Its been said that a person is only as good as his or her word and in the opening verse of Mark chapter nine, Jesus gave His word regarding an event that was sure to take place…
“And He said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power'” (Mark 9:1).
Translators have taken a number of different approaches in order to effectively communicate the meaning of the word “assuredly” as seen in the verse quoted above. For example, this word has been rendered as “truly” (MKJV), “verily” (ASV), “believe me” (Phillips), and even, “I can guarantee this truth…” (GW) in various translations. Whenever this term is used to begin a sentence in the Scriptures, it indicates that whatever Jesus is about to say next is absolutely certain to take place. In this instance, Jesus promised that “…some of the people standing here will not die before they see God’s kingdom come with power” (CEV).
One of the challenges involved in properly interpreting this promise involves the way in which we define the idea of “God’s kingdom.” For instance, we can say that the “kingdom of God” can exist in any place where God reigns and people follow Him. In this respect, the kingdom of God may be present in a church, a prison, a hospital, a school, or even someone’s life. Jesus once explained the idea behind this concept in a conversation with the religious leaders of His day…
“Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you'” (Luke 17:20-21 NIV).
In a broader sense, the kingdom of God will be completely fulfilled upon Jesus’ return as detailed within the book of Revelation (see Revelation 1:7). However these definitions do present a certain difficulty when looking at Mark 9:1 because everyone who had been with Jesus at the time He made this statement has long since passed away. Because of this, Mark 9:1 has been traditionally understood as a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (see John chapter 20), the advent of the Holy Spirit that took place as recorded in Acts chapter two, or to the event that we are about to read about next in Mark chapter nine.
“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2).
So Jesus took Peter, James, and John (the three disciples who comprised something of His “inner circle”) away to an unnamed mountainous area. It was there that Jesus was “transfigured” before the disciples and “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3).
To help communicate the overwhelming magnificence of Jesus’ appearance, Mark turned to an analogy that anyone could appreciate- that of a freshly washed article of clothing. In the New Testament era, people would sometimes take their clothing to a launderer called a “fuller” in order to have a garment cleaned. The fuller would start the cleaning process with a substance known as lye. This highly alkaline material was combined with some oil to form a kind of detergent. The fuller would then take the clothes to be washed and put them in a vat. After adding the lye solution, he would then proceed to trample the contents around inside the vat in order to work the detergent through the clothes.
After this process was complete, the clothes were removed from the vat and treated with a vinegar solution. While vinegar may not seem to be an obvious choice for use in laundering clothes, the action of the acidic vinegar was useful in neutralizing the effect of the alkalinic lye. After a final rinse, the clean article of clothing was ready to be worn once again.
While this process was undoubtedly effective, it was also very caustic- after all, we still use lye today to help unclog plumbing systems. The main idea is that Jesus’ clothes were whiter than even that intensive process could make them.
This account also tells us that Jesus’ physical appearance was changed or transformed. The original word used to describe what took place in this passage is a form of the word metamorphosis, a word that we use today to describe a complete change in form, structure, or appearance. One commonly used illustration of this word involves the process that takes place when a caterpillar spins a cocoon and turns into a butterfly. In a similar manner, this verse carries the idea of a transformation and not just a change in outward appearance. So this overwhelming brightness wasn’t like a spotlight that illuminated Jesus from a distance but instead came directly from Him.
However, Jesus’ transfiguration wasn’t the only thing the disciples witnessed during this time. We’ll see what else they saw next.
“And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus” (Mark 9:4).
If Jesus’ transfiguration wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah, two well-known Biblical figures from the Old Testament suddenly appeared to speak with Him. One possible way to understand the reason behind this unusual meeting would be to consider what each of these great men of God represent.
For instance, Moses is probably best known as the person who received the law of God in the Old Testament. He was the man that God used to produce the first five books of the Old Testament, a group of books that are collectively known to us today as “the Law.” Then there is Elijah, a man who is known as one of Israel’s most famous prophets and the person who was to precede the Messiah (see Malachi 4:5 and Matthew 11:11-14). So if we were to consider these two men in terms of what they stood for, we might say that we have Moses and Elijah -representing the Law and the Prophets- with Jesus, the Person to whom they had been pointing in the Old Testament.
So these two great Old Testament men of God began to converse with Jesus and the Gospel of Luke provides us with the subject of that conversation…
“Suddenly, both Moses and Elijah were talking with him. They appeared in heavenly glory and were discussing Jesus’ approaching death and what he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:30-31 GW).
In reading through the gospels, we find that Jesus expressed a clear desire to speak with His disciples about His impending crucifixion and all that it represented. However, it seems that whenever He attempted to do so, His disciples either didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to communicate or attempted to talk Him out of it (as was the case of Peter in Mark 8:31-32). It was also difficult for Jesus to talk with His disciples about His approaching death because (as He would later go on to say), “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).
But now with Moses and Elijah, Jesus had two men of God who possessed the ability to grasp and appreciate the enormity of the sacrifice that He was about to make and allow Him to discuss those things in a meaningful way. However, someone who was not a part of that discussion was suddenly about to interject himself into the conversation with an ill-timed comment…
“Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’— because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid” (Mark 9:5-6).
One question that may arise from a look at this passage is this:“How did Peter know that the two individuals with Jesus were Moses and Elijah?” After all, Elijah had passed away about nine hundred years prior to the events of Mark chapter nine and Moses had died about fourteen hundred years earlier. Unless each of these men carried some form of personal identification, how can we account for the fact that Peter knew who they were?
Well, we’re not told exactly how Peter was able to positively identify Moses and Elijah but we can make some general observations. For example, we can say that -at the very least- Moses and Elijah must have been personally recognizable as individual persons. We can also say that Moses and Elijah each maintained the same personal identity they possessed in life even though they had long since passed away. We can see other, similar Biblical examples in the lives of Abraham (see Luke 16: 19-31) and Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7-19) as well.
Because of this, we should have confidence that we will maintain our individual identities when we pass from this life and that we will be able to recognize others as individual persons in the afterlife as well.
In saying, “‘Teacher, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah'” (CEV), Peter may have been referring to a commemoration known as the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles was a festival that was observed to commemorate the nation of Israel’s journey through the wilderness prior to reaching the land that God had promised to them. During this feast, the people of Israel were commanded to live in booth-like temporary shelters just as they had done during the period prior to reaching the Promised Land.
Whatever the exact reason for making this statement, it seems that Peter may have felt somewhat inferior in the presence of men like Moses and Elijah. In fact, it almost appears as if Peter wanted to demonstrate that he had the ability to do something that would make it worthwhile to let him stay around. In any event, we’re about to see that Peter’s attempt to start a conversation didn’t last very long.
“Peter said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ Peter did not know what to say, because he and the others were so frightened” (Mark 9:5-6 NCV).
We’re told that Peter, James, and John experienced a great sense of fear over what was happening before them- and that fearfulness prompted Peter to say something –anything– in response. Like Peter, people today are sometimes tempted to speak in situations when it might be more appropriate to simply listen and observe. Unfortunately, Peter’s statement carried little (if any) forethought and serves to remind us of an appropriate Biblical proverb: “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut” (Proverbs 10:19 NLT).
