[Scriptural quotations from ESV unless otherwise noted]
13 “You are salt for the Land. But if salt becomes tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except being thrown out for people to trample on.
14 ¶ “You are light for the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.
15 Likewise, when people light a lamp, they don’t cover it with a bowl, but put it on a lampstand, so that it shines for everyone in the house.
16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they may see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.
—Matthew 5:13–16 CJB
Christian theology often tends to forget that the Church did not yet exist when Jesus spoke these words. In fact, it did not exist until believing Jews and non-Jews had both been given the indwelling Holy Spirit, and that did not happen until after Jesus’ Ascension. His earthly ministry throughout His First Advent was specifically to Jews, not to the unborn Church, and not to non-Jews in general. In Matthew 10:5b–6, He told his 12 apostles-in-training, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In Matthew 15:24, when he was asked by a Canaanite woman to rid her daughter of a demon, He responded by telling her that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
That is certainly not to say that He rejected overtures of faith by non-Jews. He ultimately granted the request of the Canaanite woman, and in Matthew 8:10b, He granted the petition of a Roman centurion and told His followers, “With no one [else] in Israel have I found such faith.”
But the fact remains that Jesus’ ministry, and in fact the whole of the four written Gospels, were directed to Israel. When we fail to recognize that fact, we open ourselves to the heresy of misappropriating Scripture. In this post, I am addressing one example of such error in discussing the concepts (plural) of “salt and light“, which Christians almost always discuss as if it were a “Church thing”, and just one thing. I do believe there is an important Church application, and I’ll address that near the end.
Please read this post as an academic exercise for improving our understanding of Scripture, not as criticism of any well-meaning individual or organization.
The context of the message
Matthew 5–7 is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount. “Sermon” may be too strong a term, because it is unclear which group Jesus was speaking to.
1 ¶ Seeing the crowds, Yeshua walked up the hill. After he sat down, his talmidim came to him,
2 and he began to speak. This is what he taught them:
—Matthew 5:1–2 CJB
The fact that Jesus was sitting, which limits voice projection, and that only the talmidim are mentioned as following Him up the hill, raises the question: was it an oration to all the people milling around, or just those gathered around closest to Him?
The term ὄχλουςα (ochlousa) is translated crowds, above, or multitudes in the KJV. This is an odd plural, sort of like “infinities”. Two infinities are still just infinity. Two crowds are still a crowd. I suppose it could be like “the crowd on His left and the crowd on His right”, but the term is always used for the group of people following Him, so that is unlikely. Roy Blizzard and David Bivin, in their book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, suggest that ὄχλουςα is a technical term referring to “the inhabitants of the surrounding area”, which might be an actual “multitude”, or might be just a few people.
Drones like the religious leaders that the Sanhedrin sent to follow Him from place to place would be a separate group mingled in and on the fringes of the gathered locals. Thir function was much like the Soviet trawler back in my Navy days that always trailed along behind my ship, an aircraft carrier, in the Mediterranean. When they had opportunity, they steamed in among the destroyers and frigates of our task force, spying and occasionally harassing.
There were probably at least some underemployed “seekers” in the mix, as well, following from place to place hoping for some sort of healing or salvation. Many probably finding what they sought.
The folks gathered more closely around Jesus and probably sitting near Him on the hill were His talmidim, or disciples, and verse 13, about salt would have applied more to them than to the larger group (see below). Whichever it is, Matthew 5:11–16 was clearly applicable only to Godly Jews when it was spoken.
Salt and Light to whom?
Before addressing the meanings of “salt” and “light” in Matthew 5, I think it important also to answer the question, who were to be the recipients of the salt and the light? I used the Complete Jewish Bible to quote Jesus’ words, above, because I think it correctly differentiates the two Greek words that the English Standard Version renders as “world”.
In verse 14, “world” is a translation of the Greek κόσμος (Kosmos). In the modern world, the term “cosmos” refers to the universe as a whole, but in ancient times, the heavens above were thought to be merely a dome, or a sheet draped above the earth we inhabit. So, in effect, κόσμος referred to the world as a whole, consisting of all nations. Israel was, indeed, understood to be commissioned as God’s evangelist nation to the rest of humanity.
In verse 13, a different word, γῆ, or Ge, is used. In general, γῆ can, in fact, be translated as “world”, but I think that when connecting the word to Israel, it is almost always proper to default the translation to “land“, meaning specifically, Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Jesus’ listeners here were being told to be “salt for the Land”, i.e., a preservative for the people, or Covenants, of Israel. Not for the greater earth. Similarly, in verse 5, we are told that the meek will “inherit the land”. This is certainly true. It is a direct quotation from Psalm 37:11, which taken in context is clearly referring to Israel’s eventual peaceful habitation in the Land of Israel.
