Take Sin Seriously

42 “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. 43 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. 45 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. 47 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, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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 ESV

John had chosen to ignore the young boy Jesus was holding in His arms and, instead, had attempted to change the subject of conversation. He had wanted to divert attention away from Jesus’ object lesson on leadership and raise the issue of an unexpected and uninvited competitor, who was casting out demons without permission. This entire conversation had begun with an argument among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. And Jesus had picked up the little boy to use him as an object lesson for His ego-driven disciples.

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3-4 ESV

Now, after John’s attempted diversion, Jesus refocuses their attention back on the boy. Jesus expected His followers to reflect the humility of a helpless and powerless child. Their lives were to be marked by innocence and trustworthiness. They were to exhibit a child-like faith, a willingness to be led and cared for by others. But at the same time, the disciples were to understand their role as caretakers. They were going to be given the sobering responsibility of caring for the sheep of God. So, Jesus provides them with a stern warning.

“But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.” – Mark 9:42 NLT

What the disciples failed to understand was that their role as leaders came with serious responsibilities. They coveted the authority and notoriety that came with a position of prominence but were oblivious to the risk involved. Little did they know that their quest for power could have a devastating impact on those under their care. Years later, the apostle Paul would later warn the believers in Philippi:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. – Philippians 2:3 ESV

And Paul would give an even more stark warning to the believers in Rome.

…but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. – Romans 2:8 ESV

The believers in Galatia would receive a similar word from Paul.

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:26 ESV

And Jesus warned His disciples that an agonizing death would be preferable to a life of leading the innocent astray. God would hold His shepherds accountable for the care and feeding of His sheep. The disciples, driven by envy and jealousy, were upset that some unknown individual was stealing their thunder by casting out demons in the name of Jesus. But Jesus viewed him as an ally. What faith it must have taken for this man to perform miracles in Jesus’ name? He had not been chosen or trained by Jesus. He had not received any kind of commission from Jesus. But He was faithfully following the example of Jesus and setting free all those who were being held captive by the power of Satan.

But the disciples had tried to prevent this man from doing the very thing Jesus had commissioned them to do. And Jesus wants them to know that their jealousy-induced actions could have easily led this man into sin. He could have taken their words as a rebuke from Jesus Himself and chosen to stop following Him. What he needed was encouragement and a willingness on the part of the disciples to guide and instruct him.

And to make sure His disciples don’t miss the seriousness of what He is trying to tell them, Jesus provides them with some shocking illustrations involving self-mutilation. This little section was meant to get their attention. He wanted them to recognize the danger of indwelling sin and the deadly consequences it could have. Their jealousy could have caused this man to stumble. Their greed for greatness could easily create division among them and hamper their future mission. Personal sin had a way of infecting others. So, Jesus provided them with three graphic illustrations designed to encourage the self-purging of sin.

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands.  If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell…” – Mark 9:43-47 NLT

Hand. Foot. Eye. Jesus chose three body parts that were essential to living a normal life. The loss of any one of them could greatly diminish the capacity to perform the everyday functions of life. To lose a hand, a foot, or an eye would render someone lame and partially blind, and reduce them to the lowly role of a beggar. Just consider the miracles Jesus has performed. He healed the man with the withered hand. He restored the ability to walk to a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. He gave sight to a man who was born blind.

And yet, Jesus was telling His disciples that it would be better to lose a body part if doing so could prevent further sin. This hyperbolic language by Jesus was meant to shock and to drive home to His disciples the devastating nature of sin. Of course, it is not one’s hands, feet, or eyes that cause him to sin. It is his heart. This is exactly what Jesus had taught the disciples earlier.

“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” – Mark 7:20-23 NLT

But Jesus is using these extreme illustrations of physical dismemberment to make sure His disciples get the point. They were not to tolerate sin in their lives and were expected to take whatever measures necessary to eradicate its influence. Because it was deadly. And three different times, Jesus refers to the ultimate destination of all those who allow sin to control their lives.

the unquenchable fires of hell… – vs 44 (NLT)

thrown into hell – vs 46 (NLT)

thrown into hell – vs 47 (NLT)

And then, Jesus provides a graphic depiction of this final abode of the wicked.

where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out – vs 48 (NLT)

The Greek word that is translated as “hell” is gehenna, and it is the transliteration of the Hebrew word, hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom was just south of Jerusalem and it had a sordid reputation. Jeremiah records that the apostate people of Israel had used this valley as a sacred location where they worshiped their false gods.

They have also built places of worship in a place called Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom so that they can sacrifice their sons and daughters by fire. – Jeremiah 7:31 NLT

In Jesus’ day, the valley had been relegated as a landfill where all the refuse from the city was dumped. It was said that the fires never stopped burning in gehenna. The stench was horrific and the maggots were ever-present. It became the visual representation of the place of eternal punishment. The average Jew avoided gehenna at all costs. And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that hell was real and far more repulsive than a human landfill. And a life of sin would render someone fit for the fires of hell.

Jesus was not teaching His disciples that they could lose their salvation. He was warning them to consider the seriousness of sin. There was no place for sin in the heart of a Christ-follower, because sin leads to death and Jesus had come to set them free from sin and death. As His disciples, John and the others were to develop a growing distaste for sin. And much later, long after Jesus had died and resurrected, John would write to Christians, providing them with a warning about allowing sin to influence their lives.

For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. – 1 John 2:16 NLT

Notice the role the hands, the feet, and the eyes play in our pursuit of pleasure, achievement, and possessions. It begins with our eyes. With them, we lust and covet. We see things we desire and then begin to long for them. That’s where our feet come in. We pursue these things, chasing after them in a sad attempt to fulfill our heart’s desire. Then we use our hands to take hold of them. We make them our own. But in doing so, we replace the will of the Father with the desires of the heart. We make worldliness our goal, rather than godliness.

The last few sentences of Jesus’ teaching are difficult to understand. He moves from discussing amputation and disfigurement to talking about saltiness.

“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 9:49-50 ESV

It seems that Jesus had shifted from talking about the unquenchable fires of hell to a different kind of fire that is present in this life. Rather than a fire of everlasting punishment for sin, it is a purifying kind of fire. He compares it to salt, which was used as a natural preservative in that day. Jesus describes a kind of purging, purifying fire that is meant to expose and remove the dross of sin in our lives. It is to be cut out and eliminated. This process is to be expected and appreciated by the Christ-follower. Jesus even encourages His disciples to “have salt in yourselves.”

They were to welcome the preserving and purifying nature of God’s work in their lives. Peter would later refer to the “fiery trials” that every believer would encounter during their time on this earth.

Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. – 1 Peter 4:12-13 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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson