The Salt of the Earth

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men” (Matthew 5:13).

Everyone knows sodium chloride when they taste it.

As far as we can tell, salt was the first flavor additive people used; it also served as the means by which many foods were preserved. Salt plays a critical function for all living creatures: it regulates the water content of the body, and the sodium ion is the means by which electrical signals communicate through the nervous system. It is not found naturally in many foods; it must be added to the diet, and our tongues appreciate the flavor. It is therefore unsurprising to see how important and valuable salt has been for humanity throughout its existence; before modern processing methods, when edible salt was more challenging to find and use, it was highly prized. One word we use to describe someone’s wages, “salary,” comes from the Latin salarium, referring to the money paid to the Roman soldiers so they could purchase salt.

Salt was therefore known as an important preservative and seasoning in the ancient world, considered quite precious and valuable, and prized for its distinctiveness. But not all salt is made equal: one has to have almost pure sodium chloride for what we call “table salt,” and most naturally occurring salt deposits contain other elements as well. To this day the majority of the salt mined and processed is not for human or animal consumption but for industrial processes and for de-icing streets and sidewalks in colder climates.

Jesus understands these things, and He also knows that His audience understands these things. Having declared “the Beatitudes” in His “Sermon on the Mount” (cf. Matthew 5:1-12), He begins a series of metaphors describing how the disciples should conduct themselves among others and to what effect (Matthew 5:13-16). The first image used involves salt and its distinctiveness (Matthew 5:13): Jesus declares that His disciples are the “salt of the earth,” and then wonders what will happen if the salt loses its taste. At that point, its essential properties no longer able to be restored, its only value is to be thrown underfoot in order to be trodden upon by men.

Jesus begins with this declarative statement: “ye are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). There is no doubt or question about it. While Jesus might have the preservative function of salt in mind, suggesting that just as salt preserves food, His disciples are the reason the world is preserved, His expansion on the theme shows how He has the distinctive taste of salt in mind. The disciples are the “salt of the earth” in terms of being that distinctive flavor which is immediately recognizable when perceived. The distinctive flavor of salt is both unique in itself and uniquely satisfying to the palate. Its particular value is in its distinctiveness and difference, and that value exists on account of its purity.

While the disciples are declared to be the “salt of the earth” without any expression of doubt, Jesus goes on to ask what will happen if the salt loses its flavor. Can the saltiness be restored? He declares how it is now useless for food and preserving life and can only be used on the ground, just as we do today in order to keep the roads and sidewalks ice-free. Jesus therefore opens up the possibility that the “salt” may not maintain its “flavor” and will thus be rendered almost useless. What we call “table salt” loses its distinctiveness when it is no longer almost pure sodium chloride and other elements are introduced; when it is impure, it cannot be used for food preparation, and is only good for industrial or street use.

Thus we have the key to understanding Jesus’ imagery. Jesus’ disciples are called, justified, and sanctified, cleansed and made pure through faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11, Ephesians 5:25-27, Titus 3:4-6). Jesus’ disciples are therefore distinctive, bearing the name of the Lord, seeking to serve Him in all they think, feel, say, and do, representing the new creation order even in the midst of the old (cf. Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, Colossians 3:17). Such purity, holiness, humility, love, and service is distinctive: it is immediately recognizable when perceived, utterly unique, and ultimately most satisfying both for the one engaged in the practice and those who see and are blessed by it. Such holy and righteous thinking, feeling, and action will draw people toward Jesus the Source of all life, holiness, and righteousness, to the praise of God the Father (cf. Matthew 5:16). When Jesus’ disciples conform to the image of Jesus and present the image of Jesus to their fellow man, their distinctiveness is evident and most satisfying. Perhaps not everyone will agree with Christianity and the Christian lifestyle, but when it is faithfully practiced, it at least garners respect.

But what happens if people profess to believe in Jesus but do not advance in righteousness, holiness, humility, love, and service? Such a “disciple” looks no different from anyone else in the world; there is nothing distinctive about their thinking, feelings, and actions. When there is nothing distinctive about them, of what value do they serve for the Lord’s purposes? Not much: these are the people who bring reproach upon the name of Jesus, besmirching His good name with their worldliness, giving cause for unbelievers to blaspheme. Such people are the “salt” which has lost its flavor; they are thus “thrown out,” to be “trampled upon” like the rest of the world. Impure salt cannot nourish, sustain, strengthen, or provide a distinct flavor; such is only possible with pure salt.

