Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mark 9:49-50 > Lessons in Spiritual Saltiness

Audio available here
As we return to the Gospel of Mark today, we pick up where we left off and find two verses that are the subject of much debate among interpreters. One respected scholar says of these two verses, “It is almost impossible to guess their meaning.” Another says, “Perhaps no passage in the New Testament has given more perplexity to commentators than this and it may be impossible now to fix its precise meaning.” Yet another refers to these two verses as “the most difficult in the New Testament.” There have been at least fifteen different interpretations offered for verse 49 alone. The expression, “For everyone will be salted with fire,” has been called by one writer, “something of a puzzle,” and another says, “It’s meaning and particular point here are not easy to grasp.” So, the temptation for the contemporary preacher is to just avoid them altogether and move on. However, in 2 Timothy 3:16, the Apostle Paul does not say that “Some Scripture” has been inspired by God and is profitable for us, but that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Therefore, we must not be too quick to jump past words spoken by our Lord Jesus and inspired by the Holy Spirit for inclusion in God’s Sacred Book. We must wrestle with the text as we have it and seek out its meaning for our own understanding and application, that by these inspired words we might be taught, reproved, corrected, and trained in righteousness.
It is relatively easy to see that the word “salt” is important for our understanding of the passage, as it occurs six times within these two verses. Salt was used for many purposes in the ancient world. It was so valuable that troops in the Roman army were paid with salt, giving origin to the words “salary” and “soldier.” So, what does Jesus mean when He takes up this familiar and important object of human life and uses it symbolically here to convey spiritual truth to His disciples?
We would do well to recall the context of this passage. Think back to the beginning of this larger section of Mark’s Gospel and remember that in verse 31, Jesus spoke of His own betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection that would occur. But the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask Him what He meant. Now, as they walked along toward Capernaum, the disciples were disputing amongst themselves which of them was the greatest. Jesus used this as an opportunity to teach them than servanthood was the key to greatness in the Kingdom of God (v35). The disciples began to discuss with Jesus an event that had taken place where they had reprimanded someone who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. At this Jesus corrected them and taught them that the work of God’s kingdom was larger than what these twelve were doing. And from this, He moved on to speak of the severity of causing others to sin, saying it would be better to have a millstone hung around one’s neck and be cast into the sea than to lead someone else astray into sin. And then He spoke of the severity of sin in our own lives, indicating that we must be willing to remove the sources of sin by whatever sacrifice is necessary so that our lives might be totally consecrated for God’s purposes. These sacrifices may be extremely costly, but they were necessary to following Christ in the path of discipleship. This brings us to the verses we focus on today and the perplexing statement, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” By keeping the context fresh in our minds we are able to understand and apply these words and those which follow as lessons in spiritual saltiness.
I. Fire is the Salt of the Followers of Christ (v49)
As we think about the uses of salt, the most obvious one in our minds is the flavoring that salt adds to food. We also know that a proper balance of salt in the body is essential for survival. But prior to the practice of canning and artificial refrigeration, salt was also used as a preservative to keep food from spoiling. In addition it had medicinal value as an antiseptic. Babies were swaddled in salted cloths. It is interesting that in some cultures where salt is more rare, swaddling cloths were soaked in camel urine because of its salt-content. That gives new meaning to the phrase, “Pass the salt, please.” We still use salt for antiseptic purposes today, such as when we gargle with salt-water. So important was salt to the ancients that one Jewish maxim stated, “The world cannot survive without salt.”
There is a spiritual parallel with salt. God desires that our lives be seasoned appropriately for His use. He desires to preserve us from ruin and keep us clean for His holy usage. And so He “salts” us. But He does not “salt” us with the familiar white granules of salt from the shaker; He salts us with “fire.” This fire is indicative of the trials, tribulations, and costly sacrifices we endure as we follow Christ.
