Studies in Mark’s Gospel, Continued

TRUE GREATNESS

A study of Mark 9:33—50

This is an eye-opening passage of Scripture for a couple of reasons. First, we see how far the disciples were from understanding the real meaning of Jesus’ Messiahship. Time and time Jesus had talked to His disciples about what would happen to Him in Jerusalem, but as this section of Mark’s Gospel makes clear, they were still thinking of Jesus’ kingdom in terms of an earthly, strictly political kingdom. Secondly, we have to stunning teaching from Jesus about greatness and true priorities.

1. Greatness, 9:33—37

33They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. 35Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”   36He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus and His disciples have returned to where His Galilean ministry began: Capernaum. The last time He was in town, He ministered to the crowds, but now Jesus is taking time to teach His friends. Time is short, and they still had so much to learn. They met at what was probably Peter’s home, and what is particularly heartbreaking is that here was Jesus, on His way to His death, and His good friends were arguing about “who was the greatest.”

Human nature is on full display here. Jesus asked His friends what they had been arguing about, and they “kept quiet.” Obviously Jesus knew full well what they had been discussing, and equally as obvious they were embarrassed and ashamed. Jesus had just told them about the suffering He was going to have to endure, and instead of wondering about that, they were concerned with greatness in God’s kingdom. That is disturbing, given how close these men were to Jesus, but it even more disturbing because it shows us how strongly influenced these men were by the culture of their day. Such questions about the future Messianic kingdom were common in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, and the disciples, instead of paying attention to what Jesus was trying to teach them, they remained firmly mired in their culture. Not much has changed in Christ’s followers in the two millennia since this incident occurred!

Verse 35 is interesting, for we see Jesus assuming the typical rabbinic position for teaching; He sat down. Today, when we teach, we generally stand, but in Jesus’ day, the Rabbis sat down and his students sat all around him. But there was another, very illustrative reason for Jesus sitting down, and all had to do with His definition of “greatness.”

Jesus was not the least bit offended by their argument; they were needlessly embarrassed. In fact, instead of berating His friends for their spurious argument, Jesus saw this as a teachable moment. Greatness, said Jesus, does not come to those who tower over others, but simple acts of service to others. Swete comments—

The spirit of service is the passport to eminence in the Kingdom of God, for it is the spirit of the Master Who Himself became the “servant of all.”

This shows how radically different the Christ’s Kingdom will be from anything man has ever dreamed of.

In a moment of inspiration, Jesus, to illustrate this kingdom principle, He took a child who was nearby. Just who this child belonged to, we do not know. Perhaps he was the child of a family who came to hear Jesus teaching. Much has been made about this teaching, usually focusing on the child, and turning this teaching of Jesus into something He did not intend: a treatise on how to properly treat a child. However, Jesus is simply using this child like a sermon illustration.

In Aramaic, “child” and “servant” spring from the same word and so Jesus’ little parable is full of meaning, especially for the Twelve. They, like all followers of Jesus, must become like children, like servants, in their discipleship; and Jesus promises that if they can do that, then they will truly be His representatives on earth, and whoever welcomes them (the disciples) welcomes Christ, and in welcoming Christ, they are welcoming God Himself.

This very dramatic lesson in true greatness turned the disciple’s ideas upside down and was a gentle, yet very stern rebuke for their worldly thinking.

2. Driving out demons, 9:38—42

38“Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

39“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40for whoever is not against us is for us. 41I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.

42“And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.

These verses have been called a “lesson in tolerance.” But since it follows on the heels of Jesus’ teaching about greatness in His Kingdom, so that theme carries over. As we have already learned, in Jesus’ day, just about everybody in Palestine believed in the existence of demons and the supernatural in general.

This is the only time Mark mentions John alone, and the fact that John used the word “we” shows that he is speaking for all the disciples. John and the disciples were really irked because they had seen a man driving out demons in the name of Jesus. John, the Son of Thunder, was particularly exorcised because this man was not a part of the Twelve, although obviously the exorcist was a believer in Christ. The Twelve were so upset by this man that they literally tried to “stop him” from doing it!

Jesus, unlike His friends, did not see His mission as restrictive. To the disciples, if a person was going to do something like this, they needed to be part of “the group.” This man should be following Jesus around, being taught, just like they were. But Jesus, who did not think like men think, said this—

[W]hoever is not against us is for us.

An interesting parallel is found in Numbers 11:26—29—

However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

As Sanner noted, it is difficult for some people so devoted to their cause to let others in to share the devotion. But in the case of the Church, such an effort has Christ’s blessing. Edwin Markham, the famous American poet and author said it best—

He drew a circle that shut me out—

Rebel, heretic, thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win—

We drew a circle that took him in.

What the man did show was that he was not against Jesus, and quite to the contrary, he was doing exactly what Jesus would have done, and he was doing it successfully! Unlike the disciples, who had some difficulty driving out demons. Jesus forces nobody to follow Him. Some come when they are called, like the disciples. Some come like this man, who obviously heard the call of salvation and made the decision to serve Christ without the benefit of an altar call or catechism classes.

Verse 41 is the summation of Jesus’ teaching on this. Christians should welcome sincere help and co-operation in the work of the Lord, even if it comes from the most unexpected sources. If somebody should offer even a glass of cold water to a believer on the ground that he is a follower of Christ, that person will be rewarded.

Verse 42, though, is a not so veiled warning from Jesus. The “little ones” do not represent children, but rather followers of Jesus, and “to sin” is taken from the word skandalizein, suggesting something that would prevent another from acting in Jesus’ Name. That offense—preventing somebody from doing something for the Lord because you don’t like them—is so serious it would be better for one to simply drown then to commit it. The millstone Jesus referred to was the kind donkeys turned because it was to large and heavy. In other words, if a believer thinks that he is so indispensable to the work of the Lord that he won’t recognize another’s gifts and talents and tries to discourage that other one, he may only hurt that person, but he greatly offends God. Nobody is great enough to get away with that!

3. The requirements of discipleship, 9:43—45

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where
” ‘their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’ 49Everyone will be salted with fire.

50“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

Following Christ comes with a fearful responsibility to help and encourage fellow believers, not to hinder them. If we are tempted to disparage another follower of Christ, this section is for us.

If your hand would cause another to stumble, cut it off. If your feet lead you in the direction of sin, cut them off. If your eyes cause you to sin, gouge them out of your head. These, of course, are exaggerations, but considering their source, quite startling. Jesus, so meek and so mild, the most gentle and gracious Man ever to have walked the earth had more to say about eternal damnation and punishment than anyone else in all of Scripture!

As far as Jesus was concerned, it was better to get into heaven maimed than to risk being damned eternally because of sinful arrogance and pride. Remember, these three incidents all have to do with the general theme of “greatness.”

The remaining two verses may seem obscure to us, but they serve as an apt conclusion to a series of real-life illustrations of true greatness.

Everyone will be salted with fire. “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

To the disciples, Jesus’ thought was clear. Every sacrifice—everything done for Christ in Christ’s Name—should be salted with salt. What did Jesus mean? Leviticus 2:13 deals with the sacrifice:

Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.

Salt preserves from corruption, and everything we do for the Lord should be salted with righteousness. Jesus had previously spoken about “the salt of the earth” and says here to—

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.

The so-called believer who is not characterized by righteousness is of no value at all, that is why Jesus said, “Have salt in yourselves”—that is, let your life and actions manifest righteousness that will glorify God, not yourself. Instead of believers seeking their own interests or preserving their imagined position within the hierarchy of the Kingdom of God, they should seek the good of others, and thus be at peace with one another.

The only One truly great in the Kingdom of God should be God Himself.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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