Salt of the Earth
For generations, Christians and scholars have disputed over what Jesus meant when He said, “You are the salt of the earth”. Most have focused on the word “salt” and taken it to denote the kind of effect believers ought to have on the world: to heal, to preserve and to add flavor. But this interpretation fails when it encounters the next part of the verse: “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” Chemists will tell you that (table) salt is one of the most stable chemical compounds known to man. A chemical compound is a pure chemical substance consisting of two or more different chemical elements bound tightly together by a chemical bond. In the case of table salt, the two chemical elements are Sodium (Na) and Chloride (Cl). They are like a happily married couple that is inseparable. Even when it is diluted with water, it turns into a mixture – not a different compound – making the water salty.
I myself have gone round in circles trying to get to the real meaning of “You are the salt of the earth”. I researched the subject quite thoroughly. But the more I dug, the more I sensed the Spirit telling me I was going in the wrong direction. So I would like to propose that the meaning of “You are the salt of the earth” is simpler than what we have made it out to be if we try to understand it the way Jesus’ disciples would have. For preaching and teaching purposes, we, modern Western-thinking Christians like to break up a verse (like this one) and analyze each part as if we were performing a science experiment. Perhaps, for a change, we should take what Jesus said in its totality and try to understand its essence. So here is my take on it.
First, Jesus was telling each and every one of His disciples that he (the disciple) was the salt of the earth, like it or not. Salt comes from the earth; it can be found in salt mines but its most abundant source is the sea. And after it has been taken out of the earth, it must undergo a thorough process of purification. Sounds familiar?
The most common method of salt production in Jesus’ day was through evaporation. The photo on the left shows workers harvesting (a better word) salt that has been left behind after most of the seawater has evaporated. In the spiritual sense, believers were separated from the rest of the humans and harvested.
Salt that are removed from mines often contain high levels of impurities, hence it must be purified. Spiritually, this speaks of the sanctification of the believer to qualify him for service to the Lord.
Once the salt has been purified, it is now ready to serve its unique purposes. By this, Jesus impressed on His disciples (and us today) the privilege they had on being called out and given a divine mandate. This privilege was given not just to the disciples individually but also to the entire nation of Israel as a whole.
God chose Israel from the beginning but only began to form it with the calling of Abram. To Abram, God expressed His intention of making a great nation out of him, one that would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth (Gen 12:3). Later through Moses, God informed His people about their unique status: “For you are a people holy (separated and set apart) to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. (Deut 7:6 ESV). Then through the prophet Isaiah, God reminded them of their mandate: “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isa 43:10-11 ESV). And to help them accomplish all this, God gave them a set of instructions called the Torah, and if they would live by it they would indeed be able to fulfill their calling and destiny. But, as we know, they did not obey the instructions God gave them and, consequently, failed to fulfill the purpose for which they were made. As a result, God sent pagan nations to lay siege on them and to bring them into captivity. In short, they were like salt that had lost its flavor and therefore was fit only “to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt 5:13b ESV).
It has happened to Israel once before and Jesus is here warning them that if they are not careful to do what is right it will happen to them again. Having said this, one thing is for sure and that is: God will never give up on Israel because, as Paul says, “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29 NIV). That is, it would take a lot more sin, more than what Israel has done, to make God give up on them and choose another nation to take her place. What a faithful God we have.
Light of the World
Jesus did not only say to His disciples “You are the salt of the earth,” He also said “You are the light of the world”.
Notice that He did not say, “You HAVE the light” as if it was an instrument that could be put into the hands of the disciples, such as their preaching, but rather “You ARE the light”. If the light was something you had in your hand, then you can decide to put it down. But this isn’t the case. You are the light, and to reject the light is to reject Christ’s call itself.
So how did the disciples of Christ become “the light”?
Becoming a light
They became the light by first seeing the Light, Jesus. John states that Jesus was “the light of men” and “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:4, 9 ESV). But by seeing the light alone did make the disciples become a light themselves. Those who have seen the Light with their eyes are eye-witnesses, and they are qualified to tell others what they have seen. And those who have seen it with their minds (meaning to understand) might be able to explain it. But whether you have seen the Light with your eyes or understood it with your mind, you still do not have it in you. So you are still not a light. It was the same with John the Baptist. “He came as a witness,” John says, “to bear witness about the light, [but] He was not the light…” (John 1:7-8 ESV). What then does it take for one to become a light?
After seeing the Light, you must receive it. Jesus was the Light because in Him “lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Col 2:9 NLT), and “God is Light” (1 John 1:5 NIV). So, in order for you to be a light you must receive the Light. Thankfully, even though the “god of this world” had blinded our minds and kept us from seeing the light for a very long time, God “who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:4, 6). And He did this by giving us the Holy Spirit, who, incidentally, is depicted as “light” throughout the Scripture.
For example, in the Old Testament, one of the furniture in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple as well) was the 7-branch Lampstand, or Menorah. It was made of pure gold and placed in the Holy Place to give light to what would otherwise be a dark tent. The people were commanded by the Lord to bring “clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning continually” (Lev 24:2 NIV).
