9:1 And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
The very difficulty of this saying argues for its authenticity. Jesus appears to be affirming that the parousia would take place within the life-times of those present. Such an expectation seems to have been widespread in the early church (see 2 Pet 3:4, and also Jn 21:23 as a counter to this expectation). Of course, however, the parousia did not happen, and so sceptics argue that Jesus was mistaken in his prediction. According to atheist John Loftus, ‘no amount of theological gerrymandering can escape the conclusion that Jesus was wrong’ (God or Godless, p135).
Some think that Jesus is referring (a) to the transfiguration, the record of which follows this saying in each of the Synoptic Gospels; (b) to his triumph on the cross, confirmed by the resurrection, Col 2:15; or (c) or to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Edwards (Pillar) notes that the context of this saying is not the parousia, but the death and resurrection of Christ, Mk 8:31, which did take place within the lifetime of those present. ‘The coming of the kingdom with power’ then refers specifically to the resurrection, which is anticipated in the story of the transfiguration which follows.
Mk 9:2–13 = Mt 17:1–13
The Transfiguration, 2-13
9:2 Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John and led them alone up a high mountain privately. And he was transfigured before them, 9:3 and his clothes became radiantly white, more so than any launderer in the world could bleach them.
After six days – (Luke says, ‘about eight days’, Lk 9:28) An eyewitness touch, but not of mystical significance (as if echoing the six days of creation, followed by the Sabbath rest). This note does (a) pin down the Transfiguration to its place in space and time; (b) link the Transfiguration with the first announcement of our Lord’s sufferings and death, 8:31. In view of this latter point, ‘there can be no doubt that the primary intention of it was to manifest the glory of that death in the view of heaven, to irradiate the Redeemer’s sufferings, to transfigure the Cross.
Jesus took Peter, James and John – Three was the number of witnesses required to verify the truth of any thing, Deut 17:6. These three had witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, Mk 5:37, and would also be with him in the garden of Gethsemane, Mk 14:33. Why these three? We cannot really say, but we do know that they formed an ‘inner circle’ of disciples to whom Jesus was especially close. Peter was often the spokesman for the Twelve, and despite his impulsiveness had really spiritual insight and courage, Mk 8:29. John was, we believe, the closest of all to Jesus, being the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’.
‘Christ did not take all the disciples with him, because the thing was to be kept very private. As there are distinguishing favours which are given to disciples and not to the world, so there are to some disciples and not to others. All the saints are a people near to Christ, but some lie in his bosom. James was the first of all the twelve that died for Christ, and John survived them all, to be the last eyewitness of this glory; he bore record.’ (Jn 1:14) (MHC)
Led them up a high mountain – Lk 9:28 informs us that he went to pray. The mountain is traditionally thought to have been Mount Tabor, but may well have been Mount Hermon (2,814m), which is close to Caesarea Philippi.
He was transfigured before them – This is reminiscent of Moses (with Joshua), who was himself transfigured on the mount of revelation, Ex 34:29. But Moses’ was a reflected glory, 2 Cor 3:7,13, whereas Jesus’ glory was his own, and he was only reassuming the glory that had been his with the Father from before the beginning of the world, Jn 17:5.
As Cole remarks, it is slightly misleading to call this ‘the Transfiguration’, as though Jesus were taking on a temporary form that was alien to him. No: this was a momentary revelation of his true nature; the real Transfiguration (metamorphosis) had been at Bethlehem, Phil 2:6f, when our God ‘was contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ (Wesley)
Rejecting the idea the the main purpose of the Transfiguration was to strengthen the three disciples for the ordeal of their Master’s suffering, Calvin asserts that it was rather to demonstrate the voluntariness of his death, ‘that he was not dragged unwillingly to death, but that he came forward of his own accord, to offer to the Father the sacrifice of obedience.’ He adds: ‘The disciples were not made aware of this till Christ rose; nor was it even necessary that, at the very moment of his death, they should perceive the divine power of Christ, so as to acknowledge it to be victorious on the cross; but the instruction which they now received was intended to be useful at a future period both to themselves and to us, that no man might take offense at the weakness of Christ, as if it were by force and necessity that he had suffered. It would manifestly have been quite as easy for Christ to protect his body from death as to clothe it with heavenly glory.’
‘We are thus taught that he was subjected to death, because he wished it to be so; that he was crucified, because he offered himself. That same flesh, which was sacrificed on the cross and lay in the grave, might have been exempted from death and the grave; for it had already partaken of the heavenly glory. We are also taught that, so long as Christ remained in the world, bearing the form of a servant, and so long as his majesty was concealed under the weakness of the flesh, nothing had been taken from him, for it was of his own accord that he emptied himself, (Php 2:7) but now his resurrection has drawn aside that veil by which his power had been concealed for a time.’ (Calvin)
As for the theological significance of the Transfiguration, ‘It was a “temporary exhibition of his glory” – to use Calvin’s words – which would enable the disciples after the Resurrection to realise for certain that “even during the time that he emptied himself, Php 2:7, he continued to retain his divinity entire, though it was concealed under the veil of the flesh.” This temporary exhibition of his glory, even while it lasted, was not complete; but “under symbols which were adapted to the capacity of the flesh” (whiteness of clothes, shining of face (Mt)) God enabled the disciples “to taste in part what could not be fully comprehended.” (Calvin)’ (Cranfield)
‘Thanks to God, transfiguring manifestations are not quite strangers here. Ofttimes in the deepest depths, out of the groanings which cannot be uttered, God’s dear children are suddenly transported to a kind of heaven upon earth, and their soul is made as the chariots of Ammi-nadib. Their prayers fetch down such light, strength, holy gladness, as makes their faces to shine, putting a kind of celestial radiance upon it. (Compare 2Co 3:18, with Ex 34:29-35).’ (JFB)
‘This Greek verb is used by Paul to describe the present work of the Spirit in the inner life of the believer. (Rom 12:2 2 Cor 3:18) That work will be completed when this same Spirit gives “life to your mortal bodies” as when he raised Jesus from the dead, (Rom 8:11) and as here in Jesus’ momentary glorification.’ (New Geneva)
His clothes became dazzling white – Despite modern illustrations, white was not a common colour for clothing (since it soiled too easily). It is the colour of ‘unearthly purity’ (Cole). Cf. Mk 16:5.
‘His transfiguration did not altogether enable his disciples to see Christ, as he now is in heaven, but gave them a taste of his boundless glory, such as they were able to comprehend. Then his face shone as the sun; but now he is far beyond the sun in brightness. In his raiment an unusual and dazzling whiteness appeared; but now without raiment a divine majesty shines in his whole body. Thus in ancient times God appeared to the holy fathers, not as he was in himself, but so far as they could endure the rays of his infinite brightness; for John declares that not until “they are like him will they see him as he is,”‘ (1 Jn 3:2) (Calvin)
Putting the synoptic accounts together, it becomes apparent that the light shone, not upon Christ, but from within him. Compare Isa 52:14.
