Please read Matthew 5:13 – 16
Yeshua’s voice was strong, yet gentle. His teaching was clear and simple, yet incomprehensible. What He said had the ring of the scriptures they had memorised as children and heard in the Synagogue every Shabbat, yet so different to the interpretations they were used to hearing from other religious teachers. He spoke with a profound authority, yet compassionately. This man viewed the world through a different lens. The crowd mulled over what He had called blessed and the way that He was introducing the kingdom of heaven to them. It was both familiar and yet strikingly unique.
Those last words on being blessed if you are persecuted had struck a nerve.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:10-12
It was their own people who had persecuted the prophets. The Jews liked to think of themselves as a people who honoured the prophets and heeded their words, but their history, as recorded in their scriptures, told a different story. Prophets spoke a word from God that the people did not want to hear. They called the people to repentance and set forth God’s terms for them to be reconciled to Him, but most people prefer to come to God on their own terms rather than conforming to His. Their ancestors had persecuted the prophets rather than conform to God’s terms for relationship with Him.
Yeshua had set forth a vision of the kingdom of heaven which included being peacemakers – boldly declaring God’s conditions for being reconciled with Him. Then He had related such to being persecuted. He connected living in God’s righteousness with being persecuted. He had spoken about being reviled, falsely accused and hunted down by their own people for righteousness sake, just as the prophets before them had been. Those were not easy words to hear when all their lives they had been taught that they would be honoured in their community for being righteous like the Pharisees.
Some commentators have suggested that Jesus’ teachings here were for that select group called ‘disciples’, or even just for “the twelve” (who had not yet been selected), for those who were ‘part of the kingdom’, “genuinely committed believers”, and not for the multitudes who had followed Yeshua up this mountain to hear His teaching. What they failed to recognise was that Yeshua had not come to ‘start a new religion’, but to reform Judaism – to call the Jewish people, all the Jewish people, back to God’s original purpose for them and help them understand what it really means to live in obedience to God’s Law.
First centenary Jewish society did not have “believers” and “non-believers” the way we think of them in modern western nations. Their distinction was between Jews and non-Jews. Knowledge of God permeated every aspect of Jewish life, it was woven into the fabric of their culture and coloured every activity of daily life. It was the aim of the Jewish people to be part of the kingdom of heaven, it was their birthright as Jews. This was tied up in their expectations of a coming Messiah. Everyone of the multitude of Jews who followed Yeshua up that mountain and listened to this ‘Sermon on the Mount’, had a hope and expectation of being citizens of this kingdom. Everyone of them knew that Yeshua’s words were for them. This was what God had established Israel to be – His kingdom, salt and light to the world.
Yeshua continued His teaching with two simple illustrations which were easy to remember, yet profound. Again, these were designed to be memorised, meditated upon, discussed, lived, and shared with others.
“You are the salt of the earth; … Matthew 5:13a NKJV
Salt is essential for life in general. Saltiness is one of the basic human tastes, thus salt is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous food seasonings. Salting is also an important method of food preservation. With the spread of civilization, salt became one of the world’s main trading commodities. Wars have been fought over salt and it has been used as currency and to raise tax revenues. It was prized by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Hittites, Egyptians, Indians and Chinese. Salt thus became an important article of trade and was transported by boat across the Mediterranean Sea, along specially built salt roads, and across the Sahara on camel caravans.
Salt had an especially strong significance for the Jewish people. It is a very stable mineral – tastes the same in a week’s time, in a year’s time, in a hundred years time, in ten-thousand years time. Other elements of a meal – meat, grains, vegetables and herbs all degraded over time. Salt carried a sense of permeance, of endurance, it hinted at eternity. Not only that, but it helped preserve these other foods, it lengthened their life and improved their flavour. So salt had become an essential part of any covenant. In a covenant of friendship between families the meal shared had to include salt, include that which is enduring. Likewise, in God’s covenant with Israel the sacrifices offered to God had to be salted.
You shall season your every offering of meal (grain) with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt. Leviticus 2:13
When you offer them (young bull, male goat without defect and ram form the flock) before the Lord, the priests shall throw salt on them, and they will offer them up as a burnt offering to the Lord. Ezekiel 43:24
And whatever they need—young bulls, rams, and lambs for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the request of the priests who are in Jerusalem—let it be given them day by day without fail. Ezra 6:9
God also made two lasting covenants which He referred to as berit melakh, “covenant of salt“. The first was with Aaron and his descendants to be priests and partake of the offerings “for all time“. The second was with David and his descendants to have kingship over Israel “forever“. Thus, God kept the two branches of governance over His people, the priesthood and the kingship, separate so that each would be accountable to the other and all accountable to Him.
