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The Light of the World

Updated on January 20, 2013

The Light of the World

Roy B. Blizzard III © 1988

In reading the New Testament, it is imperative that we be aware that everything in it is written from a Hebraic perspective. Jesus, being a Jew, taught his followers with typical Jewish wisdom. The things he said were so Hebraic, as well as being largely spoken in Hebrew, that we can find many almost direct parallels in Jesus' sayings in the New Testament with Jewish wisdom literature, commentaries, and Oral Law.

Recently, I read some rabbinic comments, which sound remarkably similar to sayings of Jesus and Paul. For example, in Matthew 5, Jesus gives a summation treatise on those who are members of God's kingdom here on this earth:

13) Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savor, where with shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden underfoot of men. 14) Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. 15) Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 16) Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

In verse 13, Jesus uses the word salt. What does he mean by this? No real definition of salt is ever given in the Bible. When we look at the Hebrew word melach (salt) in Jastrows' Dictionary of the Talmud, we notice an interesting reference. In K'thuboth 66r, from the Talmud, a proverb states that the salt (means of preservation) of wealth is its diminution (by charitable deeds) and some say benevolence (hesed). B'khoroth 8 (also from the Talmud) likewise notes, when the salt becomes unsavory, wherewith do they salt it.

In the Bible as well as Jewish literature, salt can mean several things. It can be a flavoring agent, enhancing things it is added to. It can be a preserving agent or a healing agent. Salt can also be a destroying force if poured cut onto the ground and trodden underfoot. In Hebrew, salt also has parallel meanings with references to righteousness, kindness, charity, and salvation.

Jesus in Matthew describes us as a light (ohr) to the world and a candle (ner) to give light to all men in the house. As with salt, the text is not clear as to what a light or a candle is, or what happens to make them shine.

These words have direct reference back to Proverbs 6:23 and 20:27. "For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is light and the disciplines of instruction [or wisdom] are the ways of life [which keep us, from all evils]" (6:23). 'The soul of man is the candle of Yahweh, searching all the inward parts (20:27)." Great insight can be gleaned from rabbinic sources about the meaning of light and candle.

"Rashi said, 'On the day of judgment, the person's own soul will testify before God, as it is written, the soul of man is the candle of Yahweh, searching all the inward parts. Also, like a person using a candle to search a dark room, God uses the soul to plumb the inner recesses of man's thought (metzudot].' Rabbi Yonah said, 'Man is accountable for his thoughts, words, and deeds, because God placed within his body a celestial light-his soul.' Just as a man's soul is a Divine spark, so are God's Mitzvos [commandments-not just the ten, but all of them]: for a mitzvah [one commandment] is a candle [Prov. 6:23]: God tells man; My candle, (the mitzvot] are in your hands; your candle [the soul] is in My hands, if you guard My candle, I will guard yours (Devarim Rabbah 4:4).

It is easy to see the similarity between this rabbinic saying and Jesus' statements in Matthew 5:13-14. One of the major traits of Hebrew poetry is parallelism (saying the same thing in two different ways). In this passage, salt and light are parallel to each other, and stand for life divine.

How, then, does one prevent the salt from losing its savor? How is the candle of the soul lit and kept burning? I would like to quote from Romans 12:1ff: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And, be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove [or diagnose] what is that good, acceptable and perfect will of God."

Here Paul is speaking along parallel lines to Jesus in Matthew 5. But, Paul adds that not only are we not to conform, but we are to be transformed.

The meaning of this statement can be elucidated by a Jewish commentary on the meaning of "world."

“Even in this world of obscurity and hiddenness there are still many levels of existence - many worlds. Can one say that the great and holy sage and the avaricious criminal inhabit the same world in any save the physical sense? Do the intellectual and the aborigine live in the same world? A person's world consists of far more than sand and sea. In essence the physical peculiarities of his existence are no more important than the brown paper bag in which a treasure may be wrapped ... Some judge a person by his cover, others by his content. Is it merely, figurative to say that the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerer Rebbi did not inhabit the same world as Hitler and Stalin? Just as there are parallel lines of existence between righteous and wicked, so, too, there are higher worlds than any we can conceive of.” (Zlotowitz, p.10).

So we see here that we are living in a physical world but not conformed to it. We are transformed by the renewing of our mind to a spiritual or righteous plane that far exceeds the basement of the world. Again, however, we have the question, how do we achieve this renewing or lighting of our soul’s mind.

I would like to quote again from this Jewish commentary to show you the meaning at which both Jesus and Paul were hinting: “The study of Torah is exalted above all other commandments. For it is written, Proverbs 6:23, for a commandment is a lamp and Torah is light. The lamp is the bearer of light. Without a lamp, the light could not endure, but a lamp without any “light" is cold and useless ... God's wisdom dictated that in our human existence, the way to ascend the spiritual ladder (growth) is through - and only through -the commandments of the Torah, just as a lamp is the means to attain light. But the lamp's greatest glory is in the flame it bears. Man's highest privilege and loftiest attainment is in the study of Torah itself. The performance of commandments involves the use of the material accoutrements of creation to serve God, but the study of Torah enables mortal man to unite with the thought and wisdom of God!" (ibid, p. XLIV).

Obviously, both Paul and Jesus must have been familiar with traditional Jewish thought and teaching, since we find similar teachings in both the New Testament and Jewish literature.

We also have to consider that in “A Rabbinic Anthology” page 586 it is stated that King Messiah is the Light in Genesis 1:3. If this is so then Jesus becomes the light of the living Torah which we exist into His existence and therefore shine as He shines.

Pulling all of this together, we see that we are to be the life-soul of earth by existing within the existence of the Messiah and by being knowledgeable, kind, and charitable, especially to the widows, orphans, poor, and needy. We achieve this state of being first by unifying with God in an intimate way, then by the study of God's Word, and finally by putting God's commandments into practice these deeds shine before all men and they give blessings to God. He, in turn, gives us life more abundantly!

John 10:10, “The sneaky thief (slaver) does not enter the flock except with the intent to steal and enslave, to commit murder (shed blood, to ruin and destroy) and to cause to perish (in judgment for sin, ultimately annihilate, material, physical, spiritual), but I have come in order that life is sent into (brought to) them and they have full abundance.” (as a shepherd leads the flock to green pastures) This is another example of oneness of the spirit and spiritual matters which concern God. All of this happens when we are "lit" by giving ourselves to God as living sacrifices, pure in thought and deed through redemption to God, which is Yeshuat Elohim (Jesus).

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Hebrew-English Lexicon. Associated Publishers and Authors, 1981.
Delitsch, Franz. Hebrew and English New Testament. University Printing House, 1966.

Jastrow, M. Dictionary of the Talmud, Targumim and Midrashic Literature. Judaica Press, 1982.
King James Bible.
Munk, Rabbi Michael L. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet. Artscroli Mesorah, 1983.

New American Standard Concordance: Holman Lockman Foundation, 1981.
Zlotowltz, Rabbi Meir. Berelshis (Genesis). Artscroll Mesorah, 1980.

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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Very wise words. Very appropriate for a Sunday morning. Thank you.

      I like when someone confronts me with the essence of the message.

      God bless you.