The Previews of the Servant
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 9:2–9:50
As we observed in last week’s message, the turning point of Mark’s Gospel occurs at the end of chapter 8. Until then, Jesus has been instructing His disciples and preparing them for the time when they would be called upon to fulfill the ministry to which He was calling them. Like us, they were slow to learn...Jesus frequently pointing out their inability to understand and the hardness of their hearts (cf. Mark 8:17).
As the days of His sojourn on earth were hastening toward their climactic conclusion, it was time to press the disciples to express their opinions of Him. Who did they really believe Him to be? Peter, the most outspoken of the Twelve, was the first to speak up and correctly identify Him as “the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Of course, neither Peter nor the others understood the full ramifications of that confession, but it did provide Jesus an opening to divulge details of the Messianic plan that had not yet be revealed.
So, as His words became plainer, he spoke of being rejected and put to death by the nation’s most esteemed religious leaders. It was a statement Peter simply could not accept, and so he took Jesus aside in order to reprimand Him (cf. Mark 8:32). In quick response, Jesus issued a rebuke of His own and laid out the essential requirement for being His disciple. Once again our Lord’s words from Mark 8:34 through 38:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s sake will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
If Jesus’ statement concerning His own impending suffering had stunned Peter and the other disciples, what would be even more shocking was to realize that they were being called to a similar destiny. They had left their livelihoods in order to “follow” Jesus’ call (cf. Mark 1:17, 2:13), but would they be willing to “follow” Him all the way to the Cross?
The first verse of chapter 9 flows out of that conversation. No doubt it was just as enigmatic as many of Jesus’ earlier statements. But it set the stage for what was about to follow. Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” “The kingdom of God”...that is what Jesus had come to proclaim, and now He was hinting that its arrival was near or “at hand” (cf. Mark 1:15).
Here in this chapter, we find three more lessons that disciples of Jesus need to learn. The first was that...
The way to glory is through suffering (verses 2-13)
We begin reading at verse 2:
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
In Luke’s version of this story, we told that Jesus “took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he prayed...” His appearance was altered (cf. Luke 9:28-29). Mark uses the term, “transfigured,” which translates the Greek word (“μεταμορφοομαι”) from which we get “metamorphosis.” Before the eyes of His closest disciples, the appearance of Jesus was altered in a manner similar to the manner in which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. What they saw was believed to be the “Shekinah glory, not witnessed by men since Old Testament times. But now, in this place at this time, it rested in all of its glorious splendor upon the Person of Jesus.
What a breathtaking scene it must have been to behold! And when they looked, the three disciples also saw Elijah and Moses with Him. Doubtless thinking that the promised Kingdom had at last arrived and that they were planning to remain on the mountain, Peter impulsively offers to construct three tents for them to dwell in. But even as he spoke, Peter’s voice was overshadowed by another. Out of a cloud that had surrounded them came these words: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Similar words had been heard at Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11, words that actually find their origin in the 2nd Psalm (verse 7).
The appearances of Moses and Elijah were significant on that day as these two represented the Old Testament Law and Prophets, respectively. What’s more, from as far back as Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses had declared to the Israelites that, “The LORD God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” Jesus was that “prophet,” the One who now stood before them as God’s greatest and most complete revelation. Therefore, it should not surprise us to read that when God’s voice spoke from the cloud, Peter, James, and John “no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.” Moses and Elijah had been present to bear witness to Jesus’ true identity, and to testify that He—and not they—embodied the fulfillment of the ancient Scriptures. They were no more. Now only Jesus remained.
More than thirty years later, Peter would recall this unforgettable scene when arguing for the validity of his apostolic ministry: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
We don’t know how long the glorious experience atop the mountain lasted. It had been but a preview—a foretaste, if you will—of the glory that would one day fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (cf. Habakkuk 2:14) when the Kingdom would come in its fullness. As they headed back down the mountain, Jesus instructed them to remain silent about what they had seen, even among their fellow disciples. For the second time (cf. Mark 8:31) He mentioned his “rising from the dead,” but once again they were unable to comprehend the meaning. Jesus’ resurrection would be necessary before the disciples would understand.
Continuing to reflect upon what they had just seen, they ask Jesus about the prophecy from Malachi (4:5-6) concerning Elijah as the forerunner. In responding to their question, He told them that “Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased”—an obvious reference to John the Baptist. But rather than dwelling on John, Jesus redirects their focus to Himself. When He asks them, “How is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” He reveals that the glory that they had just witnessed—and which they would one day experience in full measure—would not arrive apart from His suffering.
You see, the way to glory is through suffering...His, of course, but ours as well. This was the first of the three lessons Jesus’ disciples need to learn. The second is that...
The way to power is through believing (verses 14-29)
Beginning in verse 14, we find a scene that literally takes us from the heights of elation to the depths of despair. We read...
14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Mountaintop experiences are that because they differ from the ordinariness of everyday life. Followers of Christ have not been called to remain on the mountain forever. The work of ministry takes place in the trenches. And as much as we love gathering with the saints of Sunday mornings and evenings, we know that God calls us to live the Christian life in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces the rest of the week.