All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for God I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before God for you and for your offspring as well. Numbers 18:19
Surely you know that the God of Israel gave David kingship over Israel forever—to him and his sons—by a covenant of salt. 2 Chronicles 13:5
This second covenant of salt is particularly interesting because of it’s connection with Messiah, stating clearly that he must be a descendant of David. Anyone having messianic rule over Israel who was not a descendant of David would be a breach of this enduring covenant. God simply would not do such a thing, He is a covenant making, covenant keeping God. The genealogies in both Matthew and Luke importantly show that Yeshua was indeed a descendant, a ‘son’, of David, and thus He is the fulfilment of this “covenant of salt” that God made with David and with Israel.
All the multitude of Jews sitting up on the mountain with Yeshua knew that He was speaking to them when He said: “You are the salt of the earth…”. The Jewish people are essential to life and civilisation on earth. They are essential as a witness and example of God’s dealing with mankind. They are essential as a testimony to God’s goodness and truth. That is what God had established the Jewish nation to be, salt preserving the earth, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In calling them the salt of the earth Yeshua gave importance to the Jews scattered throughout the nations as well as those living in their homeland, for salt has to be scattered over the whole of the offering if it is going to be accepted, not just piled up on one portion of it. Everywhere that the Jews went throughout the earth they were to be salt in that place, a testimony by how they kept God’s covenant, to the nature and goodness of the one true God, creator of the universe and husband to their nation.
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” Exodus 19:5-6
To us, talking about salt loosing it’s flavour might not make much sense. We have been focusing on it’s enduring nature, so how could it lose its flavour? To the scientist, salt (NaCl, sodium chloride) is one of the three or four most stable compounds in the world. Virtually no natural reaction can cause salt to turn into any other compound. It does not change, it does not degrade, salt is always salt and it is always salty.
… but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. Matthew 5:13b
But these Jews had experienced salt that had lost its flavour, they knew what Yeshua was talking about. Pure salt cannot lose its flavour, but not all the salt they purchased was pure. Indeed, the cheaper salts sometimes contained a mixture of salt with some other cheap and tasteless mineral (such as Gypsum, which was also abundant in the area) that, when ground up, nevertheless looked like salt. When the percentage of impurities in the salt got too great it lost its flavour and became worthless. No man would allow it to be thrown onto his field because it would destroy the fertility of the ground. The only place for it was on the street, where it would be trampled underfoot by men.
God’s covenant with the Jewish people was both wonderful and terrible. There were blessings for obedience, but there were also curses for disobedience. The people had stood on two mountains (now located in Samaria) and spoken the blessings over themselves from one mountain, and the curses over themselves from the other (Deuteronomy 11:26-29 & Joshua 8:33-35). Yeshua was now speaking prophetically to them of what would happen if the Jewish people lost their saltiness, rejected His words, they would be good for nothing as far as the kingdom of heaven was concerned, thrown out of their holy city of Jerusalem and trampled underfoot by men.
The need to remain pure was not new to Judaism. All the laws of the Pharisees were focused on keeping the people pure. The ‘fence they built around the Torah‘ was to keep the people pure. All their ritual hand washings and mikvah’s were to ensure the purity of the people. What Yeshua was saying was, in many ways, very close to what the teachers of the law were saying about the need for them to be pure before God. And yet, it was also so very different. Yeshua had just told them what the Father required in their purity, and there was not a ritual washing or shunning of other peoples in it – be poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers. Pride and self-righteousness, judgmental and hateful attitudes were the sort of impurities that Yeshua was warning against as things that could make them tasteless and useless to the kingdom.
The title “light of the world” appears frequently in rabbinic literature to describe a source of wisdom, goodness, or holiness. Different rabbinic sources use the term “light of the world” to describe the menorah, the Temple, Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, the sages, specific rabbis, the whole nation of Israel, the redemption, the Torah, and even God Himself. The concept of the Jewish people being the light of the world was founded on Deuteronomy 4, in combination with Isaiah 42, 49 & 60, and depicted in the menorah.