Jesus’ words, therefore, provide assurance and a warning. We cannot be distinctive in holiness or righteousness by ourselves and by our own standing; we must humbly submit in trusting faith before God the Father through Jesus the Son to receive the cleansing that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice in order to begin walking down the path of holiness and righteousness. When we turn to God and begin serving the Lord Jesus we become the “salt of the earth.” But we can only remain beneficial if we remain distinctive, and we can only remain distinctive by maintaining purity. We must seek after pure Christianity through humble service to God, seeking to align our will to His in every way. If we do not maintain that purity, but turn and follow after the lusts of the world, the assumptions and ideologies of the world, or other vain worldly pursuits, then there remains nothing distinctive about us. If there is nothing distinctive about us, we end up suffering the same fate as all of the salt that has always remained impure!

Pursuing justice, righteousness, and holiness is not optional; it is the means by which we maintain our distinctiveness in a world saturated with impurity and vice. Let us remain the distinctive salt of the world, seeking after purity, praising the name of the Lord and being the reason for others to praise the Lord as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Christ Crucified

Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

When people hear about the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries of this era, it is easy to think that either there was not much competition or people were just more ready to accept belief in Jesus as the Christ. This is the way that many who wish to look down upon the faith want to present the situation too, promoting a move away from “primitive faith” in our more “enlightened age.”

In reality, however, the first century was a time of great philosophical engagement. The Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotelian), Stoic, Cynic, Epicurean, and other schools of philosophy flourished, promoted their views, and challenged one another. “Mystery religions” involving exclusive groups and secret rites were popular. There was also interest in the Jewish religion, among others, and the Jews of the first century were very fervent about their religion and their identity.

Christianity, therefore, did not grow without any meaningful opposition. In fact, for many, the only thing that would unify them would be their shared opposition to Christianity!

As Paul indicates, much of the opposition to Christianity came as a result of its central tenets– Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). This idea was not wholeheartedly embraced uncritically by the majority establishment of its day– far from it! Such ideas were as “preposterous” then as they are often reckoned now!

To the Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block. The image comes from Isaiah 8:14 and applied by Paul to Jesus in Romans 9:32-33, and it is very appropriate. The Jews were looking forward to the future Messiah as the King of physical Israel who would deliver them from oppression, restore the kingdom of David, and thus defeat the Romans and establish a Jewish world power. But the idea of the Christ– the Messiah– as crucified is entirely contrary to those intentions, especially the Christ crucified on a Roman cross! Thus, while looking forward to the coming Messiah and waiting to see His signs, Jesus came and fulfilled all that was written of the Christ, and the Jews did not receive Him (John 1:11, Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 24:44). The Jews tripped over the Christ they were not expecting, and their impending doom as a nation was sealed (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 11:7-10).

To the Gentiles, particularly those well-versed in Greek philosophy and Greek thinking, Christ crucified and raised from the dead is foolishness. Many Athenians mocked when they heard of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 17:32). It was folly because the idea of God coming in the flesh, let alone to die, let alone to be raised again (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), was utterly contrary to everything they believed. If God or gods existed, they certainly would not demean themselves to the point of becoming human. Even if such a possibility were imaginable, no divine being of any standing would suffer to live as a peasant and die as a common criminal on a Roman cross, for humility was no virtue to the Greek. Beyond all of this, the idea of the resurrection of the dead was preposterous. Not only did the dead remain dead, and not only were there no instances of the dead being raised, but why would anyone want to be raised again in the flesh? The Greeks imagined that the state of bliss would be found in a disembodied spirit form; the body was a hindrance, not a help. According to the Gentile worldview, Christ crucified and raised simply did not make any sense.

Notice that Paul does not deny this. Paul understands that to the Jew who thinks like Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block; to a Greek well-versed in their philosophies, Christ crucified is sheer folly. Paul knows and confesses that the Jews look for signs but not according to the nature of Christ; the Gentiles seek after wisdom, but it is not the wisdom rooted in God. The Jew seeks the worldly Messiah; the Greek seeks the wisdom of the world. To both, nothing can be more ridiculous than Christ crucified.

And that is precisely the point: to the ways of the world Christianity always has been, is today, and will always remain ridiculous. God as a Jewish peasant executed by the Romans as a common criminal only to be raised from the dead? It is not as if this story has only recently become difficult for many to accept!

In fact, Paul embraces the “foolishness” of the message of Christ crucified. He speaks of how it was God’s pleasure to save people through this “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

Unfortunately, this passage is often used to attack Christianity as anti-intellectual: after all, Paul says that Christianity is “foolishness” that militates against those with knowledge and wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-20), and that only those who are poor and of low station believed (1 Corinthians 1:26). But that is not what Paul is saying! It is true that Christianity was more appealing to those of lower class and lower station, and Paul admits as much in 1 Corinthians 1:26, but there were some of the upper classes and the intelligent who believed. It is not that Christianity is anti-intellectual or truly foolish– instead, it is only anti-intellectual according to the worldly version of intellectualism, and only folly according to the world’s definition of wisdom.

