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

The Lowly Life of a Leader

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.

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

A Lesson in Least-ness

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Mark 9:30-37 ESV

For a brief period of time, Jesus tried to maintain some sense of secrecy concerning His whereabouts so that He might spend more time instructing His disciples. This would not have been easy because Jesus attracted large crowds wherever He went. But Jesus did what He could to remain incognito as He passed through the region of Galilee. It was essential that He prepare His disciples for what was to come, and the information He was going to share with them was for their ears only. It was not intended for mass distribution.

These men, who had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, needed to come to grips with the reality of His earthly mission. Jesus was fully aware that they had drawn wrong conclusions about His role as the Messiah and were still expecting Him to set up His earthly Kingdom. To them, all the miracles and messages were simply the opening acts of what was supposed to be the main event: Jesus establishing Himself as the next king of Israel. And because they were His faithful followers, they believed they were destined to play significant roles in His royal administration.

So, for the second time, Jesus attempted to realign their expectations by revealing the facts concerning His coming death in Jerusalem. The first time Jesus had broached this uncomfortable subject, it had earned Him a stern rebuke from Peter. This outspoken and overly impulsive member of Jesus’ inner circle had found the news disconcerting and unacceptable and had told Jesus so. And a closer look at what Jesus told them makes Peter’s reaction somewhat understandable.

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and after three days rise again. – Mark 8:31 NLT

For Peter and his companions, this information seemed outside the realm of possibility. If Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah for whom they had long been waiting, how could His life end in death? What possible good could come from a dead Messiah? How was He supposed to rescue His people from their enslavement to Rome if He was dead?

Jesus had spoken plainly and quite bluntly. He had not sugarcoated the news or presented it in terms the disciples might find more palatable. But at the same time, He did not provide much in the way of further explanation. Yes, He mentioned His resurrection, but in such a cursory way that the disciples failed to grasp what He was talking about.

So, Jesus revisits the topic one more time. Bit it’s important to recall the event that is sandwiched in between these two disclosures. The transfiguration of Jesus was intended to give the three disciples who witnessed it a glimpse into the future. They were given the privilege of seeing Jesus in His glorified state, discussing His coming departure from this earth with Elijah and Moses.

That remarkable experience must have sealed the deal for Peter, James, and John. The vision of Jesus in His glory, the presence of the two prophets of Israel, and the audible voice of God declaring Jesus to be His Son, all provided incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was the Messiah.  And yet, as they came down the mountain, they could only think about one thing: What Jesus had meant by “rising from the dead” (Mark 9:10).

It’s likely that the transfiguration had only made Jesus’ comments about His death and rising again all the more confusing to the disciples. They were having a difficult time reconciling what they had seen on the mountain top with what Jesus had described as His future fate. And Jesus, fully aware of their lingering inability to process His words, simply repeated them.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” – Mark 9:31 ESV

And Mark indicates that they remained just as confused as before.

…they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. – Mark 9:32 ESV

These men weren’t afraid to ask Jesus questions. They did so all the time. But they were afraid of knowing the truth, so they kept their mouths shut. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Little did they know that they were on their way to Jerusalem, where everything was going to take place, just as Jesus had predicted. They could ignore the topic, but it was not going away.

When they arrived back in Capernaum, their unofficial headquarters, Jesus asked the disciples what they had been discussing along the way. But, once again, they chose to remain silent. And rightfully so, because to admit the topic of their conversation would have been embarrassing. But Mark spills the beans, revealing that “they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

Now, before we paint the disciples as egotistical and self-centered powermongers, let’s look at the facts. They had been handpicked by Jesus. They were His chosen followers and had been given authority by Jesus to cast out demons. When Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus had said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). And Peter, James, and John had been chosen by Jesus to witness His transfiguration. So, these men were somewhat justified in thinking that they would play important roles in Jesus’ coming kingdom.

The problem was that they were arguing over which one of them was the greatest. They had taken their eyes off of Jesus and had begun to focus on their own self-worth. And there is little doubt that Peter, James, and John were justifying their superiority with tales of their experience at the transfiguration. Rather than discussing the death of Jesus and what His reference to rising again might mean, they were busy debating their own value to the kingdom. This jockeying for position will continue on into the next chapter, where Mark reveals that James and John come to Jesus and make a bold request: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

These men were operating from a purely secular and temporal perspective. They saw Jesus as the coming King of Israel and they were hoping to garner key posts in His administration. While Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice, they were busy arguing over their own self-worth and qualifications for leadership roles in the new kingdom.

But Jesus gathered the 12 together and gave them a much-needed lesson on spiritual leadership.

“Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” – Mark 9:35 NLT

This comment must have caught the disciples by surprise. First of all, it revealed that Jesus knew the topic of their conversation, and that must have been embarrassing for them. But secondly, His words were incongruent. They didn’t add up. In their culture, servants were considered the least of the least. And last place was no place for a leader. The thought of willingly subjugating yourself in order to serve someone else would have made no sense to these men.

So, to drive home His point, Jesus gave them an object lesson. Picking up a small child in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37 ESV).

In their culture, children were considered the least of the least. They had no rights or privileges. They were powerless and helpless. And yet, Jesus stood before the disciples, holding one of these seemingly insignificant and unimportant children in His arms. And four different times, Jesus used the word dechomai, which can be translated as “receives” but carries a much fuller meaning: “to embrace, make one’s own, approve, not to reject.” In their society, children tended to be ignored. But by holding this child in His arms, Jesus was placing the least in a position of highest honor.

Jesus’ words should have had an air of familiarity to them. The disciples had heard Him say something similar. Just prior to Him sending out the 12 on their first missionary journey, He had told them:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. – Matthew 10:40 ESV

He used the very same formula:

To receive the least ——- is to receive Jesus ——–is to receive God

The disciples were to be the least. They were to be the servants of all. In other words, their role was going to be that of the lowest, not the highest. Their status was to be measured by humility, not glory. The child Jesus held in His arms had no inherent worth or value – from a worldly perspective. He had yet to accomplish anything with his life. He could not boast about his education or business accomplishments. But Jesus had chosen to use this insignificant child to convey a deep spiritual truth. And Jesus was going to use the insignificant disciples to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Not because they were great, but because they were the least. And all those who received the disciples and their message would receive Christ. And to receive Christ would be to receive a restored relationship with God.

