Volume 48 - Issue 1

“You are the Salt of the Earth” (Matthew 5:13): Influence or Invitation?

By Ken Montgomery


Jesus identifies the disciples as “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13), which many commentators understand as a call for believers to be a part of preserving and influencing human society for the good. This article argues that “salt of the earth” is to be read as the church’s calling to participate in the flavor of the redemptive kingdom of heaven, and by extension to invite those outside to share in the feast of the new creation reality. This reading interprets the metonymic “salt” saying in light of the new temple theme in the Sermon on the Mount.

Samin Nosrat in her terrific culinary book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat writes, “James Beard, the father of modern American cookery, once asked, ‘Where would we be without salt?’ I know the answer: adrift in a sea of blandness. If only one lesson of this book stays with you, let it be this: salt has a greater impact on flavor than any other ingredient.” Nosrat asserts, “in fact, we’re hardwired to crave salt to ensure we get enough of it.”1

Christians understand “the salt of the earth” as one of the master-metaphors of our relationship to wider human society. Whenever the church’s witness with respect to the unbelieving world is discussed, our calling as “salt and light” is often one of the first identifications to be invoked, and rightly so. The Lord Jesus designates his disciples as the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matt 5:13–14) immediately following the mountain-top benediction he pronounces upon them in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1–12). If the Beatitudes are the kingdom constitution, then being “salt and light” is how the citizens of the kingdom are to walk in holy-distinction from the course of a world that has its own charter centered in the sinful self with its deceitful desires (cf. Eph 2:2, 4:22).

Because it is such a foundational image, understanding the nature and purpose the image of “salt” in Matthew 5:13 is vital. In this article I argue that the church fulfills her calling as “the salt of the earth” in serving as the taste of the kingdom of heaven, and that in doing so the body of Christ invites the world to the feast of life in the kingdom. Put differently, “you are the salt of the earth” is not referring to the flavor and seasoning believers bring to human life and society. It is rather to be taken as signifying the beginnings of the heavenly banquet whose foretaste is found in the church of Christ. Like the pomegranates, figs, and grapes brought back to Israel in the wilderness by the spies (Num 13:23, 26), believers’ communion in life as the ‘salt of the earth’ is a proleptic experience of the fullness of the age to come.2

The related designation in Matthew 5:14, “you are the light of the world,” is consistent with the invitational dimension I will argue also applies to the salt in 5:13. What is the purpose of the light, and why is the “city set on a hill”? The answer: “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16 ESV). In other words, the goal is for those who see the light reflected in the disciples will add their voices to the kingdom chorus and join the procession to Zion. Those in the darkness who encounter the lighthouse are to ascend the hill to the source of the shining: “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth; and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:2–3, emphasis mine). Meredith Kline asserts: “the mission of the old menorah-temple and that of the new menorah-church alike is to summon men out of all nations to the holy city on Har Magedon (whether the old earthly, typological Jerusalem or the new, heavenly Jerusalem), to call them on a faith pilgrimage to the altar of atonement and the throne of grace. The mission of the menorah community, old and new, is to light the way to the Father’s house.”3

Similarly, the purpose of the disciples acting as salt is to call the nations to come to the table-fellowship of the kingdom of God. Here too Jesus is fulfilling the word of the prophets in announcing the beginning of the eschatological banquet: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isa 25:6). Later in the Gospel, Jesus announces in light of the Gentile centurion’s faith, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11). Thus I maintain that the salt-keeping life of the disciples is an invitation for this grand final feast, just as the shining of the light is a glimpse of the eternal light of the Lamb in glory (cf. Rev 19:7; 21:23).

