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.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” – Mark 9:38-41 ESV
Jesus has just finished addressing the disciples’ predilection for power and prominence, yet they seem to have missed the point. Their internal squabble over who was the greatest among them led Jesus to declare, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV). In His Kingdom, greatness was not measured by the significance of one’s role but the humility of the heart. Jesus, as the Son of God, was the second member of the trinity, yet “though he was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7 ESV). And, as Jesus later told His disciples, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 28:20 ESV).
But as Jesus wrapped up his object lesson on leadership in the Kingdom, the disciples once again displayed their inability to grasp the vital lesson He was trying to teach them. This time, it was John who spoke up and not the ever-impulsive and quick-tongued Peter. And the topic John chose to raise at this particular moment in time reveals that he and his companions had failed to understand what Jesus was telling them.
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – Mark 9:38 ESV
There’s an air of exclusivity and arrogance in John’s words. He was irritated that someone outside of their circle was performing miracles in the name of Jesus. In fact, this imposter was casting out demons. And from John’s point of view, this was unacceptable because Jesus had only given that kind of power and authority to His 12 disciples (Mark 3:15).
And it is important to recall that all this talk about greatness in the Kingdom had begun immediately after the disciples had failed to cast a demon out of a young boy. The boy’s father had come seeking the help of Jesus, but when He discovered that Jesus was not there, he had turned to the B-Team.
“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” – Mark 9:17-18 ESV
The disciples had failed. Despite the power and authority that was given to them by Jesus, they had not been able to cast out the demon. But that little setback hadn’t stopped them from arguing over who was greatest among them.
And John shares with Jesus their concern about outside competition. Whoever this individual was, he was operating without a license. From John’s perspective, this exorcist was infringing on their trademark rights. He had no business performing signs that were meant to be the purview of the disciples alone.
Mark does not give us the name of the individual who was casting out demons on an “unofficial” basis. And, in leaving out the man’s identity, it is almost as if Mark places him in the same category as the young child whom Jesus held in His arms. The unknown man was one of the least. In casting out demons in Jesus’ name, he was doing the will of the Father and yet, not for personal gain or glory.
And Jesus gently rebuked John and the others for their prideful attempt to stop the man from casting out demons.
“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” – Mark 9:39-40 ESV
In a sense, Jesus was telling the disciples that they were all on the same team. This man was doing good and he was doing it in the name of Jesus. He was not in it for fame or personal gain. And by casting out demons, he was demonstrating the power inherent in the name of Jesus. He was displaying the superiority of the Son of God.
This entire scene is reminiscent of another encounter that is recorded in the book of Acts. Philip had traveled to the city of Samaria in order to preach the Good News concerning Jesus. While there, Philip also performed many signs and wonders.
Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. – Acts 8:7-8 NLT
But in the city, there was a well-known and revered magician who saw the actions of Philip as unwanted competition.
A man named Simon had been a sorcerer there for many years, amazing the people of Samaria and claiming to be someone great. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, often spoke of him as “the Great One—the Power of God.” They listened closely to him because for a long time he had astounded them with his magic. – Acts 8:9-11 NLT
Simon began to follow Philip, watching his every move, most likely in an attempt to learn and steal the secrets of his power. But in time, Simon came to faith in Jesus.
Simon himself believed and was baptized. He began following Philip wherever he went, and he was amazed by the signs and great miracles Philip performed. – Acts 8:13 NLT
And when Simon observed Philip and the other apostles laying their hands on people so that they might receive the Holy Spirit, he wanted in on the action.
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given when the apostles laid their hands on people, he offered them money to buy this power. “Let me have this power, too,” he exclaimed, “so that when I lay my hands on people, they will receive the Holy Spirit!” – Acts 8:18-19 NLT
But Philip, aware of the motivation behind Simon’s offer, rebuked him.
“May your money be destroyed with you for thinking God’s gift can be bought! 21 You can have no part in this, for your heart is not right with God. Repent of your wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive your evil thoughts, for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin.” – Acts 8:20-23 NLT
Simon, who at one time had been called “the Great One – the Power of God,” was anxious to regain some of his lost prestige and he was willing to pay for it. He was jealous of the apostles’ power and longed to be restored to the position of prominence he had once enjoyed.
This does not seem to be the case with the man who was casting out demons. He remains anonymous and unknown throughout Mark’s account. And Jesus holds up his actions as being positive, not negative. The ones who were displaying jealousy and an unhealthy dose of envy were the 12 disciples.
They viewed this man as their competition. But Jesus insists that he is on their side. He was actually doing what they had failed to do, and he was doing it for the glory of Jesus. And Jesus points out that this man’s actions were actually a form of kindness aimed at the disciples themselves.
“If anyone gives you even a cup of water because you belong to the Messiah, I tell you the truth, that person will surely be rewarded.” – Mark 9:41 NLT
Jesus compares the casting out of a demon to the sharing of a cup of water. One act was spectacular and supernatural, while the other was simple and seemingly unimportant. But each was an act of service. When done in humility and with a servant’s heart, the action brings glory to God and a reward to the servant. But when pride and prominence become the motivation behind what we do, we exhibit the heart of Simon the magician. And Jesus provides a stern warning to all those who would do great works in the name of Jesus but for self-glorification.
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’” – Matthew 7:21-23 NLT
The disciples were struggling with a need to be recognized as great. They were obsessed with the desire for significance. And they resented anyone robbing them of potential glory. But Jesus was trying to get them to understand that their true calling was to mirror His own. They were servants who would be called to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Kingdom. And Jesus would later tell the disciples a parable to illustrate the life of service and sacrifice that is to mark the life of a Christ-follower.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:34-40 NLT
Slowly, but steadily, the disciples were learning the invaluable lesson of true greatness. As Paul described it to the believers in Philippi, true greatness is best seen in the life of Jesus, and we are to follow His example.
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. –Philippians 2:3-5 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.