John is perhaps referring the Transfiguration in Jn 1:14. Peter certainly refers to it in 2 Pe 1:16f.
9:4 Then Elijah appeared before them along with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.
There appeared to them – This eyewitness experience is emphasised in v2 (Jesus took Peter, James and John with him), and v7 (the voice addressing the disciples), and also in 2 Pet 1:16.
Elijah and Moses – Representing, as commentators are wont to point out, the Law and the prophets – the whole of the OT witness to the coming Messiah. But the witness this time is not in the form of a book, but in the form of living men; not to a coming Messiah, but to a Messiah who has now come. See Mt 17:3; Lk 9:30. Elijah had been taken into heaven without seeing death, 2 Ki 2:11, and was seen as Christ’s forerunner, Mk 9:11; 11:14; Lk 1:17. Moses had prophesied Christ, Deut 18:15; Jn 1:45; Lk 24:27. ‘It was particularly proper that he should appear, when his prophecies and types were about to be fulfilled, and his rites to be done away.’ (Barnes) Think of what this teaches about the intermediate state. Moses had died and had been buried. But now he is very much alive. He is not asleep, but thinks, feels, and talks.
Moses had died; Elijah had been taken up into heaven without dying. Between them, then, they represent, far in advance of the event, the two groups of people who will be taken to ‘be with’ Christ at his coming in glory.
The Transfiguration confirms that the OT bears witness to a suffering and dying Messiah. But it also confirms, in the persons of Elijah and Moses, the existence of life beyond the grave.
‘It is interesting that Abraham, for all his forward-looking to Christ, Jn 8:56, was not present: perhaps it was because Abraham was, even physically, trhe father of many a Gentile as well as Jews. We may all be children of Abraham, Rom 4:16, but scarcely of Moses: and the Lord’s mission was, as yet, only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Mt 10:6.’ (Cole)
Moses and Elijah lived hundreds of years apart, and yet now appear together. As if to draw a veil over the relationship between their former and their present state, in the providence of God Elijah taken up to heaven without dying, and and the site of Moses’ grave has always been unknown, Deut 34:5f.
Who were talking to Jesus – Lk 9:31 adds that they were talking about his coming death (‘exodus’) which he was to fulfill (‘pleroo’) in Jerusalem. The death of Christ and what followed constituted a new exodus, a saving act to which the first exodus pointed. ‘To redeemed spirits, that death was an object of intense interest. By faith in that death they had been saved; and now that the Redeemer of mankind was about to die, it is no wonder that this was the burden of his and their thoughts.’ (Barnes)
‘No Synod on earth was ever more gloriously attended than this. No assembly was ever more illustrious. Here is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Here are Moses and Elias, the chief of the prophets. Here are Peter, James, and John, the chief of the apostles.’ (Brentius, quoted by Ryle)
Although he might be despised and rejection by the contemporary Jewish leaders, 8:31, cf. v38, testimony is here paid to Christ by two of the most illustrious personages of the OT.
9:5 So Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 9:6 (For they were afraid, and he did not know what to say.)
Lk 9:31 notes that Peter and the others were asleep, making it likely that this episode took place at night. Their sudden waking would have added to their confusion, v6.
“Rabbi” – Mark has the original Aramaic word that Peter used. Matthew, Mt 17:4, has the more usual ‘kurie’ (Lord; Sir), while Lk 9:33 as a Gentile has ‘epistata’ (Master).
“It is good for us to be here” – ‘His desire was foolish; first, because he did not comprehend the design of the vision; secondly, because he absurdly put the servants on a level with their Lord; and, thirdly, he was mistaken in proposing to build fading tabernacles for men who had been already admitted to the glory of heaven and of the angels.’ (Calvin)
‘Note, Gracious souls reckon it good to be in communion with Christ, good to be near him, good to be in the mount with him, though it be a cold and solitary place; it is good to be here retired from the world, and alone with Christ: and if it is good to be with Christ transfigured only upon a mountain with Moses and Elias, how good it will be to be with Christ glorified in heaven with all the saints!’ (MHC)
‘While Peter was for staying here, he forgot what need there was of the presence of Christ, and the preaching of his apostles, among the people. At this very time, the other disciples wanted them greatly, Mk 9:14. Note, When it is well with us, we are apt to be mindless of others, and in the fulness of our enjoyments to forget the necessities of our brethren; it was a weakness in Peter to prefer private communion with God before public usefulness. Paul is willing to abide in the flesh, rather than depart to the mountain of glory (though that be far better), when he sees it needful for the church, Php 1:24,25.’ (MHC)
Ryle remarks that there is much in this saying that we could not commend. It shows an ignorance of the purpose for which Jesus came into the world. It shows a forgetfulness of his fellow-disciples, who were not present, and of a needy world. It shows a low view of the Master’s dignity, implying that Peter did not realise that a greater than the prophets was here. But there is also something very positive about this comment. It shows what comfort and consolation the sight of glory can be to a true believer. If a momentary display of Christ’s glory, and that of two departed saints, can cause such joy, what happiness shall be ours when we gather with all the redeemed, and are for ever with the Lord, and not only see, but share in, the glory? After all, ‘You fill me with joy in your presence’, Ps 16:11.
“Let us put up three shelters” – If there is anything rational about this suggestion (but see v6) it is perhaps that Peter wanted the event to continue, and wished Jesus to avoid the suffering of which he had already spoken, Mk 8:31-33.
He did not know what to say – ‘The transfiguration is one of those passages in the Saviour’s earthly history which an expositor would rather pass over in reverent silence. For such silence the same apology might be pleaded which is so kindly made in the gospel narrative for Peter’s foolish speech, “…he wist not what to say.” Who does know what to say any more than he? Who is able fully to speak of that wondrous night-scene among the mountains, during which heaven was for a few brief moments let down to earth, and the mortal body of Jesus, beng transfigured, shone with celestial brightness, and the spirits of just men made perfect appeared and held converse with him respecting his approaching passion, and a voice came forth from the excellent glory, pronouncing him to be God’s well-beloved Son?’ (A.B. Bruce)
They were so frightened – Not surprisingly, Peter and the others experienced a mixture of emotions: confusion, joy (v5) and fear. Jesus, however, was not afraid: he was in his proper and familiar element, cf. Mt 17:6f. ‘But Jesus – amidst all this blaze of glory, and celestial talk, and the voice from within the cloud, the voice of God himself, proclaiming him his beloved Son, whom all are to hear – is perfectly at home.’ (JFB)
9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came from the cloud, “This is my one dear Son. Listen to him!”
