We today use the phrase “the salt of the earth” to speak of a person who lives his life in a wholesome and unpretentious manner. When we say that someone is “the salt of the earth,” it implies that he is honest and forthright, and living without deceit.
In the verse quoted above, Jesus used it in the same way. This idiom concerning salt, unlike many other old phrases that have changed quite a lot in their meaning through the years, this one seems not to have changed hardly at all since Jesus spoke it in the first century.
Whether or not this was a common saying in the first century, we do not know. But actually, as far as what we have in recorded history, the use of this phrase by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was the very first time that it was used. Nevertheless, even though it may have been the first time that his listeners heard this phrase, the meaning of it would not have been difficult for them to understand. That was because they understood the important role that salt played in the daily lives and in the thinking of the people.
Salt was something that these people saw as indispensable. It was, above everything else, a preservative—something that was used to keep food from spoiling and putrefying.
Salt in History
Despite the fact that we call it “common table salt,” it was not so common in those days. No doubt in the immediate area of Palestine it was not so difficult to obtain because of the proximity of the Mediterranean Sea (and of course the Dead Sea, or as it was actually known in those days, the Salt Sea).
Nevertheless, throughout history and in many parts of the world, “Where to get salt?” has been an important question for entire nations of people. Many of the world’s ancient trade routes were first established for the purpose of trading for and obtaining salt.
It was in the seventh to the eleventh centuries when the Mediterranean countries of North Africa, desirous for the gold that was found in the sub-Sahara countries, established the trade routes that began to link the regions north of the great Sahara Desert with those to the south. The Mediterranean countries had great salt reserves, which they knew people in the south needed. And the countries south of the desert had gold. That is what the Mediterranean countries wanted. A trade route was established, and for hundreds of years, the gold from the south of Africa was purchased with the salt from the north.
Among other and almost-forgotten trade routes of the world were the salt-bearing caravans of llamas that traveled from the salt mines in the Altiplanos of Bolivia to other areas of the ancient Andean Mountain kingdoms, bringing salt to mountainous regions throughout much of South America.
There were also the ancient “Salt Ways” of the Himalayan traders, carrying salt from the salt lakes of the Tibetan Plateau to Nepal and to India. Other salt trading routes were also established from the coasts of India. These routes were so contested, that even up to the time of the British rule in India, the Brits planted a great and continuous hedge of thorny and impenetrable plants, 12 feet high and 14 feet thick at places, that stretched the breath of the whole country of India. In this “Great Hedge,” they maintained crossings with tax stations so that they could collect tax money from the traders.
In the same general historical time as Jesus, the Romans gave soldiers an allowance for buying salt, which they called their salarium. It is from this word that we get our word for that which we are paid, our salary. Even before the Romans, the Greeks had used salt as a trading currency for the purchasing of slaves. A slave that seemed not worth the price being asked for him was said to be “not worth his salt.”
Of course, none of these tidbits of history have anything to do with the words of Jesus except to illustrate for us the tremendous importance of that white, crystalline mineral that comes out of our saltshaker. Today, we do not easily recognize this importance, because we have not suffered the devastating health effects of salt starvation. Salt deprivation has much more severe physical consequences than the over consumption of salt, about which we most often hear in our culture. In these present days, we instead look for ways to reduce our salt consumption.
Salt in Old Testament Worship
If we can extend the international and historical importance of salt to the spiritual realm, we can see that Jesus was using more than a catchy phrase in this illustration by referring to his disciples as the “salt of the earth.” The disciples of Jesus, both the disciples in his day and in our own day, are to fulfill a very important role in the world.
The people listening to Jesus understood this significance. This crucial role of salt to which Jesus was referring was also part of their history. As the chosen people of God, when God was giving the instructions to them for making the articles and furniture for the tabernacle in the wilderness, the incense was to be used in worship as giving honor to the heavenly Father of the people. This worship was to be uncontaminated, which meant that it was to be, as their saying went, “seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Exodus 30:35 ESV).
Salt was also used in the grain offering for the same purpose: “Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt, so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13).
In fact, God called all of the offerings a part of the “everlasting covenant of salt” that God had with his people (Numbers 18:19).
This purifying quality of salt as that which makes clean is brought out in an experience of Elisha, the prophet of God, who lived hundreds of years before the time of Christ. As Elisha was staying in the city of Jericho, some men of the city came to him with a problem. “Look,” they said to him, “this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad, and the land is unproductive.”
Elisha told them to bring to him a new bowl filled with salt. The prophet then threw the salt into the source of the water for the city, that is, into the spring of water, and said, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water, never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive’” (2 Kings 2:19-22 NAS).