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

All Things Are Possible

14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 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.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Mark 9:14-29 ESV

The next day (Luke 9:37), when Jesus, Peter, James, and John rejoined the other disciples, they were greeted by a scene of chaos and confusion. There was a large crowd encircling the other nine disciples, who were in a heated argument with the scribes. But as soon as Jesus arrived on the scene, He became the focus of attention, drawing the crowds like moths to a flame.

Like a father who arrives home to find his children in an unexpected predicament, Jesus attempts to discern the cause of the trouble. And it doesn’t take Him long to discover that the conflict involves His disciples and one other man in the crowd. The rest of the crowd were like rubberneckers at an accident, drawn by the spectacle of it all and curious to see what was going to happen next.

When Jesus demanded to know the cause of the argument taking place, a father in the crowd spoke up.

“Teacher, I brought my son so you could heal him. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. And whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” – Mark 9:17-18 NLT

This man had come expecting to find Jesus but instead, he had encountered the nine disciples whom Jesus had left behind. In his account of this event, Matthew describes the man as kneeling at the feet of Jesus. His actions reveal his high regard for Jesus and his belief that Jesus was capable of assisting him with his need. He had brought his son to Jesus for healing but when he had discovered Jesus to be gone, he had turned to the disciples for help.

“So I asked your disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t do it.” – Mark 9:18 NLT

Disappointed by his failure to find Jesus, the anxious father had turned to the disciples for help. And it seems clear from the text that these men had made a valiant effort to cast the demon from the man’s son but with no success. What makes their failure so significant is that Jesus had given all of the disciples the authority to cast out demons (Mark 3:15). And they had successfully proven their possession of that authority when Jesus had sent them out in pairs to preach, teach, and heal. Mark reports that “they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13 ESV).

And yet, on this occasion, their efforts had come up short. The argument that had ensued must have begun when the disciples started making excuses for their failed attempts at exorcising the demon. Perhaps they began to question whether this man or his son had broken a particular Mosaic law and this violation had resulted in the boy’s condition. They were obviously frustrated at their inability to exercise their authority over the demon, and were trying to figure out what was standing in their way. When all the dust had settled, they even asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we cast out that evil spirit?” (Mark 9:28 NLT).

The scribes may have been dragged into the argument in order to explain the Mosaic Law and to give their opinions on the boy’s condition and the demon’s persistent power over him. The whole scene had quickly devolved into a shouting match, with each side pointing fingers at the other. And all the while, the boy remained demon possessed.

Into this storm of confusion and chaos, entered the only one who could bring peace and calm. Jesus, disappointed at the sordid scene taking place in front of Him, declared His frustration.

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” – Mark 9:19 ESV

To fully appreciate Jesus’ words, one must recall the transfiguration that Jesus had just experienced on the mountain top. For a brief moment in time, Jesus had been transformed into His future, glorified state. He had been joined by Moses and Elijah, two of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, and the three of them had discussed His coming “exodus” or departure from this life. It had all been a much-needed reminder that His days on this earth were coming to a close and He would soon be returning to His Father’s side. But upon His descent from the mountain, Jesus had encountered a scene of faithlessness and spiritual apostasy.

This recalls a similar scene that took place hundreds of years earlier. Moses, the great deliverer of the Hebrew people, had just spent 40 days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai. He had enjoyed an intimate communion with God and had received the Ten Commandments from the hand of God. But when He descended from the mountain, he had found the people of Israel worshiping before a false god. He had returned to a scene of chaos and confusion prompted by the faithlessness of the people of God.

Jesus, having descended from the mountain of transfiguration, was being forced to look upon a scene where faith was in short supply and the enemy was having his way among the people of God. The disciples’ inability to cast out the demon had left the boy still possessed and persecuted. But even more important, their failure of faith had left the people in a state of doubt and uncertainty.

But Jesus stepped into the darkness of the moment and focused His full attention of the state of the boy. The father provided Jesus with a blow-by-blow description of his son’s condition, explaining in great detail how relentlessly the demon had tormented his child. And you can sense his growing state of desperation as he begs Jesus for help.

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” – Mark 9:22 ESV

At this point, he is not even sure if Jesus can do anything about his son’s condition. He is losing hope. But Jesus gently rebukes the man’s timid and half-hearted expression of faith, stating, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (MRK 9:23 ESV). Jesus seems to be telling the man that it is not so much a matter of if He can heal the boy, but if He will. This was less an indictment of the man’s faith, so much as it was an exposure of his lack of understanding of who Jesus was.

The father, anxious to see his son healed, cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV). He desperately wanted to believe that Jesus could heal his son, but he had seen the disciples try and fail. He still harbored doubts and asked Jesus to remove any and all doubts by casting the demon from his son. And Jesus did just as the man wished. He addressed the demon directly, commanding it to leave the boy and to never return.

“You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” – Mark 9:25 ESV

And the demon obeyed, convulsing the boy one last time and leaving him in a catatonic state that made it appear as if he was dead. But Jesus raised the boy up, revealing him to be fully restored to health.

This entire scene had been a demonstration of faith. But the focus was not on the faith of the father. Jesus was exposing the faithlessness of His disciples. Matthew records that after Jesus had exorcised the demon and the disciples had asked why they had been unsuccessful, He had responded, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 ESV).

Remember, Jesus had told the man, “All things are possible for one who believes.” The emphasis was on His own faith, not that of the father. Jesus fully believed He had the power and authority to cast out the demon, and He proved it by doing so. He knew who He was and what He was capable of accomplishing with the power He had been given by God. But the disciples were another matter. Their belief had proven insufficient. But it was not the amount of their faith that was the problem. It was their inability to understand the true source of their power. According to Jesus, all they needed was the smallest portion of faith but in the full power of God, and they could literally “move mountains.”

Their ability to cast out demons did not reside in themselves. It was not some inherent power they possessed but it was meted out to them by God. That is why Jesus told them that “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29 ESV). They had failed to understand that their earlier experience of casting out demons had been authorized by Jesus and made possible by God’s power, not their own. But they had somehow believed that they were in personal possession of that power. They had wrongly assumed that it had become permanently resident within them.

In trying to cast out the demon, they had put their faith in themselves. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, the disciples had ended up worshiping a false god: Themselves. They thought they were the possessors of power, but Jesus reminded them that even the smallest of faith placed in the power of God could produce the greatest of miracles. Jesus believed He had authority over the demon because He believed He had the power and authority of God at His disposal. His life was living proof that “All things are possible for one who believes.”

