Yeshua told His disciples that they were the salt of the earth. In the same teaching, He told them, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). The title “light of the world” appears frequently in rabbinic literature to describe a source of wisdom, goodness, or holiness. In one place or another, rabbinic sources use the term “light of the world” to describe the menorah, the Temple, Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, the sages, specific rabbis, the whole nation of Israel, the redemption, the Torah, and even God Himself.
What did Yeshua mean when He referred to His disciples as the light of the world? The saying hinted toward the destruction of Jerusalem which is “a city set on a hill.”
A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. (Matthew 5:14-15)
A lamp placed under a bowl extinguishes itself for lack of oxygen. Likewise, the light of the world where the Temple stood, the menorah burned, the Sanhedrin convened, the rabbis taught, the Torah was studied, and the nation of Israel assembled, was in danger of being extinguished.
Along the same line of thought, when Yeshua warned, His disciples that salt without saltiness “is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet” (Matthew 5:13), He cryptically alluded to the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming exile:
They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:24)
The interior walls of first-century houses had small niches in which the homeowner placed an oil lamp for illumination, and from that perch, the lamp “gives light to all who are in the house” (Matthew 5:15). Yeshua pointed out the absurdity of lighting a lamp and then covering it with a basket. Just as salt without salinity fails to fulfill its purpose, a lamp under a bowl is also useless.
In the two analogies, salt and light correspond. The disciples are the salt of the world and the light of the world. Retaining our saltiness is equivalent to letting our light shine before men. Losing our saltiness is equivalent to hiding our light under a bowl. What is the saltiness? What is the light? How can Yeshua’s disciples retain their saltiness? How can they give light to everyone in the house?
The Master answered, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Our saltiness and our light are our good works. The term “good works” is idiomatic for the commandments of Torah. Yeshua told His disciples that if they kept the commandments of Torah according to His teaching, they would retain their saltiness and their light would shine before men and bring honor to God. That is to say, if Israel had repented, the destruction of Jerusalem might have been averted, and the redemption would have come, as the prophet Isaiah says, "Arise shine, for your light has come ... and nations shall come to your light ... they shall bring the praises of the LORD" (Isaiah 60:1-6).