“And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!'” (Mark 9:7).
The association of a cloud with the presence of God was something that the disciples could have easily recognized from Israel’s historical record as seen within the pages of the Old Testament. For instance, when the nation of Israel wandered through the wilderness for forty years before reaching the Promised Land, we’re told that God led them by a pillar of cloud during the daylight hours (see Exodus 13:21-22). Later on when the Old Testament Tabernacle was completed, “…the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (see Exodus 40:34-38). So this experience (frightening as it may have been for the disciples) was not without historical precedent.
So first we had a representative of the Old Testament Law in the person of Moses and a representative of the Prophets in the person of Elijah as they each came forth to speak with Jesus about His impending death. Now we have the arrival of the highest authority- God the Father.
When God spoke from within the cloud that overshadowed them to say, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him,” He confirmed Jesus’ authority and commanded Jesus’ disciples to give Him their ultimate attention:“Hear Him!” (NKJV). While Moses and Elijah were both great men of God, this statement clearly placed Jesus in a superior position to each of them along with the Law and the Prophets they represented. This authoritative declaration tells us that Jesus was not just another (or better) lawgiver or prophet; He is God’s beloved Son.
“Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!'” (Mark 9:7 NIV).
A look at the Gospel of Matthew’s account of this event provides us with a piece of additional detail regarding God’s message to Jesus’ disciples: “When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified” (Matthew 17:6 NIV). This response is important to remember especially when we consider how casually people use such superficial terms such as, “the man upstairs” or “the big guy” in referring to God. While many people seem to feel comfortable referring to God in this manner, the reality is that anyone who experienced a real encounter with God in the Scriptures certainly did not treat that encounter in such a casual or trivial way.
For example, consider the way in which Peter, James, and John reacted to the voice of God in these verses. First, we should keep in mind that these three disciples were former sailors who had once made their living on the sea prior to their involvement with Jesus. Yet these tough, rugged, ex-fishermen fell face down on the ground in terror when they experienced the voice of God. The Old Testament prophets Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:1-5) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:25-28) also reacted in a similar manner to the voice and presence of God as well.
The point is that this encounter with Peter, James, and John should remind us that God’s presence is fearsome, powerful, and awe-inspiring- and He is certainly not to be referred to in the casual or flippant manner that people often do today.
“Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves” (Mark 9:8).
Another look at Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (Matthew 17:7-8 NIV).
It’s interesting to note that this passage specifically tells us that Jesus came into physical contact with Peter, James, and John following these events. This helped reinforce the fact that what the disciples saw was an actual event and not simply an illusion or hallucination. In fact, this whole experience must have left a powerful impression in the minds of these disciples as demonstrated by something that Peter later wrote about this event. We’ll see what Peter had to say about what happened in these verses next.
“When we told you about the power and the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling clever stories that someone had made up. But with our own eyes we saw his true greatness.
God, our great and wonderful Father, truly honored him by saying, ‘This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him.’ We were there with Jesus on the holy mountain and heard this voice speak from heaven” (2 Peter 1:16-18 CEV).
There is a seemingly endless variety of different myths and legends concerning events that supposedly took place at one time or another. Of course the problem with things like myths and legends (whether they be ancient myths or modern day urban legends) is that the events they refer to never actually took place- that’s why they’re called legends or mythologies and not histories.
For those who might have been inclined to dismiss the report of Jesus’ transfiguration as a just another myth or legend, the Apostle Peter made certain to separate fantasy from reality when he said, “…we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (NKJV). Then he provided some eyewitness testimony to back up his statement: “For example, we were eyewitnesses when he received honor and glory from God the Father and when the voice of our majestic God spoke these words to him: ‘This is my Son, whom I love and in whom I delight.’ We heard that voice speak to him from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain” (GW).
This was something that was clearly fixed in Peter’s memory as evidenced by his ability to recount this event in such great detail under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, Peter assured his readers that the account of Jesus’ transfiguration was no story, myth, or legend. Peter knew what he saw and heard on the mount of transfiguration and he said in effect, “I personally experienced everything that I’m reporting to you about this event and can verify it’s accuracy.”
Much like Peter, James, and John on the mount of transfiguration, we may also find Jesus to be someone who is much greater than we originally expected. Remember that the real miracle that took place in Mark 9:2-8 was not so much related to the fact that Jesus was transfigured before His disciples; the real miracle was that His power, glory, and majestic perfection had actually remained hidden from view.
“Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant” (Mark 9:9-10).
We already seen Jesus instruct a number of others to remain quiet concerning the things He said and did. However, the instructions found in the passage quoted above represent the last time that He will do so in the Gospel of Mark. This directive to maintain secrecy was set to expire upon Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, for it was not until after Jesus had risen from the dead that His disciples would really be able to grasp the significance of what they had seen and be able to accurately report on what it meant.
As alluded to in the previous chapter (see Mark 8:29-30), its likely that the disciples did not completely comprehend everything they saw and heard from Jesus during their time with Him. For instance, the fact that the disciples questioned what Jesus meant by “rising from the dead” tells us that they did not yet possess a clear understanding of His real mission. Since there was little place for the idea of a humiliating death and resurrection within the Messianic thought of that time, it’s not surprising to learn that the disciples questioned what this meant. But later on we’re told in John 12:16, “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him.”
To their credit, we’re also told that the disciples “…kept the matter to themselves” (ESV). Unlike some others that Jesus encountered in the Gospel of Mark, Peter, James, and John obeyed His request for secrecy. Like the man healed of leprosy in Mark 1:40-45 or the people who witnessed Jesus heal a deaf man with a speech impediment in Mark 7:31-37, its easy to understand how the disciples might have found it difficult to restrain themselves from telling others about the things they saw and heard. But while these others chose to disregard Jesus’ instruction (and actually made it more difficult for Him to minister to those in need) the disciples showed their respect for Jesus by simply doing what He asked them to do.
Their willingness to follow through on Jesus’ direction may help explain why they were personally chosen from among the others to witness the miracle of Jesus’ transfiguration.
While the disciples puzzled over Jesus’ statement concerning “rising from the dead” it seems that the sight of Elijah on the mount of transfiguration brought forth another question in the minds of these men…
“And they asked Him, saying, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?'” (Mark 9:11).
If we wanted to rephrase this question, we might do so by saying, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must precede the appearance of the Messiah?” This represents a perceptive question, for the Old Testament book of Malachi tells us, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. (Malachi 4:5 NIV). It’s possible that the religious leadership of Jesus’ day had dismissed the idea that Jesus might be the promised Messiah on the basis that Elijah had not appeared before Him as promised in the Old Testament Scriptures. But now that Elijah had appeared, the idea behind the disciple’s question seems to be, “If you are the Messiah then how could this promise regarding Elijah have been fulfilled?”
In response, Jesus offered an intriguing reply…
“Then He answered and told them, ‘Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt?'” (Mark 9:11).
In His response, Jesus broadened the parameters of their original question by saying, “…don’t the Scriptures also say that the Son of Man must suffer terribly and be rejected?” (CEV). While it was certainly true that Elijah would appear before the promised Messiah, the more immediate question revolved around the fact that the Messiah would suffer and be rejected. The Living Bible paraphrase of this verse helps to illuminate this idea by rendering Mark 9:11 as, “Then Jesus asked them what the prophets could have been talking about when they predicted that the Messiah would suffer and be treated with utter contempt.”
