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Matthew 5:13 – “Proof of God’s Perpetual Plan”

You are the salt of the land. Yet, if salt were to become foolish, in what manner will it be salted? It is no longer good for anything except, being thrown out, to be trampled by men.

At first glance, it may be difficult to pinpoint the purpose of vv. 11-16. Technically speaking, Jesus is still in introduction mode (the main body of the sermon beginning in v. 17), yet vv. 3-10 (the beatitudes) clearly are set apart unto themselves. What we see in vv. 11-16 is a certain amount of continuity with three emphatic “you are” (ὑμεῖς ἐστε) statements (vv. 11, 13, 14), yet there remains a distinctiveness when we allow for the obvious thematic connection between v. 10 & vv. 11-12. In short, vv. 11-16 are a necessary transition where Jesus firmly fixes the place and purpose of His audience. By declaring them to be blessed (μακάριοί ἐστε) in v. 11, Jesus clearly identifies His disciples as kingdom citizens as described in vv. 3-10. If this is true, then they are present examples of kingdom citizens awaiting the kingdom. As such, they are living proof that (1) God’s plan remains unaltered (v. 13) and (2) that plan is to save the world through Israel (vv. 14-16).

The Statement: Proof of Covenant Perpetuity

You are the salt of the land.

It is generally taught that v. 13 exhorts believers of every age to engage society in such a way as to be a healing, cleansing, preserving, and purifying influence.[1] This interpretation, while popular, fails to consider several things: (1) The specific audience Jesus identifies consists of His disciples alone. (2) Much of what is said about salt is assumed rather than proven. (3) There is no reason or example of μωραίνω ever carrying the idea of tastelessness. (4) Jesus makes a statement regarding the present reality of His disciples rather than providing an exhortation of what they ought to be. And (5) the above interpretation demands that τῆς γῆς is understood as the whole world (salt of the earth) even though the implication of v. 5 (ὅτι αὐτοί κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆνbecause they shall inherit the land) is more specifically in reference to the land of Israel. After considering these observations and more, it will become evident that Jesus’ point in v. 13 is not for His followers to busy themselves fighting the decay of a dead society, but that His disciples are proof of God’s unaltered plan.

Context of the Statement

Jesus’ words do not appear in a vacuum, nor is this statement provided without context. As already observed, the fact that Jesus delivers a second emphatic “you are” statement demands we go back and review what was said in vv. 11-12. The emphasis on the pronoun (ὑμεῖς) indicates that Jesus addresses His disciples, and His disciples alone.[2] Any implication or application that is drawn out past those men sitting at Jesus’ feet requires proof and should not be assumed out of hand. The last things spoken regarding these same disciples was a comparison between them and the Old Testament prophets because of their shared persecution for righteousness’ sake (v. 12). Therefore, the immediately preceding context invites the reader/hearer to examine the Old Testament for an understanding of this statement.

Looking forward we should note that after Jesus is finished preparing His audience, He instantly denies the false charge of altering, annulling, or abolishing the Law and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament) in vv. 17-20. It is logical therefore, to consider these verses as somehow building up and connecting to Jesus’ affirmation of the Old Testament. It seems that both the succeeding and preceding context invite examination under an Old Testament light.

Context of Salt

For whatever reason, this is the point where even sound exegetes go awry as they begin searching through antiquity rather than the scriptures for the significance of salt. Much time is spent presenting the various uses of salt in the ancient world and its associating value to all cultures. The problem is not that most interpreters and expositors explore the historical record to fill in the gaps of our understanding. The problem is that they seem to forget the place such research has in their exposition. While it is true that we adopt a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic, making the facts of history a significant contribution to meaning, we also believe in the perspicuity (clarity, ability to be understood) of the Bible as well as the progressive nature of revelation (the building and development of biblical themes and concepts). In other words, while a historical and cultural study of salt in ancient society will undoubtedly prove helpful, it is more likely that the answer will be found upon the pages of scripture.

Regarding the historical and cultural uses of salt there may be as many as eleven distinct uses.[3] There is no need to expound upon all eleven but perhaps a few examples would suffice to get the imagination flowing. Salt has always been used as a savory seasoning and continues to be used so today. In addition to this, (a) salt is used to preserve food for long storage, (b) sown into the ground of enemies to sterilize the soil, and (c) medicinally to fight infection and aid the healing of wounds. Even in our modernized culture various kinds of salts are used as dietary supplements for livestock, melting ice buildup on roads, and as a treatment to “soften” water that is hardened by metals and minerals. In short, salt always has been and continues to be a valuable and useful substance. But of all these various uses, what on earth could Jesus’ meaning be? Rather than sifting through all the various historical uses of salt and attempt to create a conceptual equivalent (i.e., salt was used to preserve thus Jesus proclaims that His disciples are the substance that will preserve a putrid society or that salt was used to make the ground infertile thus Jesus proclaims the disciples to be spiritual herbicide), perhaps it is time to search the scriptures.

