Being distinctive as the people of God in Matthew 5

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for the Third Sunday before Lent in Year A is Matt 5.13–20, a short section of the so-called Sermon on the Mount following on from the Beatitudes. In some ways, this collection of sayings is well known, with some of it passing into common parlance (‘salt of the earth’)—and yet the important teaching of Jesus here appears to be neglected or ignored in much common debate about what it means to be the people of God.

The reading actually includes two different subjects of teaching—the distinctiveness of the people of God, and the relation of Jesus’ teaching overall to the Old Testament—so it is worth taking these in turn, and I will do this in successive posts.

Salt in the ancient world was a vital commodity. As most modern readers will be aware, salt was used as a seasoning (just as it is now), as a preservative (as used to be the case before refrigeration) and as a fertiliser on soil. The idea of people or disciples being ‘salty’ has parallels in Greek literature and rhetoric, and just as Paul later invites the Colossians’ conversation to be ‘seasoned with salt’ (that is, appealing and winsome), so the Athenian academics were accused of having speech that was ‘saltless’, meaning unappealing and dry.

The word for ‘earth’ here (ge from which we get ‘geology’) can signify the soil of the ground, the land (of Israel) and the whole world. In the immediate context of Jesus addressing those who are forming part of a renewal movement within the people of Israel, it would be natural to understand Jesus as saying that his disciples are going to bring life and renewal to the whole of the nation. But as we read it, after the time of the Great Commission in Matt 28 when we are to take Jesus’ teaching to ‘all nations’, we now naturally read this in more global, cosmic terms.

The idea of salt ‘losing its saltiness’ seems rather odd to modern ears, since we are accustomed to using pure salt. Most salt in the ancient world—such as that quarried from the Dead Sea—was in fact a mixture of minerals, with salt being only one. Thus it would be possible for the salt to have been dissolved out, leaving only other mineral particles which offer none of benefits of salt. But, as someone has commented, Jesus is here wanting to give us a lesson on discipleship, not a lesson on chemistry! The absurdity of salt not being salty is only surpassed by the absurdity of a disciple of Jesus who no longer offers a distinctive, appealing and life-enhancing contribution to the world around him or her.

The statement of judgement about ‘being trampled underfoot’ has occasionally been taken in a positive sense: at least there is some use for this unsalty ‘salt’ on a pathway. But there doesn’t appear to be anything positive here in Jesus’ saying. We should rather read it alongside his other judgement sayings about people being ‘thrown out’ (Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.48, 22.13).

The idea of being ‘the light of the world’ runs in parallel with the ‘salt of the earth’. Just as the salt contrasts with the food to which it is added, bringing taste to that which is bland and preserving power to that which would otherwise rot, so the light is implicitly contrasted with the dark that surrounds it. There is a clear connection here with ideas in the Fourth Gospel, and Matthew provides another connection by emphasising Jesus’ language of God as Father. Whereas in the Fourth Gospel it is Jesus who is ‘the light of the world’ (John 1.9, 3.19, 8.12, 9.5, 12.46), in Matthew it is Jesus’ followers. Here we find a kind of Pauline idea of the disciples as the body of Christ,  in this case representing Jesus’ own light-giving presence in the world. (We find a similar idea in different forms in the welcoming of a disciple being the welcoming of Jesus in Matt 10.40, and loving care of ‘the least of these my brothers’ being loving care of Jesus in Matt 25.31f)

The city on a hill is mentioned between the reference to ‘the light of the world’ and ‘the lamp on a stand’, which makes it clear that Jesus is thinking not merely of a city or town on a hill that is visible during the day, but the light of the city, created by the combined effect of the individual lights in the windows of houses, during the night.

The usual domestic light in Jesus’ day would be a lamp (luchnos) formed as a simple clay bowl with one end pinched to hold a wick, and filled with olive oil as fuel. (The garden plant lychnus, or rose campion, gets it Latin name because its fine stems could be used as wicks for just such a lamp, or in candles.) It is worth noting here that a single lamp ‘gives light to the whole house’, implying that the usual peasant home consisted of just one large room, in which the family would work, sleep, and (at night) bring in the animals, giving us important background to making sense of the details of the nativity in Luke 2.

