In each case Jesus simply declares that his disciples are salt and light. He does not tell them to become such; they are such. They are such because they possess the presence of Christ himself in their lives. In John 8:12 Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” But here he says, “You are the light of the world.” The rest of the passage has to do with righteousness, the very righteousness which is to permeate our witnessing. The position of Jesus concerning righteousness is distinguished from that of the scribes and the Pharisees: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness of the Christian must go beyond theirs. Today righteousness means things like virtue, correctness, and uprightness. It has a narrow, moralistic connotation. It is a static term. But, righteousness has a broader meaning in the Bible. It is dynamic not static. Certainly it has a moral meaning. But it has the equal connotation of one’s being in the business of making things right—right between God and persons, and between persons and their neighbors. And so our text goes on to say that the unrighteous person is one who insults his brother, while the righteous one gets reconciled with his brother before offering a gift at the altar. The Pharisees had righteousness in a static sense, but they were the “separated ones.” They were not in the business of bringing about reconciliation or wholeness in society. The followers of Jesus, by contrast, are to exceed the Pharisees in righteousness—not righteousness in the static sense of setting up regulations which one observes, and then is called righteous by his fellows, but righteousness in the dynamic sense. Christians are not called to display virtue; they are called to be salt, light, and leaven in society.
The Beatitudes are brief declarations which begin with the word “blessed” in English. In the Latin Bible, the word for “blessed” is beatus, from which our beatitude is ultimately derived. The Beatitudes do not give promises which can be realized here and now in the ordinary sense. It cannot be said, for example, that the meek ordinarily inherit the earth. Nor can the Beatitudes be taken as blueprints for obtaining rewards in this life. And to think of them as a list of virtues which, if practiced, will be rewarded in heaven is also to miss the point. Rather, the Beatitudes are declarations of salvation to those who place their trust in God. The persons blessed are the “humble,” those who have realized their helplessness and know the desperate need for grace alone. The Beatitudes can be divided into three sections. The first four (5:3-6) declare blessing to persons who are particularly in need and realize it—poor in spirit, those who mourn, and so on; the next three (5:7-9) declare blessing to persons who might be designated activists—exercising mercy, acting from unmixed motives, making peace; and the last two (5:10-12) declare blessing to those who suffer persecution. The Beatitudes show that they anticipate the new age not yet realized, when God will bring about his universal rule at the end of history. The Beatitudes do not promise earthly, secular standards. In fact, each beatitude is an attack on such standards. Nevertheless, the Beatitudes do declare those who are receptive to God and his will that they already are “blessed,” and they do describe virtues which Christians should put into practice. They should practice these things not for the sake of reward, but because they know that these virtues describe the life which God wants among people, the life which will be in the world to come.
The main emphasis of Jesus’ mission was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” If Jesus preached about anything, he preached about the kingdom and its coming. Even his parables are devoted to the kingdom, its coming, its character, and its demands. Jesus was not primarily a teacher of wisdom or morals. He was first and foremost a prophet of the kingdom—the reign of God among men, which wants to become effective now, and will be effective in the world to come. In this Gospel Jesus calls his first four disciples at the Sea of Galilee. What he saw in Peter, Andrew, James, and John is not said. They appear to be ordinary men involved in ordinary tasks. But they are recruited by Jesus to join him in his mission of preaching the kingdom. The term follow is used three times in the passage. In Judaism pupils did quite literally, in a physical sense, follow their masters; they walked behind them and assisted them. Overpowered by the call of Jesus to enter into his work, these four Galilean fishermen followed him and finally, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were among the apostles of the infant church. This passage from Matthew is appropriately an Epiphany text. Jesus appeared in Galilee with his message of the kingdom, appearing among Jews and Gentiles, the religious and nonreligious, scribes and fisherman, and among the learned and the simple. We have here a manifestation of the divine mission among all sorts of persons.