Salt was a symbol of purity and preservation, as it remains so even to this day.
Salt in New Testament Worship
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus told his disciples. The role of the disciples in Jesus’ own day, as it is today, was to be an agent of purity and preservation in the world. As raw meat that is left unsalted in the open air soon becomes rancid, so too the world itself would putrefy and decompose without the presence of spiritual salt. It is the effect of the spiritual salt in our lives that keeps the world from becoming rancid and spreading death.
Nevertheless, the simple presence of salt is not enough. There is an additional danger in our daily lives in regard to our ability to be an agent of purification. It is a danger that we often do not recognize.
After Jesus told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth, he did not even catch his breath before he said this: “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”
Jesus said much the same thing on another occasion: “Salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 14:34-35 NAS).
How is it that salt can become tasteless? When we buy a box of salt at the supermarket, we will notice that it has no expiration date on the package—or if there is an expiration date, it is only because the crystals might begin to bond together over time.
But salt does not spoil. It is because of this fact that it is used as a preservative. When we shake salt out of our saltshaker to flavor and bring out the taste of our breakfast eggs, we are using a seasoning that may have been naturally processed in the earth thousands of years ago.
So if salt does not lose its “saltiness” over eons of ages, what danger does it have in becoming bland in our present day?
There is one way. I referred earlier to the salt traders of the Bolivian Altiplanos and other places. Some of the salt processed in these areas is scraped from a surface of the ground where some time in ancient history, salty water had collected and then evaporated by the sun, leaving only the very pure salt.
Many years ago, my family and I lived for a time along the gulf coast in Mexico. There, once every year, the gatherers of sea salt would come to the salt marshes near our home to do the same. However, in Bolivia and many other places, the salt harvesters also mined (and still do mine) the salt that had been laid down years and centuries before.
To do this, the salt miners must dig down to get past the clay and dirt that has washed in over the years to cover the deposits of salt. As they dig, the first layers of salt that they uncover are not pure. Through the downward leaching of the soil, clay and even rocks have become imbedded in the salt. As the harvesters continue to dig, they then come to salt layers that still have a little dirt mixed in but that might be suitable for animal consumption. However, the miners must dig deeper still to finally reach the salt that has not been corrupted by foreign materials. This is the pure salt.
The top layers of this salt mine are unusable. The salt in these layers has been so degraded by other minerals from the earth, that it has lost its usefulness as salt. When Jesus spoke of salt becoming tasteless, he was referring to salt that had been so corrupted by the earth that there was no saltiness to it. How is one to make it salty again?
There is no practical way to do this. The salt, even though still present within the whole mix, is rendered valueless. It is, as Jesus said, good for nothing. One cannot even throw it in the compost heap to be used as a fertilizer, since too much of it would make the ground sterile.
In our present day, we are so far removed from the idea of digging for our salt that we have trouble grasping this illustration of purity. We freely use the phrase, “the salt of the earth,” without really understanding its significance.
For the follower of Christ, however, there should be great significance. There should also be serious introspection when Jesus warns against allowing ourselves to be contaminated with that which should not be part of our lives, lest, like the salt that is corrupted, we become useless.
How We Can Lose Our Saltiness?
Just as the natural and pure salt, first laid down by the evaporation of some ancient sea thousands of years ago, slowly begins to become contaminated; our own purity also may be contaminated. The infiltration of the soil of the earth into the salt deposit is at first almost indiscernible as the water begins slowly to trickle small particles of clay down into the salt.
If we were able to observe this process, we would say that this first leaching is not significant, and what is more, it is only in the very top of the layer of salt. However, if the process continues and as time progresses, the water erodes channels into the salt that allows for the infusion of larger and more contaminating materials. In time, the salt becomes useless, except to be thrown out and “be trampled underfoot by men.”
Can we not easily see that this is the same principle of contamination that occurs in the life of a believer in Christ? Our own corruption is at first almost imperceptible as some values of the world begin to filter into our lives. At the first, the pollutants are not so toxic, and when they are taken within the consideration of the whole scope of our lives, they do not affect any real change.
Nevertheless, as the leaching process continues, these things of the world become ever more significant and even may begin to erode channels into our lives through which can enter even greater contaminants.
But the process is slow; it is gradual. If we are not careful, we will not even notice it. Despite the gradual effects however, if we allow the contamination to continue, the words of Jesus will be applied to us, and like contaminated salt, we will “no longer be good for anything, but to be thrown out and to be trampled by men.”
To Be Valued More that Gold
Whether we appreciate its true significance in our lives or not, in ancient days, salt was something that was often valued above gold in many parts of the world. In the same manner, followers of Jesus who keep their lives pure carry a value greater than many will appreciate.
