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STUDY TWELVE: MARK 9:2-50

© Rosemary Bardsley 2013

A. THE TRANSFIGURATION – Mark 9:2-13

A.1 The characters
Six days after Peter’s confession of Christ and his misguided attempt to convince Jesus he should not die, Jesus took Peter, James and John apart from the crowds, apart from the other disciples, and they are given a brief glimpse of Jesus' eternal glory (9:2-12). There on the mountain top the brilliant, blinding glory that accompanied God's revelation of himself in the Old Testament shines out from Jesus.

Task #1: Check the brilliant radiance of these Old Testament visions of God:

Ezekiel 1:24-28:

 

Daniel 7:9,10:

 

Daniel 10:5,6:

 


That this divine glory shines out from Jesus is overwhelming in itself. But then Moses and Elijah appear. The three disciples are thrown into a confusion of fear. They don't know how to respond. In his panic Peter suggests they make little shelters - one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. As Mark tells us ‘He didn't know what to say’!  

 

Task #2: List what you know of these two Old Testament characters

Moses:

 

Elijah:

 

The name ‘Moses’ brings to mind the whole of the Old Testament law. ‘Elijah’ was the first of the Old Testament prophets, and his name stands for all of the Old Testament prophetic writings. Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets: a common way of referring to the whole Old Testament revelation.

A cloud comes and surrounds Jesus, Moses and Elijah. While they are hidden a voice speaks from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.’ The cloud disperses and only Jesus is there.

Why did this happen? Why did Jesus take the three disciples up the mountain to witness this? Peter's thoughtless suggestion is instructive. The disciples had not yet understood the significance of their confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter's suggestion ranks Jesus as equal with Moses and Elijah, even though he has affirmed that Jesus is the Christ, even though he now sees him brilliant with the glory of God. ‘Let’s make three shelters, one for each’ – as if they are all equal. But they are not. And as if he wants to hold on to all three, but that is inappropriate.

‘Moses’ – the Law – looks forward to the coming of Jesus Christ.
‘Elijah’ – the Prophets – looks forward to the coming of Jesus Christ.

They are the shadows, the symbols: he is the reality.
They are the anticipation: he is the fulfilment.
Their message was ‘He is coming’: now he has come.

Thus the voice of God says ‘This is my Son.’ The voice of God says: ‘Listen to him!’

Do not listen any more to Moses, the Lawgiver. Do not listen any more to Elijah, the Prophet. This is my Son. All that the Law has ever told you finds its fulfilment in my Son. All that the Prophets ever told you finds its fulfilment in my Son. Listen to him.

The cloud lifts. Jesus stands alone. The whole significance of the Law and the Prophets is all in this one man, the Son whom God loves.

 

A.2 The discussion
As he did with his miracles so here also Jesus instructs these three disciples to keep quiet about what they have just witnessed. But he sets a limit to that silence: ‘until the Son of Man has risen from the dead’. Previously they had ignored his reference to rising from the dead [Mark 8:31], but this time they hear it, even though they don’t understand what he could possibly mean [9:10]. But they don’t ask him about that puzzling statement, rather they ask a question about Elijah.

They have just seen Elijah on the mountain, and this has made them think of the prophecy that ‘Elijah’ must come before the Messiah. If Jesus is the Messiah, which they have acknowledged he is, then what of this prophecy about Elijah coming first? And what connection has that with what they have just seen?

In his answer Jesus confirms:

That Elijah does indeed come first, and ‘restores all things’.
That in fact Elijah had come [by which he means John the Baptist].
That this ‘Elijah’ had been mistreated [the rejection and death of John the Baptist].

 

Task #3: Study what these scriptures teach about Elijah/John the Baptist

Malachi 4:5,6:

Matthew 11:14:

Luke 1:17:

John 1:21:


As Jesus concludes his response he draws a parallel between his herald and himself: as the herald was treated, so will the King be treated:

John the Baptist came, taught the truth about God’s Kingdom, and was rejected and killed.
Jesus has come, taught the truth about God’s Kingdom, and will also be rejected and killed.

From the glory of the transfiguration the disciples are brought back to this sobering concept that Jesus, the Christ, is going to be killed.


B. THE BOY WITH THE EVIL SPIRIT – Mark 9:14-32

Task #4: What does this passage tell us about …

[1] The boy?


