Getting “Salty” for the Kingdom of God

Have you ever thought about the phrase “covenant of salt” or “salt of the covenant”? If you’re like me, you might not have even realized these phrases are in the Bible–I never noticed them until I heard a teaching on it a few years ago. I’ve come back to study salt again now because the grace book I talked about in last week’s post drew my attention to this verse:

Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.

Colossians 4:6, WEB

In Relational Grace, Brent Schmidt says that “in Greek usage,” a conversation described as “seasoned with salt” meant one that’s “enlivened with wisdom” (p. 94). He also mentions “cleansing and preservation” are associated with salt. He does not bring up the covenants of salt mentioned in the Old Testament, but Schmidt does write extensively on the covenanting aspects of grace, and that made me wonder if there might be a “covenants of salt” connection as well. And, as a larger question, what does it mean when God describes us as “salt of the earth” or when He says to “have salt in yourselves?”

Covenants of Salt

In the Torah, God instructed Israel to use salt in some very specific ways. Salt was an essential ingredient for holy incense (Ex. 30:34-35). It was also a vital part of sacrifices.

Moreover, you must season every one of your grain offerings with salt; you must not allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be missing from your grain offering—on every one of your grain offerings you must present salt.

Leviticus 2:13, NET

The phrasing here is such a strong instruction–you must include salt. And it’s repeated three times just in this one sentence! Clearly, the presence of covenant salt mattered deeply to God. The connection between salt and offerings continues throughout the Old Testament (Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Ezekiel 43:24). In addition, God described the portion of the offerings that were given to priests as “a covenant of salt” in Numbers 18:19. The NET footnote on this verse explains

Salt was used in all the offerings; its importance as a preservative made it a natural symbol for the covenant which was established by sacrifice. Even general agreements were attested by sacrifice, and the phrase “covenant of salt” speaks of such agreements as binding and irrevocable. Note the expression in Ezra 4:14, “we have been salted with the salt of the palace.”

NET study note on Num. 18:19

This last line refers to a phrase in a letter where the writers claim “we are loyal to the king,” which is translated from an Aramaic phrase that literally means “we eat the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14, NET). Though covenants are not mentioned explicitly in this verse, it adds another layer to our discussion because of the close connection between loyalty and salt.

In 2 Chronicles 13:5, a king of Judah challenged Israel, saying, “Don’t you realize that the Lord God of Israel has given David and his dynasty lasting dominion over Israel by a formal covenant?” or, in other words, “a covenant of salt?” (NET footnote). The covenants of salt were binding, formal, and intended to be long-lasting. They were something that God–and the people who care about Him–took very seriously.

You Are Salt

With that background, Jesus’s words “you are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) could possibly be read as “you are a sign of the covenants sprinkled throughout the earth,” or perhaps, “you are connected to the covenant and my sacrifice.” Of course, there is also the fact that “Salt was used as seasoning or fertilizer … or as a preservative” (NET footnote), and this may also be connected to Jesus’s words. Still, I think it’s safe to assume Jesus’s listeners–all of them Jews–would have been familiar with the strong covenant connection that salt had and would have assumed that was at least part of His meaning.

Adding further depth to the idea that we, as followers of Jesus, “are the salt of the earth” is the association of salt with incense. During one of the scenes in heaven that’s recounted in Revelation, “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8). Like incense, our prayers are “seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Ex. 30:35, WEB).

Everyone will be salted with fire [many manuscripts add “and every sacrifice will be salted with salt”]. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.

Mark 9:49-50, NET (bracketed line from footnote)

If salt implies a covenant, then the instruction “have salt in yourselves and be at peace” is a covenant imperative. It doesn’t mean we ought to eat more salty foods, but rather that we’re meant to live in loyal covenant with God. It involves following “the God of peace,” who raised “our Lord Jesus” from the dead and equips us to do His will “by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20-21, NET).

Speak Salty Words

Let’s go back now to the verse in Colossians that started this whole post, and read a little bit more of the context.

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone.