1. Salt as Fertilizer?

Anthony Bradley in a provocatively titled article, “You Are the Manure of the Earth,” makes the case that the agricultural use of salt-as-fertilizer is the best way to take Luke 14:34–35 (a parallel passage to Matt 5:13). Bradley states, “If we are supposed to be salt in the agricultural sense, that means we are supposed to get messy and to go where nothing is growing right now.”4 But is scattering salt on the ground (like Johnny Appleseed scattering seeds hither and yon) really a plausible way to take this metaphor? Wouldn’t scattering seed (cf. Matt 13:1–23) be the more fitting metaphor if fecundity and growth is in view? Bradley reaches this conclusion partly because Jesus says that if the salt has lost its taste, “it is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away” (Luke 14:35). It is clear however that Jesus is referring in verse 35 not to good salt but to bad salt. In a manner of speaking, flavorless salt is of no benefit whatsoever, not even to be used as fertilizer. But it does not follow that the “good salt” was originally intended to be utilized as plant food. The Lukan teaching is that the ‘worth’ of salt-less salt is even less than manure.

Regarding taking the image of salt as a form of fertilizer, W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann comment, “Though salts of various kinds are necessary to the fertility of the soil, oversalination can and does effectively render land infertile—as evidenced by the ancient primitive action of sowing an enemy’s land with salt.”5 The reading of salt as fertilizer then would depend on a distinction in the quantity of the salt sprinkled on the ground: too much would bring death, not life! With respect to sprinkling salt, neither a soldiers’ martial act nor a farmers’ applying a form of ‘miracle-grow’ to the soil is in view in Matt 5:13 or Luke 14:34–35.

2. Salt as Preservation?

Based on the salt as seasoning approach, there is a fairly strong tradition of taking “salt” in Matthew 5:13 as a preservative agent. Before modern refrigeration, salt was one of the primary means by which meat was kept in edible condition. Stemming from this, there is a reading which proposes the church serves in a sustaining and upholding function, so that because of believers’ “faithful presence,” the world organized around unbelief does not become as rotten as it otherwise would. Augustine comments on Matthew 5:13: “If ye, by means of whom the nations in a measure are to be preserved [from corruption], through the dread of temporal persecutions shall lose the kingdom of heaven, where will be the men through whom error may be removed from you, since God has chosen you, in order that through you He might remove the error of others?”6 Origen likewise observes,

Salt is useful for many purposes in human life! What need is there to speak about this?

Now is the proper time to say why Jesus’ disciples are compared with salt. Salt preserves meats from decaying into stench and worms. It makes them edible for a longer period. They would not last through time and be found useful without salt. So also Christ’s disciples, standing in the way of the stench that comes from the sins of idolatry and fornication, support and hold together this whole earthly realm.”7

John Stott in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount also reflects this perspective:

God has established certain institutions in his common grace, which curb man’s selfish tendencies and prevent society from slipping into anarchy. Chief among these are the state (with its ability to frame and enforce laws) and the home (including marriage and family life). These exert a wholesome influence in the community. Nevertheless, God intends the most powerful of all restraints to be his own redeemed, regenerate, and righteous people.8

R. V. G Tasker comments, “The disciples are to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent.”9 In this paradigm, there is a “staying power” that the church exercises, in that God through his people stays certain deleterious effects of evil and the degradation that would otherwise occur without the presence of the salt.

To take this a step further, others maintain the salt image “means simply to make an impact on the world.”10 The statement underscores that “disciples are to make the world a better place.”11 Some in the Neo-Calvinist tradition in particular suggest that salt has not only preservative qualities but even transformative potency. Scott Hoezee exclaims, “The result of all your piety must be pouring yourself out onto this earth so as to bring out life’s complex and beautiful flavors.”12 From this vantage point, salt (supernaturally) activates the latent goodness in human culture, and awakens the dormant potentialities within it: Christians then would legitimately expect to “bring out the best” in others.

There are some considerable objections that can be raised against taking salt in Matthew 5:13 to refer to societal preservation (or transformation). For one, in the Noahic covenant, God had already promised to uphold the basic order of society. The Lord by providence through this covenant keeps steady the pillars of the earth and its inhabitants (cf. Ps 75:3). David VanDrunen writes,

In Genesis 9 God entered into a covenant with both the natural order and the human race, promising to uphold and preserve his creation, albeit in fallen form. God promised to uphold the regularity of the cosmic order and reaffirmed the nature of humanity as his own image, and thereby continues to reveal his law by nature. Genesis 9 indicates that this natural law provides at least a basic, minimal ethic designed for the preservation of the social order.13

To view the church as one of the pillars of “common grace” both undersells its holy status and calling and also fails to appreciate the basic terms of restraint and stability previously established by God in the covenant with all creation instituted after the Noahic flood.