Having descended the mountain, Jesus and the three disciples return to the others and find them embroiled in a heated exchange with a crowd of people, including a group of scribes. The conflict centered upon the disciples’ inability to cast a demon from the son of a man who had come to them seeking their help. ‘I asked your disciples the cast it out,” the man explained to Jesus, “and they were not able.”
What makes this situation noteworthy, you may recall, is that these same disciples had earlier been sent out by Jesus. He had given them “authority over the unclean spirits” (cf. Mark 6:7). We are told that “they cast out many demons and anointed many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13), reporting back to Jesus “all they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30). Now here they were faced with a request that they were unable to fulfill.
Jesus’ response reveals a note of exasperation with them. “O faithless generation,” He says to them in verse 19, “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This rebuke was directed more to the disciples as it was to the bystanders that day. He then asks that the boy be brought to Him, and when the demon recognizes Him it throws the young man into an uncontrollable seizure. In response to Jesus’ question, the father relates that the boy had been afflicted “from childhood.” He then asks “if” Jesus is able to do anything to help.
This simple three-word statement can be read in three ways, depending upon where the emphasis is placed: “if you can,” “if you can,” or “if you can.” Without being able to hear the inflection in father’s voice or in Jesus’ reply, it is difficult for us to determine the intention. What we can observe is Jesus’ response: “All things are possible for one who believes.” As if sensing the first real ray of hope for his Son in years, the father then cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Is it not a cry that we, too, have uttered at seemingly hopeless times?
That plea—and that is what it was—was the annex to faith. He wasn’t sure what would happen, but he sensed that Jesus was able to heal his son. His faith had been shaken by the disciples’ failure, but now he was face-to-face with Jesus. At that moment the world stood still and eternity passed between them...just as it may be right now for you as you consider this story today.
Sadly, this passage has been much abused. It has been ripped from its context by some people and made to be the rationale for the teaching that all your wishes will come true if you can just mount enough faith! So, let’s be clear. God cannot be manipulated and controlled, and faith never extends beyond what God has said. Our faith must rest upon the proper object...and ultimately, that object is Jesus Christ.
The disciples erroneously supposed that because they had been “with Jesus” (cf. Mark 3:14) and had been invested with His “authority” (cf. Mark 6:7) that they were set to deal with any circumstance they might encounter. But just as our bodies need food and rest to keep going, so our faith needs to be replenished, Some of us may be coasting on the assumption that our once-for-all “decision” for Christ has equipped us for life, when in reality we need that day-by-day renewed encounter with Him. The way to power is through believing...not once upon a time or sporadically, but continuously.
After the young man was delivered of the demon the disciples asked Jesus, “Why could not we cast it out?” To which He answered, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” The disciples were self-deceived into somehow thinking that the gift Jesus had given them was under their control and could be exercised at will. That was a subtle form of unbelief, because it encouraged them to trust in themselves and the gift rather than keeping their eyes on the Giver. Simply put, they did not think to pray...to call on Jesus’ name. They seemed to have forgotten that there had to be radical dependence if God’s power was to course through their lives and ministries. Jesus was teaching them that the faith that brings power is a faith that prays dependently.
The same holds true for a local church. If we are to experience the power of God among us, then we need to be people who pray both individually and corporately. A true test of our spiritual walk is our prayer life. Are we truly depending upon the Lord to accomplish His plan through us, or are we merely “going through the motions” and hoping for the best?
The way to glory is through suffering and the way to power is through believing. But there is a third lesson that disciples need to learn and it is that...
The way to honor is through serving (verses 30-50)
This is the longest section of the chapter and it is comprised of four shorter movements. We’ll move through them quickly, beginning with verses 30 through 32 where Jesus again foretells His soon-to-be-realized death and resurrection:
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
There were many opportunities for our Lord to instruct His disciples, some of them taking place along the dusty roads they traveled from place to place. In these three brief verses, He reveals to them once again that He would soon be taken from them in death. In this telling, the verb He chooses is much more forceful than the earlier one He had used. “Delivered” can be more literally translated “betrayed” (“παραδιδωμι”), suggesting the possible treachery that would arise from within His own ranks. As had happened earlier, the disciples heard Him speak, but “They did not understand.” And what’s more, they “were afraid to ask him.” Perhaps they recalled the manner in which He had rebuked Peter earlier when he impulsively responded to Jesus’ teaching on the same subject (cf. Mark 8:31-33)....which makes what happened next all the more peculiar.
Having arrived back at their “base of operations” in Capernaum (probably Peter’s house, cf. Mark 1:29), Jesus asks them what they were discussing among themselves while they journeyed through Galilee. We continue in verse 34:
34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 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.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Jesus had been well aware of their conversation. He questioned them, not for the sake of information but in order to draw it out of them. It was a way of seeing whether they had learned one of the lessons they most needed to learn...the lesson of servanthood. They needed to see that “greatness” in the Kingdom consisted not of position, but of service to others. Remember, Jesus is “the ideal Servant,” and shortly He will affirm that He, “the Christ” Himself, had come “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). They had already seen Him model that role, and here He is calling them to do the same: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
By sitting a child in their midst and “taking him in his arms,” he was presenting to them a living parable that genuine servanthood required humility and the willingness to minister to “the least of these” (cf. Matthew 25:40) in His name. This was a visible demonstration of the essence of true greatness. The way to honor is through serving others.