See Mk 1:11. But whereas at his baptism the voice from heaven addressed Jesus, here the voice addresses the three disciples. It was evidently for their benefit that the whole episode took place. 2 Pet 1:17 refers to the evidential value of the voice.
‘This was spoken to confirm the disciples; to declare their duty to hear Christ rather than any other, and to honour him more than Moses and Elijah; and to strengthen their faith in him when they should go forth to preach the gospel, after he was shamefully put to death. After this, it was impossible for them to doubt that he was truly the Son of God.’ (Barnes)
“Listen to him!” – These words echo Deut 18:15, and identify Jesus as the great prophet like Moses’
‘When he enjoins us to hear him, he appoints him to be the supreme and only Teacher of his Church…he alone is appointed to be our Teacher, that in him all authority may dwell.’ (Calvin)
See Mt 7:28; Jn 10:27-28.
Think of the various sayings of Jesus that it would be well for us to listen to today.
9:8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more except Jesus.
They no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus – ‘Ah! Bright manifestations in this vale of tears are always “departing” manifestations. But the time is coming when our sun shall no more go down, and the glory shall never be withdrawn.’ (JFB)
‘Note, Christ doth not leave the soul, when extraordinary joys and comforts leave it. Though more sensible and ravishing communications may be withdrawn, Christ’s disciples have, and shall have, his ordinary presence with them always, even to the end of the world, and that is it we must depend upon. Let us thank God for daily bread and not expect a continual feast on this side of heaven.’ (MHC)
‘The memory of visions will fade, but the unchanging Word abides forever. The glorious vision was not an end in itself; it was God’s way of confirming the Word. (see 2 Pet 1:12-21) Discipleship is not built on spectacular visions but on the inspired, unchanging Word of God.’ (Wiersbe)
9:9 As they were coming down from the mountain, he gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 9:10 They kept this statement to themselves, discussing what this rising from the dead meant.
Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen – Presumably, this even includes their fellow-disciples. We must assume, then, that Peter is the source in all three Synoptic Gospels, for Matthew had not been present, and James was dead long before Luke was interviewing eyewitnesses, Lk 1:2. See also Mk 8:30.
Bearing in mind their puzzlement, v10, ‘it would be time enough to tell the other disciples about this experience when they themselves had begun to understand it.’ (Cranfield)
Chester explains this temporary prohibition in terms of the fact that ‘they haven’t yet grasped that he must die. All that’s in their head is glory, power, majesty. They’re just thinking about basking in this glory. Look at verse 5: ‘Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”’ Peter wants to stay with glory. He doesn’t want Jesus to go back down the mountain and rejoin the road to the cross.’
‘This enjoining of silence to the disciples, would…be of use to them, to prevent their boasting of the intimacy they were admitted to, that they might not be puffed up with the abundance of the revelations.’ (MHC)
Discussing what “rising from the dead” meant – A belief in the final resurrection was common amongst the Jews (the Sadducees were peculiar in that they did not belief it). Although Jesus spoke of his resurrection from time to time, (e.g. Mt 12:40) the event itself took them quite by surprise, Lk 16:8. ‘The strange thing is that, on so many other occasions, they misunderstood his words by taking them with the crassest literalism, cf. Mk 8:16.’ (Cole)
‘The disciples’ confusion arises from Jewish expectation of a general resurrection in the last days, but not an individual resurrection in the midst of history.’ (New Geneva)
9:11 Then they asked him, “Why do the experts in the law say that Elijah must come first?” 9:12 He said to them, “Elijah does indeed come first, and restores all things. And why is it written that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be despised? 9:13 But I tell you that Elijah has certainly come, and they did to him whatever they wanted, just as it is written about him.”
This question seems to have been prompted by the appearance of Elijah at the Transfiguration, along with the confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah. The reasoning would seem to be this: ‘We acknowledge that you are the Messiah. But why Elijah has not yet come, as we expected?’
‘The most likely explanation of the disicples’ question would seem to be that they are wondering how Jesus can be what the Transfiguration has indicated that he is, in view of the fact that Elijah has not yet come, or that they are asking why the scribes maintain something which cannot be true, since the Messiah has come, and Elijah has not yet prepared his way.’ (Cranfield)
“To be sure, Elijah does come first” – On this point Jesus agrees with the teachers of the law.
‘Though John the Baptist is not personally Elijah risen from the dead (6:14-16; cf. Jn 1:21), Jesus teaches that Elijah was indeed the Old Testament type who prefigured the Baptist’s ministry.’ (cf. Lk 1:17) (New Geneva)
“And restores all things” – ‘And puts things in order’. ‘Here it means that Elijah would put things in a proper state; be the instrument of reforming the people; of restoring them, in some measure, to proper notions about the Messiah, and preparing them for his coming. Before the coming of John, their views were erroneous, their expectations worldly, and their conduct exceedingly depraved. He corrected many of their notions about the Messiah, Mt 3:1 and was the instrument of an extensive reformation; and thus restored them, in some degree, to correct notions of their own economy and of the Messiah, and to a preparation for his advent.’ (Barnes)
“Elijah has come” – in the form of John the Baptist, who came in the Spirit and power of Elijah, Lk 1:17.
“They have done to him everything they wished” – That is, they put him to death, Mt 14:10.
‘Just as Elijah suffered at the hands of Ahab and Jezebel, (1 Kings 19:1-10) so John suffered at the hands of Herod and Herodias (6:18 note). If John, who restored all things by calling the people of God to repentance and godliness, was put to death, should it be surprising (Mk 9:12) that the Son of Man faces the same lot?’ (New Geneva)
The Disciples’ Failure to Heal, 14-29
9:14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and experts in the law arguing with them. 9:15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were amazed and ran at once and greeted him. 9:16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”
This (Mk 9:14-29) is one of just four longer accounts in the Gospels of Jesus dealing with demons (see also Mk 1:21–28; 5:1–20; 7:24–30).
The scene, coming down from the mount of Transfiguration, is chaotic: disturbed son, distressed father, helpless, disciples, carping scribes, gawping crowd.
