Drippings from the Honeycomb - Episode 5

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Is Delayed obedience really obedience?

Can salt really lose its flavor?

In Matthew 5:13, Jesus makes a shocking statement. He says, “You are the salt of the earth, 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 underfoot.”


At first glance, this sounds a little ridiculous. Salt is salty. It can’t be anything else. If it were anything but salty, it wouldn’t be salt. We know from science that salt cannot lose its flavor. It cannot become less salty. You can take salt today, put it in an airtight container and leave it for a long time, and if you pull it out 100 years from now, it’ll still be salty. So, why would Jesus use an illustration about salt losing its saltiness? That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.


Proper Context is Essential to Understanding

To understand what Jesus is getting at, we need to look behind what he’s saying so that we can understand salt in the time and day that He lived. In the ancient world, salt was much more than just some “white stuff” that sat on your table in a shaker. It was so valuable that salt was considered a currency, and the reason for that is that salt was used to preserve food for an extended period of time. There was no electricity or refrigeration; one couldn’t just walk into the kitchen in the middle of the night, pop open the fridge, and pull out a snack. That didn’t exist!


The way they preserved their food was through Salt! Salt staved off spoiling. It kept food from rotting. Therefore, it was essential to the society. Without salt, they would have no way to preserve food from one season to the next, not just meat but many different kinds of food. Salt was even used in very small quantities as a fertilizer when planting. So, it is easy to see that salt was vital to anyone living in the first century.


In fact, part of the Roman soldiers’ salary was even paid by the Roman government in salt. The word salary is derived from the Latin word “sal,” which means salt because the Romans paid their soldiers this way. Over time, the word has become adopted into the English language as salary. What this all meant in the first century was that salt was incredibly valuable! It was more valuable than money.


To understand this a little bit further, we need to adjust our modern-day concept of what salt looks like. Today, you could go to the supermarket and find all kinds of salt, coarse salt, pink salt, kosher salt, and, for a few dollars a pound, you can pick up just about any type of designer salt your heart desires. However, what do all these salts you buy in your modern-day supermarket have in common? They’re pure. At some point, they were purified by someone somewhere, probably in a factory.


Salt Must be Purified to be Useful

Salt as it comes out of the ground generally is not pure, at least not in the area of the world where Jesus spoke these words. You see, in Galilee, the way salt was derived was through purifying salty slag from the salt marshes in the area. This slag was not useful for anything. Of course, it was salty, but if you put it on your food directly from the marsh, you would probably break a tooth on a rock or some piece of debris in the salt because it wasn’t pure salt; it was slag. It was a mixture of things that, within their mixture, contained salt. Anyone who has been on the beach and had the misfortune to get a mouthful of sand will understand. The sand tastes salty, but it’s not something you’d want to put on your steak.


If you’ve taken any time to read through the Gospels, you have seen a lot of language where Jesus talks about a “dividing.” A great dividing of all peoples where the righteous and the wicked will be divided from one another. This sets the core principle for what He’s talking about when He talks about “salt losing its flavor.” See, it’s not so much that salt can lose its flavor; it’s that it can become mixed with other things, and in this area, in this time, the salt that they gathered was always mixed with other things. It had to be separated so that the pure salt could be useful.


Refining this kind of salt in Bible times was an arduous process. It was slow, it was expensive, and it was difficult. What it entailed was taking this slag and putting it in water and boiling it. When it was boiled, the pure salt that was mixed in the slag would dissolve perfectly into the water, but all the dirt and all the rocks and all the debris, would fall to the bottom or rise to the top and could be either scooped off or allowed to settle. Once the impurities had been scooped off the top and had settled to the bottom, the salty water could then be poured into another pot and boiled again. And this boiling process would be repeated over and over again until all the water had evaporated away. This would leave the inner walls of the pot with a thick crust of purified salt. This salt would be chipped away from the inside of the pot, and you would have pure salt that would be good for seasoning, preserving food, and all of those other things that salt was used for back in that time. This process took a long time, lots of wood for the fire, and pure water. As a result, it was a very complex and very costly process. This is why salt was very highly valued because it was difficult to refine.


However, what about this idea of salt being less salty or losing its saltiness? Well, this refers to everything that was left over after the refining process. Everything that was mixed in with the salt; the slag, the dirt, the impurities, the minerals, the rocks; they were really only good for one thing! Once the salt had been removed from this slag, it made an excellent hardening agent for roadways and rooftops. In other words, one could take this muck that you had distilled their salt out of, and they could put it down on the flat clay roofs common to that area. Then, when their children would play up on the roof, or when they would walk on the roof, they would trample the slag into the dirt of the roof or the dirt of the road or the pathway, and it would become extremely hard when it was baked in the hot Judean sun. This was a waste product they had found some form of use for, and that use was of the most dishonorable kind. It was only good to be stepped on.


