“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.