Colossians 4:5-6, NET

This part of Paul’s letter is talking about how we “conduct ourselves” or “walk”–“a common NT idiom for one’s lifestyle, behavior, or manner of conduct” (NET footnote). We’re to exercise wisdom when interacting with those outside the faith, use our time well, and be gracious and “seasoned with salt” in the way we speak.

In today’s world, being “salty” implies irritation or hostility. This verse is telling us to do the opposite in our dealings with others. We’re to interact with people in a grace-filled way that is seasoned with wisdom and influenced by an awareness of our covenant with God. As the salt of the earth, we’re meant to remember our covenant loyalty to God and show our faithfulness to Him as we interact with other people.

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Drawn To God

My new favorite Bible Study tool is the New English Translation with its 60,000+ translator’s notes. As I was perusing the pages (you can get a print version or access the whole thing for free online), I noticed the translation notes on Song of Songs take up more space than the actual text. Apparently, not only is this text’s interpretation widely debated, but it is also notoriously difficult to translate. As you might know if you’ve read some of my other posts or my short book God’s Love Story, I favor the interpretation that the Song is both a celebration of human love and an allegory of Christ’s love for the church. With that in mind, here’s one of the verses with a footnote that I found intriguing:

Draw me[a] after you; let us hurry!
May the king bring me into his bedroom chambers!

[note a] The verb מָשַׁךְ (mashakh, “draw”) is a figurative expression (hypocatastasis) which draws an implied comparison between the physical acting of leading a person with the romantic action of leading a person in love. Elsewhere it is used figuratively of a master gently leading an animal with leather cords (Hos 11:4) and of a military victor leading his captives (Jer 31:3). The point of comparison might be that the woman wants to be the willing captive of the love of her beloved, that is, a willing prisoner of his love.

Song of Songs 1:4, NET

Another translation for mawshak in this verse is “Take me away with you” (NIV, WEB). There are nuances of meaning for this Hebrew word (as the NET footnote points out), but the basic one is “to draw, drag, seize” (Brown–Driver–Briggs; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament). Here in Song, and in a few other places as well, it can be understood as “entice, allure, woo” (TWOT). In those verses, it is connected with one of the many pictures God gives us for relating to Him–as a lover alluring, wooing, and drawing His bride to Himself.

Alluring us with Love, Kindness and Grace

Hosea is one of the books that makes the analogy of God as bridegroom and husband most clearly. God instructs the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute because ancient Israel “continually commits spiritual prostitution by turning away form the Lord” (Hos 1:2, NET). God used Hosea’s marriage and his writings to teach that, even though Israel was unfaithful, God still promised “in the future I will allure her,” and then “you will call, ‘My husband’; you will never again call me, ‘My master'” (Hos. 2:14, 16, NET).

Later in Hosea, God talks about how He “drew” (mawshak) Israel out of Egypt “with leather cords” (NET), “with cords of a man” (KJV), or “cords of human kindness” (NIV). Though the NET presents a compelling case for the “leather” translation, I favor “human kindness” because it connects more strongly to the overall theme of God wooing His people that is found so often in Hosea. It would also echo the language God uses in Jeremiah 31:3.

Yahweh appeared of old to me, saying, “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love. Therefore I have drawn you with loving kindness.”

Jeremiah 31:3, WEB

Alternate translations for this passage include “That is why I have continued to be faithful to you” (NET), “That is why I have drawn you to myself through my unfailing kindness” (NET footnote), and “This is why in my grace I draw you to me” (CJB). God’s drawing of us to Himself is prompted by His everlasting love, and it is done with faithfulness and kindness.

Longing for God to Satisfy Us

The time Jeremiah speaks of when God draws His people to Him is followed by a time “when watchmen will call out … ‘Come! Let us go to Zion to worship the Lord our God!’” (31:6, NET). Those who claim the Lord as their God are eager to be drawn, rescued, and gathered by Him (Jer. 31:7-9). Their response here is much like the Beloved in Song of Songs–take me away! draw me after you!–and like that of David in this psalm.

How precious is your loving kindness, God!
The children of men take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
They shall be abundantly satisfied with the abundance of your house.
You will make them drink of the river of your pleasures.
For with you is the spring of life.
In your light we will see light.
Oh continue (mawshak) your loving kindness to those who know you,
your righteousness to the upright in heart.