It is striking here that Jesus is encouraging his followers to be visible in the light that they bring, and (in common with Matthew’s general emphasis on ‘righteousness’ as the actions that God requires) this light is expressed in good deeds. This verse is recited in the Book of Common Prayer before the collection, reminding the gather people of Jesus’ teaching that faith in him finds its expression in tangible acts of generosity and kindness. There might be some tension with Jesus’ teaching in Matt 6.1 about not performing our ‘acts of righteousness’ in public in order to gain respect and adulation—but the contrast is more apparent than real. Jesus is there rejecting ostentatious display; here he is calling his disciples to be visible.

From these two parallel but distinct metaphors about the life of discipleship, we might note four things.

First, distinctiveness is a non-negotiable part of living the life of the kingdom as followers of Jesus. These sayings follow on from the ‘kingdom programme’ of the Beatitudes, which sets out what it means to live this life in contradiction to the expectations of ‘the world’.

Because they have committed themselves to follow Jesus, and so adopt the new values of the kingdom of heaven, they are now going to stand out as different from other people’ (R T France Matthew NICNT p 171)

Secondly, this distinctiveness will not always be welcomed, and will be a challenging vocation to live out. We have just read in the immediately preceding verses: ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…’ and we have no reason to separate that from these verses.

Thirdly, this distinctiveness is visible, not hidden.

Here the context indicates that is it about the effect which the life of disciples must have on those around them. It thus takes for granted that the ‘job description’ of a disciple is not fulfilled by private personal holiness, but includes the witness of public exposure. (R T France Matthew NICNT p 176).

Fourthly, this distinctiveness is corporate, though in different ways in the two illustrations. Salt is only useful if it is distributed throughout that which it is to preserve or season; here we have an illustration of the dispersed people of God in society (hence Rebecca Manley Pippert’s book on evangelism from some years ago Out of the Saltshaker). On the other hand, the city on a hill offers its light because the individual lights are gathered together. It is the collective light of the whole community that draws the watching world.

And what is the goal of all this? ‘That they may glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5.16). ‘Father’ here is not a general term for the universal relationship of humanity with God, but signifies the distinctive relationship between God and those who have become subjects of his kingdom. The subject of this discourse, and the aim of the discipleship which it promotes, is not so much the betterment of life on earth, as the implementation of the reign of God.

It is very striking that Jesus, in Matthew’s organisation of his teaching material, then goes on to talk about the status of the law. We need to remember that the surrounding culture from which Jesus’ followers are to be distinctive here is not just the Gentile world (since Jesus is teaching in ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’) but also the prevailing Jewish culture, which is ostensibly Torah-observant. (A previous parallel for us is perhaps not just the unbelieving world but also nominal Christendom).

So if his previous comments emphasise discontinuity, he goes at length here to emphasise continuity with what God has previously spoken to his people. The language of ‘fulfilment’ echoes the language that Matthew has already used, in connection with the birth narrative, of the relation of what God is doing in Jesus to what God has done before. Jesus here deploys one of his formulas of emphatic proclamation: ‘Amen I say to you…’ (wrongly translated as ‘truly’; in the Greek text we have an Aramaic or Hebrew term transliterated, so ETs should do the same, as they do with other similar transliterations like ‘Abba’).

The ‘smallest jot or tittle’ (AV) has passed into proverbial use meaning the smallest thing. But the terms actually refer to the Hebrew letter yod and the keraia (‘horn’), the projection of the edge of the letter which distinguishes similar letters in the Hebrew alphabet, such as beth from kaf.

Once again, the theme of ‘righteousness’, meaning living out in right actions the holy call of God, is key. Remarkably, mere obedience to Torah after the pattern of the Pharisees will not effect this righteousness if this is attempted without also following the call of Jesus as Messiah. In what once again looks like quite a Pauline approach, obedience to Torah is necessary, but on its own it is not sufficient.

