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The Pursuit of Greatness in the Pursuit of Christ (part 2)

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42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.   45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire.50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

It is hard to imagine more difficult words to absorb from Jesus than what we read in this passage. These words are difficult both because of what we can easily understand from what Jesus says and also because of what will require a little more contemplation. It is clear from this passage that Jesus believes in hell (vv. 43, 45, 47) as the alternative to life (vv. 43, 45) and the kingdom of God (v. 47). The description he gives of hell in verse 48 is graphic and terrifying, and one of those things we all probably would like not to believe.

There are also several things about this text that seem to obscure the meaning of what Jesus has to say here. What of this talk about cutting off one’s hand and foot and tearing out one’s eye? What is he teaching us in his allusion to salt in verses 49 and 50? In spite of these more obscure words, it is the seriousness of these words of Jesus that urges us to take a closer look, as difficult as it may be for us to do so.

Now this is a continuation of the message from last week because I believe we are meant to read verses 42-50 along with verses 30-41. If that is the case we are helped in interpreting this passage by what we find in the previous verses. This section begins with Jesus’ second prediction about his death and resurrection. Mark records three such predictions by Jesus, each of which is followed by some sort of rebuke of his disciples. Here we find the disciples arguing about which of them would be the greatest in God’s kingdom.

Jesus takes the opportunity to teach his followers about true greatness. In God’s kingdom true greatness is about being last rather than first. Why is that so? It’s because we are our own worst enemies in the pursuit of greatness. Being last means you are not concerned about making yourself great, and only then can we have eyes to behold him who alone is great!

But how subtly we can turn our pursuit of Jesus into a pursuit for our own kingdom. In the story of the unknown exorcist that follows (vv. 38-41), Jesus’ disciple, John, appears to be defending Jesus by trying to stop this man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he was not one of them. But Jesus reminds his disciples that it is allegiance to him that matters, not allegiance to us.

That’s the context in which we find our passage for today. So what is the connection between verses 42-50 and verses 30-41? It is a solemn conclusion to those verses. It shows us why Jesus sat down (v. 35) to interact with his disciples and their argument about who is to be the greatest. It shows us why pursuing greatness wrongly is a big deal.

Stumbling Blocks

It’s a big deal because there are eternal consequences at stake in this passage. One of the most important words we find in this passage is the word that is translated “cause to sin” in verses 42, 43, 45, and 47. How we understand this word is crucial to how we interpret this passage. Originally the word meant “to trap” and is used in reference to catching birds and animals. In Christian literature it began to be used to describe the danger of sin. Sin can “ensnare” us or at least “trip” us, causing us to stumble. This is why some modern versions translate this word as “cause to stumble” (NASB, NKJV).

However, this word is not typically used to refer to a single violation of God’s moral law and that is clearly not the way it is used in this passage. There is something much more serious being described here. The purpose of the trap is disaster for the one who gets caught in it. That’s why another way to translate the word here is “to cause the downfall of someone” (HCSB).

What kind of disaster or downfall is in view here? It is being thrown into hell, into the unquenchable fire (vv. 47-48). It is, in other words, suffering the full force of the wrath of God forever. So the “cause of sin” being discussed here perhaps is best understood as causing one to lose faith (GWT, GNT). What is being described in these verses, then, is unbelief, the direct opposite of faith.

The Little Ones Who Believe in Jesus

Now what complicates this interpretation is the identity of the ones that are in danger of this snare of unbelief. There are two individuals in view. First, in verse 42, Jesus speaks of “one of these little ones who believe in me.” He says that whoever should cause one of them not to believe, “it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Who are these “little ones”?

Since Jesus has just spoken of children in verse 37, some say it is a reference to them. The problem, though, is that this is not the most immediate context for verse 42. If verse 42 followed immediately after verse 37 that would be a sound interpretation, but apparently Mark does not want us to read verse 42 in that way. It is more likely that “little ones” refers to disciples of Jesus in general. These “little ones” are those “who believe in me.”

Why does he refer to them as “little ones”? Because in the most immediate context, they are those who do even the most menial tasks in the name of Jesus, like offering another disciple of Jesus a cup of water to drink. They are followers of Jesus but otherwise unknown among their fellow man. But though these disciples may be insignificant to others, they are not insignificant to him. Just as the most menial tasks done by one of these little ones in Jesus’ name will not go unrewarded, so anyone who causes unbelief in one of these little ones will not go unpunished.

