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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Mark 9

 

 

Verses 1-50

Chapter 9

WHEN THE KING COMES INTO HIS OWN (Mark 8:38; Mark 9:1)

9:1 "Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." And he used to say to them, "This is the truth I tell you--there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until they shall see the Kingdom of God coming with power."

One thing leaps out from this passage--the confidence of Jesus. He has just been speaking of his death; he has no doubt that the Cross stands ahead of him; but nonetheless he is absolutely sure that in the end there will be triumph.

The first part of the passage states a simple truth. When the King comes into his Kingdom he will be loyal to those who have been loyal to him. No man can expect to dodge all the trouble of some great undertaking and then reap all the benefit of it. No man can expect to refuse service in some campaign and then share in the decorations when it is brought to a successful conclusion. Jesus is saying, "In a difficult and hostile world Christianity is up against it these days. If a man is ashamed under such conditions to show that he is a Christian, if he is afraid to show what side he is on, he cannot expect to gain a place of honour when the Kingdom comes."

The last part of this passage has caused much serious thought. Jesus says that many who are standing there will not die until they see the Kingdom coming with power. What worries some people is that they take this as a reference to the Second Coming; but if it is, Jesus was mistaken, because he did not return in power and glory in the lifetime of those who were there.

But this is not a reference to the Second Coming at all. Consider the situation. At the moment Jesus had only once been outside Palestine, and on that occasion he was just over the border in Tyre and Sidon. Only a very few men in a very small country had ever heard of him. Palestine was only about 120 miles from north to south and about 40 miles from east to west; her total population was 4,000,000 or thereby. To speak in terms of world conquest when he had scarcely ever been outside such a small country was strange. To make matters worse, even in that small country, he had so provoked the enmity of the orthodox leaders and of those in whose hands lay power, that it was quite certain that he could hope for nothing other than death as a heretic and an outlaw. In face of a situation like that there must have been many who felt despairingly that Christianity had no possible future, that in a short time it would be wiped out completely and eliminated from the world. Humanly speaking, these pessimists were right.

Now consider what did happen. Scarcely more than thirty years later, Christianity had swept through Asia Minor; Antioch had become a great Christian church. It had penetrated to Egypt; the Christians were strong in Alexandria. It had crossed the sea and come to Rome and swept through Greece. Christianity had spread like an unstoppable tide throughout the world. It was astonishingly true that in the lifetime of many there, against all expectations, Christianity had come with power. So far from being mistaken, Jesus was absolutely right.

The amazing thing is that Jesus never knew despair. In face of the dullness of the minds of men, in face of the opposition, in face of crucifixion and of death, he never doubted his final triumph--because he never doubted God. He was always certain that what is impossible with man is completely possible with him.

THE GLORY OF THE MOUNTAIN TOP (Mark 9:2-8)

9:2-8 Six days after, Jesus took Peter and James and John along with him and brought them up into a high mountain, all by themselves, alone. And he was transfigured in their presence. His clothes became radiant, exceedingly white, such that no fuller on earth could have made them so white. And Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and they were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus. "Teacher, it is good for us to be here. So let us make three booths, one for you, and one for Moses and one for Elijah." He said this because he did not know what he was saying, for they were awe-struck. And there came a cloud overshadowing them. And there came a voice from the cloud, "This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!" And immediately, when they had looked round, they saw no one any more except Jesus alone with them.

We are face to face with an incident in the life of Jesus that is cloaked in mystery. We can only try to understand. Mark says that this happened six days after the incidents near Caesarea Philippi. Luke says that it happened eight days afterwards. There is no discrepancy here. They both mean what we might express by saying, "About a week afterwards." Both the Eastern and the Western Churches hold their remembrance of the transfiguration on 6th August. It does not matter whether or not that is the actual date, but it is a time we do well to remember.

Tradition says that the transfiguration took place on the top of Mount Tabor. The Eastern Church actually calls the Festival of the Transfiguration the Taborion. It may be that the choice is based on the mention of Mount Tabor in Psalms 89:12, but it is unfortunate. Tabor is in the south of Galilee and Caesarea Philippi is away to the north. Tabor is no more than 1,000 feet high, and, in the time of Jesus, there was a fortress on the top. It is much more likely that this event took place amidst the eternal snows of Mount Hermon which is 9,200 feet high and much nearer Caesarea Philippi and where the solitude would be much more complete.

What happened we cannot tell. We can only bow in reverence as we try to understand. Mark tells us that the garments of Jesus became radiant. The word he uses (stilbein, Greek #4744) is the word used for the glistening gleam of burnished brass or gold or of polished steel or of the golden glare of the sunlight. When the incident came to an end a cloud overshadowed them.

In Jewish thought the presence of God is regularly connected with the cloud. It was in the cloud that Moses met God. It was in the cloud that God came to the Tabernacle. It was the cloud which rifled the Temple when it was dedicated after Solomon had built it. And it was the dream of the Jews that when the Messiah came the cloud of God's presence would return to the Temple. (Exodus 16:10, Exodus 19:9, Exodus 33:9, 1 Kings 8:10, 2 Maccabees 2:8.) The descent of the cloud is a way of saying that the Messiah had come, and any Jew would understand it like that.

The transfiguration has a double significance.

(i) It did something very precious for Jesus. Jesus had to take his own decisions. He had taken the decision to go to Jerusalem and that was the decision to face and accept the Cross. Obviously he had to be absolutely sure that was right before he could go on. On the mountain top he received a double approval of his decision.