Secondly and more pointedly, for the metaphor of the “salt as seasoning for culture” to work, the second half of the metaphor, “the earth” must be understood as the ‘meat’ (or fish or other victuals) that prior to seasoning is in essentially edible condition in the first place. After all, for all its potency, salt cannot make flavorful or consumable what are already spoiled goods. This dilemma is exemplified in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s comments on Matthew 5:13:

“Ye are the salt of the earth.” What does that imply? It clearly implies rottenness in the earth; it implies a tendency to pollution and to becoming foul and offensive. That is what the Bible has to say about this world. It is fallen, sinful and bad. Its tendency is to evil and to wars. It is like meat which has a tendency to putrefy and to become polluted. It is like something which can only be kept wholesome by means of a preservative or antiseptic.14

The distinction between being rotten and tending to rottenness would seem critical in light of how Lloyd-Jones understands the purpose of the salt-image:

The principal function of salt is to preserve and to act as an antiseptic. Take, for instance, a piece of meat. There are certain germs on its surface, perhaps in its very substance, which have been derived from the animal, or from the atmosphere, and there is the danger of its becoming putrid. The business of the salt which is rubbed into that meat is to preserve it against those agencies that are tending to its putrefaction.15

But how can it be maintained on the one hand that the earth (i.e., the fallen world) is spoiled in sin, while at the same time advancing the notion that salt prevents spoilage? If the point of preservation is to keep the edible goods fit for consumption, then even a minimal amount of decomposition and decay would be unacceptable. If the salt metaphor of Matthew 5:13 is indeed intended as a preservative, the salt could not be applied to already rancid meat, because then like the flavorless salt of v. 13b, the meat too would be worthless and have to be thrown out.

3. Leavening the Earth?

Ulrich Luz writes, “salt is not for itself; it is seasoning for food. In the same way the disciples are there not for themselves but for the earth.”16 Grant Osborne also takes τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς as an objective genitive: “the earth is ‘salted’ by the believer.”17 So too Craig Blomberg: “in light of the countercultural perspectives enunciated in the Beatitudes, it would be easy to assume the Jesus was calling his followers to a separatistic or quasi-monastic life-style. Here Jesus proclaims precisely the opposite. Christians must permeate society as agents of redemption.”18

In my own Reformed tradition, Abraham Kuyper also adopts the salt-as-leavening idea.19 In his Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton University in 1898, he states, “Here is a city, set upon a hill which every man can see afar off. Here is a holy salt that penetrates in every direction, checking all corruption.”20 And later, he asserts “There must be a science which will not rest until it has thought out the entire cosmos; a religion which cannot sit still until she has permeated every sphere of human life; and so also there must be an art which, despising no single department of life adopt, into her splendid world, the whole of human life, religion included.”21 This is related to Kuyper’s conception of the church as organism, which is the basis for “the Christian metamorphosis of the common phenomenon of general human life.”22

Some writing in the vein of the ‘leavening’ perspective appeal to the image of the kingdom in Matthew 13:33: “He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’” This is a parable that speaks to the present hiddenness of the kingdom of God in Jesus’s ministry, waiting for the disclosure following Christ’s death and resurrection, as in the previous parable of the mustard seed and the tree. When will the kingdom be revealed and made manifest? When all is accomplished. The leaven’s presence for a time flies under the radar but its presence will at the proper time show its potency. The metaphor of leavening in this parable is then not about permeation and diffusion but about concealment and unveiling. The power of the leaven is shown in the rising and baking of the bread.23 One of the points of the parables in Matthew 13 is that we should not despise the day of small things (Zech 4:10).

In my estimation, it is best to take salt in Matt 5:13 as an example of metonymy.24 For example, God’s “right hand” stands for his incontestable power (cf. Pss 98:1; 108:6). To hear of the Lord’s “right hand” is to be summoned to consider the royal strength and sovereignty of the Most High. “Salt” rhetorically speaking opens the door to the setting of the kingdom table: “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table” (Prov 9:1–2). Jesus has already in Matt 5 introduced the image of appetite and provision: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt 5:6). Salt according to the terms of this “language game”25 is not found in the cupboard or in the shaker, waiting to be dispensed; instead, it belongs to the flavor all ready to be tasted on the chef’s table—that is, already present in the life of the new creation reign of God in Christ.

