The other day I was speaking with a friend of mine who happens to be a new Christian. This middle-aged man has a powerful testimony: God has rescued him from a life of worldly pursuits, drugs, alcohol, addictions, broken relationships—you name it. As we spoke of the great things God was doing in His life, he said something absolutely profound and fundamentally biblical. I’ll paraphrase him here:
“As I pray and read my Bible everyday, I almost feel as though I’m having to unlearn my former way of life. I’m beginning to rethink everything and to look at things from the Bible’s perspective.”
Praise God for such alertness and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. Paul writes in Romans chapter twelve about a “renewing of the mind”—thinking not only the things of God, but thinking about things the way God thinks about them; embracing God’s perspective. Today, we are going to examine our perspective on things. We are going to discover if you and I have the need to rethink things and begin to look at them from the Bible’s perspective. This lesson will prove irritating for some of you, because the Gospel of Mark is going to teach us things that are quite contrary to the way we have been taught. Our culture teaches us that our interests are the most important, but this lesson is about dismissing our own interests in favor of others. Our culture teaches us that we deserve—indeed are entitled to—the best, but this lesson is about choosing to be last so that others can win. Our culture teaches us that “if we believe it we can achieve it” (or “where there’s a will there’s a way” or “we can do anything we set our mind to”), but this lesson is about depending on others in acknowledgment that we are unable to do it alone.
En route to correcting his disciples’ (and our) perspectives, Jesus will also articulate his second of three Passion Predictions.73 We’ll encounter the third and last one in the next lesson. In today’s lesson, Jesus challenges His disciples to adjust their perspective in three areas.
9:30 They went out from there and passed through Galilee. But Jesus did not want anyone to know, 9:31 for he was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 9:32 But they did not understand this statement and were afraid to ask him.75
9:33 Then they came to Capernaum. When Jesus was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 9:34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 9:35 After he sat down, he called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 9:36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 9:37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
After the second prediction, the disciples discussed which among them was the greatest. In other words, they still didn’t get it! How dense they seem. Jesus is spelling out for them His own future suffering and impending death, and they are preoccupied with comparing themselves with one another in an attempt to discover which is the greatest, the most important, the most significant.
Twice in this lesson, Jesus uses children to teach lessons. The Greek word παιδίον (used in Mark 9:36-37; 10:13-15) often refers to very young children, but can mean children of any age up to early teens, and without regard to parental relationship. In the first century, children were especially regarded as insignificant. They had no power and no status, and were not considered full persons. Thus to embrace a child publicly was to embrace that which was insignificant. Jesus was choosing insignificance by association. In contrast to the discussion the disciples shared about being the greatest, Jesus characterizes “kingdom greatness” by showing them a helpless, self-denying child. Children recognized their own insignificance. Only someone with a true servant’s heart—voluntarily taking last place—could receive an insignificant child. Following Christ and denying ourselves involves becoming insignificant because of the Kingdom of God.
I have a friend in full-time ministry named Thomas. He is an influential ministry leader, speaker, writer, etc. He had a marked impact on my life and still does as he heads up a ministry he has been a part of for twenty years now. When you think of Thomas you usually think of a man of integrity, discipline, perseverance, consistency, and family. He works hard in ministry and is actively involved in others’ lives. He arrives home each evening to spend time with his children and wife after being away since dawn. When I lived closer to Thomas a number of years ago, his evening routine included something else during the long winter months in Kentucky. He would disappear into his bedroom, and his family all understood why. He would change out of his business casual attire and replace them with coveralls, a hat, and gloves. Then he would walk out the back door, down the alley behind his house, to a house a few hundred yards away. It was the home of Mr. Idsen. Mr. Idsen was an impoverished, physically handicapped, elderly man. While Thomas lived in an average middle-income family home, Mr. Idsen lived in a drafty shack that could hardly be described as a home. There was no electricity, the dirty wooden floors were uneven, and the cracks in the windows and siding permitted the wintry breezes to blow through virtually unrestrained. Each cold winter night Thomas would suit up and journey down to visit briefly with Mr. Idsen. He would find him predictably laying on his twin-sized bed next to the wood-burning stove in the center room of the house. He would ask about the events of the day and inquire about his needs. Then Thomas the ministry leader would step outside to chop firewood for Mr. Idsen. He would carry two or three armloads inside the drafty house—enough to guarantee Mr. Idsen’s warmth through the night and the next day. After stoking the fire and reminding Mr. Idsen that the wood is there by the stove if he gets chilly in the middle of the night, Thomas would again head home. Not many people knew the service Thomas rendered to Mr. Idsen. It was a ministry of insignificance.76
What is your ministry of insignificance? Are you fearful for your reputation or your status. Remember, even Jesus, for the joy set before Him, became insignificant and endured the cross for you and me. That’s what a disciple of Jesus will do. He chooses insignificance over recognition.
