Faithful and Unfaithful Disciples

To follow Jesus is to live in conscious service to others, especially to the weak and the outcasts of society – Mark 9:38-40

Forest Trail - Photo by David Bruggink on Unsplash
In the gospel accounts, John the disciple rarely speaks for himself. When he does do so, it is in conjunction with his brother James. For example, when they desired “
to call down fire” to destroy some Samaritans, or when the two asked Jesus to install them to reign at his side in his kingdom. Together, they are not the wisest or most sensitive of the twelve disciples - [Forest Trail - Photo by David Bruggink on Unsplash].

The disciples and many others addressed Jesus as “teacher.” But in Mark, more often it is outsiders who referred to him in this manner. There is irony in the statement; John was about to lodge a complaint against an outsider who was ministering in the name of the “teacher.”
  • (Mark 9:38-40) - “John said to him, Teacher! We saw someone in your name casting out demons, and we forbade him, because he was not following with us. But Jesus said, Do not forbid him! For no one is there who shall do a work of power in my name and have power, who will soon revile me; for whosoever is not against us is for us.”
His grievance was that this man “was not following us.” John did not protest that the exorcist was not following Jesus, but that “he was not following us.” Ironically, just a few verses earlier, the disciples were unable to exorcise some demons due to unbelief. However, here, they protested because someone else could do so.

But if this man was casting out demons, then it was God who was doing so through him. One who performs miraculous deeds in his name cannot easily revile the name of Jesus, which constituted evidence that the man was commissioned by God - (1 Corinthians 12:3).

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus rarely referred to himself as the “Christ.” However, here the title fits since he was instructing his disciples on what it means to be the Messiah; that is, self-sacrificial service, especially to the insignificant, and by default, what it also meant to be his disciple.

GEHENNAConduct that conforms to the life of Jesus results in great reward, including everlasting life. But the failure to emulate him brings horrific punishment at the end of the age.
  • (Mark 9:41-50) - “For whosoever shall give you to drink a cup of water in name that you are Christ’s; truly, I say to you, in nowise shall he lose his reward. And whosoever shall cause to stumble one of these little ones that believe, it is seemly for him, rather, if there is hung a large millstone about his neck and he is cast into the sea. And if your hand shall cause you to stumble, cut it off. It is seemly for you maimed to enter life, rather than having the two hands to depart into the Gehenna, into the fire that is not quenched. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is seemly for you to enter life lame, rather than having the two feet to be cast into the Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, thrust it out. It is seemly for you one-eyed to enter the kingdom of God, rather than having two eyes to be cast into Gehenna, where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. For everyone with fire shall be salted. Salt is good: but if salt become saltless, wherewith will you prepare it? Have within yourselves salt and be at peace one with another.
The image of a millstone cast into the sea would have struck a fearful chord with first-century Jews. In general, they feared the sea and viewed drowning as an especially horrific form of death. Moreover, dead bodies sank to the bottom of the sea and could not be recovered for proper burial, something of prime importance in Second Temple Judaism. The Greek word rendered “millstone” refers to a stone so large that it required a beast of burden to turn it to grind wheat.

Bonfire - Photo by Connor Jalbert on Unsplash
Photo by Connor Jalbert on Unsplash

The name ‘
Gehenna’ is derived from the valley of Hinnom, located to the south of Jerusalem. It was the place where garbage and refuse were burned outside the city, including the dead bodies of criminals. Reportedly, the fires burned continuously. Jesus used this imagery to picture the horrific fate of anyone who did not deal with his or her sins, especially sins against the weak and the powerless.

The clause, “where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched,” echoes a passage from the Book of Isaiah:
  • (Isaiah 66:24) - “Then they shall go forth and look on the corpses of the men who have transgressed against me. For their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Here, Jesus said nothing about “eternal” punishment. In the image, it is the annihilating fire that is “unquenchable,” not the punishment inflicted on the offender. The emphasis is on the result of the process - Utter destruction.

Fire and salt refine and prove things. Being “salted with fire” may symbolize purification. If this is the intended meaning, then the process occurs in the life of the disciple as he or she purges sin and other causes of stumbling through suffering.

However, and far more likely, the image alludes to the sacrificial system described in Leviticus. All animal sacrifices were “salted,” and burnt offerings were consumed completely by fire. In this way, sacrifices became a “pleasing odor” to Yahweh. Furthermore, “salt” was a sign of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel - (Leviticus 2:13, Numbers 18:19).
Disciples must live their lives as whole and living sacrifices to God, otherwise, they may not inherit everlasting life in His kingdom - (Romans 12:1-2).

To become “living sacrifices” dedicated wholly to the service of God, believers must live in conscious service to others, especially to the weak and the insignificant. To cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble is the exact opposite of what it means to follow Jesus. To abuse others is to become a disciple whose “salt is salt-less.” In this way, the disciple loses his life for his sake, but ironically, actually saves it.




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