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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 9

The Coming Confession (8:27-9:1)

From this point on, Jesus concentrates his attention upon those for whom this road will serve as a classroom — his disciples. At the outset, they are confronted with a difficult question — the standing of their teacher. Aware of varying impressions of him, they must form their own. For those who once begin this march, the options among the various answers are limited. Others may think of this Man as a tool of Beelzebul or as insane or as an enemy of the nation. They, however, have seen him as a colleague of John the Baptizer, or as Elijah come again to proclaim the New Age, or as one of the prophets sent to announce God’s doom and dawn. All these options, it is clear, were positive evaluations; whichever is adopted, Jesus must be given a hearing as a man sent from God with an important mission to Israel. He continues the work of these authorized messengers. Those who joined in this appraisal would have been constrained to listen and to follow. Yet Peter, speaking for the disciples as a group, tried to say something more: You are the Messiah (vs. 29).

What is the Teacher’s response? No word of approval or praise. No immediate confirmation. Only a command to silence, and the beginning of the real lesson. Why should they tell no one about him? Because the simpler titles were adequate? Perhaps. Because further instruction was needed before they would know what being the Messiah entailed? This is the better answer. It was good that they should call him "the Christ," but not good enough. They must know what the title meant, what work the Christ must accomplish, and how he would accomplish it. In all the records about Jesus, we hear him warning against reliance on verbal confessions alone. Just as he would become what God intended for him only by obeying God to the end, so they, too, would become what he intended for them by obeying him to the end. To use the right title was a good first step. It was like the first step in the returning vision of the blind man (Mark 8:24). But apart from another step, the blind would never see clearly.

Therefore Mark hastens on from Peter’s confession to this next and even more important lesson: "The Son of man must suffer." This is the lesson the teaching of which would require the remainder of the journey on this road (he "began" to teach). This lesson was given so plainly that there was no mistaking the meaning. It was because Peter understood the meaning that he protested so loyally and yet so blindly. Loyally? This question must be answered. To whom was Peter loyal in his protest? To Satan! Very abruptly Jesus accused Peter of speaking for Satan, of putting Jesus to the test as Satan had earlier tried to do. This Messiah would become the Messiah only in and through his rejection and death.

This lesson concerning the Messiah’s road was welded into the lesson concerning those who would "come after" him. Each follower must — there is no escape clause — "take up his cross." To reject the Messiah’s road is the same as rejecting the disciple’s road. To believe in him as this Messiah is a lie unless the believer accepts martyrdom for his sake and the gospel’s. In short, his teaching was no easy platitude about the spiritual life. Far from it. This was an ironclad requirement of actual martyrdom. Though modern readers can easily dissolve the iron into cobwebs, Mark’s readers could not, for the language reminded them too harshly of the criminal courts and the prisoner’s cell. They knew that when a Christian was summoned before the judge, he could "gain the whole world" by denying that he was Christ’s follower.

He would be tempted to do so in order to avoid losing or forfeiting his life. In doing so he would be "ashamed" of Jesus and these very words; he would accept life on terms set by "this adulterous and sinful generation." But to avoid public disgrace and death in a Roman court by disowning the Messiah would have only one consequence: the Messiah would disown his one-time follower in the final and ultimate court of appeal (vs. 38). Mark and his readers knew how terrifyingly realistic this language was, for they had vivid memories not only of the cross on Golgotha but of many crosses on other hills. Consequently, it was important to know how far away was this final courtroom of which Jesus had spoken. Jesus gave the answer: "Truly, I say to you [thus asserting his divine authority], there are some standing here [his eyes were on his disciples] who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power [they will be executed by human hands but not before they have experienced the judging and redeeming power of God]" (Mark 9:1; compare Acts 7:54-56). In short, Mark believed that just as the Messiah would enter into his power through dying (vs. 31), so his disciples would see his Kingdom coming with power through their own dying. Losing their lives for his sake and the gospel’s would be the means of salvation (vs. 35), and this salvation was no farther away than the event through which they would make their "good confession" (see 1 Timothy 6:13). All this was the gist of all the lessons on the road to Jerusalem (how appropriate this place!), by which the Teacher explained the meaning of Messiahship to his followers. Their coming confession of faith, like his, would be given not in a church but in a courtroom.

