by Daniel Harrell
Having fast-forwarded to the end of Mark for Holy Week and Easter, it may feel odd to now go back and pick up on some of the red letters we missed during our year long tour of Mark’s gospel. But since you probably already knew the end of the story anyway, I trust that circling back for a few Sundays won’t be too anticlimactic. As we have discovered, among the persistent themes throughout Mark’s gospel has been the persistent difficulty people have had with Jesus being the Son of God. Even on Easter morning, the women who came upon the empty tomb turned and fled with fear. One of the main problems people had with believing Jesus to be the Son of God was his insistence on being a suffering Son of God. It’s a problem we’ve always had with Jesus—and why, I think, last Sunday’s preacher, John Piper, is so popular. (Last Sunday Piper drew more people here to church than the resurrected Jesus did on Easter.) Having never heard Rev. Piper preach before, I liked how his reframing of suffering in terms of joy succeeded in taking out much of the sting. The problem for me is that any actual suffering I endure never feels joyful―at least not while I’m going through it. Afterwards, maybe. Crosses are easier to bear on Easter.
But here in chapter 9, Easter is furthest thing from anyone’s mind and from anyone’s imagination. Real Son’s of God don’t rise from the dead because they don’t suffer and die in the first place. Nevertheless, this theme of suffering Savior is so crucial to Mark that he hammers at it repeatedly. Verse 31: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise.” Mark then adds, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” This is the third time Jesus told this to his disciples, and it won’t be the last. This is also the third time they have no idea what he’s talking about, and it won’t be their last. But they had learned enough to know not to ask him about it. The first time they brought it up Jesus called Peter Satan. The last time they brought it up in reference to a returning Elijah who was supposed to blaze the path for the Messiah. Jesus told them how Elijah had returned as John the Baptist only to lose his head. A suffering Elijah makes the way for a suffering Messiah.
However Jesus does add one twist here: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.” We know from chapter 3 that the betrayer is Judas Iscariot, but at this point, nobody else but Jesus knows it (not even Judas himself). However, everybody does know what betrayal means. It means disloyalty and treason. Only those who are loyal can be disloyal. Only those who have pledged to take up a cross can double cross. And since Jesus is speaking only to his disciples, they also know that he’s got to be talking about one of them. But how could this be? How could one of Jesus’ closest companions actually turn coat and turn Jesus over to be killed? Jesus’ redefinition of Messiah as a sufferer was disturbing enough. Having one of them be the source of that suffering was worse.
Maybe this is another reason “they did not understand what he meant.” How could they possibly betray the one on whom they had staked their lives and for whom they had given up everything? Then again, they’d had enough experience with Jesus to know that he knew things about them that they didn’t even know about themselves. Maybe this is also another reason they were each afraid to ask him about it. What if you did and the betrayer turned out to be you?
They didn’t ask Jesus, but they did start debating the whole thing pretty fiercely among themselves. Mark says they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. How did they get from the topic of betrayal to who is the greatest? Easy. Philip says to Andrew: “Something stinks here, guys. Is someone amongst us a traitor?” “I’ll bet it’s Thaddeus!” inserts Matthew, “He never says a word worth writing down in any of the Gospels!” “I doubt it,” said Thomas, “I think it’s Peter.” “Yeah, Peter,” James and John thundered, “he did call you Satan!” “No way it’s me,” insisted Peter; “I walked on water—for a minute! I recognized him as the Messiah in the first place! That makes me most important! The greatest cannot be the worst.” “You’re not the greatest, Peter, I am.” “No, I am!”
This goes on for miles, until verse 33 when Jesus apparently grew tired of their squabbling. He wants to know, “What were you arguing about on the road?” Naturally (or I should say, supernaturally), Jesus already knew the answer. The disciples’ collective shame shut them up. So Jesus took the opportunity to teach them a lesson, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and he must be the servant of all.” One the one hand, Jesus makes another allusion to himself. He is the servant of all who takes all sin on his shoulders― God thereby exalts him to first place and gives him the name that is above every name. On the other hand, Jesus calls his disciples to emulate his servitude. And then illustrates the lesson by picking up a child. While you might have expected Jesus’ appeal to act like children (that comes later), such an appeal wouldn’t make sense here since children exist not to serve but to be served―especially when they get sick and puke everywhere for five days last week (you know, for example).
