Blessed to be a blessing – what did Jesus mean when He called his disciples, ‘Salt’?

Posted: July 26, 2015 in Bible Study - Matthew, God's Law and the Christian, Misused Bible verses, Sermon on the Mount
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(Image from sacredsandwich.com)

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
You are the light of the world. 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. In the same way, 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 5:13-16

The images of salt and light are often referred to by preachers who are trying to spur their people into action by living out their faith in the world. Salt and light are a reference to our good living, they say, which will serve to proclaim the Gospel even if we don’t get to use words.

The connection between light and works is there – although I don’t think it means, ‘Do your good works in a way that people will notice them.’ It’s more about the Father getting the credit, not us.

But salt?

I’ve never been convinced by the two most common explanations for this reference to salt: That it adds flavour, and that it is a preservative. Both are used to teach that Christians, by having a faithful presence in the world, will have a ‘flavoursome’ and ‘preserving’ effect on our culture, and that our good work will contribute to the common good.

It is certainly true that the Judeo-Christian ethic has had a positive effect on cultures in which the Gospel has been preached and received. And this positive effect is often referred to by those seeking to defend our society against the current moral decay.

But I’m still not convinced that this is what Jesus meant. I feel a little as if it’s imposing our modern experiences – after 2000 years of western history – on the text.

Looking through the Old Testament (Jesus’ primary text – on which he based all his teaching!), there are multiple references to salt. If we ignore those that are references to geography (eg. the ‘Salt Sea’, the ‘Valley of Salt’), there are two main types of references to salt:

1. As a picture of judgement. We are all familiar with Lot’s wife who turned into salt at the judgement of Sodom. (Genesis 19:26). A salty land unable to grow crops was considered cursed (Deuteronomy 29:23), and defeated cities were ‘sown with salt’ (Judges 9:45) to signify their barrenness.

2. As a sign of the covenant. Salt was used throughout the Tabernacle sacrificial system. It was in the incense (Exodus 30:35) that symbolised the prayers of the people; and all offerings were to be seasoned with salt, from grain right through to animals; it was, ‘the salt of the covenant with your God,’ which was not to, ‘be missing.’ (Leviticus 2:13, cf. Ezekiel 43:24). The Priests were told that the parts of sacrifices they were to eat were, ‘…a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.’ (Numbers 18:19). David and his descendants’ position of kingship over Israel was given, ‘by a covenant of salt.’ (2 Chronicles 13:5). Elisha, in his first miraculous act after succeeding Elijah, put salt into the water supply of Jericho to heal the water and make it fresh (1 Kings 2:19-22) – one of the signs demonstrating that he was a Man of God, bringing the Word of the Lord to His people.

We’re not told exactly why salt was to be used in this way, but it’s fair enough to assume that if the only other significance of salt was judgement & curse, then its use in the sacrificial system signified the judgement that was to fall upon the sacrifice in the worshipper’s place; in that sense, salt signifies the work of atonement that is at the heart of the establishment of the covenant between God and His people.


Back to Jesus now, on the side of a hill, telling Jewish people – whose faith was centred around the sacrificial system in the temple – that they are to be ‘salt of the earth’. What would their minds immediately have gone to, if not the, ‘salt of the covenant with your God’?

They were to be the means by which the covenant made with Abraham their father, would become a covenant with those from every tribe, tongue and nation. When God told Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, he was talking about covenant – since blessing is a covenantal term.

Their very existence as an ethnic, political and religious group was for the purpose of the covenant coming to you and me – or should I say, you and I being brought into the covenant, to be included along with Abraham and all his children. ‘The Earth’ and ‘The World’ are references to the Gentiles who would be gathered from every nation through the Gospel going out in the Spirit’s power. So the two pictures of salt of the earth, and light of the world, convey this sense that the blessing Israel knew was to pervade the world like salt does food and light a dark room. (In Isaiah 42:6 tells God’s people that they are to be a light to the nations – a sign of the covenant.)

Israel was supposed to be this covenant salt, but failed in their mandate. And they were always going to fail – it was God’s purpose that they as a nation should fail, because His plan from the beginning was to bring forth from this broken, failed and sinful people the True Israelite, His Beloved First Born Son (see Exodus 4:22), the Great High Priest who would offer the perfect sacrifice, seasoned with the real – not symbolic – salt of God’s judgement, in order to confirm the ‘covenant of salt’ not only with Jews but with all who would have faith in Him.

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Comments
  1. Your equation of salt with covenant is attractive, but to me, for this context, inconclusive. The two meanings of ‘moraino’ are ‘foolish’ or ‘tasteless’ and it is to this that Jesus draws attention. Israel has failed to be Israel and will be of no benefit to the world. This includes their being covenant bearers for the benefit of the world but I’m not sure that this is the direct reference. I agree with the doubt you express that our saltiness applies to the gradual changes we may make in society. Clearly, the light and salt we have for the world is the whole covenant truth of God (as you show by your reference to Isaiah 42:6), not our social impact. Your cartoon seemed most apt! Thanks for the thought provoking article.
    Grant

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