Verses 2-13

The Coming Victory (9:2-13)

God had revealed Jesus’ vocation to him in the baptism; he revealed Jesus’ vocation to the disciples on the way between Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem. Peter had confessed Jesus’ Messiahship, although only half understanding it. Now God gives his own testimony. What happened here on the mountain was, of course, by no means clear to the disciples at the time (vss. 9-10). It was an augury of the heavenly throne to which Jesus would ascend after his suffering and glorification. It was a manifestation of the heavenly glory which God had given to him. In the nature of the case, a disclosure of such heavenly glory must be described in terms unusual in human discourse.

The scene was "a high mountain" with its nearness to heaven and its separation from mundane concerns. We recall that Jesus had called and named the twelve Apostles on a mountain (Mark 3:13), and that he had himself gone to a mountain to pray (Mark 6:46). We will find, too, that in the last climactic week, he will watch Jerusalem from a mountain and disclose to the same three disciples what will be their task after his death (Mark 13:3). The mountain, in biblical lore, is the junction point between heavenly and earthly events.

In all early Christian records Peter, James, and John stand as foremost among the Twelve, and as representing the others. Among the first to hear the call (Mark 1:16-19), their names headed the list of Apostles (Mark 3:16-17). They were present at the first healings (Mark 1:29) and were occasionally chosen by Jesus to watch later cures (Mark 5:37). All three were later on, though probably before Mark was written, to become martyrs for the sake of the gospel. They, if anyone, had reason to be present on this particular mountain.

The transfiguration of Jesus, accompanied by the white garments of heavenly purity (John 20:12; Matthew 28:3), indicated God’s full approval of him. These garments were not only the traditional clothing of angels, but were the garb reserved for all faithful witnesses who were to carry their obedience to the point of death (Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 4:4; Revelation 6:11; Revelation 7:9; Revelation 7:13). This is a vision of heaven, the invisible reality surrounding earthly actuality. Therefore Moses and Elijah can talk with Jesus. For a moment these three men of God share the same level of existence and can meet face to face. What did they say? Luke answers that they were talking about Jesus’ departure ("exodus") which he would accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Mark is content to note the fact of their conversation. What does their presence suggest? That these representatives of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) testify that in Jesus their work is to be completed. That these two previous emissaries of God represent the heavenly world and thereby reveal Jesus’ coming translation. That men are correct in associating Jesus’ mission with that of Elijah, but are wrong in identifying the two (Mark 8:28). That Peter is right in calling Jesus the Christ even though his glory as the Christ awaits his resurrection.

The story invites conjectures of all sorts. If it is a true epiphany, as Mark understood it to be, men using earthly language will be quite unable to capture its full meaning. Mark sees in the story three important points. ( 1 ) Peter misconstrues the reason for the disciples’ presence, as if they should build booths on the mountain for the three men to dwell in. (2) God, speaking from the cloud of his invisible glory, identifies Jesus as his Son and commands the disciples to hear him, a command which includes obedience to such teachings as have just been given (Mark 8:34 to Mark 9:1). (3) Jesus, in his effort to instruct the disciples, points forward to the Resurrection as if this epiphany were a preview of what would transpire then. Elijah must come first. In fact, he had already come, and had been rejected and killed. Jesus had in mind John the Baptist (Matthew 17:13; Matthew 11:14), who had begun the restoration of all things. Then the Son of Man must carry through his sufferings and be vindicated against the contempt of men. The reason for the disciples’ presence, a matter vital for the whole episode, was wholly a matter of anticipation. When they at last should know "what the rising from the dead meant," they would know that God had identified Jesus as his beloved Son, greater even than Moses and Elijah, and that they were under orders to obey him, even in preference to the Law and the Prophets.