[2] The boy’s father?


[3] The nine disciples?


[4] Jesus?

 

Because of some of the symptoms listed, some scholars suggest that this boy suffered from epilepsy, despite the fact that the boy’s father had no doubts of demonic involvement. If the boy had epilepsy, Jesus would have simply healed him, as he did other diseases. The fact that Jesus treated this as demon possession indicates quite clearly that that is what it was.

From this incident we are given a number of insights about Jesus:

[1] He was distressed by human unbelief [9:19]
Scholars debate whose unbelief Jesus is talking about. Jesus refers to ‘unbelieving generation’ – a term one would think included more than the nine disciples. The possibilities are:

The ‘large crowd’ that surrounded the disciples and ran towards Jesus when they saw him coming. These are representative of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries. For the most part we know that these people did not have faith, so they would certainly deserve his criticism.

The teachers of the law who were arguing with the disciples when Jesus arrived. These also lacked faith; indeed, they were for the most part pro-actively against Jesus.

The father of the boy. By his own confession he had faith, but not much [9:24].

The nine disciples. In Matthew 17:20 Jesus told these disciples that the reason they could not drive out this demon was because they had ‘so little faith’. Here in Mark 9, Jesus explained that this kind of demon comes out ‘only by prayer’ [with some manuscripts adding ‘and fasting’]. In Mark 6:7-13 we read that Jesus gave the disciples ‘authority over evil spirits’ and that they ‘drove out many demons’ – and that was when their faith was even smaller than it is in Mark 9.

All twelve disciples. The nine have failed to drive out the demon. The three who were with him on the mountain have displayed ignorance of the Scripture and of the identity and role of the Christ. Just prior to that Peter had rebuked Jesus for saying he was going to be killed. Even among these whom he has set aside and instructed the kind of faith that ought by now to have been there is absent.

His Jewish contemporaries generally – whom John the Baptist had prepared for his coming, among whom Jesus had performed many mighty miracles, whom he had taught the truth about the kingdom of God, but who, with a few exceptions, did not understand and did not believe.

Whoever it was that caused Jesus’ response, the significant fact is that this lack of faith disturbed Jesus. The unbelief that confronted him evoked two questions: ‘how long shall I stay with you?’ and ‘how long shall I put up with you?’ The most important thing that anyone can do is to believe in Jesus Christ [see John 8:24]. But at this critical point of faith he was repeatedly faced with human failure.

[2] He challenged the father’s doubts of his ability [9:23]
As the Rev RA Cole points out in his commentary, the father did not doubt Jesus’ compassion, but he did doubt Jesus’ ability, as expressed in his ‘if you can …’. Jesus takes up this ‘if you can’ and states that ‘everything is possible for him who believes’. Jesus’ reaction is the reaction of the Almighty God – the God who can do whatever he wants to do [read Psalm 115:3]. This ‘if you can’ is a totally inappropriate phrase to address towards Jesus, and the father’s use of it indicates his minimal perception of who Jesus is.

[3] Jesus commanded the spirit, and it obeyed him [9:25]
Again in this encounter we see the authority of Jesus over evil spirits. He commands, they obey.

[4] He explained the disciples’ failure [9:28,29].
The disciples, resting perhaps on their previous success, had failed to address this crisis with a prayerful, dependent spirit that trusts not in their own power and authority but in the power and authority of Jesus. They have not yet realized that they themselves can do nothing: that everything is of Christ. The comment made by the father is, literally, that they ‘were not strong enough’. No human strength is strong enough to drive out demons: it takes Jesus to do that. When they asked Jesus about their failure, they asked ‘why were we not able …’ that is, ‘why was it not possible’ for us to do it. The answer is simple: the ability, the possibility, is God’s, not yours. Prayer, dependence on God, was the missing ingredient.


C. JESUS AND HIS DISCIPLES – Mark 9:30-50


Task #5: Read Mark 9:30-32 and answer these questions:

[1] Why did Jesus want no one to know where he and the disciples were?

 

[2] What did he teach them?

 

[3] What was their response?

 

The disciples’ failure to drive out the demon has obviously not upset their egos. Peter, James and John’s overwhelming experience on the mountain has apparently not humbled them. Nor has Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection corrected their personal aspirations linked to their expectations of a military/political Christ. Along the road to Capernaum they argued about which of them was the greatest. Mark spends the rest of his ninth chapter detailing Jesus’ response to this inappropriate discussion.