We should assume that Jesus’ audience (His disciples) either immediately understood Jesus’ meaning or at least had the information at their disposal to understand it upon reflection. Jesus’ pattern has consistently been to link His sayings with previous revelation. It is therefore acceptable to assume that He is doing so again here. We begin our tour of a biblical theology of salt in Leviticus chapter 2. As Moses provides instruction to Israel regarding all grain offerings that are to be made either by themselves as an offering of first fruits or as an accompaniment to other offerings, in 2:13 we read this requirement: “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” (NASB). It seems that not only grain offerings, but also all offerings of animals are to be offered with salt. Though this is interesting, the reason that Moses provides is even more so: “so that the salt of the covenant of your God shall not be lacking from your grain offering.” What is meant by the “salt of the covenant”? We know that many ancient cultures sealed covenants and contracts with salt as a sign of longevity.[4] As salt preserves, so will the covenant be preserved. In salting their offerings, Israel expressed faith in the binding and preserving nature of God’s covenant.

A similar phrase appears again in the books of Moses, this time in Numbers chapter 18. As He addresses Aaron regarding the portion that is allowed and preserved for the priest and his family, Yhwh says this in v. 19: “All the offerings of the holy gifts, which the sons of Israel offer to the Lord, I have given to you and your sons and your daughters with you, as a perpetual allotment. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord to you and your descendants with you” (NASB). The same covenant of salt language that was used in Lev. 2:13 is used again here. This time we do not have to guess as to the meaning of salt, because Yhwh expressly links the salt with the everlasting nature of the covenant. This is the same nuance we read in 2 Chr. 13:5: “Do you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the rule over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?” (NASB). This verse is very helpful because we are no longer dealing with Israel’s instructions regarding the sacrificial system nor of the priesthood. This is obviously a reference to the covenant made by Yhwh with David (2 Sam. 7:12-14) and yet the term covenant of salt is still used. Rather than thinking of a special and mysterious “salt covenant”, the phrase “covenant of salt” (בְּרִית מֶלַח) indicates that the covenant is irrevocable[5] and lasting.[6]

One might think that this is figurative language only and that God did not mean to speak of the Israelite priesthood as everlasting in the same breath which He spoke of the promised Davidic seed. Yet this is confirmed when reading Ezekiel 43:23-24 when the prophet gets a look at the future temple in full operation. Regarding the future temple which will be restored in the land of Israel, Ezekiel receives this instruction: “When you have finished cleansing it, you shall present a young bull without blemish and a ram without blemish from the flock. You shall present them before the Lord, and the priests shall throw salt on them, and they shall offer them up as a burnt offering to the Lord” (NASB). The Levitical priests, the sons of Aaron, in the future will offer sacrifices and offerings in the exact same manner as prescribed 3500 years ago. The key ingredient in all this is salt. Why? Because the salt indicates the everlasting and perpetual nature of the covenant. That is the biblical understanding of salt.

Context of the Land

To this we must add the discussion of Jesus’ use of γῆ (τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς). The Greek term γῆ is generic and carries a wide range of meaning. Γῆ can be understood so broadly as to incorporate the whole earth (In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth/τὴν γῆν (Gen. 1:1); The earth/ἡ γῆ is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all it contains (Ps. 24:1)). Yet, the term can also indicate something more specific, like the land of Israel: And Yhwh said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land/τῆς γῆς and from your kin and from your father’s household to the land/τὴν γῆν which I will show you’ (Gen. 12:1); See, I have given over the land/τὴν γῆν before you; go in and possess the land/τὴν γῆν which Yhwh promised to give to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to them and to their seed after them (Deut. 1:8). The question before us is whether Jesus intends for this term to be understood broadly (the whole world) or narrowly (the land of Israel). Given the most recent use of γῆ (Matt. 5:5) it is likely that Jesus uses this term on purpose to keep the view narrow on the land of Israel. Thus, v. 14 will widen His scope to a global mission, but for now, the emphasis is focused on Israel. This narrow and specific view is quite purposeful.

