EXEGREEKSIS: “Salt & Light” – Matthew 5:13-20

You can download the PDF to read later here: Thaddeus_Maharaj_Salt_and_Light (Matt 5.13-20)

And here is the link for the previous article in this series.

            We had previously looked at the meaning of the Beatitudes in the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here we will look at another well-known saying from this sermon. However, again we must be careful that our familiarity with the text does not make us simply browse over it without actually reading it. Sometimes we hear these phrases such as “salt and light” so much that they lose their significance to us. So, as we endeavour to study this passage, I challenge you to approach it with fresh eyes and put away your previous preconceptions. Let us put ourselves in the sandals of those who first heard it from the lips of our Lord, and so let His words strike our hearts fresh again.

            The following will be similar to how I have written the previous articles in this series but with a few minor changes. The Greek text then my own translation will open off each section as normal, however, I’ve tried to edit these articles to be more friendly to the average reader who is not familiar with Greek. I’ve tried to take out unnecessary commentary on grammar and manuscript variants which don’t affect our understanding of the text. What I leave in from my Greek exegesis will be things which are pertinent to our understanding and application of the text with the hopes that it would bring some previously unknown insights to those looking to dig deeper. This episode will run into the next one, since the following passages are directly interconnected—as this one is with the previous. So I definitely recommend reading them in sequence to get the context. I hope this will bless your life, sharpen your understanding of the Word and ignite your passions for Jesus and serving Him.

Matt. 5:13 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς· ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται; εἰς οὐδὲν ἰσχύει ἔτι εἰ μὴ βληθὲν ἔξω καταπατεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt becomes tasteless, with what will it be made salty? For it is no longer useful for anything but having been thrown out to be trampled under people’s feet.

You ARE salt

            These statements follow Jesus’ previous discourse on the Beatitudes, qualities of true disciples, to the crowd of followers. He then switches to a second person address of his disciples. So this discourse now is addressed specifically to his disciples as admonitions to them. The qualities expressed in the Beatitudes of true disciples (if you haven’t read the previous article, I’d recommend doing that first) should probably be kept in mind here and are assumed of those to whom he is speaking. The verb ἐστε (you are) is in the present tense, stating something which is a present reality—a state of persistence or an action in progress—that you are the salt of the earth. This is what Jesus says we continually are as Christians. He is not saying, ‘this is what you should try to be’ but rather, ‘this IS what you are.’ It is essential to what defines us as his disciples. This same verb tense is also used for the following statement that “you are the light of the world.” Christians ARE salt and light. In Mark 9:50, the disciples were told to “have the salt of friendship among yourselves” (TEV), however here they are identified as the salt of the earth.[1] Salt doesn’t have any beneficial effect on soil, and what is in mind is not what happens when salt is put into dirt.[2] The UBS Handbook says that τῆς γῆς (of the earth) is referring to people and means, “for all people” or “for people everywhere.”[3]

            Sometimes the second clause of this sentence is unclear. The phrase ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται (by what will it be salted) might be taken to be referring to the earth. So, the sentence could be asking that if we, who are the salt of the earth, become tasteless—then with what will the earth be salted since the very salt is now ‘unsalty’? However, grammatically, the closest antecedent suggests that τὸ ἅλας (the salt) is actually what is in mind. Therefore, some translations render it as a rhetorical question at the end of the sentence, “how will it be made salty again?” The most common uses for salt in the ancient world were for flavour and to preserve food. Either or both could possibly be an appropriate understanding here—providing flavour to the world through wisdom as in Colossians 4:6, or to help prevent its corruption.[4] “In any case, Jesus is not teaching chemistry, and the ludicrous imagery of trying to ‘salt’ that which should itself be the source of saltiness” is powerful in reproving disciples who have lost their quality which makes them useful.[5] So if we, who are supposed to be the source of saltiness lose that distinctive quality, then with what else can we be salted?

