[August 15, 2010] Last Sunday I was not able to provide a message because I was traveling. So today I am combining the messages for last week and today. This is just as well, since the individual parts of 9:30-50 form a solid unit.
The Gospel according to Matthew focuses very much on the kingdom of the heavens and has in view (from the point of view of the Jewish church) the Gentile mission. The Gospel according to Luke focuses very much on the “work” or mission of the church with Jesus as the exemplar, and it has in view (from the point of view of the Pauline mission) the Jewish and Gentile church in the midst of the nations. The Gospel according to Mark focuses on the way of the cross and has in view (from the point of view of the church under persecution) the faithful perseverance of the church.
As in the Gospel according to Matthew, what takes place between the confession of Peter (“You are the Christ!”) and the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday forms a single section with three subsections, each punctuated at the beginning with a passion prediction. The order in Mark’s gospel corresponds to the order in Matthew’s (Matthew 16:21—17:21 to Mark 8:31—9:29; Matthew 17:22—20:16 to Mark 9:30—10:31; and Matthew 20:17-34 to Mark 10:32-52).
The first of these three subsections is the call to take up the cross, the glory set before us (if we are faithful along this path), and the necessity for faith and prayer along this way (in our life lived out in the world) if we are to overcome the devil. This subsection is foundational to the rest and focuses on the perseverance of the individual disciple.
The second of these subsections focuses on the life of the church. In Matthew’s gospel the working-out of the life (or living) of the church is seen in the light of the kingdom. In Mark’s gospel it is seen in the light of the way of the cross. In both gospels this subsection is divided in two by a geographical marker (in Matthew that marker is in 19:1; in Mark’s gospel it is in 10:1). The first part is devoted to the fellowship of the believers, that is, to their interactions with each other as believers. The second part is devoted to the household of the believers, for the life of the church takes place in the households (this would be obvious if we practiced the household hospitality of the churches in the New Testament). The church met, and ought still to meet, predominantly in the homes of the believers. This part covers marriage, children, property and—in Matthew’s gospel—age.
The third subsection is short and focuses on the reign of God. For those who follow Christ now, the reward of “reigning” with Christ in the age to come depends upon becoming a “slave of all.” The healing of blind Bartimaeus (who cries out to the Son of David) depicts the salvation of all Israel when the Messiah comes (with His reigning saints) to Jerusalem.
But let us return to the first part of the second subsection, to 9:30-50: the working-out of the life (or living) of the church in the light of the way of the cross.
The Second Passion Prediction (Mark 9:30-32)
The first prediction focuses on the Lord’s suffering (Matthew 16:21; Luke 9:22 and Mark 8:31) and rejection (in Luke and Mark) at the hands of men. The second prediction—in all three gospels (Matthew 17:22; Luke 9:44 and Mark 9:31) focus on betrayal—by one of the disciples. The emphasis on betrayal remains in the third prediction but is extended to include His betrayal to the Gentiles by the stewards of David’s city.
The emphasis on the betrayal by one of the disciples is rather sobering at the beginning of a subsection that deals with the life of the church. This is made even more so by the words, “but they did not understand the saying” in verse 32.
Faithfulness to Christ in the way of the cross is not going to be easy in the church since the betrayer is in our midst. “Christianity” has betrayed (literally “handed over”) Christ, the Christ of the cross, far more than Judas did. The scar of this betrayal is writ large on the pages of history and in the great works of art of Europe. Christianity has been without doubt the greatest enemy of Judaism and the Jewish people. It has allied itself with empire and conquerors and enslavers. It has enriched itself on what has been stolen and wrung from others by conquest and slavery. It has been greedy for wealth, power and security. It has been inextricably married to the powers of the world (though it has itself unwittingly been enslaved by them). To this day the so-called “church” sees itself as a civil servant of the state and the “moral” voice of society, as embarrassing as that may be to the secular state. For the believer who understands the call of Christ, modern Christianity is utterly scandalous. When we call ourselves “Christians” we are associating with Judas. Just as no Jew can ignore Christian history, the world cannot see past the corruption of Christianity. Christianity has become the stumbling block—as in verse 42—of anyone who would believe in Jesus (and of anyone who does).
Within the little community of believers we are always warned—at the Lord’s Table—that one of us may be a betrayer. “Is it I?”
Yet, while we are scandalized by Babylon’s prostitute (Babylon being the world and its prostitute being the Christian religion and all the denominations that pant for the spare change that the world now throws at it), we are not to treat each other with suspicion. Rather, we are to be on guard from ourselves and be prepared, as Jesus was, to lay down our life (our soul) for the sake of the others, even if they be Judas’s. We are not called to be the judge. That is God’s prerogative. We are called to be faithful to one another without making a distinction. Jesus did not treat Judas differently from the others.
