Salt, Light, and Human Beings: Doing Matthew 5:13-20

Before reading this post on doing Matthew 5:13-20, please make sure to read our post on hearing Matthew 5:13-20. You can also see a quick overview of our DOTW Bible study method.

What action does God take in Matthew 5:13-20?

In verse 17, Jesus explains his own action of incarnation by saying,

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 came to this earth in order to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. The fact that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law has great significance on what actions we are to take.

What action does God call me to take toward God? Toward others?

In verses 13 and 14, when Jesus says you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus doesn’t give us commands as much as he describes already present realities in our lives.

The first command we see from Jesus occurs in verse 16, which says,

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Later in verse 19, Jesus gives a warning to not relax any of the commandments, but instead we should be doing them and teaching them.

What actions did I take? Or, what actions will I take?

Our saltiness and light stand in juxtaposition to the sinful decay and darkness that surrounds us. As far as we are concerned, the answer to this decay and darkness is not to increase the demands of the law as the Pharisees did, nor is it to decrease the significance of the law as did the Gnostics.

What is it then?

In exegeting 2 Corinthians 3:18, John Chrysostom said,

For as soon as we are baptized, the soul beameth even more than the sun, being cleansed by the Spirit; and not only do we behold the glory of God, but from it also receive a sort of splendor. Just as if pure silver be turned towards the sun’s rays, it will itself also shoot forth rays, not from its own natural property merely but also from the solar lustre; so also doth the soul being cleansed and made brighter than silver, receive a ray from the glory of the Spirit, and send it back. 

In other words, when Christ commands us to let our light shine, we understand that our light comes from Christ alone and any light we possess is merely a reflection of Christ. And this is exactly our purpose as human beings!  We are to be a mirror that reflects Christ into the world.

After Jesus says to “let your light shine,” he says so that “they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We cannot mirror Christ into the world if we are only hearing God’s word. We must be doing the same word that we hear (Matthew 7:24-27), and we must do it in such a way that it causes people to give glory to God.

It’s clearly not the case that God wants us to cease doing his word and to cease following his commandments.

However, if our good works cause people to praise us . . . then we are not letting our light shine before others.

One of the practical ways that I’ve done this is to clearly share with people how my motivations were wrong . . . even though the final result of what I did was praiseworthy.

A few years ago while traveling to a different country, I was given a hotel room that was nicely warm. Although the room didn’t have central heat, I had a portable heater that made the room comfortable. Consequently, there was a neighboring room (with a guest), that didn’t have a portable heater.  I found this out after I had gotten in bed, and although I didn’t mind being a little chilly, I had no desire to get out of bed and go down the hall and offer my heater. After struggling with my selfishness for a little while, I decided to get out of bed, get changed, go down the hall and give the heater to my neighbor.

When I did that, my neighbor was very pleased and thanked me profusely. I could have accepted the praise and allowed my neighbor to think that I was a pretty good guy. Instead, I admitted that I didn’t want to give him the heater, but the Lord prompted my heart to do it, so I was simply obeying the Lord.

This gave me the opportunity to tell him that all thanks should truly go to God, because my intentions were not righteous.

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Satan Tempts Jesus, Accidentally Reveals the Character of God

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Matthew 4:1-11

When scholars examine and classify different religions, they often ask, “Does this religion have a supreme being?” A scholar studying Christianity might identify God as this “supreme being,” but they would be mistaken. Christianity does have “supreme” beings…but none of these are God.

In Acts 17:28, Paul explains that “we live and move and have our being” in God. God is not a supreme being; He is the creator and source of all being. As the Nicene Creed maintains, God is “the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.” Naming him a being—even the “supreme” one—is to make a serious category error.

Supreme beings do exist in Christianity, if by that we mean beings that are higher and more advanced than all other beings. We call such supreme beings “angels”.

Scripture tells us that angels are both beautiful and terrifying. When angels appear, humans are filled with so much awe and fear that angels must begin their messages by saying, “Do not be afraid.” In Revelation, an angel appears to John. The angel is so wonderful that John falls down and begins to worship him. But the angel rebukes John: “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!”

But not all angels are fellow servants with us.

Before the world was created, an angel turned away from God. He was attracted to himself–drawn by his own beauty and power. Ultimately he would lead a third of the angels in his train. We call this angel “Satan”.

Satan once dwelled in the very presence of God. As a result, he is very familiar with God’s character. Like us, he knows that God is no mere being. So when Satan observes Christ’s baptism, he is perplexed.

