Mark 9:49 records an enigmatic saying of Jesus, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” This is a quite striking, if not confusing, image. Imagine a salt shaker being shaken over your head with fire coming out of it.
Understandably, Mark 9:49 has raised and still raises many questions.
In fact, sometime in the early centuries of Christianity, someone added an explanatory clause to the verse, “and every sacrifice will be salted with salt” not found in the oldest manuscripts of Mark. Many modern translations (NRSV and ESV, for example) relegate it to a footnote. The clause, however, may provide helpful insight into the original meaning.
The additional phrase points the way to one interpretation of Yeshua’s saying by referring to Leviticus 2, which describes ancient Israel’s grain offerings. A grain offering included fine flour mixed with oil and (for the uncooked ones) frankincense. Salt was also included, as we read in verse 13, “You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”
Grain offerings involved both salt and fire. A portion (including all of the frankincense, which is not edible) was burned on the altar. The rest was used to make bread for the priests.
The Hebrew word for a grain offering is mincha, a word that more broadly refers to a gift or tribute—brought, for example, to a king—showing reverence or submission. The present that Jacob prepared for Esau at the time of their reunion (Gen 32:13) was a mincha. One presenting this kind of offering showed dependence upon and loyalty to God, acknowledging him as King.
The salt in the grain offering is called “the salt of the covenant” in Lev 2:13. Salt symbolized permanence (see Num 18:19). When you made a grain offering, you were pledging a lasting commitment to the covenant.
The part of the offering that was burned was called the memorial portion. It asked God to remember the covenant and to act on behalf of the one making the offering. Prayers would have accompanied the offering, perhaps a prayer like Psalm 86.
Salt was also used in other offerings. In animal sacrifices at the Temple, it was put into a carcass to soak out the blood. The salt had a purifying effect. On the purity of salt, Ex 30:35 refers to the special incense for the tabernacle as “an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy.”
Moving forward with this line of interpretation, “everyone” in Mark 9:49 could then refer to all of Yeshua’s disciples. They are salted, implying they are sacrifices. This familiar New Testament motif is exemplified in Rom 12:1, where Paul exhorts Christians “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Eph 5:2 refers to Messiah Jesus’ death as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” and calls upon his followers to imitate him.
Earlier in Mark, Jesus said to his disciples that, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” Mark 8:34-35.
In accord with this understanding, each disciple is a mincha—a gift to the King, dependent upon and loyal to God. To the Master, each of his disciples is precious (Mark 9:42).
How, then, does the concept of fire fit? It could be the fire of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, the Spirit came upon the disciples in “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3). Salt enhances the flavor of meat and purifies a carcass. The Spirit sets us apart and dedicates us to God. So the salting with fire could mean receiving the fire of the Spirit.
The fire could also be the fire of suffering and persecution, which has a purifying effect (see 1 Peter 1:6-7; 4:12-16). Mark 9:49 could be about the nature of discipleship, which can involve suffering for the sake of Jesus. We are purified with the fire of the Spirit and the fire of suffering. We are sacrifices dedicated to God.
There is another entirely different interpretation of Mark 9:49 based on the fact that in Hebrew, to “salt” something can mean to destroy it completely. Judges 9:45 gives one example. When Abimelech attacked Shechem, “he captured the city and killed the people who were in it, and he razed the city and sowed it with salt.” Sowing a city with salt was a symbolic action signifying that nothing was to grow from that soil again.
This interpretive approach to the Mark 9:49 text fits well with the preceding context. Verses 43-48 warn against letting a recurring sin prevent one from entrance into the kingdom of God. In this reading, “everyone” in verse 49 would mean all those thrown into the fires of hell, and being “salted with fire” would mean their utter destruction.*
Interestingly, though history offers two very different interpretational paths for Mark 9:49, both emphasize the importance of how we respond to Jesus.
Will we be totally committed to him and be salted by the purifying fire of the Spirit and suffering? Or will we reject him and be salted by the fire of destruction?
* See Weston W. Fields, “‘Everyone Will Be Salted with Fire’ (Mark 9:49),” Grace Theological Journal 6 (1985), pp 299-304.
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