(a) Moses and Elijah met with him. Now Moses was the supreme law-giver of Israel. To him the nation owed the laws of God. Elijah was the first and the greatest of the prophets. Always men looked back to him as the prophet who brought to men the very voice of God. When these two great figures met with Jesus it meant that the greatest of the law-givers and the greatest of the prophets said to him, "Go on!" It meant that they saw in Jesus the consummation of all that they had dreamed of in the past. It meant that they saw in him all that history had longed for and hoped for and looked forward to. It is as if at that moment Jesus was assured that he was on the right way because all history had been leading up to the Cross.

(b) God spoke with Jesus. As always, Jesus did not consult his own wishes. He went to God and said, "What wilt thou have me to do?" He put all his plans and intentions before God. And God said to him, "You are acting as my own beloved Son should act and must act. Go on!" On the mountain of the transfiguration Jesus was assured that he had not chosen the wrong way. He saw, not only the inevitability, but the essential rightness of the Cross.

(ii) It did something very precious for the disciples.

(a) They had been shattered by Jesus' statement that he was going to Jerusalem to die. That seemed to them the complete negation of all that they understood of the Messiah. They were still bewildered and uncomprehending. Things were happening which not only baffled their minds but were also breaking their hearts. What they saw on the mountain of the transfiguration would give them something to hold on to, even when they could not understand. Cross or no Cross, they had heard God's voice acknowledge Jesus as his Son.

(b) It made them in a special sense witnesses of the glory of Christ. A witness has been defined as a man who first sees and then shows. This time on the mountain had shown them the glory of Christ, and now they had the story of this glory to hide in their hearts and to tell to men, not at the moment, but when the time came.

THE FATE OF THE FORERUNNER (Mark 9:9-13)

9:9-13 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus enjoined them that they must not relate to anyone what they had seen, except when the Son of Man should have risen from the dead. They clung to this word, asking among themselves, what this phrase about rising from the dead could mean. They asked Jesus, "Do the experts in the Law not say that Elijah must come first?" "It is true," he said to them, "Elijah comes first and sets all things in order. And yet how does it stand written about the Son of Man that he must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But, I say to you, Elijah, too, has come, and they treated him as they wished, even as it stands written about him."

Naturally the three disciples were thinking hard as they came down the mountain-side.

First, Jesus began with an injunction. They must tell no one of what they had seen. Jesus knew quite well that their minds were still haunted by the conception of a Messiah of might and power. If they were to tell of what had happened on the mountain top, of how the glory of God had appeared, of how Moses and Elijah had appeared, how that could be made to chime in with popular expectations! How it could be made to seem a prelude to the burst of God's avenging power on the nations of the world! The disciples still had to learn what Messiahship meant. There was only one thing that could teach them that--the Cross and the Resurrection to follow. When the Cross had taught them what Messiahship meant and when the Resurrection had convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah, then, and then only, they might tell of the glory of the mountain top for then, and then only, would they see it as it ought to be seen--as the prelude, not to the unleashing of God's force, but to the crucifying of God's love.

Still their minds worked on. They could not understand what Jesus' words about resurrection meant. Their whole attitude shows that in fact they never understood them. Their whole outlook when the Cross came was that of men to whom the end had come. We must not blame the disciples. It was simply that they had been so schooled in a completely different idea of Messiahship that they could not take in what Jesus had said.

Then they asked something that was puzzling them. The Jew believed that before the Messiah came Elijah would come to be his herald and forerunner. (Malachi 4:5-6.) They had a rabbinic tradition that Elijah would come three days before the Messiah. On the first day he would stand on the mountains of Israel, lamenting the desolation of the land. And then in a voice that would be heard from one end of the world to the other, he would cry, "Peace cometh to the world. Peace cometh to the world." On the second day he would cry, "Good cometh to the world. Good cometh to the world." And on the third day he would cry "Jeshuah (see Yeshuw'ah - Hebrew #3444) (salvation) cometh to the world. Jeshuah cometh to the world." He would restore all things. He would mend the family breaches of the grim last days. He would settle all doubtful points of ritual and ceremonial. He would cleanse the nation by bringing back those wrongfully excluded and driving out those wrongfully included. Elijah had an amazing place in the thought of Israel. He was conceived of as being continuously active in heaven and on earth in their interest, and being the herald of the final consummation.

Inevitably the disciples were wondering "If Jesus is the Messiah what has happened to Elijah?" Jesus' answer was in terms that any Jew would understand. "Elijah," he said, "has come and men treated him as they willed. They took him and they arbitrarily applied their will to him and forgot God's will." He was referring to the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. Then, by implication, he drove them back to that thought they would not face and that he was determined they must face. By implication he demanded, "If they have done that to the forerunner, what will they do to the Messiah?"

Jesus was overturning all the preconceived notions and ideas of his disciples. They looked for the emergence of Elijah, the coming of the Messiah, the irruption of God into time and the shattering victory of heaven, which they identified with the triumph of Israel. He was trying to compel them to see that in fact the herald had been cruelly killed and the Messiah must end on a Cross. They still did not understand, and their failure to understand was due to the cause which always makes men fail to understand--they clung to their way and refused to see God's way. They wished things as they desired them and not as God had ordered them. the error of their thoughts had blinded them to the revelation of God's truth.

COMING DOWN FROM THE MOUNT (Mark 9:14-18)

9:14-18 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd gathered around them, and the experts in the law engaged in discussion with them. And as soon as they saw him the whole crowd were amazed and ran to him and greeted him. He asked them, "What are you discussing among yourselves?" And one of the crowd answered him, "Teacher, I brought my son to you because he has a spirit which makes him dumb. And whenever the spirit seizes him, it convulses him, and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth, and he is wasting away. And I asked your disciples to cast it out and they could not."

