This past week most people celebrated Halloween. But the greater meaning for October 31 was Reformation Day. It is one of the most important days on the church calendar. Next year we will commemorate the day by preparing over many weeks as we lead up to October 31. October 31, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s challenges against the church were essentially pointing out the speck in the church’s eye. The church responded, as it usually did to people who challenged it, by calling Luther a heretic, ex-communicating him from the church, and ordered his writings burned.
A major goal of Luther was to help the church return to its roots in the Bible, rather than the traditions of man. So Luther was refuting the teachings of the church, not because they were biblical, but because, in part, they were not. The reality is that we all have a little bit of Luther in us – the church should be doing this, but we also all have a little bit of the church in us – if you don’t accept our way, then out the door with you. But most times, many of our differences are from the perspective of preference, not from truth. Like Luther, and countless others, whenever we see doctrinal issues we must be ready to confront, but when we see others doing the right thing in a different manner – well, it is not our place to judge.
In this week’s passage, we see this scenario played out – and hear Jesus response and teachings towards those who are bent towards causing others to stumble. Two small words should be noticed in the passage (Mark 9.38-50) – the words “for” and “and.” The first portion of the passage focuses on the reasons Jesus gives not to stop the person by use of the word “for”. The latter portion links three metaphors with the word “and.” But it all begins with John’s statement of needing to stop the person from casting out demons in Mark 9.38.
In verse 38, John tells Jesus that “we” tried to stop somebody from casting out demons. First, we don’t know who else is represented. It likely includes his brother, but may include all of the disciples. But this unknown person is not one of the Twelve, and maybe not a part of the larger crowd who followed Jesus. Remember, it was the Twelve who were given power to cast out demons (Mark 3.15). Thus, John must have questioned the how, or why, this person was doing what he was doing, and his intent was to stop the ministry from happening. (Numbers 11.26-29 contains a parallel to our passage in Mark.)
In response to John’s statement, Jesus provides three reasons we should not stop others from doing ministry. Each of these reasons is preceded by the word “for.”
1. Someone working in Jesus name cannot turn away quickly. (Mark 9.39)
John says, someone “casting out demons.” The words do not say, “trying to cast out demons.” The implication of this difference is that this someone was successful. Recall from earlier in this chapter, the disciples were not successful in casting out demons (although John, James, and Peter were not among those who were unsuccessful as he was coming down the mountain with Jesus). Jesus said that prayer was needed to cast out the demon they were not able to cast. The implication – the disciples had not prayed. Thus we can infer, this “someone” may have authentic faith and prays – perhaps regularly.
Someone who is actively seeking God will not simply wake up one day and turn the other way.
Hebrews 2.1 says, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”
The verse is in context of God revealing Himself through word, as well as through signs and miracles. Those who are not seeking God may not recognize these workings of God and thus drift away. But someone who is always on the lookout for God and what He is doing, will not miss it.
2. Someone who is for Jesus and His followers is not an enemy. (Mark 9.40)
Again, we must consider Mark 3. In the latter part of that chapter, Jesus is accused of using Satan’s power to heal a demon-possessed man. In Jesus’ reply, He shares how absurd it would be for Satan to be at war with himself. In Mark 3.25, Jesus says, “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”
If we take that reasoning to apply it positively, then someone doing the work of Jesus – in the name of Jesus – is not against Jesus. Therefore, for John to attempt to stop someone who is doing God’s work is counter-productive to say the least.
Some have questioned why Jesus uses the word “us” in this response rather than “me.” Personally, I believe Jesus’ purpose is to show that this statement applies to all followers of Jesus, both then and now, instead of only applying to Jesus personally. And the next idea provides some evidence for my belief.
3. A follower of Jesus who provides for God’s people will be rewarded. (Mark 9.41)
In ancient times, it was customary to give any passer-by a cool cup of water if needed. Jesus uses that concept to speak about the hospitality shown to believers. Notice the words, if someone gives you a drink “because you belong to Christ.” This doesn’t just mean giving a drink to a Christian (or someone who follows Jesus). This means the person gave the drink BECAUSE the recipient is a Christ-follower. The implication is that most people will not give a drink to others who identify themselves with Christ, unless the person with the drink also identifies with Christ. People may give drinks out of being a polite person, but in Jesus day, this statement was about to take on significant meaning. What is also interesting here, is that Jesus refers to Himself as the Christ in this verse which is quite rare in Mark.
If we consider this giving of a drink to John’s attitude in Mark 9.38, we might be able to imply that not only did John want this person stopped, but it is possible he would not have given the person a basic necessity of life. Why? Not because of any wrongdoing, but because John perceived the person as a threat despite the good being done.
The truth is that John, and the “we” from verse 38, missed that this someone was doing was God’s work. As such, John and others were ready to put the work (God’s work) to an end. Keep this in mind as we move to the next set of verses.
As we transition to verse 42, it is important to consider that these stories are pieced together thematically by Mark. The teaching in verses 42-50 were not necessarily the next words out of Jesus’ mouth. Luke’s account of the gospel is quite likely in chronological order, while the others had certain themes in mind which account for the sequential differences in gospels (especially between Matthew, Mark, and Luke). But the theme in Mark is discipleship and these next verses do fit very well with those we have just reviewed, and what we have seen the last two weeks.
