The Standards of Jesus

Written by Pastor James Dorman

Matthew 5:13-20

1. Thoughts from Matthew:

Matthew 5:13–20 (NIV84)  “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. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. 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. 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. 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. 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.”

2. Passage Outline

The Standards of Jesus
Matthew 5:13-20

I. You are to be the Salt of the Earth (Matt. 5:13)

II. You are to be the Light of the World (Matt. 5:14-16)

III. Jesus’ Standard is Contrasted with the Standard of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:17-20) 

3. Information to Consider

In Matthew 5:13–16, before embarking on the body of the sermon, Jesus explained in two-word pictures the impact that a truly righteous person will have on his or her world. The entire sermon, including the Beatitudes before and the many teachings after, shows us how to live as “salt and light” in the world as representatives of another kingdom. These word pictures also serve Matthew’s purpose—to encourage believers to change their world (Matt. 28:18–20).

5:13. There are many lists of the uses of salt, most of them inspired by Jesus’ statement here. However, among the many possible connotations, Jesus probably had two most centrally in his mind. First, salt preserves from corruption. In the centuries before modern refrigeration, salt was the method of choice for preventing bacteria from poisoning food. Salt was so vital for this purpose that wars were fought over salt, and entire economies were based on it. Salt could literally make the difference between life and death in a time when fresh food was unavailable.

Just as salt prevents or kills bacteria in food, the kingdom servant prevents or confronts corruption in the world. Notice that it is the earth that needs the salt, not the kingdom of heaven. If the kingdom servant did not have a function to perform on earth according to God’s plan, he might as well go straight to heaven upon conversion. The reality is that the earth needs the influence of Christ’s church in this age.5

The second function of salt is to add flavor or interest (Col. 4:5–6). Jesus highlighted this purpose when he spoke of the danger of salt losing its saltiness. The kingdom and all associated with it are anything but boring. They are life! However, the kingdom servant is capable of living like a dead person. Part of the church’s task on earth is to live according to its new nature—alive, purposeful, hopeful, joyful! Christians should be living in such a way that others will pause and consider what is different about them (1 Pet. 3:15). Believers are different and should appear so, because the Father is different (holy; 1 Pet. 1:15–16).

The kingdom servant who does not live according to his nature as salt is useless to the king’s advancement of the kingdom on earth. One might even question the genuineness of such a person’s kingdom citizenship.

5:14–16. The picture of light is similar to salt, in that both describe the influence the believer is to have in the world (“world” here is synonymous with earth in 5:13). However, it reveals a different facet of the believer’s influence. The function of light is to make reality or truth visible, thereby giving direction and guidance by what is seen. Light is a common theme throughout the Bible (e.g., Isa. 9:2; 42:6; Matt. 4:16; John 1:4–5, 9; 12:46; Eph. 5:8; Phil. 2:15; 1 Thess. 5:5).

Jesus again used the emphatic “you,” and again clearly stated that this is already what a believer is, not something he might become. It is the nature of a kingdom servant to be light in the world. Any believer who fails to function as light is going against his nature as God’s new creation. The believer has no light inherent in himself. The believer’s light is a reflected light. Believers are to make certain that nothing comes between them and their source of light (2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 2:13–16).

Both a city on a hill (5:14) and the lamp … on its stand (5:15) fulfill their function by being elevated, so their light can be seen by many people over a broad area. Jesus himself explained the application of this principle in 5:16. The light represents our good works, which must be done with such integrity that all who see have no choice but to credit our Father in heaven. The Christian’s life and influence is to be visible and obvious, not secret or hidden. We must not camouflage our devotion to Christ, but humbly do all we can to allow its truest colors to be seen where we live.

The term translated praise means “to make manifest or visible.” When we shine our light before others by living righteously, we are making visible the character of the Father. Some people might claim a contradiction between the instruction here to Let your light shine before men, and in 6:1–6, Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. However, there is a great difference between the two passages, and it has to do with who is glorified by the good works. In one case attention is drawn to God; in the other, it is drawn to self. It is the Christian’s commission to live in such a way as to make God visible in a world that is blind to him.

This is the first time Matthew calls God Father. It is a wonderful, new emphasis on personal intimacy for the believer. Matthew used this word forty-five times. And while the fatherhood of God was not unknown in the Old Testament, here it is endowed with a very personal sense (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). The king wants his people to know that his kingdom involves a deeply personal relationship with God. It is so much more than a religious or organizational connection.