Mark’s account is much more detailed that that of Matthew (17:14-20) and Luke (9:37-43). However, these shorter accounts contain some details that are missing from Mark. ‘Thus Matthew records that the father of the grievously afflicted boy “approached Jesus and kneeling before him said …” ; and also that the Master pointed to lack of sufficient faith as the cause of the disciples’ failure to heal this boy (Mt 17:14, 20). And Luke a. indicates the time when the miracle occurred—“on the next day,” that is, the day after the transfiguration—b. reproduces a significant item of the father’s moving appeal—“he is my only child”—; and c. closes his account by stating, “All were astonished at the majesty of God” (Mk 9:37-38, 43).’ (Hendriksen)
‘The contrast between these verses and those which precede them in the chapter is very striking. We pass from the mount of transfiguration to a melancholy history of the work of the devil We come down from the vision of glory to a conflict with Satanic possession. We change the blessed company of Moses and Elias for the rude intercourse of unbelieving scribes. We leave the foretaste of millennial glory, and the solemn voice of God the Father testifying to God the Son, and return once more to a scene of pain, weakness, and misery, – a boy in agony of body, a father in deep distress, and a little band of feeble disciples, baffled by Satan’s power, and unable to give relief. – The contrast, we must all feel, is very great. Yet is is but a faint emblem of the change of scene that Jesus voluntarily undertook to witness when he first laid aside his glory and come into the world. And it is, after all, a vivid picture of the life of all true Christians. With them, as with their Master, work, conflict, and scenes of weakness and sorrow will always be the rule. With them, too, visions of glory, foretastes of heaven, seasons on the mount, will always be the exception.’ (Ryle)
This account (vv14-29) is evidently related from the perspective of one of the disciples who came down from the mountain. We take it to have been Peter.
The relationship between the mountain-top experience of Transfiguration and the confrontation with the demonic parallels that between the baptism of Jesus and his subsequent confrontation with Satan (1:9-13).
Jesus, along with Peter, James and John, comes down from the mountain. They are confronted with a scene of failure. Coles comments that failure will draw a crowd as readily as success.
The teachers of the law arguing with them – No doubt, these scribes were making the most of the failure of the nine disciples to heal the boy. Coles wonders why these critics did not set about helping the boy themselves (cf Mk 12:27), rather than spend their time arguing with the disciples.
They were overwhelmed with wonder – This is a very strong expression, indicating ‘trembling astonishment that verges on alarm’ (Edwards). The reason for this reaction is not clear. Edwards inclines to the view that it is due ot Jesus’ ‘unexpected appearance and the hopes it raised’. For others, ‘it certainly seems as if some traces of visible glory, or, at any rate, some expression of extraordinary majesty appeared in our Lord’s countenance after the transfiguration. It reminds us of the face of Moses shining when he came down from the mount.’ (Ryle)
It would seem that this question was addressed to the scribes.
9:17 A member of the crowd said to him, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that makes him mute. 9:18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they were not able to do so.”
Observing that these are the symptoms of epilepsy, Cole says that ‘we do well to observe a reverent agnosticism on matters of demon possession.’ But v20 (‘when the spirit saw Jesus…’) makes it quite clear that there is something more than a disordered nervous system going on here, as does the fact that a convulsion occurred when Jesus was seen.
‘The possessed person’s lack of control over his own motor responses is paralleled by examples of spirit possession in many cultures through history and is attested in anthropological studies of spirit possession today. Some writers have noted parallels between this form of demonized activity and epileptic behavior (though epilepsy and demonic possession are distinguished in Mt 4:24); the parallels could indicate that the spirit gained access to the same centers in the brain where seizures could also be induced by other means.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
“I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit” – This was reasonable enough, because a principle of discipleship was that ‘the messenger of a man is as the man himself’ (quoted by Lane). Moreover, the disciples had been given authority to cast out demons, and had been successful in doing so, Mk 6:7,13.
“But they could not” – Lit, ‘they were not strong enough’. In this case, the disciples’ previous success was to no avail.
9:19 He answered them, “You unbelieving generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you? Bring him to me.”
This is an allusion to Psa 65:10. To whom is the Lord referring? It would seem from v23 that he has the father in mind. But the disciples’ lack of prayer is a symptom of their own unbelief, ‘so that ultimately all stand under the same condemnation, and we with them.’ (Cole)
Cranfield sees this is directed mainly at the disciples. ‘Their lack of faith had not consisted in any failure to expect success; for apparently they had expected to be successful and had been disappointed, cf v28. Apparently they had taken it for granted, on the strength of past success, cf Mk 6:13, 30, that they would be successful again, and it seems that it was in this “taking for granted” that their lack of faith lay.’
This exclamation expresses something of ‘the loneliness and the anguish of the one authentic believer in a world which expresses only unbelief…It is a measure of Jesus’ infinite patience that he continues to instruct the Twelve and prepare them for the day in which they will stand in his place and continue his work, 3:14f; 9:28f; 14:28; 16:7.’ (Cole)
9:20 So they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell on the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. 9:21 Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 9:22 It has often thrown him into fire or water to destroy him. But if you are able to do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
“It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him” – Here is another indication that this is not a simple case of epilepsy. A malicious spirit is at work here.
“Take pity on us and help us” – See how closely and tenderly this father identifies with his son (and perhaps with the rest of his family).
9:23 Then Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you are able?’ All things are possible for the one who believes.” 9:24 Immediately the father of the boy cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
‘The Lord answers, not according to the poverty of the asking, but according to the riches of his grace.’ (Cole)
In Lane’s paraphrase: “Everything depends upon your ability to believe, not on mine to act.’
See how Jesus turns the tables. The question is not, ‘Can I help?’ but ‘Do you believe?’
“Everything is possible for him who believes” – This is not, of course, a guarantee that we can fly, live without eating or drinking, or experience time travel if only we believe strongly enough. Nor may this saying be recruited to support a ‘name it and claim it’ theology in relation to acquiring health or wealth. It is, rather, an assertion that the person who has faith will not set any limit on what God can do. Cf. Mk 10:27.
Cole: ‘This is a statement of the great biblical principle enunciated in Mk 10:27 and Mk 11:24. But we are not called to ‘put God to the test’ by irresponsible ‘believing prayer’ for what may well be our human desire but not be his will. We are free to ask what we will, but only if it is what God wills (Mk 14:36). This is no mere theological quibble: it is a statement in another form of the need for the ‘mind of Christ’ in us, given by the Spirit. It is also a warning against taking one statement of Scripture in isolation from others, and basing presumptuous prayer on it.’
Although Jesus did not always require genuine faith before he healed a person, nevertheless he did place great emphasis on faith. See Mk 1:15; 5:36; 6:5-6; 11:23; cf. Mt 17:20.
The boy’s father exclaimed – The word is the same as that used for the shrieking of the demon, v26.