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you…. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Deuteronomy 4:1-2 & 6-8 NIV
“I, Adonai, called you righteously, I took hold of you by the hand, I shaped you and made you a covenant for the people, to be a light for the Goyim (Gentiles).” Isaiah 42:6 CJB
“I will also make you a light to the nations, so my salvation can spread to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6b
“Arise, shine [Yerushalayim], for your light has come, the glory of Adonai has risen over you. For although darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness the peoples; on you Adonai will rise;
over you will be seen his glory. Nations will go toward your light
and kings toward your shining splendour. Isaiah 60:1-3 CJB
Israel was to model before the nations a lifestyle governed by the light of God’s instructions. The successful and blessed lives that they would live in obedience to the Word of God would enlighten the Gentiles and turn them to God. As they elevated the light of the menorah, Israel would also be exalted. The Jewish people see in the seven flames of the menorah the collective souls of Israel as God’s light to the nations. Even the words of the commandment for lighting the menorah speak of Israel’s being elevated so as to enlighten the Gentile world. The command is, “When you raise the light” (Numbers 8:1). Israel was designed to lift up God’s fire upon a lampstand so it would give light to the household of humanity. They were not to hide, or lower, the light. They were to raise it, exalt it, make it glorious. Israel itself was elevated above the other nations of the world for the express purpose of raising the light: “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2, NKJV). Israel was chosen in order to raise God’s light, to be a demonstration of God’s holiness. God had formed Israel according to the heavenly pattern to be a menorah, a lampstand on which the light could be raised to radiate into the world. God had chosen to place His light in an insignificant, nomadic tribe and, by illuminating their lives with the goodness of His Torah, make them His menorah to the nations.
Even today the Jewish people recognise God’s intent that they be the light of the world, as can be seen in the selection of the menorah as the national emblem of Israel, and their prime minister’s words:
“…as a proud people with a magnificent country and one which always aspires to serve as ‘Light Unto the Nations’.” Benjamin Netanyahu, 2010.
Yeshua was not saying anything new to these Jews gathered up on the mountain to hear His teaching. It was a generally accepted doctrine that God had established their nation to be the light of the world. But Yeshua placed this teaching in a different context, in the context of the Beatitudes. In the context of being peacemakers, inviting all to be reconciled to God.
A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14b-15 NKJV
Every Jew immediately thought of Jerusalem as the city set on the hill, the city that was ordained to light the whole world with the knowledge of God. Here again was a prophetic hint at the coming destruction of that city if they continued to fail to shine the light of obedience to God’s covenant with them. A lamp placed under a bowl extinguishes itself for lack of oxygen. Likewise, the light of the world where the Temple stood, the menorah burned, the Sanhedrin convened, the rabbis taught, the Torah was studied, and the nation of Israel assembled, was in danger of being extinguished. Poverty of spirit, repentance, was needed to bring the nation back to God’s intent.
The interior walls of first-century houses had small niches in which the homeowner placed an oil lamp for illumination, and from that perch the lamp “gives light to all who are in the house” (Matthew 5:15). All of a sudden the pharisees’ “Eighteen Articles”, exclusivist measures which included prohibiting the Jews from buying any article of food or drink from their heathen neighbours, seemed like a pretty poor addition to what God had commanded them. To hide from, and cut off all positive contact with, their heathen neighbours would hide their lamps under a basket of hatred for the other. God had called them to shine before all men of all nations so that they, too, could be drawn to Him.
This teaching was not just for the Jews sitting up on the mountain listening to Yeshua, it was for them to share with all their Jewish neighbours and the Jewish traders from different areas who came to this major trading centre of Capernaum for business. “This teacher says that we are the salt of the earth, wherever you live and travel you need to keep covenant and remain pure to show all peoples what the one true God is like.” And then again; “this teacher says that we are the light of the world, we are not to hide ourselves away from others but to show them God’s goodness through our good deeds.” Listening, learning, memorising, living and sharing – that was the task of all who sat as disciples (students) of Yeshua this day.
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In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and answer some of the following questions…
* “Most people prefer to come to God on their own terms rather than conforming to His” – what of God’s terms do people in your area try to avoid?
* What does it mean for us to be the salt of the earth, and how do we lose our flavour?
* What does it mean for us to be the light of the world, and how does that light get hidden?
* What insights have your congregation shared with you as they have memorised and meditated on Jesus’ words about salt and light?
* What testimonies have people in your congregation shared about how others have responded to their good works (Matthew 5:16), and to their sharing Jesus’ words?