1. And He said to them, “Amen I say to you that there are some of them standing here who shall not taste of death till they have seen the kingdom of God coming in power.”
2. And after six days Jesus takes Peter and James and John, and brings them up into a high mountain alone by themselves; and He was transformed before them.
3. And His garments became glistening, exceedingly white, as snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.
4. And Elijah with Moses was seen by them, and they were speaking with Jesus.
5. And Peter answering said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles, one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
6. For he knew not what to speak, for they were very fearful.
7. And there was a cloud that overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son; hear ye Him.”
8. And suddenly, looking around them, they saw no one any more, but only Jesus with themselves.
At the end of the previous chapter, after the healing of the blind man, Jesus led His disciples to a place high above Bethsaida, “the House of Nets.” As He continued to open their spiritual eyes, He asked them who they thought He is. When they correctly acknowledged that He is “the Christ,” He told them “to tell no one about Him” (Mark 8:30). Jesus then revealed to them, for the first time, that He is going to suffer many things, and even be killed, but after three days, He would rise again (Mark 8:31). Peter did not want to hear it or believe it. As we mentioned, this represents the human tendency to desire regeneration without going through the combats of temptation. While this is an understandable view — no one wants to suffer — Jesus says that this cannot be avoided. And Jesus concludes this episode by promising that God will sustain us at every step of the way, “with His holy angels” — the truths of His Word.
The confession of Jesus’ divinity is a high point in the education of the disciples, but it is not the end of Jesus’ teaching. There is much more for them to learn, and higher insights to obtain. Towards this end, Jesus takes them to an even higher level, physically and spiritually, up into the mountains. As it is written, “Now after six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up into a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2). It is a powerful moment for the disciples. It is one thing to confess Jesus divinity, saying, “You are the Christ,” but something else to actually see that divinity in its resplendent glory. This is what the disciples now experience as Jesus stands before them in His transfigured glory: “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow” (Mark 9:3).
One can only wonder what it must have been like to be there with Jesus on the mountaintop witnessing the revelation of His inner glory. There are moments like this in our own lives,
moments when the Word of God seems to shine with inner radiance, and we realize we are in the presence of the divine. 1
As the three disciples stand there, witnessing this astounding event, they also see Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus (Mark 9:4). It is a picture of the entire Word — the lessons of the prophets (represented by Elijah), and the teachings of the law, (represented by Moses), and the words of Jesus “talking together.” It pictures the way all the words, phrases, and stories in the Word “speak” to each other, mutually supporting and reinforcing the central themes. It is in moments like this, when we behold the sacred unity of the Word, and the depths it contains, that the Word of God shines before us in wondrous glory. 2
Awestruck by it all, Peter exclaims, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles; one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5). Like Peter, the other two disciples who are with Peter, are also awestruck, and all of them are “greatly afraid” (Mark 9:6). Peter’s idea, to “make three tabernacles” represents their sense that something profoundly holy is taking place and that they must do something to acknowledge the holiness of the moment. Like any of us, they want the moment to last. Why not stay right there on the mountain, perhaps pitch a tent where proper worship can be given. As Peter exclaimed, “It’s good for us to be here.” 3
In the midst of all this excitement, something even more astounding happens. Suddenly, “a cloud overshadowed them” and out of the cloud came a voice saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Mark 9:7). It’s the voice of God stating, in no uncertain terms, that from now on, Jesus is the one through whom all truth will be given. We should, of course, continue to read Moses and the prophets, but if we really want to know the truth, listen to Jesus.
There are times when we are in obscurity, times when “a cloud” seems to overshadow our understanding. At other times, however, the testimony of the Word breaks through our obscurity, like the sun breaking through dark clouds. For a moment we see clearly that Jesus is Lord, and that there is none beside Him. As it is written, “Suddenly when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus” (Mark 9:8). This is truly an amazing moment in our lives. We see, at least for the time being, that Jesus is the one God of heaven and earth. It is as though the clouds of obscurity have parted, and the light of truth, in all its glory, is shining down upon us. 4
Coming Down from the Mountain
9. And as they came down from the mountain, He charged them that they should tell no one what they had seen, except after the Son of Man had risen again from the dead.
