Story 1 (Mark 9:33-37) — Argument over who is the greatest results in Jesus’ declaration that greatness will be defined by who is last and servant of all, represented in a small child.
I.) The Disciples IssueMark 9:38 — “Does not follow us” — hearkens back to the issue of status or greatness (33). It was not that the man in question was not a follower of Jesus, but rather it was a matter of not having the proper credentials. It appears here the concern of the Disciples here is a concern about their position and status. The chap in question who was casting out Demons wasn’t licensed or ordained by the official disciple club. The Lord Christ teaches here that the support and fellowship of all who champion His cause and name should not be censured.
There seems to be a motif here that is captured by the proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Taken together with the issue of “who would be the greatest” in vs. 34f as combined with the issue of position and status of sitting at the Lord’s right hand as given in Mark 10:35-45, vs. 38 reminds us again how important honor was in that society and culture. The Lord Christ does not overturn the notion of honor or hierarchy but He does alter its trajectory so that position and status is connected with serving as opposed to being served. We know the Lord Christ maintained positions of honor and hierarchy just by virtue of the fact that He chose 12 to be His disciples from among many candidates, and then of those 12 He chose 3 (Peter, James, and John) as an inner circle. Honor and hierarchy are thus maintained. However something is changed in this issue of honor and hierarchy. What is changed is the purpose of leadership, and hierarchy.
The Lord Christ does not eliminate position or hierarchy of leadership. He is not a leveler who erases all distinctions between leaders and rank and file but what He does do is He teaches and models in such a way that it is made clear that any position of leadership is understood as a position of leadership to the end of serving. The Lord Christ, Scripture teaches, came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. Those who lead really do lead but they understand that leadership does not mean everyone serves them but rather that the Leader servers everybody in his leadership.
This is made clear when the Lord Christ says,
“If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)
This is made clear when Jesus takes the towel in John 13 to wash the Disciples feet.
This is made clear in Luke 22 when Jesus says to the disciples, who are again arguing over greatness,
“The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
The Church in the West, what little remains of it, desperately needs to hear again this word regarding status mongers and ladder climbers. Is the goal of leadership in the Church of the West to be fawned over and adulated? Are we looking for status via our positions? Are we seeking to parlay our leadership positions to the position of being famous for being famous? The Lord Christ offers a leadership example that demonstrates leadership by being concerned for the flock and its needs. It is the leadership of the towel, the table-waiter, and the sheep dog.
II.) The Counsel of Christ
Mark 9:40 For the one who is not against us is for us.
Matthew 12:30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
Note the repeated insistence we find in Scripture that there is no neutrality. There is no tertium quid where one can have a foot in both the enemy’s camp and in the camp of God’s company. Christ speaks in black and white with no gray area. If you are not against Him you are for Him. If you are not with Him you are against Him. If you do not gather in His cause you scatter against His cause. No neutrality. In theological jargon this is the “Reformed Antithesis.”
Perhaps the best 20th century example of pushing the Reformed Antithesis was J. Gresham Machen.
Machen’s fundamental insight was that the Reformed Antithesis applied to “Christianities” that were Christian in name only. Machen insisted that Orthodox Christianity and Liberal “Christianity” were not two slightly different Christian theological positions such as Calvinism vs. Lutheranism but rather were two radically opposed systems of thought and religions that each competed over the possession of the Christian nomenclature, words, concepts and phrases. They each talked about God, Jesus, the Spirit, sin, salvation, the cross, but they each poured such different linguistic content into those words though remaining the same words in the hearing they were different words as to the meaning. Because of these vast differences of meaning and definition then, Machen concluded that Theological Liberalism was not Christian at all but was fundamentally opposed to Christianity as it comes to us defined in Scripture and history. Machen concluded that Theological Liberalism was against Biblical Christianity and not for Christ.
So, the thrust here seems to be the necessity to discern our enemies from our friends. Those who are genuinely advancing Christ’s cause, though they may not be of our club or tribe are to be supported, while on the other hand we are to reject those who are wolves in sheep’s clothing … those who use all the right jargon but who are using it with the intent to deceive.
So, on one hand we admit that there are Lutherans, and Reformed Baptists, and others we can come along and support and wish well but on the other hand there are those who may have an exalted status so that speak to Kings and Potentates in the name of a Christ who we are unfamiliar with because we are unfamiliar with their Christ. This business of knowing who is against us and who is for us is not always as easy as it might seem.
III.) The Promise of Christ
vs. 40 — Note that service to the Lord Christ that indicates that one is on the Lord’s side come in all shapes and sizes. It can be the widow’s mite or it can be a cup of water generously given. Our service rendered to the Lord Christ and His people does not need to be splashy and ostentatious. Here the Scripture teaches that God notices what we might think are the most insignificant things. A cup of water to relieve thirst will not lose its reward.