Light for the world
I will discuss the question of light before salt, because Christian usage of this term is more straightforward than that of salt.
As is expressed many times in the Tanakh, or “Old Testament”, particularly in the poetic Psalms and Prophets, the concept of “light“, where physical light is obviously not meant, primarily pertains to knowledge of truth. To shine a light, in this respect, is to bring the knowledge of salvation. It is clearly this idea that Jesus had in mind in the Matthew 5 text. This, I think (and most would agree), is borne out by his quotation of Isaiah 8:23–9:1 in the preceding chapter, Matthew 4:
12 ¶ Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.
13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,
14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 ¶ “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
—Matthew 4:12–16 ESV, emphasis added
However, there are a number of other symbolic usages of the term in the Tanakh, and I think that in some sense, all of these can be read into Jesus’ words. I will list some of these, with examples from the ESV:
To lead people forward—as God’s sh’kinah leading the Israelites through the darkness of the Wilderness:
Neh. 9:19 You in your great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud to lead them in the way did not depart from them by day, nor the pillar of fire by night to light for them the way by which they should go.
To lift the hearts of people—as God’s protection of the people menaced by Haman:
Esth. 8:15–17 Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. 16 The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor. 17 And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday.
To expose sin—as God’s exposure of evil nations and rulers:
Job 12:21–25 He pours contempt on princes
and loosens the belt of the strong.
22 He uncovers the deeps out of darkness
and brings deep darkness to light.
23 He makes nations great, and he destroys them;
he enlarges nations, and leads them away.
24 He takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth
and makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in the dark without light,
and he makes them stagger like a drunken man.
To bring health and life from illness and death—as suggested by Elihu’s reproof of Job:
Job 33:28–29 He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit,
and my life shall look upon the light.’
29 “Behold, God does all these things,
twice, three times, with a man,
30 to bring back his soul from the pit,
that he may be lighted with the light of life.
To bring confidence—as expressed by David after his deliverance from Saul:
Psa. 27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
Salt for the Land
While the Jewish concept of spreading “light to the world” represents God’s entire reason for Israel’s election as His chosen people—the total evangelization of all peoples on earth—
the “salt” concept has nothing to do with evangelization and is much more limited in scope.
From the example references to “salt”, below; from the record of history; and from a correct translation of γῆ (see above), it is clear to me that by exhorting His listeners to be “salt“, He was commanding them to function as His Covenant people, and by their words and actions, to be a preservative for the Godly remnant in Israel. Only such a Godly remnant could possibly function as evangelists to the world at large.
In the Ancient Near East (ANE) before written records were as ubiquitous as they later became, contracts and treaties were often “sealed” by ceremony. Salt, because of its preservative qualities and its flavor, was often part of such ceremonies. That practice was so prevalent that it was incorporated into Biblical covenants and covenant-related practice without explanation. The first mention in scripture is the instruction for preparation of incense to be burned in the Tabernacle:
34 ¶ The LORD said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part),
35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.
—Exodus 30:34–35 ESV
Grain offerings were also to be seasoned with salt:
You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
—Leviticus 2:13 ESV
Contributions to the priesthood from consecrated meat offerings were to be salted:
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.”
—Numbers 18:19 ESV
The public water supply of the city of Jericho was miraculously purified through application of salt by the prophet Elisha:
19 ¶ Now the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.”
20 He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.
21 Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the LORD, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.”
22 So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.
—2 Kings 2:19–22 ESV
When confronting Jeroboam’s army, Judah’s King Abijah invoked the eternality of the Davidic Covenant by pointing out that it was regarded as a covenant of salt:
Ought you not to know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?
—2 Chronicles 13:5 ESV
Application to the Church
The Church consists of two groups which, together, Scripture refers to as “the Commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12-13): (a) a Godly remnant of physical Israel; and (b) Godly non-Jews grafted into the first group. A full discussion of this doctrine (see Romans 9–11, for example) is beyond my scope here, but both of these peoples, in unity, clearly bear the responsibility to bring light to the world. It is less clear but probably equally valid to assert that both peoples share a responsibility to bring preservatory ministry to each other and to the converts attracted to the light.
I am not pronouncing anything earthshaking in this post. I am pointing out a technical inconsistency in Christian teaching, but not suggesting that we are grossly misdirecting our efforts. I simply think that it is better to correctly understand the Jewish foundations of the Church.