This is the kind of thing that Peter had wanted to avoid. On the mountain top, in the presence of the glory, Peter had said, "This is a good place for us to be." Then he had wanted to build three booths for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, and to stay there. Life was so much better, so much nearer God, there on the mountain top. Why ever come down again? But it is of the very essence of life that we must come down from the mountain top. It has been said that in religion there must be solitude, but not solitariness. The solitude is necessary, for a man must keep his contact with God; but if a man, in his search for the essential solitude, shuts himself off from his fellow-men, shuts his ears to their appeal for help, shuts his heart to the cry of their tears, that is not religion. The solitude is not meant to make us solitary. It is meant to make us better able to meet and cope with the demands of everyday life.

Jesus came down to a delicate situation. A father had brought his boy to the disciples, and the boy was an epileptic. All the symptoms were there. The disciples had been quite unable to deal with his case, and that had given the scribes their chance. The helplessness of the disciples was a first-rate opportunity to belittle not only them but their Master. That is what made the situation so delicate, and that is what makes every human situation so delicate for the Christian. His conduct, his words, his ability or inability to cope with the demands of life, are used as a yard-stick, not only to judge him, but to judge Jesus Christ.

A. Victor Murray, in his book on Christian Education, writes, "There are those into whose eyes comes a far-away look when they talk about the church. It is a supernatural society, the body of Christ, his spotless bride, the custodian of the oracles of God, the blessed company of the redeemed, and a few more romantic titles, none of which seem to tally with what the outsider can see for himself in 'St. Agatha's Parish Church,' or 'High Street Methodists.'" It does not matter how high-sounding a man's professions may be, it is by his actions that people judge him, and, in judging him, judge his Master. That was the situation here.

Then Jesus arrived. When the people saw him, they were astonished. We are not for one moment to think that the radiance of the transfiguration still lingered on him. That would have been to undo his own instructions that it be kept as yet a secret. The crowd had thought him away up in the lonely slopes of Hermon. They had been so engrossed in their argument that they had not seen him come, and now, just when the moment was right, here he was in the midst of them. It was at his sudden, unexpected but opportune arrival, that they were surprised.

Here we learn two things about Jesus.

(i) He was ready to face the Cross and he was ready to face the common problem just as either came. It is characteristic of human nature that we can face the great crisis-moments of life with honour and dignity, but allow the routine demands of everyday to irritate and annoy us. We can face the shattering blows of life with a certain heroism, but allow the petty pinpricks to upset us. Many a man can face a great disaster or a great loss with calm serenity and yet loses his temper if a meal is badly cooked or a train late. The amazing thing about Jesus was that he could serenely face the Cross, and just as calmly deal with the day-to-day emergencies of life. The reason was that he did not keep God only for the crisis as so many of us do. He walked the daily paths of life with him.

(ii) He had come into the world to save the world, and yet he could give himself in his entirety to the helping of one single person. It is much easier to preach the gospel of love for mankind than it is to love individual not-very-lovable sinners. It is easy to be filled with a sentimental affection for the human race, and just as easy to find it too much bother to go out of our way to help an individual member of it. Jesus had the gift, which is the gift of a regal nature, of giving himself entirely to every person with whom he happened to be.

THE CRY OF FAITH (Mark 9:19-24)

9:19-24 "O faithless generation!" Jesus answered. "How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear you? Bring him to me!" They brought him to Jesus. When he saw Jesus, the spirit immediately sent the boy into a convulsion, and he fell upon the ground, and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked his father, "How long is it since this happened to him?" He said, "He has been like this since he was a child. Often it throws him into the fire and into waters for it is out to destroy him. But, if you can, let your heart be moved with pity, and help us." Jesus said to him, "You say, 'If you can.' All things are possible to him who believes." Immediately the father of the boy cried out, "I do believe. Help my unbelief."

This passage begins with a cry wrung from the heart of Jesus. He had been on the mountain top and had faced the tremendous task that lay ahead of him. He had decided to stake his life on the redemption of the world. And now he had come back down to find his nearest followers, his own chosen men, beaten and baffled and helpless and ineffective. The thing, for the moment, must have daunted even Jesus. He must have had a sudden realization of what anyone else would have called the hopelessness of his task. He must at that moment have almost despaired of the attempt to change human nature and to make men of the world into men of God.

How did he meet the moment of despair? "Bring the boy to me," he said. When we cannot deal with the ultimate situation, the thing to do is to deal with the situation which at the moment confronts us. It was as if Jesus said, "I do not know how I am ever to change these disciples of mine, but I can at this moment help this boy. Let me get on with the present task, and not despair of the future."

Again and again that is the way to avoid despair. If we sit and think about the state of the world, we may well become very depressed; then let us get to action in our small corner of the world. We may sometimes despair of the church; then let us get to action in our own small part of the church. Jesus did not sit appalled and paralysed at the slowness of men's minds; he dealt with the immediate situation. As Kingsley had it,

"Do the work that's nearest,

Though it's dull at whiles,

Helping when we meet them

Lame dogs over stiles."

The surest way to avoid pessimism and despair is to take what immediate action we can--and there is always something to be done.

To the father of the boy Jesus stated the conditions of a miracle. "To him who believes," said Jesus, "all things are possible." It was as if Jesus said, "The cure of your boy depends, not on me, but on you." This is not a specially theological truth; it is universal. To approach anything in the spirit of hopelessness is to make it hopeless; to approach anything in the spirit of faith is to make it a possibility. Cavour once said that what a statesman needed above all was "a sense of the possible." Most of us are cursed with a sense of the impossible, and that is precisely why miracles do not happen.

