Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

52. “That they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:13-16)*

It is necessary to begin a consideration of the next section or the Sermon on the Mount by suggesting that its scope has been much misunderstood. There is a sequence of four figures of speech-the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill, a lamp on a lampstand. It has been customary to interpret these metaphors as vivid representations of the function of the Christian disciple in worldly society.

Allusions to Temple Service
However, a careful scrutiny will reveal that these four illustrations are bound together by a common idea -- they all have to do with the temple; and this makes all the difference to the interpretation.

Jerusalem was pre-eminently the city set on a hill. The commentators talk airily about Safed in Galilee, but there is no little doubt as to whether that hill-top town even existed in the days of Jesus. On the other hand Jerusalem was known far and wide, and in a particular sense it was the light of the world. But the literal basis for this figure was the altar fire. It burned day and night, and at night-time especially the light of it would be visible for miles round. During the day the great column of sacrificial smoke ascending up to heaven would be just as visible.

The Seven-Branched Candlestick

The lamp and lampstand (5:15) immediately suggests the familiar equipment of the Holy Place. The “bushel” was, doubtless, the measure used for filling the lamps with oil (every reference in the Law to the candlestick mentions its “vessels”). To light the lamps in the Holy Place and then to invert the vessel over each of them would promptly put the lights out again.


Salt also was a regular feature of the temple service. No sacrifice was to be offered without salt (Lev.2:13). Hence “a covenant of salt” (2 Chr. 13:5) is a covenant ratified by sacrifice (as in Gen.15). Salt was used also as an essential element of the holy incense: “Thou shalt make a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Ex. 30:35 RV; there is no doubt about this being the correct translation).

The salt in the temple service has been given a wide variety of symbolic meanings and spiritual applications, but the primary reason was probably to ensure that the altar and the priest’s censer would both burn with a distinctive bright golden flame-the divine fire. “Salt” which did not give this characteristic flame was not the true commodity, and was therefore unfit for holy use. But neither was it fit for agricultural use, for salt and similar minerals only make the land sterile (see Jud. 9:45). Nor could it be thrown on to the dung heap (Lk. 14:35), for then it would spoil what would otherwise be highly useful as manure. So, instead, it was used on the temple pavement made slippery with blood from the sacrifices. To be trodden under foot of men was its only usefulness.

Once this unifying idea is recognized-association with the temple-understanding of the spiritual principles involved in the Lord’s figures of speech comes much more easily.

But first, what of the seeming universality of the expressions used: “salt of the earth”, “light of the world”? It has often been pointed out that the words “earth” and “Land (of Israel)” are both represented in the New Testament by the same Greek word. Also, there can be little question that the word kosmos (world) is used in a number of places with the more limited meaning: “Jewish kosmos” (eg. Lk. 1:70; Rom. 4:13; 5:12; Jn. 12:19; 7:4; Study 14; 221 notes).

For Jewish disciples

Applying these ideas, it now becomes evident that Jesus spoke with primary reference to his immediate disciples in their Jewish environment. There is, of course, a further wider application but-like so many other features in the Sermon on the Mount-the immediate force of the language was for the benefit of his early Jewish believers. For instance: “ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time...”, “If thou bring thy gift to the altar...”, “Thou art in danger of Gehenna fire”, “Do not even the publicans the same”? “Swear not by Jerusalem... “, “After all these things do the Gentiles seek”, and so on. The Jewish aspect of the Lord’s teaching here should be constantly borne in mind.

It is now possible to re-examine this close-packed paragraph more carefully, and see its details as coherent elements of exhortation concerning one of the primary responsibilities of the Lord’s disciples in every age.

The Lessons

In this passage the uses of salt as a preservative, as a significant part of a covenant, as a familiar means of imparting flavour, are all beside the point. The essential fundamental idea is that no sacrifice is valid or acceptable before God without salt. Mk. 9:49, 50 is surely decisive on this point: “Every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness...”

Paul’s use of the figure now helps the interpretation a step further forward: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, (that is) knowing how ye ought to answer every man” (Col. 4:6). Here “seasoned with salt” is interpreted by what follows. It means a proper understanding expressing itself in a worthy witness to the faith. As the salt in sacrifice or incense produced the unmistakable divine golden flame, so also is that divine characteristic to be plainly perceptible in the speech and manner of life of the disciple.

But if the salt have lost its savour, what then? The simple fact is that salt does not lose its saltness. It is one of the most stable commodities in the world of nature. The commentaries scratch around for known examples of salt becoming unsalty, but they do not make a convincing job of it. The effort is wasted.

Here, as in many another parable, Jesus is deliberately coming away from ordinary experience. True salt never loses its saltness; and what is not true salt has no saltness to lose. But in the world of spiritual experience that the Lord is speaking of, it is-alas!-only too true (and too often true) that what has been at one time true salt may become non-salt. Jesus did not say “lose its flavour”. His word means “made to be foolish”, which is precisely and exactly true about the disciple who loses his tangy grasp of Truth which makes the offering of his life to Christ acceptable.

In this way Jesus warns against the unhappy destiny of those who should be playing a worthwhile part in the service of the Lord’s House, but who through their own fault become unfit for their high responsibility. “Cast out, and trodden under foot of men”. It is a warning several times repeated to the early church: “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit... if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance” (Heb. 6:4-6).

It could even be that, with a keen understanding of Old Testament prophecy, Jesus was saying: ‘This is what will happen to natural Israel. They will be cast out of God’s Land, and trodden under foot of men. You, my disciples, are the New Israel, and if you allow yourselves to be turned foolish by worldly or false religious ideas, you will have strength for nothing. You too will be cast out and trodden down.’

The Altar and Lampstand

Again, as the altar fire in Jerusalem was the divine light for all Israel, so the Lord’s followers also, especially after Jesus was taken away from them. And, in a broader sense, the ecclesia, wherever it is, is a witness to the world concerning the Truth simply by virtue of its sincere consecrated service to God. The holy city of God cannot be hid. Much of its function as a witness is fulfilled simply by being there in the midst of men-different, distinct, dedicated and devoted. Nor does it want to be hid. Let men see it as a holy city, that they may be drawn to its holy light. Is it coincidence that the people of Christ’s day used the phrase ner olahm, light of the world, to describe a rabbi of outstanding powers as a teacher?

The figure of lamp and lamp-stand belongs within the Sanctuary. Always, day and night, the Holy Place had its own source or illumination to “give light over against it” (peculiar phrase!) (Ex. 25:37). By its light the Bread and Wine could be seen, the golden altar of incense, the cherubim on the veil, its own glories also, and-not least-the way into the Holy of Holies. Thus it gave light to all who did service in the House of God.

Preaching by Good Works

Here Jesus was not content for the lesson of the similitude to be drawn by his hearers for themselves. He translated its meaning with simple directness: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

From these words the almost invariable inference has been made that Christ would have his followers make converts to the faith through the attractiveness of their own Christ-like beneficence. Jesus went about “doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil”; in this way he showed men the gospel of the kingdom, and by this means converted some of them to it. Therefore, it is argued, let his disciples do a little less text-quoting, and turn from Bible-thumping to a loving ministration to men in need-feeding the hungry, bringing fellowship to the lonely, nursing the sick, and counselling the perplexed. This will prepare the minds of those who are succoured for the good seed of the gospel; they will ask for it, and receive it as a thirsty ground receives the blessed rain of heaven. So it is said.

In practice, there are a number of questions and difficulties. The disciples hardly have resources for practical ministration as effective as their Master’s. And the response does turn out to be as expected. So many (like nine lepers) are ready enough to accept material blessings, but feel no need for the regeneration of their souls. Biggest mystery of all - if this is the way of making known the gospel of salvation, how is it that this method of proclaiming Christ was not more obviously and more persistently followed by his apostles? And why is it that this passage – Matthew 5:16 - appears to be in flat contradiction to the Lord’s later commandment: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them?” (6:1). Indeed, the passage now under consideration is almost unique in its emphasis on conversion through good works. On the other hand the apostolic method and precept seems to have been uniformly by instruction concerning Christ from the Scriptures of Truth. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word (the spoken word: Gk.) of shall they hear without a preacher?”

Yet it is unmistakably true that Peter, quoting, gives to his Lord’s words a strong “good works” emphasis: “...that whereas they speak against you as “evildoers, they may by your good works, which they behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12). It needs to be observed that Peter’s quotation comes in a context of counsel concerning a time of persecution (see ch. 4, 5 especially), and in such a time a Christian’s “good works” consist almost entirely of witness for the Faith (the Greek word for “behold” implies official investigation). There is thus no discrepancy with the suggestion already made about “Let your light so shine...”

In the Ecclesia

The main scope of the Lord’s dictum about glorifying God through good works has been sadly misjudged. As the candlestick gave its light within the holy House, so also (if the figure is properly interpreted) the good works of the brethren who comprise the “lampstand” will be seen and appreciated in the Lord’s House, by the members of his ecclesia; it is they who will be constrained to glorify God for the illumination-the instruction and practical loving kindness - which they experience. This is the real scope ot Christ’s present precept. The evil sons of Eli (1 Sam. 2:17), and Malachi’s corrupt priesthood (2:8) provide excellent illustrations of this principle in reverse operation.

It would be a mistake to infer that the ecclesia is not required to show its Christian charity outside the community. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount takes care of that issue with no little emphasis. But here Jesus sets first the duty of the brethren to one another: “Let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

Notes: Mt. 5:13-16

Lost his savour. LXX has the identical word in 2 Sam. 24:10; Is. 44:25.

Wherewith... salted. Another possible way of reading this is: Wherewith shall it (the earth) be salted? The implication would then be: If you disciples do not disseminate the divine knowledge you learn from me, how is the world to learn the truth of the gospel? -- a parallel to the natural Israel being designated “a kingdom of priests and an holy nation”, and failing to rise to that responsibility.
Men. This word is not in the text (see RV). The verb describes an action by an unspecified “they”. But the figure of speech makes clear that it is priests on duty in the sanctuary who are referred to.
Your Father which is in heaven. 12 occurrences in Mt. and only one elsewhere: Mk. 11:25, in a context of prayer.

Previous Index Next