Verses 14-32

Power to Heal (9:14-32)

The Transfiguration pointed ahead to future things. Therefore the descent from the mountain marked also a return from that future prospect to the confusions of the present. The disciples turned with a jolt from trying to comprehend the coming suffering and heavenly glory of the Son of Man to their everyday tasks. In these daily concerns they were too submerged in the hubbub to keep in touch with the glory. They were surrounded by "a great crowd." They were deeply involved in arguments with the scribes. They were called upon to heal a man’s son by exorcism of a dumb spirit, and they found themselves quite helpless. The dumb spirit had more power than they.

When we first read this story, it sounds much like the other accounts of healings, although it gives more complete coverage than others. Yet it has a different accent which appears as soon as we note the significant place now held by the disciples. In bringing the sick boy to the disciples, the father assumed he was bringing him to Jesus (vss. 17-18). The impotence of the disciples elicited a penetrating rebuke. They are a "faithless generation" even after all the time he has spent with them and his endless patience with them. They will not have much longer to learn the source of his power (vs. 19).

By contrast with the faithlessness of the disciples, a strong accent falls on the faith of the father. To be sure he is an unbeliever, but he knows it, and has enough belief to call on Jesus for help. It is this halting, hesitant, humble belief which makes help possible (vs. 23). It makes possible even the raising of the dead (vs. 27). The power of Jesus to do this very thing corresponds to the message of the Transfiguration, for Jesus’ power to raise the dead is an anticipation of his own resurrection (vss. 9-13). Jesus can do such things because he is now bound for heavenly glory by way of total self-sacrifice.

Chagrined by their impotence and nonplussed by his rebuke, "his disciples asked him privately, ’Why could we not cast it out?’ " His answer shows to what an extent this whole story was told for their sakes. After all, they are the men whom he has charged to heal in his name. To their despondent and perhaps petulant query, certain answers had already been given. They were without faith (vs. 19), not able to believe that all things were possible to them (vs. 23). Perhaps they were too concerned with the crowd, or too nettled by the scribes’ debates, to give full attention to the demon. Perhaps they did not realize that only by participating in the Messiah’s suffering could they participate in his conquest of Satan and his demons. All this may be summarized in one word: prayer (vs. 29) — not as a trick device, or a sure-fire method of gaining results, but as the necessary listening to God in the wilderness where alone Satan’s power can be overcome (Mark 1:12; Mark 1:35; Mark 6:46).

That Jesus’ concern now lay with his task of training the disciples becomes clear, for he immediately pushed on with them toward Jerusalem. He tried to keep their presence a secret (vs. 30) so that he could spend more time on his teaching. The lesson remained the same (vs. 31) — and their obduracy as well. For Jesus, prayer included accepting the cost of obeying God’s will (Mark 14:32-42). It was this kind of praying which they did not yet understand.

Verses 33-50

Proverbs for the Journey (9:33-50)

In this section of the journey we find teaching material almost divorced from narrative settings. No single story, no single situation, unifies the separate proverbs. Each deals with a different topic and has a life of its own. Sometimes what brings them together is merely a common word, which may bear two quite different meanings in adjacent axioms. This fact has led many students to conclude that these axioms first circulated in the Church as isolated bits of oral tradition. They gravitated together because of similar verbal links, and because they could be remembered more easily when thus linked. This sort of explanation can be checked if one follows the chain backward and notices the links. "Salt" brings together the three separate maxims of verses 50 and 49. "Fire" connects verse 49 to verse 48. "Fire" in verse 48 is suggested by "hell" in verse 47. The same phrase introduces verses 47, 45, and 43 : "If your eye [or foot, or hand] causes you to sin." Verse 43 is connected to verse 42 by the idea of causing to sin, although different persons are involved in the two actions. Separate sayings in verses 37-41 all deal with various ways of receiving or welcoming another. Verse 36 follows verse 35 in introducing a "child" who is an example of one of the "last of all."