However, we do well to learn to appreciate a pure life. Jesus, through the integrity of his believers, is still working to purify and to preserve. Do we have ears to hear this very simple and plain lesson from Jesus?
Speaking of salt as a mineral, once it has become contaminated, there is no practical way to make it pure again. It simply needs to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
But what of a life? What about our lives? What if we have lost our saltiness? Is there a way for us to regain purity?
King David, after having allowed great worldly pollution into his life, prayed this prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).
That which is impossible in the world becomes possible with God. With God, we can regain our purity. The Bible word for this process of becoming increasingly pure in our lives is the word “sanctification.” Sanctification is not a one-time event in our lives. It is a process. It is something that should be continually occurring in the life of a Christian.
Paul writes, “This is the will of God for you, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed for his disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth” (John 17:17).
Becoming Salty Again
So how does this process of becoming pure happen? How does one learn to live a life of purity? How are we sanctified?
Sanctification is not like salvation. Salvation is a gift. It is something that is given to us by God and is completely by his grace. We do nothing to be saved. It is all of God. But sanctification is a little different. Sanctification is something for which we must work. It is true that even in the work of our sanctification, God is deeply involved, but it is not in the same manner as it was in our salvation.
Also unlike salvation, the work of sanctification does not begin in the heart. When a person becomes saved, it is the result of God drawing that person to himself. It is not the intellect of a person that draws him to Christ, at least that is not the driving impulse. Rather, that which persuades and motivates a person to come to Christ is the inner yearnings of the heart. The truth of salvation may go against every form of logic within the person, but he or she nevertheless knows that they need God in their lives. It is later that the intellect becomes involved in their salvation. Once saved, we begin to understand with our minds some of the truths that God tells us.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 1:18).
But sanctification is the opposite. It does not begin in the heart. Our process of sanctification must begin in the mind. We must decide with our intellect that this is something we must do. We see that we have been contaminated by the world, so we decide that we must change. We see that we are not living in the way that our salvation has given us the power to live. Our sanctification comes about by our own actions and is a result of our own volition.
Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 8:2, emphasis added).
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things” (Philippians 2:8, emphasis added).
So if anyone cleanses himself of what is unfit, he will be a vessel for honor: sanctified, useful to the Master, and prepared for every good work (2 Timothy 2:21, emphasis added).
Sanctification must begin in the mind. God will not become involved unless we have made the decision to purify ourselves. Certainly God will enable us and is constantly there to empower us in our work of sanctification, but it must begin with us.
We must pray as did David: “Create in me a clean heart.”
The Means of Sanctification
But how are we sanctified? What are the means by which we are sanctified”
Remember also that Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth.”
This is not the entire quote as Jesus prayed for us on the subject of sanctification. Here is a more complete quotation:
I am not asking that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I have also sent them into the world. For them I sanctify Myself, so that they too may be sanctified by the truth.” (John 17:15-19 BSB)
You will notice that the means by which we are sanctified is simply by knowing and acting based on the truth. It is the realization of what is true that gives us the motivation for sanctification.
Satan lied to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and he continues to lie today. He is trying to convince all of us that what we see and experience in the world will eventually bring us to fulfillment. Satan has been whispering this lie to us since the beginning, and he does not stop once we become Christians. On the contrary, it is then that he often increases his lies.
By listening to his lies, we allow the contamination process to begin leaching into our lives as the dirt and impurities leach into the salt beds of Bolivia. If we allow this to continue, our lives become “good for nothing except to be thrown out and trodden under the feet of men.”
But Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth.”
If we listen instead to words of truth, we can stop the contamination process. Nay, we can do more than stop it, we can reverse it. Unlike the salt of the Altiplanos, we can make our lives increase in purity.
Jesus tells us, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
Whether we realize it or not, we as Christians are the salt of the earth. God is looking to us to provide the purifying and preserving effects in our society. In our own day, many of us are bemoaning the degradation of our society. We commonly place the blame on whomever or whatever group is most annoying to us.
But does the fault really lie with the world? How is it that we should expect anything different from the world. They are simply following the lie of Satan, because that is all that they know.
I’m afraid we have to face the fact that the fault of our degrading society lies instead with us. We have allowed too many contaminants into our lives to the extent that the lives of many Christians have become indistinguishable from the lives of those of the world. Our purifying influence in the world has ceased to be effective. We have become as tasteless salt.
But it is not too late to change. We can reverse the process of contamination. We have access to the truth, and we can begin to follow what is true. If we continue to be sanctified by the truth of the word of God, God will bring us to completion.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.
For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4: ESV)
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your entire spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 BSB)
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. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)