By redirecting His disciples thinking in this manner, it appears that Jesus made an effort to encourage His followers to think through the implications of their question. As one commentator observes, “Having admitted that the scribes are correct in this that they say, Jesus goes on to suggest that ‘restoring all things’ cannot mean just what on the surface it seems to mean, since Scripture foretells for the Son of man much suffering and humiliation.” (1)
(1) James Burton Coffman Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible http://www.studylight.org/com/bcc/print.cgi?bk=40&ch=9&vs=12
“Jesus answered, ‘They are right to say that Elijah must come first and make everything the way it should be. But why does the Scripture say that the Son of Man will suffer much and that people will treat him as if he were nothing? I tell you that Elijah has already come. And people did to him whatever they wanted to do, just as the Scriptures said it would happen'” (Mark 9:12-13 NCV).
In responding to His disciples’ question, Jesus first confirmed that Elijah had indeed preceded Him just as the Scriptures promised. That promise was fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist.
We can establish this relationship between John the Baptist and Elijah when we consider that their respective ministries were built on loyalty to God and the bold proclamation of His Word. In addition, Elijah and John wore similar clothing and each faced opposition from some of the leading political figures of their day.
Luke 1:17 goes on to tell us that John’s ministry went forth“…in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous– to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Jesus also said of John the Baptist, “…if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 11:14-15 NIV).
So John the Baptist was not a reincarnation of Elijah or even Elijah himself; instead Jesus identified John as a type (or representative) of Elijah who fulfilled the promise of the Scriptures. One commentator explains that connection like this…
“…when the Pharisees asked John the Baptist, himself, in the Gospel of John (John 1:20-25) if he was Elijah, he flatly denied it. This seeming contradiction can be handled by the fact that John denied that he was a resuscitated Elijah, but Jesus affirmed that John symbolically fulfilled the preparation ministry of Elijah. They both dressed and acted in similar ways, so the identification would be obvious in the minds of the Jews who knew about Elijah and who heard and saw John the Baptist (Luke 1:17). (1)
So Jesus responded by effectively saying, “Elijah has come and has prepared all things as predicted. But he was not recognized and was rejected and killed.” But He added one final caveat by reminding His disciples that just as it was written that Elijah must precede the Messiah, it was also noted that the Messiah will suffer many things and be treated contemptuously as well.
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and 1 & 2 Peter http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL02/VOL02A_09.html
Although Jesus had already dealt with a number of different demonic entities within the Gospel of Mark, verses 14-29 of Mark chapter 9 represents the final time we’ll see Him do so within this Gospel. While Matthew (Matthew 17:14-21) and Luke (Luke 9:37-42) also record the event that we’re about to read of in these verses, Mark’s account includes some important details that are not found anywhere else…
“And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them. Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him” (Mark 9:14-15)
Upon returning with Peter, James, and John from His transformative experience on the mount of transfiguration, Jesus arrived to find His remaining disciples engaged in an argument with some religious leaders. It appears that a crowd had gathered to watch this dispute but their interest in this quarrel quickly dissipated when Jesus (apparently unexpectedly) arrived on the scene.
Upon His arrival, Jesus took control of the situation by questioning these religious leaders concerning the nature of their disagreement- and that’s when a third party stepped forward to explain the situation…
“And He asked the scribes, ‘What are you discussing with them?’ Then one of the crowd answered and said, ‘Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not'” (Mark 9:16-18).
The disciple’s inability to cast out this demonic being from within this man’s son helps explain the most likely reason for the dispute between the scribes and Jesus’ disciples. Of course, we might ask why these religious leaders didn’t choose to deal with this demonic entity themselves and then correct the disciples later- unless perhaps they were unable to do so or were simply more interested in an attempt to discredit Jesus’ followers (and Jesus by extension).
From the description provided by the father in these verses, it appears that his son was suffering from some sort of demonically influenced epileptic condition that led to the seizure condition he described. But before we continue with this account, it might be helpful to look at what the Scriptures tell us about such things and how those spiritual realities intersect with modern medical knowledge. We’ll consider those questions next.
“‘…Teacher, I brought my son so you could heal him. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. And whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…'” (Mark 9:17-18).
Demonic beings are far from the cute little pitchfork-carrying troublemakers or cartoonish pranksters they are sometimes made out to be. The Scriptures identify demonic entities as angelic beings who have chosen to join the devil in his rebellion against God. We find this rebellion spoken of in the New Testament book of Jude where we read of “…the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home…” (Jude 1:6) and in 2 Peter 2:4 where we’re told that “…God did not spare angels when they sinned…”
The Scriptures also tell us that demons are responsible for inflicting a number of maladies and painful physical conditions upon human beings. According to the Bible, demonic activities have been responsible for causing or contributing to…
- An inability to speak (Matthew 12:22)
- Deafness (Mark 9:25)
- Blindness (Matthew 12:22)
- Physical infirmity (Luke 13:10-17)
- Mental instability (Mark 5:1-5)
- Seizures (Mark 1:26)
- Self-destructive behavior (as we’ll see later here in Mark chapter nine)
While demonic beings have been responsible for causing or contributing to such physical disorders according to the Scriptures, it’s important to understand that this does not necessarily imply that demonic activity is behind every sickness, disease, or physical affliction that people experience. After all, we’ve already seen Jesus heal a number of people in the Gospel of Mark without any mention of demonic involvement (see Mark 1:30-31, Mark 5:25-29, and Mark 8:22-25 for some examples). Its also beyond question that many sicknesses and diseases are the result of natural or medically explainable causes that can be readily identified, treated, and in many cases, prevented.
The fact is that there are nurses, physicians, surgeons, mental health specialists and countless other health care professionals who have given their lives to help people successfully overcome sickness and disease. We should be thankful and appreciative of their hard work and dedication and not presume that an evil spirit is victimizing everyone who becomes sick.
However, it would also be a mistake to assume that such demonic affliction does not exist at all. We should be aware of the clear Scriptural teaching that demonic activity is genuine and that demonic beings have been responsible for inflicting serious physical harm upon people.
While the Scriptures do not provide us with a detailed answer to that question, one possibility emerges when we consider that certain organizational structures appear to exist within the demonic realm. For instance, Ephesians 6:12 tells us that, “…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Later on, the New Testament book of Jude will reference “…the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6 NIV).
The use of words such as “rulers,” “powers” and “principalities” (or “authorities”) in these passages seems to indicate that a type of organizational structure exists among demonic beings with different spiritual entities possessing greater or lesser power and authority.
It also appears that there are different levels of evil among demonic entities as well. For example, Jesus once spoke of a situation where an evil spirit sought out seven other evil spirits that were more wicked than itself (see Matthew 12:43-45). This would indicate that there are some demonic spirits who are more evil than others. The New Testament book of 2 Peter also tells us that there are other demonic beings who have apparently committed acts that were so exceedingly evil that God has placed them in “chains of darkness” until the time of their final judgment (see 2 Peter 2:4).