Cranfield quotes Calvin: ‘He declares that he believes, and yet acknowledges himself to have unbelief. These two statements appear to contradict each other, but there is none of us that does not experience both of them in himself. As our faith is never perfect, it follows that we are partly unbelievers; but God forgives us, and exercises such forbearance towards us, as to reckon us believers on account of a small portion of faith.’
“Help me overcome my unbelief” – The word ‘overcome’ has been supplied in the NIV as an interpretative gloss. Matthew Henry comments: ‘Help mine unbelief, help me to a pardon for it, help me with power against it; help out what is wanting in my faith with thy grace, the strength of which is perfected in our weakness.’
It may be better to render this request, “Help me just as I am, a doubter”. Cole sees this as an illustration of the doctrine of justification by faith. ‘The man was not praying that his unbelief might be “helped” till it came to the point where it was worthy of meeting with a response from God. We do not need to ask God to increase our faith until it is deserving of salvation, as a sort of “congruent faith”. That would be justification by works, not justification by faith. Instead, he was asking for practical help, to be demonstrated in the healing of his son, and confessing, deeply moved, that he had nothing to make him worthy of it. His very coming to Christ showed a trembling faith, and his was enough. This is justification by faith.’
‘What shall we do with our faith? We must use it. Weak, trembling, doubting faith as it may be, we must use it. We must not wait until it is great, perfect, and mighty; but, like the man before us, turn it to account, and hope that one day it will be more strong. “Lord,” he said, “I believe.”
‘What shall we do with our unbelief? We must resist it, and pray against it. We must not allow it to keep us back from Christ. We must take it to Christ, as we take all other sins and infirmities, and cry to him for deliverance. Like the man before us, we must cry, “Lord help mind unbelief.”‘ (Ryle)
9:25 Now when Jesus saw that a crowd was quickly gathering, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 9:26 It shrieked, threw him into terrible convulsions, and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He is dead!” 9:27 But Jesus gently took his hand and raised him to his feet, and he stood up.
When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene – Presumably, this is in addition to the crowd mentioned in v14.
The fact that Jesus acted when he saw more people thronging to the scene ‘is consistent with the reserve he exercised on other occasions when exorcising malignant spirits.’ (Lane)
‘Exorcists usually tried to subdue demons by incantations invoking higher spirits, by using smelly roots or by pain-compliance techniques. Jesus here uses only his command, showing his great authority.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
‘The blind enthusiasm of the crowd constantly places Jesus in the dilemma of compassionately wanting to minister to people’s suffering, while not jeopardizing the overarching plan of redemption.’ (Reformation Study Bible)
He rebuked the evil spirit – The simplicity is in marked contrast to the stage-managed theatricals of many modern exorcisms.
“I command you” – ‘There is no known use of egō in contemporary incantations of adjuration by an exorcist and so it is probable that its use by Jesus is significant in understanding him as an exorcist. That is, along with no direct declaration of his source of power-authority being the Holy Spirit, and the use of egō, Jesus deliberately drew attention to himself and his own resources in his ability to expel demons.’ (DJG)
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently – ‘Often just before deliverance, the devil seems to get a great victory, but the Lord ultimately wins the battle.’ (Wiersbe)
The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead” – ‘The accumulation of the vocabulary of death and resurrection in v26f…suggests that Mark wishes to allude to a death a resurrection. The dethroning of Satan is always a reversal of death and an affirmation of life.’ But, on the other hand, ‘the healing of the possessed boy…points beyond itself to the necessity of Jesus’ own death and resurrection before Satan’s power can be definitively broken.’ (Lane)
He stood up – ‘He arose’; the same word as used of Jesus’ forthcoming resurrection in v9f and v31.
9:28 Then, after he went into the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” 9:29 He told them, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
Some manuscripts add, ‘…and fasting’. But Cranfield regards this as unoriginal, and and representing a rather radical misunderstanding of Jesus’ meaning. ‘By “prayer” he means not merely prayer as a pious exercise, but rather the sense of complete dependence on God from which sincere prayer springs. But it was early misunderstood in the sense of a meritorious human pious activity, as though what the disciples needed was a greater “holiness” of an ascetic sort.’
‘It would seem that the disciples had thought of the gift of Mk 6:7 as given to them in such a way that they had henceforth the disposing of it, and therein had lain their lack of faith. They had to learn that God’s power is not given to men in that way. It has rather ever to be asked for afresh and received afresh. To trust in God’s power in the sense that we imagine that we have it in our control and at our disposal is tantamount to unbelief; for it is really to trust in ourselves instead of in God.’ (Cranfield)
The implication is that some demons are more powerful, and so more resistant, than others. At any rate, this is a sober reminder that it is not easy work to pull down the strongholds of Satan and his demons. It requires effort, and self-discipline, and a walking closely with God.
‘Like Israel, puffed up with the fall of Jericho, we are ready to say to ourselves, “The men of Ai are but few” (Josh 7:3); “there is no need to put forth all our strength.” Like Israel, we often learn by bitter experience, that spiritual battles are not to be won without hard fighting.’ (Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew, 213)
‘The disciples had been tempted to believe that the gift they had received from Jesus (Mk 6:7) was in their control and could be exercised at their disposal. This was a subtle form of unbelief, for in encouraged them to trust in themselves rather than in God. They had to learn that their previous success in expelling demons provided no guarantee f continued power. Rather the power of God must be asked for on each occasion in radical reliance upon his ability alone.’ (Lane)
‘The disciples would often face difficult situations that could be resolved only through prayer. Prayer is the key that unlocks faith in our life. Effective prayer needs both an attitude-complete dependence-and an action-asking. Prayer demonstrates our reliance on God as we humbly invite him to fill us with faith and power. There is no substitute for prayer, especially in circumstances that seem impossible.’ (HBA)
Second Prediction of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, 30-32
9:30 They went out from there and passed through Galilee. But Jesus did not want anyone to know, 9:31 for he was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 9:32 But they did not understand this statement and were afraid to ask him.
Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were – Partly, no doubt, because he wished to instruct the disciples in private, and partly because he was intent on pressing on to Jerusalem.
This is the second of the three major predictions of the passion. See Mk 8:31.
“Betrayed into the hands of men” is lit., ‘handed over’, or ‘delivered up’, combining the divine and human aspects of Jesus’ death. He was ‘handed over’ not only by Judas but, at a much deeper level, by his own Father in fulfilment of prophecy.
‘Peter Bolt has insightfully demonstrated that being handed over to human hands or the hands of sinners (Mk 9: 31; 14: 41) indicates that Jesus was handed over to God’s wrath, for in the Old Testament those who were handed over to others were delivered over because they stood under God’s wrath.’ (Schreiner, in James K. Beilby. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, p108). See Lev 26: 25; Judg 16: 23-24; Ezra 9: 7; Ps 41: 2; 106: 41.
Afraid to ask him about it – It was too painful to think about.
Questions About the Greatest, 33-37
9:33 Then they came to Capernaum. After Jesus was inside the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 9:34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
What were arguing about on the road – Cole explains that ‘no Eastern pupil dares to walk abreast of his teacher, nor indeed would the narrow Eastern bridle-tracks allow it. They had been bickering up and down the line, and doubtless occasional angry words reached the ears of the lonely figure, pressing resolutely on in front.’
9:35 After he sat down, he called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
Sitting down ‘implies more than a wearied traveller composing himself: the teaching Rabbi is once more about to give instruction to his disciples.’ (Cole)
“He must be the very last, and the servant of all” – lit., “he shall be…”, where ‘Mark’s use of the future may…reproduce a Semitism of Peter’s original preaching, where a future form may also be an imperative or jussive. In that case, the deeper principle will be that, if we desire spiritual greatness, then what we desire is the place of service to others, and so we must deliberately choose the lowliest and most humble place. This is the whole key to the Lord’s life, for he came, not to be served, but to be a Servant, Mk 10:45.’ (Cole)
‘The maxims of the world are directly contrary to the mind of Christ. The world’s idea of greatness is to rule, but Christian greatness consists in serving. The world’s ambition is to receive honour and attention, but the desire of the Christian should be to give rather than receive, and to attend on others rather than be attended on himself. In short, the man who lays himself out most to serve his fellow-man, and to be useful in his day and generation, is the greatest man in the eyes of Christ.’ (Ryle)
9:36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 9:37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
It is towards the end of a long day. Jesus and his disciples are in a house in Capernaum. After the meal, he calls to one of his host’s children, and ‘holds him in the crook of his arm’ (lit.).
This is paralleled in Lk 9:48. ‘My followers’, Jesus seems to be saying, ‘are like this little child. Although not esteemed by society, any good done to them will, in effect, have been done to me. That is where your true dignity as my disciples lies: not in status and power, but in following my example of lowliness and humility.’
France (on Matthew) is helpful: ‘The ‘child’ of Mt 18:2–4 represents the ‘little ones’ (insignificant believers) of Mt 18:6, 10, 14, and in this verse the transition has already begun. One such child therefore is not a reference to children as such, but to those who as Jesus’ followers (in my name), whether young or adult, have accepted the child’s status. The ‘greatness’ of such ‘children’ (Mt 18:4) lies in their relationship to Jesus. (Cf. Mt 25:31–46 for the principle of receiving Jesus in receiving his ‘little ones’.)’
Hagner (on Matthew) similarly: ‘The first main part of Mt 18 (vv 1–14) is about disciples, not children. Even the reference to the παιδίον, “little child,” in Mt 18:1–4 is only for the purpose of encouraging childlikeness in the disciples. Thus v. 5 too is not about receiving children (pace Gundry, Davies-Allison), as is the case in Mt 19:13–15, but about welcoming the disciple of Jesus, who for the moment in this transitional verse is referred to as ἓν παιδίον τοιοῦτο, “one such child” (thus correctly Thompson, Matthew’s Advice, 105), the disciple who has become childlike. The later equivalent of the phrase understood in this sense is ἕνα τῶν μικρῶν τούτων, “one of these little ones” (Mt 18:6, 10, 14). Thus the real parallel to the present verse is in 10:40 (where just a few lines later the disciple is also referred to as “one of these little ones” [Mt 10:42]). Receiving a disciple here, as there (where the same verb, δέχεται, “receive,” is used), apparently means showing hospitality and consideration to disciples in pursuit of their calling, and hence especially in missionary work. This reception of the disciple is to be ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου, “in my name,” says Jesus (a fundamental characteristic of discipleship in Matthew is acting in the name of Jesus; cf. Mt 18:20; 28:19). To give hospitable reception to a childlike disciple is furthermore to receive Jesus himself (cf. Mt 10:40; exactly along the same line is Mt 25:40, 45).’
On Jesus’ Side, 38-50
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” 9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me. 9:40 For whoever is not against us is for us. 9:41 For I tell you the truth, whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s name will never lose his reward.
As Edwards remarks, it is unusual for Mark to ascribe such sayings to named individuals. Furthermore, it is strange that John (one of the ‘sons of thunder’, Mk 3:17), who could deliver an outburst like this, would one day be known as ‘the apostle of love’! Here is passionate loyalty, to be sure, but blind to the Masters’ real character and purpose.
There are, as this incident shows, dangers as well as privileges to being a member of Jesus’ ‘inner circle’. There is an ever-present risk of developing a sense of elitism and superiority. See also Lk 9:54. There is a complete disregard for what Jesus has just said and done. The lesson will take a long time to sink in – it will still not have been learnt by the time we reach Mk 10:35-45.
“We told him to stop” – to stop doing what the disciples themselves had been unable to do (Mk 9:14-29)!
“He was not one of us” – Rather presumptuous of John to suppose that the group as a whole was worthy of being followed at this stage. It is another indication of their self-importance. It would have been rather different if he had said, “He was not following you.”
There is great generosity of spirit in the ‘minimal text’ (Cole) approach. Without having been told anything else about the man who driving out demons in his name, Jesus’ instinct is not to regard him with suspicion, but rather to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As Edwards remarks, this incident does not address the question, often raised today, of whether a person might be an ‘anonymous’ Christian – following Christ but not naming him. This man was driving out demons ‘in Jesus’ name’, v38. A practical question for us, then, would be whether we have the same generosity of spirit towards professing and practising believers from traditions other than our own. Although ‘inclusivity’ may have become a contemporary shibboleth, we have no excuse for adopting a more exclusive attitude that our Master himself.
This teaching needs to placed alongside that of Acts 19:11–20, where the magical use of Jesus’ name is condemned.
Citing 1 Cor 12:3 (‘No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit’, Edwards adds: ‘Thus, works and wonders in Christ’s name are evidence of the call and commission of Christ, and fellow disciples should be cautioned against thinking ill of those who bear such “fruit” (Mt 7:16).’
How can the saying of v40 be reconciled with that recorded in Matt 12:30//Luke 11:23? According to Edwards, ‘one possible resolution rests on the difference between the plural pronoun in Mark (i.e., Jesus and the disciples) and the singular pronoun in Matthew and Luke (i.e., Jesus alone). Thus, whereas there can be no neutrality with regard to the person of Jesus, the disciples must be tolerant of those who differ from them.’
Here, again, is the principle enunciated in Mt 25:40 – ‘what is done to a follower of Jesus is received by Christ as done to himself.’ (Edwards)
9:42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.