This is why Paul says that God’s foolishness is wiser than men, as God’s weakness is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25)– not that God is really foolish or weak, but that He is so completely superior to mankind that whatever folly and weakness could be perceived in Him is still greater than the wisdom and strength of men!

Intellectualism and worldly wisdom are seductive. Not a few have thought of themselves far more highly than they should have on account of their great learning. Yet, as Paul shows, one can master worldly knowledge and wisdom and yet will still not be able to approach the understanding and strength of God.

We hear the same messages today that Paul no doubt heard in the first century: impressive sounding arguments about the impossibility of Christianity that are, in fact, quite hollow and baseless. Mockery and derision of the faith has been a challenging weapon both then and now. Yet behind all the bluster and the argument remains the fact that the reason Christianity has been vexing to its opponents for all of these years is that it suggests an entirely different way of looking at the world than worldly knowledge or wisdom. Christianity suggests that there is a Creator God to whom we are all subject, and He has established His purposes for mankind in Jesus and the Scriptures (John 1:1-18, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). In Jesus God manifested His qualities– love, humility, compassion, mercy, peace– and they were so disturbing to the establishment of the day that they had Him executed and those who followed Him persecuted. There’s an intractable conflict between the values of God in Christ and the values of the world (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17), and one cannot abide in the wisdom of the world and be pleasing to God.

Christ crucified and raised. According to the ways of the world, this is sheer folly. It does not make sense unless one is willing to reject the ways of the world and trust in the ways of God. Those who are willing to have such faith in God understand His power in Christ and will endure the criticisms and the charges of foolishness. Let us not despair because the critics of the faith assail it as folly; they have been doing so for millennia. Let us instead remain humble, recognizing that God is always stronger and wiser than men, and depend on Him and His Son for our deliverance!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Imitating Christ

Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nevertheless, it is rarely fashionable to be an imitator. People do not tend to like imitation foods, imitation clothing, and especially people who are more imitation than “real.” Many in society crave some sense of individualism, an idea of non-conformity. “Imitation” is seen as the ultimate in conformity.

And yet, somewhat ironically, there is very little out in our world that is not an imitation of something or another. Teenage children (and sometimes older) who want to look “different” still look like their peers– it is more an issue of whom it is that they imitate more than imitation itself. Even the search for individualism and non-conformity is still a following after, or an imitation, of others who have previously sought the same things.

In reality, we all learn by imitation. We learn language as small children through imitating the sounds we hear our parents and siblings and others make. The play of children often involves an imitation of what they see the “grownups” and themselves doing in real life– playing “house,” “church,” “school,” and so on. This is a trend that, perhaps to our chagrin, does not end with childhood. As we grow up we pick up all kinds of cues from our compatriots in life– clothing styles, food preferences, colloquial language, and even various forms of body language. In the end, we are all grand imitators of something.

The question, then, boils down to who it is that we are imitating. It is natural to begin our lives as imitators of our parents. As we grow up, it is easy to begin imitating our peers. If one lives in the world today, one is then easily suggested into imitating celebrities and their ilk. Without any diligent effort to the contrary, we easily become conformed to the image of the world (Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15-17)– if all we ever do is look around us and never upward, we will look and be entirely like what is around us.

This is why Paul desires to set up a different standard for Christians. He calls believers to imitate him as he is an imitator of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Paul’s example is quite profound, as is recorded in Acts 9:1-31, Galatians 1:10-2:18, and in other passages. A former persecutor of the church, he changed his entire way of living and began to preach Christ to any and all who would listen. He received beatings and endured all kinds of shame for the name of Christ. Yet in all things he attempts to set forth a good example of the Christian to imitate– he suffers for righteousness’ sake, is not slack or idle, and strives to do what is right while avoiding the wrong (cf. Romans 12:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10).

But Paul is himself an imitator of the Ultimate Model– Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Son of God and God the Son, the very image of God (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:3). When we see Jesus we see God, and therefore we have the model to which we should all aspire (cf. John 14:5-10). There can be no higher compliment than to be seen as an imitation of Christ!

We have to come to terms with the reality that we live in a world full of imitation. We should be wary of imitating that which is of the world and is vanity; we must instead seek after Jesus and imitate Him in all things. We must be able to discern that which is really worldly and exhort all people to avoid it, no matter how seductive it may be or how supposedly empowering it might seem. Since we must imitate, we would do well to imitate the Author and Completion of life and faith, Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 3:15, Hebrews 12:2). Therefore, since we imitate, let us accept no substitutes or frauds– let us imitate God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Serpents and Doves

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

As Jesus sends His disciples out to proclaim the message of the Kingdom among the villages of Israel He warns them about many of the challenges and difficulties they will experience. In so doing He tells them to be as “wise as serpents” and yet “harmless as doves.”

This statement sounds rather strange to the ear. We rarely consider serpents and doves in the same breath– they are two radically different types of animals. And that is precisely Jesus’ point.

It is not as if serpents are really “wise” or that doves are “innocent.” These are human characteristics that are imposed upon the animals because of their behavior and lifestyles.

Snakes have from the beginning had the reputation of shrewdness and craftiness (Genesis 3:1). They hunt by stealth, slithering quietly to attack their prey unawares. They strive to remain hidden and oftentimes blend in with their surroundings. To this day many people experience a slight shock when coming upon a snake, a type of shock that does not take place when people come upon birds or deer or other similar animals. Therefore, it is understandable that the snake is associated with Satan the Devil and his schemes (cf. Revelation 12:9).

Doves also have represented innocence and peace for a long time. A dove let Noah know that the flood waters had receded (Genesis 8:11). Many doves are white, and white has throughout time been associated with purity, cleanliness, and holiness (cf. Isaiah 1:18). Doves are also very gentle birds– they do not harm other animals and they certainly do not harm humans. Therefore it is appropriate that when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, He does so as a dove (Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22).

We can most certainly understand the reference to doves and the expectation that Jesus’ disciples would not harm people and represent purity and holiness. But how can it be that disciples should be as wise as serpents, considering how the serpent is a representation of the Evil One?

This whole contrast is framed by Jesus sending out His disciples into the world, described as sheep in the midst of wolves. Sheep are loyal followers but otherwise rather dumb. They go where they are directed and they have almost no natural defenses. Wolves, on the other hand, are highly intelligent and ruthless creatures, and they love nothing more than an easy meal. Jesus is sending His followers out into a world where whatever defenses they may have against persecution, temptations, and sin would be easily overcome on their own, and the world has plenty of such temptations.

Since disciples are sent out into a fallen world, therefore, there must be a balance between the dove and the serpent. There is great value in purity, holiness, and innocence, but we recognize that innocence can easily lead to naive thinking and actions and therefore disaster. The innocent are easily exploited and manipulated into falling. Likewise, we understand that there is no virtue in being crooked and full of schemes like the Evil One, but nevertheless there is value in being wise in the ways of the world– not necessarily based on experience, but understanding the means by which exploitation and temptation occur so as to avoid them.

If we desire to be disciples of Christ we must recognize that we, too, are sent out into the world like sheep in the midst of wolves. It is critically important that we do all that we can to avoid sin and to practice righteousness, but we must also be aware of the naivete that can accompany innocence. Therefore, we must have a handle on the way the world works while striving to be righteous servants of God, or, as Jesus would say, to be wise as serpents while remaining as innocent as doves. Let us seek to do so and reflect Christ to the world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Futility in Effort

“Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone– melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts– employment, volunteerism, politics, etc.– will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity– futility– emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hope

For in hope were we saved: but hope that is seen is not hope: for who hopeth for that which he seeth? But if we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it (Romans 8:24-25).

Hope, in the world, is the antidote to despair.  The word only begins to surface when things no longer go well.  When economic times get rough, people hope that conditions will improve.  When someone becomes ill, people hope that they recover.  Yet, in “normal,” positive day-to-day life, hope does not seem as necessary.

The Christian, however, is to live in hope (Romans 15;13, 1 Corinthians 13:13).  There is not a time in which we are not to await the return of our Lord, the redemption of our bodies, and the opportunity to spend eternity with the Lord (Ephesians 1:18, Colossians 1:5).  It is at that point, as Paul says, that we shall no longer hope, for our hope will have been realized.

But that day has not yet come.  We must never be so comfortable in our lives here that we lose sight of our greater hope.  We cannot allow confidence in the riches of this world to lead us to neglect our hope for riches in Heaven.  We cannot be so satisfied with life here that we no longer hope for a better life in eternity.  If earthly blessings sap our hope for heavenly ones, we of all people are most impoverished.

Many people live almost entirely in hope because they do not have the multitude of blessings that we have.  While we may feel sorry for them now, in the long run perhaps we are to be more pitied, if we lose our heavenly hope in the satisfaction of the present.

As long as we live in a sin-sick and tragic world, let us cling to our hope in Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry