The Old Testament Echoes of “If Your Right Eye Causes You to Sin”

“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 9:42-50)

What I would like to do with this passage is to dissect it into digestible pieces, discover possible parallels that would help us understand the individual sentences better, and integrate everything together to see what conclusion we may come up with.

During His earthly ministry, Lord Jesus essentially functioned as the bridge and transition between the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant.  The new covenant had not been formally established since He had not died for His people’s sins nor had He risen from the grave yet.  There is a sense in which the Lord functioned as an Old Testament prophet even as He was preparing His people for the responsibilities of the new covenant.

Would it not be helpful then, to consider the passage from Mark above in terms of the Mosaic covenant?  The Lord speaks in the terms and language of the Mosaic covenant, a paradigm that His audience would have been intimately familiar with.  Acts 15:21 states, “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”  If we assume this verse refers to the Pentateuch, the first Five Books of Moses, what we would call Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it would be reasonable to assume that the Lord’s audience understood the Mosaic covenant with great familiarity.

It would be as if Americans knew the statutes and laws of their Constitution well.  In other words, the audience of Jesus’ time probably would have known the Mosaic covenant much better than how average Americans understand their own Constitution.

Perhaps the Lord speaks in the terms and language of the Mosaic covenant, because that was the paradigm that His audience were familiar with.  The New Covenant has not been established yet, so He needs to speak in terms of the Mosaic Covenant in the interim for the sake of His audience.

Stumbling Block

The Lord 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.”

Jesus holds as an ideal, “little ones who believe in me,” and this phrase carries the same moral force as the commandment in Deuteronomy 13:4, which states, “You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him.”

Likewise, the punishment for those who cause people to disobey is just as severe.  In Jesus’ example, a millstone would be hung around the dissident’s neck, while in Deuteronomy 13, the dissident would have been stoned to death with stones by the community.

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.” (Deuteronomy 13: 6-11)

In drawing this parallel, I hope to show that Jesus’ commandment to believe in Him carries the same emotional and moral impact as to walk after Him as God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and to serve him and hold fast to him.

Individual Personal Sin

Next, Lord Jesus moves from the neighbor’s influence on a community member to the personal responsibility of the community member.

“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.”

In the context of Mark’s gospel, it would stand to reason, that Jesus does not intend His audience to actually cut their hands, foot, and eyes out if they cause His people to sin.  Before this passage in Mark chapter 9, Jesus already established that sin is a spiritual, inward condition of the heart in Mark chapter 7.

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

Cutting off avenues for sin to extend its reach and influence may help treat the symptoms of the disease, but such actions would not treat the disease itself.  Physical, concrete actions would not cure the inward spiritual problem of sin, although they can help mitigate its effects and influence.

Also Jesus alludes to His future death and resurrection as the cure for the spiritual problem of sin in Mark chapter 8:

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)

It may be that Jesus speaks in the specific, physical, and concrete terms that He does because that was the language of the Mosaic covenant itself.  However, both the Mosaic covenant and the language that Jesus speaks both run into the problem of prescribing physical concrete solutions to a problem that ultimately requires spiritual renewal.  I am fairly certain that Jesus was aware of this problem and that He hoped His audience would understand that point.  Perhaps he purposely spoke in hyperbole to drive home the point that His audience ultimately needed a spiritual solution to the problem of sin than trusting in the physical, concrete solutions that the Mosaic covenant prescribed such as the sacrificial system and the temple.

Nevertheless, the Lord’s hyperbole does drive home the fact that we should adopt a merciless attitude against our sin.  In other words, Christians should be actively killing sin, or sin will kill us.

It is also helpful to consider Paul’s prescription to the same problem of sin.  Where the Lord says to cut your hand off, if it causes you to sin, the apostle Paul says to not let sin reign in your mortal body.

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” (Romans 6:12-13)

It is very important to note that Paul speaks in the context of the New covenant.  At the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Jesus had already died for the sins of His people and rose from the dead, establishing the provisions of the New covenant.  God’s people live under the new covenant instead of the Mosaic covenant.