10. And they held the word to themselves, disputing what the rising again from the dead should mean.
11. And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must first come?”
12. And He answering said to them, “Elijah indeed comes first, and restores all things; and how it is written of the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things, and be held as nothing.
13. But I say to you that Elijah has already come, and they have done to him whatever they willed, as it is written of him.”
These momentary states of enlightenment are wonderful, but they are also fleeting. They come and go. Sometimes we are in mountaintop states of consciousness, states where we see many things clearly and have great faith. There are also other times, times when we come down from those higher states, returning to states of more obscure understanding and little faith. This is represented by the words, “Now as they came down from the mountain” (Mark 9:9).
As Peter, James, and John descend the mountain, Jesus commands them once again to tell no one the things they have seen “until the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9). This is the first time that Jesus has added the conditional statement, “until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” Previously, whenever Jesus warned spirits or people not to speak about Him, it had always been in brief statements such as “be quiet” or “tell no one.” This time, however, Jesus is more specific about a time frame. They should not yet say anything to anyone about any miracle, nor are they to speak to anyone about Jesus’ divinity — not yet, not until Jesus has risen from the dead.
This is partially because they do not yet understand what is meant by “rising from the dead.” As it is written, “They kept the matter to themselves, disputing about what rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:10). On a more interior level, as long as they have little or no idea about what it means to rise above their old, dead nature, they will need to be quiet about the things they have heard and seen. This is true for each of us as well. Before we have experienced the miracle of “rising from the dead” in our own life, we cannot and should not be telling others about it. Therefore, Jesus says to us, as He says to Peter, James, and John, “Tell no one” (Mark 9:9). True testimony, that is, testimony from those who have experienced the resurrection power of truth in their own life, is the kind of testimony that the Lord desires. It is to speak truth from the goodness that one has experienced after demons have been cast out. 5
Healing a Demon-Possessed Boy
14. And coming to the disciples, He saw a crowd of many around them, and the scribes disputing with them.
15. And straightway all the crowd, seeing Him, were astounded; and running to [Him], they greeted Him.
16. And He asked the scribes, “What do you dispute with them?”
17. And one of the crowd answering said, “Teacher, I have brought my son to Thee, having a dumb spirit;
18. And wherever he takes him, he tears him; and he foams and grates with his teeth, and withers away. And I said to Thy disciples that they should cast him out, and they had not [the] strength.”
19. But He answering him says, “O faithless generation, till when shall I be with you? Till when shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.”
20. And they brought him to Him; and seeing Him, straightway the spirit convulsed him; and falling on the earth, he wallowed foaming.
21. And He asked his father, “How much time is it since this came to him?” And he said, “From a child.
22. And often it casts him into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him; but if Thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.”
23. And Jesus said to him, “If thou canst believe, all things [are] possible to him that believes.”
24. And straightway the father of the little child, crying out, said with tears, “I believe, Lord; help [Thou] my unbelief!”
25. And Jesus, seeing that the crowd came running together, rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “[Thou] dumb and deaf spirit, I order thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him.”
26. And crying out and convulsing him much, it came out; and he was as one dead, insomuch that many said that he was dead.
27. But Jesus, having taken hold of him by the hand, raised him up; and he stood up.
28. And when He entered into the house, His disciples by themselves asked Him, “Why could not we cast it out?”
29. And He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing except by prayer and fasting.”
The disciples are now descending the mountain. Spiritually speaking, the words “as they came down from the mountain” correspond to the way we can lose both our enlightenment and our spiritual power. In higher states of consciousness, we can identify and remove the demons of our lower nature with relative ease, depending on our willingness to call upon the Lord and fight against evil and falsity. This, however, becomes increasingly difficult, and, finally, altogether impossible when we descend to lower states of consciousness, relying on self-intellect rather than divine truth, and trusting in our own strength rather than in God’s power. 6
This fact of spiritual reality is illustrated in the next episode. A man approaches Jesus, saying, “Teacher, I have brought my son to You.” The man says that His son has “a spirit that causes him to be unable to speak. Whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down, causing him to foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid” (Mark 9:17-18). In desperation, the father of the boy turns to Jesus, and says, “I asked Your disciples to cast out the spirit, but they did not have the strength” (Mark 9:18).