 

C.1 A question of greatness – Mark 9:33-37
The disciples’ argument about which of them was the greatest is completely incongruous following right after Jesus’ clear statement that he was going to be betrayed and killed. That they would argue in this way indicates how very far they were from understanding the significance of his teaching about this.

Of the whole group, Jesus is obviously the greatest. He has just told them that he [the one who actually is the greatest] is going to be killed. At this point he has not yet added the clarifying statement that he came ‘to serve and to give his life a ransom for many’. That will come later [Mark 10:45]. But he anticipates it with ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’ Jesus, who actually is ‘first’, did exactly that: he became the very lowest, he became the servant of all.

Jesus is here cutting right across our human perceptions of greatness, and also right across the political Messianic expectations of his contemporaries. The popularly expected Messiah was endowed with observable greatness – political pre-eminence, military power, charisma. Not servanthood. Not baseness. Not weakness.

When Jesus spoke here of being ‘last’ and a ‘servant of all’ he is defining not only his own agenda, but the life that must be lived by his followers. To demonstrate his perception of ‘greatness’ he puts a little child among them, saying ‘whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me’. Greatness, he infers, does not consist in doing spectacular things. It does not consist, as they thought, in being second-in-command to a victorious military Messiah, or of ruling with him in his political kingdom. Rather, it consists in doing the kind of things that he did in the same spirit of meekness and servanthood that he himself lived. Things like welcoming a little child in his name.

Jesus extends his explanation: that whoever welcomes a little child in his name also welcomes him, and whoever welcomes him welcomes the one who sent him [verse 37].

What has all the appearance of an insignificant and unimportant action [compared with the observable significance of being the right-hand-man of a military Messiah] is in fact highly significant and highly important.

Jesus’ statement here parallels statements reported by John:

‘When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me’ [John 12:44,45].

‘… whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me, and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me’ [John 13:20].

‘If you really knew me, you would know the Father as well … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ [John 14:7,9].

Embedded in Jesus’ statement are three foundational truths:

The equality and unity of God the Father and God the Son.
The high dignity of the human being.
The unity of the Son and those who believe in him.

 

Task #6: Discussion

Discuss the significance of these three biblical truths, and how they are expressed in Jesus’ statement in Mark 9:37.

 

C.2 A question of allegiance – Mark 9:38-41
The key factor in Jesus’ previous statement was welcoming the child in Jesus’ name. In 9:38-41 this is again the key:

The man referred to by the disciples was driving out demons in Jesus’ name.
The promise of reward is given to those who give the disciples a cup of water in Jesus’ name.

The significance of our actions is not in the actions themselves, but in our actions, whether spectacular or seemingly trivial, being done in the name of Jesus.

When something is done in the name of Jesus, it infers that that person is on Jesus’ side – for him, not against him. And that is the most important thing of all: to align oneself with Jesus Christ, to align oneself with his name, his mission, his kingdom.

 

Task #7: Research: what do these verses teach about doing what we do in the name of Jesus?


Matthew 18:20:

Matthew 19:29:

John 14:13,14:

Ephesians 5:20:

Colossians 3:17:

James 5:14:


[This ‘in my name’ is not a magical formula with innate power. Indeed, the Scripture also indicates that there are those who have no real allegiance to Jesus Christ who attach the name of Jesus to their actions:

‘Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers!’ [Matthew 7:22,23].

‘For many will come in my name, claiming “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many’ [Matthew 24:5].

Such a use of his name is both meaningless and powerless.]

Here in Mark 9:38-41, where the disciples are offended by someone other than themselves using the name of Jesus to drive out demons, Jesus indicates that that man’s allegiance, as well as his words, is to Jesus. This man, although not physically with Jesus and the disciples is with Jesus in respect to his allegiance. In contrast to this are those who are against Jesus, like the Pharisees who accused Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons:

‘He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters’ [Matthew 12:30; read from 12:22.]

 

C.3 Questions of value and priorities – Mark 9:42-50

The high value of faith in Jesus Christ
Jesus calls those who are aligned with him ‘these little ones who believe in me’. Elsewhere he has:

[1] referred to believers as ‘children of God’ [Matthew 5:9], ‘children of the Father’ [Matthew 5:45], ‘children of the kingdom’ [Matthew 13:38], and

[2] taught that only those who become as little children and believe like a little child will enter the kingdom [Matthew 18:3; 19:14; Mark 10:14,15].

