Matthew 5:13-24

Light for the World
"Light For the World" by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.


This text actually had three parts:

  1. Verses 13-16: The Christian's exalted calling in the world;

  2. Verses 17-20: True righteousness is in keeping with the proper exposition of Scripture.

  3. Verses 21-24: An example of true righteousness which follows from proper exposition of Scripture.

There is a lot of material in this pericope. Perhaps the preacher will choose only one section for his sermon.

Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

"You," emphatic and placed emphatically forward. "You" means "You Christians only." Faith in Christ is presupposed. "Salt" is metaphorical. Just as salt preserves food against corruption, so Christians preserve the earth from corruption. If it were not for the preserving power of Christians, mankind would become a Sodom and Gomorrah. It involves a constant battle. Think of how Christians battle abortion, homosexuality, divorce, crookedness in business, etc. "But if" introduces a future more vivid condition, denoting possible contingency.

Pliny: Without salt, human life cannot continue to live.

The second part of this verse denotes its utter worthlessness. The point of comparison: "If a Christian loses or forfeits his ability to counter worldly corruption he is worthless in God's sight." A stern warning not to live after the flesh. Look at Galatians 5:19-21.

Matthew 5:14 "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

Another emphatic "you."  "World" involves all people. Jesus is the Light of the World par excellence, John 8:12. Christians are a reflection of Him. 14b corresponds to 13b. To hide what we are in Christ is not only illogical but dangerous. It amounts to denial. This is the first illustration for 14a.

Matthew 5:15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

Now follows a second illustration. 15adenotes a most ridiculous situation. Who would do that? In application it means to hide one's beliefs and convictions. "Instead," following a negative means "quite to the contrary." A light is necessary for  all  in the house and is not lessened by the number.

Matthew 5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

 "In the same way" or "in such a way."  "Your light" is possessive genitive. It is a gift of God and belongs to the Christian. "Shine before" means "in plain sight of."  "Men" means "people." 

In good works people see a Christian's relationship to the Father. Note that it is "Father" and not "God." Unregenerate people can see  God  at work in nature. But they become aware of Him as a heavenly  Father  through the works of the believer. This does not mean that they are thus converted but it does indicate that the works of a Christian reflect the fact that God is the Christian's gracious Father. People are to see the Christian's works, not the person. Thus they are to glorify the heavenly Father, not the person doing the works. The flesh desires to attract attention to  self, not to the works and thus to the heavenly Father.

"Praise" means "to clothe in splendor." The good works of a Christian cause all people to recognize God as a glorious, gracious, heavenly Father.

Matthew 5:17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Jesus' enemies had accused Him of breaking the Law, John 5:16, and of living a loose life, Luke 7:34. Evidently Jesus' disciples were in danger of believing this. Jesus counters with "Don't ever get the idea that I've come to break the Law or the Prophets." It is a vicious charge against Jesus. "Abolish" is variously translated as "destroy, to do away with, set aside." The Scribes and the Pharisees taught the people that they, not Jesus kept the Law. It was the other way around. "But" following a negative, is very strong: "On the contrary." 

Does "to fulfill" denote Jesus as Prophet, the author and correct expounder of the Old Testament, or does it denote Jesus as Priest, the one Who fulfilled the whole Old Testament by His active and passive obedience? Luther and the Reformers took the former view. Later Lutherans took the latter view. These   Notes   take the view of Luther because the context requires this. He came not to do away with Old Testament teachings but to bring out their true, original meaning. He is not a new Law-giver.

Matthew 5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

This is an explanation.  "Verily I say to you (disciples)." This denotes Jesus' divinity, His divine authority. Only God could say what is said in verse 18.

Note that we have a complex sentence with two clauses, one before and one after, the main clause. The first denotes all of history until the end of time and the second the complete fulfillment of all that Scripture says in time. The first denotes the permanence of the Word, the second its exact truthfulness.

The smallest letter in Hebrew is the  yod. A "stroke of a pen" is the Hebrew "tittle", a mark by which one letter is distinguished from another letter, or a vowel point or an accent. These little matters, if removed, can change the meaning of a text. Jesus is saying that the true, intended sense of the Law and the Prophets is permanent.

The Old Testament Prophet said: "Thus saith the Lord." The Apostles said: "It is written." But Jesus alone said: "I say unto you." He, true God, is the author of Scripture and warns us never to change Scripture, even in the slightest.

Matthew 5:19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek has "therefore," not translated by NIV, which means "in view of what I have just said." The two complex sentences in this verse are general conditions, apply in all cases. "Anyone" and "whoever" makes no difference who.

God is judge and will make His judgment plain to all.  "Kingdom of heaven" should not be limited to everlasting life, though it surely is included. "Commandments" means more than the moral law. As in John 14:15 it means any injunction of God, be it Law or Gospel. This does not mean that some doctrines are less importance than others. It means that because false teachers  consider  them less, they break them by teaching people falsely. That person will be called "least" in the Kingdom of heaven, which means he is condemned. If he twists and breaks God's injunctions and teaches people in this way, God will judge him accordingly. Fearsome Law!

The first complex sentence is a warning, the second a promise. "Does and teaches" is the very combination which is used of Jesus in Acts 1:1. To be a teacher of God's Word is an awesome responsibility. All Christians, and especially preachers, ought heed verse 19 most carefully. False teachers lead people on the road to hell.