In Jesus’ day, children were counted as things of scant value. Serving children offered no elevation of status. It’d be like telling people you teach elementary school, or are a daycare worker, or a stay-at-home mom or, heaven forbid, a stay-at-home dad. If you want to be first and great, it is important to cultivate relationships with people who have something to offer; whose influence and connections can prove useful to you. It’s equally important to avoid those whose needs inconvenience you. If you want to be great, you don’t clean up vomit. Don’t do unto others who can do nothing for you.
This makes Jesus’ lesson all the more stark. “Whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me; and by receiving me, you receive the one who sent me.” To serve a child is the same as serving God. Children represent all whose needs are greatest and who need Christ most—those most willing to accept him—the lowly and the least, the insignificant and powerless, those you’re likely to miss unless you’re willing to serve. Jesus said, “Whatever you do unto the least you have done unto me.” And even though cleaning up vomit is disgusting, to help a little one in such need does provide surprising joy. It’s as John Piper intimated last week, serving God pleases God, and pleasing God is the greatest pleasure.
So great that it appears the disciples wanted all the pleasure for themselves. In verse 38, John (who will later make an impudent call to ride shotgun beside Jesus in glory), whines, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” If you remember from a few Sundays back, it was the disciples who were unable to help a child who had a demon. Ironic. Now this unauthorized exorcist was making the disciples look really bad.
I sometimes think this watching street preachers scream at passers-by on the Common to repent and believe in Jesus or die in the flames of hell. I think to myself, “somebody should make these guys stop because they make the rest of us preachers look bad.” “Don’t stop him,” Jesus said (verse 39). “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Throughout Scripture, threats of hellfire are designed to scare you back toward God’s mercy, if that’s what it takes. However, observing the way most passersby give fiery messengers wide berth testifies to their general ineffectiveness. Ironically, in our day, the threat of hell ranks up there as a chief reason for not believing in God. It’s why you don’t hear many preachers preach hellfire and brimstone anymore, not even here at Brimstone Corner.
And yet scroll down a few more verses and Jesus gets pretty fiery himself. Speaking of those represented by children again in verse 42, he says “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, you’d be better off tossed into the sea with a huge millstone tied to your neck.” Better off? Society may not reserve the premier seats of status for children, but it categorically condemns to its inner rings of hell abusers of children. In prisons, the unwritten code is that those condemned for child abuse get abused by everyone else.
We all feel contempt for child abusers. But Jesus goes on to command you apply that contempt to yourself. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to live forever with one hand than to burn forever with two.” Same with your foot and your eye and by extension your tongue, ears and every other part.” Jesus sounds like those guys out on the Common! Cut it out or cut it off! Turn or burn. Try or fry. “It’s better to enter life lame than to have two feet in hell―‘where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”
Jesus borrows from Isaiah here, using a popular Old Testament metaphor for hell. And like Isaiah―unlike hellfire preachers on the Common―Jesus does not rail at unbelievers. He warns his own followers. Verse 49, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” It wasn’t unheard of for the magistrates of ancient peoples, and some modern ones, to cut off hands or feet as an alternative sentence for capital crimes. While barbaric, amputation beat the death penalty. Naturally these wounds required cauterization in order to prevent gangrene. Salt served as a primitive treatment for wounds. True, it stung like hell, but at least it wasn’t hell. Getting salted meant that you were getting another chance at life.
This isn’t what Jesus is talking about. The theme is this passage is not hellfire, but service. Anyway, as perhaps you’ve heard Gordon mention in his recent morning sermons on hell, there’s actually more fire in heaven. As to Jesus’ meaning on “being salted fire,” our trusty friend Leviticus rides to the rescue. In Leviticus 2 we read “You shall not omit from your offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” Covenant is just another word for relationship, and for some reason, salt symbolized that relationship. To have a relationship in Leviticus you had to sacrifice, and to sacrifice you had to have salt and fire. To make an offering in Leviticus was to burn it, the fire symbolic of God’s receiving the gift, the aroma the sign of God’s pleasure (most sacrifices in Leviticus, remember, were cooked as meals, not completely burned, so they smelled good and tasted good too—maybe that’s where the salt comes in). “Salt is good,” Jesus concludes, “but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? So keep the salt.” Serve God by serving others. Verse 39: “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me.” But what if you can’t do miracles? Verse 41: “Anyone who gives a measly cup of water will not go unrewarded.” In serving others, it doesn’t matter what you do, just do something! For God’s sake. Serving God pleases God, and pleasing God is the greatest pleasure.