Taking Drastic Measures to Fight Unbelief

So Jesus warns against the danger of causing another follower of Jesus to stop believing. But he also warns against the danger of falling into unbelief yourself. “If your hand causes you to lose faith, cut it off . . . . If your foot causes you to lose faith, cut it off. . . . If your eye causes you to lose faith, tear it out.” Hands, feet, and eyes are used here as figures of speech, representing the totality of life: what we do, where we go, and what we see.

It is tempting when we read this to conclude that there are things outside of us that can cause us to sin or to lose faith. We start compiling a list of things we should not do and places we should not go and things we should not look at. But this is to misread what Jesus says here. In keeping with what he taught in Mark 7:15 (“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”), the danger of falling away from faith is not found in something “out there;” the danger lurks within our own heart. If what you do causes you to lose faith, he doesn’t say, “Do something else;” he says, “cut off your hand.” If where you go causes you to lose faith, he doesn’t say, “Go someplace else;” he says, “cut off your foot.” And if what you see causes you to lose faith, he doesn’t say, “Change your scenery;” he says, “Pluck out your eye.” These are drastic measures, for sure, but they indicate that unbelief is our problem. It comes from within, not from without.

And so what about these drastic measures? Rest assured that Jesus does not mean for us to take him literally, or else all serious disciples of Jesus would be blind and maimed. Again, if we are defiled by what comes out of us, then cutting off our hands and feet and plucking out our eyes still does not get at the root of the problem. So Jesus is not advocating bodily mutilation as the way to overcoming the threat of unbelief. He is speaking here in hyperbole, purposefully exaggerating in order to make a point. The point is that there is nothing worse than losing faith in Jesus or causing another to lose their faith in Jesus. It would be far better to be violently drowned or physically maimed.  

Anything Is Better than Hell

What could possibly be worse than a violent death or living with severe physical disabilities? The answer, according to Jesus, is hell. Anything is better than being cast into hell.

And what is hell? The word translated hell is gehenna, which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word hinnom. It originally identified a specific place, a valley to the south of Jerusalem. Under two of Israel’s evil kings human sacrifice was practiced there, but the practice was abolished by King Josiah who turned the valley into a garbage dump.

Jesus describes hell as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (v. 48; cf. v. 43; later scribal additions added the words of verse 48 following verses 43 and 45 as well). It is quite possible that in Jesus’ day fire burned in this valley continuously to consume the trash that was placed there. If so, his description of hell as “the unquenchable fire” would have been easily understood.

But verse 48 is actually a quotation from the final verse of Isaiah (Isa 66:24), a text from which popular Jewish belief about God’s final judgment was derived. There it describes the state of God’s enemies at the final judgment, their dead bodies either burning or being decomposed by worms. It is a grotesque depiction of the severity of God’s wrath.

The images Jesus uses in reference to hell are metaphors, so we should not force these metaphors into specifics about this awful place. Popular opinions about hell prove just how far we’ve let our imagination tell us what hell is like. Ironically, we miss the serious point Jesus is making here when we focus on the metaphors.

So let’s return to the point. The point is that though Jesus uses metaphors when speaking of hell, that does not mean hell itself is a metaphor. According to Jesus, there really is a “hell,” a place of God’s final judgment on unbelievers. Its awfulness is so extreme that we do well to take whatever measures necessary to avoid being punished there. And I say “we” because Mark apparently thinks these words from Jesus are meant for his own disciples. He does not assume that even his most faithful followers have no need to fear the threat of God’s final judgment.

You see, the entire passage is directed toward disciples. We must beware that we do not cause others “who believe in me” to lose faith. And we must take drastic measures to ensure that we ourselves do not lose faith. These verses, then, are a stern warning from Jesus about the dangers of hell for all people, including those who call themselves disciples.

This does not mean that our salvation can be forfeited by unbelief (John 10:27-29). It does mean that we must continue to believe in order to be saved.

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. (Col 1:21-23)

For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Heb 3:14)

The danger is that there may be those who appear to be disciples of Jesus but whose faith is not legitimate. This is what we learn from the parable of the soils in chapter 4. The seed that fell on the rocky soil represents those who “hear the word” and “immediately receive it with joy.” But “they have no root in themselves” so “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they [lose faith]” (Mark 4:17). When believing Jesus becomes personally too uncomfortable, they turn away from him, thus proving that their faith was not real.

This means that we must fight for faith until we die. That is the commitment of Christian discipleship. It is not for the faint of heart. Following Jesus is not the easy path. It is a serious dedication to the fight for faith, and it will not always come easy. The easy path is the one that leads to hell. It is the path that is most natural for sinners like you and me.