During the baptism, Jesus, a human being, is baptized and the Holy Spirit rests on him. The voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son.” But how can this be? How can the creator and source of being become, himself, a being?

Intrigued, Satan follows this God-being into the desert and tempts him.

Often, we underestimate the degree to which Christ was tempted.

“Well, of course Christ would not give into temptation,” we say. “He’s Christ.”

After all, Jesus was a supreme being, right?

Not according to the Nicene Creed. The Creed tells us that Christ was “born of the virgin Mary” and “became man”—an average, ordinary man. An average, ordinary man who walked through the desert for forty days. After wandering through the desert for long, Jesus must have felt hungry, thirsty, and worn. The temptation he felt must have been more, not less, powerful than our own!

Although Satan tempts Christ as a human being, he specifically tailors the content of these temptations to the character of God. In this passage, we can learn much about God’s character through Satan, who would have known better than anyone how to tempt God.

 

The First Temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

Satan knows that God alone is capable of creating, and re-creating. When God created the world, Satan saw him do it. Compared to the world, re-creating a stone into bread would be a very simple thing.

And during his ministry, Jesus would go on to reshape and re-create many objects. He transforms water into wine and feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Often, he speaks about creating or re-creating. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that he will “go to prepare a place for them.” In Revelation he declares that he is “making all things new.” Jesus was a carpenter by trade; just like his Father, the Creator—and Re-creator—of heaven and earth.

But Satan’s first temptation reveals more about God than his nature as creator; it reveals his nature as caretaker. Satan also knows that God cares about our physical needs. Thus, he coaxes Christ to make bread. If God did not care about physical needs, making bread out of a stone would not be a temptation for Jesus.

Jesus, himself, is always moved by physical needs. When a Roman Centurion informs him that his servant is “lying at home paralyzed and dreadfully tormented,” Jesus says, “I will come and heal him.” When four thousand people have listened to Jesus for three days without eating, Jesus says, “I have compassion on the crowd … if I send them to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus sees physical suffering and alleviates it.

 

The Second Temptation: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you.’”

In Isaiah 55:11, God says that his word “will not return empty, but will accomplish what [he] desires.” Unlike our words, God’s words never lie nor deceive nor conceal nor obscure. When he speaks, his words change the world in their image. Because scripture is God’s word, God fully intends to fulfill it. Satan knows this and uses it as the source of his second temptation.

In this temptation, Satan selects two lines of scripture and insists that God must fulfill them. He knows that God’s word is about Christ and is fulfilled by Christ. So how can Christ not fulfill the word? But Jesus refuses. The word is not his to fulfill in his own way, according to his own thinking and timing. During his ministry, however, he fulfills all of God’s word, in God’s way, in God’s timing.

 

The Third Temptation: “All these [kingdoms] will gave you, if you fall down and worship me.”

Through this temptation, we learn that God has not given up on the world. We often think that the world is hopeless and vile. We look forward to a day when we are free from it. But Satan knows that God has never given up on the world and intends to bring it under his subjection.

Unlike us, God will never say, “This world must be destroyed! We must withdraw from it!” When Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, he knows that God looks at them and sees what they one day will be, not only what they are or how they presently appear. Even when God decides to flood the world, he sees an opportunity to redeem the world through Noah.

God will never give up on his creation. Satan draws on this as a temptation.

Despite being fully human, Jesus overcomes the devil.

This teaches us two things. First, God’s word is supremely powerful. When Jesus is tempted, he does not turn to prayer or willpower to overcome the devil; he recalls scripture. God does not expect us to “try hard” or to “pray hard”. He expects us to overcome temptation by recalling his word properly and trusting in it. Thus, to overcome temptation, we must learn—and apply—as much scripture as we can.

The second insight we receive is that Jesus completely understands what it means to be human. He has been tempted in the same way that we are tempted today—and yet he has overcome, as a mere man like us. Through his victory, Jesus has shown that we mere humans can and should expect to overcome temptation as well. All that is needful is God’s word, and our response of faith.

Through the word and faith, one ordinary man was able to overcome a supreme being.

But faith isn’t something that we can create; it’s something that we need to ask God for. The Bible says when we ask God for faith, he will always give it to us. As Satan reveals to us inadvertently through his tempting acts, God intends to fulfill every promise. So if we do not yet have faith, then we should continually ask. God will give it to us.

In many ways, Satan knows God better than we do. We doubt that God cares about us physically. We doubt that God will fulfill his word. We doubt that God will restore his rule over this broken world. But Satan does not doubt these things for a moment.

If even Satan does not doubt these things, why do we?

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What Happened During the Transfiguration?