Jesus rebukes the disciples, not for their loss of power, but for their loss of faith: “O faithless generation,” He says. “How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Mark 9:19). Jesus then commands that the boy be brought to Him. As soon as the boy is brought near, the evil spirits with the boy sense Jesus’ presence and react violently. As it written, “As soon as the spirit saw Jesus, it sent the boy into convulsions, threw the boy on the ground, and caused him to foam at the mouth” (Mark 9:20). Seeing this, Jesus asks the father how long this has been going on, and the father says that it has been happening since the boy’s childhood. “It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, trying to destroy him,” says the father, who then adds, “Have compassion on us, and help us, if you are able” (Mark 9:22).
This plea for help reveals the father’s lack of total trust in Jesus’ ability to heal. “Help us, if you are able,” says the father. Therefore, before proceeding with the healing, Jesus repeats the father’s words, saying “If you are able,” and then adds, “all things are possible for those who believe” (Mark 9:23). It’s as if Jesus is saying, “There’s no ‘if you are able” when it comes to My ability to heal. I am able. The question is, rather, ‘Are you able to believe?’” Apparently, this is the way the father understands Jesus’ response, for the father immediately says, through tear-filled eyes, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
This is what Jesus needs to hear from the father. Over and over again, Jesus has made it abundantly clear that absolute faith in Him is what brings about healing. Whether it is expressed in phrases such as “according to your faith,” or “your faith has made you well,” or “all things are possible for those who believe,” the message is always the same: absolute faith in Jesus is required before demons can be cast out and before miraculous healings can take place.
The numerous physical healings in the Word represent spiritual healings. Whatever Jesus did on the natural level corresponds to the way we can be healed at the spiritual level. In the beginning of faith, it is necessary to have absolute trust in God’s omnipotence, especially as it is revealed through Jesus. This is the first step. A simple belief in the miracle stories, as they are contained in the Word, is the start. But it is only a beginning. This must eventually be replaced by a faith in the truths of the Word and a life according to them. A faith in the literal stories (historical faith) must gradually be deepened to become a living faith, that is, a faith based on truths contained within those stories and a life according to those truths. In this way, “historical” (story-based) faith becomes a living, saving faith. 7
Seeing that the father is now in a state of belief, even asking Jesus to help his unbelief, Jesus agrees to cast out the demon. Rebuking the unclean spirit, Jesus says to it, “Mute and deaf spirit, I order you to come out of him and enter no more into him” (Mark 9:25). After a violent struggle, in which the spirit continues to cry out and convulse the boy, the battle is over. The boy lays on the ground as though dead. Jesus then takes the boy by the hand and raises him up. As it is written, “And the boy stood up” (Mark 9:27). The spirit that had tormented the boy for all those years has been cast out.
Prayer and fasting
Marveling at what had just happened, the disciples come to Jesus privately and ask, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” (Mark 9:28). At this point in the narrative, the reader might expect Jesus to say something like, “because of your unbelief,” or “because of your little faith,” or “because of your doubt.” But this time Jesus does not mention lack of faith, or unbelief, or doubt. Instead, He says, “This kind can come out by nothing except by prayer and by fasting” (Mark 9:29).
Up to this point in the gospel narrative, Jesus has been demonstrating the power of faith. “Your faith has saved you,” says Jesus. “Your faith has made you well,” and “according to your faith” are all, by now, familiar expressions. But in this case, Jesus goes deeper. This time He points out that true faith is more than belief; it also includes action. In other words, there are things we can do. First of all, we pray. This means that we can look to the Lord, read the Word, and keep scripture in mind. Secondly, we can fast. This means that we can engage in spiritual combat by fighting against the evils that assail us inwardly. We can refuse to take in the toxic food being dished up by the devil. We can refuse to swallow the lies that justify selfish behavior; we can reject the evil desires that arise within us; and we can turn away from every thought and feeling that is contrary to the divine commandments. This is what it means to do our part. And this is what Jesus means when He says, “this kind only goes out by “prayer and fasting.” 8
“Prayer,” then. is looking inwards and upwards to the Lord; it is an openness to receive the good and truth that flows in from Him. “Fasting,” on the other hand, is the refusal to accept the evil and falsity that flows in from hell. All of this involves much more than merely “believing” or “having faith.” True faith involves the willingness to look away from momentary pleasures and instead look towards the eternal delights that the Lord promises to those who refrain from doing their own will so that they might do the Lord’s will. This, however, is no easy task, but is the most vital task of our lives. And to the degree that we take on this task as a soldier goes into combat, we demonstrate the extent to which we no longer want a particular evil in our life. 9
Eventually, as we persevere in our efforts to shun evils as sins against the Lord, we develop a distaste for anything that is not good or true. In fact, the very thought of engaging in anything that opposes the divine commandments becomes nauseating to our spiritual selves. We simply have “no stomach” for it. This, of course, is an advanced stage in our spiritual development, but it is not beyond reach. In the healing of the young boy, Jesus shows that a time will come in each of our lives when spiritual deafness (the inability to hear the truth) and spiritual muteness (the inability to speak the truth) will be healed. As Jesus puts it, “You deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out . . . and enter no more” (Mark 9:25).
