When the Father affirmed the Son on the Mount of Transfiguration (likely Mount Hermon), he told the three disciples to “Listen to him” (v. 7). In the text before us, they were given plenty of opportunity to do so.
The message of Mark 9:30–50 is that the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ should cast a very long shadow over our lives. How much does the cross of Jesus Christ affect your life? Is it constantly in the forefront? Does it influence the way you live—how you treat one another, how your spend your time, how you apply yourself in the workplace, how you pursue your career, how you spend your money, and how you treat your fellow church member? The cross of Christ is to dominate every area of our lives. In the words of Paul, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), and, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). The Christian, in other words, is called to live a cross-centred life. Jesus had told these disciples this already (8:34–38). He was now driving this point home.
When we lose sight of the gospel of Christ, when we lose sight of his cross-work, we are bound to make a mess of our discipleship. In the words of R. T. France, we will become “unstuck.” This long passage of seemingly unrelated matters speaks to this.
These last 21 verses in Mark 9 contain several pericopes, which seem only slightly related, if at all. There is a danger of assuming that Mark merely threw them in to fill some informational gaps. But, of course, Mark was writing with a specific purpose. More to the point, the Holy Spirit is a God of order. There was a reason for this material, it all stems from vv. 30–32. As Edwards notes, “This collage of instructions and object lessons forms an extended commentary on Jesus’ call to self-denial and cross-bearing.”
In this study, I will offer an overview of this passage, but only after observing our Lord’s sobering words in vv. 30–32. Apart from these words, the rest of the passage will make little sense.
The Cross-Centred Instruction
Verses 30–32 contain some of the most sobering words in Scripture. But if you are like me, you have become so accustomed to them that you face the risk of being unmoved by them:
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
I recently awoke at 3:00 AM and couldn’t go back to sleep. My mind was filled with so many things, including some worries about some temporal things. I decided to go ahead and get up and to work on this text. I’m so glad that I did for, as I read these verses, I was struck afresh with the sobering message of these words. Almost instantaneously my worries were put into perspective when confronted by the cross of Jesus. The twice repeated word “killed” struck me with new appreciation of the sacrificial death of my Saviour. I was also struck with the reality of how I too, like these disciples, need continual and intentional instruction concerning his cross.
The Via Dolorosa
Mark tells us that, after the events of the transfiguration, and then the encounter with the father and his demonised son at the foot of the mountain, “They went on from there and passed through Galilee.
Jesus was only passing through Galilee. His ministry there had come to an end, at least until after his resurrection. After his resurrection, his disciples would gather with him in Galilee and, from there, the gospel would be mandated to go into all the world with a view to discipling the nations.
But, for now, gospel opportunities for Galilee had come to a standstill. The region had been a place of many miracles and a place of great teaching. And yet, besides superficial reception, the gospel seeds seem to have fallen on hardened, stony and/or thorn-infested ground. Yet we must also note that the twelve disciples were recruited from there, so certainly all was not lost.
Mark wants us to know that, when passing through Galilee (toward his eventual exodus), “he did not want anyone to know.” The main reason was because he wanted to spend concentrated time instructing his disciples about his death and resurrection. The closer they would come to Jerusalem, the closer they would come to the flame of opposition. And they needed to be prepared. They needed to be grounded in the cross, for it was going to follow them the rest of their lives.
From this point on, the miraculous will fade in Mark’s Gospel, but teaching about he cross will intensify. Miracles are powerful, yet the message of the cross is far more powerful; it is far more necessary for, in the end, what it accomplishes is far more miraculous: spiritual resurrection!
The tense of the original wording indicates that Jesus kept saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”
Let this sink into your ears, mind, and heart. To hear that your friend is going to be “killed” is a horrifying experience. No wonder they offered a silent response.
I have read many accounts of people who were killed by the Nazis during World War II, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As they marched toward their certain death, their family and friends lamented with deep emotion. This should be our response when we contemplate the death of Jesus on the cross. We should ask God to help us to “remember” (see 1 Corinthians 11:17ff).
