Lessons on Matthew 5

In the November, 1959 issue of Torch and Trumpetthe Reverend Henry Vander Kam gives brief expositions on The Sermon on the Mount. With two of these we take exception. 

Commenting on Matthew 5:13-16 and particularly on the expression of Jesus: “Ye are the salt of the earth,” he makes the following observations: 

“Those whose hearts have been renewed have a very specific task to perform in this world. They are the salt of the earth. This is stated as a fact, not as something which must still be accomplished. If they should not act as a salt they are worthless. They have received all their qualifications from above and that makes them a salt. The statement: “If the salt have ‘lost its savor’ means that their qualifications as citizens of his Kingdom are lacking. Those who are what the Beatitudes demand are the salt of the earth. 

“Salt is used for two purposes: to make food tasty and to preserve it. It is this latter function which Jesus has in mind when he speaks of his people as the salt of the earth. Salt was the only preservative known to the people of Jesus’ day. It was, therefore, one of the most important things in their daily lives. Without salt food would spoil in a very short time. 

“As the salt of the earth God’s people prevent the decay of this sinful world. Without the presence of his people this world would fall into utter ruin. Had there been but ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, these cities would have been spared. God spares the world because of the presence of his people. .”

Concerning the above quotation we remark: 

1. That the Rev. Vander Kam should have known better than to give the above interpretation concerning the significance of salt. He himself tells us that “salt is used for two purposes: to make food tasty and to preserve it.” Without testing the former significance, he makes the definite observation that “it is this latter function which Jesus has in mind when he speaks of his people as the salt of the earth.” This is a case of poor exegesis. 

2. That he is in error when he asserts that salt must be understood here in the preservative sense. He is evidently so much under the influence of the common grace doctrine that he cannot understand how God’s people is the only morsel left in this corrupt and rotten world that is tasty to God. He tells us that Jesus is stating a plain fact here, but he ignores this statement of fact and wants to make it an imperative that the children of God must preserve this rotten world. I would ask him the question: What good is it to put salt with rotten and decayed meat? He knows the answer is that it serves no purpose at all. Neither do the children of God preserve this rotten world, nor is it their calling. He knows too that when the very last of God’s people has been saved out of this rotten world, then the world will be destroyed as were Sodom and Gomorrah. 

We also take exception to what Rev. Vander Kam writes concerning Matthew 5:27-32. Our objection is not so much as to what he writes as to what he doesn’t write. We have in mind especially the exposition of the verses 31 and 32. Writes Rev. Vander Kam: 

“In this same connection Christ gives attention to the problem of divorce. The people of his day were being misinformed regarding this problem. The teachers of the people pointed to Deuteronomy 24:1 where Moses allows a bill of divorcement to be given a woman if she does not please her husband due to ‘some unseemly thing’ which he has found in her. This provision, of course, was not found in the law of Sinai. Divorce was practiced during Old Testament times. In order to protect such a woman, Moses commanded that she should be given a bill of divorcement stating that she had not been guilty of adultery and was free to marry another man. 

“In chapter 19 Jesus says that Moses allowed this because of the hardness of the hearts of the people, but that God had not made this allowance from the beginning. Jesus points back to the beginning. This is his ‘but I say unto you’ over against the prevailing teaching of his day. According to Jesus, there is only one ground for divorce; viz., adultery. No other ground can be found in all his teaching. Marriage is a divine ordinance, a lasting bond. Man may not put asunder what God has joined together. 

“The teaching of our Lord in regard to the problem of divorce is quite different from the common practice today. Divorce is easy in many places and almost any ground suffices. The church of Christ is faced with this problem more and more. The Scriptures should be our only guide. Marriage must be safeguarded because it is a divine institution and the most fundamental of all institutions among men. 

“What does it mean when Jesus says that the woman who is put away, who is not guilty of fornication, is made an adulteress? Is she made guilty by the sinful deed of her husband? This can hardly be true. There are commentators (Bouwman, Grosheide, Hendriksen, et alia) who emphasize the fact that a verb is used here in the passive voice. This changes the wording considerably. Instead of the reading, ‘maketh her an adulteress’ the reading would be, ’causes her to suffer adultery.’ Among the Jews a woman could not divorce her husband but the husband could divorce his wife. Jesus lays all the emphasis on the fact that the husband is guilty. He does wrong; his wife suffers wrong. If the husband puts away his wife when she is not guilty of the sin of adultery; he causes her to suffer the reproach of one who is actually guilty. She must now face life alone and will be tempted to marry another. The bill of divorcement has not severed the marriage bond in God’s sight. Should she then marry again she will actually be an adulteress. The man who marries a woman who has been put away by her first husband also commits adultery . . .” 

For lack of space we can only make this one comment. Why didn’t Rev. Vander Kam take this wonderful opportunity to instruct his readers, especially those Christian Reformed, and broaden out on the statement “The bill of divorcement has not severed the marriage bond in God’s sight.” Had he done this his churches might have been helped and a beginning might have been made to deliver them from the divorce problem they have created when they asserted that divorce, grounded by adultery, does sever the marriage bond. 

M.S.