9. Salt Of The Earth (Matthew 5:13)Related Media
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.
Matthew 5:13 (NET)
What should the church’s relationship with the world look like? There has been great debate on this throughout church history. Some believe the church is to be totally separate from the world. This has been seen in how some Christian communities isolate themselves from the world in monasteries. They are not to touch the world—listen to its music or entertainment; they are to be totally separated. Though this is not as popular today, some do this in different ways. They go to church with no unbelievers, are homeschooled or go to a Christian K-12, go to Christian colleges, work in Christian organizations, and literally never have contact with the world. I heard of one family that would not let their children go to youth group because some unbelievers were attending.
Other Christian communities seek to mimic the world in order to influence it. Church services play secular music, the pastor occasionally curses; believers enjoy the same entertainment and wear the same clothes as the world. In this community, it is often hard to tell the difference between Christians and nonbelievers. This is frequently all done in the name of being “seeker sensitive.”
There are commendable aspects to each of these practices: One emphasizes holiness and the other emphasizes evangelism. However, they both miss the mark.
What does Scripture say about the church’s relationship to the world? In Matthew 5:13-14, Christ calls the disciples the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Both of these metaphors symbolize how Christians should influence the world and are presented on the backdrop of the Beatitudes. In Matthew 5:3-10, Christ emphasizes the character traits of true believers—those who are part of the kingdom of heaven. They are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers. These attributes ultimately provoke anger and resentment from the world. Matthew 5:10 says the final trait of kingdom citizens is that they are persecuted because of righteousness. Though, at times, hated by the world, Christ said believers are necessary for it. They are the salt and light of the earth.
In this study, we will consider only one of these metaphors—salt. What does it mean to be the salt of the earth? How can we grow in saltiness? How does salt lose its flavor?
Big Question: What does it mean to be the salt of the earth and what applications can we draw from this passage?
Salt of the Earth
Interpretation Question: What did salt represent in the ancient context, and how does this metaphor apply to believers?
1. To be the salt of the earth means that believers are valuable to the world.
The Romans believed that, other than the sun, there was nothing more valuable than salt. In fact, Romans were paid in salt, which is where the phrase “He’s not worth his salt” was coined.1 Salt was also considered a mark of friendship. When two people shared salt, they were bound to look after one another’s welfare, even if they were previously enemies.2 Salt also was used to bind a covenant between two parties. It was a form of notarization. Parties would eat salt in the presence of witnesses to confirm the covenant (cf. 2 Chr 13:5).3
Therefore, when Christ called the disciples salt of the earth, these aspects would have naturally come to their minds. Salt was extremely valuable and so were they. Even wars have been fought over salt.4 Though at times hated by the world, believers are extremely valuable to it.
2. To be the salt of the earth means that believers preserve society from moral decay.
One of the primary uses of salt in the ancient world was as a preserve. There were no ice-machines or refrigerators in those days; therefore, to preserve food, it was placed in a saline solution.5 In fact, sometimes salt was even used to preserve bodies for their burial. It was a key ingredient used for mummification in Egypt.6
Interpretation Question: What does this metaphor tell us about the world and its nature?
This implies that the world is on a progressive path to destruction. Left to itself, societies and cultures will naturally decay. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul describes this process. Because the world suppresses the truth of God because of their love for sin, their hearts are continually darkened (v. 21). “Heart” refers to one’s mind, will, and emotions. Therefore, they turn to worshiping idols instead of the true God. They become consumed with sexual immorality. This then leads to practicing and approving homosexuality. Then Paul says this in Romans 1:28-32:
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.
Religion erodes because people don’t want to acknowledge the true God. The family erodes as people lack love. Businesses and government erode as people lack ethics. Society becomes full of evil, murder, and strife. This is the natural decay happening in the world. This began right after the fall in Genesis 3. Cain killed Abel. Lamech, Cain’s son, killed another man. Eventually, in Genesis 6, God vowed to destroy the earth because every thought of humanity was continually evil (v. 5-7)—the world became completely rotten. And eventually God destroyed it through a world-wide flood, which left only eight people on the earth. In Genesis 11, the decay in humanity came to a forefront again. Instead of being fruitful and spreading throughout the earth as commanded, people rebelled against God and decided to stay in one place to make a name for themselves and to build a tower which reached to heaven (v. 4)—possibly referring to the worship of the stars, which was common in ancient Babylon. Therefore, God judged the world by giving them various languages—causing them to scatter throughout the earth. At times, God has wiped out whole nations because of their wickedness. This happened to Sodom and Gomorrah because they were abusing the poor (Ez 16:49-50) and committing lewd sexual acts (Gen 19:5). Therefore, God destroyed the city by raining sulfur and fire on it (Gen 19:24).