We cannot hear too often or too much about the cross of Jesus. We must guard against it becoming commonplace. This is why more frequent, rather than infrequent, observance of the Lord’s Supper can be a good and helpful practice. This is why Christ and therefore cross-centred preaching is so important.
We read that the disciples “did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” That they “did not understand” was par for the course, but their mute responses of being “afraid to ask him” requires some consideration. Why were they afraid?
Perhaps they were fearful of being rebuked (cf. 8:33). In the light of Jesus’ recent rebuke for their unbelief (v. 19), perhaps they were hesitant.
Perhaps, as Sinclair Ferguson comments, “It frightened them to hear him speak like this, because his commitment was a silent summons to them to share it…. They found the message of the cross was a stumbling block.” They were not the last Christians in history to react like this. To think about the cost of following Jesus in the shadow of his, and therefore of our own, cross is initially very sobering and even frightening. (Think about the persecuted church.) Is this behind those of our day who stay away from Bible-teaching churches? Fear of the that which will make them uncomfortable?
Man’s Inhumanity to the Man
The statement, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men” calls for reflection.
The term “Son of Man” is a term of authority. “The Son of Man in Daniel 7 is given authority over human beings, even over other human authorities and so it is rather paradoxical that he is to be ‘handed over’ to those who are under his rule” (Witherington). But, of course, this is the very nature of the cross: humiliation.
For the disciples, the term “Son of Man” was incompatible with a suffering servant. That is not how they understood the Old Testament. It is not how it had been expounded to them. Those who teach God’s word will receive the greater condemnation (James 3:1). How true! And how badly the religious leaders of the disciples’ day had failed them! To handle the word of God in such a way that Christ is eclipsed is to set oneself up for great condemnation.
When David sinned by taking a boastful census, the Lord gave him three choices concerning his punishment. One of those was to be pursued by his enemies. Note his response: “Then David said …, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man”(2 Samuel 24:14).
The creature is hateful and contemptuous of his Creator and the bloodshed throughout history shows this. But nothing revealed man’s hatred of God like the cross. We need to think about this. For apart from this, we will never appreciate the gospel.
People need to know that they hate God. We need to lift the façade. That is, people need to know what they are being saved from.
Many interpret the “hands” into which Jesus would be handed with reference to Judas who would betray him to the Jewish leaders. Certainly, he did this, and no doubt this was included in this statement. But there is another aspect of this which deserves our attention as well. For though Judas was responsible, he was being used by God to betray Jesus (Acts 2:22–24).
When Jesus spoke of being “delivered” he, no doubt, intended to convey both aspects of his being “delivered” (i.e. by God through Judas), because he always considered the Father in every aspect of life. It was impossible for Jesus to consider that anything could happen outside of the Father’s will.
Think about the love of God when you read these verses. The Father delivered his Son and the Son willingly offered himself for our sins.
It seems almost incomprehensible that these disciples “did not understand.” This translates the word agnoeo, from which we derive the English term “agnostic,” which implies ignorance.
It’s hard for us to imagine their ignorance. All the teaching they had received, with the rebukes, should have sufficed to fill any gaps in their thinking about Messiah’s mission and message. Nevertheless, they “did not understand.” Bad news is sometimes difficult to process—especially when it goes against everything that we have aspired towards.
Related to the above, to hear Jesus speak of being “killed” was too much for them to bear and so they were afraid to ask for more information because they suspected that to know more would be painful (Lane).
Perhaps they pretended to understand, but if so, Jesus saw through it. And yet he did not push the matter. This reveals more of his deep sensitivity and wisdom.
Sometimes it is best to simply leave a matter when those we are discipling don’t get it. There will come a time later, perhaps, when the proverbial penny will drop, and those we are training will see the truth we are teaching. Rome was not built in a day, and neither is a Christian or a church.
Sometimes, ignorance arises from a lack of information, but clearly this was not the case here. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching them about his impending death and resurrection. So why did they not understand? I don’t know—I am agnostic!—but I can surmise from my own struggles with the cross of Jesus Christ.