One of the unhappy conclusions that follows from the preservationist/leavening interpretation is that in the end, the salt stands in need of the earth (i.e., as a receptacle or object for seasoning). However, the teaching of Matthew 5:13 in the context of the Sermon on the Mount directs us to the very opposite conclusion: it is the earth that stands in need of the salt! That is, the earth is flavorless and lifeless and is to find the flavor of life outside of itself in the kingdom of heaven. Christ’s declaration concerning the identity of his followers is thus by extension an indictment of those who do not heed his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). Salt and the earth therefore do not so much exist in a complementary relationship (as do the salt and roast beef on the dinner table). Rather, salt stands for the feast of the heavenly kingdom as opposed to the famine of the earthly domain; it stands for the fullness and abundance of life in Christ (cf. John 10:10) in contrast to the “food desert” of this world.26

John Calvin writes,

When Christ calls the apostlesthe salt of the earth,” he means, that it is their office “to salt the earth” because men have nothing in them but what is tasteless, till they have been seasoned with the salt of heavenly doctrine. After having reminded them to what they are called, he pronounces against them a heavy and dreadful judgment, if they do not fulfill their duty. The doctrine, which has been entrusted to them, is shown to be so closely connected with a good conscience and a devout and upright life, that the corruption, which might be tolerated in others, would in them be detestable and monstrous. “If other men are tasteless in the sight of God, to you shall be given the salt which imparts a relish to them: but if you have lost your taste, where shall you obtain the remedy which you ought to supply to others?”27

Calvin’s point is instructive, as he sees “salt” as necessarily contrasting with “what is tasteless” and is marked by “corruption”—the pattern and attributes of “the earth” in this present evil age. “The earth” (τῆς γῆς) then must be read contextually as including those who persecute the disciples (Matt 5:11–12).28 This also connects to the “you” of verses 10–12: the same people who are persecuted are those who are named as “salt.” They who are “salt” are those who are maligned and reviled, who live as separate from and in important respects antithetical to the pattern of this age. Given this, what is the condition of “the earth”? It is in an adversarial relationship to the kingdom of heaven. The earth (i.e., the unbelieving world) does not happily or readily receive the salt.

Being salt must be understood as compatible with being “hated” (Matt 10:22). Saltiness does not diminish in persecution but is instead enhanced. The presence of the salt is mysteriously operative when the salt-bearers die for the sake of Christ, holding to the “word of their testimony” (Rev 12:11). According to Douglas Farrow, “Martyrdom, as the Apocalypse teaches, is the truest manifestation of Jesus’ heavenly session, which—as the effecting in all things of the recapitulation he has accomplished—is a mystery that cannot otherwise declare itself except in the resurrection.”29 Stephen proved himself part of the company of the “salt of the earth” when he interceded for those who put him to death, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60), thus carrying out the instruction of Christ: “pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44).

In short, a responsible explication of Matthew 5:13 must account for the fact that “the earth” is comprised of the “evil” and “unjust” (5:45) and is in fact characterized by corruption and theft (“where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,” 6:19). The earth does not need a little seasoning here and a bit of leavening there: what is required is nothing short of cosmic regeneration (παλιγγενεσίᾳ, 19:28).

4. Flavor and the Danger of “Becoming Foolish”

Like the purloined letter in Poe’s story, the function of the salt of Matthew 5:13 is hidden in plain view. There are various functions salt serves, but the particular aspect the salt to which Jesus is referring is its taste: “if the salt has lost its flavor” (μωρανθῇ). If the danger is for the salt to become tasteless or flavorless, then by implication the Lord is commanding the disciples to keep their distinct flavor. And what is that flavor? To continue to walk in the way of blessedness as unpacked in verses 1–12. This is the way to exhibit the “salt life” of God’s redemptive kingdom. Don Garlington helpfully writes,