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

All In God’s Timing

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” Mark 9:9-13 ESV

Being a disciple of Jesus must have been a roller-coaster ride of emotions and experiences. Every day for three years, these 12 men had been exposed to mind-blowing displays of never-before-seen miracles. And these relatively uneducated men had received a daily dose of profound and difficult-to-understand teaching that left even the scribes and Pharisees dumbfounded. Their time with Jesus had been an adventure but also a head-spinning whirlwind of cryptic sayings and confounding experiences.

As Peter, James, and John made their way down the mountain, their minds must have been reeling from what they had just witnessed. Just minutes earlier, they had watched as Jesus was transformed right before their eyes. Suddenly, without warning or explanation, Jesus began to emanate a brilliant light. Mark described it this way: “his clothes became dazzling white, far whiter than any earthly bleach could ever make them” (Mark 9:3 NLT). These three men had seen Jesus do a lot of inexplicable and unprecedented things over the last three years, but nothing quite like this. When they had witnessed Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm, it had made a distinct impression. In fact, they had initially thought He was some kind of ghostly apparition. So, what must have been going through their minds as they took in the transfiguration of Jesus?

But when the long-departed prophets, Moses and Elijah, had suddenly appeared on the scene, it seems that the disciples began to put two and two together. They knew that something spectacular was happening. And as they took in the scene transpiring before them, they must have wondered if this was it – was Jesus getting ready to usher in His Kingdom? Had Moses, the great deliverer come to assist Jesus in His quest to release the people of Israel from their captivity to the Romans? And was the appearance of Elijah proof that the time had come? Was this the fulfillment of the long-awaited prophecy?

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

But the miracle on the mountain had ended just as fast as it had started. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses were gone and Jesus stood before them just as He had been before. The glory was gone but the impact of the moment lingered with the disciples. And they must have been bursting at the seams, eager to tell the other nine disciples all that they had seen. But Jesus threw cold water on their plans, commanding them to keep it all to themselves until the proper time.

he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. – Mark 9:9 NLT

Now stop and think about this statement for a second. The disciples had just witnessed Jesus speaking to Moses and Elijah. Their minds must have been filled with thoughts of the coming Kingdom. Their hopes and dreams of Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah were about to come true. And yet, He brings up the subject of death again. This was the same topic He had raised before the transfiguration.

Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. – Mark 8:31 NLT

Peter had found this news unacceptable and had told Jesus so. But his verbal dismissal of Jesus’ words had earned him a stern rebuke. Now Peter, James, and John were hearing Jesus bring up the same incomprehensible and objectionable subject again. And Mark makes it clear that they had no idea what Jesus was talking about.

…they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. – Mark 9:10 ESV

It wasn’t that the disciples had no concept of the resurrection. As Jews, they believed in a future resurrection of the dead. They would have been familiar with the writings of Isaiah and Daniel.

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
    You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
    and the earth will give birth to the dead. – Isaiah 26:19 ESV

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – Daniel 12:2-3 ESV

In a later scene from Jesus’ life, He would tell Martha that her dead brother Lazarus would “rise again” (John 11:23 ESV). And her response would be: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24 ESV). She believed in a future resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. So did the disciples. But they were having difficulty understanding what any of this had to do with Jesus establishing His Kingdom.

Confused by Jesus’ words, the disciples simply ignore them and turn their attention back to the scene they had witnessed on the mountain top. They had seen Elijah with their own eyes and this most likely had led them to believe that the prophecy of Malachi was being fulfilled. So, they asked Jesus for clarification.

“Why do the teachers of religious law insist that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?” – Mark 9:11 NLT

Their question has a purpose behind it. They had just seen Elijah, so they were asking Jesus to confirm that His messiahship was about to begin. One thing was meant to follow the other. Elijah had appeared, now it was time for Jesus to do His part. The disciples had to have been thinking about another familiar Messianic passage from the pen of Malachi.

“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

“But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.” – Malachi 3:1-4 NLT

You can see the imagery used by Malachi that supported what the disciples had seen on the mountain top. The blazing Messiah, reigning from His temple and restoring the nation of Israel to its former glory.

It seems that the disciples had linked their siting of Elijah with the timing of the Messiah’s appearance. They had just seen Elijah, so it must be time for Jesus to drop the charade and reveal Himself for who He really was: The Messiah of Israel. It was time for Him to get down to the serious business of ruling and reigning from the throne of David. The time for miracles and difficult-to-understand messages was over.

But Jesus revealed that the scribes had interpreted Malachi correctly. Elijah would precede the Messiah.

“Elijah is indeed coming first to get everything ready. – Mark 9:12 NLT

But the scribes and the disciples had left out a very important part of the prophecy. Not only was Elijah to come first, but the Messiah was going to endure great suffering. The people of Israel had conveniently ignored the many Old Testament passages that alluded to the Messiah’s death. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, King David had written about the Messiah’s treatment at the hands of men.

But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
    let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” – Psalm 22:6-8 ESV

And Matthew records the fulfillment of this prophecy.

So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” – Matthew 27:41-43 ESV

The prophet Isaiah predicted the tremendous suffering and agony that the Messiah would have to endure at the hands of sinful men.

See, my servant will prosper;
    he will be highly exalted.
But many were amazed when they saw him.
    His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human,
    and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. – Isaiah 52:13-14 NLT

He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care. – Isaiah 53:3 NLT

But he was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
    He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

He was oppressed and treated harshly,
    yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT

Jesus wants His disciples to know that the very same Scriptures that predict the coming of Elijah also predict the suffering of the Son of Man. So, He asks them, “why do the Scriptures say that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be treated with utter contempt?” (Mark 9:12 NLT). There is a divine order to things. God has a plan and every detail of that plan must take place in order, including the suffering of the Savior.

Then Jesus dropped the real news that must have exploded like a bombshell on the unsuspecting disciples.

“But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they chose to abuse him, just as the Scriptures predicted.” – Mark 9:13 NLT

And Jesus wasn’t referring to the same Elijah they saw on the mountain top. He was speaking of John the Baptist. This was confirmed by the angel who visited Zechariah and informed him that his wife would give birth to a son.

Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.” – Luke 1:13-17 NLT

At the time when Jesus and His disciples were descending the mountain, John the Baptist was dead, a victim of the wrath of Herod. And Jesus let the disciples know that the death of John would precede His own death.

“…they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” – Matthew 17:12 ESV

The disciples’ experience on the mountain had left them eagerly anticipating that Jesus was about to establish His Kingdom. But something else had to happen first. The Son of Man must suffer.

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

Shut Up and Listen!

1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. Mark 9:1-8 ESV

Verse 1 of chapter 9 provides a link or bridge between the teachings of Jesus’ in the previous chapter and Mark’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration. All that took place in chapter 8 serves as a preface to what Mark is about to describe, including Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus’ revelation concerning His coming death, and His rebuke of Peter for refusing to accept God’s will.

The discussions recorded in chapter 8 reveal the growing tension among Jesus’ disciples as they try to reconcile their understanding of His role as the Messiah and all that they hear Him say and see Him doing. His actions and words are confusing to them. All of His talk of suffering and death was senseless to them. When they heard Him tell the crowd, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34 ESV), they were stunned.

Jesus knew His disciples well, so He was fully aware of their apprehensions and fears. It is likely that some of them were having second thoughts about their decision to follow Him. His arguments with the religious leaders had become embarrassing. There were all kinds of rumors circulating about Jesus and His followers. People pointed fingers at them. The disciples must have cringed every time someone said Jesus was crazy or possessed of a demon. His cryptic-style of teaching left many confused, including them. So, when Jesus said, “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38 ESV), it was a not-so-subtle reference to their doubts and fears.

And that is why Jesus quickly added, “I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God arrive in great power!” (Mark 9:1 NLT). He was not done providing His disciples with further proof of His identity and mission. He was about to confirm Peter’s earlier confession with incontrovertible evidence that He truly was the Messiah. A handful of His disciples were going to get a glimpse behind the curtain, providing them with front-row seats to a spectacular display of Jesus’ glory. Rather than seeing the plainly-clad, thoroughly-human Rabbi they saw every day, they were going to see the glorified Son of God.

Mark’s buildup to this remarkable event is somewhat disappointing. He simply states that six days later, Jesus took three of His disciples “and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2 ESV). Not exactly a riveting description of what must have been a momentous and life-changing experience for Peter, James, and John. Mark simply states that Jesus was transfigured before them. The Greek word is metamorphoō, and it means “to change into another form, to transform.”

Jesus’ appearance was suddenly and radically changed. We’re not told how it happened, or long it took to happen. But Mark does give us a brief description of the final result: “his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3 ESV). This imagery brings to mind John’s description of Jesus in the opening of his gospel.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. – John 1:9-10 ESV

The fact that John was one of the three disciples who were privileged to experience the transfiguration of Jesus helps to explain the nature of his description of Jesus as light.

And Mark’s account of the transfiguration seems to provide a subtle link to another spectacular event where God’s glory was put on full display. It is recorded in the book of Exodus.

Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire. Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. – Exodus 24:15-18 NLT

Notice the reference to six days. Perhaps Mark was trying to provide a connection between these two events, tying the manifestation of God’s glory to Moses in Sinai to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory to His disciples. Jesus, the Son of God, appeared to them like a dazzling light, like a consuming fire. And accompanying Jesus was Moses himself and the prophet Elijah.

Just imagine this spectacular scene. The three disciples are looking on in stunned silence as they witness Jesus, ablaze with glory, talking with two of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people. We’re not told how the disciples recognized these two men, whom they had never seen before. It could be that as the disciples overheard the discussion between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, their names were mentioned, or some clue was given as to their identity. Luke provides a bit more detail concerning the content of their discussion with Jesus.

Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. – Luke 9:30-31 NLT

Peter, James, and John listened in as Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discussed His “exodus.” The Greek word Luke used is exodos, and it means “departing.” There were no two people better qualified to discuss the topic of departing than Moses and Elijah. Moses had led the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. But He also had “departed” this life in a rather extraordinary manner.

Then Moses went up to Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab and climbed Pisgah Peak, which is across from Jericho…So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, just as the Lord had said. The Lord buried him in a valley near Beth-peor in Moab, but to this day no one knows the exact place. Moses was 120 years old when he died, yet his eyesight was clear, and he was as strong as ever. – Deuteronomy 34:1, 5-7 NLT

When Moses’ work was done and his life’s days were finished, his burial service was conducted by God Himself.

And the account of Elijah’s “exodus” from this life was no less spectacular. The book of 2 Kings records that Elijah was walking along with his successor, Elisha, when something remarkable took place.

As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a chariot of fire appeared, drawn by horses of fire. It drove between the two men, separating them, and Elijah was carried by a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!” And as they disappeared from sight, Elisha tore his clothes in distress. – 2 Kings 2:11-12 NLT

So, these two “experts” in departing were sharing their insight with Jesus. They discussed with Him the events that would surround His coming exodus from this world. And their words would have supported all that Jesus had told the disciples. They discussed the very events Jesus had predicted would happen in Jerusalem and that Peter had rebuked Him for sharing. And that’s when Peter spoke up. He couldn’t remain silent any longer.

Peter exclaimed, “Rabbi, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t really know what else to say, for they were all terrified. – Mark 9:5-6 NLT

Nervous excitement got the better of him. And whether he realized it or not, Peter stuck his foot in his mouth yet again. In a desire to prolong the moment, Peter suggested that he, James, and John build three small shelters for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses to live in. The Greek word he used is skēnē, which translates into “tabernacle.” It was almost as if Peter wanted to set up three little temples or holy structures to house these three extraordinary individuals. We can only speculate what was going through Peter’s mind, but it could be that he viewed the appearance of Elijah and Moses as the sign that Jesus was about to set up His Kingdom on earth.

The prophet Malachi had recorded the following promise of God:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” – Malachi 4:5 ESV

And Moses had predicted that God would raise up another prophet like him.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him…” – Deuteronomy 18:15 NLT

And God gave Moses further insight into the role of this coming prophet.

“I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT

The final words in God’s prophecy are particularly pertinent to what happens next. Peter had expressed his misguided desire to prolong this holy convocation on the mountain top. But God interrupts his little speech and declares, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7 ESV).

In essence, God was telling Peter to shut up and to start listening to what Jesus was trying to tell him. He had no business rebuking Jesus. There was no need for Peter to build tabernacles. He simply needed to listen.

And just as quickly as it had all started, it was suddenly over. The glory diminished, Elijah and Moses vanished, and the three disciples found themselves standing alone with Jesus. The two Old Testament prophets had made their exodus from the scene. Now, all that was left was for Jesus to face His own exodus from this world. He still had to face the reality of the cross. In a very short period of time, Jesus would find Himself alone. There would be no Elijah or Moses to comfort Him. His disciples would abandon Him. And rather than being cloaked in glory, Jesus would be mockingly draped in a purple robe and a crown of thorns. He would be ridiculed, beaten, and nailed to a wooden cross. And He would make His exodus from this life. All according to the sovereign will of His Heavenly Father.