In the same way, the Holy Spirit is given to bring illumination and enlightenment to our spirits and souls. He is the “spirit of wisdom and of revelation” that gives us the knowledge of God” (Eph 1:17 ESV). He is also the Spirit of Truth who will guide us into all the truth (John 16:13). As you can see, the Holy Spirit plays a big role in your spiritual life and so it is crucial that you do not “quench the Holy Spirit” or, according to a different translation, “put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thes 5:19 ISV). When the fire goes out, darkness will fill you again – and great will the darkness be.
The Menorah in the Tabernacle is really a symbol of the Holy Spirit which Israel will receive one day. For two thousand years, since the Second Temple, the one built by Zerubabbel, was destroyed in 70 A.D., Israel has been without a light. Despite this, those who have read the Bible and understood it knows that the light will return to Israel. One of the ways we know it is because Isaiah prophesied it: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” (Isa 60:1 ESV). The past tense is used in Hebrew to convey certainty about what is said.
Isaiah was not the only prophet who spoke about the day when Israel will receive the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel and Joel did too. Ezekiel said: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:36 ESV). And Joel said: Joel 2:28: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Joel 2:28-29 ESV).
Jesus also spoke about the Holy Spirit and reassured His people that it was still the Father’s desire to give the Holy Spirit to them. But the Father was waiting for something happen first. What was that? He was waiting for His people to ask Him – that’s right, to ask Him – for the Holy Spirit. This was what Jesus was trying to convey in Luke 11:13 “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit (LISTEN) to those who ask Him!” (verse 13 ESV). Just before this, Jesus stated the principle: “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:10 ESV). And because no one asked for it, the Holy Spirit was given only to the 12 apostles on the day of Pentecost.
Have you received the Holy Spirit? Will ask the Father to give Him to you…now?
The 12 apostles received the Holy Spirit for a different reason. Just before Pentecost day, while they were with Jesus, they were told: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5 ESV). It was a promise, not a command.
Light of the World
I feel that I need to make a clarification here regarding the term “Light of the World”. It is a mandate given exclusively to Israel and the Jewish people because they are God’s chosen nation with whom God has made a covenant – a covenant that they will be a blessing to all the nations of the earth (see Gen 12:3). No other nation in the world has such a covenant with God.
Here, in Matthew 5, Jesus was speaking not to Gentiles but to His people, the Jews. And in His speech, Jesus used the metaphor “the city set on a hill” that everyone in His audience could immediately identify as Jerusalem (verse 14). In Jesus’ own words: “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead it is put on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house” (Matt 5:15 GNT). Therefore, be sure of this: the day will come when God will light up Jerusalem (with the Holy Spirit) and make it “the light of the world”.
How do we shine?
The way that we will shine as lights is by doing “good works”. When “good works” is mentioned, immediately, almost without thinking, what comes to mind is charity, acts of kindness. Sure, when you engage in charity you are doing good works. In Acts 9:36, there was a disciple named Tabitha in Joppa who “was full of good works and acts of charity”. So charity is a form of good works. No doubt about it. But lets not forget that the acid test of our good works, according to Jesus, is whether or not when people see your good works “they will give glory to your Father in heaven”. How many of our good works (charitable deeds) have resulted in people praising God instead of us? I have headed a non-profit organization and I have not seen it happen, not once. People will either praise you and your organization, or your sponsors, or their god (Allah, in the case of a Muslim). None, so far, has praised my God because of my good work.
So, while good works include performing charitable deeds, it is not limited to it. I believe that ‘good works’ refer to something else. It becomes clearer when we consult other parts of Scripture.
When Jesus was on the earth, He did “many good works from the Father” (John 10:32 ESV). At the same time He said of Himself that, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19 ESV). So, good works are what the Father has in mind to do as part of His Divine Will and Plan. Paul echoes this in his epistle to the Ephesians: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10 ESV). What this means is that God has created each one of us for specific “good works”, which He hopes and expects that we would fulfill.
To prepare ourselves for good works, Paul insists that we must be equipped with the Word of God and the grace of God. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV). “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8 ESV).
In Philippians 1:6, we find another clue about the “good works” that God wants us to do. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The good works that God wants us to do are likely related to the full salvation of man. For this reason, Christ commands us to “Go, and make disciples” (Matt 29:19).
Finally, Paul exhorts us to “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom [we] shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:15 ESV). You cannot be clearer than that.
Having said all the above, finally nothing will be accomplished without us being ignited by the fire of the Holy Spirit. Could Jesus have done all the works of the Father and completed them if He had not been baptized by the Spirit of God at the River Jordan? Could the 12 apostles have performed all the miracles and “filled Jerusalem” with their teaching without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:28)? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. So, how can we expect to do anything without His power?
In Matthew 5, where we find the words “You are the light of the world” Jesus spoke about one lighting a lamp. Jesus, in Revelation 21, is said to be “a lamp” that holds the glory of God (verse 23). Likewise, we are lamps that God will place according to His plan and purpose. And having been placed, we need to be set ablaze. A lamp will not be able to give light unless it is lit by the introduction of an external flame. In our case, it is the fire of the Holy Spirit – the tongues of fire that descended from heaven on Pentecost – that must come to light us up. Do you have the fire of the Holy Spirit?