Because they exhibit the qualities signaled by the indicatives of Matt 5:3–12, the disciples are proof positive that the kingdom is a reality in the world. It is just in their capacity as “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 the “persecuted” that Jesus’ followers are salt and light and, as such, the eschatological reality of the kingdom is actualized in their persons as the subjects of his reign.30

Thus, Jesus is not referring to salt penetrating or permeating the earth, so that his disciples show forth a “sweetening and wholesome influence.”31 Instead, the salt represents the savor of the age to come, and the presence of the disciples in walking in the ways of the kingdom of God are calling those from the kingdom of this world to leave the bitter course of the place of darkness (cf. Matt 4:15–16). Thus, there is an implicit invitation contained in the “salt of the earth” image: as the nations are being discipled (28:19), they share in the “salt life” of the new order inaugurated in Christ. Schnackenburg concludes, “Together with the image of the lamp, it [the salt] is an appeal to the community of disciples to bear witness to the gospel, in the midst of a world still averse to it, by living a life in conformity with Jesus’ instructions.”32

Furthermore, the flavor of the salt will be to practice the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). This fits with one of the larger themes in the Sermon on the Mount: the kingdom that Christ is inaugurating stands in continuity with “the Law and the Prophets”— as Jesus comes not to abolish but to fulfill them (5:17); at the same time, this kingdom supersedes the prior expression of God’s reign as revealed at Sinai (cf. 5:38–42).33

The warning of Jesus concerning the salt may be the most significant clue concerning the purpose of this image. There is a double entendre in μωρανθῇ: it is both “losing flavor” and “becoming foolish.”34 Paul writes, “claiming to be wise, they became fools [ἐμωράνθησαν].” Robert Gundry, in a thorough study of “fools” and “foolish” in Matthew, concludes that “fool(ish)” always is associated with those who are outside of the kingdom of heaven.35 It is possible for those who are called to be salt to lose flavor in severing themselves from Christ and the wisdom revealed in Him (cf. Gal 5:4; 2 John 8). Here the Lord appears to be hinting at the failure of Israel to maintain fidelity to the covenant. The order of the Beatitudes and the warning given in Matt 5:13 reflects the prayer of restoration of the Psalmist: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly” (Ps 85:8).36

“If the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt 5:13b). This serves to alert the disciples (the new Israel) to vigilance, and also as a harbinger of what will become of the old Israel that rejects Christ and his kingdom. John had earlier announced: “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (3:10).37 Jesus prophesies concerning the unbelieving Jerusalem and her inhabitants, who have definitively rejected his word: “They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).38

Later in Matthew, Jesus teaches in parables and likens the kingdom of heaven to a “king who gave a wedding feast for his son and sent his servant to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come” (22:2–3). Some are foolish (δὲ ἐξ αὐτῶν ἦσαν μωραί) in failing to be ready to meet the bridegroom (25:2). Those who fail to share in the joy of the messianic coming are culpably foolish. But though the original parties reject the invitation, the wedding feast will still be held: “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you can find. And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matt 22:8–10). The salt which stands for the flavor and fullness of the kingdom of God will be tasted by many who are far off (cf. Rom 15:20–21; Eph 2:17).39

5. Temple Background

The Lord’s setting apart his followers and marking them as “the salt of the earth” cannot be rightly understood without taking into account the larger revelatory backdrop, both in terms of what precedes and what follows this statement in Matthew 5.

The Sermon on the Mount has motifs of a new temple theology. Jesus in Matthew 4 demonstrates himself to be the New Israel of God, having passed the wilderness probation period for 40 days (vv. 1–11), and leading a New Exodus complete with signs and wonders and chosen followers (vv. 12–25). The journey of the King from wilderness and the Sea (Matt 4:18) culminates in his coming to rest on a mountaintop, recapitulating Israel’s history which ended on the mount of glory and revelation in Jerusalem (cf. Exod 15:17; Ps 68:16). The Sermon on the Mount can rightly be read then as “The Sermon on the New Temple Mount,” with Jesus the King sitting on his throne and commanding his subjects “to observe all I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20).40 In connection with “the light of the world” and “a city set on a hill” statement in Matthew 5:14, Jesus is clearly defining his disciples as part of a new temple community. Nicholas Perrin comments, “Those who are faithful to the messiah Jesus, precisely by virtue of the qualities just outlined in the Beatitudes, will likewise shine forth as the true Jerusalem and the true temple.”41

