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.’ 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.”
Mark 9:30-50 ESV
Although Hezekiah ruled as one the most righteous kings of Judah, his son, Manasseh, was the very worst. King Manasseh “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 33:2). He rebuilt all the altars to idols that Hezekiah had torn down, and he even established altars to false gods within the temple of the LORD. Within the Valley of Hinnom, also called Tophet or Gehenna, Manasseh raised the image of a particular idol called Molech. This false god was depicted as a man with the head of a bull and with its two arms extended out as if ready to hold something. Worship of Molech was conducted by heating the idol’s arms until they were red hot. A child was then sacrificed by being placed alive into the arms of the demon. The worshipers beat drums in attempt to drown the child’s helpless cries. So, did Manasseh worship Molech with his own sons.
Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, was the last godly king that would reign in Jerusalem until our Lord establishes His earthly rule. When the king was only twenty years old, he purged Judah of its idolatry. He broke and burned the altars and images, not only in Judah but also in many places of Israel. During this purge, “he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech” (2 King 23:10). This defilement of the Valley of Hinnom meant turning the whole valley into a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. As the trash and rotting corpses of animals and, later under Roman rule, the crucified piled up, a fire was set to the heap, a smoldering flame that never went out for there was always more waste for it to consume.
PASSING THROUGH GALILEE // VERSES 30-32
Leaving behind the region of Peter’s confession, Jesus and His disciples headed south back to Galilee. Although this time, they only intended to pass through Galilee. Jesus has not yet said so in the text, but His sight is set firmly upon Jerusalem and the great exodus that He must accomplish there. As they passed through Galilee, Jesus intended to keep their presence a secret, for He did not want to be swarmed by the crowds as so frequently happened throughout His Galilean ministry. Indeed, He needed a fair amount of privacy because rather than teaching parables to the crowd as He had previously done, He was now teaching His disciples a deeper matter:
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.
This is the second of three predictions that Jesus gave His disciples regarding His death and resurrection. Unlike the first time that Jesus spoke these words, the disciples said nothing in response. Peter had certainly learned not to rebuke Jesus, but they all remained none the wiser about what exactly Jesus meant. Furthermore, this time they were afraid to ask Jesus about it any further. Perhaps they were partly afraid of looking foolish by their questions, yet perhaps Jesus’ words also filled them with an unknown sense of dread of what lay before them.
BECOMING THE GREATEST // VERSES 33-37
As they reached Capernaum, where Jesus made His home throughout His Galilean ministry, they arrived at the house, and Jesus had an important question for His disciples: “What were you discussing on the way?“
We read: but they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Their silence in the face of Jesus’ question revealed that they already understood that an error had been made. Much like children when asked by a parent, “What were you doing?” Here again the disciples were going to be humbled, just as they had been by Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, by Jesus’ glory upon the mountain, and by their failed exorcism. This was the inevitable result of their proceeding into deeper fellowship with Christ. Walking in the footsteps of our humble King means embarking on the path of being humbled.
In answer to His disciples’ argument, Jesus sat down, which was the posture that signaled an important teaching was going to be made, and said to the twelve, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” As Sproul notes,
This is a paradox, but Jesus used this rhetorical tool again and again: If you want to live, you have to die. If you want to save your life, you have to lose your life. If you want to be great, you have to suffer. He who is first shall be last, and he who is last shall be first. And the way to greatness is the way of service. If we want to be great, we must be the greatest servants we can be.
I think it is important to note that Jesus is not slaying ambition wholesale. He is very notably not rebuking the disciples’ impulse to strive toward greatness; instead, He is reframing and redefining their understanding of what greatness is all about. Jesus will make the explicit point in the next chapter that greatness within the kingdom of God does not look like greatness within the kingdoms of the earth. Greatness is not defined by how many servants one has but by how servant-hearted a person is.
It seems important to highlight this point because the younger generations today appear to be remarkably unambitious, which is not a good thing. Consider that with the Internet we have the collective knowledge of humanity at our fingertips continuously. We can visit libraries far larger than that of Alexandria’s without ever leaving our home. We can listen at any moment to the world’s greatest music. We can communicate instantly with people on the other side of the globe. Yet with all of these blessings available, many have consigned themselves to lives of mindless consumption rather than fruitful production. Indeed, the clearest evidence of our world’s lack of ambition is the gradual suicide that we are committing through failing to simply reproduce ourselves. Within this context, we would do well to consider that Jesus assumes here that we should desire to be first and to be great. Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes our desire for treasure. The reality is that God Himself implanted within us such longings precisely that we might be led to Him, as the first and greatest treasure. Ambition, therefore, does not need to be eradicated entirely; it must be crucified with Christ and resurrected again in Him.
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.”
