I almost found eternal life1 because a guy named Ted presented me with facts and a logical argument for Christ being the only God-man who died and was resurrected so I can be forgiven by God and enjoy Him forever. But his argument wasn’t enough to keep me listening. The reason I continued to engage in the many conversations we had, was the admiration I had for the kind of life and character Ted and his friends had. They were salty Christians.
Not clear on the concept of salt
In one of His lengthier teachings, called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laid out God’s expectations for those who want to be in His kingdom. Early in the sermon He said:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. “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 5:13-16 NASB95)
There is significant confusion about what Jesus wanted to convey by telling His followers that they were the salt of the earth. I’ve heard many teachers announce with great authority that since salt was widely used as a preservative (think of jerky and pickles), Jesus was teaching that God’s people have a role in keeping society from being totally overcome by evil. To this day whenever I teach on these verses, someone in the audience will invariably bring up this interpretation. Other scholars have different ideas. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says: “Jesus’ followers would be like salt in that they would create a thirst for greater information.”2 Another commentator draws on Jewish rabbinical sayings to suggest salt might be a metaphor for wisdom.3 Such ideas have a bit of truth and sound scholarly but they demonstrate a confused Bible study technique that obscures an important lesson from our Lord.
Jesus said what He meant.
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a well known characteristic of something is applied to another but not in a literal way. “She’s a pillar of the organization” does not mean she’s stiff or made of things like stone, steel or wood. It means she provides essential and strong support for the existence of the organization, like pillars do for structures. So the most important part of interpreting a metaphor is to determine what quality the author had in mind, in our current case, about salt. So far we’ve seen three pretty different ideas: preservation, thirst and wisdom. Was Jesus so unclear?
To sort this out, we can look to a fundamental rule of sound Bible study which is that, while the many uses of a word are important to consider, the speaker’s intent and meaning of words should be deduced from the most clear and immediate context before looking elsewhere. In other words if Jesus clearly states what quality of salt He is likening His followers to, then we don’t need to go fishing for other meanings. As we’ve seen, salt brings to mind many qualities but here Jesus drew a specific similarity between Godly people and it’s flavor. He said so. So we just need to ponder that.
One of my grandfathers used to run the kitchen at the prestigious Sutter Club in Sacramento, California, an exclusive home-away-from-home for state legislators. Whenever I visited, his cook made me the most delicious hamburger. He embedded into the meat chopped celery, celery salt, other seasonings and the best quality bacon. I loved it’s salty flavor. We all know salt can make food taste great. So let’s consider the simple idea that when Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth” He was saying that people who truly follow God make life taste good for the people around them. But what does that look like?
Think about what commended Jesus to people. Why did thousands of people flock to Him, even to the point of stepping on each other to get near Him (Luke 5:18-19; 12:1)? Wasn’t it because He healed them and treated them with gracious care (Acts 10:38)? How would you feel if you had been a cripple for 38 years, a burden and an outcast living in a society that had no hospitals, no government disability payments and only primitive ideas of disease, when a man comes along and in an instant makes your body whole and then walks away (John 5:5-8)? Wouldn’t having that burden lifted from you make life taste good?
Now I can’t heal people on the scale Jesus did, and neither could most of the audience that day He announced they were the salt of the earth. But like them, you and I can make life taste good for people around us by helping to lift their burdens in whatever way we can (Proverbs 3:27). And like Jesus, we can bring a pleasant purity to our flavor when we act at no cost to others and even at a sacrifice of ourselves.
It’s fun to be salty
One day when my boss asked a coworker to process some data by the end of the week, I could tell that this added burden created a big stress for him. Since my job was demanding too, I would have been justified in keeping to myself, but I went to this fellow later and asked if I could help him by taking the whole task on without anyone else knowing. He could deliver the work and take the credit. I stayed late several nights to finish it and when I handed him the results he said very little; perhaps he was in shock. This was so unlike me, but I did it because I wanted to make life taste good for him the way Christ had for me. As I continued to look for other opportunities, I found out it’s fun to surprise people by doing something for them when it’s not expected. Try it.
News Flash! Salty people make powerful door openers!
Out of my study and experience, I came to a powerful observation: no matter how great an apologist one is, people are only going to rethink their most fundamental beliefs and values if they are listening to someone they truly think has their best interest in mind, someone they trust.
A friend of mine took his family to live on a very small island just off the coast of Africa for over 11 years. In the village they settled in, the word for water was “green” because for centuries the wells they took their water from were pits dug in the sand where the animals also did their business. Eventually, using small boats, Rolf brought in concrete blocks and showed them how to wall the wells. For the first time these people saw clear water and loved it. His wife worked alongside the women in the rice fields in the extreme heat and humidity. (They put coats on and built fires when the temperature dropped to 80F.) They helped them develop a written version of their language and waited patiently for 11 years for the day the village would be willing to really trust what he wanted to tell them. When some Muslim missionaries came through the village, Rolf became nervous that his opportunity would be destroyed. One day the village elder, sensing Rolf’s distress, took him aside to tell him that these missionaries periodically came and went and would be soon forgotten but everyone in the village knew Rolf had something important to tell them and when he was ready they would listen, because as far as they were concerned, he was one of them – he had earned the right to be trusted and heard. It wasn’t long after that people began to turn to Christ.