How does Jesus’s declaration, “you are the salt of the earth,” fit within the new temple reality? The background in the “covenant of salt” (cf. Lev 2:13; Num 18:19) appears operative here, as Don Garlington argues: “the most appropriate category here is that of salt added to the sacrifices as a token of table fellowship.”42 Just as the light was always to be kept burning within the house of God, for God is light: so the salt was to be added to the grain offerings as a sign of communion with the Lord. For friendship with the Lord is at the heart of the revealed worship of the tabernacle/temple. Morales writes, “Yet, once more, atonement is a means to an end, a means to Israel’s fellowship and communion with YHWH God.”43 The association of the disciples with the salt of the covenant also points to their role as a new priesthood, fulfilling the command given to the house of Aaron in Numbers 18:19: “All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.”44

It is worth noting that in a parallel passage in Mark, Jesus teaches, “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50). In this verse, the salt is a communal and corporate agent of vitality and flavor.45 Salt is an emblem of shalom; to partake in salt with another is similar to what we refer to as “breaking bread together.” It is not expected that mortal enemies would sit at table together. Those around a table together can be seen partaking in the act of friendship, as in Psalm 41:9: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread…” Fleddermann observes of Mark 9,

To share salt with someone is to share fellowship with him, to be in covenant with him. The discourse began with two situations of conflict and strife, the self-seeking arguing of the disciples about rank and the conflict with the strange exorcists. It went on to discuss the problem of scandal in the community. To all this Mark opposes the peace of covenant fellowship.46

The connection between Mark’s salt of reconciliation and living at peace with one another is echoed in Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:23–24: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” In other words, the salt of being restored to one another is a prerequisite for the salt that is presented as part of the offering to the Lord. Obedience is better than sacrifice (cf. 9:13).

G. K. Beale argues that the new covenant church fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 66:20–21: “And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord…and some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.” He writes,

In summary, all Christians are now spiritual Levitical priests (in fulfilment of Is. 66:21). Our ongoing task is to serve God in his temple in which we always dwell and of which we are a part. Our continual priestly tasks are what the first Adam’s were to be: to keep the order and peace of the spiritual sanctuary by learning and teaching God’s word, by praying always, and by being vigilant in keeping out unclean moral and spiritual things. We also continually offer sacrifices in order to keep the order of the spiritual temple’s liturgy.47

Indeed, the subsequent teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus requires a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20), enjoins sacrificial giving (6:2–4), defines prayer that honors the Father (6:5–15), and describes the proper means of fasting (6:16–18)—these are all characteristics of a priestly people. Such activity corresponds to the Isaianic promise: “From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord” (Isa 66:23).

As the disciples (soon to be apostles) form the foundation of the church, the words of Jesus by extension define the identity of the church which is built upon this apostolic foundation.48 In Matthew’s gospel, the church is uniquely set apart by Christ to steward the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:19); the church inherits the dominical promise and command: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18:18). The redemptive presence of Christ is promised to those gathered in his name and teaching and observing his commandments (18:20, 28:20). The true “salt-life” is thus found in the “holy catholic church” and the “communion of saints.”

6. Conclusion: “Stay Salty, My Friends”

If indeed “the salt of the earth” metaphor is to be taken as the call for the church’s continued testimony to and participation in the flavor of the kingdom of heaven, we should be wary of appropriating this verse as endorsing the idea that the church qua church exists to promote general human flourishing. Cultural influence and societal impact cannot be used as a barometer of the ‘saltiness’ enjoined in Matthew 5:13.49 Inasmuch as the church is faithful in “making disciples of all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19–20), the unparalleled flavor of the kingdom of God, with the Savior-King himself, will be present to the end of the age.

[1] Samin Nosrat, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 20–21 (original emphasis).

