Salt, Light & Righteousness (Matthew 5:13-20)


Could you imagine a world without salt or light?

Salt and light are such integral parts of our lives that it is impossible for me to imagine what the world would be like without them. Light is necessary for all life as it gives us warmth, the ability to see, and even life itself. While maybe not so critical for life as we know it, I would miss the person in our local chicken shop asking me if I wanted chicken salt on my chips. We all know how important salt is to bring out the flavour of food. However, in the ancient world salt was also important in preserving foods and healing wounds.

So when Jesus says to his followers that we are the salt of the earth and light for the world, he is saying that we are not optional extras that exist on the outer fringe of society. Jesus is saying that we are critically important for the world to have sight, warmth, the flavour of God’s goodness and grace, preserving it against evil, bringing healing, and even being necessary for life itself.

To be salt and light is to be God’s life-giving presence in the world, bringing his goodness and righteousness to the people around us.

This is why discipleship is so important. Jesus connects his followers’ lives as salt and light in the world with keeping God’s laws. Jesus says that he did not come into the world to ‘abolish’ God’s commands but instead ‘to fulfil them’ (v17 NIV). He is pointing to himself as the one who perfectly obeyed all of God’s commands and lived the perfect life that God wants us to live but are not able. Jesus then gives us his perfect life through faith in him. In keeping God’s law, Jesus also points to God’s law as the way to live which brings his salt and light into the world. As we learn to live in ways that please God, and as we teach others to do the same, our lives are the means by which God’s warmth and live, his flavour, healing and preserving love enter into the lives of the people around us and our relationships.

Learning to live in the way God wants and teaching others to do the same is also called ‘discipleship.’

This leads us to live in ‘righteous’ ways. One way we can think of ‘righteous’ living as living in right ways and in right relationships with God, other people, creation, and even with ourselves. Jesus sends the clear message that we need to be living in right ways which are in step with what God wants. His message in verse 20 is that our righteousness needs to be greater than the people who dedicated their entire lives to knowing what God requires of us in his law, and then keeping every aspect of that law, no matter how small it might seem.

When I talk with people about his verse, their usual reaction is that we will never be good enough. We are usually aware of our lack of righteousness – the ways in which we have failed to live up to what God wants. None of us are perfect, so Jesus’ teaching that our righteousness needs to be greater than the religious elite of his day can make us realise that, if it just depends on us, we fall a long way short of being the salt and light God wants us to be.

That is why we need Jesus, who is our righteousness through faith in him. The reason Jesus fulfilled God’s law (v17) was to give us grace – to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and then give us the benefit of what he has done. This becomes the central message of the Apostle Paul in his New Testament letters. He argues God makes us righteous as a gift through the work of the Holy Spirit. By uniting us with Jesus, the Spirit of God communicates Jesus’ perfect life and righteousness to us so that his righteousness becomes our righteousness. For example, in Romans 4:5 Paul says that

… people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. (NLT)

In other words, when Jesus tells us that we need to have a righteousness that is greater than the religious elite of his day, he is encouraging us to look to him as he gifts us with the righteousness that we cannot achieve ourselves. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ perfect righteousness becomes our righteousness and we are given a righteousness which is greater than all the ultra-religious people who tried so desperately to keep God’s laws in Jesus’ day.

The life of Jesus’ disciples, then, is not about trying to become righteous to get to heaven. Instead, we are given the righteousness of Jesus so we can live in right ways, so others can see the goodness of God in all we say and do, and so they can praise God for his goodness and love (v16). This is one way to think about the mission of the church: to be living righteous lives as people who are made righteous through Jesus so others can experience the goodness of God and glorify him for his goodness.

As we listen to the teachings of Jesus in this part of his Sermon on the Mount, we can think of being followers of Jesus like this:

Discipleship is…
… learning to live in right ways so we become God’s salt & light in the world.

Jesus wants to teach us a new way of living which depends on the righteousness he provides for us through his fulfilment of God’s law. This shows itself through living in right relationships with God, other people, creation and ourselves. When we are living rightly through faith in Jesus, the goodness of God enters the world through us, giving it the flavour of God’s grace and the light of new life in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

More to think about:

  • Can you imagine a world without salt? Or without light? Describe briefly what each would be like?
  • Do you think of yourself as God’s salt & light in the world? What do you like about Jesus’ words describing your purpose in the world? What do you find difficult about it?
  • Jesus makes a clear connection between being salt & light and living the way God commands us to. Do you find it easy or difficult living in the way God wants? What helps you to live this way? What makes it difficult?
  • Do you think of yourself as a ‘righteous’ person? How can God’s promise through the Apostle Paul about God’s gift of righteousness in Jesus help you to live a right life?
  • As a person who is made right again through faith in Jesus, are there areas of your life that need to be made right? Maybe ask God for the Holy Spirit to show you what needs to be made right again, and to give you the grace to say & do what’s right, so people can see your good works and praise our heavenly Father…

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