Standard of Righteousness (5:17–20)

Supporting Idea: The righteousness of Jesus’ followers must surpass mere “religiosity.”

5:17. The Law or the Prophets was one way of referring to the entire Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). Jesus meant the same thing in 5:18 when he referred to the Law. Jesus was about to say some things that would strike the minds of the religious leaders like a sledgehammer. He would sound to their ears as though he were antilaw because he would insist the law can do nothing for them except define sin. It cannot save them even if they could (hypothetically) keep it perfectly (exceeding the Pharisees). So Jesus assured his Jewish listeners that he was not antilaw at all. On the contrary, he was going to fulfill it; that is, both keep and explain fully its original intention, which they had managed to miss over the centuries.

There is much debate over what Jesus meant by the word fulfill. The word means “to fill out, expand.” It does not mean to bring to an end. Jesus was not taking away from the law, nor was he adding to it. He was clarifying its original meaning. After all, he was its author. And we must not forget that Jesus, as a Jew, related well to the law—not as it was commonly understood, but as it was originally intended.

All that Jesus said in 5:21–48 was within the intended meaning of the law when it was originally given fourteen centuries earlier. Certainly some righteous people throughout the centuries understood this, but as a whole, the nation of Israel was limited in the thoroughness of its understanding. This limited understanding was further warped and misguided by the perversions of the Pharisees and others who thought God’s Word needed “completion” through the oral tradition.

Jesus’ teaching here awakened his people to what the law meant from the beginning. He clarified God’s longstanding desire that his creation be characterized by both internal (attitudes) and external (actions) obedience and holiness. Fulfilled law is written on the heart. Jesus himself fulfilled the law in several ways: (1) by keeping it perfectly; (2) by fulfilling the Old Testament messianic types and prophecies; and (3) by providing the way of salvation that meets all the righteous requirements of the law.

Two pivotal passages (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:26–27) explain how, under the new covenant, the same law (the very character of God) is not to be an external standard, but its values are to become an intrinsic part of newly recreated people. In a way, Jesus was teaching something that was not yet completely possible for people to follow. It is good to say, “People should move from external obedience to an obedience motivated by the law written upon the heart.” But this is an impossibility until the heart is transformed and the very person of God himself, along with his righteous character as expressed in the law, comes to abide in one’s heart. What Jesus taught would become a reality in the lives of God’s people after his death sealed the new covenant and made possible the promised internal transformation.

5:18. Whenever Jesus began a statement with I tell you the truth, it was time to get quiet and listen. The word amen is the transliteration of the Hebrew ‘amen, expressing affirmation that the associated truth is totally reliable. The Old Testament usage of the word is always as a response to a preceding statement. Jesus introduced the formula in which the word precedes the weighty statement in order to prepare the hearer to listen.

Jesus overwhelmed the Pharisees’ charge that he was destroying the law. The Bible teaches that the law is both temporary (Gal. 3:19; Eph. 2:15; Heb. 7:12) and eternal (Rom. 3:31; 8:4).

The least stroke (5:18) of the Hebrew alphabet is the yod. It is no bigger than our apostrophe. The smallest stroke of a pen is a very tiny mark that is only one part of a single Hebrew letter, like the dot over our “i.” Jesus was serious about the eternal quality of his written Word. We must never trifle with even the smallest part of Scripture. Jesus affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture and its absolute trustworthiness.

5:19. Once again Jesus affirmed the law as it stood (properly interpreted), but he began to shift his focus toward those who had changed its original meaning, while claiming to uphold it unchanged. Not only did he identify the Pharisees and other religious leaders by their tampering with the law, but he also focused on their responsibility to teach others.

One of the least of these commandments does not refer to any specific commandment or collection of commands. Rather, it has the same effect as the “jot and tittle” terminology in the preceding verse. Jesus used these words to say, “Do not toy or tamper with any of it.”

5:20. After stating that no one—not even the Messiah himself—was to change the law in any way, Jesus proclaimed the thesis for the remainder of the sermon—unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is an enormous statement. It would have shocked Jesus’ listeners, because the scribes and Pharisees were considered the ultimate example of righteousness. To the Jewish listener, Jesus’ statement meant that no one could enter heaven. To the average person trying to eke out a living, the Pharisees were the truly holy people. Jesus claimed that even they were not good enough!