[2] I am reminded of Sandra McCracken’s song: “And from the garden to the grave/ Bind us together, bring shalom…. We will feast in the house of Zion/ We will sing with our hearts restored. He has done great things, we will say together/ We will feast and weep no more” (Integrity Worship Music, 2015).

[3] Meredith Kline, Glory in our Midst, reprint ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 139.

[4] Anthony B. Bradley, “You are the Manure of the Earth,” Christianity Today 60.8 (October 2016): 72–76.

[5] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 26 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 54. Cf. the OT reference to a place being “sown with salt” as in Judges 9:45.

[6] Augustine, Sermon on the Mount 1.6.16 [NPNF1 6:8, emphasis mine].

[7] Cited in Manlio Simonetti, Matthew 1–13, ACCSNT 1A (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 92, emphasis mine.

[8] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, BST (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 59. A recent article by David Hall entitled “Salt and Light in America” published on Reformation21 magazine also shares this supposition: “While the secular cant seeks to ward off much, if any, impact of real piety on politics, a longer stretch of history shows that religion and preaching have frequently shaped the basic moral issues facing various nations.” (Accessed December 1, 2020)

[9] R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, TNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 63.

[10] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 175. Also, Turner writes, “Salt is thus a metaphor for exercising a beneficial influence on the world.” Matthew, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 155

[11] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 174.

[12] Scott Hoezee, “Mixing In without Blending In,”

[13] David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 19.

[14] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 1:151.

[15] Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 152.

[16] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 206.

[17] Osborne, Matthew, 175.

[18] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC 22 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992), 102.

[19] “For Kuyper the church was a free, voluntary body called out of the larger society to be, inter alia, a witness to and leaven in that society.” James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 154. In summarizing Kuyper’s views of common grace, Bratt states, “The middle domains registered the fact, in Kuyper’s opinion, that particular grace strengthened and best realized the possibilities of common grace…. Thus Christianity, starting out everywhere as a doughty minority, could not help but change society for the better as its witness drew more people into its ranks and so shed its influence into its local setting. Where the process had worked longest—i.e., in Europe—the effects were most profound. It was the intensifying effect of particular grace in the workings of common grace, Kuyper claimed, that accounted in no small part for the West’s achievement of global supremacy” (p. 203).

[20] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, reprint ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 43.

[21] Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 147.

[22] Cited in Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 186. Bratt suggests that Kuyper’s repeated emphasis on the church as “organism,” developing from a single root and governed by its internal law, borrows from Friedrich Schelling, “perhaps making Schelling the instrument by which he could finally reconcile Schleiermacher and Calvin” (p. 184).

[23] A passage that does reference salt as “seasoning” is Colossians 4:6: “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” In this text the act of seasoning (ἠρτυμένος) is explicit, but its purpose is likewise connected to “flavor”: ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν πάντοτε ἐν χάριτι—our speech is to be ‘en-graced’ in union with Christ. Cf. Psalm 45:2, “You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips.”

[24] The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), s.v. “metonomy” defines “metonymy” as “(A figure of speech characterized by) the action of substituting for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it.”

[25] Taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953).

[26] “They loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death” (Ps 107:18).

[27] John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 270.

[28] This is in parallel with “the world” (τοῦ κόσμου) of verse 14.

[29] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 272. Those who interpret salt as a preservative are remarkably reticent about martyrdom as an expression of saltiness, as it is hard to imagine how the death of followers of Jesus would somehow contribute to the “common good.”

[30] Don Garlington, “‘The Salt of the Earth’ in Covenantal Perspective,” JETS 54.4 (2011): 730–31.

[31] W. S. Wood, “The Salt of the Earth” JTS 25 (1924): 170.

[32] Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel of Matthew, trans. Robert Barr (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 2002), 51.

[33] David VanDrunen observes, “Thus, as the kingdom of heaven is something strikingly new, so the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of this kingdom, proclaims a way of life that is eschatologically new. It is different from the way of life under Moses, though in a manner that accomplishes rather than thwarts God’s larger purposes in giving the law and the prophets.” From “Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38–42,” Themelios 34.3 (2009): 326.

[34] “‘Tasteless’ perhaps goes some way toward catching what may have been a more obvious double entendre in Hebrew and Aramaic, where the verb תפל can mean both to be tasteless and foolish.” France, Matthew, 175.