That’s why Jesus warned his disciples that following him must necessarily take them to the cross (v. 31). We don’t like to ponder the implications of what that means for us. It doesn’t sound like greatness. But Jesus is calling us to real greatness, the life we can find in the kingdom of God. Whatever we must do to fight for faith is worth it!

Salt and Sacrifice

The demands of Christian discipleship are probably what Jesus alludes to in verse 49. He says, “For everyone will be salted with fire,” and this appears to be an allusion to Leviticus 2:13 where God commanded that all the sacrificial offerings were to be offered with salt. Jesus is saying that all his disciples (“everyone will be salted with fire”) are like an offering to God to be wholly consumed in sacrifice to him. Perhaps the reference to salt implies that they are a particularly “tasty” offering that God accepts (Rom 12:1). This would explain why causing unbelief in any of them is an offense taken seriously by God and makes the guilty party susceptible to his judgment.

But the “salt” they receive is fire, a reference to the sacrificial character of discipleship[1] (France, 384). Renouncing personal greatness in favor of a radical pursuit of Christ’s greatness will inevitably lead to its share of suffering and persecution (1 Pet 4:12; 2 Tim 3:12). But this only adds to the tastiness of the sacrifice offered up for Christ’s sake.

The subject of salt continues in verse 50, but now its reference has changed. Salt is used here to refer to the quality of the disciple’s life rather than the suffering he endures. But the connection between verses 49 and 50 is that the disciple’s character emerges from his dedication to Jesus so that being “salted with fire” has now produced a “salty” disciple.[2]

The “salty” disciple is the one who has grown in faith in the process of his devotion to Christian discipleship. It is this faith that makes the disciple an asset to his fellow man, too. When followers of Jesus have the “salt” of faith within them, they will find themselves at peace with one another. This is because when we seek greatness apart from Christ, we will find ourselves in conflict with others who also want to get to the top (v. 34). But imagine the kind of peaceful community that exists where faith in the greatness of Jesus is the common goal, and so members of that community are seeking the greatness of Jesus by being last and servant of all (v. 35).

Conclusion: The Fight of Faith

What are we to take away from these difficult words from our Lord?

  1. Faith, like unbelief is a present process with an eschatological effect.[3] That is, your belief in Jesus or your unbelief in Jesus right now leads somewhere. Either to life or to hell.
  2. It is faith in Jesus that saves from hell. His life on earth is the watershed resulting in either life or death for everyone. You can have an idea of where you stand with God by assessing what you believe about Jesus. Here’s what those from his hometown decided:  “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense (lost faith) at him.” (Mark 6:3) Do you look to him as your God who orders your life or as your friend who advises your life?
  3. Faith is the means through which God will see us safely into his kingdom. God “has caused us to be born again” and we are being guarded by him “through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:3-5).
  4. Faith is not the absence of all unbelief. “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24) is an expression of faith. All those who come to him he will not turn away. You don’t need perfect faith to receive Jesus. He is a great Savior. He can help you with your unbelief.
  5. Faith is not the end of all unbelief. The last time we read of losing faith in Mark’s Gospel is in Mark 14:27, 29. Jesus predicted that all of his disciples would “fall away” from him the night of his arrest. All but one were brought back into fellowship with Jesus after his resurrection.
  6. Faith must be strengthened or it may die. In what way might we be guilty of causing the loss of faith in one of Jesus’ disciples? We are not told explicitly. But we are given an idea from the story of the unknown exorcist in verses 38-39, the context for the warning in verse 42. Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not stop him.” Stop him from what? From casting out demons in Jesus name. As the exorcist was performing these miracles, he was exercising faith in Jesus, and Jesus promised that this faith would be rewarded.
    But if the disciples were to stop him, they would be discouraging him from this exercise of faith. I conclude, then, that faith in Jesus needs to be encouraged and drawn out by the Christian community. We are to do all we can to encourage faith and to help people believe. How can we do this? Ephesians 4:14-15 tells us how. We are to “speak the truth” of the gospel in love to one another, so that we are not led away into unbelief.
    This is one of the primary functions of the church, and this is the reason why we take church membership and involvement in a Missional Family so seriously here. It is an eternally dangerous place to be where we are not committed to the Christian community where the gospel is constantly preached to us so that faith is nurtured. This is the purpose of our worship gatherings. We gather to worship God together and expect that he will increase our faith through the ministry of the Word and the sacraments. This is how we are to fight for faith together. And we do it because we believe that true greatness is found in the pursuit of Christ.

[1] R. T. France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002), 384

[2] France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 384.

[3] G. Stählin, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964–74), 7:351.

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