Using a child to illustrate His teaching was quite significant because children were not significant in the ancient world. Within Roman culture, unwanted babies were discarded as easily as we throw away trash. Indeed, since child mortality rates were sometimes as high as thirty percent, the ancients generally did not regard children as highly as we do today. Thus, receiving a child was very much the equivalent of receiving the least, of stooping down to the lowest in society.
Also notice how Jesus binds Himself to children, to those of low estate: Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me… To serve the lowliest in Jesus’ name is like serving Jesus Himself. Is this not the same principle that Jesus spoke about the final judgment where those who served or rejected “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46) were either accepted or rejected by Jesus Himself?
In a meditation called “Jesus and the Children: Pondering Children as Pride Detectors,” John Piper makes the following point:
Receiving a child into your arms in the name of Jesus is a way to receive Jesus. And receiving Jesus is a way to receive God. Therefore how we deal with children is a signal of our fellowship with God. Something is deeply amiss in the soul that does not descend (or is it really ascend?) to love and hold a child.
This, again, is Jesus’ point: greatness is found in being spent for the sake of others rather than being exalted at the expense of others. Children are perhaps the best examples of this because they cannot pay you back for all you do. We must give to them with no expectation of receiving in kind.
THE ONE WHO IS NOT AGAINST US IS FOR US // VERSES 38-41
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.” While this statement can seem quite unrelated to the previous passage, I believe that Morgan has got the connection quite right:
John was not making a boast in something he had done. He confessed to failure. John, in many regards the most wonderful of the apostles, the man of keenest insight, quickest intuition, recognized here immediately that he had been doing something wrong. If indeed it be true that to receive a little child, an ordinary everyday child, is to receive Christ, and to receive God, said John within himself, What did I do when I forbade that man who in the Name was casting out a demon? Verily the light had broken in upon him.
Indeed, Jesus confirmed that the disciples were wrong to stop the man, 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. The man clearly believed in the power of Jesus’ name; therefore, the disciples’ rebuke was unwarranted. J. C. Ryle shows us how we ought to apply this teaching today:
Let us beware of the slightest inclination to stop and check others, merely because they do not choose our plans, or work by our side. We may think our fellow-Christians mistaken in some points. We may fancy that more would be done for Christ, if they would join us, and if all worked in the same way. We may see many evils arising from religious dimensions and divisions. But all this must not prevent us rejoicing if the works of the devil are destroyed and souls are saved. Is our neighbor warring against Satan? Is he really trying to labour for Christ? This is the grand question. Better a thousand times that the work should be done by other hands than not done at all.
Of course, this is not to say that doctrinal differences are unimportant. They certainly are; we should only be more than ready to rejoice over those who agree with us on the essentials of the faith, even when we do not agree over secondary and tertiary matters. Indeed, this is one reason by denominations are not so bad as it is popularly believed. When properly used, denominations can actually foster Christian unity by giving one another the freedom to disagree, even very strongly, without denying one another the status as brother or sister.
I am thankful, for instance, that I am able to be a Baptist rather than a Presbyterian or Anglican, for my understanding and conviction of Scripture has convinced me that baptizing infants is not scriptural. Of course, both Presbyterians and Anglicans are convinced that infant baptism is, in fact, scriptural. While we should all gladly affirm one another as brothers in Christ, it is good that we can each belong to congregations of like-minded believers.
Indeed, our mentality ought to be like that of the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Philippians 1:15-18:
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The later to it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Taking things even further, Jesus states, “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will be no means lose his reward.” This most certainly applies to we belong to the household of faith as we serve one another; however, it many also point to Christ’s kindness toward those who are sympathetic to Him and His church, even if they do not yet believe. We should not think such a thought to be strange, for in Christ we are each children of Abraham, and God’s promise to bless those who bless and curse those who curse still stands over us today.
EVERYONE WILL BE SALTED WITH FIRE // VERSES 42-50
Here in these final verses, Jesus gives us some of the most sobering words ever recorded. Referring back to the child in His arms, Jesus said, “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.” This imagery would have been particularly unsettling for Jesus’ disciples since the sea was the embodiment of chaos in Jewish thought. To have something as massive as a millstone tied around your neck and dragging you to the bottom of the deep would have created the kind of spine-tingling fear that imagining being buried alive might have in us. Thus, imagining something worse than that fate would have been difficult indeed.
While the child in Jesus’ arms certainly represented the lowly and unimportant of society in general, we should not neglect the significance of Him referring to little children particularly. In the following verses (43-48), Jesus warns us that it is better to lose a member of our body than to be cast into hell. The word that Jesus used for hell is Gehenna, also called the Valley of Hinnom or Tophet, the ever-burning landfill that is meant to be a visual shadow of hell’s eternal torment. Remember it was in that very valley that Judah sacrificed their children by burning them alive in the arms of Molech. It is no accident that Jesus spoke here of that very valley with a child safely and lovingly in His arms.