The Absurdity of ‘Unsalty’ Salt

            Don’t worry—‘unsalty’ salt was just as much of an absurdity to first century readers as it should be to us—no need to invent some crazy theory as to how true salt can loose its taste. But what does it mean for salt to become tasteless? The verb used which is translated “tasteless”—μωραίνω—usually means “make foolish” or “to become foolish” in the passive, however, here the meaning is that the salt has become useless or lost its flavour. “The apparently inappropriate verb points to the metaphorical role of the salt here, to symbolize the wholesome flavour of wisdom which disciples are to contribute.”[6] This brings up the question of how can salt loose its taste? That is like water losing its wetness! Tasteless salt likewise is foolishness. However, salt then was a bit different to how we produce salt today. “In the ancient world, however, what was often sold as salt was highly adulterated and the sodium chloride could leach out in humid weather, in which case the residue (normally a form of lime) would be useless.”[7] So, this serves to strengthen the desired effect of Jesus’ metaphor here. We know true salt cannot become tasteless. If it does, that would be extremely senseless and illogical, or otherwise it was not truly salt in the first place. It was instead that adulterated false-salt whose saltiness washed away. So, what does that say about the true disciple? Or rather, the one who claims to be a disciple but is not ‘salty’?

            The word ἰσχύει used literally means to be able or have the capacity to do something. The phrase literally reads like, “for nothing it [the salt] is able any longer.” To smooth it out in English, I have rendered it “for it is no longer useful for anything” instead. It is meant to stress the uselessness of this flavourless salt. The difference in the aspect of the two verbs “having been thown”—βληθὲν (aorist passive participle) and “to be trampled under foot”—καταπατεῖσθαι (present middle/passive infinitive) is perhaps giving some emphasis to “to trample under foot.” It pushes the force of the sentiment that the ‘tasteless salt’ is totally useless—only worthy of being walked over since it is devoid of any value like the dust on the ground. What seems to be in mind here is not that people are deliberately trying to trample on it or somehow stamp it into the ground, but rather that it has become so useless it goes unnoticed and people pass over it without a second thought.

            This is what a disciple who has lost their ‘saltiness’ is like. This is what a Christian who has lost their distinctiveness is like. We are ‘set apart’ from the world—a people called out of the world, but sent back into the world—not to blend in, but rather to be God’s agents of redemption calling a fallen world to repentance. Therefore, a non-mission-minded Christian, one who is not about the business of the Kingdom, proclaiming and embodying the gospel, is in fact like ‘unsalty’ salt—it makes no sense! And moreover, it is useless for anything. It appears or claims to be something useful, but proves by the lack of its usefulness to fulfill its major purpose of existence, that it perhaps never was truly salt. There must be a distinctiveness about Christians from the rest of the world, even in the face of hardships, rejection and even persecution. Augustine (354-430 AD) commented on this,

“If ye, by means of whom the nations in a measure are to be preserved [from corruption], through the dread of temporal persecutions shall lose the kingdom of heaven, where will be the men through whom error may be removed from you, since God has chosen you, in order that through you He might remove the error of others? Hence the savourless salt is “good for nothing, but to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men.” It is not therefore he who suffers persecution, but he who is rendered savourless by the fear of persecution, that is trodden under foot of men. For it is only one who is undermost that can be trodden under foot; but he is not undermost, who, however many things he may suffer in his body on the earth, yet has his heart fixed in heaven.”[8]

John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) likewise comments of the Christian remaining salty even in face of persecution,

“…but if ye continue sharply to brace them up, and then are evil spoken of, rejoice; for this is the very use of salt, to sting the corrupt, and make them smart. And so their censure follows of course, in no way harming you, but rather testifying your firmness. But if through fear of it you give up the earnestness that becomes you, ye will have to suffer much more grievously, being both evil spoken of, and despised by all. For this is the meaning of ‘trodden under foot.’”[9]

Missions and evangelism is not just the job of those who are vocationally called to ministry, just as loving mercy and seeking justice are not the job of only those who are in social justice work. All the qualities of the Beatitudes are defining elements of every disciple of Christ. We are saved by the Gospel, for the work of the Gospel.

Matt. 5:14 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη·

You are the light of the world. A city set upon a hill is not able to be hidden.