So, we can see from this breakdown that when Jesus is talking about salt losing its flavor, he is talking about a situation in which the salt was mixed with other impurities. As long as the salt was in its pure form, it was useful, but if it was mixed with things that were of no use, then the salt, which had been extremely useful, lost its usefulness.


Salt is a Picture of Holiness in the Old Testament

But why did Jesus choose salt of all the things He could have chosen to use as an illustration? Well, salt was a very important thing in life, as we had just talked about, but salt also held a very prominent position of being used as a picture of holiness before God. Salt is only useful when it is 100% pure, and in the law of God, this purity was used as a picture of holiness. The Israelites were required to season their burnt offerings to God with salt, not just the meat but their grain offerings as well. In fact, they were required to make incense based on salt!


Pure salt played a crucial part in the worship of Yahweh in the Old Testament because it stood for holiness; it stood for purity. When salt was applied to anything, it purified it. For example, when they salted meat, it killed all the bacteria that caused it to rot, and the meat would be preserved. However, more than that, salt also gave flavor to things. It is a substance that is both pure and useful, that is able to make other things pure and good. Add salt to your food in the proper amount, and it’s delicious. Put salt on a cut, and, as much as it may burn, it will draw out any bacteria that might cause infection. Salt is useful. Salt is pure. Salt is good. Salt is a picture of holiness in the Old Testament.


If you spend any time reading the teachings of Jesus, you will know that He took a lot from the Old Testament and brought it into His teaching. Jesus was linking the old and the new together. He was showing His followers that the old covenant wasn’t gone, it wasn’t dead, it still existed, and it was woven into the New Covenant. When Jesus was talking about the impact that His followers would have on the world, He compared them to salt. Salt is pure. His followers are to be holy. Salt is useful. His followers are to be useful. Salt brings preservation. The message of the gospel brings eternal life to the world. Salt kills bacteria that would cause rot, disease, and death. When followers of the King bring the gospel into the world, it is the antidote for the curse of death. This is why the metaphor of salt being like the life of the believer carries on from the picture of holiness that salt created in the worship of Yahweh. Believers are to be like salt. They are to bring holiness, purity, usefulness, and the antidote for sin, which is the gospel, with them into the world.


The Effects of Salt are Irreversible

The other main attribute of salt is that once you apply salt to something, you can never undo it. Have you ever been making food on the stove, and you over-salted it? How do you take salt out? Once it dissolves into your dish, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to get the salt out. You might add some more chicken stock, or you might try to add a little water to dilute the salt, but that won’t help in the end. Ultimately, if you boil off the water, the salt will stay. If you add the chicken stock, it will throw off the other flavors in your soup in your stew. Once the salt has gone in, its effects cannot be changed. Once you salt a piece of meat to preserve it, you cannot “unsalted it” unless you wash away the salt, and even then, the salt is really in the meat at that point, because it has been absorbed by the meat.


In the same way, the followers of the King are to be salt to the earth. In other words, once Jesus sent His followers out into the world, the world would never be the same again because it had been exposed to the salt of the gospel. It had been exposed to the salt of the church, and it would be forever different because of that salt. Paul even went as far as to say that the believers’ speech must be seasoned with salt. We must take the gospel with us wherever we go and be salt.


How can Kingdom Followers be the Salt of the Earth?

What does that look like practically for those of us who call upon the name of Jesus if we want to obey Jesus’ words and be “the salt of the world?” First, we must be holy. We must live a life that is undefiled by the impurities of this world. The salt that came out of the Judean salt marshes wasn’t useful because it was mixed with impurities. It first had to be subjected to heat, boiling water, and loving care. It had to be purified to get rid of all the things mixed with it, which made it not beneficial for use. As believers who have been called out of this world, if we mix with the sin of this world, then we make ourselves unprofitable for ministry and spreading the message of the Kingdom. We have “lost our salt, and then Jesus says we’re not useful for anything. Why? Because salt can lose its saltiness? No, because we have mixed ourselves with things that make our “salt” useless, and when we are mixed with those things, our witness becomes impure.


Also, we must be useful to the world by carrying the message of the gospel of the hope of Jesus Christ to those who don’t know Jesus. Salt affects everything it touches, and if we are pure and holy, wherever we go, we will affect whatever we touch because we will bring the light of the message of Jesus, the salt of His Word, to those who need it. In a very real sense, we will bring flavor to the world because the world is without hope and lost. The world is in desperate need of a Savior! They hear about the Savior through the “salt of the earth,” the gospel message brings hope that can preserve the soul for eternal life, that can purify from sin, and that can give the flavor of the joy of the Lord to those who are in need of that joy.


You see, Jesus wasn’t ignorant when He taught these words. Jesus knew exactly what He was saying. Jesus was saying, “If my followers are going to have an impact on the world, they need to be pure like salt. They need to bring a message that brings hope and salvation for eternity, like salt preserves. They need to bring joy to the people around them by loving and serving them the way salt brings flavor to a good dish.” Every follower of Jesus Christ needs to take a moment and ask themselves this question: “Am I living my life in such a way that Jesus could say of me, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’?”