And God would have Peter remember: “I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf” (Deuteronomy 18:19 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

A Change of Perspective

31 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. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:31-38 ESV

When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought Him to be, Peter quickly responded with the correct answer: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29 ESV). But Jesus knew that Peter had a somewhat cloudy understanding of what his statement even meant. Like the blind man Jesus had just healed, Peter was experiencing blurry vision – a fuzzy and incomplete understanding of Jesus’ identity. And Peter was not the only one of the disciples who was suffering from a foggy perspective concerning Jesus.

So, in an attempt to add context and clarity to Peter’s answer, Jesus “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 ESV).

When Peter had announced that Jesus was the Christ, he had none of these things in mind. The suffering, rejection, and murder of Jesus were not on his radar screen. His concept of the Messiah did not include such things. And without them, there was certainly no need for a resurrection.

This announcement from Jesus would have made no sense to the disciples. They knew He and the religious leaders didn’t get along, but they would never have dreamed that these holy men would attempt to kill the Messiah of Israel. Yet Jesus made it clear that “the elders and the chief priests and the scribes” would be the ones behind His death. These three groups comprised the Sanhedrin, the high council of Israel which consisted of 70 members. The men who sat on this council were powerful, influential, and revered by the people. They were considered the spiritual elite of the day. And to think that they would conspire to kill Jesus was incomprehensible to the disciples.

Peter was appalled by this grim announcement and responded by pulling Jesus aside and rebuking Him. Matthew tells us what Peter said to Jesus.

“Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” – Matthew 16:22 ESV

It is difficult to fully appreciate the force behind Peter’s statement. The NET Bible provides a better and more literal translation that lets us see how shocked and upset Peter was by Jesus’ words.

“God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” – Matthew 16:22 NET

This time, Peter didn’t understand what he was saying. He meant well, but his words were spoken rashly and without any thought as to their import. But Jesus responded quickly and harshly. Mark indicates that Jesus looked at His disciples. It is likely that He gazed into eyes filled with fear and confusion. He could see the state of turmoil they were in and knew that they shared Peter’s concern. But He quickly turned His attention to Peter and rebuked him in front of his peers.

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Mark 8:33 ESV

Jesus accused the very man who had just confessed Him to be the Christ of being “Satan.” This public rebuke was meant to send a message, not just to Peter but to every one of the disciples. By declaring his opposition to the revealed will of God, Peter had unknowingly aligned himself with the enemy. When Peter had shouted, “God forbid,” it was almost as if he was demanding that God alter His plans. Jesus had just revealed the Father’s will for His life but Peter didn’t approve. He found any mention of suffering, rejection, and death to be unfathomable and, therefore, unacceptable.

Matthew adds that Jesus accused Peter of being a skandalon, a stumbling block. Rather than assisting Jesus in His God-ordained mission, Peter was acting as an impediment. His well-meaning desire that Jesus avoid suffering and death was more in line with the will of Satan than it was with God’s divine redemptive plan. Satan had been trying to derail the mission of Jesus from the beginning. All the way back to the birth of Jesus, Satan had attempted to use King Herod to eliminate the Christ child. And more than 30 years later, after Jesus was baptized by John and led by the Spirit into the wilderness, Satan repeatedly tempted Jesus, trying to convince Him to abandon His mission.

Now, here was Peter, one of the 12, declaring his opposition to the divinely-ordained ministry of Jesus the Christ. Jesus had made it plain and simple. He must suffer, die, and then rise again. Every aspect of God’s plan non-negotiable and completely necessary. Jesus had come to fulfill the will of His Father. And Jesus revealed to Peter that his perspective was skewed.

“You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” – Mark 8:33 NLT

Without realizing it, Peter had been demanding that his will be done. He had put his expectations and desires ahead of God’s. He could see no personal benefit from Jesus suffering and dying. He had no need for a dead Messiah. Or so he thought.

Peter didn’t realize that his wish for Jesus to escape death was actually a nightmare waiting to happen. Little did he know that, without Jesus’ death, there would be no kingdom. There would be no forgiveness of sin. As Jesus had made clear, He had to be “lifted up.” Just as the bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness and brought healing to all those who were guilty of sin and facing death, so Jesus must be lifted up on the cross so that mankind’s sin debt might be paid in full. It was only through Jesus’ sacrificial death that sinful men and women could find restoration and redemption. Clinging to a living Jesus was not going to save Peter. He was going to have to embrace the crucified Christ as his only hope of being reconciled to God.

Having rebuked Peter in front of his peers, Jesus expanded His audience by calling a crowd to join them. And the message He delivered to them was intended to provide Peter and the disciples with further insight into His mission and their role in it.

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it.” – Mark 8:34-35 NLT

Jesus was calling Peter and his companions to abandon their agendas. He knew they had all kinds of expectations concerning His role as the Messiah. When Jesus finally got around to establishing His Kingdom on earth, they were hoping to play vital roles in His royal administration. But Jesus was letting them know that His Kingdom would not come without sacrifice. He was going to be required to take up His cross, and they would have to do the same. He was going to willingly lay down His life so that He might take it up again (John 10:17-18), and He was expecting them to follow His example.

Peter and the rest of the disciples couldn’t help but focus all their attention on the present. They were in it for what they thought they could get out of it. But Jesus had a much-longer perspective. He realized that humiliation must precede glorification. Death had to come before life. Sacrifice was the key to obtaining the riches of God’s goodness and grace.

The disciples had short-term outlooks. They were interested in immediate gratification and were hoping to enjoy their best life in the here-and-now, not the hereafter. Jesus’ emphasis on the soul was meant to realign their thinking by reminding them that there was a spiritual dimension to their lives. Their souls would outlast their physical bodies. They were eternal creatures living in a temporal world, and Jesus was trying to clarify their vision so that they might embrace God’s plan of redemption with open arms and willing hearts.

Years later, long after Jesus had suffered, died, been resurrected, and returned to His Father’s side in heaven, the apostle John would write these powerful words of admonition and encouragement. His audience was made up of believers living near the end of the 1st-Century who were facing persecution, suffering, and even death because of their faith in Christ. They were living out in daily life what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. But they were constantly being tempted to lose sight of the future and to pursue the pleasures of the present. So, John warned them:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 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. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

And Jesus closes out His message with a sobering word that was clearly intended for the ears of His disciples.

