Good Works? – Textual Tuesday

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Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

We enjoy making posters out of Bible verses. We can frame them, hang them and say, “I know that verse. I have the poster on my wall.” Such posters can be helpful, but we must remember the Bible was not revealed in pieces on posters. Its message is most clearly and accurately understood when passages are placed in their context. Like a piece of a puzzle, the beauty and purpose of a passage is seen by placing the piece within the larger picture.

Let’s practice this skill with the well-known verse about letting, “your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Specifically, what did Jesus mean by “good works?”

Sloppy students provide a definition off the top of their heads. Their sweet list of deeds conveniently fits into cultural trends and aligns with the things they are currently doing. So, they can check that box off. They are doing good works. Maybe. Maybe not.

Similarly, incompetent teachers develop their own definition for “good works.” Not surprisingly, they use the passage to raise funds and motivate participation in their latest project. Or they create a definition for the sake of a good sermon which cleverly elevates their piety above others.

This verse is used so often as a soloist we forget it is a part of a greater chorus known as the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus’ words about “good works” are heard in their context they sing a different song than we expect.

Environment for Good Works

As we look backward, we find that “good works” arise from people who possess the surprising character described in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). They are poor and needy, meek and weeping, pure and peaceful, but most of all they express these qualities when they are wronged (:10, the only Beatitude expanded). The general, “Blessed are they…” changes to the direct, “Blessed are you” when addressing the persecuted. It is this same “you,” the persecuted ones, who are to shine as lights by doing good works.

In other words, “good works” are not something you do with leisure time with surplus money! Good works describe the way we act under pressure.  When the heat is on disciples of Jesus act differently from the world (“salt, light”). This is the environment in which good works are done, but what specifically are the good works?

Expressions of Good Works

As we look forward, Jesus defines “good works” very differently than the religious experts (Matt. 5:17). Jesus defines “good works” relationally as controlling your anger, lust, lying, and desire for vengeance, and instead to act graciously to the one who harms you (5:21-48; 7:1-12). What? No one puts those items on their top-ten list of “good works.” Exactly! But Jesus did!

In addition, Jesus defines “good works” as worship that is a genuine reflection of the heart where the Lord, not our possessions, is the sole object (6:1-34, “practicing your righteousness” 6:1). These are the good works that shake up our world to glorify to the Father.

Can we see how beautifully, powerfully, and surprisingly a passage can sing when we listen to it in its context? Please, don’t be quick to fill in your own definitions and hum your own harmonies. They are not as effective as letting the text sing!

Tim Jennings

“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14)


Extra Bits:

A Section’s Role in the Purpose of a Book

When we rise out of the immediate context of the Sermon on the Mount, we find that Jesus’ teaching about the world seeing our “good works” and giving “glory to your Father in heaven” fits into the ultimate purpose of Matthew’s gospel.  After Jesus is raised from the dead, he sends his disciples on a mission: “Go make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount gave them the “good works” to make a saving impact on the world.

Social Context

Words are recorded in many different contexts.  The above article considers the literary context of Jesus’ teaching.  In addition, words are also given in social contexts. The Bible student must be careful appealing to “social context,” because our understanding of Biblical times depends upon incomplete and sometimes conflicting accounts of the ancient times.

However, social contexts are essential to properly understand Biblical metaphors.  Metaphors, by their nature, are open to all kinds of interpretations, many go beyond the author’s intention. Metaphors can be moved in the right direction by a consideration of the social context in which they are given.

We can illustrate this by Jesus’ use of “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-16).

Those who love science will break salt and light into its elemental parts and draw lessons. Bible students armed word search capability will look up all the uses of “salt and light” in the Bible and draw lessons. The applications are limited only to human imagination.

However, it is helpful to remember Jesus spoke these words to common people in a rural setting. “Salt and light” were common household items to them. Therefore, it is best to see salt and light in the way the common person used them. Yes, salt and light had interesting roles in Temple and war, but these were not likely the lessons that came to the hearer’s mind on the mountain.

Parallel Pictures or Contrasts?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus contrasts “kingdom righteousness” with Jewish hypocrisy and Gentile paganism. His kingdom moved was a totally different way.  The distinct nature of the kingdom is illustrated by the metaphors of “salt and light.” As Jesus put it “you are salt of the earth,” and “light of the world” (5:13-16). Disciples of Jesus are to be as different from the world as salt is from dirt and light is from darkness.

Why did Jesus use two metaphors? Certainly, two pictures deepen the understanding. So, perhaps the mission of the kingdom was so essential he wanted to say it in two different ways. Perhaps, and again I say perhaps, Jesus is pointing to how different his disciples will be from hypocritical Judaism and ignorant paganism. Is there any evidence that points to this conclusion?

It is often recognized that the word Jesus used for “earth” is commonly used for “land, ground, lot, the piece of soil upon which you stand.”  However, the word Jesus used for “world” describes all creation, the universe. So, “earth” seems to be smaller, and “world” bigger. Perhaps “salt of the earth” is used by Jesus as a contrast with hypocritical Judaism (the ground/inheritance upon which his early disciples stood), and “light to the world” is a contrast with ignorant paganism (the creation to which the disciples went).

This curiosity doesn’t change the meaning, but it perhaps provides a reason for why there are two metaphors used.