In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ instructed His closest disciples and established some very foundational statements of Truth. Jesus Christ taught these things to them, knowing that His disciples would propagate His ministry and share the Truth with others. Among the many things that He taught that day, the following statement was included, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Matthew 5:13). To refer to people as “salt” may seem like an odd thing to say. What exactly did Jesus Christ mean, and what else can we learn from this symbolic teaching?
To say that His disciples are “the salt of the earth” turns out to be deeply meaningful when we understand more about the context of what was taught in the Sermon on the Mount and even more when we consider the qualities of salt. Taken together, this statement is an observation about the character development of a true Christian. More importantly, it is an admonition to be strong in our convictions and unashamed about the Truth.
As always, it is helpful to begin learning about Scripture in the right context. Preceding the declaration that His disciples are the salt of the earth, Jesus Christ teaches the beatitudes, which describe the various qualities of Christian character. He teaches about the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (compare Matthew 5:3-10). The individuals expressing these qualities are called “blessed” by Jesus Christ. These are all qualities that describe humility, love of mankind, and love of God that Christians are supposed to develop. These also turn out to be qualities that the world despises and rejects. Living a Christian Way of Life with these character traits orients one against the ways of the world. As a result, being a Christian inherently involves imminent and continuing conflict with the world.
Following the description of many of the virtuous qualities of a Christian, Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). It naturally follows that if we are true Christians, the world will offer all kinds of trouble to us, because there is enmity between the world and God (compare James 4:4). In light of this fact, Jesus Christ offers this warning, but also an encouragement. He makes it clear that it is not an easy thing to physically live in the world, but to separate one’s self from it spiritually by being obedient to God (compare Revelation 18:4, Jeremiah 51:45, John 17:16-17). This additional blessing following the beatitudes is directed personally to His disciples, reminding them to not lose heart when they eventually fall into trials of persecution as a result of their commitment to God.
Seeing that Jesus prefaces His teaching about being the salt of the earth by describing Christian qualities and encouraging His disciples to expect and endure persecution, how does this context add meaning to the statement about being the salt of the earth? From these Scriptures it is clear that being the salt of the earth involves having Christian character in such a way that the quality is pure, strong, and uncompromising. Just as salt that is left in the sun or otherwise exposed to harsh elements leeches and loses its natural qualities, a Christian may allow his or her virtuous character qualities to diminish when exposed to the contentious environment and pressures of the world. Also, just as the salt becomes worthless when it loses its natural qualities, Jesus applies the same condemnation in the context of the loss of Christian character in our lives. However, to be the salt of the earth means having character that is strong enough to stand up for the Truth and withstand its harsh, worldly environment, even though persecution may be the result.
Since the quality of salt is expressed by its saltiness, and the quality of a Christian is expressed by convictions affecting our actions, it is worth considering some of the qualities and uses of salt to add even more meaning to this Scripture.
At the time Jesus Christ spoke these words, salt was rare and very valuable. The following excerpt from an article titled “WHY Are Christians the ‘Salt of the Earth,’” published in the Good News in the February 1982 edition, explains more about this property.
“In Christ’s day salt was not as available as it is now. Salt was once so valuable that it was used to pay the wages of Roman soldiers. We get the English word salary from this ancient practice of paying with salt.
“Salt was also used as payment in buying and selling Greek slaves; today people sometimes ask whether a person is ‘worth his salt’ in evaluating him. The disciples would have understood the value and rarity of salt. So what did Christ mean when He called His disciples ‘salt’?
“Just this: God is not calling the whole world now, as Pastor General Herbert W. Armstrong has explained. ‘No man can come to me,’ Christ said, ‘except the Father which hath sent me draw him’ (John 6:44 [King James Version]).
“God is only working with a small group of people at this time. And God is only working with this ‘little flock’ (Luke 12:32) to get a specific job done — preaching the Gospel of the coming Kingdom of God in all the world for a witness to all nations (Matt. 24:14).
“In other words, true Christians are rare. God’s true people, in whom the Spirit of God resides (Rom. 8:9), are far fewer in number than this world’s ‘Christianity’ recognizes. Christians are basically sprinkled across the earth like you would sprinkle salt across food — sparingly. But what a difference they make in the world!
“So one thing we can learn from Christ’s metaphor of salt is that our calling and commission are unique, important and highly valuable. It is a rare opportunity indeed to be called of God in this age.”
In addition to the rare and precious quality of salt, the most notable property is its ability to enhance the flavor of food. By sprinkling salt onto our food, the character of that food tends to come alive and offer a more vibrant flavor. If we apply this concept to Christian living with Christian character, we find that life is more interesting and full of zeal to ourselves and to those we come in contact with. Godly character enhances life just as salt enhances the flavor of food.
Therefore, when a life is lived without the strength of Christian character, it is bland. Even more, living in such a way does not serve the Will of God. If we call ourselves “Christian” but fail to develop the right character qualities, we will meet the same end as the salt that cannot enhance the flavor of food. It will be thrown out as rubbish because it doesn’t glorify God.
This concept is reinforced by the Scripture that follows the declaration of disciples being the salt of the earth. In Matthew 5:14-16 we read, “‘You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.’” The point that Jesus makes is clear, that Christians are not to hide their Christianity! Being the salt of the earth means to develop and maintain strength in conviction to live according to God’s Will. Likewise, being a light to the world is the next step in the process, which is not to hide the good qualities that we develop.
When Jesus Christ called His disciples “the salt of the earth,” this was much more than an observation limited to His present audience. It extends to all true Christians – the rare few in the world – who are committed to converting their lives to be obedient to God. This is an instruction and an encouragement to not shy away or be ashamed of being a Christian, even in the face of persecution (compare 1 Peter 4:16). Being the salt of the earth means being confident of our calling and strong in our convictions so that we live in a way that glorifies God and His Truth.
Lead Writer: Eric Rank