In this instance, the demonic being that the disciples had come up against was apparently more stubborn and difficult that any of those that they had previously encountered- that is, until the Master arrived to take over for His trainees.
“He answered him and said, ‘O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.’ Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth” (Mark 9:19-20).
It’s difficult to know exactly to whom Jesus was speaking when He said,“‘You people don’t have any faith! How much longer must I be with you? Why do I have to put up with you?'” (CEV).
For instance, he may have been speaking to the boy’s father, a person who will later admit to possessing a certain level of unbelief. He might have been speaking to anyone within the group of spectators who held a greater interest in witnessing the spectacle of a demonically possessed human being than in seeing that person delivered from such an affliction.
Jesus also could have been speaking to those in the religious leadership who seemed to be far more interested in arguing with the disciples than in addressing the heartfelt plea of a father whose son was being tormented. Or He might have been speaking to the disciples, a group who had been given the specific authority to address such issues but had failed to do so in this situation. Its also possible that these comments were not addressed to any one specific group or individual, but to the collective assembly of everyone who was present.
In any event, we can say that the disciples inability to act in faith under Jesus’ authority certainly reflected poorly on Him and may account for Jesus’ tone of frustration, exasperation, and obvious displeasure in these verses. This response serves to remind us that others are continually watching and evaluating a Christian’s relationship to Christ- and the quality of that relationship reflects upon Jesus for better or worse.
Just as the disciples represented Jesus to those they encountered here in the Gospel of Mark, everyone who identifies as a Christian also represents Jesus to those whom he or she interacts with on a daily basis. It’s important to remember that people will often judge Christ by those who claim to represent Him- and as we’re about to see, the disciple’s failure to deal with this situation will negatively impact this father’s view of Jesus and His ability to effectively handle this problem.
“So He asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’
Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!'” (Mark 9:21-24).
In John 8:44, Jesus identified the devil as “a murderer from the beginning” and the destructive nature of this child’s demonically influenced affliction illustrates the spiritual reality behind that statement. This ongoing situation must have created a tremendous burden upon the other members of this family who found themselves in the role of caregivers with a responsibility to protect this boy from himself.
In response, this young man’s father said in effect, “I asked your disciples to deal with this but they couldn’t. If you can do something, please have compassion and help us!” The man’s statement is understandable. The Master’s students couldn’t help him- his only hope now is the Master Himself. But in saying,“If you can do something…” this man seems to indicate that his belief in Jesus’ ability to effectively deal with this situation was somewhat in question.
However, Jesus turned his statement around by saying, “If you can believe, all things are possible” (emphasis added).The real question was whether this man could believe that Jesus would heal his son. While this man might have lost faith in Jesus’ disciples, the question was whether He still possessed faith in Jesus Himself.
Some translations translate Jesus’ response as an exclamation: “If you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” You see, the skeptic has no place to turn when all apparent options are exhausted in a given situation because those options are limited only to what he or she can physically see or experience. But the person who places his or her trust and faith in God never runs out of options because the possibility always exists for God to act miraculously in a given situation.
The believer holds that since God exists, and because He is God, He has the ability to move on our behalf in unexpected and unanticipated ways if He chooses to do so. Therefore, “all things are possible to him who believes.”
But is anything really possible for someone who believes? We’ll look at that question next.
“”Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes'” (Mark 9:23).
As touched upon earlier, a statement like “…all things are possible to him who believes” may sound like something out of a child’s fairy tale or an irrational response to the harsh realities of life. It can also sound like a substitute for intelligent, objective thought that exchanges reason and intellect for wishing and hoping. In fact, a person who might be inclined to use this statement against Jesus could choose to do so in the following manner…
- Jesus said that all things are possible to him who believes. Can I make a square circle if I only believe?
- Could I create a force that could move an immovable object if I believe?
- Is it possible to make something both true and false at the same time and in the same way if I believe?
The short answer to each of these questions is “no.” To understand how and why that answer intersects with Jesus’ seemingly ironclad promise in Mark 9:23, we need to consider two things: the nature of these questions and the context of Jesus’ statement.
Lets first take a moment to consider the nature of these questions. In asking if something like a square circle could be created (through belief or any other means) the questioner actually presents the respondent with a logical error. In this instance, the error occurs when we consider that as soon as one attempts to place a corner on a circle in order to make it a square, the circle immediately ceases to be a circle. Because of this, the question logically precludes any possibility of an answer.
The same idea is true when looking at the “irresistible force vs. the immovable object” question. This question assumes that two separate entities each possess the greatest amount of power or ability, a statement that is internally inconsistent since only one of these entities can actually be the “greatest.” The question then attempts to increase the power of one through belief, an attempt that potentially introduces a third “greatest power.” We can see a similar concept in the “true and false” question as well; the question creates a condition where something is true and not true at the same time and in the same way.
Each of these questions contain an inherent contradiction, thereby invalidating them as a result. For this reason, we can confidently dismiss such possibilities in seeking to apply Jesus’ promise in Mark 9:23. We’ll consider the role that context plays in interpreting Jesus’ statement next.
“‘What do you mean, ‘If I can’? Jesus asked. ‘Anything is possible if a person believes'” (Mark 9:23 NLT).
While it may be tempting to view Jesus’ statement that “…All things are possible for one who believes” (ESV) as an invitation to pursue things like comic book superhero powers, its important to consider the context in which Jesus made this comment.
Remember that “context” refers to “the part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” (1) In other words, the surrounding chapters and verses of the Scriptures help determine what each individual passage really means. In looking at the context of Mark 9:23, Jesus’ statement tells us that He is not offering a license to pursue anything we might desire or something that is categorically impossible. Instead, Jesus’ answer tells us that genuine, sincere, authentic belief in Him can accomplish that which might ordinarily seem impossible.
This response provoked one of the most honest and heartfelt statements in all Scripture…
“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!'” (Mark 9:24).
We might understand this father’s reply to mean, “Lord, I understand that you can do it; help me to believe that you will do it -help me in what is lacking in my faith.” In response, we should note that Jesus did not reprimand this man for his heartfelt answer nor did He refuse to offer His assistance. Here’s what Jesus did…
“And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose” (Mark 9:25-27 ESV).
Word travels fast in a situation like this and Mark noted that Jesus saw a crowd of people quickly moving in. So rather than provide the spectacle of an exorcism for the gratification of this fast-approaching crowd, Jesus instead chose to move forward immediately to release this man’s son from the oppression under which he had been suffering. Unfortunately, this particular entity did not leave willingly and made an apparent (and unsuccessful) attempt to kill the boy before departing. However, Jesus demonstrated that the child was indeed alive and well by helping him to his feet, no doubt to the relief of the boy’s family.
(1) American Heritage Dictionary Of The English Language 3rd Edition
“And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ So He said to them, ‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting'” (Mark 9:28-29).
Following their failure to successfully deal with this case of demonic possession, the disciples took advantage of an opportunity to speak with Jesus privately to find out why. In His response, Jesus’ indicated that prayer (some versions add “and fasting”) represents an important prerequisite in order to effectively carry out the work of God. While Jesus had previously provided His disciples with the authority to cast out demons (as seen in Mark chapter six), He did not provide them with a method for use in doing so. It’s possible that some cases of demonic possession involve spiritual entities that are so stubborn and entrenched that fasting and a specific request of God is necessary to effectively deal with them.