Milne summarises the background to the next section (vv42-48): ‘Wich Caesarea Philippi and the transfiguration behind him (Mk 8:27-9:13), Jesus embarks upon his final journey to Jerusalem and his death. The disciples, with only a limited comprehension of the implications, accompany him. They too will face a cross, Jesus tells them (Mk 8:34), and he instructs them about what that will mean – for one thing, death to their personal ambitions (Mk 9:33-34). Their discipleship model is not a king in his splendour, but a child in his helplessness (Mk 9:35-37). Such humility of attitude will show itself in generous judgements of others (Mk 9:38-41). But “dying with Jesus” will express itself in a further way – it will cause the disciples to cherish the “little ones who believe in me” (Mk 9:42). In this they will distinguish themselves from those others who “cause one of these little ones…to sin” (Mk 9:42). Such people face the awful prospect of hell.’ (The Message of Heaven and Hell, 144)
It is important not to become so engrossed in the issue of hell that we miss the main point of the present passage: the terrible sin of leading Christ’s ‘little ones’ astray.
“These little ones who believe in me” are (especially given Luke’s setting of this saying, Lk 17:1f) those disciples who are childlike in their weakness and vulnerability.
Edwards: ‘The “little ones” here does not refer to children, but rather (as in v. 41) to “these little ones who believe in me,” that is, to disciples.’
Hurtado: ‘The mention of little ones in 9:42 is a reference to Jesus’ followers and takes us back to verse 37, where Jesus refers to his followers under the symbol of “these little children.” The Greek reveals that this refers not to children but to believers; literally the phrase is “these little ones who believe in me.”’
Schnabel: ‘The expression little ones denotes disciples, probably an allusion to their weakness which invites others to cause them to stumble. In 9:35–37 Jesus had used a child as an illustration of discipleship; in Zechariah 13:7 ‘little ones’ is a term for God’s people in their weakness, subject to suffering; in Luke 12:32 Jesus alludes to this Old Testament passage and calls his followers the ‘little flock’.’
“…to sin” is lit. ‘to stumble’; ‘to trip up’. The idea is one someone leading a vulnerable person astray in a moral or spiritual sense. It includes false teachers who undermine the faith of others, as well as those who prey on the young or the weak for monetary gain or sexual gratification.
The idea that our Lord is specifically thinking of child abuse (as Loader, in Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church) suggests is alien to the context.
“Better…to be thrown into the sea” – Even though death by drowning is terrible, it is to be preferred to the fate awaiting those who cause the vulnerable to stumble. Cf. Mk 14:21.
9:43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell, to the unquenchable fire. 9:45 If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 9:47 If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out! It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 9:48 where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.
“If your hand causes to you sin, cut it off” – Some, most famously Origen, have taken these references to ‘cutting off’ a part of the body literally and have undergone castration. Others have thought that Jesus was speaking ironically, as if to point to the uselessness of removing one hand or one eye (which would still leave another hand or eye to sin with!) when what was required was a radical and inward transformation.
‘The command to get rid of troublesome eyes, hands and feet is an example of our Lord’s use of dramatic figures of speech. What he was advocating was not a literal self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification was the path to holiness he taught…If your eye causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through the eyes (objects you see), then pluck out your eyes. That is, don’t look! Behave as though you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away and were now blind and could not see the objects which previously caused you to sin.’ (Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount)
“Hell” – Gehenna – mentioned three times in quick succession. ‘The Greek word for “hell” in vv. 43, 45, and 47 is Gehenna, from which the Hinnom Valley, the steep ravine to the southwest of Jerusalem (Josh 15:8) where human sacrifice had been practiced under Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6), derives its name. The detestable practice of human sacrifice was later excoriated by Jeremiah (Jer 7:31; 32:35) and abolished by King Josiah (2 Kgs 23:10), who desecrated the Hinnom Valley by making it a garbage dump. “ ‘To go into hell, where the fire never goes out,’ ” became a symbol of divine wrath and punishment in subsequent Judaism and Christianity, or of the darkness, pain, and torment resulting from it.’ (Edwards)
‘Jesus warnings were meant to shake his hearers out of their complacency. They were thinking, “The Gentiles will burn in hell.” Jesus turned it around, “you will suffer in an awful place like Gehenna if you live in a way that causes other people to stumble through your bad example”…These “uncomfortable words” of Jesus were spoken whenever leaders of others placed stumbling blocks in the path of simple folk and tried to stop and thwart their entry into the Kingdom of God. Sermons on hell are just as needed today, provided we aim their thrust at the people who most need to hear them…as warnings to Christians, especially those who are lax and careless, and above all, judgmental of all and sundry.’ (R.P. Martin, Q by Milne).
Hell is described as
a place where the fire never goes out, Mk 9:43
a place where ‘their worm does not die’, Mk 9:48
a place of darkness, Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Pet 2:17; Jude 14
a lake of fire, Rev 19:20; 20:10,14,15; 21:8
a place where we may be ‘beaten with blows’, Lk 12:47
a place of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, Mt 8:12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30
a place in which people are ‘shut out from the presence of the Lord’, 2 Thess 1:9
‘Even when we affirm that this language is metaphorical, and the suffering concerned is accordingly essentially mental and spiritual rather than physical, the presence of some profound degree of conscious anguish is inescapable. Hell is terrible by any measure and, as Jesus indicates, everything is worth sacrificing in order to avoid it. There is no more terrible prospect conceivable than of being consigned to hell.’ (Milne)
“…where the fire never goes out” – lit. ‘unquenchable (asbestos) fire’. Although this is often taken to imply endlessness, the word itself is not conclusive in this regard: for a fire which cannot be extinguished is not necessarily an everlasting fire. Cole writes: ‘It is true that the primary thought of asbestos is not that of duration; but it does seem to be that of absolute unquenchability, and the two concepts are not far apart.’
The language is clearly figurative, yet the imagery is God-given and to be taken seriously. It is impossible to eliminate the idea of terrible and (many would say) endless pain from this description.
The parallel in Mt 18:8 has aoinios (‘eternal’), rather than asbestos (‘unquenchable’).
Lloyd-Jones finds in this teaching possibly the ‘most convincing’ evidence that the punishment of the ungodly is everlasting: ‘What can be stronger than that? ‘The fire that shall not be quenched’: it is never going to end. But if all those who are opposed to God are going to be destroyed, then you do not need a fire that shall never be quenched because a time will come when the fire will no longer be necessary and therefore will be quenched.’
There is limited manuscript support for this verse:
It (and v46) are supposed to have been added by a later editor to balance out vv 43 and 45.
Mk 9:46 where “‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
There is limited manuscript support for this verse:
It (and v44) are supposed to have been added by a later editor to balance out vv 43 and 45.