Psalm 36:7-10, WEB

We can find all we need to satisfy us in the great One who loves us, the Lord our God. We can call on Him to draw us closer, and He will faithfully respond to our longing for Him.

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The Beatitudes, Part Eight: Blessed Are Those Who Have Been Persecuted

This last beatitude is probably the most difficult one to hear. The need for humility as we recognize our spiritual helplessness is something we can wrap our mind around. We know that mourning and grief are part of being human, and we welcome God’s promise of comfort. Gentleness is a fruit of the spirit and a character trait of Christ, so we know that it’s a good thing for us to learn. A hunger and thirst for righteousness is like a hunger and thirst for God. Giving and getting mercy and forgiveness is a familiar theme through scripture. We also know that we’re supposed to become like God, who is pure and perfect, so it’s no surprise that the “pure in heart” are blessed. And God loves peace so much that it seems natural for Jesus to call peacemakers children of God. But then we come to this last one.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Matthew 5:10, WEB

For many Christians around the world and throughout history, the idea that they’ll be persecuted for their faith is not shocking. In fact, Christianity is among the most persecuted religions in the world. Just last year, one report stated that “Christian persecution ‘at near genocide levels'” in certain countries (BBC News, 3 May 2019). More recently, the 2020 World Watch List report released by Open Doors found that “1 in 8 believers, worldwide” “experience high levels of persecution” for their faith in Jesus Christ (click here for more information).

Here in the US, though, we have not experienced anything like this. Moreover, Western Christians in the modern world seem to have a sense that we shouldn’t be persecuted; as if somehow we deserve an exemption because we live in such evolved, democratic societies. And even if we don’t feel like that, persecution is frightening. It may even make us wonder if following Jesus is worth the cost. Perhaps that’s why this is the one beatitude that Jesus immediately elaborates on.

Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:11-12, WEB

If we are persecuted (or worry we may be persecuted), this is the sort of thing we need to hear; a reassurance that we can hold tight to God and that He’ll take care of us. None of us are alone. God’s people don’t fit in with the rest of the world, and from the very earliest Bible records those who follow God faced opposition from the world. But they didn’t face it by themselves and neither will we, because God is on our side. Not only that, but we have a future goal to look forward to which is amazing enough to make whatever happens to us in this life seem like it really doesn’t matter.

Faithful and Righteous

The Hebrews 11 faith chapter comes to mind while reading about those who are persecuted and blessed. All the people listed there were faithful and righteous, and most faced persecutions of some sort. Abel was murdered. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not get along well with everyone they met, and some stole from or cheated them. Joseph was sold into slavery. Moses suffered abuse for Christ (Heb. 11:26, NET). David was hunted by Saul.

Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.

Hebrews 11:35-38, WEB

I don’t much like reading this passage. The whole “sawn asunder” (v. 37, KJV) thing especially bothers me. But I think, like the people these verses are talking about did, we need to focus on this part: “That they might obtain a better resurrection.” Or, to quote a translation I recently fell in love with, “to obtain resurrection to a better life” (v. 35, NET).

The Beatitudes, Part Eight: Blessed Are Those Who Have Been Persecuted | LikeAnAnchor.com

When We Suffer, We’re Being Like Christ

Jesus promises that God has a reward for those who face persecution “for righteousness’ sake.” This isn’t a concept you hear much about in the world today, but righteousness is a key part of scripture. In a broad sense, Thayer’s dictionary defines it as the “state of him who is as he ought to be” (G1343, dikaiosune). God is righteous and He’s the one who models and defines righteousness for us. It involves obedience to God, personal integrity, “purity of life,” and “correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting” (Thayer).

Peter talks about the idea of suffering for righteousness several times in his first epistle. He says that “it is commendable” if you patiently endure suffering you don’t deserve “because of conscience toward God.” That is, after all, what Christ did (1 Pet. 2:19-25). Jesus suffered for our sins and if we suffer for following Him and doing God’s will, well, that’s better than if we were to suffer for doing wrong (1 Pet. 3:17-18).