Therefore, instead of physical concrete solutions to a spiritual problem, the people of God are encouraged to redeem their bodies for God’s glory with the help of the Spirit.  Because of the Lord’s sacrifice and resurrection, those who believe in Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior have the ability to present themselves to God as a slave to righteousness instead of continuing to be enslaved to their former rebellious passions.

Isaiah Reference

It is interesting to note that Jesus mentions, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched,” because that directly references Isaiah 66:24, which states, “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.”

Therefore, we can understand that when Jesus says “sin,” He means, “rebel against God.”  It would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that when He says “believe in me,” He is encouraging His audience to trust in Him as God, as King of kings and Lord of lords.

The verse before Isaiah 66:24 states: “From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.” (Isaiah 66:23)

So the universal standard to which Jesus holds His audience accountable would be absolute allegiance to Him as the God and King of all mankind.  The universal scope of Jesus’ reference to Isaiah possibly leads to His logical transition to another statement with a universal scope: “For everyone will be salted with fire.”

Universal Judgment

When the Lord says, “For everyone will be salted with fire,” I am inclined to believe that He means both those who trust in Him and those who do not.  In the Old Testament, God punished Israel, the people who entered the Mosaic covenant with Him for their transgression of this covenant.  He sent Assyria and Babylon after Israel for the numerous times that they rebelled against Him and cheated on Him with idols.  He then punished Assyria with Babylon, and then Babylon with Persia.

Simply being a part of God’s people in name was not enough, you had to have a humble and contrite heart and bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

So God holds everyone accountable, especially those who bear His name:

“For behold, I begin to work disaster at the city that is called by my name, and shall you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth, declares the LORD of hosts.” (Jeremiah 25:29)

“For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17)

However, although God will salt everyone with fire, for those who trust in Jesus as Lord, Savior, Friend, and Treasure, perhaps this same fire will instead be a refining power:

“And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call upon my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, ‘They are my people’;
and they will say, “The LORD is my God.”
(Zechariah 13:9)

“But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.
He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi and
refine them like gold and silver,
and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD.”
(Malachi 3:2)

Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)

However, although believers may survive through the fire, there is a sense in which, if you refuse to hold fast to Jesus and become like the world in their rebellion against God, you will share their fate.  Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind, when He said, “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.”

Those who pledge their allegiance to God as their reconciled King are salt, but if they continue to rebel against Him, then they will share the same fate as traitors: death.

The Lord’s phrase about “if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again” carries parallels to several other biblical passages, especially those of the prophets:

“Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves,
you who bear the vessels of the LORD.” (Isaiah 52:11)

“Flee from the midst of Babylon; let everyone save his life!
Be not cut off in her punishment,
for this is the time of the LORD’s vengeance,
the repayment he is rendering her.”  (Jeremiah 51:6)

“Go out of the midst of her, my people!
Let every one save his life
from the fierce anger of the LORD!” (Jeremiah 51:45)

“We are put to shame, for we have heard reproach;
dishonor has covered our face,
for foreigners have come
into the holy places of the LORD’s house.”

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD,
when I will execute judgment upon her images,
and through all her land
the wounded shall groan.” (Jeremiah 51:51-52)

“For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,

And I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18)

“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Revelation 18:4-5)

Essentially, the idea being promoted here is this: once you pledge allegiance to Jesus as God and King, make sure that you continue to obey Him accordingly, walk as He walked, be holy as He is holy, and hold fast to Him, lest you share the same punishment as those who continue to rebel against Him.

Lord Jesus and His apostles Paul and John had sayings that were similar to the above:

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:5-6) Perhaps, when Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves,” he meant, “abide in me that you may bear fruit.”  Therefore in the passage in Mark, Jesus is saying, “believe in me,  hold fast to me, have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another”.

In other words, “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another” is essentially the same as “abide in me and bear fruit.”  The being at peace with one another is a fruit that comes from abiding in Jesus.

The apostle Paul and the unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews had a similar mindset about striving for peace as a fruit of believing in Jesus:

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10)

The apostle John said the following:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2: 15-16)

In this case, “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another” would be to do the will of God, and avoid loving the world as you pursue love of the Father.  Losing your saltiness would be loving the world as you follow it on its course to death and destruction, as it will pass away along with its desires.  But if you keep your saltiness, and do the will of God, you will abide forever.

Conclusion

Thus in bringing to bear on the Lord’s sermon in Mark chapter 9 all of the biblical cross-references that I mentioned, we can make some of the following conclusions:
-beware of those who seek to lead you astray from a pure and undivided devotion to the Lord
-have a merciless attitude against your sin, but remember that it is a spiritual problem that needs a spiritual solution that is found in trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection
-Lord Jesus was speaking in terms of the Mosaic covenant even as He was preparing for the new covenant: even though our relationship to God changes, God’s holiness does not change; perhaps this fact lies behind why Jesus’ and Paul’s prescription for sins of the body appear different even though they both tackle the issue of personal holiness.  Jesus spoke in terms of the Mosaic covenant, while Paul spoke in terms of the new covenant.
-Everyone will face judgment, so prepare yourself accordingly
-Act in a manner worthy of the gospel, enjoy the presence of God, and do not become like the rebellious world which will face judgment, and be at peace with one another.
-Inner sanctification should lead to outward good works.

 

The Role of American Christians in Politics

     Tim Keller wrote an opinion article for the NY Times regarding the role of Christians in politics: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/christians-politics-belief.html

     I agree with him that “Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.”  He gives the examples of early 19th century American churches and the issue of slavery.  To his example, I would add 20th century American churches and the issue of segregation.  Martin Luther King Jr came from a Baptist background and spoke vehemently against racial discrimination.  His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is essentially a message from an overseer imploring his fellow overseers to stop implicitly supporting the status quo by their silence and inaction.

     Lord Jesus commanded His believers to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Naturally, to faithfully follow that command would entail being involved politically to an extent.  Keller provides the examples of working for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation.  I agree with these platforms.

     The main thesis statement that Keller provides is this: “While believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.”

His reasons for this position are the following:
1. To identify the Christian faith with a political party as the only Christian one would give the impression that to accept the Christian faith, you need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the Party; religion would simply be another voting block aiming for power.
2. Most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom.
3. “Package-deal ethics”: political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.

     I generally agree with Keller in the first reason that we should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.  But we do have to point out to observers that Christianity teaches values that will lead us towards one party over another on several different issues.  On issues like abortion, immigration, climate change/environment, healthcare, public schools, gun safety, capitalism/socialism, appropriate police force, minority rights, and the like, the two parties have different perspectives that we should critically examine and peruse.  We will do our best to vote according to our values.  That will naturally mean that we might vote Democrat on one issue while we vote Republican on another issue.

     In other words, Christianity will lead us towards platforms that just happen to be considered liberal and/or conservative according to our modern political definitions.

     I understand how Keller says, “religion would simply be another voting block aiming for power,” since that is how the outside world would see the political dynamic, but I feel the paradigm would be better framed as “religion is working with the power it already has as an American citizen granted by the U.S. Constitution.”

     American Christians are also American citizens, and so we have power granted to us legally by the Constitution, and since that power ultimately comes from God, we should therefore, use that power as responsibly as we can.  In other words, we are using the legal opportunities provided to us to pursue God’s glory and the joy of our neighbors.

     I definitely agree with Keller that Christians could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum with loyalties to different political strategies.

     But the issue exists that even when one side promotes a particular strategy, sometimes the way they go about the strategy and the degree to which they pursue it needs to be considered and rebuked.

     If the United States is a patient, the government is the immune system.  Generally speaking, you want to have a healthy and intact immune system to function well for the health of the patient.  If the immune system is too weak or does not function frequently enough, the patient suffers from opportunistic infections.  If the system is too strong or operates too often, the patient suffers from autoimmune diseases such as lupus.  So on issues like healthcare, economics, or immigration, I personally find the matter to be one of finetuning the system for optimal performance.  The Democratic and Republican parties act essentially like dials.

