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Jesus told His disciples that “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). I was told that the “you” is plural. Is this correct?

Yes, the word you in Matthew 5:13 is plural. It is not only an individual Christian who is salt but the redeemed community of Christians as a whole who are the salt of the earth. The plural you does not eliminate our personal responsibility to function as salt, but it does highlight the responsibility of the church as a whole. This is more striking when we understand that the you is not only plural, it is also emphatic in the Greek text. Jesus emphasizes that His body, the redeemed believers who are following Him, are the salt of the earth.

What is Jesus communicating when He says, “But if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?” 

Understanding the cultural and historical context of Jesus’ words will clarify what He means. In ancient Israel, salt came mainly from the Dead Sea, or more accurately, the Sea of Salt. The Salt Sea is so rich in salt and other minerals that you can literally float in it. I have been to the Salt Sea in Israel several times. Today, salt refineries are located in the region of the Salt Sea, but in Jesus’ time salt refineries were nonexistent. In the first century, salt taken from the Salt Sea was mixed with other chemicals. Over time, the salt left or drained away from the mixture, and all that remained were minerals without salt. The leftover minerals were consequently useless, fit only to be discarded.

Salt without saltiness is useless. Jesus is saying that, when we do not function as salt in our personal and corporate lives, we are not useful; we are not serving the function for which He left us on Earth.

What did Jesus mean by earth when He said, “You are the salt of the earth”?

In context, earth is not the physical Earth but a reference to the people of earth. This means that the scope of the church’s missional and beneficial influence embraces the entire human family and should not be restricted. In keeping with the Great Commission of our Lord in Matthew 28:19–20, Christians are to be a salty witness of God’s love to all people, willing to go anywhere God leads and to share with anyone He places in our path.

What are some of the practical implications of salt imagery for our personal lives today?

Salt imagery has several practical implications for our lives as Christians today. First, we live in a world where sin’s corrupting power is constantly experienced and observed (see Rom. 1:18–32; 2 Tim. 3:1–9; 2 Peter 1:4). The 24/7 news cycle and the pervasive reach of social media heighten our sense of these sinful and corrupting realities. As Christ followers, we should be what Jesus says we are: a penetrating and beneficial influence and gospel force for good, our redeemed presence preserving what is good in this world, keeping it from descent into all-out moral decay and rottenness. It is the presence of the church on earth as salt that has preserved the world from becoming a bag full of morally rotten potatoes!

Second, we are the seasoning of life. It is the presence of Christ-followers living as Christians that gives life its flavor and its zest. We are the seasoning of life and language (see Col. 4:6). Third, we are thirst generators. When we live our lives in the Spirit’s power, we function as salt, generating thirst in others for the things of God and for God Himself.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). Why did Jesus use a salt metaphor to describe His people?

In the ancient world, people valued salt in many ways. Before refrigeration and the canning of food, salt was the main way people preserved meat and fish. In addition, the taste of food mattered then (just as it still does today!). In both the first century and the twenty-first century, people used salt to season their food, and it is one of the oldest and most universal of food seasoning (see Job 6:6).

Given its beneficial properties, salt was an important trade commodity in the ancient world. People sometimes used salt as currency or money. On occasion, a Roman soldier’s pay was a negotiated amount of salt. This payment was called salarium, from which we get our word salary. The expression “not worth his salt” comes from this practice.

With this understanding of salt’s value and beneficial properties, the Lord Jesus, the master teacher, used salt imagery to help us understand how we are to function as Christians in a fallen world. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth”—we are to be people whose grace-filled lives act to preserve, flavor, and value those around us. I suspect that the first hearers of these words were stunned with the magnitude of the practical implications of the metaphor.

BY Dr. Winfred O. Neely

Dr. Winfred Neely is Vice President and Dean of Moody Theological Seminary and Graduate School. An ordained minister, Winfred has served churches across the city of Chicago, the near west suburbs, and Senegal, West Africa. He is the author of How to Overcome Worry (Moody Publishers) and a contributor to the Moody Bible Commentary and Moody Handbook of Preaching. Winfred and his wife Stephne have been married for forty years and have four adult children and nine grandchildren.

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