True faith, which necessarily involves “prayer and fasting” will gradually transform our lives until we are absolutely averse to anything that is evil and false, and, instead, positively attracted to everything that is good and true. In brief, we will find ourselves spontaneously fasting from whatever is foul and corrupt, while enjoying an “acquired taste” for everything that comes from the mouth of God. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalms 34:8). 10
30. And coming out thence, they went through Galilee; and He was not willing that anyone should know [of it].
31. For He was teaching His disciples and saying to them, “The Son of Man shall be delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill Him; and after He is killed, He shall rise again the third day.”
32. But they did not understand the saying and were afraid to ask Him.
33. And He came to Capernaum; and being in the house, He asked them, “What was it that you reasoned about to yourselves by the way?”
34. But they were silent; for by the way they had disputed among themselves who [should be] the greatest.
35. And having sat down, He called the twelve, and says to them, “If anyone wills to be first, let him be last of all, and a minister to all.”
36. And having taken a little child, He stood him in the midst of them; and having taken him into His arms, He said to them,
37. “Whoever shall receive one of such little children in My name, receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me, but Him that sent Me.”
Like most of us, the disciples, are in need of constant instruction. As quickly as they ascend to the heights of enlightenment, even to the point where they see Jesus transfigured before their very eyes, they descend into their lower natures, reverting to former ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving. Fully aware of this, Jesus keeps reminding them of essentials; He keeps bringing them back to the fundamental things they must know if they are going to become new people, especially if they are to proclaim the gospel message.
Jesus begins this review session by repeating the lesson He taught them at Caesarea Philippi, just after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 8:31). At that time, Jesus told them that “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill Him, and three days after being killed, He will rise again” (8:31; 9:31). The first time Jesus told them this, Peter objected. This time, when Jesus tells them the same thing again, Peter does not object, but he still doesn’t comprehend. Like Peter, the disciples do not understand either. Also, remembering that Jesus had firmly rebuked Peter at Caesarea Philippi, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan,” it is understandable that they would be afraid to question Jesus on this point. Therefore, it is written that the disciples “did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32).
Instead of asking Jesus about His predicted death and resurrection, which would have represented a desire to learn and grow, the disciples secretly begin to have a disagreement among themselves about a different issue. Jesus, however, who is very much aware of their secret exchange asks them openly, “What was it that you disputed about among yourselves along the way?” (Mark 9:33). Embarrassed that Jesus knew that they were arguing, they remain silent; none of the disciples is willing to admit that they were “disputing among themselves about who would be the greatest” when Jesus sets up His earthly kingdom (Mark 9:34).
It’s a teachable moment. The disciples represent a trait that many of us inherit; it’s the desire for worldly success. For some, it could be the desire to outdo all rivals, the yearning to be the champion, and perhaps even the wish to earn an Olympic gold medal. For others, it might take the form of the ambition to be the leader of an organization, the head of a company, the president of a club, or perhaps even, the prime minister of one’s country.
