Thoughts on Matthew 5:13-16
The foremost difficulty in this passage is defining who the “you” of this passage are both in relation to the salt and to the light. Is it “you people of Israel,” or is it more precisely “you who are my true disciples”? If the first, then verse 13 can be interpreted as a dire warning of impending judgment on an entire people group. If the latter, then it could be interpreted that a person’s status as a useful Kingdom citizen can be revoked (“losing one’s salvation”). Based on what is known about the audience – the “crowds” from Galilee that contained a variety of people from Jesus’ disciples to common Jews to religious leaders to possibly even Gentiles – the more likely definition of “you” is Jews in general. The idea that the “you” is referring to Jews could also supported by Isaiah 60:1-3, which Jesus could have easily had in mind when He made this statement.
It’s easy to read this passage, and many others in the New Testament, disconnected from the context and presume post-Pentecost Christians assume the role of “you.” However, this cannot be the case in the Gospels, and care must be taken to interpret verses within their historical context and to be clear about the identity of the original audiences, and, if appropriate, secondary audiences such as all other Christians post-ascension. There is much value in reading and being familiar with the Old Testament writings that the original audiences of the New Testament era would have known. Jesus, Paul, Peter, John and the writer of Hebrews all reach back to Old Testament passages – sometimes explicitly, and sometimes very subtly. It’s crucial to our understanding of the whole counsel of Scripture to be able to identify and understand those connections.
It appears in verse 13 that Jesus is warning the Jews, God’s chosen people, to remain “salty” lest they become useless and are thrown away (see also Romans 11). It would be interesting to know how the Jews of that day received Jesus’ warning. Did they think, “Oh, yes, our disobedient forefathers were cast off because of their hard and unrepentant hearts, but we’re nothing like them”? Did they even see that they were valid recipients of that warning as well? Likewise, do we, when we hear a convicting message, think, “Oh, how I wish so-and-so would have heard that message”? Are we humble enough to recognize that we stand in need of a hard word to cut to our hearts? Do we take adequate time to consider our sin and our utter need for God’s grace in our own lives? I confess I spend far too little time doing this. I know I live a very distracted life, and I also know the Adversary wants me to spend all my time frittering my life away neglecting my relationship with Jesus and failing to take any time to think upon my great need for the work of Christ on the cross to atone for my sins.
Verse 14 is connected closely to verse 13 and uses imagery familiar to the Jews. Isaiah 49:6 says, “…I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” and 60:3 says, “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Similarly, Isaiah 2:2 says, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.” Matthew 5:14 can certainly be connected to this verse, conveying two distinct truths: it is the “latter days,” and God’s holy mountain will be sought and inhabited by Gentiles. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “You are God’s chosen people, set apart for good works intended to bless the nations and draw people from every tongue, tribe and nation into the Kingdom of God.”
The warning and application of Jesus’ words here for us remain the same – don’t try to hide our light or become unfruitful. Our chief end as humans, and especially as Christians, is to glorify God. Jesus said that the light of His people is to shine before men so that God receives the glory. Since Jesus is the true light that has come into the world (John 1), without which no one will see the Lord, when we conceal our light we are concealing the very radiance of Christ in us. If we claim to be Christians, yet hide it from others and are completely ineffective in doing God’s work, then we should seriously examine our claim to know and believe in Jesus. It may be that what light we think is coming from us is only reflecting from those around us who are truly shining the light of Christ.