But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you.

1 Peter 3:14-16, NET (Old Testament quotes bolded in original)

When Peter wrote this epistle, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking back to something Jesus told him and the other disciples at His last Passover here on earth. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. … they will do all these things to you for my name’s sake, because they don’t know him who sent me” (John 15:20-21).

Count The Cost

Suffering as a Christian is pretty much guaranteed. If you aren’t persecuted for righteousness’ sake, scripture makes it seem like that’s actually more unusual than if you are. That’s one reason we’re told to count the cost before following Jesus; because this life demands commitment and sacrifice (Luke 14:25-35). When Paul counted that cost, even with all the persecutions he suffered (2 Cor. 11:23-28), he concluded that nothing else mattered as much as knowing Christ and that the rewards for following Him will be so amazing the suffering seems as nothing (Rom. 8:18-30).

Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be a loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith, that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death, if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:8-11, WEB

Paul says here that he “suffered the loss of all things,” and that’s in addition to all the direct persecutions he talks about in other epistles. But when he counted the cost of following Jesus, he still came to the conclusion that it was all worth the effort. He, like those in the faith chapter, “looked for the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11: 10, WEB). He knew the reward for following God far outweighed any downsides.

Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

The reward mentioned in this beatitude brings us full circle in our series of posts. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said at the beginning of this sermon on the mount, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:5, WEB). The New English Translation puts it a little differently: “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

When John the Baptist and then Jesus came preaching, they both said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:1-2; 4:17). Throughout Matthew’s gospel (other writers use the phrase “kingdom of God”), this emphasis on the kingdom of heaven continues. Jesus told us who would and would not enter the kingdom of heaven, taught us to pray “Let your kingdom come,” and shared analogies for what the kingdom is like (click for verse list).

One of the things Jesus said is, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21, NET). Just a little earlier in the same sermon where He makes this statement, Jesus gives us a succinct guide in the form of Beatitudes to some of the ways we can align ourselves with God. This is what righteousness is about — not being “experts in the law” but going beyond that and learning to truly be like God (Matt. 5:18-20), even to the point that the same people who hate Jesus will also hate us because we are so much like Him. Yes, that may mean we are among “those who are persecuted for righteousness,” but “the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” And I think Paul is right when he says getting into that kingdom and being with God forever is worth whatever we might have to give up or go through in this life.

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The Beatitudes, Part Seven: Blessed Are The Peacemakers

The seventh type of person that Jesus talks about in what we call the beatitudes is the peacemaker. Like the others in this list, they are blessed — fully satisfied by God — and they also receive an additional, specific blessing.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

Matthew 5:9, all quotes from WEB translation

Being part of God’s family is what He desires for everyone who He has called into His church. Here, Jesus specifically links being God’s children with being peacemakers. This is an activity that God, the ultimate peacemaker, does and it’s one He wants us to learn.

Much as in English, the Greek word for “peacemaker” basically means someone who makes peace. “Peace,” in this sense, is a tranquil, blessed state with security and without strife (eirene, G1515). The Hebrew equivalent is shalom wholeness; nothing missing and nothing broken.

Jesus’s Example

In Psalms and Proverbs, it talks about God making peace for His people by blocking their enemies from harming them (Ps. 147:14; Prov. 16:7). Moving beyond simply referring to “peace” as an absence of war, God promises to “make with them a covenant of peace” which will make them secure in their lands and involve God placing His dwelling among them (Ezk. 34:25; 37:26). It’s looking forward to the time when divisions between God and mankind are removed and there can be true, complete peace.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in his flesh the hostility, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man of the two, making peace.

Ephesians 2:13-15

Jesus “made peace through the blood of his cross” and reconciled us to God (Col. 1:20-22). Without that, there would be separation because of our sins, but God cared so much about making peace with us that Jesus died to remove those sins. He established a covenant of peace by giving His life. He was all-in as a peacemaker; fully committed to reconciling humanity and God.