Conspicuous Lights

            The word κόσμος (world or cosmos) is used here instead of γῆ (earth). The meaning though is similar, referring to the world of people as verse 16 makes clear, Christians are to shine as lights in the whole world. In Philippians 2:14-16b, Paul expands on this saying, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life…” Christians are as lights in a dark place, showing God to others. The phrase οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι would be literally translated “not able [a] city to be hidden”—is more smoothly translated, “it is impossible for a city to be hidden” as the verb δύναμαι communicates the ability, capacity, power or possibility for something to be done or happen. So again this is emphasizing the impossibility of the disciple to not have this distinctive trait. From the second half of the clause, describing the city on a hill—it could also be argued that the hiding applies for both cities on hills and those not on hills, that is, “a city cannot be hidden especially if it’s on a hill.” However, this city on a hill is what the disciples are being equated to, so the implication is that they are even less likely to be able to be hidden. So this begs the question then, if you are a Christian, but are ‘hidden’—that is, there is no noticeable distinctive difference between you and unbelievers—how is that possible? Chrysostom’s comments are again helpful here:

“Again, by these words He trains them to strictness of life, teaching them to be earnest in their endeavors, as set before the eyes of all men, and contending in the midst of the amphitheatre of the world. For, ‘look not to this,’ He saith, ‘that we are now sitting here, that we are in a small portion of one corner. For ye shall be as conspicuous to all as a city set on the ridge of a hill, as a candle in a house on the candlestick, giving light.’”[10]

            Spurgeon noted that Jesus gave these followers these titles of ‘salt and light,’ not after he had educated them for three years, but at almost the outset of his ministry.”[11] So, it wasn’t on account of what they knew or had done, but rather on account of what they were. You are the light of the world, because the fact is that wherever there is faith in Christ, there is light—for whoever believes in him should not walk in darkness. “Genuine faith in Christ turns a man from darkness to marvellous light, and transforms him into “light in the Lord”; his aims and objects, his desires, his speech, his actions, become full of divine light, which illuminates all the chambers of his soul, and then pours forth from the windows so as to be seen of men.”[12]

An Illuminating Community

            Ὑμεῖς (you) is plural here in as in verse 14. The insertion of the metaphor of the city on a hill for visibility then is illustrative and emphatic of this point, that as the combined impact of the many lights which make up a city at night—so too Christians together as the disciple community should have a visible impact on the surrounding darkness.[13] Again the point of the metaphor being, as a city on a hill is impossible to be concealed, so too the Christian community by its inherent nature should bring unmistakable, visible, illumination to the world around them. This follows well on the previous metaphor of tasteless salt which has become useless—so too, a light that does not shine is useless. Both of these metaphors have in mind a collective group (many grains of salt and many lights of a city), so it is important that we also understand these in light of the communal nature of the body of Christ. This impact of bringing flavour and light to the world is the task of not just few individuals in the Church, but of the Church as a whole—working together for the sake of the Gospel’s advance.

Matt. 5:15-16 οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον ἀλλ᾿ ἐπὶ τὴν λυχνίαν, καὶ λάμπει πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ. οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

Nor do they light a lamp and place it under a bowl, but upon a lamp stand and it shines for all those in the house. In this way, shine your light in front of people, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in the Heavens.

Made to Shine

            Verse 15 continues the thought from the previous verse about hiding a light with οὐδὲ (nor/neither), introducing a negative example of what shouldn’t be done with a light which helps to clarify the metaphor that we are called “the light of the world.” Just like a city on a hill, which by its inherent nature cannot be hidden, so too—as a lamp that is lit, its purpose of being lit is to illuminate the room and it would be absurd then to obscure the purpose for which it was lit. Likewise, this was the very reason for which the Christian was ‘lit’ or saved. The first example speaks to the conspicuous nature of the collective body of Christ as lights, and the second of the individual Christian’s mandate not to hide their own light—since that would be to deny their very purpose. This goes in direct contrast to any concept of a ‘worldly Christianity’ or a ‘carnal Christian.’ It just cannot exist, and if it did—it would be absurd! Sadly, many of these do exist—but it would seem that by a Biblical standard, they would not be rightly called true Christians. Spurgeon said that, “No sooner is a man born unto God than he begins to affect his fellow-men with an influence which is rather felt than seen. The very existence of a believer operates upon unbelievers.”[14]

            The lamp being spoken of here would have been a shallow bowl of oil with a wick, which would normally be placed on a stand or some elevated place to give light to the whole room. The μόδιος (bowl) is a bushel basket or grain-measure which held about nine litres, usually made of earthenware or basket work.[15] The point though is not its size, but rather just the absurdity of hiding a lamp when its whole reason for being is to be visible. So too, the job description “of a disciple is not fulfilled by private personal holiness, but includes the witness of public exposure.”[16] A lot of modern churches reduce gospel ministry to simply social ethics and action which is reflected in the popularized quaint cliché, “preach the gospel; if necessary use words” which reduces the gospel to basically ‘a way of life’ and ministry as ‘making a better world.’ But this “contradicts the Bible’s teaching that the gospel must be verbally proclaimed and responded to in repentance and faith.”[17]

Shining to the Glory of God

            Verse 16 starts off with οὕτως (in this way/thusly)—that believers should shine their lights in this way. The conjunction ὅπως introduces a purpose clause which explains why they are to shine their lights publicly. “While Jesus is opposed to doing good works publicly for one’s own honor (6:1, ‘to be seen’ by people), he exhorts his disciples to do those good works publicly for God’s honor (5:16; cf. 6:9).”[18] The object of glorification as a response to seeing the disciple’s good works is not the disciple himself, but rather God our Father who is in Heaven. So, by virtue of the way or manner in which these good works are made publicly manifest—it should be done in a way that the disciple does not puff himself up, but rather that people glorify God for it. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way,

“These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness; strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto; that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end eternal life.”[19]

            It goes on to not that the Christian’s ability to do good works is not of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. The Holy Spirit is required to work in them to will and do his good pleasure, but also they ought to be diligent to stir up the grace of God that is in them. With regards to gospel ministry, Tim Keller comments, “[Jesus] calls his disciples both to “gospel-messaging” (urging everyone to believe the gospel) and to “gospel-neighboring” (sacrificially meeting the needs of those around them whether they believe or not! The two absolutely go together.”[20] Again I find Spurgeon’s comments helpful here, “In any case the genuine Christian will exercise the silent and unseen salting influence upon those who come into immediate contact with him; but let him also labour to possess the second, or illuminating influence, which covers a far larger area, and deals more with real life; for salt is for dead flesh, and light for living men.”[21]

Matt. 5:17-18 Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας· οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι. ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν· ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται.

You should not think that I came to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill them. For I tell you the truth, until Heaven and earth pass away, not even the smallest letter or dot shall ever pass away from the law until everything should be manifested.

God’s Word Forever Endures

            The subjunctive phrase μὴ νομίσητε (you should not think) is introducing a hypothetical situation which Jesus is negating, namely, thinking that he came to abolish the law or the prophets. It could also be rendered, “do not suppose…” It is a teaching device to draw attention to Jesus’ positive statement in the following verse.[22] The conjunction ὅτι (that) simply introduces what it is we are not supposed to think or suppose. The phrase τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας (the Law or the prophets) are viewed separately as the direct objects of the καταλῦσαι (to abolish). That is, it is not “the law AND the prophets”—which would have used the conjunction καὶ—but rather it is, “the law OR the prophets.” So Jesus is not abolishing either the law, or the prophets—both will remain. “The Law and the prophets” was a common expression to reference what we call the Old Testament today as a whole.[23]

            So far from a sort of disconnect between the NT and OT, Jesus is affirming the permanence and relevance of both to the Christian. The word ἰῶτα (iota) is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet—so I have translated it as “the smallest letter” for those unfamiliar with Greek. But Jesus was basically saying that God’s Law will stand, even so as not the tiniest letter or dot will pass away. Jesus wasn’t abrogating the Law for the believer in an antinomian sense where we have free license to sin because we’ve been freed from the law. This freedom from the law is the release from the curse of the Law—which is eternal death—the Law no longer condemns them. Calvin commented, “Now, the law has power to exhort believers. This is not a power to bind their consciences with a curse, but one to shake off their sluggishness, by repeatedly urging them, and to pinch them awake to their imperfection.”[24]