When the reader recognizes the fact that this passage presents him with such a diverse collection of fragments, he will not try to force them all into a single consecutive discussion. Nor will he be discouraged if he cannot discern a single thread of meaning. Mark took pains to provide an introduction to the whole series. He included the whole series because all deal with duties of the disciples, which was Jesus’ main concern on the way to Jerusalem. But the first axiom was most important to Mark, because it clinched the meaning for him of the entire road. On this very road to the Messiah’s humiliation, disciples had been quarreling over places of honor! Nothing could stand in sharper contrast to Jesus’ journey than their private ambitions. In such a setting, therefore, this axiom received a tremendous thrust: "If any one would be first, he must be last of all." The explanation of what it meant to be last of all was provided in part by the phrase "servant of all" (vs. 35) and in part by Jesus’ own rank (vs. 31). One could place this axiom over the whole of Mark’s document as its keynote.

Two of the maxims deal with hospitality granted to a follower of Christ. If we want to see into what kind of church situation they fit, we should read Romans, chapters 14 and 15. In Rome there were house-churches which did not welcome certain Christians, because those strangers were either too careful or too carefree about observing the scriptural commands (see the Introduction) . It is with regard to such a situation that it became unusual for a congregation to grant table hospitality to a person on no other ground than that he bore the name of Christ (vs. 41). In contrast to this inhospitality, the thrust of Jesus’ principle was sharp and penetrating: to receive the least attractive and least prominent "child" in the name of Christ was a welcome given to Christ himself, and to welcome Christ was to welcome God (vs. 37; compare Matthew 25:31-45).

A similar situation in the Roman church throws light on the axiom: "He that is not against us is for us" (vs. 40). A man was known to be in town doing mighty works in the name of Christ. "But he," said members of some congregations, "is not truly one of us. We must therefore oppose his work." Such an attitude, in fact, had been taken by various leaders in the Roman churches toward Paul (Philippians 1:15-17). Against this background the Markan proverb insists that no person who truly does a mighty work in Christ’s name can be "against us." If he bears this name, we must not add other requirements before accepting him into our fellowship. Thus the proverb is not a plea for expediency in a world where forty per cent are Christians, ten per cent are non-Christians, and the other fifty per cent are neutral. No, the proverb pronounces no blessing on neutrality. Men are either against or for. The real line — and a sharp line indeed in Mark’s day — is the line drawn by the name "Christ," and this name is defined by the work of Jesus himself.

True faith is so difficult, and the Messiah so concerned for his "little ones," that every disciple must avoid the risk of causing a brother to stumble (vs. 42; compare Romans 14:20-21). By the same token a disciple must act ruthlessly toward his own temptations. Entrance into God’s Kingdom is so desirable that any sacrifice is justified (vss. 43-47). According to this austere mode of life, in which a single desire of the eye (Matthew 5:28) or a single offense against one’s neighbor (Matthew 18:10-14) may spell perdition, "every one will be salted with fire." That is, none of us can avoid God’s judgment, with its purging and refining fire (1 Peter 1:6-7; 1 Peter 4:12-19). In a different sense, believers are the salt of the earth, so long as they retain their saltiness, that is, their willingness to fulfill the requirements of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-13). In still a different sense, each congregation needs salt (tolerance, mutual sympathy, reconciling attitudes) to preserve and enhance the peace of the Church.

Some of these sayings may be later than the time of Jesus, at least in their present form. Yet all of them reflect the genuine difficulties of faith, whether in Jesus’ day or in Mark’s. All receive added urgency and clarity from the setting Mark gives to them, for it was in fact Jesus’ journey to the Cross which became for his disciples the vivid standard by which their own attitudes and actions were to be salted.

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"Commentary on Mark 9". "Layman's Bible Commentary".