Believers are so precious to Jesus that he teaches that nothing could be worse than a person causing ‘one of these little ones who believe in me to sin’. It would, he says, be better for that person to be deliberately drowned, than to cause a believer to ‘sin’.

The verb translated ‘cause … to sin’ is the Greek skandalidzo, from which our English ‘scandalize’ is obviously derived. It means to put a snare or stumbling block in the way of a person, and as such is a deliberate attempt to interfere with a believer’s faith in Christ and obedience to Christ. The ultimate intention of this action is to destroy someone’s faith.

The high value of life in the Kingdom
Leaving aside the ‘sin’ caused by the deliberate interference of another person, Jesus moves abruptly to ‘sin’ caused from within the life of the believer:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.

Just as, for the unbeliever, nothing could be worse than deliberately planning to trip up a believer, so, for the believer, nothing is more valuable than our faith in Jesus Christ and the eternal life in Christ’s kingdom that we have because of Christ.

Again the word ‘cause to sin’ is skandalidzo – to ensnare, or to cause to stumble. Jesus here challenges us to get rid of anything in our lives that ensnares us in sin or causes us to stumble and sin – whether it is something that we do [symbolized by our ‘hand’], or somewhere we go [symbolized by our ‘foot’], or something that we look at [symbolized by our ‘eye’], we are to get rid of it in a decisive [Aorist tense] and permanent way. Nothing is to be allowed to interfere with our faith in Jesus Christ.

We are here commanded to get rid of anything that puts our faith in jeopardy: anything that is contrary to faith in Christ; anything that is inconsistent with faith in Christ; anything that constitutes a denial of faith in Christ; anything that would expose our faith as non-genuine.


Task #8: Check out similar priorities in these scriptures:

Romans 6:11,12:

Ephesians 4:22, 25:

Colossians 3:5, 8:


The superior value of salvation
The alternative to faith is extreme. Faith in Jesus Christ gives us entry to ‘life’; faith in Jesus Christ means entry into the kingdom of God. If this faith is absent, if our claim to this faith is proved empty, either by external pressure or our personal priorities, the alternative is going ‘into hell’, and being ‘thrown into hell’.

Salt
In verses 49 and 50 Jesus makes several statements about salt. These statements, and how these statements relate to their context, are something of a puzzle. The conversation began back in verses 33 and 34 where the disciples were arguing about which of them was the greatest. Jesus’ response to this included:

His perspective of greatness as (1) being servant of all [verse 35]; and (2) anything done in his name, even welcoming a little child [verses 36,37], or giving a cup of water [verses 38-41].

Teaching on values and priorities that requires getting rid of anything that stands contrary to faith in him [verses 42-48].

He now goes on to say ‘Everyone will be salted with fire’ [verse 49]. Both fire and salt have a purifying effect, and Jesus refers to them both together. What Jesus has been teaching from verse 35 to 48 has been aimed at ridding the disciples of their aspirations to be the greatest. Summing this up, he teaches that everyone will be purified. Everyone has things in their lives (like this desire for greatness) that have to be eradicated. Such things are inconsistent with faith in Jesus Christ.

For the believer, the key purifying agent is the word of God. It exposes our sin; it corrects us where we are in error; it teaches us how we should live and what we should believe.

 

Task #9: What do these texts teach about the purifying impact of the Word?

2Timothy 3:16:

 

Ephesians 4:11-16:

 

Salt, Jesus says, is good [verse 50]. That is, the Word of God is good. But when we treat it with contempt, when we are so used to hearing it that it ceases to impact us, when we are so intent on things that are contrary to the Word that we ignore the Word, it has lost its saltiness for us. It fails to purify us because we have failed to listen to it. Because we all stand in need of the purifying impact of the Word, Jesus says to us ‘have salt in yourselves’. Paul put it this way: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ [Colossians 3:16]. It is then, and only then that, having put aside our own agenda, having taken on the Word of Christ, the salt, that we can be purified of our personal clamour for recognition and greatness, and can then do what Jesus says and ‘be at peace with each other’ [verse 50].