embarrassing lessons in ministry part 1
Mark’s Gospel as a whole serves as an excellent manual for ministry. But Mark 9:33-50 is especially suited to teach those who aspire to serve Christ. This section of the Gospel focuses on the relationship of the twelve apostles of Jesus with other followers of Jesus. The apostles learned the lessons described in this section at great expense, because they learned them by embarrassment. One would think that at this point in time, after having been with Jesus for years – the apostles would have graduated from the school of hard knocks. But some lessons you can only digest when you swallow your pride along with them.
Mark 9:33-34 | embarrassing silence
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they were silent, because on the road they had argued with one another which was the greatest.
The fact that the apostles did not answer Jesus’ question “indicates that they had some sense of the inappropriateness of their discussion.”1 Here’s how that happened. Three of the apostles had been singled out by Christ to witness the amazing transfiguration vision (9:2-8). When the four men came down from the mountain, they saw the other apostles in a heated argument with some scribes. It seems that the other apostles were not able to deliver a possessed boy. The scribes would have used their inability as proof against Christ and his teachings. Jesus restored the boy, and lamented over the faithlessness of his generation. Ouch!
Then they passed through the region of Galilee on the way to Capernaum. It was a long walk, so the apostles talked about what they had experienced. It would have been natural for the men to talk about why some had been set apart to witness the transfiguration, and others not. It would have been natural for them to speculate on why the other nine could not deliver the demonized boy. Those questions would lead to the issue of greatness, and the apostles comparing themselves to one another. Isn’t it interesting how easily we get carried away in our conversation and get to topics that we have no business discussing?
Jesus is in the habit of shutting people up. The “closest parallel” to this incident in Mark’s Gospel is found in 3:1-4, “where the people in the synagogue at Capernaum are reduced to an embarrassing silence by Jesus’ teaching about doing good on the Sabbath.”2
1 Then he entered again into the synagogue; and a man was there who has a dried up hand. 2 So they were watching him to see if on one of the Sabbaths he would heal him, in order that they might bring charges against him. 3 And he says to the man having the dry hand, “Get up into the middle!” 4 And he says to them, “Is it proper to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to rescue3 a life or to kill?” But they were silent.
He shuts us up because we get our priorities wrong. In the case of the Capernaum crowd, they were more interested in catching someone breaking their tradition than helping the obviously needy. In the case of the apostles hiking conversation, they had completely forgotten that Jesus had told them to deny themselves and take up their own cross (8:34-35). In fact, there is a long list of incidents described in Mark 8:22-10:52 where the apostles misunderstand some of Jesus’ basic teachings.4 When Jesus points these misunderstandings out, the disciples are mute. They cannot reply because they realize they are wrong, and have no excuse for it. What a blessing it was for these apostles to have Jesus intervene in their lives when they were taking the wrong road. Too often we are preoccupied with ideas, opinions, and purposes which are “at the extreme opposite of those of Jesus.”5 We need someone who cares enough about the truth to sit us down and shut us up. We do not always appreciate those with that kind of ministry. We call them overly critical, and try to stay out of their way. But asking a dissenting question is a valuable ministry.
We conditionalists may need to poke our nose into other people’s business once in a while. When people casually talk (or write) about going to heaven when they die, it might not be a bad idea to ask them a question or two. A lie is a lie. It does not matter how many people believe it. By not asking a challenging question, we are essentially affirming their beliefs. Here’s a question we might ask: “Do you know that Jesus said we cannot go to heaven?” That’s right, Jesus told his disciples that when he ascended to heaven, they would not be able to follow him there (John 7:34). Jesus had also told Nicodemus that only the Son of Man (Jesus himself) would ascend to heaven. The apostle Paul called Jesus “the one who ascended” (Ephesians 4:10). The Christian hope is not a soul ascending to heaven, but a Saviour descending from there.
an embarrassing example
35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not just me but the one who sent me.”
We preachers get a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ illustration of the little child, but we often miss the context in which Jesus used the illustration. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. When Jesus welcomed that little child into their company, it was not because that child was the best kid in the neighbourhood. He was not a significant contributor to the team. He was just a kid. But his significance lay in the fact that Jesus did welcome him.
That child was a perfect example, because neither of the apostles had been even considering him (or her) as they argued. The child – not even mentioned by name, not even identified by gender – was an embarrassing example of greatness.
