My grandson recently had a bit of a spat with his older sister and younger brother. Perhaps as a creative way to express his upsetness, he drew a picture of the family. His mom and dad stood tall, with him just slightly shorter. But he drew his sister and brother much shorter (and the same size as each other). His older sister was not amused. I think this was a five-year-old’s attempt to say, “In comparison to my brother and sister, I am the greatest!”
Apparently, little ones suffer from the same problem we do. And, like us, they need training.
I suppose few things are more likely to destroy peace and harmony in a local church than an individualistic pursuit of greatness. It is such a problem that Jesus gives a stern exhortation to take radical steps—radical amputation—to make sure we avoid this sin (vv. 42–48).
As I have meditated again on this passage, both the larger context and this seven-verse section, I have been struck again and again by Jesus’ concern for how people treat those whom he has received, and therefore those who have received him.
Jesus expects us to be sensitive to the spiritual standing of every child of God—all who profess to believe in his name. Kingdom standing, rather than kingdom status, is the issue.
We need to work hard at being sensitive to one another. We need to work hard to keep the peace. We need to work hard to preserve the peace. According to Jesus, we need to pursue a peace of salt.
A Perpetual Problem
The disciples in our text faced an age-old problem: “I” trouble. Rather than listening to Jesus’ words regarding his impending death, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among 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.
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.”
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.
“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.’”
Jesus’ and his disciples headed for Capernaum on their way out of Galilee (vv. 30, 33). They arrived at the house—Peter’s, presumably— and, once situated, Jesus asked them what they had been discussing so hotly along the way. Faced with a silence that screamed confession, Jesus addressed their guilt of arguing over who was the greatest. This was a problem. They were guilty. They needed the grace both of forgiveness and of correction and instruction in righteousness. Jesus provided this.
The pursuit of greatness—the desire to be first; a sense of entitlement and an attitude of one-upmanship—has been with us since Adam and Eve sought to be like God. In fact, they sought to be greater than the Law-Giver. Tempted by one who lost his position because he wanted to be greater (Jude 6), our first parents succumbed to the temptation to exalt themselves. World history has paid a heavy price.
Consider some old covenant examples of this “I” trouble. Cain murdered his brother because of envy. What is envy but a quest to be greater? The tower of Babel was an attempt to exalt rebellious humanity over God’s commandment to fill the world with God-followers. Lot sought to be greater in riches than his uncle, Abraham, and conflict arose. Pharaoh hardened his heart because he thought he was greater than Yahweh. He and his people paid a heavy price for it. The sons of Korah rebelled against Moses and Aaron because they were not viewed as chief among God’s people (Numbers 16). Moses had to rebuke Joshua and Medad, who were upset that others besides Moses were prophesying. Saul became plagued with murderous envy because he was not viewed as greater than David. In fact, in comparison, the people of Israel viewed David as greater than King Saul. Saul’s quest to diminish David’s significance would end in in Saul’s self-destruction. Absalom, too, would fall to such sinful desires, to the pain of an entire kingdom. Uzziah would make the sinful mistake of assuming he was greater than the priesthood and would be chastened by God with leprosy. Nebuchadnezzar serves as an infamous example of one who thought he was the greatest—greater than God—and would learn to humble himself through a humiliating process.
The opening pages of the New Testament reveal that the problem did not dissipate during the imtertestamental period. If anything, it intensified.
Herod sensed the potential threat of another king and so murdered babies as an attempt to protect his dominion. (Abortion in our day is fuelled by the same motive.) The shepherds of Israel neglected the sheep because of their desire to be served rather than to serve. Rather than feeding the sheep, they fleeced them. Why? Because they viewed themselves as being of first importance. The religious leaders, driven by the pursuit of their own greatness, motivated by their pursuit of being numero uno, would murder the one who is truly the greatest.
Long after Jesus had ascended, we see the problem persisting among those who were his disciples. Every epistle addresses the issue in some way. The epistles are replete with exhortations to humility. They contain many one another exhortations, which indicate that serving others, dying to self, and putting others first is not our natural default. The first kerfuffle in the church (Acts 6) arose from a sense of a group feeling disenfranchised by a group whom they thought was being treated as greater. Divisions in Corinth arose partly over lining up behind those whom the factions assumed were the greatest (see chapters 1–3).
One of the most obvious expressions of this problem is found in 3 John. A man named Diotrophes was lording over the church and forbidding members to care for missionaries. John identified his problem: He liked to put himself first. I wonder if John smiled as he wrote this, remembering the episode before us.
The church has continued to struggle with this matter long after the conclusion of the New Testament. Unnecessary, because ungodly, divisions in the church have persisted over the centuries. Luther and Zwingli butted heads over the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper to such an extent that Luther called Zwingli’s faith into question.