God is debtor to no man. Service rendered to Him will be remembered. That is the kind of generous King that we serve. His generosity extends to the point of being generous in providentially providing opportunities wherein we can be of service.
IV.) The Warnings of Christ Against Stumbling
vs. 42 –“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,[g] it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
Commentators note that there are several catchwords repeated frequently throughout these verses, such as “name,” “scandal,” “fire,” and “salt.” In particular, the Greek word skandalon is used in each verse from 42 to verse 47. A skandalon is an obstacle that people trip over, and is usually translated “stumbling block” due to the decidedly moralistic tone the word “scandal” has taken in modern times. Jesus could not be more clear: he is talking about the danger that his own followers can do, and he uses the dire image of drowning to get his point across. Better to drown (be thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck) than do harm to “these little ones.”
It is an open question as to whom the “little ones” are that the Lord Christ refers to. The “Little ones” can refer either to the little child mentioned in vs. 36 or to those of seemingly lesser importance mentioned in vs. 39. Or it could be purposely nebulous so as to refer to both. Whoever the little ones are the point is that being the instrument by which someone struggles and stumbles in their faith who is young or tender in the faith is a costly proposition.
If we take the context seriously we would have to conclude that the Lord Christ is pointing this warning at the Leadership. Jesus lays bare the minefield of leadership in the church, and speaks of real dangers within Christian community particularly between more mature disciples and “the little ones.” The followers who are closest to Jesus in these verses, ie, the disciples, carry a huge responsibility as a result of their intimacy with Christ. Others look to them, follow their examples, are susceptible to their claims and practices, are perhaps especially vulnerable to their critiques and conflicts. Carelessness in discipleship can do irreparable damage to those most vulnerable within the body of Christ.
Elders in Christ’s Church can do both great good and great harm.
As a Elder in God’s Church when you teach wrongly or engage in unseemly behavior you risk not only yourself but you risk the faith of others.
Illustration — In High School I knew of a popular area Youth Pastor who had a dalliance with someone in his congregation and the result was a good deal of stumbling. More recent examples could be easily adduced.
Next the Lord Christ turns from warning against causing others to stumble to warning against those things which cause individuals to stumble. The language that the Lord Christ uses is hyperbole and is intended to make a point about doing all it takes to avoid sin and enter into life.
The point here is to not actually cut off limbs because of course it is never hands, feet, or eyes that “CAUSE” us to sin. The cause is our fallen natures. Hypothetical people who cut off appendages would not solve their sin problem by cutting off the appendages. Our human body parts are only the vehicle through which our fallen-ness is expressed. The point here is to take sin seriously and to wage war with sin.
IV.) The Consequences for Unchecked Sin
The reality of Hell
The New Testament speaks openly and repeatedly regarding the reality of Hell. It is,
The final abode of those condemned to eternal punishment (Mt. 25:41-46, Rev. 20:11-15)
Described as a place of fire and darkness (Jude 7, 13)
Described as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 8:12, 13:42, 50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30)
Described as a place of destruction (II Thes. 1:7-9, II Peter 3:7, I Thes. 5:3)
Described as a place of torment (Rev. 20:10, Luke 16:23)
Of course Hell is one of those doctrines that have fallen on hard times. Universalists deny hell.
What I want to do now is just give a few observations surrounding the denial of Hell.
1.) The denial of the eternality of Hell is all the more dangerous because on the surface it seems so benign. This denial is not like the denial of the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth. No one doubts that someone who denies Hell can be in Union with Christ. (Though I would insist that such a view leaves them open to the charge of having low views of Scripture.) I do insist though that people who are Annhilationists aren’t looking under the hood of that denial to see the implications of what they are denying.
2.) The denial of the eternality of Hell is another example of putative Christians or unlearned Christians or immature Christians attempting to make God out to be nicer than He makes Himself out to be. It is an attempt to save God from being God. It is sentimentality trying to rescue the alleged mean glowering character of God. It is another example of do gooders, who by doing their good, end up making Christianity crueler then any Devil could. This denial of the eternality of Hell is taken up by those who, at the very least think, “My God would never be that mean.” It is the argument which attempts to make God “reasonable.”
Getting rid of the eternal character of Hell guarantees the eventual arise of Hell on earth.
The doctrine of Hell is a case where the punishment fits the crime. Any lesser punishment would suggest a lesser crime. The suggestion of a lesser crime would suggest that an offense against the person of God is somehow an offense that shouldn’t have the fullest possible consequences. The eternality of Hell corresponds to the Majesty of God and His Law.
6.) Another way to frame this is to note how a threat on a President’s life brings greater punishment then that same threat levied against a homeless drunk. There is a greater punishment because the President is a greater person. The same principle applies here. When we offer up lesser penalties we communicate that God is more like the homeless drunk then He is like the President.