In the midst of this world-wide moral decay, believers are salt—a preserving influence on this world. They preserve the world in a negative sense by retarding the decay. But they also preserve it in a positive sense by promoting righteousness.
Application Question: How do believers preserve society from moral decay practically?
- Believers preserve society by keeping back God’s destructive wrath.
In Genesis 18, Abraham petitioned God to not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there was a righteous remnant of only ten in the city, and God promised he would not. However, Sodom lacked ten righteous people, and therefore, God destroyed the land. In the same way, God holds back his wrath on a family, a business, a school, a city, or a nation because of a righteous remnant. Commonly, before he brings his destruction, he removes or protects that remnant, as was seen with Noah and Lot. Even the 144,000 Jewish followers of Christ in the tribulation period will be sealed and protected from God’s wrath (Rev 7). Some even believe that God will remove his church before the tribulation, and that it will only take seven years for the earth to become fully corrupt and be wiped out again by Christ at his coming (cf. 2 Thess 2:5-8, 1 Thess 5:9). Believers are the righteous remnant which protects society from God’s destructive wrath.
- Believers preserve society by praying for it.
In Ezekiel 22:30-31, God said he sought for a man to stand in the gap but because he found none, he destroyed the land. Like Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah, Christians should often pray for presidents and kings, holiness in nations, the spread of the gospel, and the church to be salt and light. They should also continually pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness over the sins of others. In Amos 7, God was going to judge Israel two separate times, but both times Amos cried out for mercy, and God relented. In Amos 7:2, he said, “‘Sovereign Lord, forgive Israel! How can Jacob survive? He is too weak!” Believers must continually do the same. They must intercede for their family, church, government, and nation. When they do this, they preserve it from Satan’s influence and God’s destruction.
- Believers preserve society by being a righteous influence on it.
This is done in many ways: Believers are a righteous influence by practicing godly behavior: caring for the weak and vulnerable in society, practicing honesty and integrity, championing righteous causes and condemning sin, etc. When this is done, it will spur hatred and anger in some, but with others, it will draw them to repentance. For many, it will initially show up in anger and then lead to repentance.
As we consider how morally decadent the world is, we must not be shocked. The world is supposed to decay. It has the treacherous disease of sin in it, and when it is fully grown, it always produces death (James 1:15). What we should be shocked at is the lack of positive influence from the church. When we see the corruption in the world, we must ask, “Where is the remnant? Where is the salt that retards decay and provokes righteousness?” It is no surprise that when societies have reached startling heights of corruption, the church has also; there was no remnant, or it was very small.
What are some other ways that the church is salt to the world?
3. Believers are salt by bringing flavor to society and creating thirst for Christ.
The ancient world used salt for seasoning, as we do. When eating something well-seasoned or spicy, it typically increases one’s thirst. Christians should serve a similar role in the world. Though the world mocks Christians—often claiming that they are boring and don’t know how to have fun, the reality is that society itself is bland like tasteless food. Everything it offers fails to satisfy. This is very clear when considering consumerism. “Buy this!” “Watch that!” “Eat this!” “Listen to that!” Everyone claims to have the latest and greatest product which will bring satisfaction; however, it all leaves a person ultimately unsatisfied. It may seem to satisfy briefly, but it leaves a person dry, as nothing can truly gratify the desire for eternity and God in the heart of man. Therefore, humanity is doomed to continually run after the next thing. People go from product to product, job to job, and relationship to relationship—only to find themselves unfulfilled.
In John 4:13-14, Christ said this to the woman at the well: “‘Everyone who drinks some of this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” That is exactly how this world is—nothing truly satisfies. All their wells leave them parched and dry.