Following Things of Peace

We know we’re to imitate Jesus, and that includes in His commitment to peacemaking. He is the Sar Shalom — Prince of Peace (Is. 9:16-17) — and His people also value peace. If we have His spirit and wisdom inside us, we will “make peace” and sow “the fruit of righteousness” in peace (James 3:17-18).

So then, let’s follow after things which make for peace, and things by which we may build one another up.

Romans 14:9

If you look at this verse in-context, Paul is telling us that how we treat each other is more important than making sure we all believe the same things on relatively minor topics. One of God’s primary expectations for those in His church is that they will live at peace with each other. This requires humility and selfless care for others (Phil. 2:1-4) and a commitment to living out the fruit of the spirit, including peace (Gal. 5:22-23).

A Family at Peace

The Beatitudes, Part Seven: Blessed Are The Peacemakers | LikeAnAnchor.com

God is building a family. He does not want a family full of petty bickering, but one of peace. Right now, there are two fully spirit, immortal members of the God-family: Father and Son. Their relationship is so close that Jesus told us, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Their goal is that we may also be one with them, and with each other in them (John 17:11, 20-23).

See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him. Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure.

1 John 3:1-3

Being children of God involves imitating our Father. Here, John describes that imitation as becoming pure, as God is pure, but we can also include other godly character traits and roles within that goal, including peacemaking. Being a peacemaker is part of living according to God’s spirit — which He gives us as a key part of adopting us as His children — rather than according to the lusts of our flesh (Rom. 8:1-17).

Dear readers, let’s be peacemakers, especially now as we’re living in a time when it’s so easy to divide instead of unite. God has given us His spirit if we’ve committed our lives to Him. And through His spirit, we have what we need to not only be His children, but to act like we’re part of His family by mimicking Him in every aspect of our lives.

The Beatitudes, Part Six: Blessed Are the Pure in Heart

We’ve been looking at the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over the past several weeks. Now we’re up to the sixth of these attitudes that Jesus says result in blessings from God. Those who are “blessed” in this sense are fully satisfied by God, and each also receives a specific blessing to go along with that. For example,

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8, all quotes from WEB translation)

Those pure in their hearts are fully satisfied by God, and they get to see Him. It’s a wonderful thing to think about, though when you start to ponder the idea of seeing God more questions come up. What does it mean to see God? How and when will this happen? And what does it actually mean to have a pure heart in the sense used here?

Washing By Jesus

Purity starts with something God does. Jesus told His disciples that they were “pruned clean because of the word” He spoke to them (John 15:3), and that’s the same Greek word translated “pure” in Matthew’s gospel (G2513 katharos). He also said they were “completely clean” if they let Him wash them (John 13:8-10). Extending this to all believers, Peter talks about God’s work with the Gentiles, saying, “He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). It is God’s work in us that gives us pure hearts; we can’t get to that state on our own.

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The Beatitudes, Part Five: Blessed Are The Merciful

I recently read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson, shortly after watching the film adaptation (both are excellent, by the way; I highly recommend reading and watching). Mercy and justice are tricky things for us humans to balance. We don’t have perfect perspective on every situation. We don’t know all the relevant facts. We want justice but we often mishandle it badly. And for some reason, it’s often hard to show mercy or to convince others it’s a good idea.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7, all quotes from WEB translation)

We all need mercy, particularly from God. We also all need to give mercy, otherwise we won’t receive any. It’s the same principle as forgiveness. As Jesus says just a little later in the same sermon where He gives us the Beatitudes,

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15)

Reciprocal Mercy

The relation between the character trait and how God rewards it is very direct in this particular Beatitude. You give mercy, you get mercy. And it’s not just about passively letting mercy happen or giving it only when absolutely necessary. The Greek word eleemon (G1655) is “active compassion and benevolence involving thought and action.” It is an expression of the love inside you, and it’s closely related to other words like elos (G1656, applied grace, pity, compassion) and eleemosune (G1654, actions of mercy) (Zodhiates’ dictionary). Here’s the only other place this specific form of the word for “mercy” is used in scripture:

Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)

We’re to have the same kind of mercy that Jesus has as a result of His life here on earth as a human being. He learned what it’s like to be human and that gave Him an even deeper compassion for us than God had before (which was already bountiful).

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