Worship wars abound today, causing division where no division ought to exist. My sister recently told me that she had driven past a church that boldly advertised “only hymns sung here.” I recently heard of division in a particular church over the colour of the curtains. Divisions sometimes exist in elderships because of a Diotrephes spirit. Unhelpful church members sometimes cause division because they demand that things be done their way. Sometimes, when things are not done their way, but they at times tighten their fists because they do not get their way. Elders may lord it over a congregation, and a congregation may lord it over the elders. Squabbles sometimes exist among members because of a me-first mentality.
The point of this lengthy discussion is to establish that the church’s “I” problem persists. Like my grandson, we are tempted to make ourselves bigger than others in our family. Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be. We need to beware of this tendency and to guard against it.
In these verses, Jesus provided for his people sensitivity training. I dare say that this is training we all need: We need to learn to be sensitive to how our attitudes and actions have a spiritual impact on others.
In other words, if we will promote peace and harmony in the church, we need to be relationally sensitive and committed to preserving a godly peace.
Peace is a gift from God, but it is a vulnerable possession. It is vulnerable to decay. Therefore, Jesus exhorted his disciples to remain salty. If we will have peace, we need to be like salt. The peace Jesus expects, and which he exhorts, is salty. We need a peace of salt. This brings us to our next point.
A Saline Solution
In vv. 49–50, Jesus provides a solution for “I” trouble: “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.”
As I have mentioned, these are two of the most enigmatic verses in Mark—in fact, in all the New Testament. Commentators offer several different interpretations, but it seems that most favour the view that I will present.
The analogy of Scripture is an important principle and practice regarding interpreting the Bible. That is, the practice of comparing Scripture with Scripture will usually yield a sound interpretation. That is how we will approach these verses.
Jesus said, “Everyone will be salted with fire” (v. 49). Some think that the “fire” refers to “Holy Spirit fire.” I don’t think so, for at least two reasons.
First, this would be so enigmatic that it wouldn’t make any sense to the original readers—or to us!
Second, references to the Holy Spirit and fire are best interpreted as the fires of eternal judgement ment. Though that might fit the context here, it would be a strange address to disciples. Jesus has mentioned the potential of eternal fire for disciples (vv. 42-47), but here he clearly shifts thoughts.
Comparing Scripture with Scripture points us to Leviticus 2:13 and Ezekiel 43:24. Both verses combine salt with the offering of sacrifices. Leviticus 2:13 stipulates that all sacrifices must include salt and Ezekiel speaks specifically of adding salt to a burnt offering. If the words “and every sacrifice will be salted with salt,” as some translations include, should be added, then clearly the imagery of Leviticus 2:13 undergirds Jesus’ words.
What was the purpose of these offerings? Atonement. Redemption. Reconciliation with God. That is, they testified that the offerer, through the sacrifice, is at peace with God. Is this what Jesus meant? Probably.
In the context Jesus was speaking of doing radical things in order to keep yourself from sinning. But this sinning had a specific context: causing another disciple of Jesus to stumble (into sin). Therefore, Jesus said that we must take extreme steps, if need be, to guard others, thereby guarding ourselves, from sin. The exhortations to “cut off” certainly suggest the idea of self-sacrifice for the good of others.
If sacrifice was on Jesus’ mind, then he was saying that “everyone” is going to be offered to God as a sacrifice, either in the fires of hell or, in the words of Paul, as a living sacrifice to God. The Christian is called to offer up their body as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is the Christian’s reasonable, spiritual worship (Romans 12:1). Everyone who follows Christ—no exceptions—will have their faith tested; and this testing is so often in the realm of our relationships with other disciples.
A Covenant of Salt
Why did God “add salt” to his “food”? Because salt speaks of that which endures. It hence came to signify a covenant, as Numbers 18:19 and 2 Chronicles 13:5 teach. A covenant of salt meant both friendship (peace) and preservation of what was promised; the unbreakable nature of the covenant. This perhaps is a prevalent idea in what follows in v. 50. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia helps our understanding.
As salt was regarded as a necessary ingredient of the daily food, and so of all sacrifices offered to Yahweh (Lev 2:13), it became an easy step to the very close connection between salt and covenant-making. When men ate together, they became friends. Cf. the Arabic expressions, “There is salt between us”; “He has eaten of my salt,” which means partaking of hospitality which cemented friendship; cf. “eat the salt of the palace” (Ezra 4:14). Covenants were generally confirmed by sacrificial meals and salt was always present. Since, too, salt is a preservative, it would easily become symbolic of an enduring covenant. So, offerings to Yahweh were to be by a statute forever, “a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord” (Num 18:19). David received his kingdom for-ever from the Lord by a “covenant of salt” (2 Chron 13:5). In the light of these conceptions the remark of our Lord becomes the more significant: Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Witherington adds, “Saltiness, then, seems to refer to the radical commitment to discipleship that stands above personal honour or preference…. Thus, to share salt with someone is to share fellowship or even to have true covenantal fellowship among themselves.”
Jesus had this in mind when he spoke about salt being “good” and added the exhortation to not lose our saltiness.
That is, as salt is good as a preservative, so it is good for Christians to preserve the peace (which implies the necessity at times of persevering in the relationships). As a woman in our church said this week in a small group setting, “Salt all on its own isn’t terribly useful, so our saltiness must have relational implications.”
My point, and one that we need to apply, is that Christians are to be covenantally faithful to God and to one another. If we are not, then we lose our saltiness and we lose our peace as well. We need and we must work towards maintaining a peace of salt.
In other words, whatever else Jesus was saying, he aimed for his disciples to be covenantally faithful to each other (v. 50) as they remained covenantally faithful to God (v. 49). This preserves the peace.
Our Need for Sensitivity Training
This text also highlights the need for sensitivity training. Personally, this is the most convicting point of this message, for I am often far less sensitive than I should be. May God help me and, if you need it, may God help you to be more sensitive to those around us—especially those who are fellow disciples. If you are like me, you would benefit from scriptural sensitivity training, as Jesus provides here.
In our politically correct world, a whole industry has arisen around “sensitivity training.” The intention is to create awareness of the differences that exist among people and among peoples so that society will respectfully function relationally. Differences such as ethnicity, physical disabilities, familial (e.g. adoptions), trauma, etc. are addressed and how we should be sensitive to what others experience. This is a good goal. But because we live in a fallen world, other categories have also made the list of those differences that society is supposed to, not only be tolerant of, but to accept carte blanche—e.g. transgender, homosexuality, pansexuality, etc. We are told that sensitivity to one’s preferred expression of sexuality is a must and to express any disapproval is tantamount to being immoral and, in some cases, illegal. Of course, Christians need to be sensitive to what may have led to such sexual confusion and chaos, while not endorsing sinful behaviour. After all, Christians are fundamentally sensitive to Jesus Christ and his word. So, if obedient sensitivity to the Scriptures means that we are deemed insensitive to sinful lifestyles, so be it. We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
Jesus specifically addressed our relationship with others, and especially our relationship with other disciples. In a very real sense, Jesus was providing sensitivity training for the Twelve and, by extension, for us also.
We need to be appropriately sensitive to how we treat one another, especially how we treat our fellow disciples. And how we treat one another in the church will go a long way towards us being useful to the otherwise decaying world. As Jesus tells his disciples, when we are appropriately sensitive to one another we maintain or saltiness. And this is good for everyone.
Let me flesh this out practically.
First, we must be sensitive to other Christians who are of a different group. Be careful of an us-and-them mentality. If they preach the gospel, they are not against us. They may not be healthy, but they are not our enemy.
These words were being uttered under the shadow of the cross. Jesus had made it clear on several occasions, most recently in vv. 30–32, that he was hated. There was a plot being hatched to murder him—very soon.
Earlier he made it clear to the disciples that those who hate him will hate them as well. They too must prepare to die (8:34–39). There are those who are against us.
In the context of casting out demons, Jesus, earlier in his ministry, alluded to others who did so (see Matthew 12:27). He identified them as the “sons” of his Pharisaical critics. He legitimised the ministry of those who were of God, even despite the poor shepherding of the Pharisees. These who were covenantally faithful were of another group, and yet recognised and received by God. I wonder if these that John references were the same people?
Regardless, Jesus made the point that if someone is obviously ministering in his name, they should be received. Peterson paraphrases, “No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”
Before we apply this, we need to consider the words “in my name.” This holds the key to a proper application of this teaching.
Simply, to do something “in Jesus’ name” is not to merely use the name Jesus. Plenty of false teachers do this. Plenty of damning heresies and ridiculous nonsense utilise the five-letter word J-E-S-U-S (cf. Matthew 24:4–5). Jesus was not suggesting a superstitious verbalising his name, as we so often see in our day.
No, “in Jesus’ name” means a legitimate reliance on Jesus’ authority arising from being in right (saving) relationship with him (see 1 Corinthians 12:3). It means to recognise and to submit to his authority (Matthew 18:20; 1 Corinthians 5:4).
When someone legitimately comes “in Jesus’ name,” they will come as his ambassador with the gospel message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18–21). So, whoever these disciples were that John was bothering, Jesus recognised them as among the real deal. And, while they may not have been as prominent as the Twelve, they had the same ingredients of a faith that follows Jesus. The Twelve should have been sensitive to this.