In the Old Testament, before a sacrifice was placed on the altar, it was “salted.” For instance we read in Leviticus 2:13, “'Every grain offering of yours, moreover, you shall season with salt.” The reason for this is stated: “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.” So salt, when added to a sacrifice, became a symbol of God’s covenant with His people. The early Christian church clearly understood this as a background to Jesus’ statement. In fact, as the New Testament was being transmitted from manuscript to manuscript by hand, some well-intentioned scribe offered to help the reader by inserting the words, “and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.” These words are retained in the King James Version, though we now know that they are not found in the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts.
In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul said that Christ’s followers must offer their bodies as living and holy sacrifices to God. Like the sacrifices of old, the living sacrifice we offer of ourselves to God must be seasoned with salt. This salt, Jesus said, is the fiery tribulations we undergo as we live for Christ. Through these ordeals, God is purging away the impurities of our lives and everything that is contrary to His will. As salt preserves and seasons food, so the Christian life is purified and matured as it undergoes the salting of fiery trials in the process of becoming living sacrifices for God.
But remember that the salt of the sacrifices was a symbol of God’s covenant love for His people. So Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 4:12-14, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” And in 1 Peter 1:6-7, he said, “now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
So, while we find ourselves on the fiery altar of trials and tribulations as we become living sacrifices for Christ, we must remember that God has allowed these things to come our way with the salt of His covenant. His love for us in not diminished, His presence does not abandon us, and His purpose for us in the midst of these ordeals is to season us, to preserve us, and to heal us that we might become more and more like the Lord Jesus, who was the ultimate salted sacrifice of God’s covenant. So this is the first lesson of spiritual saltiness found in this passage: Fire is the salt of the followers of Christ.
II. True Spiritual Salt Retains Its Saltiness (50a)
“Salt is good,” Jesus says. By this, He does not mean “good” in the moral sense, as if salt is more noble or more excellent than sugar. Rather, He means that salt is “good for something”; it is useful; it has a function and a purpose. We have already mentioned many of them. But all of the purposes and functions of salt depend on the salt remaining salty. This seems a bit odd to us, for the salt we are familiar with, “table salt,” is refined salt, 99% sodium chloride. However, this is not how salt is found in nature, and it is not the salt with which the ancients would be familiar. In most ancient societies, salt was derived from bodies of salt water. In ancient Israel, the most prominent source of salt was the Dead Sea. This salt was a mixture of different minerals, and over time and with exposure to the elements, these minerals would dissolve and separate from one another. By the time it reached the hands of the consumer, it may still look like salt, but it would have no flavor or a totally different flavor. The first century author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder observed that the salt of the Dead Sea can lose its savory qualities and become insipid. He noted that it may, for instance, become mixed with gypsum and other impurities and acquire a stale and alkaline taste. In addition to these natural processes which could deprive salt of its saltiness, there was also the common practice of artificial adulteration. Some unscrupulous merchants would mix salt with other minerals, or else pass off other minerals that looked like salt, which may be salty for a little while, but in time, would lose its saltiness. Once this happened, the salt was no good. Jesus said in Matthew 5:13 that it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
The ancients understood that not everything that looks like salt or that is called salt is really salty. It may be a worthless substance masquerading as salt. The spiritual lesson begins to become evident now. Spiritual salt, that work of God whereby He seasons and preserves His people and uses them to season and preserve the world around them, never loses its saltiness. Though Christians are exposed to the trials and tribulations of life, their salt remains salty, and they remain useful to God. But not everyone who calls themselves Christian really is. Some are artificial Christians, like the pseudo-salt peddled by the crooked merchants. Some are adulterated Christians, having mixed Christianity with the elements of other belief systems, superstitions, and myths like the salt from the sea which was mixed with gypsum, magnesium, and other elements. As these undergo the fire of testing, their true nature is revealed, and that which appeared to be salt is found to actually be unsalty. They have no spiritual usefulness, and they cannot be “refreshed” unto saltiness again. God is not at work in them or through them for His purposes of seasoning and preservation. They are indeed in danger of being thrown out and trampled underfoot.
