Fifth Sunday in Epiphany
Is. 58:1-12, 1 Cor. 2:1-16, Mt. 5:13-20
As we continue to celebrate the season of Epiphany, we are studying what it looks like for the light of Jesus to shine in and through our lives. As we noted last week, this light is God’s wisdom, His righteousness, which is the way of blessing by the power of the Spirit. Our lessons today are tied together by similar themes. Isaiah describes God’s people as highly religious while completely missing the point. Paul describes his ministry as centered on the cross of Jesus expressly with the intent that the Corinthians would place their trust in God and not man. Finally, Jesus calls His followers to a righteousness that seems utterly impossible.
One of the things to keep in mind is that if the Sermon on the Mount is a New Covenant Sinai, then we should expect that the instructions Jesus gives are, as in Exodus, instructions for building a new house for God to dwell in. It seems likely that the order of Salt, Light, and Law is meant as an oblique reference to the three zones of the tabernacle (courtyard, holy place, most holy place). This also points to the personalism of the law of God. The point was always to walk with God, to know Him as a Friend.
Salt (Mt. 5:13): We should note that salt has a number of uses. It provides flavor (Job 6:6), it was widely used as a preservative in the ancient world, it was used in sacrificial worship (Lev. 2:13, Mk. 9:49-50), and it was also a form of judgment (Gen. 19:26, Dt. 29:23, Jdg. 9:45). In one place, it was used to heal bitter waters (2 Kgs. 2:20-21). And the Covenant is described as being a “Covenant of Salt” (Num. 18:19, 2 Chron. 13:5). Here, Jesus contrasts usefulness (“flavor”) with uselessness (“good for nothing”). Taking this all together, when you think about being salt think what it means to be a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2): think dismemberment, fire, and blood. How does God stretch you? How does He pull you apart and put you back together? He does this through schooling, through marriage, through children, through difficult relationships, through broken relationships, through sickness and disease, through job loss and relocation, through death. The important thing to remember is that God wants you to offer your lives to Him. And that means it doesn’t matter what other people think. The flavor of your offering is for God to taste and be pleased with. And when it is pleasing to Him, it is always useful to Him.
Light (Mt. 5:14-16): Light was the first thing created (Gen. 1:2), and so we should always think of New Creation when we are called to be light. Here, Jesus highlights three reference points: city/world, lamp/house, good works/worship. It’s possible that this is also meant as an architectural device: leading the nations of the world into the house of God to worship the Father. This also provides an excellent check on our motivations for obedience. Jesus says the point is to drive people to worship your Father, not to win kudos, respect, or influence from men (cf. 1 Cor. 2:5). When you think about being light, think about drawing near to God so that He might draw near to you, confessing your sins, humbling yourself, so that He might lift you up (Js. 4:8). If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7).
Law (Mt. 5:17-20): This is a notorious passage that many wrangle over, regarding how the Old Testament civil law code is to apply in the Christian era. While many focus on what the word “fulfill” means, a lot also depends on what you think the law itself is for. Yahweh said it was for Israel’s freedom and life and wisdom and prosperity (Ex. 20:2, Dt. 4:1, 5:33, 6:2-3, 6:18, 6:24-25). All of these things were meant to be impressive to the nations to draw them to Himself (Dt. 4:6-8). The law also functions to deter evil (e.g. Rom. 13:1-7) and reveal sin (Rom. 3:19-20). But it was also always meant to display the good life of walking with God (e.g. Ps. 119). In other words, the law inside the Ark of the covenant was always meant to picture God’s word in your heart. Or better: Christ dwelling in your heart by faith (Eph. 3:17). The perennial temptation is to be ashamed of Christ and His words (Mk. 8:38), but the gospel is the power of God to those who believe (Rom. 1:16-17, 1 Cor. 2:1-5).
Isaiah highlights the problem that sinners always have with the law, and that is we turn it into an impersonal program, with boxes to check, rather than a means of communion, rather than a method of prayer and devotion, rather than a way of worship and delight in God our Savior. Israel loved going to church, they went to morning prayer, and loved to talk about justice and mercy and fasted regularly (Is. 58:2-3). But they were fundamentally deceived, and this was evidenced by the way they exploited and fought with each other. In the Old Covenant, God spoke from the thundering mountain and later took up residence in a fiercely guarded tent, but even then the sacrifices were always meant to be lively pictures of the kind of relationship God intended to have with His people: full of mercy and grace.
But in Jesus, God has drawn near in His grace. To say that Jesus “fulfills” the law means that Jesus as the new Adam perfectly keeps the law, accomplishing through the law what Israel never could. Jesus also fulfills the law by being the law, the eternal Word of God. But this doesn’t make us legalists or antinomians. Jesus still calls us to obedience and righteousness, but the middle way is through knowing nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And this is to say that God calls us to walk with Him by knowing Jesus through the power of His Spirit. “Personal relationship with Jesus” has certainly become cliché, but it is no less true for all that.