Meaning of the Statement

After taking all of this into view we understand Jesus’ meaning that the disciples are the proof that God’s perpetual promise to Israel is still in effect. It is they, not the religious leaders, the separatist Essenes, nor the politically charged Zealots, who stand as evidence that God has not neglected His covenant with His people. Here stand those who both recognized Messiah and followed Him. These ones are blessed because they are present examples of kingdom citizens. It is they, and they alone who are called the salt of the land: proof of Yhwh’s perpetual covenant with His people. This statement carries serious implications.

Question: Provision for Pretenders?

Yet, if salt were to become foolish, in what manner will it be salted?

Most English versions say something like “has become tasteless” (NASB), “loses its flavor” (NKJV), or “has lost its taste” (ESV). There are two reasons why these translations are unsatisfactory. First, it is impossible for salt to lose its flavor. While it is possible for salt to become contaminated, diluted, and in other ways rendered useless, that is not what these translations convey. No matter what happens to salt, the salt remains salty. To speak of unsalty salt is akin to speaking of dry water or solid air. This is an impossibility, which may be part of the point.

The second reason why these translations are inaccurate is because Jesus does not speak of tasteless salt but of foolish salt. The verb used here (μωραίνω) only appears 4x in the New Testament. Half of these references appear to be used of tastelessness (Matt. 5:13; Lk. 14:34) while the other half are used of foolishness/stupidity (Rom. 1:22; 1 Cor. 1:20). When compared with the cognate noun μωρία (foolishness – 1 Cor. 1:18, 21, 23; 2:14; 3:19) and the related adjective μωρός (foolish – Matt. 5:22; 7:26; 23:17; 25:2, 3, 8; 1 Cor. 1:25, 27; 3:18; 4:10; 2 Tim. 2:23; Tit. 3:9) it becomes doubtful if tastelessness is within this term’s range of meaning at all. Jesus is not referring to salt that has somehow or other lost its property of saltiness, but salt that has been made foolish, stupid, unthinking. This is a term used by Jesus and the apostles to describe the Pharisees of Israel (Matt. 23:17), pagan idolaters (Rom. 1:22; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2:14), those who hear the truth and do not obey it/ prepare for it (Matt. 7:26; 25:2, 3, 8), useless and pointless sayings (2 Tim. 2:23; Tit. 3:9), and used ironically of the gospel as antithetical to the world’s message and system (1 Cor. 1:25, 27; 3:18). In short, foolishness is only ever used of unbelief. If the salt of the land is to prove God’s faithfulness to fulfill His covenant promises, what happens if the salt no longer believed in the covenant promise? The answer is much the same: it can’t.

Just as one does not make unsalty salt salty again by salting it with more salt, neither does one make an unbelieving rebel a representative of God’s covenant loyalty. If the substance is not salty, it isn’t salt that you’re holding. If the person is a fool, then he was never wise. The point Jesus is making is this: The disciples, and the disciples alone are the salt of God’s covenant with Israel. If the nation’s leaders have turned their back on Messiah, then they are fools. Is it possible to make a fool wise?

Answer: Punishment

It is no longer good for anything except, being thrown out, to be trampled by men.

If salt does not last, then it is no longer useful. If salt becomes foolish, how can it signify an everlasting covenant? If Israel continues in rebellion, how will they show the nations the glory of God? It is now necessary to throw them out and trample them underfoot. It is unnecessary to go into the various ways ancient people disposed of contaminated salt. The imagery is obvious. Jesus is using judgment language here. The promise to Israel will not come about through the apostate religion of the Pharisees, the militaristic liberty of the Zealots, the sequestered morality of the Essenes, nor the political shrewdness of the Sadducees. These are all worthless and good for nothing. These will be judged and trampled underfoot by men. Not one aspect of mainstream Israelite society stands upon the promises of God as the salty remnant. But these disciples are the salt of the land. This is not to say that the church somehow replaces Israel, but that believing Israel (and believing Israel alone) as represented by Jesus’ disciples will fulfill Israel’s role in God’s plan. Last I checked, all of Jesus’ followers at this point are Israelites. They, and they alone, will continue the ministry of the Old Testament prophets and stand as proof that God continues Israel’s appointment as light to the nations.[7]

[1] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 95.

[2] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 198-9.

[3] W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Matthew, 3 vols., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, U.K.: T&T Clark, 1988), 1:72-3.

[4] R. Laird Harris, Leviticus, ed. Frank Geabelein, vol. 2, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), p. 542.

[5] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, vol. 3, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), p. 612.

[6] Ronald Allen, Numbers, Revised, vol. 2, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), p. 268.

[7] David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 59-60.

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