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Matthew 5:38-48

When modern readers read passages like Matthew 17:1-9, they can become skeptical. Never having seen anyone’s face “shone like the sun” or anyone’s clothes “became white as light,” and never having chatted up biblical luminaries like Moses and Elijah, moderns are quick to dismiss the whole thing and move on to something that resonates with their experience.

Reading the Bible according to our own experience seems to people today like the most obvious, true, and honest way to read it. After all, the basic philosophy of life today is to assume that what is obvious, true, and honest about the universe is what we can see, touch, or will, as well as what the instruments and sciences we create can see, touch, or will through their advanced technology. This philosophy of life has many different names. North Koreans refer to this way of thinking as “materialism.” Westerners call it “positivism,” “scientism,” or “reductionism.” Regardless of what we call it, it calls the Transfiguration an impossibility or a religious invention.

But the Lord of the Transfiguration is also the creator of human beings, not to mention everything they can see, touch, and will, along with everything they can’t. And it turns out that what they can’t see, touch, and will is…nearly everything!

Human beings see by processing light waves, also known as electromagnetic waves. However, human eyes are only capable of processing a small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum (a spectrum of light waves arranged by frequency). Most humans can see every color in the visible spectrum, from red to violet, but we can see nothing below or beyond this frequency. We cannot see infrared light, for example, which has a lower frequency than visible light, or ultraviolet light, which has a higher frequency than visible light.

In fact, we can only see 0.0035% of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“That may be true,” says the materialist/positivist/reductionist/scientism-ist, “but we can measure the electromagnetic waves that we cannot see. Through our measurements we humans can know everything that can be seen.”

Perhaps. But this does not account for the estimated 95% of the universe that is composed of dark matter (and a force called dark energy). Scientists know that dark matter exists. Dark matter is essential for many equations in physics. Without dark matter, these equations would fall apart. As of yet, however, no scientist has been able to develop a conclusive method of measuring dark matter, or of explaining what it is.

If human beings are only capable of seeing .0035% and detecting 5% of the known world, why should we assume that all there is, is what we can see, detect, measure, and prove?

This argument is not against science. It is against the claim that everything that cannot be observed or measured is nonsense. Science, itself, never makes this claim. At its best, science is humble enough to know that it cannot prove whether something is or is not. As Albert Einstein once said:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead—his eyes are closed.”

Science derives its good purpose and its humility from the mysterious. Scientism—or whatever name we might give the idea of elevating science out of that purpose and humility–closes our eyes rather than opening them.

So what do materialism, positivism, and scientism have to do with Matthew 17:1-9? Answer: More than meets the eye.

When we look at Matthew 17:1-9 and dismiss it because we have never seen a situation like this, never measured a phenomenon like this, or cannot will it to happen in human experience, we are missing the point exactly. This is what the passage is about.

In the verse right before this passage, Jesus tells his disciples, “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Jesus then takes Peter, James, and John to the mountain. There, they see the Son of Man—but how? Is it Jesus who changes? No. The Book of Revelation describes Jesus exactly the same. The Nicene Creed reminds us that Jesus is “light from light.” Christ is God, and God never changes.

But if Jesus stays the same, then what changed?

In Matthew 17:9, Jesus describes the Transfiguration as a vision. Jesus did not change; the disciples changed. For a moment, Peter, James, and John were permitted a glimpse into what always is, which human beings are incapable of seeing. For a moment they were able to see something outside of the 0.0035% that we human beings normally see, a matter pertaining to the other 95% of the universe that normally passes right in front of us without our notice. They were lifted above the limitations that we human beings do not even realize we have.

The Apostles’ Creed says at the core of our Christian faith is our belief in “the Communion of the Saints.” This means that even when believers die, they do not cease to exist. Even though we cannot see them, touch them, or will their communication with us, the Bible tells us that these Saints are always with us. Hebrews 12:1-2 describes them as the Great Cloud of Witnesses. They surround us at every moment and they urge us on.

Moses and Elijah do not simply appear and disappear during the Transfiguration. Because Moses and Elijah are part of the Communion of the Saints, they always surround Jesus and are in perfect communion with him. And because they are in perfect communion with the Christ with whom we are also in perfect communion, they are a part of our lives, too, regardless of what our eyes, measuring instruments, and will tell us.

In other words, it wasn’t that the world was mystically altered for a moment in the Transfiguration. As human beings, we are like Einstein’s dead man. Our eyes are closed. The more we know, the less we see.

But for a moment, Peter, James, and John were given vision to see the world as it actually was—and is—and always will be.

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