     On immigration: Republicans would dial up while Democrats want to dial down.
-too strict: we risk being inhospitable
-too lax: we risk endangering our own people from violent criminal aliens.

On gun safety: Democrats want to dial up while Republicans want to keep the status quo or dial down.
-too strict: abuse of power, extreme power imbalance between the government and private citizens
-too lax: endanger public safety from people who should not have guns

On healthcare: Democrats want to dial up while Republicans want to dial down.
-too strict: risk for corruption and incompetence from government employees and their benefactors (think Venezuela)
-too lax: monopolized insurance companies and hospitals that jack up prices at patient expense.

     The conclusion that I’ve come to on issues such as the above, is that we do our best to approximate that happy middle ground between the two extremes, much as I would try to do for a patient with a dysfunctional immune system.  I do my best to consider where we are at as a country on a particular issue and seek to move towards that optimal middle.

     If you were to ask me where I stand on the above issues, I currently feel the Democratic position on issues like immigration and healthcare are too extreme, so I would vote Republican on those issues.  But on an issue like gun safety, I would vote Democrat because I felt the Republican position was too extreme on that end.

     Thus, in the context of American politics, liberal or conservative are not inherently good or evil.  Because of their “package-deal” quality, the platforms on the political spectrum should prompt Christians to practice the art of discernment well, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

     This “package-deal ethics” puts pressure on Christians in politics.  Tim Keller said it well, “Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family.  One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.”

     I’m reminded of how Joshua once asked the commander of the army of the LORD, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”  I love how the commander, who I personally believe to be the preincarnate Lord Jesus, said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD.”  (Joshua 5:13-14)

     It should be expected that Christians and the church will not fit neatly into contemporary political alignments.  God the Son did not fit neatly with Joshua’s army or the Canaanites because both parties had sins, problems, and issues that are held accountable to God’s universal holy standards.  Even when Lord Jesus walked among us in 1st century Palestine, He did not fit in neatly with the prevailing religious political spectrum of the time.  He was neither a liberal Sadducee nor a conservative Pharisee.  Both religious parties had a hand in His crucifixion.

     Keller believes that Christians are pushed toward two options:
-withdraw and try to be apolitical
-assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table.

     I can see how Keller could come to these conclusions, and he states that he does not believe either of these options are acceptable for Christians.  I agree with him that these options are not acceptable.  I would also add to his comment that Christians have a third option.  It’s the “be in the world, not of the world, and remember that we are sent to the world” option.

     As American Christians, we should be involved in the political process, since those are the circumstances we find ourselves in.  We find ourselves in a political position to make great change for our neighbors both inside our country and outside because of the way the Constitution made America a representative constitutional democracy.

     I do not believe Christians have to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table.  The possibility exists that you could choose either party and reform it from within, or you could leave one for the other in an attempt to rebuke the party being left in hopes of reforming it.

     You could also always write to your respective representative senator in hopes of changing their mind on a political issue.  My views on gun safety might be considered Democratic/liberal relative to some of my peers, but I still convinced my Republican Senator to vote my way on the issue.

     So my take-home points are:
-Christians should be involved in politics to faithfully follow Lord Jesus’ commands to “Love your neighbor as yourself”
-Avoiding all political discussions and engagement are essentially supporting the social status quo.
(Now there is a place for waiting for a more opportune time to discuss certain issues of the day, but sometimes some issues take priority because of their urgency)
-The Christian faith should not be solely identified with a single political party, especially since each political party take such different positions on different issues.
-The Christian faith will cause us to pursue platforms that just happen to be labeled liberal or conservative according to modern political definitions.
-We should rebuke “Package-deal ethics” because both Democratic and Republican parties occasionally hold views that need to be examined and rebuked according to God’s universal standards as revealed in the Bible.  Both of them have some redeeming qualities and some sins that need to be rebuked.  Christians will always have a prophetic duty to hold our neighbors and ourselves accountable to the Lord’s universal standards of justice.
-Sometimes the Democratic and Republican positions are dials on certain issues like immigration, gun safety, and healthcare.  I generally seek to find the optimal middle ground and avoid the extreme ends each side tends to make.