It is hard for me to properly appreciate the exceeding sinfulness of my sin. It is hard for me to comprehend that such a sacrifice is required for my salvation. It is hard for me to comprehend that God would love me this much.
We speak of the “simple” gospel but is it really that simple? Consider the profundity of what the Lord Jesus Christ did. Consider God’s rules of justice that he steadfastly applied in order to justify sinners so to be reconciled to them. Consider God’s amazing power displayed when he raised Jesus from the dead. Consider the onslaught of the evil one against our Saviour and how we overcome and defeated him. Consider horrific price Jesus paid to redeem us. Consider how everything about the cross of Christ goes against the grain of the world.
But also consider the expectations of the disciples. We have examined this several times in our studies, but we dare not gloss over the messianic expectations that was so prevalent in that day. Jesus’ approach to victory for his people was counterintuitively radical. You see, like you and me, the people thought they needed a deliverer from external enemies; they had no category (or a diminished category) for the awfulness of their sin. Like, us, they struggled with self-righteousness.
Therefore, like us, they “did not understand” how radical the cross of Christ is. They did not realise the depth of their need and the depth of the cost to meet that need. They viewed Messiah and his salvation superficially. This is clear from what follows. Their behaviour reveals their heart condition and Jesus’ teaching aimed to correct this.
Good teachers apply their teaching. Jesus did. So, in what follows, he applied the principle of cross-centred living. He instructed his disciples concerning what living in the shadow of the cross looks like.
In vv. 33–50, we learn that living in the shadow of the cross will produce, among other things, at least four responses.
The Cross of Christ Reorders Our Value System
First, the cross reorders our value system:
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Disposition Trumps Position
The setting of these verses is almost unbelievable—until I examine my own heart. As Jesus and his disciples journeyed through Galilee towards the village of Capernaum, the disciples were engaged in a dispute with one another. They were arguing about “who was the greatest.” Despite recent, and I would assume intensive, instruction concerning his soon crucifixion, the disciples were focused on themselves. Grogan notes that the “proud self-seeking that was in their hearts showed itself in bickering.” And so it does in ours.
Before proceeding, it will be helpful to observe that everything from v. 33 through v. 50 is related. One proof is that this section opens with bickering and ends with an appeal for peace (v. 50). Therefore, whatever else Mark is aiming to teach his readers, concern for one another in the church is a major goal. Knowing that his readers were undergoing severe trials under increasing persecution from Roman authorities, and knowing that such trials can tempt Christians to bickering, Mark wants them to remember the cross, to live in its shadow, and to behave accordingly. For only the cross of Jesus—only his gospel—can provide the power to deny self and to care for one another.
A Status Culture
It has been noted that the Jewish culture of the day was obsessed with status. “At all points in worship, in administration of justice, at meals, in all dealings, there constantly arose the question of who was greater, and estimating the honour due to each was a task which had constantly to be fulfilled and was felt to be very important” (Schlatter). James addressed this in his letter (1:26–2:4). These disciples had drunk too long at the well of theirself-exalting culture, as their self-centred and heartless disputing revealed.
Perhaps Peter, James, and John assumed that their privileges (they alone witnessed the transfiguration and the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter, and had unique opportunities to be alone with Jesus in prayer, etc.) led them to assume that they would be prominent in the kingdom of God. Perhaps Peter was at the forefront of this assumption since it was to be upon him that Jesus would build his church. The other disciples apparently chimed in as well. Perhaps they spoke in hushed tones, but Jesus knew what was in their hearts.
When they arrived at the house (likely Peter’s house, cf. 1:29), Jesus got their attention by asking them what they had been discussing (a nice way to put it!) along the way. They are embarrassed to silence. Their silence served as a confession.
How terribly insensitive they were. Jesus had told them he would be killed (for their sakes!) and yet all they could talk about is who was the greatest among them. They may have had nothing to say, but Jesus had much to say!