Its also possible that the disciples might have taken their authority over these spiritual entities for granted. In other words, the disciples might have been trusting more in their ability to cast out demons instead of exercising faith in the God who had provided them with that ability. A look at the Gospel of Matthew’s account of this passage helps shed some light on this possibility…
“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you'” (Matthew 17:19-20).
If the disciples simply assumed that they now had the ability to do such works in Jesus’ name, it may help to explain their failure in this situation. Even though Jesus had provided them with the authority to deal with such demonic entities, the power to do so still originated with God- and if belief in their own ability had displaced belief in God, unbelief was essentially the result.
One way this belief (or dependence) upon God is expressed is through a lifestyle characterized by prayer. The close, constant communication with God through the act of prayer helps prepare us to faithfully deal with the unforeseen challenges of day to day life. It helps align us with God’s agenda for daily living and equips us to successfully address the difficulties we encounter- including those that may seem particularly stubborn or unyielding.
“Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, ‘The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.’ But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:30-32).
This journey through Galilee represented Jesus’ last visit to this region prior to His crucifixion. We’re told that Jesus kept His itinerary quiet during this trip in order to spend time teaching His disciples and preparing them for what was ahead. This approach would help avoid potential distractions from the crowds and enable Him to devote His full attention to the men who would carry forth the Gospel following His death and resurrection.
The message that Jesus communicated to the disciples during this period involved what they should expect regarding Him. While many in the Jewish community were anticipating a heroic Messianic conqueror, Jesus advised His disciples to expect something very different: ”The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead'” (NLT). Unfortunately, the disciples didn’t grasp the meaning of Jesus’ message and were afraid to inquire any further.
This response was not unlike the response of those today who choose to establish an image of “God” from a source other than the Scriptures. You see, the concept of an all-powerful God who holds people accountable for every word and action is just too frightening for some people to contemplate. When faced with that potential reality, it’s tempting to respond by recreating God in our own image and establish the idea of a “higher intelligence” or superior being that’s based on what we think that being should be. Since the path that God actually calls us to follow can sometimes be challenging and difficult, this represents an easy way to deal with the uneasy suspicion that we will eventually have to answer for our actions to our Creator.
The problem arrives when God turns out to be different from what we anticipated Him to be. God has always been who He said He is, but He may not necessarily be who we say He is if our image of Him is based on something other than the Scriptures. However, the person who aligns his or her beliefs about God with the teachings of the Scriptures need not be fearful of anything to come (see 1 John 4:7-18).
“Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?’ But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34).
Having made His way through the region of Galilee, Jesus arrived back in Capernaum for what will be His last recorded visit there. Upon reaching His destination however, Jesus posed an apparently unexpected question to His disciples: “‘What were you discussing as we were traveling?'” (CJB). It seems that the disciples were reluctant to answer this question in light of the discomfort that an honest response would bring. Of course, the fact that the disciples were talking and arguing over which among them was greatest helps uncover what was likely the real issue, for as Proverbs 13:10 tells us, “Pride only breeds quarrels…” (NIV).
But since the disciples were interested in knowing who among them was the greatest, Jesus showed them the right way to settle their argument…
“And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all'” (Mark 9:35).
Whenever someone is about to impart an important piece of information, he or she will often sit down with those to whom they are speaking in order to discuss the subject at hand. In a similar manner, Jesus sat down and called for His disciples in advance of His remarks in this passage. In doing so, Jesus signaled that He was about to assume the role of a teacher, much as a first century Rabbi might gather His students together in order to discuss some important information.
In telling His disciples, “‘Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all'” (GNB), Jesus encouraged His followers to adopt a provocative way of thinking. For instance, those who are considered to be among “the greatest” in society are usually those who are thought to be the most talented, physically attractive, or athletically gifted. There are others who believe that the way to be number one is to “do whatever it takes,” even if “whatever it takes” means acting immorally, illegally, or unethically. While such beliefs are commonly held within virtually every culture, Jesus will identify those attitudes as the wrong examples to follow- and He will go on to use the example of His own life as a pattern.
“Jesus sat down and called the twelve apostles to him. He said, ‘Whoever wants to be the most important must make others more important than themselves. They must serve everyone else'” (Mark 9:35 ERV).
One important aspect of Jesus’ character involves His willingness to lead by example. In teaching His disciples about the importance of servant leadership, Jesus chose not to ask His followers to do something that He wasn’t willing to do Himself…
“…Jesus called them together and said, ‘Among the heathen, kings are tyrants and each minor official lords it over those beneath him. But among you it is quite different. Anyone wanting to be a leader among you must be your servant. And if you want to be right at the top, you must serve like a slave.
Your attitude must be like my own, for I, the Messiah, did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many'” (Matthew 20:25-28 TLB).
The attitude of humility that Jesus speaks about in these verses is a personal characteristic that generally involves things like courtesy, respect, a modest self-opinion, and a willingness to perform in a menial or servant-like capacity. It also represents the kind of attitude that is the opposite of the conceit, arrogance, or pride that we often see evidenced within the social structures that exist in our world today.
On the other hand, the great men and women of God in the Bible demonstrated the same attitude of humility that Jesus spoke about in these verses. For example, John the Baptist was someone who led by example in this area…
“(John’s disciples) came to John and said, ‘Master, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River-the one you said was the Messiah-he is baptizing too, and everybody is going over there instead of coming here to us.’
John replied, ‘God in heaven appoints each man’s work. My work is to prepare the way for that man so that everyone will go to him. You yourselves know how plainly I told you that I am not the Messiah. I am here to prepare the way for him- that is all… He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less'” (John 3:26-28, 30 TLB).
The Scriptures also provide us with some further insight into this subject through a letter that Paul the Apostle wrote, a letter that we know today as the Biblical book of Titus. We’ll take a look at Paul’s God-inspired counsel on this subject next.
“Jesus sat down, called the twelve disciples, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all” (Mark 9:35 GNB).
In the Biblical book of Titus, Paul the Apostle provided some practical advice that can help us apply Jesus’ teaching on service and leadership…
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus 3:1-2 NIV).
This portion of Scripture reminds us that our beliefs need to be backed up by our actions. You see, most people won’t ask for a detailed statement of our spiritual beliefs. Instead, all they really need to do is look at the way we live and observe the choices that we make. That’s because our choices and lifestyles tell everyone about the things we really believe. If others observe a self-professed Christian acting respectfully, humbly, unselfishly, and in a servant-like manner, then those things will confirm that he or she is really following Jesus’ teaching on humility.
So how is it possible to apply these characteristics in our everyday lives? Well, Jesus once provided an illustration that we can customize and apply in many different life situations…
“If you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t always head for the best seat. For if someone more respected than you shows up, the host will bring him over to where you are sitting and say, ‘Let this man sit here instead.’ And you, embarrassed, will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table!
Do this instead- start at the foot; and when your host sees you he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place than this for you!’ Thus you will be honored in front of all the other guests. For everyone who tries to honor himself shall be humbled; and he who humbles himself shall be honored” (Luke 14:8-11 TLB).