This can be a good and useful trait if is motivated by a sincere desire to serve others. But if the underlying motivation is related to the satisfaction of an ego need, whether it be the desire to be honored and esteemed, the desire to live in luxury, or the desire to selfishly control others, it is must be identified, acknowledged, and cast out. There is a vast difference between seeking high positions because of the greater use that can be served, and seeking high positions because of a selfish love of ruling over others, the desire for fame, the craving for wealth, or the desire to be “the greatest.” In fact, the greatest leaders see themselves primarily as humble servants who have no desire to be famous or wealthy; instead, they only want to be useful to as many people as possible. The higher the position, the greater the opportunity to be useful. 11
Jesus understands this desire for “greatness.” He also knows that the disciples will need to undergo a radical reformation of their thinking about this topic. So, without rebuking them for arguing among themselves about who will be “greatest” in the coming kingdom, Jesus simply sits down with them and begins to teach. “If anyone will be first,” He says to the disciples, “let him be last of all and minister to all” (Mark 9:35). This, of course, is the exact opposite of their worldly thoughts about what it means to be “first” and to be “greatest.”
How is it that being “last” is the way to be “first?” Jesus proceeds to explain this by setting a little child in their midst. Then, as Jesus picks up the child and takes him into His arms, Jesus says, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name, receives Me. And whoever receives Me, receives not only Me, but Him who sent Me” (Mark 9:37). Jesus is using this moment, and this illustration, to teach His disciples that true greatness lies in the willingness to humble oneself as a child. This, also, would have been a radical thought during a time in history when children were considered to be of lesser importance in an almost completely adult-centric society. Few people would have been ready to receive the idea that the nature of children had something to do with the nature of spiritual maturity.
And yet, this is exactly what Jesus has in mind. In physically lifting the child, and holding him in the center of the circle, Jesus gives the disciples a picture of the qualities that they will need to develop. These qualities are especially visible in sweet, well-mannered children who have a natural disposition to please, an eagerness to learn, and a desire to help. And because these qualities have their origin in God, the reception of these qualities — especially an eagerness to learn and a desire to help — is tantamount to receiving Jesus, or as Jesus says, to receive one of these “little ones” is not just “to receive Me,” but it is also “to receive the one who sent Me.” In this way, Jesus is showing His disciples that if they really want to be “first” in the coming kingdom, they will need to cultivate a receptive spirit — a spirit that receives these spiritual qualities as readily as children do. 12
Even though Jesus knows that His disciples are expecting a physical kingdom where they will reign as princes and kings, He is gradually exposing them to more interior truths about the reality of the coming kingdom. To be “great” in that kingdom, the disciples will need to be as humble as little children. They will need to place others first, desiring to serve rather than to be served. These are some of the primary qualities and attitudes that will be necessary if they are to become “great” in the kingdom of God. To the extent that they cultivate these qualities, they will become as receptive to the spirit of God as little children. All this is contained in Jesus’ teaching, “If anyone would be first, let him be last of all, and the minister to all.” 13
An Inclusive Christianity
38. And John answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we saw a certain one casting out demons in Thy name, who follows not us; and we forbade him, because he follows not us.”
39. But Jesus said, “Forbid him not; for there is no one who shall do a mighty work in My name, and can quickly speak evil of Me.
40. For he that is not against us is for us.
41. For whoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you are of Christ, amen I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.”
Jesus has just taught the disciples about the necessity of being like a child if they want to be “great” in the coming kingdom. He demonstrated by picking up a child and saying to the disciples, “Whoever shall receive one of these little children in My name receives Me” (Mark 9:37).
One of the disciples, John, notices Jesus’ use of the phrase “in My name,” and raises a question about what this might mean. So, he asks Jesus, saying, “We saw someone casting out demons in Your name, but because He does not follow us, we told him to stop” (Mark 9:38). Apparently, the disciples think that if someone is not a part of their immediate group, that person should not be allowed to cast out demons in Jesus’ name.
This is an age-old difficulty, not limited to this first group of followers. Throughout history, various groups would rise up who would claim to be the only true followers of Jesus, denouncing all others and forbidding them to promote their religion in the name of Jesus Christ. But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. “Do not forbid him,” says Jesus, “for there is no one who shall do a mighty work in My name who will be able, soon afterward, to speak evil of Me” (Mark 9:39).