Where does that then leave us in how we think of the law? Roland Deines (former professor of theology at the University of Nottingham) explores this in his essay ‘Not the Law but the Messiah’, Roland Deines, in the excellent volume Built Upon the Rock (ed Daniel Gurtner and John Nolland, 2008, arising from the Tyndale NT study group).

The Torah in its previous function cannot contribute to the now demanded eschatological righteousness, but as an expression of God’s will, the Torah remains an important part of God’s word and revelation, leading and pointing to the teaching of Jesus (these being based on and inseparably related to this first expression of God’s will). Furthermore, the Law will function as a guide to know what sin is (cf. Rom. 3:19) and what it means that God wants the obedience of all humans in all aspects of their personal and social life. But from now on the obedience is oriented toward the kingdom of God, and Jesus is the only one who opens up the way to the universal basileia.

If Jesus is the only teacher, and Jesus lived his life as a Law-observant Jew who acknowledged Israel’s scripture as the word of God, does this mean that his followers have to do the same? I think the answer Matthew (and in different ways the whole New Testament) gave is a clear no…The ethic of Jesus will always be an ethic based on all of scripture, but from the perspective of the kingdom of God…

To express it in a clear but perhaps a little overly simplified way: the task of the Law and the prophets is to keep Israel apart as a chosen people in the world and to champion the will of God inside Israel. The ultimate goal of the kingdom of heaven is that all nations live and walk in the light of the Lord. All are invited to enter the kingdom of God, and barriers are no longer necessary to keep the pious apart…

The Law written in the hearts through the Holy Spirit changes the status of the written Law. The Law remains a witness to the will of God. But its place in the history of God with the world has changed with the appearance of the Messiah. The Messiah paved the way for the eschatological righteousness, and from now on the Torah has only a kind of supportive role. In other words, only as long as the Torah serves the messianic goal is the Torah valid.

This helps us in two ways as we read the Old Testament as the word of God to us. On the one hand, we must read it Christologically—not looking for ‘spring traps’ the pop up and mention Jesus, but reading aware that the whole direction of Torah and the other writings reaches its climax in what God has done for us in Christ.

On the other hand, we need to read in precisely the way that Jesus goes on to in the next verses, not focussing on the merely outward, but asking questions about intention too. Jesus knows that we are body-soul unities, that the inner and the outer are inseparable, and that God looks on the heart as well as the hands. We must, in our reading of the Old Testament, always move from ‘What does it say?’ through ‘What is the intention?’ before we ask ‘What is God saying to us now?’

Join Ian and James as they discuss all these issues, and offer some examples of what this means, in their weekly video discussion.

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

20 thoughts on “Being distinctive as the people of God in Matthew 5”

  1. I suggest the confusion about the role of law is not helped by the concept that the New Testament is a ‘renewal’ of the Mosaic Covenant—as N. T. Wright and many others believe (and Calvin taught). But Jeremiah 31:29–34 seems to indicate otherwise.

    • Jeremiah 31:29–30 is a Hebrew proverb and I believe that one (big) difference in the New Covenant is that it is not to be based on consanguinity—not passed from father to son.

    • Yes, you are right about consanguinity; which is why the kinship metaphors are key in the messianic community around Jesus.

      But, to be fair to Tom, he says more than that. The kingdom of God does not merely renew the covenant with Israel, but restores the whole of creation.

    • That’s an interesting insight Colin. The interpretation of Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8 ,on the one hand , still affirms that the New Covenant relates primarily to “corporate” Israel [verse 8 -Judea and Samaria] yet on the other hand, it concludes [13] with what ,I think, literally translates as ” In the saying New, he has made old the first; but that which grows old and aged near disappearing”. In order to make sense of this the RSV, NIV and the ESV have modified this to (quoting NIV) “By calling this covenant ‘new’ he has made the first one *obsolete* and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear. The term “obsolete” if valid,clearly invalidates the idea of (as you say) of a *renewal* of the Mosaic Covenant. But what are we to make of verse 8?

