What an intriguing image, a statement shrouded in obscurity yet possessing a number of profound possibilities. Not an exhortation to get fired up but possibly referring, at least in part, to being passionate. It could be a promise, similar to that found in Joel 2:28, that something unique is about to happen among Christ’s followers. And in fact, Acts 2:1-4 records the literal fulfillment of that promise, the “tongues of fire” ushered in by a violent wind signifying the disciples’ receipt of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost; their understanding of the gospel message significantly enhanced and their passion for ministry dramatically empowered. All of which reminds us that John the Baptist used similar language in describing Jesus as baptizing with the “Holy Spirit and with fire.” Matthew 3:11; as well as Jesus’ own promise of a Holy Spirit baptism recorded in Acts 1:5. (Paul later warning us of the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit or putting out its fire through neglect or misuse. Ephesians 4:30 & 1 Thessalonians 5:19)
What all does this cryptic pronouncement really entail? Could more than one issue be dealt with in this single statement? The preceding verses of Mark 9:43-47 make mention of the expected sacrifice of those struggling with temptation originating in various “parts” of their bodies; advising their removal for the greater good rather than being drug down by them into sin, death and hell. Which could interject a whole new line of thought into this scripture. (See Revelation 20:15 & Jude 23)
For the Jews of the Old Testament, salting a sacrifice before it was put to the fire signified purity and personal investment in the sacrifice. (Leviticus 2:13; Ezekiel 43:24) Salt also symbolizing a binding relationship – or covenant – based on commitment and obligation on both sides. (Numbers 19:2; 2 Chronicles 13:5) The practical as well as symbolic uses of salt clearly seen throughout history, as an agent for seasoning food followed closely by its ability to preserve it. It was used by a number of faiths as a sign of fidelity and enduring commitment. Over time it came to stand for hospitality, durability and purity of thought and deed. In fact, partaking of bread dipped in salt, an offer of a costly – even precious – commodity by a comrade or King, bound you to them in an unbreakable league of friendship and service. Salt even had restorative powers as meat was either dipped in a mixture of salt and water – called brine – to strip away the beginnings of decay or stored in it, as a preservative, for transport over long distances.
In cultures throughout the Mediterranean, Aegean and Asiatic Seas, salt became a medium of exchange and was taxed heavily as a luxury product throughout the Orient; literally used as money in the form of salt cakes in Ethiopia and Tibet. The English word salary formerly represented a soldier’s allowance for salt (an absolute necessity for the body to function properly, especially when under physical stress or duress), which was derived from the Latin Salarium, referring to the salt allotment issued to the Roman Legions. This general idea of worth, preservation and “leavening” in our lives as Christians is echoed in Paul’s admonishment of Colossians 4:6, “Let your conversation (not just limited to verbal communication) be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Which brings us back to Mark 9:50, immediately following Jesus’ pronouncement of our being salted with fire, where he comments on the value of salt’s “saltiness” in our lives and warning against losing its “zesty” influence.
For I believe salt, at least in part, represents the “spice of life” the Holy Spirit adds to our lives and the function we ought to supply to the world. (The desired effect Jesus wants to have on every believer’s life found in John 10:10) Jesus declaring that we are to be, “…the salt of the earth.”; adding a special ingredient and flavor to an otherwise bland world, like leaven – permeating the whole of creation and influencing the outcome of countless lives. (Matthew 13:33) A related function we are to play in the world is as light, purposefully lit to be seen, used as a beacon and path-finder to Christ and salvation (Matthew 5:13-16). The fiery experience of His sacrifice serving as a light of compassion, even as it reminds us that our God is indeed a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) as well as the embodiment of love expressed through that redemptive act. (1 John 4:16)
There seems to be an almost good news – bad news aspect to this idea of being salted with fire, Isaiah 4:4 combining the functions of judgment and cleansing – even restitution – through fire even as Ezekiel 16:4 speaks of the ritual of rubbing a newborn with salt. (Probably to cleanse, dry and firm the skin, possibly symbolizing purification and dedication.) John’s gospel telling of God’s all-encompassing love (John 3:16) alongside Luke’s description of one of Jesus’ functions as a “winnower”, separating useless chaff from the much-needed wheat; burning the chaff with “an unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:7-18 (Which raises the subject of fire’s function as punishment listed throughout both Testaments. (See Matthew 5:22; Revelation 20:14 & Joshua 8:28; Judges 9:45; Jeremiah 48:9) Paul’s teaching of a “refining” fire found in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
Could there then even be a prophetic forewarning of trial and tribulation to this “difficult” teaching of Jesus. After all, he did advise his disciples that, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” John 15:20 Paul warning that, “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3:12
So which is it? A cause for joy, a directive for service, a threat of punishment, a possibility of cleansing and redemption – a warning of trouble to come? I really try hard not to “force” scripture to mean something it doesn’t, but in researching this particular verse it just seemed so full of possibilities that I chose to list them all; with the potential to enrich our lives and expand our knowledge in a number of ways. The important thing to remember is, “All scripture is God breathed (No matter how hard to understand at the moment) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, (If we will but take the time to ponder it) so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16
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