The whole attitude of the father of the boy is most illuminating. Originally he had come seeking for Jesus himself. Since Jesus was on the mountain top he had had to deal with the disciples and his experience of them was discouraging. His faith was badly shaken, so badly shaken that when he came to Jesus all he could say at first was, "Help me, if you can." then, face to face with Jesus, suddenly his faith blazed up again. "I believe," he cried. "If there is still some discouragement in me, still some doubts, take them away and fill me with an unquestioning faith."

It sometimes happens that people get less than they hoped for from some church or from some servant of the church. When that happens they ought to press beyond the church to the Master of the church, beyond the servant of Christ to Christ himself. The church may at times disappoint us, and God's servants on earth may disappoint us. But when we battle our way face to face with Jesus Christ, he never disappoints us.

THE CAUSE OF FAILURE (Mark 9:25-29)

9:25-29 When Jesus saw that the crowd was running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit. "Spirit of dumbness and deafness," he said, "I order you, come out of him, and don't go into him again." When it had cried and violently convulsed him it came out, and he became like a dead man, so that many said, "He is dead." But Jesus took him by the hand, and raised him up, and he stood up. When he had gone into the house, and when they were by themselves, his disciples asked him, "Why were we not able to cast it out?" "This kind," he said to them, "cannot come out except by prayer."

Jesus must have taken father and son aside. But the crowd, hearing their cries, came running up, and Jesus acted. There was one last struggle, a struggle to complete exhaustion, and the boy was cured.

When they were by themselves the disciples asked the cause of their failure. They were no doubt remembering that Jesus had sent them out to preach and heal and cast out devils (Mark 3:14-15). Why, then, had they this time so signally failed? Jesus answered quite simply that this kind of cure demanded prayer.

In effect he said to them, "You don't live close enough to God." They had been equipped with power, but it needed prayer to maintain it.

There is a deep lesson here. God may have given us a gift, but unless we maintain close contact with him it may wither and die. That is true of any gift. God may give a man great natural gifts as a preacher, but unless he maintains contact with God, he may in the end become only a man of words and not a man of power. God may give a man a gift of music or of song, but unless he maintains contact with God, he may become a mere professional, who uses the gift only for gain, which is a dreary thing. That is not to say a man should not use a gift for gain. He has a right to capitalize any talent. But it does mean that, even when he is so using it, he should be finding joy in it because he is also using it for God. It is told of Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish soprano, that before every performance she would stand alone in her dressing-room and pray, "God, help me to sing true to-night."

Unless we maintain this contact with God we lose two things however great our gift may be.

(i) We lose vitality. We lose that living power, that something plus which makes for greatness. The thing becomes a performance instead of an offering to God. What should be a vital, living body becomes a beautiful corpse.

(ii) We lose humility. What should be used for God's glory we begin to use for our own, and the virtue goes out of it. What should have been used to set God before men is used to set ourselves before them, and the breath of loveliness is gone.

Here is a warning thought. The disciples had been equipped with power direct from Jesus, but they had not nurtured power with prayer, and power had vanished. Whatever gifts God has given us, we lose them when we use them for ourselves. We keep them when we enrich them by continual contact with the God who gave them.

FACING THE END (Mark 9:30-31)

9:30-31 When they left there, they made their way through Galilee, and Jesus did not wish anyone to know where he was, for he kept teaching the disciples and saying to them, "The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and, when he has been killed, after three days he will rise again." But they did not understand what he said, and they were afraid to ask him what it meant.

This passage marks a mile-stone. Jesus had now left the north country where he was safe and was taking the first step towards Jerusalem and to the Cross which awaited him there. For once he did not watt the crowds around him. He knew quite clearly that unless he could write his message on the hearts of his chosen men, he had failed. Any teacher can leave behind him a series of propositions, but Jesus knew that that was not enough. He had to leave behind him a band of persons on whom these propositions were written. He had to make sure, before he left this world in the body, that there were some who understood, however dimly, what he had come to say.

This time the tragedy of his warning is even more poignant. If we compare it with the previous passage in which he foretold his death (Mark 8:31), we see that one phrase is added, "The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men." There was a traitor in the little band, and Jesus knew it. He could see the way in which the mind of Judas was working. Maybe he could see it better than Judas could himself. And when he said, "The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men." he was not only announcing a fact and giving a warning, he was also making a last appeal to the man in whose heart was forming the purpose of betrayal.

Even yet the disciples did not understand. The thing they did not understand was the bit about rising again. By this time they were aware of the atmosphere of tragedy, but to the end of the day they never grasped the certainty of the Resurrection. That was a wonder that was too great for them, a wonder that they grasped only when it became an accomplished fact.

When they did not understand, they were afraid to ask any further questions. They were like men who knew so much that they were afraid to know more. A man might receive a verdict from his doctor. He might think the general purport of the verdict bad, but not understand all the details, and he might be afraid to ask questions, for the simple reason that he is afraid to know any more. The disciples were like that.

Sometimes we are amazed that they did not grasp what was so plainly spoken. The human mind has an amazing faculty for rejecting what it does not wish to see. Are we so very different? Over and over again we have heard the Christian message. We know the glory of accepting it and the tragedy of rejecting it, but many of us are just as far off as ever we were from giving it our full allegiance and moulding our lives to fit it. Men still accept the parts of the Christian message which they like and which suit them, and refuse to understand the rest.

THE TRUE AMBITION (Mark 9:32-35)

9:32-35 So they came to Capernaum. When Jesus was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" They remained silent. for on the road they had been arguing with each other who was to be greatest. So Jesus sat down, and called the Twelve, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to be first, he must be the last of all, and the servant of all."

Nothing so well shows how far the disciples were from realizing the real meaning of Jesus' Messiahship as this does. Repeatedly he had told them what awaited him in Jerusalem, and yet they were still thinking of his Kingdom in earthly terms and of themselves as his chief ministers of state. There is something heart-breaking in the thought of Jesus going towards a Cross and his disciples arguing about who would be greatest.

Yet in their heart of hearts they knew they were wrong. When he asked them what they had been arguing about they had nothing to say. It was the silence of shame. They had no defence. It is strange how a thing takes its proper place and acquires its true character when it is set in the eyes of Jesus. So long as they thought that Jesus was not listening and that Jesus had not seen, the argument about who should be greatest seemed fair enough, but when that argument had to be stated in the presence of Jesus it was seen in all its unworthiness.

If we took everything and set it in the sight of Jesus it would make all the difference in the world. If of everything we did, we asked, "Could I go on doing this if Jesus was watching me?"; if of everything we said, we asked, "Could I go on talking like this if Jesus was listening to me?" there would be many things which we would be saved from doing and saying. And the fact of Christian belief is that there is no "if" about it. All deeds are done, all words are spoken in his presence. God keep us from the words and deeds which we would be ashamed that he should hear and see.

Jesus dealt with this very seriously. It says that he sat down and called the Twelve to him. When a Rabbi was teaching as a Rabbi, as a master teaches his scholars and disciples, when he was really making a pronouncement, he sat to teach. Jesus deliberately took up the position of a Rabbi teaching his pupils before he spoke. And then he told them that if they sought for greatness in his Kingdom they must find it, not by being first but by being last, not by being masters but by being servants of all. It was not that Jesus abolished ambition. Rather he recreated and sublimated ambition. For the ambition to rule he substituted the ambition to serve. For the ambition to have things done for us he substituted the ambition to do things for others.

So far from being an impossibly idealistic view, this is a view of the soundest common-sense. The really great men, the men who are remembered as having made a real contribution to life, are the men who said to themselves, not, "How can I use the state and society to further my own prestige and my own personal ambitions?" but, "How can I use my personal gifts and talents to serve the state?"

Stanley Baldwin paid a noble tribute to Lord Curzon when he died. In it he said, "I want, before I sit down, to say one or two things that no one but I can say. A Prime Minister sees human nature bared to the bone, and it was my chance to see him twice when he suffered great disappointment--the time when I was preferred to him as Prime Minister, and the time when I had to tell him that he could render greater service to the country as chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence than in the Foreign Office. Each of these occasions was a profound and bitter disappointment to him, but never for one moment did he show by word, look, or innuendo, or by any reference to the subject afterwards, that he was dissatisfied. He bore no grudge, and he pursued no other course than the one I expected of him, of doing his duty where it was decided he could best render service." Here was a man whose greatness lay not in the fact that he reached the highest offices of state, but in the fact that he was ready to serve his country anywhere.

True selflessness is rare, and when it is found it is remembered. The Greeks had a story of a Spartan called Paedaretos. Three hundred men were to be chosen to govern Sparta and Paedaretos was a candidate. When the list of the successful was announced his name was not on it. "I am sorry," said one of his friends, "that you were not elected. The people ought to have known what a wise officer of state you would have made." "I am glad," said Paedaretos, "that in Sparta there are three hundred men better than I am." Here was a man who became a legend because he was prepared to give to others the first place and to bear no ill will.

Every economic problem would be solved if men lived for what they could do for others and not for what they could get for themselves. Every political problem would be solved if the ambition of men was only to serve the state and not to enhance their own prestige. The divisions and disputes which tear the church asunder would for the most part never occur if the only desire of its office-bearers and its members was to serve it without caring what position they occupied. When Jesus spoke of the supreme greatness and value of the man whose ambition was to be a servant, he laid down one of the greatest practical truths in the world.

HELPING THE HELPLESS IS HELPING CHRIST (Mark 9:36-37)

9:36-37 Jesus took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And he took him up in the crook of his arm and said to them, "Whoever receives one little child like this in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me, but him who sent me."

Jesus is here still dealing with the worthy and the unworthy ambition.

He took a child and set him in the midst. Now a child has no influence at all; a child cannot advance a man's career nor enhance his prestige; a child cannot give us things. It is the other way round. A child needs things; a child must have things done for him. So Jesus says, "If a man welcomes the poor, ordinary people, the people who have no influence and no wealth and no power, the people who need things done for them, he is welcoming me. More than that, he is welcoming God." The child is typical of the person who needs things, and it is the society of the person who needs things that we must seek.

There is a warning here. It is easy to cultivate the friendship of the person who can do things for us, and whose influence can be useful to us. And it is equally easy to avoid the society of the person who inconveniently needs our help. It is easy to curry favour with the influential and the great, and to neglect the simple, humble, ordinary folk. It is easy at some function to seek the society and the notice of some distinguished person, and to avoid the poor relation. In effect Jesus here says that we ought to seek out not those who can do things for us, but those for whom we can do things, for in this way we are seeking the society of himself. This is another way of saying, "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

A LESSON IN TOLERANCE (Mark 9:38-40)

9:38-40 John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons by the use of your name, and we tried to stop him because he is not one of our company." "Don't stop him," said Jesus. "There is no one who can do a work of power in the strength of my name and lightly speak evil of me. He who is not against us is for us."

As we have seen over and over again, in the time of Jesus everyone believed in demons. Everyone believed that both mental and physical illness was caused by the malign influence of these evil spirits. Now there was one very common way to exorcise them. If one could get to know the name of a still more powerful spirit and command the evil demon in that name to come out of a person, the demon was supposed to be powerless to resist. It could not stand against the might of the more powerful name. This is the kind of picture we have here. John had seen a man using the all-powerful name of Jesus to defeat the demons and he had tried to stop him, because he was not one of the intimate band of the disciples. But Jesus declared that no man could do a mighty work in his name and be altogether his enemy. Then Jesus laid down the great principle that "he who is not against us is for us."

Here is a lesson in tolerance, and it is a lesson that nearly everyone needs to learn.

(i) Every man has a right to his own thoughts. Every man has a right to think things out and to think them through until he comes to his own conclusions and his own beliefs. And that is a right we should respect. We are often too apt to condemn what we do not understand. William Penn once said, "Neither despise nor oppose what thou dost not understand." Kingsley Williams in The New Testament in Plain English, translates a phrase in Jd 10 like this--"Those who speak abusively of everything they do not understand."

There are two things we must remember.

(a) There is far more than one way to God. "God," as Tennyson has it, "fulfils himself in many ways." Cervantes once said, "Many are the roads by which God carries his own to heaven." The world is round, and two people can get to precisely the same destination by starting out in precisely opposite directions. All roads, if we pursue them long enough and far enough, lead to God. It is a fearful thing for any man or any church to think that he or it has a monopoly of salvation.

(b) It is necessary to remember that truth is always bigger than any man's grasp of it. No man can possibly grasp all truth. The basis of tolerance is not a lazy acceptance of anything. It is not the feeling that there cannot be assurance anywhere. The basis of tolerance is simply the realization of the magnitude of the orb of truth. John Morley wrote, "Toleration means reverence for all the possibilities of truth, it means acknowledgment that she dwells in divers mansions, and wears vesture of many colours, and speaks in strange tongues. It means frank respect for freedom of indwelling conscience against mechanical forms, official conventions, social force. It means the charity that is greater than faith or hope." Intolerance is a sign both of arrogance and ignorance, for it is a sign that a man believes that there is no truth beyond the truth he sees.

(ii) Not only must we concede to every man the right to do his own thinking, we must also concede the right to a man to do his own speaking. Of all democratic rights the dearest is that of liberty of speech. There are, of course, limits. If a man is inculcating doctrines calculated to destroy morality and to remove the foundations from all civilized and Christian society, he must be combatted. But the way to combat him is certainly not to eliminate him by force but to prove him wrong. Once Voltaire laid down the conception of freedom of speech in a vivid sentence. "I hate what you say," he said, "but I would die for your right to say it."

(iii) We must remember that any doctrine or belief must finally be judged by the kind of people it produces. Dr. Chalmers once put the matter in a nutshell. "Who cares," he demanded, "about any Church but as an instrument of Christian good?" The question must always ultimately be, not, "How is a Church governed?" but, "What kind of people does a Church produce?"

There is an old eastern fable. A man possessed a ring set with a wonderful opal. Whoever wore the ring became so sweet and true in character that all men loved him. The ring was a charm. Always it was passed down from father to son, and always it did its work. As time went on, it came to a father who had three sons whom he loved with an equal love. What was he to do when the time came to pass on the ring? The father got other two rings made precisely the same so that none could tell the difference. On his death-bed he called each of his sons in, spoke some words of love and to each, without telling the others, gave a ring. When the three sons discovered that each had a ring, a great dispute arose as to which was the true ring that could do so much for its owner. The case was taken to a wise judge. He examined the rings and then he spoke. "I cannot tell which is the magic ring," he said, "but you yourselves can prove it." "We?" asked the sons in astonishment. "Yes," said the judge, "for if the true ring gives sweetness to the character of the man who wears it, then I and all the other people in the city will know the man who possesses the true ring by the goodness of his life. So, go your ways, and be kind, be truthful, be brave, be just in your dealings, and he who does these things will be the owner of the true ring."

The matter was to be proved by life. No man can entirely condemn beliefs which make a man good. If we remember that, we may be less intolerant.

(iv) We may hate a man's beliefs, but we must never hate the man. We may wish to eliminate what he teaches, but we must never wish to eliminate him.

"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."

REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS (Mark 9:41-42)

9:41-42 Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink on the ground that you belong to Christ, I tell you truly he will not lose his reward. And whoever puts a stumbling-block in the path of one of these little ones who believe in me, it is better for him that a great millstone hang about his neck and he be cast into the sea.

The teaching of this passage is simple, unmistakable and salutary.

(i) It declares that any kindness shown, any help given, to the people of Christ will not lose its reward. The reason for helping is that the person in need belongs to Jesus. Every man in need has a claim upon us because he is dear to Christ. Had Jesus still been here in the flesh he would have helped that man in the most practical way and the duty of help has devolved on us. It is to be noted how simple the help is. The gift is a cup of cold water. We are not asked to do great things for others, things beyond our power. We are asked to give the simple things that any man can give.

A missionary tells a lovely story. She had been telling a class of African primary children about giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus. She was sitting on the veranda of her house. Into the village square came a company of native bearers. They had heavy packs. They were tired and thirsty, and they sat down to rest. Now they were men of another tribe, and had they asked the ordinary non-Christian native for water they would have been told to go and find it for themselves, because of the barrier between the tribes. But as the men sat wearily there, and as the missionary watched, from the school emerged a little line of tiny African girls. On their heads they had pitchers of water. Shyly and fearfully they approached the tired bearers, knelt and offered their pitchers of water. In surprise the bearers took them and drank and handed them back, and the girls took to their heels and ran to the missionary. "We have given a thirsty man a drink," they said, "in the name of Jesus." The little children took the story and the duty literally.

Would that more would do so! It is the simple kindnesses that are needed. As Mahomet said long ago, "Putting a lost man on the right road, giving a thirsty man a drink of water, smiling in your brother's face--that, too, is charity."

(ii) But the converse is also true. To help is to win the eternal reward. To cause a weaker brother to stumble is to win the eternal punishment. The passage is deliberately stern. The mill-stone that is mentioned is a great millstone. There were two kinds of mills in Palestine. There was the hand-mill that the women used in the house. And there was the mill whose stone was so great that it took an ass to turn it.

The mill-stone here is literally an ass' mill-stone. To be cast into the sea with that attached was certainly to have no hope of return. This was in fact a punishment and a means of execution both in Rome and in Palestine. Josephus tells us that when certain Galilaeans had made a successful revolt "they took those of Herod's party and drowned them in the lake." Suetonius, the Roman historian, tells us of Augustus that, "Because the tutor and attendants of his son Gaius took advantage of their master's illness to commit acts of arrogance and greed to his province, he had them thrown into a river with heavy weights about their necks."

To sin is terrible but to teach another to sin is infinitely worse. O. Henry has a story in which he tells of a little girl whose mother was dead. Her father used to come home from work and sit down and take off his jacket and open his paper and light his pipe and put his feet on the mantelpiece. The little girl would come in and ask him to play with her for a little for she was lonely. He told her he was tired, to let him be at peace. He told her to go out to the street and play. She played on the streets. The inevitable happened--she took to the streets. The years passed on and she died. Her soul arrived in heaven. Peter saw her and said to Jesus, "Master, here's a girl who was a bad lot. I suppose we send her straight to hell?" "No," said Jesus gently, "let her in. Let her in." And then his eyes grew stern, "But look for a man who refused to play with his little girl and sent her out to the streets--and send him to hell." God is not hard on the sinner, but he will be stern to the person who makes it easier for another to sin, and whose conduct, either thoughtless or deliberate, puts a stumbling-block in the path of a weaker brother.

THE GOAL WHICH IS WORTH ANY SACRIFICE (Mark 9:43-48)

9:43-48 If your hand proves a stumbling-block to you, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to go away to Gehenna with two hands, to the fire that can never be quenched. And if your foot is a stumbling-block to you, cut it off. For it is better for you to enter life lame than to be cast into Gehenna with two feet. And if your eye proves a stumbling-block to you, cast it away. For it is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye than to be cast into Gehenna with two eyes, where their worm does not die and the fire is never quenched.

This passage lays down in vivid eastern language the basic truth that there is one goal in life worth any sacrifice. In physical matters it may be that a man may have to part with a limb or with some part of the body to preserve the life of the whole body. The amputation of some limb or the excision of some part of the body by surgical means is sometimes the only way to preserve the life of the whole body. In the spiritual life the same kind of thing can happen.

The Jewish Rabbis had sayings based on the way in which some parts of the body can lend themselves to sin. "The eye and the heart are the two brokers of sin." "The eye and the heart are the two handmaids of sin." "Passions lodge only in him who sees." "Woe to him who goes after his eyes for the eyes are adulterous." There are certain instincts in man, and certain parts of man's physical constitution, which minister to sin. This saying of Jesus is not to be taken literally, but is a vivid eastern way of saying that there is a goal in life worth any sacrifice to attain it.

There are in this passage repeated references to Gehenna. Gehenna is spoken of in the New Testament in Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 10:28; Matthew 18:9; Matthew 23:15; Matthew 23:33; Luke 12:5; James 3:6. The word is regularly translated Hell. It is a word with a history. It is a form of the word Hinnom. The valley of Hinnom was a ravine outside Jerusalem. It had an evil past.

It was the valley in which Ahaz, in the old days, had instituted fire worship and the sacrifice of little children in the fire. "He burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burned his sons as an offering." (2 Chronicles 28:3). That terrible heathen worship was also followed by Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:6). The valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, therefore, was the scene of one of Israel's most terrible lapses into heathen customs. In his reformations Josiah declared it an unclean place. "He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech." (2 Kings 23:10).

When the valley had been so declared unclean and had been so desecrated it was set apart as the place where the refuse of Jerusalem was burned. The consequence was that it was a foul, unclean place, where loathsome worms bred on the refuse, and which smoked and smouldered at all times like some vast incinerator. The actual phrase about the worm which does not die, and the fire which is not quenched, comes from a description of the fate of Israel's evil enemies in Isaiah 66:24.

Because of all this Gehenna had become a kind of type or symbol of Hell, the place where the souls of the wicked would be tortured and destroyed. It is so used in the Talmud. "The sinner who desists from the words of the Law will in the end inherit Gehenna." So then Gehenna stands as the place of punishment, and the word roused in the mind of every Israelite the grimmest and most terrible pictures.

But what was the goal for which everything must be sacrificed? It is described in two ways. Twice it is called life, and once it is called the Kingdom of God. How may we define the Kingdom of God? We may take our definition from the Lord's Prayer. In that prayer two petitions are set beside each other. "Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." There is no literary device so characteristic of Jewish style as parallelism. In parallelism two phrases are set side by side, the one of which either restates the other, or amplifies, explains and develops it. Any verse of the Psalms will show this device in action. So, then, we may take it that in the Lord's Prayer the one petition is an explanation and amplification of the other. When we set the two together we get the definition that, "The Kingdom of Heaven is a society upon earth in which God's will is as perfectly done in earth as it is in heaven."

We may then go on to say quite simply that perfectly to do God's will is to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. And if we take that and apply it to the passage we are now studying it will mean that it is worth any sacrifice and any discipline and any self-denial to do the will of God and only in doing that will is there real life and ultimate and completely satisfying peace.

Origen takes this symbolically. He says that it may be necessary to excise some heretic or some evil person from the fellowship of the Church in order to keep the body of the Church pure. But this saying is meant to be taken very personally. It means that it may be necessary to excise some habit, to abandon some pleasure, to give up some friendship, to cut out some thing which has become very dear to us, in order to be fully obedient to the will of God. This is not a matter with which anyone can deal for anyone else. It is solely a matter of a man's individual conscience, and it means that, if there is anything in our lives which is coming between us and a perfect obedience to the will of God, however much habit and custom may have made it part of our lives, it must be rooted out. The rooting out may be as painful as a surgical operation, it may seem like cutting out part of our own body, but if we are to know real life, real happiness and real peace it must go. This may sound bleak and stern, but in reality it is only facing the facts of life.

THE SALT OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE (Mark 9:49-50)

9:49-50 Everyone must be salted with fire, Salt is good, but, if the salt has become saltless, with what will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and so live at peace with each other.

These three verses are amongst the most difficult in the New Testament. The commentators produce scores of different interpretations. The interpretation will become easier if we remember something we have already had cause to note. Often Jesus dropped pithy sayings which stuck in men's minds because they could not possibly forget them. But often, although men remembered the saying, they did not remember the occasion on which it was said. The result is that we often get a series of quite disconnected sayings of Jesus set together because they stuck in the writer's mind in that order.

Here is an instance of this. We will not make sense of these two verses at all unless we recognize that here we have three quite separate sayings of Jesus which have nothing to do with each other. They came together in the compiler's mind and stuck there together in this order because they all contain the word salt. They are a little collection of sayings of Jesus in which he used salt in various ways as metaphor or illustration. AD this is to say that we must not try to find some remote connection between these sayings. We must take them individually and interpret each as it comes.

(i) Everyone must be salted by fire. According to the Jewish Law every sacrifice must be salted with salt before it was offered to God on the altar (Leviticus 2:13). That sacrificial salt was called the salt of the covenant (Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). It was the addition of that salt which made the sacrifice acceptable to God, and which his covenant law laid down as necessary. This saying of Jesus will then mean, "Before a Christian life becomes acceptable to God it must be treated with fire just as every sacrifice is treated with salt." The fire is the salt which makes the life acceptable to God.

What does that mean? In ordinary New Testament language, fire has two connections.

(a) It is connected with purification. It is the fire which purifies the base metal; the alloy is separated and the metal left pure. Fire then will mean everything which purifies life, the discipline by which a man conquers his sin, the experiences of life which purify and strengthen the sinews of the soul. In that case this will mean, "The life which is acceptable to God is the life which has been cleansed and purified by the discipline of Christian obedience and Christian acceptance of the guiding hand of God."

(b) Fire is connected with destruction. In that case this saying will have to do with persecution. It will mean that the life which has undergone the trials and hardships and perils of persecution is the life which is acceptable to God. The man who has voluntarily faced the danger of the destruction of his goods and the destruction of his own life because of his loyalty to Jesus Christ is the man who is dear to God.

We may take this first saying of Jesus to mean that the life which is purified by discipline and has faced the danger of persecution because of its loyalty is the sacrifice which is precious to God.

(ii) Salt is good, but if the salt has become saltless, with what will you season it? This is an even harder saying to interpret. We would not say that there are no other possible interpretations, but we would suggest that it may be understood on the following lines. Salt has two characteristic virtues. First, it lends flavour to things. An egg without salt is an insipid thing. Anyone knows how unpleasant many a dish is when the salt which should have been included is accidentally omitted in the preparation. Second, salt was the earliest of all preservatives. To keep a thing from going rotten salt was used. The Greeks used to say that salt acted like a soul in a dead body. Dead meat left to itself went bad, but, pickled in salt, it retained its freshness. The salt seemed to put a kind of life into it. Salt defended against corruption.

Now the Christian was sent into a heathen society to do something for it. Heathen society had two characteristics. First, it was bored and world-weary. The very luxuries and excesses of that ancient world were a proof that in its bored weariness it was looking for some thrill in a life from which all thrill had gone. As Matthew Arnold wrote,

"On that hard pagan world, disgust

And secret loathing fell;

Deep weariness and sated lust

Made human life a hell.

In his cool hall, with haggard eyes,

The Roman noble lay;

He drove abroad in furious guise

Along the Appian Way;

He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,

And crowned his hair with flowers--

No easier nor no quicker passed

The impracticable hours."

Into that bored and weary world Christianity came, and it was the task of the Christian to impart to society a new flavour and a new thrill as salt does to the dish with which it is used.

Second, that ancient world was corrupt. No one knew that better than the ancients themselves. Juvenal likened Rome to a filthy sewer. Purity was gone and chastity was unknown. Into that corrupt world Christianity came, and it was the task of the Christian to bring an antiseptic to the poison of life, to bring a cleansing influence into that corruption. Just as salt defeated the corruption which inevitably attacked dead meat, so Christianity was to attack the corruption of the world.

So then in this saying Jesus was challenging the Christian. "The world," he said, "needs the flavour and the purity that only the Christian can bring. And if the Christian himself has lost the thrill and the purity of the Christian life, where will the world ever get these things?" Unless the Christian, in the power of Christ, defeats world-weariness and world corruption, these things must flourish unchecked.

(iii) Have salt in yourselves and live at peace with each other. Here we must take salt in the sense of purity. The ancients declared that there was nothing in the world purer than salt because it came from the two purest things, the sun and the sea. The very glistening whiteness of salt was a picture of purity. So this will mean, "Have within yourselves the purifying influence of the Spirit of Christ. Be purified from selfishness and self-seeking, from bitterness and anger and grudge-bearing. Be cleansed from irritation and moodiness and self-centredness, and then, and then only, you will be able to live in peace with your fellow men." In other words, Jesus is saying that it is only the life that is cleansed of self and filled with Christ which can live in real fellowship with men.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Mark 9:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/mark-9.html. 1956-1959.

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Saturday, December 7th, 2019
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