9:38 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.” 9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me. 9:40 For whoever is not against us is for us.77 9:41 For I tell you the truth, whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s78 name will never lose his reward.
9:42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone79 tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea. 9:43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell, to the unquenchable fire.80 9:45 If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 9:47 If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 9:48 where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. 9:49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 9:50 Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
10:1 Then Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan River. Again crowds gathered to him, and as was his custom, he again taught them. 10:2 Then some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 10:3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 10:4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 10:5 But Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts. 10:6 But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female. 10:7 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, 10:8 and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 10:9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10:10 In the house once again, the disciples asked him about this. 10:11 So he told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 10:12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”81
Notice that John describes the person as not following “us.” Clearly, he has selfish motives in this text. We learned about denying ourselves in the previous lesson and redirecting our allegiance onto Christ; this week we learn to deny ourselves in consideration of others. The main message of this passage is self-denial or sacrifice over selfishness and self-allegiance. The kingdom of God belongs to those who sacrifice.
I’m going to zero in on Jesus’ illustration. I believe that the reason Jesus teaches against divorce in this context is to portray divorce as a purely selfish act. He begins by correcting John’s selfishness and affirming any who sacrifice for the name of Christ (9:39-41). He transitions to talk about selfless living around others so as to prevent them from stumbling and one’s willingness to sacrifice life and limb for the Kingdom (9:42-48). Salt, Jesus says, at times represents judgment upon people (9:49). But the salt of selflessness and sacrifice is the secret to “peace with each other” (9:50). The very next line begins the pericope on divorce. No one in antiquity spoke out against divorce more strongly than Jesus does here.
Several weeks ago I visited another church with some friends to celebrate the dedication of their child. Much can be learned about a church just from its bulletin. But as I read over their bulletin, I was troubled by something I didn’t see. My attention was first drawn to a large ad promoting their popular “Divorce Care” class. I reflected on how wonderful of a ministry that was to those who are hurting. But something was missing. I next noticed their ad for a class on how to succeed as a step family. “Of course,” I thought. Becoming a step family has got to be one of the most difficult things in life to do. But something was still missing.
Then it hit me. There were no classes being offered on strengthening your marriage or marriage success or marriage rescue. Balance was sorely absent. There was lots of emphasis on recovery after the fact but no emphasis on rescue before the fact! How different that is from Scripture’s treatment of the subject. Of course the Bible teaches grace and to care for those hurting and broken. But the emphasis in Scripture is on obedience in the first place.
I’ve been married for eight years—not decades, but we’re not newlyweds either. I also have two children. I’ve been married long enough to experience the good times and the bad. It is commonly known that the divorce rate among Christians is virtually identical to the divorce rate among the unsaved. Furthermore, the average marriage today in the U.S. lasts 7.2 years. California leads all states in divorces annually, followed closely by Texas. Finally, eighty percent (80%) of all divorces claim “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for the divorce.
Irreconcilable differences has been described thus:
“The most common ground for dissolving a marriage is dissolution of matrimony based on irreconcilable differences which have caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage. The irreconcilable differences ground is broad for a reason. It is intended to represent the actual reasons underlying marital breakdowns, simply stated, it is a “no fault” basis for terminating a marriage. Once the court finds that irreconcilable differences have indeed caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage, the court must grant the requested dissolution of marriage.”82
At least six times I have sat across from a couple who told me they were constantly fighting and that divorce would be the best thing for them.83 Other times couples have informed me that they were divorced because it was the best thing for their kids. I may offend some when I abjectly disagree with that proposition. Divorce is never the answer when a couple fights too much. And divorce is never the best thing for your children. Taking that step is giving a geographical solution to a heart problem—it just doesn’t work. You know what would be best for your kids? Stop fighting! Divorce is never “better for the kids.”
Finally, the Bible makes it clear that divorce is always the result of sin. Did you catch that? Perhaps that statement needs to sink in a little for some of you, as you may have never heard such a bold statement pertaining to divorce. I’ll say it again; Divorce is always the result of sin. Whether adultery, neglect, selfishness, or any number of other sins. If this is true, then why does the divorce rate among believers remain so high? Perhaps it’s because we refuse to listen to God’s Word and acknowledge the firm stance it takes on the issue. If the reason you wish to get divorced is not permitted in Scripture, then it is not permitted. Now, before you sit down to write that angry letter to me, please remember two important things: 1) I am not the one who is strict about marriage—Jesus is. I’m simply in agreement with Him. 2) If you plan to defend your right to a divorce, you’d better be able to defend yourself from Scripture, because I’m going to ask you for a chapter and verse from the Word of God that justifies your decision.84 A disciple of Jesus Christ chooses sacrifice over selfishness, even (especially?) within the family.
10:13 Now people were bringing little children to him for him to touch, but the disciples scolded them. 10:14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 10:15 I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” 10:16 After he took the children in his arms, he placed his hands on them and blessed them.