Remember that God is the One who has allowed us to receive those things that we happen to possess (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-7). That would encompass such things as talent, skill, material possessions, and even time. Those who conduct themselves with humility honor the One who has provided those things. As we’re reminded in the book of Proverbs, “Humility and reverence for the Lord will make you both wise and honored” (Proverbs 15:33 TLB).
“Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me'” (Mark 9:36-37).
Among the many details that emphasize Jesus’ humanity in the Gospel of Mark is this seemingly offhand remark that Jesus took a child in His arms as He spoke these words to His disciples. As young children are often prone to squirming, giggling, climbing, bouncing, or laughing in such situations, Jesus’ embrace of this small child while making these important remarks reveals the warmth and depth of His personality. This small detail (mentioned only by Mark) also helps illustrate the high regard that Jesus had for children as He used this young boy to help provide an object lesson for His followers.
To grasp the revolutionary nature of this concept at the time that Jesus spoke these words, we simply need to return to the first century era and observe some of the cultural standards that existed during those days. You see, the Roman Empire ruled over most of the known world during this time and children born within that culture really had no civil rights as we understand them today.
The Roman society of that time considered an infant to be an actual, legal person only if the father officially recognized and accepted that child. In practical terms, this meant that the parents of a baby or young child could legally abandon or sell their child into slavery if they decided against keeping that child for some reason. In fact, it was actually legal to murder an unwanted child during this time if he or she was disfigured or deformed in some way. Because of this, the idea that “Whoever will give honour to one such little child in my name, gives honour to me…” (BBE) was something that was far outside the societal norm, at least within the Roman world.
But even within the seemingly more “family friendly” Jewish culture of that time, there was undoubtedly a prevailing attitude that children should be seen and not heard. Rather than potentially regarding these children as a mere bother or an annoyance, Jesus encouraged His disciples to imitate His response and view these seemingly insignificant members of society as valued human beings who were created in God’s image.
“Now John answered Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side'” (Mark 9:38-40).
If we wanted to provide a description for this passage of Scripture, we might do so with the caption, “Us and Them.” In this short section, Jesus provides us with some insight on how to interact with others who claim to be associated with Him but may not be a part of our own spiritual group.
It seems that Jesus’ just-completed teaching on service, humility, and true greatness prompted John to recall a previous incident in which he may have neglected to adhere to Jesus’ teaching in this regard. It involved a situation where an unaffiliated (and apparently unauthorized) individual had been involved in expelling demonic entities. Unlike a later incident in which a group of seven brothers with no real connection to Jesus were beaten severely in a similar attempt to invoke Jesus’ name (see Acts 19:13-17), it seems that this person was a genuine and sincere follower of Jesus as evidenced by the fact that he had been successful in fulfilling this ministry. Nevertheless, John sought to restrict this man from continuing since he was apparently not a part of any group that Jesus had previously authorized to do so (see Mark 6:7 and Luke 10:17).
In correcting John, Jesus instructed His followers to look at the “big picture” when evaluating another person’s ministry. For instance, consider what this “outsider” was doing- he was casting out demons, something that would generally be considered to be a good thing. In light of this, Jesus’ message tells us we shouldn’t try to prevent someone from doing good in Jesus name, even if we would not necessarily go about engaging in that ministry in a similar manner.
In addition, Jesus said, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me…” (NIV). This indicates that a person who is involved in a Christ-oriented ministry is probably someone who is less likely to do something inappropriate, at least while on the job.
The apostle Paul also picked up on a similar theme in his writings. We’ll look at what Paul had to say on this subject next.
“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he wasn’t in our group.’ ‘Don’t stop him!’ Jesus said. ‘No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40 NLT).
In considering Jesus’ message to His disciples in these verses, it might be helpful to look at the Apostle Paul’s counsel to the church at Philippi …
“Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that all that has happened to me has helped to spread the Good News. All the Roman guards and all the others here know that I am in prison for serving Christ. My being in prison has caused most of the believers to put their trust in the Lord and to show more courage in telling people God’s message.
Some people are telling the message about Christ because they are jealous and bitter. Others do it because they want to help. They are doing it out of love. They know that God gave me the work of defending the Good News. But those others tell about Christ because of their selfish ambition. Their reason for doing it is wrong. They only do it because they think it will make trouble for me in prison. But that doesn’t matter. What is important is that they are telling people about Christ, whether they are sincere or not. So I am glad they are doing it…” (Philippians 1:12-19 ERV).
For Paul, the fact that the truth about Jesus was being made known was the thing that was most important, irrespective of motive. This “big picture” approach is an important factor to consider when seeking to apply Jesus’ counsel here in Mark 9:38-40. When coming into contact with others who are working in Jesus’ name, Jesus instructs us to refrain from any attempt to forbid such people from doing so, even if that work is greatly dissimilar to our own.
However, Jesus did not necessarily instruct us to assist or promote such ministerial activities either. As John the Baptist once said, “God in heaven appoints each man’s work” (John 3:27 TLB) and if it’s possible to find common ground on the non-negotiable essentials of Christianity then at the very least, we can accept one another in Christ.
While we may not always agree on what others are doing or why, it’s important to recognize that we are individually responsible to God and will eventually answer to Him. As the Apostle Paul also reminds us…
“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4 NIV).
“‘…No one who works a miracle in my name can turn around and speak evil of me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us'” (Mark 9:39-40 GW).
While the statement, “Whoever isn’t against us is for us” may not sound very controversial when taken at face value, this message seems to contradict something else Jesus said as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew…
“‘Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me'” (Matthew 12:30 NLT).
A look at the context in which Jesus made these statements can be useful in clearing up any misconceptions regarding these two passages. Let’s take Jesus’ comment here in Mark chapter nine first. The context of this remark concerns a person who represents (or at least claims to represent) Jesus in some capacity. The question has to do with whether it was appropriate for Jesus’ disciples to forbid such a person from doing so on the basis of the fact that he or she was not associated with their particular group.
In response, Jesus indicated that it would be wrong to attempt to hinder such work because such a person (at the very least) was sympathetic to Jesus and His mission. At a minimum, he or she was moving in the right spiritual direction and helping to advance Jesus’ agenda. In this sense, a person in these circumstances is working for Jesus and not against Him.
The context for Jesus’ statement in Matthew chapter twelve was quite different. The context for that statement concerned the religious leadership’s contention that Jesus had received His ability to cast out demonic beings from Satan himself. (see also Mark chapter three). Since these religious leaders were so vehemently opposed to Jesus’ work and ministry, they were effectively working against Him by the things they said and did.
In one sense, both statements represent the opposite sides of the same spiritual coin. The idea in both instances is that neutrality towards Jesus is not possible. Those who represent Christ may belong to wildly dissimilar groups yet still maintain the common overall goal of advancing Jesus’ agenda. The person who rejects Jesus’ program for his or her life effectively works against Him despite what he or she may personally believe…
“Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'” (Matthew 7:22-23).
“For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Mark 9:41).
Its sometimes easy to feel a sense of inadequacy in looking at others who possess the talent, skill, or opportunity to represent Christ in a highly visible position. For instance, a minister who is busily involved in serving the needs of a congregation may not have as much time for sermon preparation as desired and find it difficult to measure up against other speakers that a congregation can access through various forms of media.