“If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:38 NLT

Jesus was not insinuating that Peter was in danger of losing his status as one of God’s chosen. He was simply warning Peter and the other disciples that they were about to face a difficult period of time that was going to test their allegiance and tempt them to abandon all hope. But notice that Jesus assures them that, in spite of all that will happen, He will be coming back. That is to be their focus. Yes, they will see Him arrested, tried, humiliated, crucified, killed, and buried. But they will also see Him raised back to life and watch Him ascend into heaven. And He will leave with comforting words concerning His eventual return.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:1-3 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

Blurred Vision

22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. Mark 8:22-30 ESV

In this passage, Mark combines two different incidents from the life of Jesus in order to convey an important truth. In the first, Jesus performs only the second miracle that Mark records in his gospel. In chapter 7, we have his record of Jesus healing the deaf man who also suffered from a speech impediment. And there will be some similarities between these two miraculous healings.

Jesus and His disciples have traveled from the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee to the town of Bethsaida, located not far from the sea’s northern-most tip. This was not the first time Jesus had been to Bethsaida. In fact, Matthew reports that Jesus has a stinging indictment against the city for the stubborn refusal of its inhabitants to repent.

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns where he had done so many of his miracles, because they hadn’t repented of their sins and turned to God. “What sorrow awaits you, Korazin and Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago, clothing themselves in burlap and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse.” – Matthew 11:20-21 NLT

This rather harsh statement from Jesus is important because it provides insight into the miracle Jesus performed. Upon His arrival in Bethsaida, Jesus was met by a group of individuals who were bringing a blind friend in need of healing. Mark says that these compassionate friends “begged him to touch the man and heal him” (Mark 8:22 NLT). And what Jesus does next is both interesting and insightful.

To fully appreciate the actions of Jesus, it is important to consider all that has happened up to this moment. Earlier that same day, Jesus had transformed seven loaves of bread and a few fish into a meal that fed thousands of people. And He had followed up this miracle with a warning to His disciples about the “leaven of the Pharisees.” The religious leaders had come to Jesus demanding that He give them a “sign from heaven” in order to prove His claim to be the Messiah. But these prideful and arrogant men had been blind to all that Jesus had done, refusing to accept His miracles as proof of identity. So, Jesus warned His disciples not to allow the teaching of the Pharisees to influence them. The unrepentant hearts of these self-righteous men were causing them to reject Jesus and encouraging others to do the same. Like yeast spreading through a batch of dough, their unbelief was beginning to permeate and influence the people of Israel. But the disciples failed to understand the meaning behind Jesus’ warning, thinking instead that He was upset that they had failed to bring enough bread. So, Jesus addressed their inability to comprehend His words.

“Why are you arguing about having no bread? Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?’ Don’t you remember anything at all?” – Mark 8:17-18 NLT

Notice the last thing Jesus said to His disciples before they left for Bethsaida.

Do you not yet understand?” – Mark 8:21 ESV

All of this sets up what happens next and reveals the sovereign hand of God behind all that Jesus did. It was no coincidence that a blind man was brought to Jesus. And the manner in which Jesus chose to heal the man was highly intentional and purposeful. First, Jesus isolated the man from his well-meaning friends by leading him outside the village. Once they were alone, Jesus spit on the man’s eyes and touched him. But why? Couldn’t Jesus have simply commanded the man to receive his sight? Was it really necessary that this healing require spit and human contact? And why did Jesus’ first attempt to restore the man’s sight seem to fail?

…spitting on the man’s eyes, he laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything now?”

The man looked around. “Yes,” he said, “I see people, but I can’t see them very clearly. They look like trees walking around.” – Mark 8:23-24 NLT

Jesus’ methodology seems a bit odd. And it’s outcome appears less than successful. But everything Jesus did was intentional. The blind man, unable to see anything that Jesus was doing, was able to hear Jesus spit and could feel the sensation of the spit on his eyes. He could sense the hands of Jesus gently touching his eyes. Yet, when he opened his eyes, his sight was only partially restored. He could see but only as through a haze. Everything was fuzzy and indistinct. Men looked like trees walking about.

This man had gone from complete blindness to partial sight. His condition, while much-improved, was not what he had been hoping for. Blurred sight was far better than no sight at all, but it was still not ideal.

Earlier, Jesus had healed a deaf man by restoring his hearing. Now, he was restoring the sight of a blind man. Both hearing and seeing are metaphors for the human capacity to understand. That is why Jesus had said to His disciples: “You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?

They had seen Him heal the deaf man. And they had heard His warnings about the Pharisees. And yet, they still did not fully understand, just as the blind man did not fully see. But Jesus had no intention of leaving the man with imperfect sight.

Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again, and his eyes were opened. His sight was completely restored, and he could see everything clearly. – Mark 8:25 NLT

Jesus finished what He had begun. He didn’t leave the man with slightly improved sight but He completely restored his vision so that he could see everything clearly. This two-part healing provides an important lesson. It reminds us that Jesus came to restore far more than physical sight or hearing. He came to open the eyes of the spiritually blind so that they might see the glory of His presence. He came to open the ears of the spiritually deaf so that they might hear the message of the good news. But what they see and hear must include the full scope of God’s redemptive message.

The disciples thought they understood who Jesus was. They saw Him as their long-awaited Messiah. They had high hopes that He was going to set up His Kingdom on earth and reward them with places of honor and prominence in His administration. But when they heard Jesus speak, they became increasingly confused by what He said. And before long, when He began to talk of His pending death in Jerusalem, they would have difficulty comprehending and accepting His words.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the plan of God is far greater than we can understand. Much of what we experience in this life appears out of step with our understanding of God’s will. We are like men with partially restored sight who view everything through distorted lenses that provide an imperfect image of reality.

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. – 1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT

The disciples did not fully comprehend who Jesus was and what He had come to do. But Jesus was gradually opening their eyes to the truth of His ministry and mission. In time, they would see clearly and fully. But, as Paul reminds us, we will not fully understand the ways of God until His plan of redemption is complete.

After telling the newly sighted man to avoid going back to the village, Jesus and His disciples made their way north to Caesarea Philippi. On their way, Jesus struck up a conversation with His disciples, asking them, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27 ESV). His question was intended to get the disciples to wrestle with the various rumors concerning His identity. In a sense, Jesus was asking the disciples to reveal who the people understood Him to be. When they saw Jesus perform miracles, what was their conclusion? When they heard Him speak, who did they think they were listening to? And the disciples reveal that there were all kinds of opinions among the people.

