We’re told to be the “salt of the earth”, but what does that really mean?
Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” (Matt. 5:13; also Luke 14:34). I don’t know about you, but this statement has never really fired me up spiritually. I mean, salt? The stuff that comes in tiny little paper packets at McDonald’s? What about gold or precious gems, something beautiful and special and rare? In our society, salt is the most mundane of commodities. You can buy a giant canister of it for a dollar and throw it on everything. It’s pretty much impossible to run out of salt, and it never goes bad. When I read a verse like Matthew 5:13, my brain has all these questions about salt but I’ve always just pushed them to the back of my mind and kept going. Recently the questions have been nagging at me, however, because if Jesus says we’re supposed to be something (or be like something), then we should do our level-best to understand the analogy. So I recently decided to try and get a better context around His statement.
Though today it’s something we totally take for granted, salt has a fascinating history. A precious substance in the ancient world, salt can be credited with building civilization. Since it allowed for preservation of food beyond immediate consumption, it gave people the ability to travel more than a day’s journey away and led to the development of trade. Throughout the centuries wars were fought over it, trade routes sprung up around it, and at times it was worth more than gold. In fact, it was often accepted as currency and is where the word salary (literally “salt-money,” or allowance a Roman soldier was given to buy salt) and the expression “he’s worth his salt” come from. So to put us back in Jesus’s time, salt was very valued and useful, and the people listening to Him would have known this.
A precious, useful material
“Useful and valuable” is a good place to start in terms of describing what a true Christian should be. Salt has myriad properties that make it as useful today as it was in the ancient world. As mentioned above, one of its first uses was as a preservative and purifying agent, to keep food from spoiling or to purify or disinfect something. While the world will ultimately go down a path of destruction, God’s people are called as examples to preserve themselves and their families from the spiritual and moral decay of society. James tells us that pure and undefiled religion before God is this, “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
Purity (both physical and spiritual) is perhaps the key theme underlying all of God’s commandments, and is the crowning achievement of the Bride of Christ, composed of the resurrected firstfruits. Paul says Christ will “present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish”—that is, pure (Eph. 5:27).
Today, salt is best-known as adding flavor and savor to food—how bland our French fries would be without it! Paul tells the Colossians that their actions toward those outside the faith should show wisdom and their speech should “always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Col. 4:5-6). That is, our speech and conduct toward others should add value and also be used wisely (and sometimes sparingly), since too much can overwhelm and ruin the effect. Salt not only improves what we eat, but it also produces thirst in an individual. Jesus pronounced a blessing on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6). God’s spirit should produce a powerful thirst in each and every one of us, which only drinking of the Living Water can quench (John 4:13-14). Consequently, as Jesus’s ambassadors here on earth our words and examples should stimulate this thirst in those we meet, whether others of the faith or those in the world.
In a similar vein, salt acts as a catalyst to make fire burn hotter, something more well-known in Jesus’s time than today. People would throw salt on a fire (often with slow-burning dung as the primary fuel source) to make the fire burn hotter and more efficiently. Our job as Christians is indeed to help others burn hotter, to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). The holy spirit in us is likened to a flame and we are cautioned not to quench that flame, but rather “stir up—NIV says ‘fan into flames’—the gift of God which is in you by the laying on of hands” (I Thes. 5:19; II Tim. 1:6). God tells us we should be fervently seeking to know Him and zealously searching out His commands lest we not be ready for His coming. It is this diligence that “lights a fire under us,” so to speak, and we should have that effect on each other.
As “salt of the earth”, how do we keep from losing our savor?
So what did Jesus mean when he cautioned His “salt of the earth” disciples not to lose their flavor or “saltiness”? Likely you’ve never run across salt that’s “gone bad,” because our table salt today (pure sodium chloride) is a very simple, stable, and nearly indestructible compound. It doesn’t go stale or decay on its own.
Salt in the ancient world (often dried from the Dead Sea) was very different, however. Instead of being the pure, processed seasoning we know today, it was salt with some other minerals and rocks mixed in. If it wasn’t carefully protected and was allowed to get damp, the pure salt would dissolve out of the mixture and leave behind a pile of tasteless dirt. In the words of Jesus, then it is “good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Matt. 5:13). In order to keep its flavor and ability to intensify fire, the salt had to be kept uncontaminated by the world.
As God’s elect, we are required to live in the world, to have jobs and homes and families and interact with the carnal world daily. But we are not to allow this world to shape us. Jesus made this clear when He was praying before His death, saying, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:15-16). We are to be in the world, but not of the world—which sounds nice, but is often a very difficult line to find. Salt becomes useless when it is contaminated by impurities, when outside elements are allowed to seep in. We, too, lose our value and usefulness to God when we mix the world into our lives.
Beyond food—salt’s important role in worship & covenant
However, salt had significance in the bible beyond just useful properties—it was a key component of the temple worship. When laying out His guidelines for the tabernacle and worship, God commanded that all offerings in the tabernacle include salt. In Leviticus, He says, “And every offering of your grain offering you shall season with salt; you shall not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your grain offering. With all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Lev. 2:13); even the incense used in the temple was commanded to be “salted, pure and holy” (Ex. 30:35).
This was not only a command for the wandering tribes and temporary tabernacle. Ezra 6:9 and 7:22 show that salt was still a significant component of worship when the tribes were reclaiming the land, as it was part of the “worship necessities” list King Darius agreed to provide (along with animals, wheat, wine, and oil), and Ezekiel 43:24 gives similar instructions for using salt in burnt offerings in the temple of the prophesied kingdom of God. This ritual role of salt is particularly important for what it symbolizes, making Jesus’s words in Matthew resonate even more. For while physical salt was added to the temple animal sacrifices under the Levitical priesthood, under the new covenant Jesus Christ is our eternal sacrifice and His elect are to be the pure salt added to His sacrifice.
The passage in Leviticus 2:13 provides another insight into the importance of salt, though—it was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. In addition to Leviticus 2:13, this “covenant of salt” is mentioned in two other places. In II Chronicles, the kings of Israel and Judah are fighting and one stands on Mount Zemaraim and shouts, “Hear me, Jeroboam and all Israel. Should you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the dominion over Israel to David forever, to him and his sons, by a covenant of salt?” (II Chron. 13:5). And in Numbers, God is telling the priesthood what He gives to them, including the “heave offerings of the holy things…I have given to you and your sons and daughters with you as an ordinance forever. It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord” (Num. 18:19). These three examples of a covenant of salt show it being with an individual (David), a selected group (the Levites), and the entire nation of Israel.
A covenant of salt is pure, binding, and eternal—it does not corrupt or decay. Salt was viewed as a sealer of covenants and binder of relationships. Even today in the Middle East, salt holds a weighty significance as a sign of hospitality, friendship, and protection. It is viewed as an unbreakable promise, still used even today in some Jewish weddings. God indicated his special favor and unbreakable promises with pure salt as the seal binding and preserving it.
Jesus’s statement had another, more literal meaning as well. He told His followers that they were the salt (preservative) of the earth. And we’re told in Matt. 24:22 that it is only for the sake of the elect that the earth will be spared in the Day of the Lord—if not for the true disciples, the entire earth’s population would be destroyed. Ultimately, His firstfruits are to literally preserve the earth.
Rather than being a mundane, ubiquitous commodity, salt was prized and beneficial—physically, ritually, and as a figurative symbol of God’s promises. When Jesus told His disciples they were to be the salt of the earth, they grasped the layers of meaning behind His words. Hopefully we can too.