      • Hi Colin,
        I believe Jesus fulfilled Jeremiah 31:31 / Hebrews 8:8 in his earthly ministry.
        It is widely accepted in the academy that Jesus was offering the new covenant to ‘Israel’ in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

        Note also that when Hebrews was written the old covenant was still in existence (Hebrews 8:13) thus I would suggest it was terminated at the destruction of Jerusalem, not on the cross —hence Jesus’s statement in Matthew 23:37–38. In the Bible’s marital imagery there is no need to terminate a covenant by a death— it can be done by a divorce, as Jeremiah 3:1–8 makes clear.

  2. I agree with this statement by Deines:

    “The Law written in the hearts through the Holy Spirit changes the status of the written Law. The Law remains a witness to the will of God. But its place in the history of God with the world has changed with the appearance of the Messiah.”

  3. I think your colleague on the video mentioned something to the effect that ‘neat’ salt is pungent and needs applying carefully? And you suggested it was pushing the metaphor too far? An easy mistake to make. But nonetheless it is an interesting point? As the next thing I watched was Ben Miller on TV tasting the brine salt of his hometown Nantwich and he did a brilliant gurning job.

  4. Hi Ian – thank you for this.

    Would you agree that Matt 5:13-14 are always at risk of being understood (or perhaps they actually mean!?) something like: ‘it is by the moral and spiritual beauty of the church’s corporate life, transformed by Jesus, that the wider world will be lit up and brought to Jesus’. Which sounds lovely, and plausible, but runs up against the brute fact of radical failure in pretty much every church there’s ever been, and certainly in ‘the Church’ across the continents and centuries. Christianity’s record, whilst in many ways splendid, is in many others ways anything but – which means (does it?) that it’s overall presence in history is as a morally/spiritually ambiguous thing.

    If that’s true, how do we preach Matt 5:13-14 in a way which doesn’t shout at the church to ‘try harder, pray harder, do better’. This is no use, because such reformation tends to end in failure, and often calcifies into something pretty narrow and nasty. But if we instead preached something like what I’m tempted to say – that the church’s true distinctiveness lies in her ability to radically own her failure, and that it is precisely in that repentance, that complete lack of faith in her own performance, that God is most able to act both to draw others and create real moral/spiritual beauty. Or does that not quite do justice to what Jesus is saying here, do you think?

    I guess my basic question is: how do you preach Matt.5:13-14 to a church which has lost all confidence that it is actually salty, in a way which is actually Gospel and not just ethical exhortation?

  5. ‘In what once again looks like quite a Pauline approach, obedience to Torah is necessary, but on its own it is not sufficient.’

    I find this confusing. If the condemnation that the Law brought has been nailed to the cross, why is it still deemed ‘necessary’ to be obedient to Torah for Jewish converts, much less Gentile ones?

    If Jesus came to ‘fulfil the Law’, again why is it ‘still’ necessary to follow it?


    • It may have something to do with the distinction and difference between
      justificationn through Jesus sinless perfect obedience, adoption, and sanctification of a devoted life transformed changed by degrees into his likeness.

    • Peter – The sentence ‘In what once again looks like quite a Pauline approach, obedience to Torah is necessary, but on its own it is not sufficient’ clearly needs the addition ‘to attain righteousness by one’s own works.’

      The Sermon on the Mount has to be seen as eschatological; this is what we attain in the next life and the Christian who says ‘this is too high and too hard’ has understood it much better than anyone who considers it as something attainable in this life (the wretched man of Romans 7:14-25 clearly didn’t believe at the time of writing that he had attained it).

      • Hi Jock, I dont understand how the Sermon of the Mount applies to the next life. Part of it does ‘…then you will be comforted’ etc, but it seems to me to be largely about the now. Our experience and behaviour now.

  6. Colin Your second paragraph serves to elucidate the main point in your first post. However I would suggest the fact that you have to place quotation marks round “Israel”in the second paragraph above clearly reveals an ambiguity in its meaning.
    Re your Academia citation: I would question whether references to John’s gospel can be theologically transposed on to Hebrews. I am not convinced that “Judea / Samaria” is equivelant to Israel. There is a place for an historical dimension to the New Testament narrative.Nevertheless at least you have not gone as far as those who would preface the word with an adjectival qualification!

