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Matthew 5:13-16 meaning

Following the chiasm often called the “Beatitudes” Jesus uses the metaphors of ‘salt’ and ‘light’ to describe His disciples and the impact they are to have upon this world.

The parallel Gospel accounts of this teaching are Mark 9:50, Luke 8:16, 11:33, 14:34.

In Matthew 5:13 Jesus continues to use the second person you in His address to His disciples. He tells them that as His followers, You are salt and light in a dark and tasteless world.

He first uses the metaphor of salt to describe their function in the world, saying, You are the salt of the earth (v 13). In Jesus's Jewish culture salt had three uses—all of which apply here.

First, salt was used as a seasoning for food (Job 6:6). As a seasoning, the right amount of salt has the ability to draw out the full flavor and true taste of the food it seasons. Too much salt masks the flavor. If there is no salt then the food is tasteless. But just a little salt enhances the flavor greatly. When Jesus told His disciples that they are the salt (seasoning) of the earth He is telling them that though there are few of them, their godly lives will draw out the good in the world around them (v 13). It is important for believers to remember that they are not called to be a majority. They are called to fulfill their function as salt.

When God first created the world, He declared it to be "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Through the corruption of sin resulting from our disobedience, the original goodness of creation is obscured and hard to taste. But as Christ redeems the world through the lives of His followers, creation's hidden goodness becomes more revealed and appetizing. Godly living then salts the earth. It is an invitation for others to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8).

Second, salt was used as a preservative. In the days before refrigeration, salt kept food from spoiling before it could be consumed. As a preservative, the Old Testament uses salt as a metaphor for endurance, signifying the covenant between God and His people, or His lasting covenant with King David (Leviticus 2:13, Numbers 18:19, 2 Chronicles 13:5). When Jesus told His disciples that You are the salt (the preservative) of the earth, He is telling them that their godly lives are the seasoning that preserves the goodness in society ( v 13).

Recall how God promised to Abraham that He would preserve Sodom despite its wickedness if only Abraham could present to Him ten righteous men (Genesis 18:32). Only ten righteous men would have been enough salt to preserve a famously wicked city. A world that was good when it was created now rots with evil, but it only takes a little salt to be sufficient goodness to preserve the world. Jesus told His followers that they are that preserving salt when they live according to the principles in the "Beatitudes" chiasm.

Third, Moses taught that salt was the key ingredient for the incense that burned before the altar. The incense was perfume, whose aroma was to be "salted, pure, and holy." (Exodus 30:34-35). Likewise, the faithful lives of Jesus's followers are salt that is used to become the "fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and those who are perishing" (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). Moreover, the righteousness of Jesus's followers that does not conform to the world's standards salts their living sacrifice and signifies their covenant with God (Mark 9:49-50, Romans 12:1-2).

As salt, Jesus's disciples are to be all three of these things. They are to be the seasoning that draws out what is good. They are to be the preservative that keeps what is good. And they are to be an ingredient in the altar's incense that signifies what is holy and pleases God. But if the salt becomes tasteless and loses its saltiness it does none of these things (v 13). Pure sodium chloride does not spoil. In the time of Jesus it is likely their salt contained compounds other than sodium chloride. If their salt came from the Dead Sea, and it was similar to today's salt, it might have been less than half sodium chloride. If left in humidity, the sodium chloride could dissolve, leaving behind salts other than sodium chloride. What would remain would not serve the function that sodium chloride serves, as it would not have the proper flavor.

When Jesus rhetorically asks how can it be made salty again? He is saying "There is no way to fix spoiled salt." You (His followers) are it (v 13). If You (His followers) lose your saltiness you become useless to serve as salt. You (His followers) are no longer good for anything except for one thing, to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men (v 13). Perhaps after the sodium chloride spoils, the remaining salt is useful as an herbicide. Jesus might be referencing methods of salting roads in order to keep them free of weeds and thorns, by scattering the spoiled salt and allowing it to be trampled under foot by men (v 13). In any event, the metaphor makes a stark contrast between the two uses. One is to bring out goodness, the other is to be discarded and forgotten.

The second metaphor Jesus uses to describe the function of His disciples is light. Light illuminates. Light reveals what is there and shows the way. Light, opposite to darkness, is a common metaphor throughout the Bible and the ancient world for goodness. When Jesus told his disciples, You are the light of the world, He was telling them that they are the beacon fires of truth that reveal the reality of God's goodness and contrast with man's wickedness (v 14).

Jesus expands the light metaphor to a city set on a hill which cannot be hidden (v 14). At nighttime a city that is elevated on a hill is like a lamp that gives light to all who are in the house (v 15). It cannot be hidden (v 14). It is too large to cover with a shade. It is in full view, for everyone to see. The city is a metaphor that adds a community element to the light. Those who live in God's Kingdom and seek His standard of righteousness (social harmony) are a city whose citizens enjoy the life-giving blessings of unity and harmony. Its light is attractive and draws people to its warmth.

You (Jesus's followers, His disciples) are an example of God's goodness to the world. Just as no one lights a lamp and hides its light by putting it under a basket, but rather puts it on the lamp stand so that it gives light to all in the house, so you (His followers) are to let your light shine before men in such a way that other people take notice (vv 15-16). They are to live in such a way that others may see their good works, not for the purpose of mistaking the servant for the King, but in such a way that when others notice, they glorify the King (your Father) who is in heaven (v 16). Jesus's followers are to live in such a way where other people can see God's goodness.

By describing God as your Father who is in heaven, Jesus draws His disciples in even closer. (v 16) Not only are they disciples, and ambassadors of the heavenly kingdom, they are children of the King. God Himself is their Father.

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