“But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell — the unquenchable fire, where Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. And if your foot causes your downfall, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell — the unquenchable fire, where Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and 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 should lose its flavor, how can you make it salty? Have salt among yourselves and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:42-50 HCSB)
In our study last week, Jesus established the fact that not everyone who believes and follows Him is a part of the twelve or His immediate group of disciples. John had told Him that they had encountered a man who was driving out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop him from doing so. Jesus assured John that it was ok and there was no need to interfere. Things aren’t always what they seem. Whoever is not against us is for us. Even those who just give a cup of water to you because you follow Me, they will never lose their reward. So, active discipleship and obedience will be blessed and rewarded.
However, it isn’t enough to just take a passive approach to scripture, the teachings of Jesus and His call to follow Him to the kingdom of God. Jesus calls us to experience the blessings and peace of God and those things are found in faith that is deeply held and radically obeyed. This week, Jesus takes this a step beyond offering a cup of water and addresses those who would oppose Him or disobey God’s Word. I’ve mentioned in previous studies, one of the ways to see the central theme and teaching in a passage is to watch for words or phrases that are repeated. In this passage, we find the words downfall, fire and salt being used over and over. So, pay attention to those words and the themes surrounding them.
What Jesus is teaching us in this passage goes back to the issue of the disciples’ argument about which of them was the greatest and is Jesus’ way of strongly condemning the disciples’ attitude and behavior on this subject. It is important to note, THIS isn’t a condemnation of the actions or beliefs of the lost or of the self-righteous Pharisees. This is directed at the disciples and their own attitudes, actions and values. Jesus is calling them (and us) to self examination and into a radical change in what we believe, how we think and how we follow and obey God. This is about avoiding condemnation and eternal judgment by God.
Jesus begins this passage of stinging rebuke with a very, very strong warning: “whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone (a large milling stone pulled by a donkey) were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Now, the first question that jumps out at us is just who are these little ones that believe in Him? I mean, with this dire warning I certainly want to make sure that I don’t cause their downfall. That’s an ominous warning. You’d be better off to have a huge stone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to cause their downfall.
“Little ones” is a phrase that harkens back to the little child He had taken and placed in their midst. Is He specifically talking about causing a young child to lose, abandon or reject faith in Christ and a place in the kingdom of God? When we examined that passage a few weeks ago, I mentioned that Jesus used the example of a child as an illustration of the “least” among them or anyone who had little or no social value. Then John immediately told Him that they had rejected someone who was driving out demons in Jesus name and Jesus told them, “don’t stop him.” So, are these little ones who believe in Him like the child or like the “outsider” or “rogue” disciple? It could refer to either. I think it refers to both. The phrase “little ones” are those considered below you, socially inferior, those you despise, belittle or hold in contempt. In other words, they aren’t worth your effort or energy.
The word “downfall” means simply to cause someone to stumble, be tripped up, to fall down or away, to reject or to walk away from. In other words, to cause their downfall is to cause them to reject or walk away from faith in Christ. There is nothing more telling about Christians than the way we use power, position and authority. There’s also nothing more damaging to the reputation of Christ and the glory of God than someone who abuses power and position in His name. Scripture is filled with strong condemnation of those who use and abuse their power, position and influence for personal gain. Remember, this lesson He’s teaching the disciples is feeding out of the argument they had amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest follower of Jesus. Their argument was about power, position and authority and He is telling them that the greatest among you is the one who is willing to step down and be a servant, especially to those who are considered socially inferior or despised by everyone else.
There’s nothing more personally condemning than to use your position, influence, wealth and power wrongly, for personal benefit and selfish honor. However, there’s nothing more liberating and empowering than to be like Jesus, a humble, obedient, self-sacrificing servant of God.
Jesus then says to those who would use their position, power or influence in this way that to take drastic measures. Yes, Jesus is using hyperbole in these statements but you can tell from His words that He doesn’t take this issue lightly but considers it an egregious use of one’s position or power. He specifically references that someone’s hand, foot or eye could lead to their downfall. Obviously, He’s not referencing those physical body parts directly but is using them to illustrate how we might stumble. The hand would seem to reference things you might do, actions you might take or power you may possess. The foot would seem to reference places you might go or things you might pursue. Finally, the eye seems to reference things you might see, desire or value.
So, if the things you do, the power or authority you wield, the places you go, the things you pursue or the things you seek, desire and value cause your downfall then you should take drastic measures to cut those things out of your life. At the heart of this admonition is the simple but indisputable principle in the kingdom of God, sin drives us away from and puts us at odds with God and His will for our lives. In this instance, Jesus is specifically referencing the pride, arrogance and desire for power and authority as demonstrated by the disciples’ argument regarding which of them was greatest. You are better off without these things than to miss God’s mercy, reject His grace and fall subject to His judgment and condemnation.
Put simply, Hell is a real place and judgment for rejecting God is eternal.
One of the common arguments given today regarding a Biblical view of God’s judgment is that a loving God would never condemn someone to eternal punishment for a single, inconsequential sin – like a lie. But scripture is clear on the fact that nobody is EVER guilty of a single and inconsequential sin. Sin is endemic to our existence as humans. It is pervasive in our thoughts, intents, desires and our actions. The condemnation of sin in our lives is never about a single, inconsequential act because sin is never inconsequential.
You see, sin is indicative of our deep seated desire to be captain of our own ship, determiner of our own destiny, king of our own kingdom and god over our own existence. For most men, God has overstepped His bounds when He condemns our actions or seeks to exercise authority over our lives. This IS our world, our life and these are our life choices. While those things are true, you can’t have authority over your life and life choices without also accepting responsibility for those choices. So, God gave us freewill and the ability to act and choose independent of Him but He also made use responsible for those actions and choices.
So, back to that question of God condemning a man for all eternity for a single, inconsequential act or choice. Could He? Would He? From a purely theological or academic perspective, yes He has every right to do so. But let me be very clear, that is a straw man argument. There is no such person. Most Christians believe that God has mercy on those too young or incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions or choices. But, that doesn’t include you and me and it certainly doesn’t apply to our question. I’m talking about you and me. Our responsibility for our lives and our culpability in how that impacts and influences others. Once we reach the point where we understand responsibility for our own actions and choices and our culpability in the actions and choices of others then we stand “guilty as charged” before a holy God.
Oh, did you miss that part about culpability? Perhaps you should reread our focal passage, again. “Whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me” he will be held responsible. Responsible for what his hand does, for what his feet pursue and for what his eyes desire and treasure.
But God doesn’t leave us unprepared for knowing His will and responding in accordance to His desires for us. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt and fire are interesting elements. Both are purifying but have the potential of being destructive, as well. Salt is a natural preserving agent because it kills bacteria and fire is used to purify metals and burn away dross and stubble. The real question is whether we respond to being salted with fire by God. Salt has long been used for its purifying qualities to preserve food and to help wounds heal. In fact, as I write these words I am fighting an upper respiratory infection and sore throat and have been gargling with salt water because it will help fight any infection in my throat. I believe in salt’s ability to kill the harmful bacteria in my throat and help it heal. Do you believe that God’s work of salting your life with fire can achieve the same goal in your heart, soul, mind and body?
“For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work.” (1 Corinthians 3:11-13 HCSB)
On that day of judgment, the fire of God’s Spirit will sweep through our lives and will purge, purify and burn all of that with which we’ve used to build our lives. Those things that can withstand that purifying fire of His Spirit will remain and everything else will be burned away and destroyed. Everyone will be salted with fire. EVERYONE. How will you respond to God’s work in your life? Will you submit to the purifying and refining process that He desires to undertake in you or will you reject His work and turn away from His mercy and gift of forgiveness and grace through Jesus?
While the choice is yours, so are the consequences of that choice. Choose wisely.
Finally, Jesus tells us that salt is good as long as it remains salty. Once it loses its saltiness it can’t be made salty, again. From a purely scientific perspective, that’s accurate. For salt to lose its saltiness it would have to be altered in such a way that it was no longer sodium chloride. I don’t want to impose an understanding on this passage that Jesus didn’t intend, so I’m going to let it stand as He states it: “…if salt should lose its flavor, how can you make it salty?” The answer is, you can’t! It’s impossible. You simply can’t restore what has been lost, at that level.
Then He says, “Have salt among yourselves and be at peace with one another.” We need to live in relation to God, His Son and His Spirit in such a way that we are refined and purified by this being “salted with fire.” Everyone of us faces challenges and difficulties in our lives, so the question is not WHETHER we will face them but how we will RESPOND to them.
“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4 HCSB)
So, we need to let the salt of God’s purifying Spirit work in us and among us to bring us into a mature faith that results in peace with one another. Such a work of God’s Spirit will directly address those feelings of superiority in ourselves and our attitude of inferiority towards others. In other words, it will directly address the issue that caused the argument between the disciples. God’s Spirit will be at work within us to achieve His purpose – salting us with fire, to make us into the image of His Son (see Rom. 8:18-30).
Imagine that, followers of Jesus living at peace with one another. In some ways, it seems like an impossible dream. Doesn’t it? But Jesus says that if we are willing to be purified and refined by God’s Spirit then we can achieve and experience this incredible peace of God’s presence among ourselves. As we lean into that purification process and spiritual maturity begins to have its effect, we would never want to be guilty of the downfall of one of these little ones. In fact, the thought of such would abhor us. Does that thought abhor you? I pray it does. If it does not, then you’ve either lost your saltiness or never had it. Let’s assume you never had it, because it’s impossible to restore it. If you’ve never had it, you can be changed by Jesus and made salty.
Admit your sin and need for God’s mercy and forgiveness: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 HCSB)
And: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 HCSB)
Believe in Him and what He’s done on your behalf and confess Him as Lord: “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.” (Romans 10:9-10 HCSB)
Then commit to following Him and growing in obedience:
“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10 HCSB)
Drop me a note and let me know how you’re doing in your walk with Jesus. I’ll be praying for you…
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