One of the major problems people of the present time have in understanding the Bible is that we do not think like people of Biblical times. We are educated in terms of facts and conclusions. Everything must be precise in its definition, based on factual, literal words and terminology. There is little place for symbolism in our language and certainly none for mystery. We want straight up answers for every question with everything categorized and in its place.
In Bible days, the language was rich in symbolism. We are the poorer for having lost our appreciation for symbolic language and for the mysterious. (By mysterious I do not mean some kind of “hocus-pocus,” eerie kind of thing. I mean ideas that invite investigation and meditation – looking into and thinking about that which is not immediately obvious). Symbolic or figurative language conveys truth much more effectively and for greater depth and breadth of comprehension than flat, literal language. There is a richness to the figures Jesus and the inspired writers used to describe the Christian life that inspires the imagination and energizes the will.
Two of the first metaphors Jesus used are found in Matthew 5:13-16 where he speaks of his followers being salt and light in the world. What is there about salt and light that make these things to be descriptive of the Christian life? Salt and light are nothing alike. Salt is a chemical (sodium chloride, NaCl) and light… well, no one knows exactly what light is. Sometimes it is described as consisting of waves and sometimes as particles. You see, there I go thinking literally!
It isn’t in the chemical formula nor in the physical properties of either that the metaphors consists. It is in what each of these things does that the metaphors are to be understood. Salt and light are powerful things. They affect whatever they touch. Jesus was conveying the idea to his disciples that they – we – are to have an effect upon the world. In some ways we are to be like light and in some, like salt. In order to understand Jesus’ thoughts here we have to understand not only the properties of salt and light, but something of the thinking of people in his day about these things.
It is hard to overestimate salt in the world of the New Testament. Roman soldiers received their wages in salt – hence our term “salary,” derived from the Latin word for salt – “sal.” The Greeks thought salt was divine. The Mosaic law required that sacrifices contain salt (Lev. 2:13) which to the Jews would have brought to mind God’s covenant with them. Salt applied to their sacrifices was symbolic of the endurance, preservation, and freedom from corruption of his covenant with them. God’s covenant with David of the continuation of the throne to his descendants was said to have been a “covenant of salt” (2 Chronicles 13:5). Add to this the fact that salt is essential to life and we can see that the potential meaning of the metaphor holds the possibility of many different applications. But we must ask ourselves what the Lord meant when he spoke these words.
“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.” (Matthew 5:13).
The answer lies in understanding what salt does. Both light and salt do things. They have the power to affect whatever they come in contact with. As for salt, the most obvious thing it does from our point of understanding is to impart flavor to foods. It makes what is tasteless and bland palatable. It enhances the flavor of most foods – even those that are already rich in flavor. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he used this figure of speech. After all, he did refer to the taste of salt.
But there is another effect of salt that the disciples would have been just as familiar with; the use of salt as a preservative. That would have been obvious to the fishermen-disciples especially. They would have had no way to preserve their fish except to pack their catch in salt. Salt prevents or retards the growth of bacteria, thus lengthening the useable lifespan of whatever food to which it is applied.
Righteous people have that kind of effect on the world. Remember Abraham bargaining with the Lord about preserving the city of Sodom? If only ten righteous souls could have been found in the city it would have been spared from destruction (Genesis 18:22-33). God’s people still have that effect in the world. Where there are good and faithful people living by faith in the Son of God and preaching by word and by deed the wonderful truth of the gospel, they are a force that changes the world for the better, staving off the moral and spiritual corruption that causes the decay of societies. When there are not enough true Christians in a society it will eventually crumble into ruin.
Remember that the sermon on the mount (where this figure is found) was about the coming kingdom of God. That kingdom was – and is – intended to penetrate the world, bringing men into subjection to the Sovereign of the universe. That kingdom is visible and active through those who are its citizens – Christians, followers of Jesus who is the King.
But the salt must retain its saltiness in order to be effective. Modern man does not understand this reference to salt losing its saltiness. To us, when salt loses its saltiness it is gone. There is nothing left to throw out and be trampled underfoot of men. The difference here is in the salt of Bible days and the common salt we put in the salt shakers on our dining tables. Jesus’ disciples would have been familiar with sea salt, not the highly refined product we use today. Their salt consisted not only of sodium chloride, but of numerous other minerals which were left behind in the evaporation process by which salt was harvested, most likely from the Dead Sea. These other minerals were less soluble than salt, and would have been left behind when the salt leached out of the whole mixture by moisture drawn from the air.
Jesus’ point here is that Christians can lose their effectiveness or “saltiness.” We can allow the world to take the preservative power right out of us. When we are corrupted, this will allow the world to become more corrupt. There is no deterrent power in a worldly Christian. He is no different from the world that has corrupted him.
The depiction of Christians as salt indicates to us once again that we are not saved just for ourselves. We are saved to save! Not that we are redeemers, but that we are to have a preservative effect by manifesting righteousness in the world, letting people see and touching people’s lives by living out before them the principles of truth and righteousness to which God has called us. Jesus came to earth to save us. We are to reach out into the world for the salvation of lost souls. We do that, not just by preaching the word, but by living the word in practical ways, touching the lives of others with the love of the Lord and with the power of his truth.
Will this work? It has for 2,000 years. It will still work today – if the salt is still salty!