When I reflect on that event, I cannot help but relate it to the fact that we Christians are still always comparing ourselves, our ministries, and our churches. Each of those disciples (excepting Judas) would eventually go out and lead his own ministry. Each had to learn now that ministry is not about greatness. Ministry is about being accepted and called by Jesus. You can be the greatest nobody, and make a difference because you belong to Jesus.
It is also significant that Jesus challenged his disciples using that child as an example – to become “servant of all.” Slaves usually have only one owner. Jesus uses that child to demonstrate “his ideal of universal service toward others.”6 As a minister of the gospel, my obligation is to everyone – not just to “my people.” Perhaps we who have been fortunate enough to belong to churches which teach conditional immortality should revisit that statement. When it comes to the blessed hope of eternal life only through Christ, I think we have been guilty of being servants only to some. Any truth that blesses us personally should be shared with the rest of the body of Christ.
embarrassing lessons in ministry – part 2
There were other disciples of Christ besides the famous twelve, whom he called as apostles. Mark 9:38-42 gives us some insight into how the twelve viewed those others. They were tempted to treat them as competition. But Jesus gave them another embarrassing lesson in ministry by warning them not to do that. He knew that the Holy Spirit would use a diverse church to accomplish a diverse mission. So, Jesus warned the disciples not to put an obstacle – a stumbling block before these others.
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we were hindering him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not restrain him; because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Because whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For I guarantee you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a donkey’s millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.
The translation in verse 38 “we were hindering him, because he was not following us” reflects that of James A Kelhoffer. He takes both verbs in the phrase to be examples of the iterative imperfect, “with the implication that the man had not been inclined to follow the Twelve, with the result that they did in fact – and apparently more than once – hinder him in his work as an exorcist.” (( James A. Kelhoffer, Persecution, Persuasion and Power. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 196. )) I can imagine the twelve having a conversation about that man. Perhaps they thought back to their commissioning, in which Jesus gave the authority over the unclean spirits. Naturally, they assumed that their authority was exclusive. So, they voted – not just to ignore the man, but to actively hinder his ministry. How they did this is unclear. Perhaps they made public statements disclaiming him. But when John tells Jesus what they were doing, Jesus sets them straight with another embarrassing lesson in ministry. The appointment of ministry tasks in the work of the Holy Spirit who empowers people for those tasks. The fact that you have been gifted and called to ministry does not prevent the Holy Spirit from gifting and calling others as well.
Creation itself tells us of a God who builds redundancy and diversity in everything he does. In the church today there are different people called and commissioned to the same ministry. Our job as servants is to cooperate with those who serve the same Christ from different traditions and with different ideas and emphases. We need to allow the kingdom to be bigger than our concept of it.
At this point, according to Coleman, Jesus “felt constrained to give (the apostles) an extended discourse on the dangers of discouraging any sincere work on his behalf.”7 Not only is it wrong for those on a ministry team to compare themselves with each other, it is also wrong for them to claim exclusive rights to the work that they are doing. A traditional approach to ministry preparation usually takes this into consideration. Candidates for ministry are sent to institutions where they can interact with other students, and are on equal footing with them. They learn from a number of different professors, each having a unique ministry, but each contributing toward the development of all the students. The end result – it is hoped – is a fresh batch of graduates who not only know how to do ministry, but also have learned to appreciate the others who will be doing ministry alongside them, or in the next church over from them. Some churches and organizations are experimenting with other approaches toward ministry training, which do not necessarily seek to give students such a diverse education. Time will only tell if these new approaches will be as good at fostering the appreciation for diversity that marks a mature minister.
In verse 40, Jesus summarizes his point by saying “,” but this statement appears to some to be a contradiction, because Jesus elsewhere says that whoever is not with him is against him.8 This apparent contradiction can be resolved by recognizing the different pronouns utilized in the two statements.
“Whoever is not with me is against me”
“the one who is not against us is for us”
Thus “whereas there can be no neutrality with regard to the person of Jesus, the disciples must be tolerant of those who differ from them. Theologically speaking, the church should be unambiguous in its proclamation of Christ, but tolerant of those who differ from it.”9
The Conditional Immortality Association seeks to be an example of that principle in action. We are part of the wider evangelical community, and as such, we join our brother evangelicals in proclaiming Christ as the exclusive Saviour of the world. But we differ from our traditionalist brothers in our understanding of what our Saviour saves us from. We want to encourage all Christians to rethink the concept of a perpetually burning hell in which lost souls are condemned to eternal torture. We posit a hell which punishes the lost fairly as their sins deserve, but eventually destroying them. We ask that those scriptures which support this understanding be given a fair look. For example:
- Psalm 37:38 “transgressors shall be altogether destroyed”
- Isaiah 13:6 “the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!”