A musician who has the privilege of leading a small group of God’s people in worship may quietly long for a greater opportunity to minister to a wider audience. Those with the gifts of leadership, administration, or evangelism (to name a few), may wonder why God has not opened the door to utilize those gifts more extensively. For those who feel this way, Jesus’ message from Mark 9:41 may help provide a useful change of perspective.
Although Jesus previously instructed His disciples to look at the “big picture” in evaluating another person’s ministry, He also encouraged his followers to look at the “little picture” when evaluating his or her own personal ministry. For example, the act of providing a cup of water may seem insignificant but it’s not so much the act of providing a cup of water as what that act represents that’s really important. Jesus tells us that even a small act of kindness, concern, or hospitality will not go unnoticed or unrewarded when that act finds it’s origin in our relationship to Christ.
In addition, the simple act of providing a cup of water to a fellow Christian in need demonstrates more than we might think- it demonstrates a personal concern for the thirst, fatigue, or need for refreshment in others that less-concerned individuals might miss or simply ignore. Because of this, the seemingly insignificant act of providing a cup of water can actually help to reveal the existence of other important, foundational, God-honoring character traits.
In light of these things, it’s important to recognize faithfulness as a greater standard of spiritual measurement than mere opportunity. It’s our responsibility to be faithful to God in acting on those appointments that He provides regardless of how small or insignificant they may seem to appear…
“…’I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did for me'” (Matthew 25:40 GW).
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).
In an imperfect world, there are any number of things that may lead to misunderstandings between people. For instance, there may be external (and unrelated) factors that help influence the way that others perceive us, factors that may render it impossible to change another person’s perception. If we consistently seek to live, work, and relate to others in a God-honoring manner in such instances, then we can be confident that we’ve done the best we can.
However, there is a difference between unintentionally causing others to stumble and purposefully causing others to fall away from the faith. The word “stumble” as used in this passage literally means “to cause to fall” and carries the idea of a person who entices, traps, or leads another person to do something wrong. To illustrate the depth of displeasure that Jesus felt towards such a prospect, He utilized the extremely graphic concept of a heavy weight tied to an individual’s neck as he or she was plunged into the sea.
The weight in this instance was identified as a millstone, a large circular stone that was utilized to grind grain for use in baking bread. This type of stone was typically pulled by an ox or a donkey and could weigh as much as 500 lbs (227 kg). Despite the terrifying image associated with such a fate, Jesus tells us that the prospect of being drowned with a 500 lb weight attached to one’s neck is better than what will happen to those who intentionally and deliberately seek to “…cause one of these little ones to lose faith in me” (GNB).
In another sense, it’s also important to consider Jesus’ message from this passage in regards to clothing, music or other external expressions that might prove problematic for other Christians. When considering an activity that might potentially present a stumbling block to a fellow Christian, our responsibility is to put the other person’s best interest ahead of our own and limit our freedoms if necessary. The New Testament book of Romans explains this idea in practical terms…
“…Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way… All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (Romans 14:13, 20-21 NIV).
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched— where ‘Their worm does not die And the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:43-44).
This graphic and brutally honest statement from Jesus may not be the kind of message that we might ordinarily expect to hear from the Man who was called “The Lamb of God” in the Scriptures (see John 1:29). So what did Jesus mean in saying these things? Was He really in favor of dismemberment for those who do something wrong?
In seeking to understand this passage, it might prove helpful to start near the end of Jesus’ statement and work our way back. For instance, the word “hell” as used here by Jesus is translated from the Greek word Gehenna. This word is the Greek form of a Hebrew word that means “the valley of Hinnom.” In Israel, the Hinnom Valley lies south and west of the city of Jerusalem. It was here within this valley that the people of Israel once sacrificed their infant children to a pagan deity named Molech.
Molech was the pagan god of the Ammonites, a people group that co-existed along with the nation of Israel during the days of the Old Testament. “Molech” was represented as a hollow brass statue with a calf’s head and outstretched arms. A person seeking to bring a sacrifice to Molech would begin by loading the brass statue with hot coals. He or she would then place an infant child on the outstretched arms of the statue where the child would be seared to death by the red-hot metal (see Leviticus 20:1-5 and 2 Chronicles 28:1-3 for references to these sacrifices). This horrific practice continued until Israel’s King Josiah tore down these pagan altars around 620 BC (see 2 Kings 23:10).
By Jesus’ day, the Valley of Hinnom had become something of a centralized garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. All the waste and refuse generated by the city eventually found it’s way there. The Hinnom Valley became the place where dead animals and the bodies of executed criminals were disposed of. It also served as a kind of municipal cesspool handling the human waste from the entire city.
We’ll see how the people of that time dealt with the waste that accumulated within the Hinnom Valley and how that tied into Jesus’ illustration next.
“And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched— where ‘Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched'” (Mark 9:45-46).
In order to consume the tremendous amount of daily waste produced by the city of Jerusalem, fires burned continuously within the Hinnom Valley all day, every day. In the places that weren’t on fire, maggots, worms, and flies could be found throughout the garbage. As you might expect from such a place, the stench that was generated from within the valley was noticeable whenever the wind blew over the city from that direction.
This is the illustration that Jesus used to represent the concept of hell. Because of this, one source has made the observation that, “In effect (Jesus) said, ‘Do you want to know what hell is like? Look at the valley of Gehenna.’ So hell may be described as God’s ‘cosmic garbage dump.’ All that is unfit for heaven will be thrown into hell.” (1)
“Hell” is also described in the New Testament as…
- A lake of fire, burning with brimstone (Revelation 20:10)
- A place of outer darkness (Matthew 25:30)
- A place of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12)
- A place of torment (Revelation 14:11)
With this background information in mind, we can now stop to consider Jesus’ message in Mark 9:42-47: “…if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to go to hell… if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life lame, than having two feet, to be cast into hell… if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire…”
The problem with a literal interpretation of this passage is that none of these acts will actually serve to keep someone out of hell. Since God is primarily concerned with the internal mindset that leads to sinful behavior, this tells us that Jesus was using the literary device of hyperbole to make a point. The point was that hell is such an exceedingly bad place that it would be better to remove a hand, foot, or eye if that’s what it would take to avoid going there.
(1) Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary ©1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
“And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire— where ‘Their worm does not die And the fire is not quenched'” (Mark 9:47-48).
So the idea behind this passage is that the loss of a hand, a foot, or an eye would be a comparatively small price to pay for the benefit of staying out of hell. Of course, many people consider the entire concept of hell to be wholly inconsistent with the idea of a loving and compassionate God. This idea is often expressed by the question, “How can a loving God send people to an eternal hell?” For many people, this undoubtedly represents a genuine, sincere question and as such, it deserves the courtesy of a thoughtful response.
We can begin by looking at Romans 3:23, a well-known passage of Scripture that tells us, “…all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The word used for “sinned” in the original language of this verse is a word that literally means “to miss the mark.” One way in which we might illustrate the meaning of this word is to consider the image of an archer preparing to shoot an arrow at a bulls-eye.
The archer draws his bow, takes aim, and lets the arrow fly towards the target. The arrow begins its rapid journey towards it’s intended destination but the shot eventually falls short and the arrow lands on the ground in front of the target. In this instance, the archer has missed the mark- he has “sinned” by falling short and failing to hit the target that was set before him.