Jesus assumed the authoritative position as teacher by sitting down. He then called the disciples to him and gave them counter-cultural instruction. What he told them may be lost on us because we live in a somewhat different world. Nevertheless, the principle he unveiled to them remains just as radical today.
Jesus told them that, in the kingdom, values are upside down. Those who will be first must seek to be last, which, of course, means that those who will be first in the kingdom don’t give it a thought! The cross of Jesus demonstrates this (Philippians 2:5–9). Those who live in the shadow of the cross will remember this; they will seek God’s kingdom first, not their own kingdom. As Cole comments, “If we desire spiritual greatness, then what we truly desire is the task of service to others.”
Is that you—in your home, workplace, school, athletic field, and church?
The Least of These
Jesus demonstrated this principle by taking a child (Peter’s child?) helping him to stand and then taking him up into the crook of his arms. This action, even apart from an explanation, was already instructive.
In those times, children ranked far below others in status—sadly, like in much of the world today. So for Jesus to hold this child in his arms was a demonstration of humility. He was giving honour where honour was never expected.
The Aramaic word that Jesus would have used was the same for “child” and “servant.” Jesus was therefore saying that those who serve the insignificant are the great ones in the kingdom. The great ones serve the servants (see John 13:1ff).
Jesus elaborates on this to illustrate the principle that receiving him is the definition of true greatness, for to receive him is to receive God. In other words, those who know God, who belong to him, are the ones to be envied in this world. To be called a child of God is all the status anyone could ever wish for. I wonder if John had this in mind when he wrote,
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
(1 John 3:1–3)
The greatest are not necessarily the brightest or the most gifted. Rather the greatest are fundamentally the humblest—those willing to serve those deemed to be society’s lowest. In our day of celebrity Christianity, we need to let this message sink in.
The Cross of Christ Makes Us Inclusive
Second, the cross of Christ makes us inclusive:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.”
Unfortunately, the word “inclusive” has fallen on hard times, but Jesus taught his disciples that there is an appropriate inclusiveness.
The church, in one sense, is exclusive. That is, those who receive Jesus form a unique body of people. But the church is not be exclusive within the exclusive. Cliquishness is condemned. John and the disciples needed to learn this.
BBC, like every other church, faces this problem. So, let’s listen.
This is the only time in Mark where John is singled out. This occurs here because, like Peter earlier, John’s response to the message of the cross was contradictory. He just didn’t get it! The same pattern will emerge in chapter 10. Whenever Jesus spoke of his impending suffering, a different disciple among the leading three responded in a way that was completely incongruous with what Jesus had just said.
Here, in chapter nine, Jesus spoke about his cross and then John responded in a very uncross-like fashion. The shadow of the cross had become lost on him and his concern for self-promotion, and even self-preservation, were once again front and centre. So it is with each of us.
John did not realise that the cross of Jesus is the great leveller. He didn’t realise that there were people following Jesus who were not of their group. He didn’t grasp that the cross produces an attitude of hoping for the best in others who name the name of Jesus and profess to have received him. He failed to listen and to learn about the power of the cross to crush one-upmanship.
I find it ironic that John was critical of those who apparently succeeded where “his” group had failed (see vv. 14–20! Yet, John seems to have had the idea that he and his fellow disciples were the “greatest.” It’s amazing how cliquishness can be so self-deceptive. Mutual admiration societies rarely see beyond their own press releases.
But more to the contextual point, it is as if John had paid no attention to what Jesus had just said. Those who receive Jesus are in and should be treated accordingly. If someone offering a cup of water as a means of serving Jesus, was welcomed by God, why would John try to exclude someone who served Jesus by engaging in this kind of spiritual battle?
Though it is no doubt true that there were many who were rather clueless about all that Jesus was and did, nonetheless, these disciples, who had been given so much, should have exercised grace. This son of thunder needed to tone it down several notches by exercising some gracious humility. And the same applies to you and me, for “the kingdom of God is larger than our experience of it” (Edwards). That is because the cross of Christ is far larger than we realise.