Who Is the Greatest? (9:33-37)
Christian history is plagued by the establishment of hierarchies and petty individuals trying to make themselves big. This phenomenon has always been able to justify itself. Nevertheless, the way of the cross is opposed to it. Believers are to each seek to be the last of all and the servant of all the others. (This does not refer to the obfuscation of calling oneself a “servant-leader”! How many tyrants have done that?)
While in Matthew’s account Jesus expands on how we are to become like a little child is in the midst of adults, Mark’s account speaks only of receiving the little one (see Matthew 18:5). While literally this refers to actual children, and this meaning is without doubt correct—that children need to be treated with the same regard that we ought to give Christ—if we are to correlate this to Matthew’s account, it has to refer also to the least of the believers.
While our society outwardly idolizes children and insists on spoiling them with things and attention, this is all hypocrisy. In fact our society distains children by its unwillingness to protect them from media, by turning them into a “market,” by investing so little in their health and education, and by its gross neglect of the children of the poor. The breakdown of our households affects children most of all and they pay the enormous price of the manifold psychological problems of which we are all in denial. Our unwillingness to address environmental issues provesour distain for them. We obviously care only about ourselves. Overall, the situation is and has been disastrous for children. In the church, Sunday school curricula material exploits children for their market as we desperately try by other means (for example, music and “youth culture”) to con them into staying with us because we want so desperately for our institutions (and jobs) to survive—when they naturally and rightly rebel against our hypocrisy. How different it would be if we really cared!
That being said, the “little child” in verse 36 probably illustrates the fellow believer whom we look down upon in our quest for a higher place in the church (see verse 42). We are to receive all the believers, regardless of how insignificant we think they are, simply because they are believers (“because of My name”), as if they were Christ Himself, that is, as if they were aboveus and deserving of our honor and service. Indeed, He who sent Christ is God. The reception that we give to our fellow believer, even the poor and ignorant or frankly annoying, is the reception that we give to God. In other words, we cannot “receive” God into our midst while we despise, distain, or look down upon any of our fellow believers. How we treat them is how God will consider Himself being treated by us.
Do we want Christ to be in our midst? He is only welcomed when we free ourselves of all status-seeking and competition among us. He is only welcomed when we put others above ourselves.
Being Receptive (9:38-41)
By comparing verse 41 and 37 we can see that verses 38-41 belong with verses 33-37. When we are ambitious, we have little tolerance for our competition (“he does not follow us”). But Jesus does not allow this. In Matthew 12:30 Jesus said of those who inwardly opposed Him, “He who is not with Me is against Me.” This also applies to the betrayer who is in our midst. It has to do with Jesus Himself. However, the word in Mark 9:40 applies to the outward situation of the believers (hence the plural).
Those who profess to believe in Christ have many differences and we do not follow each other’s ways. Outward unity seems impossible. Yet we are not to be sectarian in our attitude but are to receive all who bear the name of Christ. We are to give them a cup of cold water to refresh them and we are to receive such from their hands—that is, they are to be included in our service to one another and we in turn are to allow ourselves to be included in their service.
Practically speaking, in any given locality, all those who truly believe make up the church. Our own gathering is not the local church. At best, if we receive all believers and treat one another as Jesus commands, we can represent the local church. Whether, however, we do represent the local church depends on our being inclusive of all who believe (that is, of all who profess to believe). When we act as if our denomination is the church, by that very act we are saying that we do not represent Christ’s church. A denomination by qualifying its member to not include all the believers in a particular locality (that is, to “denominate” a portion of the believers) by its own definition cannot be the church. “Church membership” is thus a contradiction in terms. We become members of the church when we believe. To define our membership by a “denomination” is to disassociate ourselves outwardly from the church (even though inwardly we are still members of Christ’s church). This is not right.
Believers ought to be radical in their acceptance of one another and humble in their definition of their practical association. Our association with one another and gathering together can only seek to represent the church by its faithfulness to the church’s unity. We cannot discriminate among those who profess to believe but must receive all who honestly bear the name of the Blessèd One. Practically, this name is the Triune name into which we are baptized (Matthew 28:19), revealed by the coming of Christ.
What unites us as believers is not our horizontal connection to one another, a connection based on our particular qualities, but rather our vertical connection to Christ and His claim on us and our acknowledgement of that claim. Our connection to one another is based on faith, not sight, and does not depend on each other but rather on Him. To love one another in the unity of the church requires that we die to self, to our soul, on a daily basis and serve one another because we are living only unto Him (Romans 14:8; note the difference between the pronouns “for” and “to” in Ephesians 5:2).