Like the archer in our illustration, every human being has also missed the target set by his or her Creator in a sense. Remember that God’s standard for humanity is perfection; He has every right to require that we adhere to this standard for that is how He originally created everything (see Genesis 1:31). Yet what human being could ever hope to meet this standard of perfection?
The reality is that every human being (with one notable exception) has done something wrong, made a mistake, or said something in error at some point in life. The truth is that everyone has “missed the target” so to speak. Some may come closer than others perhaps, but everyone, everywhere falls short.
“If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out! It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:47-48 NET).
So the Biblical definition of “sin” doesn’t simply refer to something that is immoral or wrong- it means failing to be everything that God originally created us to be. Another definition of sin is “a path, a life-style, or act deviating from that which God has marked out.” (1) The truth is that everyone has done something sinful, sometimes without knowing it and often with specific intent. Even a relatively small indiscretion is enough to incur guilt, for as we’re told in the New Testament book of James, “…the person who keeps every law of God but makes one little slip is just as guilty as the person who has broken every law there is” (James 2:10 TLB).
Because God is completely and totally perfect, He cannot simply let things “slide” so to speak. In reference to God, Psalm 89:14 tells us that “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne…” (NIV). When the Scriptures tell us that God is “righteous,” it means that God always does that which is true, honest, right, and just. God never “breaks the rules” to favor one person at the expense of another- He always acts with integrity and always does what is ethical and right (Psalm 11:7).
Since God is a completely honest, fair, and morally perfect judge, He has a responsibility to convict those who are guilty. Unfortunately, the sentence associated with sin of any kind results in the death penalty for those who are guilty. In fact, God gave the very first human being fair warning that he would be subject to this death sentence if he chose to violate the law in this manner (see Genesis 2:16-17).
While this idea may seem harsh, it helps to remember that we observe this very same principle within human courts of law. For instance, judges are appointed to ensure that the law is upheld, and it is the responsibility of a good judge to make sure certain that those who break the law are punished accordingly. If a judge permitted the guilty to go unpunished then the judge would become a violator and therefore subject to punishment. This is why God cannot simply overlook it when people sin.
(1) Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers
“If your eye causes you to sin, get rid of it. You would be better off to go into God’s kingdom with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. The worms there never die, and the fire never stops burning (Mark 9:47-48 CEV).
While Jesus’ message in Mark 9:43-48 may not be pleasant, it’s important to be truthful about the reality of the situation that He presents to us. The fact is that God has seen every secret thought, every hidden motive, every shameful thing, and every wrong or inappropriate act (no matter how small) we’ve ever committed. It’s also important to remember the Scriptural admonition that “…God will judge us for everything we do, including every hidden thing, good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Once we admit that these realities exist, we can look for a means to address them.
Fortunately for us, God has provided a solution in the substitutionary death of Christ. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross bridges the gap between God’s perfection and our imperfection and rescues humanity from the sentence of death, punishment, and an eternity of separation from God. In accepting the sentence that humanity deserved, Jesus satisfies this death penalty requirement and thereby enables us to establish a relationship with the Creator (see 1 Peter 2:24).
2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” The Scriptures also tell us that God desires for everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-6). In light of these things we can say that people are sent to hell because they reject the only means by which they can avoid it- acceptance of Jesus’ sacrificial death on their behalf. As we’re told in the New Testament Gospel of John, “…God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:17-18 NIV).
There are certainly many people who choose to deny the existence of hell. This is understandable because if someone believes that hell does not exist, then he or she never has to worry about the possibility of ever going there. But someone’s belief (or unbelief) has no bearing on whether that “something” actually exists. The Scriptures tell us that hell is a very real place and we have been assured of it’s existence by no less an authority than Jesus Christ Himself.
“For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another” (Mark 9:49-50).
Salt is such a common element of everyday life that few people ever seem to give it much thought- that is, until it is missing or its use is restricted for some reason. However, good old Sodium Chloride possesses a number of properties that help make it an excellent subject for use in this illustration.
For instance, salt is commonly known as a seasoning agent. In other words, salt often makes food taste better than it might ordinarily taste alone. The New Testament book of Colossians utilizes this attribute as an illustration when it tells us, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). The idea is that our conversations should be tasteful just as table salt helps makes our food more tasteful.
Salt is also valuable for use as a preservative. In the days before refrigeration, salt was regularly used as a preservative to keep certain foods from spoiling and is still used for that purpose today. We can apply this characteristic in a spiritual sense by viewing Jesus (and those who genuinely represent Him) as a preserving influence. Without the preservative influence of Christ and His people in maintaining that which is good, the world would quickly become as spoiled and corrupt as food that hadn’t been salted or refrigerated.
Salt is also known for the manner in which it helps create thirst. The late Gene Klein was a multi-million dollar businessman and former owner of the San Diego Chargers NFL football team. Mr. Klein was well acquainted with the thirst-creating properties of salt for when his company acquired the National Theatres chain of movie theatres, he said in his book, “I refurbished our refreshment stands (at the theatres)… I tripled the size of a popcorn bucket, and doubled the price and added more salt… to increase soft drink sales…” (1)
While Gene Klein was interested in creating thirst for financial purposes, God desires to create a thirst for righteousness and holiness. In a sense, God desires that we be salt and light- light to illuminate others and draw them to Christ and salt to create a desire for the living water that only Jesus can provide (see John 4:5-14).
(1) Gene Klein, First Down And A Billion
“Everyone must be salted with fire. Salt is good. But if it no longer tastes like salt, how can it be made salty again? Have salt among you and live at peace with each other” (Mark 9:49-50 CEV).
In addition to its use as a seasoning, preservative, and thirst creating agent, salt is also well known as an irritant. For instance, one of the most painful things a person can do to someone with an open wound is to rub salt in that wound. In fact, salt is so well known as an irritant in this regard that to “rub salt in someone’s wound” has become a colloquial expression for making a bad situation even worse.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ statement that “Everyone must be salted with fire” can be a difficult one to interpret. One possible way to understand this passage is to associate the idea of “fire” with the trials and difficulties that we commonly experience in life. While everyone is “salted” by those challenges and adversities that are common to humanity, not everyone responds to those challenges in the same manner.
In a sense, the same could be said for the message of the Gospel. The reality is that in every place where Jesus’ message is made known, some will be seasoned and preserved, some will be made to thirst for more, and some will simply be irritated. As we’ve already seen in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus served as both a seasoning and preserving influence to some while to others, He was viewed as little more than an irritant- and the same is true today.
When Jesus referred to His disciples as “…the salt of the Earth” in Matthew 5:13, He could have easily referred to them as the irritant, seasoning, or preserving influences of the earth as well. This may explain why Jesus told His followers, “Salt is good. But if salt loses its taste, how will you restore its flavor? (GW).
We might understand this reference as a question designed to provoke the following thought: how will Jesus’ message be affected if His representatives abandon those elements that make His message worthwhile to begin with? Should that occur, we could then say that, “It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13 NIV).
Therefore, as Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another” and allow His influence to season our thoughts, words, and actions as well as those relationships with others we may interact with.