- Joel 1:15 “the day of the LORD is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.”
- Matthew 7:13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”
- Matthew 10:28 “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
- Mark 12:9; Luke 20:16 “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
- Romans 9:22 “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”
- Philippians 3:19 “Their end is destruction”
- 1 Corinthians 3:17 “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”
- 1 Corinthians 6:13 “”Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”- and God will destroy both one and the other.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:26 “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
- 2 Thessalonians 1:9 “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction”
- Hebrews 10:39 “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”
- James 4:12 “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.”
- 2 Peter 3:7 “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”
- 1 John 3:8 “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
- Revelation 11:18 “your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
But what is our relationship with the wider evangelical community? We ask you to tolerate us, and we seek to join you and together proclaim the coming Christ that we all believe in. Too often we have been excluded from your churches, seminaries and mission organisations and bible translation societies. Too often you have branded us as heretical without giving the slightest look at all the scriptural evidence we present. We ask you to consider going to our Lord and asking his advice before excluding us again. We are not your enemy, and we are not your competition.
This discourse on the dangers of discouraging others involved in ministry is the context in which Mark places Jesus’ warning about putting stumbling blocks in other believers’ way. He said “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a donkey’s millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (42). His use of the phrase “one of these little ones” hearkens back to the example of the little child which Jesus showed them to answer their argument about who was the greatest. That visual aid was designed to get the apostles to stop comparing themselves with each other, and accept each other as equally called by the same Christ.
Commentators are generally too quick to understand these words from Jesus as a general warning not to cause anyone to sin. Leading others to sin is always wrong. But the context of this passage (and its parallels in Matthew 18 and Luke 17) is interpersonal relationships with other believers within the church. A judgmental attitude towards another person within the church may lead to that person stumbling into the ultimate sin of defection from the ranks. That is how this warning ties in to the previous statement about not hindering others in their ministry.
So, Jesus has taught his apostles an embarrassing lesson on what greatness is in his kingdom. He has also embarrassed them by showing that they were wrong to discourage another disciple from his ministry simply because he did not join them before doing it. Are the embarrassing lessons over now? Nope.
embarrassing lessons in ministry – part 3
Understanding the lessons of Mark 9:33-50 requires that we keep in mind the backdrop of that embarrassing question Jesus had asked the apostles. He had asked them what they had been arguing about on the road to Capernaum. This was an embarrassing question because they had been arguing over who was the greatest among them (33-34). Jesus brought a little child into their midst and demonstrated that the apostles were comparing each other based on a wrong concept of greatness. Greatness is service and obedience (35-37). Our task is not to try and outdo each other – even in ministry, but to appreciate and serve one another.
It was in this context that the apostles told Jesus that they had noticed another disciple involved in a ministry of exorcism, but that they actively (and probably repeatedly) opposed him. Jesus told them that their decision was wrong. They learned another embarrassing lesson that the task of those in ministry is not a competition with others in ministry (38-42). Those in ministry should not put a stumbling block in other people’s way, so that they cannot minister.
43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. 4410 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. 4611 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
Context is absolutely essential to understand Jesus’ point here. He had just warned his disciples not to put a stumbling block in the way of any of the little ones who also believe in him.12 Those little ones were disciples who were not part of the twelve, but were also doing ministry in Jesus’ name. Jesus strongly encouraged his disciples not to do anything that would discourage those other disciples from their faith and obedience. He taught them not to be stumbling blocks.
Then, Jesus turns the subject. He tells his disciples not to allow anything, even anything as essential as a hand, a foot or an eye – to cause themselves to stumble. Remove the stumbling blocks. It would be better to enter resurrection life without them, than to go to Gehenna’s death intact. Why? Because Gehenna’s fire and worm destroy utterly, and nothing can stop them. Jesus’ advice to engage in self-destruction was never intended to be literal. The foot and eye stood for the relationship or idea that would serve as a stumbling block. Anyone or anything that would turn you away from believing and serving Jesus must be removed. Your life depends on it.
The destruction in Gehenna that Jesus describes here is absolutely literal. Both fire and worms are agents of destruction. To take them as agents of perpetual torture is to throw Jesus’ message away. His message demanded partial destruction in order to prevent complete destruction in hell. If hell does not involve complete destruction, his analogy does not fit.