[35] Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 84. See also Psalm 107:17: “Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction.”

[36] Foolishness and idolatry are regularly associated together in the Old Testament. “Every man is stupid (LXX: ἐμωράνθη) and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false, and there is no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14).

[37] Similarly, N. T. Wright comments on Matt 5:14–15, “Israel, called to be a lighthouse for the world, has surrounded herself with mirrors to keep the light in, heightening her own sense of purity and exclusiveness while insisting that the nations must remain in darkness. But with Jesus’ work the way is open, for any Jews who will dare, to find out what being the true Israel is all about. By following him, by putting his agenda into practice, they can at last be true Israel.” N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 2 (London: SPCK, 1996), 289.

[38] Of the Gospel of Matthew, David VanDrunen writes, “One of its key themes is that Jesus’s coming results in judgment against the old people of God, as represented by their religious leaders and the city of Jerusalem, who reject Jesus. This old community has the ‘kingdom of God’ taken from it (Matt 21:33–36) stands under the curse of six ‘woes,’ (23:13–26) will see its house left ‘desolate,’ (23:37–39) and will face an unprecedented judgment (24:15–25).” “Jesus ‘Came Not to Abolish the Law but to Fulfill It’: The Sermon on the Mount and Its Implications for Contemporary Law,” Pepperdine Law Review 47 (2020): 543–44.

[39] Richard Hays writes, “In view of this evidence, what can we say by way of summary about Matthew’s use of Scripture to situate the church in relation to the surrounding world? The most salient finding is that Matthew presents the pagan world as a mission field for the disciples of Jesus.” Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 185.

[40] “Since he is presenting Jesus as the ‘prophet like Moses,’ his book reaches its natural climax with Jesus on a mountaintop, at the fringe of the Gentile world, commissioning his disciples like so many Joshuas. But in that commissioning it is made clear that Jesus, unlike Moses, will not have to let go of the reins of authority as he departs to his hidden place of rest.” Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia, 20.

[41] Perrin, Jesus as Priest (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 115. Again, there is an implicit contrast between the temple as constituted by Jesus and the temple built in Jerusalem, whose builders reject the messianic stone (cf. Matt 21:33–44). At the conclusion of the Sermon, Jesus teaches: “everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Matt 7:24). N. T. Wright suggests, “The house built on the rock, in first-century Jewish terms, is a clear allusion to the Temple. Unless Israel follows the way that Jesus is leading, the greatest national institution of all is in mortal danger.” Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 292.

[42] Garlington, “‘The Salt of the Earth’ in Covenantal Perspective,” 741.

[43] L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, NSBT 37 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 125.

[44] “But those who do ‘lose saltines’ (vs 13), he goes on to admonish, do so at the cost of their ongoing participation in the priestly covenant.” Perrin, Jesus as Priest, 119.

[45] This is against the backdrop of the judgment-image of “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). There is salt-as-curse in v. 49 and then salt-as-blessing in v. 50.

[46] Quoted in Garlington, “‘The Salt of the Earth’ in Covenantal Perspective,” 741.

[47] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, NSBT 17 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 398.

[48] Commenting on Matthew 5:13–14, Perrin states: “The Greek emphasizes the ascription of an exclusive corporate identity, for in both sentences of Matt 5:13–14, the emphatic second-person plural pronoun occupies first position. Jesus’ comments regarding ‘a city built on a hill’ (v. 14b) follow in train. In other words, Matthew’s Jesus is essentially saying, ‘You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world; you are a city on a hill— you as opposed to some other group who might stake this same claim for themselves.’” Perrin, Jesus as Priest, 114.

[49] Robert Gundry asks, “So I ask, are we overdosing on the this-worldly ethical, social, and psychological benefits of the gospel? Is it time for some Johannine counter-balancing that puts emphasis on other-worldliness, on the final fate of human beings, and on the authoritative Word from above more than on the merely suggestive words of human counsel that most ministers preach these days?” Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, especially Its Elites, in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 91.

Ken Montgomery

Ken Montgomery serves as pastor of Christ Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia.

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