Jesus could barely get the words out of His mouth before He is interrupted by one of the inner circle. Verse 38:
38 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.” 39 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. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of cold water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
John’s question provided yet another “teachable moment.” The youngest of the disciples no doubt thought that he would be commended by Jesus for his censuring a so-called “competitor.” But instead, Jesus rebuked him for the failure to recognize that a person didn’t have to be among “the chosen Twelve” to carry out the work of ministry. Their exclusive privilege to being “with” Jesus seems to have created among them a proud sectarianism that excluded others who also loved Jesus and sought to follow Him.
That same kind of spirit continues to plague many Christian churches and ministries today. Although we must be discerning in terms of our associations and partnerships, we must not be so narrow in our perspective that we no longer “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Just because someone is not in our denomination or went to a different seminary does not mean that we cannot fellowship with them or serve alongside of them. What Jesus is encouraging here is a spirit of tolerance and freedom from the petty jealousies of ministry that far too often impede the progress of the Gospel.
There remains one more item that Jesus needed to address with the disciples before bringing this section to a conclusion. At the end of chapter 8, He had spoken to them about the demanding requirements of discipleship. In verses 42 through 50 He becomes much more specific. Jesus says,
42 “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. 43 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. 45 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. 47 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, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”
It would be logical to assume that the “little ones” mentioned here would refer back to the “child” in verses 36 and 37, but I don’t think that’s the case. Jesus’ statement flows more naturally out of his response to John about those who were not a part of the Twelve who were carrying out ministry in the name of Jesus. Not only did Jesus say, “Do not stop him,” but here He cautions the disciples against “placing a stumbling block” (“σκανδαλιζω”) in their way. In other words, “Don’t impede their progress.”
And then Jesus applies that same imagery to oneself, as if to say, “Remove everything from your own life that would cause you to stumble.” Of course, Jesus is not calling us to “dismember ourselves” so that we can become “more spiritually effective” in our devotion and service to Him. He is using graphic hyperbole to impress upon His followers that sin in our lives must be drastically dealt with. Even when it means great pain, we must be willing to conquer our sinful patterns....and we must do it now! The “hands,” “feet,” and “eye” suggest, of course, that the things we do, the places we go, and the things we look at are to be under constant scrutiny. Our sinful habits must be excised...amputated, if you will. That is because “life is short, death is sure, and heaven and “hell” are real.”
Yes, Jesus believed in “hell.” He mentions it three times in this brief section and describes it as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” That is a vivid picture of eternal torment. The Greek word that is used for “hell” is “γεεννα,” which is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, a place south of Jerusalem where children were once sacrificed to the pagan god Molech (cf. 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6). Later, during the reforms of King Josiah, that site became Jerusalem’s garbage dump (cf. 2 Kings 23:10) where fires burned continuously to consume the city’s worm-invested refuse.
But let me modify something I said just a moment ago. “Life is short, death is sure”...but we need to understand that “sin is the cause and Christ is the cure.” The suffering that Jesus would endure was not without purpose. It was necessary for Him, the sinless One, to pay the price God’s wrath demanded if our sin were to be atoned for and if we were to be granted “right standing” with God. Can you understand that there is no other way to escape the death and hell brought about by our sin except by going through the cross of Jesus Christ?
Something else...those who follow Christ must do so with their eyes fully open. In verse 49, “be(ing) salted with fire” implies that every disciple must be willing to accept their share of suffering for the cause of Christ. And verse 50 explains why that is so important. Salt was necessary in the ancient world in order to keep food from spoiling. Jesus’ use of that metaphor implies that it is through our willingness to faithfully suffer together that the purity of the Gospel is preserved in our generation and for the sake of those to come.
It does not go without notice that the passage we have been considering begins with a reference to and demonstration of “the kingdom of God,” and ends with a warning about “hell.” These are the two distinct destinies that lie before us. Every one of us is headed toward one of those two destinations. Both are eternal in nature, one being the abode of everlasting life with Christ, and the other the place of never-ending torment. It is the cross of Jesus Christ that divides those two destinies, because it is through that cross that the path to eternal life is found.
Entrance upon that path for us is simple...it is by faith in the One who gave up His life for us upon that cross. But the path itself is hard. In fact, as the memory of countless Christian martyrs bears witness across the centuries, it may cost a person his or her life. The way to glory is through suffering...the way to power is through believing...and the way to honor is through serving.
God’s voice still speaks to us this morning...not in a cloud, but through His Word. You and I have heard it, and now we must respond accordingly:
He has said, “This is my beloved Son.” Will we “listen to him.”