“John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” – Mark 8:28 ESV

The people were like the man with partially restored sight. They could see, but imperfectly. Their view of Jesus was incomplete and inconclusive. Notice that there is no mention of Jesus being the Messiah. When the people looked at Jesus, it was like they were viewing Him through distorted lenses. He appeared indistinct and blurry.

This prompted Jesus to turn to His disciples and ask them the same question: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29 ESV). These men had spent their every waking minute with Jesus. They had seen every one of His miracles and had heard every one of His messages. They enjoyed intimate access to Jesus and the privilege of hearing Him explain some of His more cryptic parables. So, who did they understand Him to be?

And the ever-impulsive Peter was the first to respond.

“You are the Christ.” – Mark 8:29 ESV

In his gospel account, Mathew records that Peter added the further description: “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Peter, speaking on behalf of all the disciples, acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah but also the Son of God. His words revealed a level of understanding and insight that the rest of the people did not share. But Matthew lets us know that Peter did not come to this conclusion on his own.

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 16:17 ESV

God had revealed this insight to Peter. His partially blinded eyes had been opened so that he could see the truth of who Jesus was. This statement from the lips of Peter was like an unexpected epiphane. Even as the words came out of his mouth, Peter must have wondered whether he truly believed them. And He would go on to reveal that his understanding of who Jesus was and what He had come to do was still cloudy and indistinct. He would continue to wrestle with the weight of his own words and the expectations of his own heart. But the time would come when he and his fellow disciples would see everything clearly and distinctly.

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

Missing the Signs

11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” Mark 8:11-21 ESV

After dismissing the crowds who had benefited from His miraculous transformation of the bread and fish, Jesus and His disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee to Dalmanutha, in the region of Magadan (Matthew 15:39). It seems likely that the disciples had stashed in the bow of the boat the 7 baskets of leftover bread and fish they had gathered. Mark provides no insights into the conversations these men may have had as they sailed to their next destination, but it only makes sense that they would have discussed the events of that day, including the miracle Jesus had just performed.

As soon as their boat touched the shore, they were met by another contingent of Jewish religious leaders. Matthew records that, on this occasion, the Pharisees were accompanied by a group of Sadducees.

“. . . the Sadducees were a wealthy, conservative party concentrated in Jerusalem. Their members were from aristocratic families of patrician and priestly stock. They refused adherence to the tradition of the elders and advocated a rigorous application of the law of Moses to the life of the nation. In general, they espoused a political and religious policy, including cooperation with Rome, aimed at preserving the status quo.” – Kingsbury, J. D., Conflict in Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples. Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 1989

The Pharisees and Sadducees both had representatives who sat on the 70-member Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews. But these two powerful and highly influential religious sects were not on friendly terms with one another. While they shared a common belief in God and held the Hebrew Scriptures in high regard, they held differing views on a wide range of topics, including the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected the idea of an afterlife, arguing instead that the soul simply perished at death. So, the whole concept of a resurrection and a system of rewards and punishments after death was unacceptable to them. In fact, they rejected any notion of a spiritual dimension populated by demons and angels. And all of these beliefs put them at odds with the Pharisees.

Yet, oddly enough, these two opposing parties were willing to set aside their differences in order to take on their common enemy: Jesus.

Mark indicates that these men confronted Jesus, “seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him” (Mark 8:11 ESV). They were not asking Jesus to perform a miracle. They had already been eye-witnesses to many of Jesus’ more spectacular displays of power. What they were demanding was a “sign from heaven” – some kind of celestial proof that would verify His claims once and for all time. They had refused to accept any of His many miracles as being evidence of His divine calling. Instead, they had accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Mark 3:22). As Mark states, this was all nothing more than a test, an attempt to force Jesus’ hand and expose Him as the fraud they believed Him to be.

And Jesus, exasperated by their stubborn refusal to receive Him as their Messiah, “sighed deeply in his spirit” and responded, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12 ESV).

Jesus exposes their true intentions. There was nothing He could have done that would have satisfied their demand. They were already convinced that He was a charlatan and no sign or celestial manifestation was going to change their minds. Mark indicates that Jesus simply walked away, leaving these men with neither a sign from heaven nor the definitive proof that He was a fraud. But, Matthew adds an important detail in his account of this same scene. He reports that Jesus confronted these men about their inability to recognize the obvious.

“You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times! – Matthew 16:2-3 NLT

They could predict the weather based on “the signs” in the sky, but they were unable to recognize the Messiah based on the preponderance of evidence taking place around them. According to Jesus, everything He had said and done had been more than enough proof to support His claim to be the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah. He was not going to provide them with any other “signs” other than “the sign of Jonah.”

“Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 16:4 NLT

This was not the first time Jesus had used this kind of language with the religious leaders. Matthew records an earlier encounter in which Jesus said the very same words and added, “For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40 NLT). Jesus used the well-known story of the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, in order to predict His own pending death, burial, and resurrection. The Jewish religious leaders would have been familiar with the story of Jonah but would not have understood the connection Jesus was making.

And Jesus condemned these men for their stubborn refusal to believe in Him. Jonah had been “resurrected” from the belly of the great fish and taken the message of God to the people of Ninevah. As a result, they had believed and repented. But even the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus would not be enough to make these stubborn religious leaders believe. And Jesus predicts the outcome they will face for their unbelief.

“The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.” – Matthew 12:42 NLT

The Ninevites to whom Jonah ended up preaching had been Gentile pagans. And yet, when they heard the message of God from the lips of the prophet of God, they had repented and been saved. And yet, the religious leaders of the Jewish people were refusing to hear the message of God from the lips of the very Son of God, choosing instead to remain unconvinced and unrepentant.  And Jesus, unwilling to debate with them any further, got back in the boat with His disciples and sailed away.

What happens next reveals a great deal about the men whom Jesus had chosen to be His disciples. Mark records that they got back in the boat and then adds, “they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat” (Mark 8:14 ESV). So, they had not brought along the seven baskets of leftovers after all. We’re not told what they did with all that food, but only that they brought a single loaf of bread to share among 13 hungry men. Perhaps they thought that Jesus could multiply that loaf as well, so they decided to travel light and left the rest of the food behind.

But whatever the thought process behind their decision, Jesus took advantage of the moment to teach a valuable lesson.

“Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” – Mark 8:15 ESV

The disciples, confused by Jesus’ words, immediately assumed that He was upset with them for their failure to bring enough bread. It’s likely that they began casting blame, each accusing the other for this obvious lapse in judgment. And Jesus had to remind them that the quantity of bread was not the issue. He was not talking about literal bread at all.