Focusing on the cross of Christ will help us to overcome sectarianism. We need to appreciate the victories of others and stop the competition. France writes, “The cliquishness which too easily affects a defined group of people with a sense of mission is among the ‘worldly’ values which must be challenged in the name of the kingdom of God.” You may suppose (even if you will not vocalise it) that your church, or your association of churches, has the corner on truth. But what if revival breaks out in the other church or association of churches? Will you rejoice at the work of God or try to stop it?
The Cross of Christ Produces Self-Examination (and Radical Amputation)
Third, Christ’s cross produces self-examination and radical amputation:
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. 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. 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. 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, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
Strange as it may sound, the self-examination and radical amputation envisioned here is to the benefit of others.
Keep in mind the context and the flow of Jesus’ teaching. The disciples were bickering and, under John’s leadership, were belittling disciples who were not as privileged as them. They were, in other words, mistreating “little ones” who believed in Jesus. This was serious. So Jesus warned them about becoming a stumblingblock to the faith of others. This called for serious self-examination and radical amputation.
The context of the sinning individual here is clearly that of tripping up someone from coming to Jesus. “These little ones”—that is, those who are deemed insignificant—were in no way to be prevented from coming to the Lord. Jesus used serious warnings here. He called for a serious response: Go to radical lengths to not sin against another is such a way. Be careful to not bring harm to those who would follow Jesus.
Note that the warnings of eternal judgement were not being issued to the rabble outside the group but to those who are with Jesus. Alan Cole makes an astute observation: “Jesus therefore spoke of hell to professed saints … unlike many other preachers.”
Those in the church need to examine themselves whether they are in the faith. And one evidence that we have truly received Jesus is our concern for others who desire to follow him. This concern will be exhibited in dying to self. it will be evidenced by a willingness for self-sacrifice. Cutting off in order that others will not be cut off is a means of persevering towards us not be being cut off.
The Cross of Christ Makes Us Sacrificial and Therefore Useful
Finally, we learn that the cross of Christ makes us sacrificial and therefore useful.
For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.
Having spoken about self-mortification, Jesus expanded his words to address the believer’s call to full consecration, to offering up their body as a living sacrifice.
This is an allusion to Leviticus 2:13. In a nutshell, it speaks of covenantal faithfulness in offering pleasing sacrifices to God. For the new covenant believer, this looks like offering up your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, to God, which is your reasonable service or spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).
Paul said this after eleven chapters of focusing on the gospel, on what the cross-work of Jesus accomplished. The more fully we sense the shadow of the cross, the more sacrificial we will be in our service to God, even to the point of being “tried by fire” (1 Peter 1:7). But Paul does not give a general exhortation; rather, he fleshes this out and tells us that such sacrifice is in the context of our relationship with one another in the local church (vv. 3ff). I believe Paul learned this from Jesus, as he spoke here in v. 50.
What Paul was saying, and what Jesus was teaching, is that because of his death and resurrection, his disciples are to live a life of sacrifice for the benefit of others. Jesus’ use of “salt” in v. 50 speaks to this truth.
For now, suffice it to say that salt is a preservative and was such a valuable commodity in ancient days that sometimes wages were paid with it. The Jews had a saying: “The world cannot survive without salt.” Neither can the church. That was Jesus’ point.
Jesus point was that, if we live in the shadow of his cross—if we live with his value system—then, rather than bickering and battling and belittling one another, we will rather be bettering one another. We will be building one another up. Peaceful harmony rather than peevish hostility will mark the church.
In all of these things, we become a source for good in the church, which makes us (the church) a source for good in the world. Someone once asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” and astutely answered, “The church.” Brothers and sisters, this must not be. Let’s listen to our glorious Saviour (v. 7) and then live in the shadow of the cross, being useful to the glory of God.
Yet, we must remember that this is only achieved supernaturally. We need the Holy Spirit to daily point us to the cross of Christ. He does this as we pray, as we read and gather with others, as we think and apply what we learn, and as we guard our hearts and minds. May God help us to live in the shadow of the cross.