“Hell” – gehenna. See James 3:6n. The word transliterates the Greek form of an Aramaic word (itself derived from Hebrew) meaning, ‘Valley of Hinnom’. ‘The place became notorious because of the idolatrous practices which were carried out there in the days of Judah’s kings Ahaz and Manasseh, especially involving the heinous crime of infant sacrifice associated with the Molech ceremonies (2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6; Jer 19:56; 32:35).’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible). Because of its terrible associations it lent its name, during the intertestamental period, to the place of the final punishment of the wicked.
It is clear that it was a place where children were burned. What is less certain is that Gehenna was the place where Jerusalem’s rubbish was burned, although this idea is often repeated (including Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, Holman Apologetics Commentary). See this article by Lloyd R. Bailey, and this post by Todd Bolen.
Jesus quotes from Isa 66:24, and the description of the fate of those who have excluded themselves from the “new heavens and the new earth”. However, it seems that Jesus also had the Targum in mind, for it is this (rather than the Isaiah passage itself) which mentions Gehenna.
“…hell, where their worm never dies” – The twin metaphors of ‘fire’ and ‘worms’ (or maggots) are taken from Isa 66:24, which refers to the burning and decomposing bodies of God’s enemies. As Edwards remarks, rebellion against God is never to be trivialised!
Noting that Jesus refers to their worm, Howe and Geisler suggest, rather oddly, that he is speaking of their own bodies. ‘“Worm” is simply a way to refer to the human “worm,” or shell known as the body.’
The fire is not quenched – There is a long tradition of understanding this to mean that the fire never goes out, and that the bodies burning in the fire burn (i.e. suffer) for ever.
‘When Scripture speaks of unquenchable fire, the point is not merely that there will always be a fire burning in Gehenna, but that the wicked will have to endure that torment forever. They will always be the objects of God’s wrath, never of his love. Thus also their worm never dies, and their shame is everlasting (Dan 12:2). So are their bonds (Jude 6, 7). “They will be tormented with fire and brimstone … and the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever, so that they have no rest day or night” (Rev 14:9–11; 19:3; 20:10).’ (Hendriksen)
‘Nothing is said here about eternal punishment: on the contrary, the image seems to be one of annihilation, in contrast to life; it is the fire, and not the torment, which is unquenchable.’ (Hooker)
‘There is no scriptural or logical warrant for defining “unquenchable” fire as “fire that never goes out.” Yet through the centuries, traditionalists regularly give it that meaning. Then they argue that if the fire never goes out but burns forever, the people in that fire must be alive forever, suffering everlasting torment. Biblical usage of the adjective “unquenchable” inspires a different line of logic. “Unquenchable” fire is fire that cannot be resisted. Therefore it completely consumes whatever is put into it. Therefore those who go to hell will truly die, perish, and be destroyed—in their entirety and forever—without recourse or return.’ (Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition (pp. 78-79). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
‘Some think that this implies everlasting conscious suffering. But it does not imply it if you go back to the imagery of Isaiah 66:24 from which the phrase is drawn. Here the dead bodies of God’s enemies are being eaten by maggots and burned up. The fire and the worm in this figure are destroying the dead bodies, not tormenting conscious persons. By calling the fire unquenchable, the Bible is saying that the fire is not quenched until the job is finished. The tradition misreads this verse when it sees everlasting suffering in it.’ (Pinnock, in Four Views on Hell: Second Edition, p220)
‘The horrible imagery of these verses is intended as a sober admonition to disciples now rather than simply as a prediction of the future. The architectural plans of eternity are being drawn by the behavior of disciples today. [Here] is a warning against rebellion against God and a summons to faith in the present, and especially to the ridding of whatever hindrances and impediments would prevent one from entering true life in the kingdom.’ (Edwards)
9:49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 9:50 Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
A. H. Strong takes this rather enigmatic verse as counting against a doctrine of conditional immortality: ‘Fire is usually destructive, but this unquenchable fire will act like salt, preserving instead of destroying.’ (Systematic Theology, p1036)
Edwards, however, does not think that v49 and 50 refer to final judgement at all:- ‘The most promising interpretation of vv. 49–50 is to understand them against the background of temple sacrifice, in which both fire and salt played indispensable roles. Israelite burnt offerings (an unblemished bull, ram, or bird) were required to be wholly consumed by fire in order to be acceptable. Smoke rising from the consuming fire was a pleasing incense to Yahweh (Leviticus 1). Salt, too, was not only a sign of the covenant (Num 18:19), but it was required to accompany all Israelite sacrifices (Lev 2:13).’
So, for Edwards, these sayings have to do with the cost of discipleship; and of discipleship as a sacrifice pleasing to God.
Hurtado offers a similar explanation: ‘The fire of [this] verse is not eternal judgment but probably the fires of trial and testing in the life of the believer, for this fire purifies. This statement recalls the ancient practice of sprinkling salt on sacrifices for the Jewish altar (commanded in Lev 2:13).’
‘According to the Jewish Law every sacrifice must be salted with salt before it was offered to God on the altar. (Lev 2:13) That sacrificial salt was called the salt of the covenant. (Num 18:19; 2 Chron 13:5) It was the addition of that salt which made the sacrifice acceptable to God, and which his covenant law laid down as necessary. This saying of Jesus will then mean, “Before a Christian life becomes acceptable to God it must be treated with fire just as every sacrifice is treated with salt.” The fire is the salt which makes the life acceptable to God.
What does that mean? In ordinary New Testament language, fire has two connections.
(a) It is connected with purification. It is the fire which purifies the base metal; the alloy is separated and the metal left pure. Fire then will mean everything which purifies life, the discipline by which a man conquers his sin, the experiences of life which purify and strengthen the sinews of the soul. In that case this will mean, “The life which is acceptable to God is the life which has been cleansed and purified by the discipline of Christian obedience and Christian acceptance of the guiding hand of God.”
(b) Fire is connected with destruction. In that case this saying will have to do with persecution. It will mean that the life which has undergone the trials and hardships and perils of persecution is the life which is acceptable to God. The man who has voluntarily faced the danger of the destruction of his goods and the destruction of his own life because of his loyalty to Jesus Christ is the man who is dear to God.
We may take this first saying of Jesus to mean that the life which is purified by discipline and has faced the danger of persecution because of its loyalty is the sacrifice which is precious to God.’ (DSB)
“If it loses its saltiness…” – In those days, salt was rarely found in its pure form, but was rather mixed with other, insoluble, substances. In damp conditions, the salt might leach out and the remainder would have ‘lost its saltiness’.
See Mt 5:13.