When the world looks at believers and sees how different they are, it should provoke them to want to know why. When the world sees how believers can go through trials with joy and without complaining, when they are content instead of constantly dissatisfied, when they bless instead of cursing their enemy, when they suffer willingly for righteousness sake, it demonstrates what the world lacks—and draws them to Christ. The world is bland and therefore unsatisfying, but the true believer’s lifestyle should be like salt—provoking people to thirst for the satisfying water only Christ can give.
Kent Hughes tells a fitting story about Woodrow Wilson’s visit to a barber shop one time, which demonstrates the effect of salt:
“I was sitting in a barber chair when I became aware that a powerful personality had entered the room. A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself to have his hair cut and sat in the chair next to me. Every word the man uttered, though it was not in the least didactic, showed a personal interest in the man who was serving him. And before I got through with what was being done to me I was aware I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr. D. L. Moody was in that chair. I purposely lingered in the room after he had left and noted the singular affect that his visit had brought upon the barber shop. They talked in undertones. They did not know his name, but they knew something had elevated their thoughts, and I felt that I left that place as I should have left a place of worship.”7
Are you being salty? Does your presence make a difference in your environment? Are you deterring people from sin and provoking them towards righteousness? Are you making people thirsty for Christ?
Application Question: In what ways have you experienced salt in the lives of others which made you desire to be more godly?
Growing in Our Saltiness
Application Question: How can a person grow in saltiness and therefore maximize one’s effectiveness in blessing the world and other believers?
1. To grow in saltiness, we must be different.
Salt must be different than the medium that it is placed on. When seasoning something, we don’t put meat on meat or veggies on veggies. We add salt, and it flavors and preserves the food. Therefore, believers must be different than the world. When the world cheats and is dishonest, believers must have integrity. When the world curses and swears, believers must only speak edifying words. When the world enjoys ungodly entertainment, believers must seek to enjoy only things that glorify God and bless others.
If we are just like the world, we will only further their decay, instead of retarding it or promoting positive change. Are you different or just like everybody else?
2. To grow in saltiness, we must allow ourselves to be sprinkled into ungodly places.
If salt is kept in the salt shaker, it is rendered ineffective. Sadly, that is how many Christians are. We are kept in the church and around other believers and therefore have no positive impact on the world. We must allow ourselves to be placed in companies, schools, and nations that are corrupt, so we can help bring righteousness. This is difficult because being righteous when others are not always brings persecution. In addition, it often leads to loneliness—feeling like we’re the only faithful ones (cf. 1 Kings 19:10). However, Christ was persecuted and experienced loneliness—he was alone in the wilderness and at his betrayal, when all his disciples left him. These negative experiences are, at times, necessary to bring positive change. To be effective, we must allow ourselves to be sprinkled into ungodly places.
3. To grow in saltiness, we must commune with other faithful Christians.
In the Greek, the “you” in “You are the salt of the earth” is plural. Christ was not referring to individuals specifically, but individuals as part of the community of believers. The more salt placed on something, the more flavored it becomes. Similarly, like iron sharpening iron, we must surround ourselves with other salty believers to be encouraged, challenged, and built up, so we can be more effective in the world. If we are not cultivating our faith in church, small groups, and ministries, we won’t be very effective around the lost. In fact, without faithfully communing with other salty believers, we will probably start to conform to the world rather than changing it (cf. Rom 12:2).
4. To grow in saltiness, we must commune with Christ.
It is only because we have Christ’s nature in us that we are salt—apart from that, we are just like the world. Therefore, to grow in saltiness, we must continually abide in Christ. In John 15:5, Christ said that he was the vine and that we are the branches. If we abide in him, we will produce much fruit. We must abide in Christ to be our most potent—suitable for application to the world.
5. To grow in saltiness, we must not be discouraged by our smallness.
It doesn’t take much salt to flavor something. Sometimes we may be the only Christian, and at other times, we may be part of a small minority. After Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, he only had 120 followers praying in an upper room (Acts 1), but soon they filled the Roman Empire. Today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world. It doesn’t matter how small we are individually, as a local church, or as a population. God only needs one disciple to stand in the gap to save a nation (cf. Ez 22:30, Jonah 3). We shouldn’t be discouraged at our smallness. God delights to make his power known through a small, faithful minority (cf. 1 Cor 1:27-29).
Are you growing in saltiness? The world and other believers need you.
Application Question: Have you experienced times of being more salty—seemingly more effective for Christ? What was the fruit of that season? What contributed to it? How do you feel God is calling you to currently pursue growth in saltiness?