First, Jesus says that to cause another to stumble is a severe offense – it would be better off drowning with a millstone around the neck. The kind of millstone referenced is likely about five feet in diameter and two feet thick. So, basically, you would sink quickly. But that wasn’t the worst of it. To a Jew, drowning was considered a horrific way to die, not because of the death, but because you could not be properly buried. So for Jesus to say this here, would be utterly shocking. But that wasn’t all. Jesus then provides three specific instances of how this might happen all tied together with our second small word of the day – and.
Before we look at these briefly, we must understand one word. In verses, 42, 43, 45, and 47, the ESV uses the word sin. Other translations use the word stumble. The idea is the same, but the argument Jesus is making here is not sin in itself, it is causing others to stumble because of our sin (stumbling). This distinction is important and is noted in the Greek because the usual word for sin (hamartia) is not used here. Rather, scandalizo is Mark’s word choice, and this is the word from which we have derived our word scandal.
Mark records Jesus as stating that it would be better to cut off our hand, or our foot, or gouge out our eye rather than make another stumble because of our sin. Again, all three of these statements are connected with the word “and,” so Jesus means that any of these possibilities should be heeded equally. Again, this is radical to the first century Jew. Last week, I mentioned that a person’s status was pretty well locked in at birth, but might be changed for eternity due to the graciousness of God. However, many Jews believed that one’s physical appearance at death would be representative of their appearance for eternity. Thus, to lose a hand during this life would mean being without a hand for eternity. So, once again, Jesus provides a drastic example using the culture of the day to describe the importance of the matter. Basically, it is better to be without part of your body than it is to miss the Kingdom of God.
Why would Jesus choose these three parts of the body? I believe the best answer relates to the idea that the hand represents what we do, the foot represents the places we go, and the eye represents the things we see. (Incidentally Job 31.7 speaks of these three, as does full chapter.) Although some Christians have done this to themselves, Jesus meant this as a metaphor. Jesus says, “it would be better to” not “You better do.” Jesus’ intent was to show the severity of following Him and not causing others to sin. The alternative, as He mentions in each example, is to be thrown into hell.
The Reality of Hell
Many people have forgotten about hell. It is a taboo subject. But remember how I started this message, we are to judge, but not condemn. It is never my place or yours to condemn someone – only God can do that. And God will do that – to those who do not receive the gift He has given. Let us be certain – hell is a real place. Either that or Jesus is a liar.
The word used for hell in this passage is gehenna – which means Valley of Hinnom. It is located to the south and west of ancient Jerusalem and basically served as a trash dump in Jesus’ day. The fires were meant to burn the trash, and thus, they were never quenched because people constantly dumped their trash down into this valley. The people who heard Jesus knew exactly what He meant. (One of the interesting insights from our trip to Israel this year is that Judas hanged himself above this valley. Thus he literally died at the edge of hell!)
Jesus then contrasts the fire of hell with the fire of persecution. Verse 49 says, “everyone will be salted with fire.” As a part of the sacrifices to be made, God instructed the Israelites to salt all of their grain offerings (Leviticus 2.13). Thus, the sacrifices made to the Lord were salted as a part of the covenant made between God and the people. But consider what salt do when you are cooking. It adds flavor, but it also increases the temperature for cooking. If we think about this concept in light of the offerings and New Testament, Romans 12.1 says that we are to be living sacrifices. Jesus is revealing that persecution will come to those who follow (just as John was effectively seeking to persecute the person performing exorcisms). And while the persecutions may be intense, the salt is a purifying agent for us and thus it can be to the world.
But if we lose our saltiness, then we cannot get it back. While pure salt was available in Palestine, often times the people used a mixture found from inland deposit (e.g. the Dead Sea). Again, Jesus uses an analogy that would have been perfectly understandable to the people of His day. And what can pure salt do? Ultimately, pure salt can lead to peace. Salt was often used as currency, and was likely used to establish covenants – as God did with His people in Leviticus 2.
Thus, salt can bring peace. And that is what Jesus says in Mark 9.50 – that these disciples should be at peace with one another. The one another certainly includes the Twelve who were arguing about supremacy in verses 33-34, but also includes all who claim to follow Christ.
What’s The Point?
So what is Jesus saying? Briefly, we are not to let our actions lead others astray. We are to make disciples, not tear down another’s faith. If John had his way, the person mentioned in verse 38 would have been stopped. If some of us had our way, we would not want others to express themselves to Jesus as they do.
- For John, it was someone driving out demons; for us, maybe it is how someone dresses.
- For John, it was someone who wasn’t in the immediate circle with Jesus; for us, maybe it is someone from another church or denomination – or given the week, from another political persuasion.
- For John, it was someone doing something his colleagues couldn’t do; for us, maybe it is someone who doesn’t have the same skills or abilities such as us.
- For John, it was someone who obviously knew God’s power; for us, maybe it is a jealousy we have of the faith someone else possesses.
But Jesus says none of that matters. Last week concluded with Mark 9.37 which focused on how we receive others. Jesus taught that how we receive others reflects how we receive Him. We often speak of how rash Peter can be, but here it is John who provides the wonderfully negative example of what we ought not do.
And that leads to our JOURNEY letter for this week.
The JOURNEY letter for today is: U – Unite.
We are to unite within individual churches, but also with other Christians.
OPPORTUNITY: Joining with other Christians to serve God wherever He is at work – or wants to be.
Learn to “play” well with other believers, especially those who practice their faith differently.
Live in harmony with all believers. We may have differences, but we only have one Lord.
Love the diversity we have in Christ. We are not the same, and that means Christ desires to use each one of us uniquely.
Lead others to seek unity for the sake of the Kingdom.