Consider the privilege the twelve disciples enjoyed and how this should have humbled them to be hospitable. Consider the blunders the twelve disciples committed and how this should have opened their hearts to these who were succeeding. Consider the enemies of Jesus and of the disciples and how this should have opened their hearts to those who were obvious allies. Consider that the Twelve were sinners who needed the same Saviour and how this gospel reality should have made them inclusive of those who also acknowledged their need for the Saviour. And then apply these considerations to your own local church.
At BBC, we have been enormously graced and privileged for nearly half a century. For nearly fifty years our church has never wavered on what it means to be born again. This truth has literally been writ large in our church. We have been blessed to have never wavered on the authority and the sufficiency of Scripture. Over the decades, our church has grown in its understanding of what the church is to be and how she is to function. We have a biblically healthy understanding of what a biblically healthy local church looks like. Our understanding of church government is healthy, as is our understanding of the Great Commission. Making disciples is at the heart of our understanding of what it means to be a church member. We should be grateful for this.
We have been blessed to have some of the most gifted guest speakers in our pulpit. We have been blessed with a growing network of biblically sound churches, pastors, and missionaries. We have been blessed with exposure to excellent biblical literature that has helped to equip us for ministry. Like the Twelve, we have received so much light in comparison to others and therefore, unlike the Twelve (at least here), we should be charitably sensitive towards others. To put it another way, we should think the best of those who preach the gospel, who are yet not of “our” group. Rather than discouraging them, rather than trying to stop them, we should appreciate their efforts, encourage them, and, when possible, seek to further equip them.
I recently sat with three brothers in my study who were deeply confused about certain theological matters. They were not confused about the gospel, and so I was more than happy to work with them on the other matters about which they were confused. They needed help, and I was glad to provide that, rather than writing them off and trying to stop the good gospel work they are doing.
As Christians and churches, we need to be careful to discern between a heresy and ignorance. Beware of a critical spirit when you visit churches that are not quite like yours. Though you may not be able endorse all they do, and though you may not feel comfortable to some of their approaches to worship, be an encouragement where you can. And remember, God is using them!
Be careful to use your light to enlighten not to burn. God forbid we should try to stop those who don’t hole to the doctrines of grace As sound churches, we need to be sensitive to our opportunity to strengthen those who have not had the advantages we have. At BBC, we, in some ways, live in a theological, ecclesiological bubble, and we probably need to get out more! We must beware of sectarianism.
Second, keeping vv. 42–47 in mind, we can expand this matter of sensitivity to any little ones in the church. We should be aware that our conduct affects others and we dare not cause them to stumble. Our desire is to be like salt—preserving, not destroying. Rather than influencing them to perish, we need to be helping them to persevere.
As we conclude our study, let us remember that an underlying point in this exchange is that the disciple of Jesus Christ is to be concerned about their standing when it comes to the kingdom of God, not what their status is in the kingdom. That is, we need to be examining ourselves whether we are in the kingdom, not where we are in the kingdom. Jesus made this clear from vv. 49–50.
Jesus made the point that, if we lose our saltiness, there is no way to get it back. What does this mean?
Strictly speaking, salt is a compound and essentially cannot lose its savour. But the salt that was most common in that day was from the sea and contained impurities. Hence, through the process of preparing salt for the marketplace, often what was left behind was something akin to gypsum.
If we will be at peace with one another, we need to be the real deal. And the real deal perseveres—together—to the end.
I was recently deeply saddened to read of the apparent apostasy of a young man whose ministry had great potential and who helped me greatly in his writing and his preaching. I pray that his seeming apostasy is simply temporary disillusionment. But it is nevertheless a stark reminder of the need to persevere to the end.
Jesus was not saying that one can lose their salvation; he was saying that salvation is a matter of persevering to the end. Covenantal faithfulness is proven over time; in fact, over a lifetime. We do this together.
None of this is easy, and all of it is only possible by the grace of God. We need the gospel of the grace of God, every moment of every day. Having peace with God (Romans 5:1) is fundamental if we will have peace with one another.
That peace was secured by the Lord Jesus, who offered himself as the perfectly holy sacrifice on the cross. No one will ever be more covenantally faithful than Jesus Christ. No one will ever be saltier than Jesus. No one will ever be more salted with fire than was Jesus. No one will ever be more self-surrendered, self-sacrificial, or sensitive to the needs of others than was Jesus.
As we repent and believe upon him, and as we then continue to repent and believe on him, we will find his saltiness influencing ours. Then, and only then, will we persevere in being at peace with one another. May God grant us this peace of salt—for our good to his glory.