Do Not Stumble One Another (9:42-50)
We can easily cause each other to stumble. This is no small thing. Jesus says that we would be better off if someone took us out to sea in a boat, tied a great millstone hung around our neck and threw us overboard. That is graphic enough, but Jesus does not stop with that. He says that we should be so desperate to separate ourselves from whatever is causing us to offend our fellow believer that we ought to be willing to cut off our hand or foot or eye, all of which are otherwise necessary for our living. If we continue to offend, we cannot “enter into life” (or “the kingdom of God”) but will be thrown into Gehenna, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
Jesus is not here speaking of the unbeliever but is clearly referring to the believer, the believer who causes a “little one” to stumble. The little one is the fellow believer whom we consider insignificant, whom we cannot be bothered with, who does not merit our consideration. The important believers we are willing to get cozy with, but there are others who do not matter—people who are poor and needy, people who are uneducated, people who are sick and cannot get out and contribute much, people who are elderly and stay at home, people with emotional issues, the list could go on. The “little ones” are the ones we do not usually notice and when we do we tend to dismiss them.
But how can a believer be thrown into Gehenna? Hades is the place of the dead, where all the dead go. Gehenna refers to a place of torment. Its fires are unquenchable. They are the effect of God’s holy nature and so they can never be extinguished. Their purpose is to purge the creation of what is false and evil, and they do not finish until there is nothing left. As what we are so attached to is pried from our fingers, we suffer great loss with much pain.
These words, however, do not imply that whoever is thrown into Gehenna remains there and is tormented forever. This is not a Biblical idea. The unquenchable fires are mentioned in the Old Testament, but people survive them even though the fires themselves are unquenchable. However, nothing remains of what was purged. The fires are totally effective in what they set out to do.
Every believer has eternal life within them, but not every believer will “inherit” eternal life in the age to come, which is the intermediate time before eternity, that is, the time of the kingdom when all God’s enemies are finally overcome (1 Corinthians 15:25). Not all believers, that is, will outwardly enjoy the benefits of eternal life during that time. This “life” is the reward that they will miss. Instead, they will suffer loss, as 1 Corinthians 3:15 says, “but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” The fire of God will purge the believer of what they were unwilling to let go of in this life. Indeed, God tries us now by fire (1 Peter 4:12, 17) so that we “may be found unto praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ”, but that fire is not effective in all and therefore they are not ready to receive “the end of their faith, the salvation of their souls” (1 Peter 1:7, 9). The salvation of our souls then only comes when we lose our soul now (Mark 8:35). This is the matter to be decided when we—as believers—shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ (at His revelation), as 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Romans 14:10-12 tell us. This is new teaching for those only acquainted with the so called “gospel” of cheap grace, but it permeates the teachings of the New Testament. Jesus is speaking to believers and He means what He says.
What is this word about “salt”? We can compare this to Matthew 5:13 and Luke 14:34-35. Salt has many purposes. Here its purpose is probably to purge and eliminate any corruption (germs and bacteria that can cause infection). This week I had two wisdom teeth pulled and I was told to rinse with salt water. That sacrifices had to be seasoned with salt (Leviticus 1:13; see Ezekiel 43:24) probably has this meaning. In this way salt acts as a preservative as well. We are “salted” with fire so that we may be preserved for the enjoyment of eternal life in the age to come. If we refuse to be “salted” now, we will be salted at the judgment seat of Christ when He will come “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap” (Malachi 3:2) and be a “consuming fire” (Isaiah 33:14).
The word here does not refer to our influence on the world (as in Matthew 5:13) but to our need to purge ourselves before we have to be purged in the age to come. We are to have salt in ourselves in order to live properly in relation to one another, not seeking first place but putting all others above ourselves and serving the “little ones” among us as though they were Christ Himself. We need to purge the offending part of ourselves so that we do not cause a little one to stumble. In Colossians 4:6 Paul says that we are to season our speech with salt so that it may always be with grace. We need this salt within ourselves if we are to “be at peace with one another” (verse 50).
It is possible for believers to grow old in their careless and self-serving way of dealing with one another and to find it more and more difficult to change. Their salt has lost its saltiness. Let us beware that this can happen to any of us. Jesus calls us to love one another in the close-knit fellowship of believers and to not allow our fellowship to become exclusive, cliquish or tribal. This is a word that we must hear. Otherwise we contribute to the offence of Christianity. If we must be ambitious, let us be ambitious “to gain the honor of being well-pleasing to Him” (2 Corinthians 5:9).