“Why are you arguing about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Have your hearts been hardened? Though you have eyes, don’t you see? And though you have ears, can’t you hear? Don’t you remember?” – Mark 8:18-19 NLT

Had they already forgotten what He had done? Were they so hard-hearted that they couldn’t recall how, on two separate occasions, He had miraculously fed thousands of people with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes?

Their problem was not a lack of bread, but a lack of belief. In fact, Matthew adds that Jesus confronted them for their lack of faith.

“O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? – Matthew 16:8 ESV

While they were busy arguing about their paucity of bread, Jesus was trying to warn them about the teachings of the religious leaders. These men posed a serious threat because their prominent positions allowed them to propagate dangerous doctrines that could keep others from hearing and accepting Jesus as their Messiah. And Jesus would later condemn these men for the infectious and deadly nature of their influence.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:13-16 NLT

Jesus posed a rhetorical question to His disciples: “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21 ESV). He knew the answer and was well aware that it would only be after the coming of the Holy Spirit that the disciples would be able to comprehend all that He had said to them while He had been with them. But He would continue to use His confrontations with the religious leaders as prime teaching opportunities to instruct His 12 disciples. He wanted them to continue to believe, regardless of what the Pharisees and Sadducees might say. Their greatest need was not bread, but to continue to place their hope and trust in the Bread of Life.

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

A Case of Déjà Vu

1 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha Mark 8:1-10 ESV

There is the School of Hard Knocks and then there is the lesser-known but equally popular School of Repetitive Lessons. The first provides unsolicited educational opportunities through the means of difficult and often unexpected life experiences. These painful and oftentimes self-inflicted life lessons are a vital part of the human growth process. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

But many of us have spent more time in the second educational venue without even realizing it. Like the main character in the movie, Groundhog Day, we wake up each morning with the eery sensation that we’ve been here before. But we can’t quite put our finger on it. Everything feels a bit repetitive, almost as if someone has rewound the video of our life and hit replay. Like a child who has to repeat second grade, we find ourselves reliving and relearning certain life experiences because we failed to grasp their significance the first time around. It’s what I affectionately call it God’s School for Remedial Slow Learners.

Today’s passage has an air of familiarity to it. In reading it, it’s difficult to ignore the impression that we’ve been here before – because we have. In a sense, Mark is allowing us to look on as the 12 disciples re-enter the School of Repetitive Learning where they will get a second opportunity to learn what they missed the first time around.

Chapter six contains Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. On that occasion, Jesus had feed a large crowd, probably in excess of 10,000 people, with nothing more than fives loaves of bread and two fishes. He had miraculously multiplied those meager resources so that everyone in the crowd was able to eat as much as they wanted. And when the people had walked away full and satisfied, the disciples were able to fill up 12 baskets with the uneaten bread and fish. Those 12 baskets were to be a visual answer to the question that Andrew had asked: “what are they for so many?” (John 6:9 ESV). Andrew had deemed the fives loaves and two fish as insufficient to meet the need they faced. But in doing so, he failed to understand the sufficiency of Jesus. And even after Jesus had proven His power to provide, the disciples had failed to learn the lesson. Mark went on to comment, “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52 ESV).

So, here we are again, watching the disciples as they reenter Jesus’ School of Repetitive Learning. And Mark makes sure we don’t miss the recurrent nature of this scene.

…again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat… – Mark 8:1 ESV

It was déjà vu all over again, but the disciples fail to recognize the repetitive nature of what is happening. So, Jesus sets up the scene for them.

“I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way. For some of them have come a long distance.” – Mark 8:2-3 NLT

Jesus lobs them a softball. He graciously offers them an opportunity to prove that they had learned the lesson from the previous experience. But they swing and miss.

“How are we supposed to find enough food to feed them out here in the wilderness?” – Mark 8:4 NLT

The quiz had one simple question and, sadly, they reveal that they had no idea what the answer was. And they show no signs that they recognize anything familiar about this scene. So, once again, Jesus asks them to assess their available resources.

“How many loaves do you have?” – Mark 8:5 ESV

And all they can muster up is a scant seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. By this time, you would have expected at least one of the disciples to have recalled the earlier episode and made the connection. Surely, Peter and Andrew were capable of remembering what Jesus had done with the five loaves and two fish. Wasn’t John smart enough to recognize what was happening and to express his confidence in Jesus’ ability to meet the need of the moment? Evidently not.

So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to his disciples, who distributed the bread to the crowd. – Mark 8:6 NLT

Jesus performed yet another miracle and allowed His hard-hearted disciples to participate in the process. They became the means of distribution. The bread, broken and blessed by Jesus, passed from His hands through theirs. They took what Jesus provided and made it available to those in need. These slow-to-learn and quick-to-doubt men were being given a glimpse of the future role they would play as Jesus’ ambassadors. The day was coming when He would allow His body to be broken on behalf of sinful men and women, the Bread of Life offering Himself so that the spiritually hungry might be satisfied. And the disciples would be given the task of distributing the Bread to all those who would receive it.

“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 ESV

Little did they know that these lessons were intended to prepare them for something far more significant and life-changing. They remained oblivious to the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach them. And it would not be the last time that Jesus used the metaphor of broken bread to convey the reality of His life’s mission. One night, in the room where Jesus celebrated His last Passover meal with His disciples, He would revisit those two earlier experiences, connecting the dots for them.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” – Luke 22:19 ESV

It had never been about loaves and fishes. It had never been about satisfying temporal needs or filling empty stomachs. Jesus had come to offer His life as a sacrifice for the sins of fallen mankind. And one day, these very same men would find themselves distributing the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection to the spiritually hungry. Jesus would offer His life to be broken and they would have the joy and privilege of distributing the news of His gift to all those who would accept it.

Jesus had declared Himself to be the bread that had been sent from heaven by God the Father.

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” – John 6:33 ESV

And He offered Himself as the means by which the hungry and thirsty might find satisfaction.

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger…” – John 6:35 ESV

So, as the disciples once again distributed the broken bread and fish, they probably had the nagging sense that they had been here before. It all had an eery familiarity to it. The people ate and were satisfied. And the disciples picked up seven baskets of leftovers. But they remained just as oblivious as before. They failed to learn the lesson Jesus was trying to teach them. But He would lovingly and patiently repeat the message because He knew the day was coming when the light would go on and all the lessons would finally make sense. These men who had been so slow to learn would become His primary means of distributing the Bread of Life to a spiritually famished world.

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