The sorrowful reality is that if we knew history the demands of abortion activists would not surprise us as much as they do. Children have never been valued, unless they could be of use. Jesus changed things. He gave value to children for their own sake yet more importantly for His sake! He taught us not only that child sacrifice was wrong but that we should give ourselves to serve and guide them in the truth of Christ. Indeed, for we who still have little ones in the home, verse 42 is perhaps the most overlooked verse on parenting in the Bible.
If verse 42 warns us against causing others to sin, verses 43-48 call us to war against our own flesh’s impulse to sin. Throughout the last two thousand years, there have certainly been a few that have taken Jesus’ words quite literally. Yet Jesus is not calling us to mutilate our bodies; He is teaching us how seriously we should wrestle against our sin.
Perhaps a more modern rendition of these verses would be: if your television causes you to sin, get rid of it. It is better to enter life without [insert favorite show here] than to be thrown into the hell entertained. Or if your phone causes you to sin and keeps you from the Word and prayer, downgrade to a dumbphone. It is better to enter life without social media than to be thrown into hell with a few thousand followers.
Again, the point here is not to chop up our bodies but rather to take immediate and even drastic actions to fight against our sin. But why should we adopt such extreme measures? Because sin pulls us down to hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” This is a quotation from Isaiah 66:24, the final verse of that book. The full verse is set against the promise of eternal life for God’s people upon the new heavens and new earth:
And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
Revelation calls this eternal torment the lake of fire, which is the place into which the resurrected bodies of the wicked will be thrown. Many have wondered whether the fire of hell will be material fire or whether the fire is only a symbol of the torment. The plain answer is that we do not know, but whether the fire is material or not, I think it very much signifies the holy wrath of God. A common description of hell today is the eternal absence of God, yet that is not the torment of hell. Hell is not the absence of God’s presence but rather the complete and perpetual outpouring of His judgment without any measure of mercy.
We now come to one of the most puzzling statements in Mark’s Gospel:
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.
There are a few potential interpretations as what exactly Jesus meant, but here are my thoughts. In the context, Jesus has been speaking of the unquenchable fires of God’s eternal wrath, specifically warning us to do whatever is necessary to fight the sin that would so happily drag us into those flames. Thus, I take the statement for everyone will be salted with fire to mean that everyone who sins will undergo the purifying fire of God’s holiness; none will be spared.
Yet there are two different outcomes to this purification, for (as Morgan notes) “fire destroys the perishable, and perfects that which is imperishable.” Those who reject Christ in favor of their rebellion against the Creator will meet the eternal judgment for their cosmic treason. They will be eternally dying yet never dead, forever in the crucible yet never to become pure. Those who turn to Christ, however, will indeed be purified. Legally, we have been made pure by the substitution of Jesus as payment for our sins. Jesus endured the fire of God’s wrath in our place. As we sing, “And He stood before the wrath of God, shielding sinners with His blood.”
Of course, we are not yet wholly purified and will not be until we finish our earthly race. Until that day, our Father sees fit to “leave for a season His own children to manifold temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts” in order to discipline us as His children, in order to refine us like a blacksmith refines his metals.
Thus, carrying on the imagery of salting with fire, Jesus tells us that salt is good so long as it is still salty; therefore, have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. In other words, embrace the humbling and purifying work of the Father now that we may be made fit for His holy presence rather than enduring without end the fullness of His holy judgment upon sin. Indeed, such a mentality of being refined, of being constantly purified, creates an atmosphere of peace, for the greatest is the one whom God has most thoroughly cleansed. The greatest in the kingdom is the one whom has been brought the lowest, purified most thoroughly, and is, therefore, ready and happy to serve the least.
Wherever this salt is active in the life, there is born a passion not for the exercise of authority, but for the rendering of service. Surely no one can read this carefully without being ashamed. No congregation of Christian souls can consider these ideals, and this teaching of Jesus, without coming to the almost appalling recognition of the fact of how little we know of this experimentally. Yet, thank God there have been and still are multitudes of those in whom this salt burns, producing God’s own purity; and in every such case they are those whose one mastering eagerness is to serve; and where there is eagerness to serve, then the little one is received; and where there is eagerness to serve, disputes about greatness finally end. Where there is eagerness to serve there is peace.
As we come to the Table, let us look upon our Lord who was crushed for our transgressions and who has brought us peace through taking upon Himself the chastisement for our sins. Let us look to the Lord of all who became a servant to all, and let us “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).
 Morgan, Mark, 210.
 “Jerusalem” by CityAlight
 Morgan, Mark, 214.