Matthew 5:20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

"For" is again explanatory. It implies that the Scribes and Pharisees (note that there is only one article with both) twisted, broke and wrongly taught the Word. "I tell you," as in verse 18, is another reminder of the divinity and divine authority of Jesus. Here we are to distinguish two righteousnesses. What was the righteousness of Scribes and Pharisees? Read Luke 16:15. It was the righteousness of self-justification, self-righteousness. Read Philippians 3:4-9. Paul looked back on his life as a Pharisee and was horrified at his self-righteousness calling it dung, manure, repulsive. The impenitent impute  false  righteousness to themselves. The penitent cling to the  imputed  righteousness of Christ.

Here in verse 20 Jesus does not say that the Scribes and Pharisees are truly righteous. Bengel notes that Jesus does not honor them with inserting the word "righteousness" after the word "that" where it would be expected. "Not enter" is a very strong negative.

By the way, this part of the sentence is not only eschatological. It applies to this life also. Do not let the self-righteous delude themselves as did the Scribes and Pharisees.

Bengel: Our righteousness, even though it should satisfy, could never exceed the requirements of the Law; but the Scribes and Pharisees thought that theirs did so. We are bound to surpass their righteousness . . . This language does not make void the righteousness of faith. . . . Our Lord does not commend the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, who observed ceremonial and legal but neglected moral righteousness. The Pharisees urged traditions, the Scribes the letter (as opposed to the spirit) of the Law. It seemed to be especially the part of the Scribes to teach, of the Pharisees to do.

Matthew 5:21 "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'

Now follows an example of the false teaching and false righteousness of Scribes and Pharisees. The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" was correctly quoted but limited in application to mere externals, making it merely a  civil  not a  moral  commandment.

Fahling: the commandment of God was made a mere external legal enactment (penalty found at Genesis 9:5-6; Leviticus 24:7; Numbers 35:16ff).
Bengel: the Scribes wished to appear to be in conformity with the ancient and primitive rule. Antiquity should be maintained, but it should be genuine antiquity. . . . Our Lord begins with the most pertinent precept, the one of whose fulfillment the Scribes and Pharisees most likely boasted especially.

Matthew 5:22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, "Raca," is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, "You fool!" will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Jesus is not a new Lawgiver, nor is He adding to what Moses said. "I tell you" denotes His divine authority. He was the author of this law and now is about to explain what He meant when He gave this law through Moses. "Anyone" means no exceptions. Note that the participle is present tense, denoting a continued state of anger, a malicious grudge. here all commentators quote 1 John 3:15. Jesus is talking about hatred, murder of the heart, not of the hand. "With his brother" means "his neighbor", anyone. The point Jesus is making is that murder of the heart is exactly as serious as is murder of the hand.

Note that forms of "guilty" occur once with reference to murder but three times with reference to continued anger. All should be translated "guilty." A murderer is guilty. He should be put to death. But continued anger is even worse. It leads, in the final analysis, to hell-fire.

In verse 22 Jesus is not talking about three different kinds of sin. He is speaking of the progressive danger, first before men and then finally before God, leading to eternal damnation. These   Notes   do not agree with Zahn and Lenski that Jesus is satirizing the casuistry of Scribes and Pharisees. He is speaking about the utter danger of nursing hatred, a grudge.

And now a difficult question. The Koine Greek text, followed by AV and NKJV, has the variant "without a cause" in verse 22. Ylvisaker, Lenski, Stoeckhardt and Kretzmann pass over it in silence. Bengel absolutely rejects it. But Fahling accepts the variant and says:

Jesus explains that unrighteous anger, anger directed not against the sin (holy wrath), but against one's neighbor, insulting language and utter disregard for a fellow-man's position in the sight of God was in God's sight an offense equal to murder and punishable by the first of hell. . . . see Ephesians 4:26-27.

Ephesians 4:26-27 reads "Be ye angry (the same verb as in Matthew 5:22) and sin not. Let not the sun go down upon your wrath, neither give place to the devil." The point that Fahling is making (in favor of reading the variant) is that Jesus and Paul are warning us again continued, destructive anger which turns into hatred. Neither Fahling nor these   Notes   are advocating anger, for it is dangerous. But it is remarkable that anger is not listed by Paul in Galatians 5:19-21 as a work of the flesh. The new man (Galatians 5:22-23) must always rule the person. In any case, 1 John 3:15 always applies. Hatred is a destructive passion, a work of the flesh. If not repented of, it leads to hell.

Matthew 5:23 "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,

"Therefore" in view of what was said in verses 20-21. Now follows a future more vivid condition which means that it is likely to happen. "If you are offering" is present subjunctive "if you are in the process of offering," and "remember" is aorist "if you recall." Under the Old Covenant, people went to the temple or tabernacle to offer sacrifices for sins committed. Again "your brother" means "your neighbor," anyone. "Has anything against you" includes, but is even broader than, what was said in verse 22. It denotes what you have done against someone else.

Matthew 5:24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Note the three imperatives: "Leave, go, be reconciled," all aorists. Even our most sacred duties must be interrupted if our conscience recalls a sin we've committed against someone. That may prove embarrassing, but must be done. Anything else is abomination before God. "First" means "before anything else." The text implies that if your brother refuses to forgive you, you are not at fault.

What lies at the heart of this whole text is constant repentance. The contrite sinner clings to the promises of God which declare him righteous for Jesus' sake. Such a person will give evidence of true righteousness:

  1. as salt, verse 13;

  2. as light, verse 14;

  3. doing and teaching the Word correctly, verse 19;

  4. being a living example of true righteousness, verse 20;

  5. applying the moral law to the heart, not merely to externals, verse 22;

  6. and being of a constant forgiving spirit, verses 23-24.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1980, pp. 34-37. Used with permission.

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