Jesus’ strategy for getting people to listen is best
Over my lifetime I have seen many crusades, evangelistic programs and methods come and go. Most of them have focused on the presentation of a message whether on the street, in homes, workplaces or other venues. God has used these efforts to help numerous people find eternal life in Christ, but sooner or later I’ve watched the enthusiasm these campaigns generate to confront people with words die out as well as major barriers go up to block the message.4
In fact, despite all the programs and efforts to explain the good news of eternal life, the Christian message has been loosing traction in Western culture. There are many factors for this, but perhaps one is that the messengers are not much different from the society; they don’t bring a distinctive savory flavor to society that gains trust and opens doors for a credible hearing. For example while Christians throughout the United States mightily lament the many millions of children lost to abortion, not enough of us have been willing to disrupt our dreams to adopt unwanted children so that we might show God’s love on a massive scale to a self-destructive society. Instead we complain about those who are simply acting according to their values and beg them to change.
It doesn’t take a lot of program management, books, or scholarly research to carry out Jesus’ teaching. I tend to think the church needs to facilitate unleashing the Holy Spirit in people rather than creating more church-run structure. Commending ourselves to people by doing good on a personal level never gets old. At it’s simplest it’s a one-on-one strategy.
I asked a friend of mine, a well known and respected senior pastor for over 50 years, if there was one thing that he could point to that caused his church to grow and thrive. He thought carefully and said that what stood out was being there for people in times of severe illness, death in the family or other major difficulties. I can see that because he was always there for me, adding flavor to my life.
Afterbirth of a mule?
When we look at the erosion of Christian values in Western culture, it can be tempting to ask if Christians have lost their flavor. Can salt loose it’s taste? People seem very confused by Jesus remark about this. I suspect a good many have overtaxed their brains trying to explain how it relates to what the salt might stand for. But I think the issue is simple once you see it. The IVP Bible Background Commentary puts it quite well:
Although the salt recovered from impure salt substances taken from the Dead Sea could dissolve, leaving only the impurities behind, the point here is closer to that expressed by a rabbi at the end of the first century. When asked how one could make saltless salt salty again, he replied that one should salt it with the afterbirth of a mule. Being sterile,5 mules have no afterbirth, and he was saying that those who ask a stupid question receive a stupid answer. Real salt does not lose its saltiness; but if it did, what would you do to restore its salty flavor—salt it? Unsalty salt was worthless.6
Wondering how salt can loose its flavor reminds me of what Vizzini kept saying in “The Princes’ Bride“. Jesus has no concept of Godly people doing anything other than making life taste good for the world and thereby commending themselves to people who will listen just as He has no concept of them not being the source of light, spiritual truth – whether people look at it or not. If anyone is walking with Him, obeying His words and the Holy Spirit they will be salt and light to one degree or another.
For decades scholars in Western Culture have been vehemently accusing Christ and Christians for the terrible acts committed in the name of Christ and His church. But that’s just it. They were done in His name but not by His spirit. Long ago Jesus denied them with these words:
“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:22–23, ESV)
It’s also good to remember Western culture’s denunciation of Christian activity in its history has an ulterior motive. It is carried out by people in denial about their sin and God’s eventual judgement of it7 so they work hard to justify themselves in their own eyes.
The fact is that over the last two millennium millions of true Christians have given up their comfort, their resources and their lives to make life taste good for people all over the globe in an effort to win the right to shed God’s light in the spiritually dark dungeon of human society.
Have Christians lost their flavor? Inconceivable! But perhaps we’ve stockpiled it in our churches and homes instead of bringing a pleasant taste to those in the world around us.
Four things to remember about being salty Christians:
- Jesus intends His disciples to make life taste good for people around them.
- Jesus didn’t make any guarantees, so while making life taste good for people may create an opportunity to be heard, it may not. Even if it is not accepted, it’s God’s way. Jesus said to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Peter told us that in God’s sight it is worthwhile suffering for doing what is right (1Peter 2:20; 3:17). Jesus certainly did.
- Be ready to be the light, that is, to explain why Jesus makes your life taste good (does He?). Since the Gospel should be the one thing that makes your life enjoyable, you should be able to explain it (Romans 10:14).
- You may end up giving part of your life. Rolph did. He died an early death from cancer contracted while living in such difficult conditions. So have countless others who followed Christ’s words.
- Finally, remember who you are and what it’s all about:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9, ESV)
- Jesus said: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, ESV) [↩]
- John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Mt 5:13–16. [↩]
- New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Edited by Carson, D. A., R. T. France, J. A. Motyer and G. J. Wenham. 4th ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994. [↩]
- Like going so far as to insist there is no ultimate moral truth so they don’t have to be open to universal claims of right and wrong. [↩]
- We know today that a female mule can bear offspring, but only very rarely. [↩]
- Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Mt 5:13. [↩]
- See Psalm 36 [↩]