    • Colin,
      Thanks for your response.
      Jesus offered the new covenant to Judah. The ten northern tribes (denoted as Israel in the Bible) had been exiled to Assyria and, in effect, ‘lost’. In the academy the Samaritan woman is seen as a representative of Israel because Israel was based there before the exile. Not all were exiled, and some had drifted back—but many had intermarried with non-Jews—there was no definitive Israel left.

      Thus, the new covenant was being offered to the Samaritan woman as a ‘stand in’ for those ten northern tribes as per the Jeremiah (et al) prophecy.

      Can there ever be a definitive Israel again? Or even a definitive Judah? How can a pure seed line be traced back to Jacob (a key purpose of the Mosaic Covenant) —once Judah lost the land and the Temple, where it seems the genealogies were kept?

      • Colin I am aware of the difficulties that you raise. Nevertheless there are questions relating to your original points : first by what criteria do you separate Jer31: 29 – 34 from texts surrounding it, for example 29: 11 – 14; 30:1 – 3; 31:11; 32 :36b – 41 and 33: 6 – 9 (to name but a few) – shades of Abraham? Secondly, other than by appealing to texts elsewhere in the NT, why did the writer of the Hebrews not specifically state that “definitive Israel” could no longer exist?Why retain “Judea and Samaria”?Thirdly,in a previous blog, you stated that – “the NT imagery where Jesus is persistently portrayed as the bridegroom offering a new marriage -not a reconciling husband- — might be seen to lend weight to a supercessionist view of national Israel”(18 -1 -22) . I replied in two ways: in the first place Hosea speaks of the “husband restored to his “adulterous wife”; making mention of the restoration of the covenant [2:8].and in the second case by making reference to the primary purpose of the writer of Hebrews as being the Christocentric basis of the covenant -not its membership. In that case,as Ian (Paul) has indicated above (echoing Tom Wright) re the “the messianic community around Jesus” – ” The kingdom of God does not merely renew the covenant with Israel, but restores the whole of creation”.

          • Colin – well, I looked up ‘supersessionist’ on wikipedia and I’m still no further ahead. Could you give a definition of it (if possible in words of no more than 4 letters and without using subordinate clauses)?

  7. Hi Jock (and Colin M),
    There is no reply button so hopefully you find this. This is a long way from our subject—so just a brief and final comment on this blog. Christians have different views on this and I do not see that it should divide believers.

    But a supersessionist sees that there is no future for ethnic Israel as a nation.
    The Mosaic Covenant held out the promise for long life in the land—not eternal life. It was a temporary covenant to point to Christ and protect the seed line. It was terminated in 70 CE never to be renewed or reinstated.
    All humanity is to come to God through Jesus Christ who is the promised seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16) —those who come to him, come by faith, Jew and Gentile.
    The promises to Israel are those of Israel who are of faith (Romans 2:29; 9:6–8; Galatians 3:6–7, etc.).
    There is one people of God—the church. All belong to the seed of Abraham by the affinity (faith) based union, thus Ephesians 5:31–32. If you are of Jewish descent you must come to Christ the same way.

    Good to engage with you onthis,

    PS: The imagery in Hosea is complex and I agree with Richtsje Abma who suggests that the future reunion between Yahweh and Israel is a new bridal time for Yahweh and Israel—not “a return to a previously existing marriage but as a completely new beginning.”

    As I see it, that new beginning is the new covenant where individual Jews from both the tribes of Israel and Judah will be able to come to Christ, the bridegroom Messiah—he is never in the NT imagery portrayed as the reconciling husband.

    Richtsje Abma, Bonds of Love: Methodic Studies of Prophetic Texts with Marriage Imagery (Isaiah 50:1-3 and 54:1-10, Hosea 1-3, Jeremiah 2-3) (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1999), 186-87, 189, 191.

    • Thanks, Colin! OK – so now I know that I am a ‘supersessionist’ and that there is a big word to describe the view I take about the role of Israel.

      As you say, it’s a bit off-topic for this thread – so we should wait for an ‘on-topic’ thread to discuss it further – good to know that you take the same line as I do (because most of those commenting here don’t seem to).


Leave a comment