 29; 9:6; Php 3:3). But our Lord's teaching here stretches beyond the present scene, to that everlasting stage of the kingdom, where without "purity of heart" none "shall see God."




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