No amount of lawkeeping was good enough because the problem is the human heart. Jesus went on to illustrate how bankrupt their understanding of the law was by making comparison after comparison (you have heard that it was said … but I tell you; 5:21–22). For example, the Pharisees’ teaching implied that if a man avoided having sex with someone other than his spouse, then he had kept that portion of the law. Jesus, understanding the universality of human lust, filled the law out to the full by pointing out God’s original intention—because adultery is a matter of the heart, people regularly commit this sin through a single moment of lust in the mind.

A careful examination of the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount reveals that virtually every point Jesus made draws a contrast between the pseudo-righteousness of the religious leaders and the true righteousness that God desires. The person who discovers and appropriates true righteousness will manifest the character qualities described in the Beatitudes (5:3–12) and will impact the world as described in 5:13–16. The Pharisees did not.

Jesus drew attention to the gravity of his foundational premise with the formula, I tell you. He equated himself with the author of Scripture which, of course, he was. Jesus insisted his words bore all the authority of God himself which, of course, he was. Jesus claimed deity for himself.

Jesus was essentially declaring war on the false pharisaical religion. He insisted that no person could be saved by his or her own righteousness. This was something the law intended to indicate all along, but Israel had missed the point (Rom. 2:17–3:31; Gal. 3:17–29; 5:3–6). The point was hard for the self-righteous to swallow—no one, not even the super law-keeping Pharisees, could enter into heaven. All needed a Savior![1]

[1] Weber, S. K. (2000). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 61–65). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.[

4. Questions to Ponder

a. In what sense are Disciples to be “the Salt of the Earth”? (Matt. 5:13)

b. In what sense are Disciples to be “the Light of the World”? (Matt. 5:14)

c. What is the distinction between “destroy” and “fulfill”? (Matt. 5:17)

d. Why did Jesus deny He came to destroy the “Law”? (Matt. 5:17-18)

e. What are the “jot” and “tittle”? (Matt. 5:18)

5. Author’s Comments

I was born in 1951.  During my lifetime credit cards have come into existence, in addition humanity invented the hula hoop, the computer modem, the micro-chip, power steering, diet colas, cassette tapes, compact discs, hand held calculators, laptops, the touch-tone phone, video cassette recorders, the internet, streaming, artificial hearts, Walkmans, and cell phones. 

While this is not an exhaustive list – the world around me has been transformed and continues to change at a remarkable pace.  Inventions are not the only way in which the world I live in has changed.  I have been surrounded by a cultural revolution of which I could not have imagined nor predicted the pace at which this transformation occurred.

I grew up in a culture molded by the foundation of a Judeo-Christian value system.  I now live in a post-Christian society in which Judeo-Christian values have not only been replaced, they are now rejected and reviled.  Within the society in which I was born, Christianity has moved from a most favored status to one of derision and persecution.

In my lifetime, public prayer has been removed from the public education system, abortion has been given legal status, the family unit has been dramatically redefined, gender has moved from male and female to a myriad of classifications, and human sexuality has moved from a given nature at birth to one which can be chosen to reflect any choice at any time. 

I know God can return America to its foundational roots, but it will take a tremendous season of revival and a Christian community dedicated to being God’s true “salt” and “light”.  I pray this reality comes soon!

6. Closing Prayer


Thank you for the truths you have revealed to us through Your Prophets and Son.  These truths now serve as the foundation for our lives and allow us to pursue our lives according to Your guidance.

May our lives serve to bring “salt” to the world around us – both through preservation and vitality.  In addition, may our lives brighten the world through our actions and provide guidance to those seeking to discover Your pathway in their lives.

In Jesus’ Name, AMEN

7. Answers to “Questions to Ponder”

a. Disciples, like salt, are to serve as a preservative in the world.  They are to seek to stop the decaying process present in the society around them.  They are to change the world and not let the world change theme.

b. Light attacks darkness.  It exposes that which has been enshrouded by the darkness before the light arrives. It also serves as a beacon leading those in darkness into the light.  Disciples must not only expose satan and its darkness but also lead those from darkness into light.

c. Jesus never eliminated the Laws of God.  He destroyed the oral traditions surround the Law,  but did not expect the righteousness of the people to stop because of the New Kingdom.  He fulfilled the Law in the fact is was now complete.  The Law foretold the coming of the Messiah, Jesus made these prophesies complete.

d. Jesus expected His disciples to life such a righteous life that none of God’s Laws would be broken in their pursuit of the New Covenant.

e. The jot was the smallest of Hebrew letters corresponding with our letter “i”.  The tittle was a little stroke of the pen by which some letters were distinguished from others.  (i.e. from c to e)