Fulfilment of the OT in Christ

            The word πληρῶσαι (to fulfill) may have two different ways of interpreting it. It literally just means to fill up something, like a bucket. “The use here is figurative, and it can have two basic meanings: 1) ‘fulfill’ in the sense of actions or events that are required by the Law or predicted by the prophets; and 2) ‘fill up’ in the sense of making complete what was not yet complete.”[25] Louw and Nida seem to give another interpretive option as they define it as, “to give the true or complete meaning to something—‘to give the true meaning to, to provide the real significance of.’”[26] While the fulfillment of prophesy might surely be in view also, since Matthew’s Gospel tends to give prominence to this, it would seem by the discourse in verses 21-48 that the latter two options may be preferable. There, Jesus teaches the fuller implications of certain commands of the Law and seems to raise the standard of understanding them. Not only is it wrong to commit adultery, but the very act of lusting in one’s heart is already considered sin. Jesus is raising the bar (something we will look at more in detail in the next article in this series). Matthew 15:11, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” seems to confirm this understanding.

            When taken in conjunction with verses 19 and 20, it seems to confirm that Jesus is giving the true significance of the Law in showing that it is an impossible standard of righteousness which we cannot achieve and thus straining to justify oneself by the Law would prove futile. However, he is at the same time not dismissing the Law as a matter which can be abandoned altogether, since it will stand “until Heaven and earth pass away.” There is therefore a felt tension here. What are we to do in light of these two truths? Jesus affirms that the Law will stand and continue to do so, and he also elevates our understanding of the requirements and weight of the Law on us. I think this discourse naturally raises these questions in our minds as readers, and is something which is intentionally done to provoke these responses. These tensions are addressed later, however at this point in the narrative—it is a felt tension that continues to increase as Jesus continues on this topic. What is clear is that he is not promoting antinomianism (immoral abandonment of the Law). Also, it is important to bear in mind that this saying is directly following his sayings on being salt and light. It would seem that there is a direct relationship between what it means to be salt and light as true believers and the fact that Christ does not abolish but rather fulfills the Law for us. Hence, our deeds of righteousness flow naturally out of the righteousness which has been credited to us in Christ.

Matt. 5:19 ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν.

Therefore, if someone should disregard one of the least of these commandments and should teach people in that way, this person will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever, should practice and teach them, this person will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Cheap Grace is no Bargain Deal

            “Therefore” (οὖν) connects this sentence as the logical progression from the last thought. What follows is an implication of what Jesus had just said about the Law not passing away. “Since Scripture is of continuing validity and Jesus is to fulfill it, the breaking of the least of the commandments is not unimportant.”[27] The conditional conjunction ἐὰν (if) sets up what follows as a conditional clause. The ὃς (whoever) makes this statement’s application general. So, this is a general warning to all who may fulfill the first part of the clause—disregarding and teaching others in the same way. This is therefore a strong warning against false teachers who preach a cheap grace which does not call men to repentance of a life of sin. Do we have a relaxed view of sin? Or are we serious about putting to death the deeds of the flesh which still remain in us (Rom. 8:13, Col. 3:5)?

            The verb λύω means “to loose or untie” but can also mean “to destroy, transgress, do away with or repeal.” There may be some word play with the verb καταλύω from verse 17.[28] However, as the clause about teaching people implies, it is not the breaking or transgression of the Law which is in view here, but rather treating it as null and void or nonexistent or unimportant and thus teaching others to disregard them. “Even to nullify just one commandment is serious.”[29] At the time, there was a rabbinic view of ranking between ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ commandments. So the point here is that even the smallest commandment is weighty and is the same as the “smallest letter and dot” in verse 18 because they are as permanent as Heaven and Earth. So, “it is teaching the value of the commandments which is the true converse of setting them aside.”[30]