Mark 9:48 is “almost a verbatim quotation of LXX of Isa 66:24” but cannot be describing “the continuing nature of the punishment”13 because the first part of Isaiah 66:24 says that the punishment is already over: “And they will exit and look at the dead bodies of the men who had rebelled against me; because their worm will not die, their fire will not be quenched, and they will be a repugnance to all flesh.” It is clear that the worms are those that eat the decaying flesh of the bodies until they are completely destroyed. The fire will not be put out until it completely destroys the corpses, rendering them ash like an incinerator would. Isaiah was not describing perpetual punishment of bodiless souls but the complete destruction of bodies. Jesus was not describing perpetual punishment of bodiless souls but the complete destruction of bodies in Gehenna, and comparing that to the necessity of partially destroying a body part in order to avoid Gehenna.
49 “Because everyone will be salted with this fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has become saltless, what can you season it with? Have salt among yourselves, and live at peace with one another.”
Jesus’ words to his disciples here seem a bit confusing. Papaioannou calls this text “without doubt one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament,” then proceeds to demonstrate that by showing that A.H. Meyer had “listed fourteen possible interpretations for these verses and then added his own.”14 I suspect that most of the confusion comes from thinking of the fire of the previous verses as perpetual torture. If that is the case, is Jesus saying that everyone will experience perpetual torture in hell?
No, Papaioannou offers a sixteenth interpretation which better fits the context, and perfectly fits with conditionalism:
“In Leviticus, the sacrifices offered by repentant sinners were burned on the altar after being salted with the salt of the covenant. There was a vicarious element in the sacrificial system – the covenant broken by the sinner requires his death, but an animal dies in his stead and thus the covenant is fulfilled vicariously.
In this respect, the fire of 9:48-49 represents the fire of God, which is upon all sin and consumes it. 9:50 calls the disciples to have the salt of the covenant within them. In this way, a person has a choice. Either he or she will have salt now and thus be in a covenant relationship with God, and willing to put away whatever may be a stumbling block – represented by the cutting and throwing away of ‘sinful limbs.’ Or else, if he or she persists in allowing stumbling blocks in his/her life, the covenant represented by the salt will still be fulfilled on that person, but in the fire of Gehenna where he/she will be consumed like the sacrifices consumed on the altar.”15
It helps to remember the context in which these words are found. The disciples had pointed out to Jesus that other disciples were also doing ministry in Jesus’ name, and they wanted to restrain them from doing so. Jesus nixed that idea, because he wanted his disciples not to put a stumbling block in the way of those other disciples and their ministry.
Then Jesus warned his own disciples that they should not allow anyone or anything to put a stumbling block in the way of their own faith and ministry either. Even if that idea or relationship was an essential as a hand, a foot or an eye, they must remove it if it is serving as a stumbling stone for them.
For their faith and ministry to work, they must remain fully dedicated to Christ. They had to consider themselves like a grain offering, or an altar, seasoned with salt – completely dedicated to God. Nothing should be allowed to desalinate them. But, they also should not allow their complete dedication to Christ and his kingdom to destroy their peace with one another. So, if they encounter others who are doing ministry but not like they do, they should encourage those other disciples and not seek to restrain them or compete with them.
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- Marie Noonan Sabin, The Gospel According to Mark. (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 84.
- John R. Donahue, Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 284.
- σωζω (3:4; 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 8:35; 10:26, 52; 13:13, 20; 15:30f; 16:16).
- Lamar Williamson, Mark. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983) 14-15.
- Camille Focant, The Gospel According to Mark: A Commentary, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 379.
- Donahue and Harrington, 313.
- Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism:Second Edition, Abridged. (Grand Rapids: Spire, 2010), 95.
- Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23.
- James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 291.
- Some manuscripts add οπου ο σκωληξ αυτων ου τελευτα και το πυρ ου σβεννυται. The text is found in verse 48, and it refers to the promise in Isaiah 66:24 that the dead bodies of God’s enemies will suffer complete disintegration and destruction.
- Some manuscripts add οπου ο σκωληξ αυτων ου τελευτα και το πυρ ου σβεννυται. The text is found in verse 48, and it refers to the promise in Isaiah 66:24 that the dead bodies of God’s enemies will suffer complete disintegration and destruction.
- Mark 9:42.
- Pasi K. Pohjala, Similarities of Redaction of the Gospel According to Matthew, with Texts of Philo Alexandrinus. (Pasi K. Pohjala, 2006),48.
- Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013), 37.
- Papaioannou, 38.