But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.
Interpretation Question: What does Christ mean by salt losing its flavor or saltiness?
Salt, by nature, is a very stable compound and, therefore, can’t lose its essential properties. NaCl remains NaCl! Therefore, what does Christ mean by salt losing its flavor or saltiness (NIV). In the ancient world, salt was often found on river banks or sea beds, and sometimes, the salt had mixed with other minerals—making it less salty and even repulsive. It was not fit for food and could not be thrown into a field or garden, as it would kill the vegetation. Therefore, it would typically be thrown on a road or path and eventually ground into the dirt, as people walked over it.8
How does this apply to believers?
A true believer cannot lose his essential nature as salt, since Christ dwells in him. However, he can lose his effectiveness by mixing with the world. Typically, the process begins with friendship with the world (James 4:4), then becoming stained by the world (James 1:27), then loving the world (1 John 2:15), and then being fully conformed to the world (Rom 12:2)—where we look no different at all. James said, “Adulterers, do you not know that friendship with the world means hostility toward God” (James 4:4). John said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). There is an opposing principle working in the world system that draws people away from God. We must be careful of mixing, as it will not only draw us away from God but also faithful believers. This leads to ineffectiveness in our ministry to the world.
In fact, like contaminated salt which can’t be thrown into a field or garden without killing the vegetation, worldly believers are dangerous. Instead of drawing people to God, they push people away from him. Worldly believers not only promote sin in the world instead of retarding it, they also promote sin in the church. In 1 Corinthians 5:6, Paul said, “a little yeast affects the whole batch of dough”—sin spreads and contaminates others. Christ said one either gathers or scatters (Matt 12:30). There is no in between. We are either bringing others to Christ or pushing them away. Which are you doing?
Interpretation Question: What does “trampled on by people” refer to, if anything?
“Being trampled on by people” may ultimately refer to God’s discipline (Matt 5:13b). Hebrews 12:6 says that “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.” To live a compromised life only brings the discipline of our loving Father. When Jonah rebelled against God, God brought a storm into his life—leading the sailors he was with to throw him off a ship and into the sea (Jonah 1). With the prodigal son, the father allowed him to leave the household. The son lost his wealth by gambling and intermingling with prostitutes. He eventually became a poor servant caring for pigs and eating their food. It was when he reached rock bottom that he turned back to the father’s house (Lk 15). No doubt, God often disciplines believers by allowing them to follow their sinful desires and receive the full consequences of their disobedience. Many times, this happens until they come back to their senses, like the prodigal son did. This is how a person is often “re-salted.” God works in them through discipline and God’s Word to turn them back both to himself and righteousness. If they won’t turn back, sometimes, he just takes them home. Ananias and Sapphira, because of their lying to the church and God, received an untimely death (Acts 5). God’s discipline is meant to help us become salty again, even if that only happens in heaven.
This is not only true individually as believers but also corporately as church communities. Christ told the church of Ephesus that he would remove their lampstand (Rev 2:5)—symbolizing their effectiveness in the community—because they lost their first love. The church of Ephesus no longer exists today. Sadly, this is true of many great historic churches. At one time, they were vibrant and salty—positively influencing their community—but now they are full of liberality and false doctrine. They exist but only to the detriment of the wider-community. They are soon to be removed totally. We must hear that salt that loses its saltiness is only fit to be trampled into the ground where it eventually disappears.
Have you lost your saltiness? If so, the Father’s discipline might be the best thing to meditate on, as the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). It is the beginning of living a wise life—a life that honors God and blesses others.
Application Question: Share a time when you were not walking with God as you ought. What were the consequences of this? How did God bring you back? How have you witnessed or experienced God’s judgment personally, on another believer, or a Christian community? What made you think it was God’s judgment?
Believers are the salt of the earth—they are valuable. They preserve society from decay, and they flavor it—creating a thirst for Christ. Are you allowing yourself to be salt or have you become dangerous by compromise—only fit for the discipline of God? Lord, help your church to be salty!
Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown
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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 241). Chicago: Moody Press.
2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 241). Chicago: Moody Press.
3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 241). Chicago: Moody Press.
5 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 78). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
7 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 236). Chicago: Moody Press.
8 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 245). Chicago: Moody Press.