10:17 Now as Jesus was starting out on his way, a man ran up to him, fell on his knees, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 10:19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 10:20 The man said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things since my youth.” 10:21 As Jesus looked at him, he felt love for him and said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 10:22 But at this statement, the man looked sad and went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.
10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 10:24 The disciples were astonished at these words. But again Jesus said to them, “Children,85 how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 10:26 They were even more astonished and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 10:27 Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for man, but not for God; everything is possible for God.”
10:28 Peter began to speak to him, “Look, we have left everything to follow you!” 10:29 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, there is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel 10:30 who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much—homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, all with persecutions86—and in the age to come, eternal life. 10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
The characteristic that Jesus wants the disciples—and us—to learn from these children is that of dependence. In a culture where 6 of 10 children died before the age of 16,87 Jesus communicates His love for the helpless and dependent. The issue is one of dependence over self-reliance. Children must depend upon others. In contrast to these dependent children, the rich man was relying solely on himself (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”). The kingdom of God belongs to those who depend on God rather than the self-reliant.
I spent three years as a school teacher. As a teacher, I was often asked my position on the modern teaching theory that instructs children that they have the potential to do anything. Rather than damage a child’s fragile self-esteem, the theory says, we should assign the highest grades to each child while whispering in their ear that they’ve earned it. A teacher should only be affirming, never negative. “If you believe it, you can achieve it!” is the rallying cry for today’s youth. “Where there’s a will there’s a way!” “You can do anything you set our mind to!”
As a teacher, I cannot subscribe to such a theory. As a reasonable human, I realize how hopelessly flawed and unrealistic such teaching really is. Reality proves that such statements are absurd. No child has such potential, and each child has his or her own unique potential. To falsely convince a child of his limitless potential in order to save his self-esteem today is to set him up for failure and damage his self-esteem tomorrow—because inevitably he will fail. And when he fails, who does he have to blame but himself? He did, after all, have all the potential to succeed.
Moreover, such a theory fails students in another crucial area—teaching them their limitations. Children today can do amazing things and they have enormous (albeit not unlimited) potential. We must teach them that. But we must also teach them their limitations and what cannot be done. The word “can’t” seldom comes up anymore, because we want folks to believe so they can achieve. But when appropriate, the word “can’t” is a great teaching tool, for it shows limitation. It balances what they are able to do with what they are unable to do. And it discourages isolationistic Lone Rangers while creating a need for healthy dependence—upon others and upon God. You and I must depend on God because we “can’t”—in God’s ears it is one of the most beautiful words, as it communicates dependence on Him. Thus we are perfectly positioned for His miraculous hand to work. Have you told God lately that you can’t do it? With people it is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.
We conclude each lesson with one verse from the passage we’ve studied. We refer to it as a “meditation verse” to leave a broad range of uses: meditate, reflect, memorize, reread, etc. Our meditation verse for this lesson is Mark 9:35:
After he sat down, he called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
73 Jesus predicts His own suffering and crucifixion in three famous passages in Mark (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). These fortellings are labeled “Passion Predictions.”
74 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are taken from The NET Bible.
75 Hmm. If you had been rebuked as harshly as Peter was after misunderstanding the first Passion Prediction, wouldn’t you think twice about asking Jesus about subsequent ones?
76 Mr. Idsen went home to be with the Lord a few years ago.
77 Even Cicero, a 1st century b.c. author, quoted this proverb, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
78 There it is: Jesus uses the designation “Christ” of himself—extremely rare in the Synoptics.
79 Literally in Greek, a “donkey’s millstone”: This millstone is a very large type weighing several hundred (perhaps thousands) pounds and turned by a donkey.
80 Mark 9:44 and 9:46 are missing from many of your Bibles for good reason. Simply put, the earliest and best manuscripts omit the verses, and there are better reasons to believe that a well-meaning scribe inserted the verses deliberately than that he omitted them unintentionally.
81 According to Jewish tradition, a woman could not divorce a man. According to Roman law, she could.
82 Quotation taken from the website of Kraffert and Shaffer, attorneys at law (www.kraffertschaffer.com).
83 For the record, none of these couples are affiliated in any way with Trinity Bible Church.
84 Some have broadened the boundaries on what are biblically-permissible grounds for divorce to include things the Bible simply does not address. My position is that if the Bible does not permit you a divorce, then you are not permitted a divorce. Thus, if you are being physically abused (for example), I counsel you to seek safety, perhaps even seek separation. But divorce is not an option for you.
85 The Greek word τέκνον (used in Mark 10:24, 29-30) usually denotes offspring—children of any age who belong to someone. Thus the phrase in Scripture, “children of God,” usually employs τέκνον. [Mark 10:24 is the only place in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus calls the disciples “children” (τέκνον; see also John 13:33)]. Why does He do so? He’s telling them to depend on God like children.
86 This section is perhaps best understood as a principle, not a promise. Don’t claim it as a promise. Rather, living this way will often lead to such generosity (and persecution) in return.
87 Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, pg. 264.