Jesus’ baptism was seen to be the event which inaugurated his ministry. In accepting baptism from John, Jesus accepted also the will of God for all men unto himself, and he was declared to be God’s “Beloved Son,” upon whom God’s favor rested. Through the evangelist John we get another look at Jesus in connection with his baptism. John does not give an account of the baptism itself, but gives instead a testimony of the Baptism concerning Jesus. He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the one upon whom the Holy Spirit has descended and “remained.” He is the one who bestows the Spirit. He is “the Son of God.” This attaches to Jesus the role of the suffering servant described in Isiah 53:7. There the servant of the Lord is portrayed as “a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” and it is said (53:12) that “he bore the sin of many.” What was said about this servfant by Isiah was, to the early Christians, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the Lamb of God who, in the words of John, “takes away the sin of the world.” The “Lamb of God” is the divinely appointed servant of God commissioned to bring salvation “to the end of the earth.” Having described Jesus as the Lamb of God, John the Baptist goes on to assert the primacy of Jesus’ role over his own. The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism and remained upon him. Jesus was thereby equipped to set forth upon his ministry, and the Spirit remained with him throughout its course. As the one who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” Jesus was the one who gave the Spirit to his followers. The Holy Spirit cannot, therefore, be thought of apart from Jesus himself.
We celebrate Epiphany on January 6 (or the nearest Sunday). Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the great holy days for the early church. It was not until five hundred later that Christians began to celebrate Christmas. The word epiphany means an appearance or manifestation, particularly of a divine being––or an illuminating discovery, especially one that comes unexpectedly. Epiphany marks the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It signals that God loves Gentiles as well as Jews––that God's plan of salvation includes Gentiles too. Epiphany challenges us to reconsider all the people whom we see as outside the boundaries of God's love. Instead of shepherds, Matthew gives us Magi from the East. Instead of a stable, Matthew takes us to Herod's palace. Instead of a manger, Matthew shows us gifts fit for a king (gold), a priest (incense), and the death of a Savior (myrrh). Instead of angels, Matthew tells us of dreams. The wise men's visit probably took place long after the shepherds had departed. Presumably the wise men visited during the latter part of Mary and Joseph's visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Matthew includes a number of dark elements in his story: Joseph resolves to put Mary away quietly (1:19). (Exodus 1:16,22); Herod kills babies in an attempt to do away with the newborn king (2:16-18). (Exodus 2:1-10); Joseph and his family flee to Egypt to escape the murderous king (2:13-15). (Exodus 2:15); Joseph and family return to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem (2:19-23). (Exodus 4:19); For Matthew, these are important parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus.
"Wise men (magoi) from the East came to Jerusalem" (v. 1c). These magoi come to Jerusalem, because the capital city is the logical place to look for a king. Magoi, "originally the title of a Persian priestly caste who played an important role in advising the king, was applied more widely to learned men and priests who specialized in astrology and the interpretation of dreams, and in some cases magical arts." They were probably members of a priestly caste in ancient Persia, possibly followers of Zoroaster. We call them kings, but Matthew calls them magoi, which we transliterate "Magi." We think of these magoi as astrologers because they are observing stars (v. 2). However, from the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi look to the stars for answers that legitimately come only from God (Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11). From the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi work magic using demonic powers. They are far from the Jewish community, which makes these magoi especially useful for Matthew's purposes as he shows how the Messiah brings salvation even to Gentiles (non-Jews)–even to Gentiles who might be magicians or sorcerers. Matthew's Gospel is very Jewish, but he introduces these Gentile worshipers at the beginning, preparing us for Jesus' last words to his disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (28:19 –– the Greek word translated "nations" is ethne, which also means "Gentiles"). We are struck by the contrast between these Gentiles, who follow the star to Jesus, and the chief priests and scribes, who know the scriptures but who do nothing to seek out the Messiah, whom they have determined to be only five miles away in Bethlehem (v. 5). God's people ignore the Messiah, while pagans eagerly seek him out. Without this newborn king, the astrologers and King Herod (and we too) remain in sinful separation from God, living in the miseries of our own devising, believing that worldly wisdom can somehow offer us a relationship to God. For the most part, we misunderstand faith and trust in God as something of our own making, instead of a gift from God. The power of God's Spirit transcends the Church. The Spirit of God is at work in the world, especially in the lives of our family and friends, even those outside of the Church. This frees us to invite our unchurched loved ones to deepen their relationship with God where they are at, instead of thinking that we have to bring them to God -- who only resides in the church.