One of These Commands

            From a grammatical point of view, it is possible that “one of the least of these commandments” could be pointing back to the Law mentioned in verse 18, or possibly to the teachings of Jesus which follow next in this discourse. However, one would normally expect a singular pronoun instead of the plural which is used (these commands) if it was in reference to the Law of verse 18. But, it distinguishes “one of the least of these commands.” Also, the use of the participle οὖν seems to confirm that what follows here in verse 19 is an inference from what precedes, and this is the way I view it as it seems to fit most logically with the train of thought.[31] So although the Law would definitely be in mind, the immediate context seems to indicate that it is the teachings which Jesus will lay out in the following verses which constitutes “these commands”—he is setting up his own commands on par with the OT Law, teaching as One with authority because he is the same God, Yahweh incarnate. This tells us that what he will expand upon in the following verses about hate and lust are vitally important to us (and these teachings will be explored in the next article)—and show us that Jesus himself did not take a slack view of sin.

            The pairing of ποιέω (do) and διδάσκω (teach) shows that what is in mind is that these laws are still relevant to the disciples not just in theory but also in practice. However, to imply that Matthew intended to mean that sacrificial and food laws of the OT were still binding on Jesus’ disciples would contradict much of the NT teachings, and by this time of writing, most Christians would have agreed they were no longer required.

“In the light of the emphasis on fulfillment which has introduced this passage and which will be central to what follows we can only suppose therefore that he had in mind a different kind of “doing” from that of the scribes and Pharisees, a “doing” appropriate to the time of fulfillment. That will mean in effect the keeping of the law as it is now interpreted by Jesus himself, and it will be the role of vv. 20–48 to explain what this means in practice.”[32]

Greatest and Least in the Kingdom

            There is also a play between the use of “least” and “great” here, linking the one disregarding the “least of these commandments” to being called the “least in the Kingdom.” To be called the least or great in God’s Kingdom is to be high or low in God’s esteem as a worthy representative of His Kingship here on earth—it is not in reference to a two tiered social structure with second class citizens.[33] There is also perhaps some connections with other texts about “the least of these” or other “little ones” in the narratives that follow. However, some early Church Fathers such as John Chrysostom interpret “least in the Kingdom” actually as speaking to Hell.[34] That is, that those who disregard the moral Law and teachings of Christ actually are not saved nor inherit eternal life. So we see that early believers didn’t see this as some sort of pithy name calling, but to be called least actually had significant eternal ramifications.

Matt. 5:20 Λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.

For I say to you that if your righteousness does not greatly surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you most certainly cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Necessity of a Greater Righteousness

            Λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν (for I say to you) is an emphatic transition which ties this verse to the preceding and brings attention to the words which follow. It’s Jesus’ way of saying “Hey! Pay attention here… this is important!” The “you” (ὑμῖν) here is plural, addressing the disciple community of followers of Christ. The conjunction ἐὰν sets out a conditional if/then clause. The first part of the clause which opens with a negator (μὴ), “if your righteousness does not greatly surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees” sets the condition for the consequence which is, “you surely cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is quite a jarring statement—but one which flows from our understanding in the previous verse of what it means to be called “least in the Kingdom.”

            The construction of the first part of this clause is interesting, particularly in the word order. The phrase ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ (if it should not surpass) brings to the forefront and stresses that, what is being emphasized is the necessity that your righteousness should surpass or exceed. Coupled with the adjective πλεῖον (greater/by far) which functions as a comparative intensifier to “that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” this serves as a double emphatic. The construction might be more literally translated, “if your righteousness does not surpass [in quality to be] far greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees.” The use of a double negative οὐ μὴ emphasizes the second resultant clause which is the consequence of the preceding condition.[35] Jesus is using some very emphatic language here! It stresses the impossibility of entrance into the Kingdom for those who don’t meet the requirement. I have tried to express this by rendering it “you most certainly cannot enter.” This entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven does not primarily mean “to go to a place called heaven,” though eternal life would certainly be the ultimate outcome, but rather is in reference to God’s kingship and rule—it is to come under God’s rule and be His true people subject to Him.[36]

Righteousness Greater than the Scribes and Pharisees?