True Christianity is an eternal reality. There are no temporary Christians. Salvation is a work that God begins and a work that God completes. So when a person undergoes trials and subsequently abandons the Christian faith or never demonstrates any evidence of perseverance, that person is no genuine Christian. Like salt that loses its saltiness, the person demonstrates themselves to be an artificial or an adulterated Christian, in other words, not a Christian at all. True salt retains its saltiness through whatever trials and tribulations may come.
III. Salt Finds Its Purpose When It is Sprinkled On Something Else (50b)
One of the best books on evangelism I have ever come across is Rebecca Manley-Pippert’s book called Out of the Saltshaker. That is a very fitting title for a book on sharing the Gospel, because as Jesus called us to be the salt of the earth, we do very little good for the world when we are huddled together in the shaker. But when the salt is sprinkled out of the shaker, it can do its work of seasoning and preserving. Jesus concludes these sayings about salt by saying, “Have salt in yourselves.” If you have the seasoning and preserving work of God going on within you, you have become like a saltshaker. But salt doesn’t affect salt. It affects that which it is sprinkled upon. Therefore, as a result of having salt in yourselves, Jesus says, “and be at peace with one another.” Remember that He is speaking to a group of followers who have been arguing with each other and have treated at least one outsider in a very combative manner. That is not what salt should do. Salt should sprinkle out of us bringing us into peace with one another. Our maturity in Christian discipleship will demonstrate itself through our personal relationships. As we have received grace from God, we should extend that grace toward others. We must sprinkle the salt out of the shaker, that the seasoning and preserving work of God would take place not only in us, but through us as we interact with others.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth.” We are sprinkled out on the world as a flavoring, as a preservative, as an antiseptic agent of God making the world around us different for the glory of God. So we must learn the lessons of spiritual saltiness. We must not despise the trials and tribulations and sacrifices that come our way as followers of Christ, knowing that these are the fire by which God is salting us to make us more savory for His own purposes. And the genuineness of our salt will be demonstrated through perseverance through these difficulties. If one loses his or her saltiness, they demonstrate themselves to have never been pure salt in the first place. And finally, our spiritual salt finds its purpose when it is sprinkled out of us on others, enabling us to be at peace with one another, and furthering the cause of Christ in the world.
In many parts of the world, when two individuals who were formerly enemies sought reconciliation with one another, one would offer the other a portion of salt as a symbolic gesture. This salt signified that they were no longer enemies, but had become friends. God has offered us the salted sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ as a means of reconciling us to Himself from our sins. And it may be that some today need to partake of God’s offer of salt by turning to Christ as Lord and Savior.


Anonymous said...

Wow... the Word of God is powerful and it's amazing to see how many lessons are in just two little verses. Thanks that helped me understand a little better!

Gabrielle said...

This is an amazing and true explanation. Thank you for breaking these two very important verses down. I was in the middle of reading Chapters 8-9 and was so perplexed by this passage Jesus speaking of the worm and the fire and especially understanding the symbolism of the salt. WOW! revelation on what my role is as a Christian just was heighted by this comentary. Thank you and bless you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much.. I realized that these passage has wonderful meaning for us. I felt again his great love toward us.

Thanks a lot..

Anonymous said...

This was really fantastic, thank you for helping to enlighten me on these passages and the symbolism of salt. It can really make the gospels come to life when you can put yourself in the shoes of the writer or the writers audience.
Keep up the great work!

Lungisa said...

Wow! Thank you so much for explaining this. Appreciate it so much. God bless.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much!!

S. Perez said...

Thank you and may God bless you.

Catara Bolling said...

This is soooooo good! The joy I feel within myself from the understanding of this teaching its phenomenal! I totally understand now why I go through things! I can now have peace in my mind, heart, and soul. Thank you!