            The Scribes and Pharisees were groups which had a high concern for the Law. The Scribes were experts in the Law and Pharisees were known for their meticulous observance and practice of law with special emphasis on ritual purity, tithing and Sabbath observance. “For them every detail of the law was precious, and the aim of their rapidly developing legal traditions in addition to the OT law was not to supplant it as a rule of life but to guide God’s people in observing its demands in more and more meticulous detail.”[37] So, to say that the disciples had to exceed their standard of righteousness was a radically high and immense standard to set. If δικαιοσύνη (righteousness) is understood as a “literal obedience to rules and regulations, it would be hard to find anyone who attempted it more rigorously and more consistently than the scribes and Pharisees.”[38]

            However, before we slip off into legalism, what is mean by exceeding their righteousness “does not mean they are to adopt a greater number of commandments and prohibitions” but rather that “people must think in terms of a new and far more comprehensive righteousness.”[39] He is talking about a different level or concept of righteousness altogether, because for all their strict observance of OT regulations, the Scribes and Pharisees are still seen as outside of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ disciples “must move beyond literal observance of rules, however good and scriptural, to a new consciousness of what it means to please God, one which penetrates beneath the surface level of rules to be obeyed to a more radical openness to knowing and doing the underlying will of ‘your Father in heaven.’”[40] Jesus is talking of those who go beyond merely keeping the rules to earn merit with God or favour in the eyes of men and instead have a righteousness from the heart, which he will expand on in the following verses (which we will cover in the next article). R.T. France sums it up nicely in his paraphrase:

“But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rule-keeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.”[41]

            In conclusion, this higher standard of righteousness to which Jesus is calling his disciples is part of what it means to be salt and light. This is an immensely high calling to holiness and active righteousness. It is one which we are dramatically unequipped to fulfill in our own strength, and thus something which we must be totally dependant on the Holy Spirit in us to do in and through us. It is a call to live as God’s redeemed covenant community, who are conspicuous representatives of His Kingdom. To be set apart, distinct from the world but yet in the world. It is a call not to do, but to be—to be what we truly are if we are His—however, by the fact of truly being salt and light, doing will flow out of our hearts. For salt cannot help but be salty, and light by its very existence must shine. If we have not experienced this essential change of our nature, being called out of the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light, if our lives have not been changed by the Gospel—we would do well to test ourselves to see if we are truly in the faith. But if we are, let us then continue to walk in Christ, as we have received him (Col. 2:6). Far from a call to harder striving, it is a call to radical dependence. This is the call of a true disciple.

Click here for the next article in this series.


Augustine of Hippo, “Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. William Findlay and David Schley Schaff, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888.

Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Chrysostom, John. “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI;  Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.

Keller, Tim. “The Gospel and the Poor,” Themelios: Volume 33 No. 3, December 2008, 2008.

Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.

Newman, Barclay Moon, and Philip C. Stine. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1992.

Spurgeon, C. H. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 19. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1873.

Spurgeon, C. H. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 27. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1881.

Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition. Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851.


[1] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 118.
[2] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 104.
[3] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 118.
[4] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 174.
[5] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 175.
[6] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 175.
[7] Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 51.
[8] Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, 8.
[9] Chrysostom, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 97.
[10] Chrysostom, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 98.
[11] Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 19, 241.
[12] Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 19, 241.
[13] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 176.
[14] Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 27, 217.
[15] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 176.
[16] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 176.
[17] Tim Keller, Themelios: Volume 33 No. 3, December 2008, 15.
[18] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 175.
[19] Westminster, The Westminster Confession of Faith, 82–83.
[20] Tim Keller, Themelios: Volume 33 No. 3, December 2008, 18.
[21] Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 27, 217.
[22]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 181.
[23] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 181.
[24] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 362.
[25] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 123.
[26] Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 404.
[27] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 110.
[28] Blomberg, Matthew, 105.
[29] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 110.
[30] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 187.
[31] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 126.
[32] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 187–188.
[33] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 188.
[34] Chrysostom, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 106.
[35] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 112.
[36] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 190.
[37] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 189.
[38] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 189.
[39] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 128.
[40] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 190.
[41] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 191.


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