At first, this seems to be a tangent, perhaps only remotely related to Jesus’ teaching about reception. On the contrary, it is a perfect continuation of the narrative. Jesus is now expanding upon the idea of receptivity. Not only are the disciples to receive little children as Jesus does, but they are also to receive anyone — whether within their circle of followers or not — who does the Lord’s work. Regardless of differences in doctrine or ritual, anyone who faithfully serves “in the name of the Lord” should be seen as a brother or sister. Jesus then stretches this definition of reception even further, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). 14
In answering John’s question about casting out demons, Jesus is teaching His disciples that casting out demons does not depend on a particular form of religion. Whatever might be the name of one’s faith group, the removal of evil in oneself is at the essence of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. Wherever the spirit of cruelty, revenge, jealousy, greed, anger, lust, dishonesty, or selfishness is cast out in the name of the Lord, good works will surely follow. The good works that follow could be as simple as offering someone a cup of cold water. As Jesus puts it, “Whoever shall give you a cup of cold water to drink in My name” will not go without a reward (Mark 9:41).
Dealing with Offenses
42. “And whoever shall cause one of the little ones that believe in Me to stumble, it is better for him that a mill stone were set around his neck, and he were cast into the sea.
43. And if thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter maimed into life, than having two hands to go into gehenna, into the unquenchable fire,
44. Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.
45. And if thy foot cause thee to stumble, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life lame, than having two feet to be cast into gehenna, into the unquenchable fire,
46. Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.
47. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out; it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into the gehenna of fire,
48. Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.”
Offenses against “the little ones”
Jesus now returns to the subject that began this series — the “little ones.” As we have pointed out, the “little ones” symbolize those innocent states within us that have faith in God. Like the simple, uncomplicated faith of a child, there is something in us that desires to learn truth and do good no matter how deeply it might be blocked by inherited and acquired tendencies to evil. It is, therefore, an essential task of any true religion to help people remove the accumulated layers of evil and falsity so that the innocent states of early childhood can re-emerge.
This, however, is not an easy task, and there can be many obstacles in the way. One of the most serious obstacles is the possibility of one’s early faith being destroyed by evil spirits. Therefore, Jesus says, “Whoever shall offend one of these little ones who believe in Me, it would be better for him that a millstone were hung about his neck and then cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42). In the language of sacred scripture, Jesus is saying that whoever enjoys tormenting people with false ideas that take away their faith in God will drown in a sea of their own falsities. The “millstone,” in this case represents teachings that mislead people and take away their simple faith, especially teachings that twist and pervert the literal sense of the Word. 15
In this passage, Jesus is specifically referring to the attempt to destroy someone’s innocent faith in God. As Jesus puts it, “Whoever shall offend one of these little ones who believe in Me….” Among the many ways that faith in God is taken away, or is “offended,” is through exposure to experiences, whether in life or through the media, that assault innocence. This includes physical violence, sexual abuse, cheating, lying, blatant disrespect for parents and any other behavior that a child should neither learn nor imitate. Constant exposure to immorality not only deadens the moral sense, but also arouses spirits who are attracted to moral depravity. When these things are in a child’s mind, evil spirits can use them to gain entrance. Somehow, these spirits are able to cleverly put on whatever is grotesque, or frightening, or immoral as clothing, using it as a disguise to gain access to an otherwise innocent mind. 12
On the other hand, exposure to the simplest truths of religion, especially a belief in a loving God, is the surest way of not only protecting innocence but also promoting it. To ensure that this is not a mere abstraction, the stories about Jesus are necessary, for they portray God in visible form, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, and feeding the hungry. These loving acts of kindness inspire love and mercy in children, instill basic truths, and provide a plane through which the angels can draw near, filling the “little ones” with an affection for learning truth and a delight in doing good.
In the process, as these little ones grow and develop, the tender innocence of their childhood is gradually transformed into the innocence of wisdom. For example, children who innocently honor their parents by learning simple moral teachings and doing good, will be inclined to eventually honor their heavenly Father by living according to their ever-deepening understanding of His commandments.
Along the way, as these little children grow into adulthood, and then into old age, they will begin to discover that every truth they learn and every good action they perform is from the Lord alone. In this way, the innocence of childhood is gradually transformed into the innocence of wisdom. God is still loved, and His commandments are still followed, but in deeper, more interior ways, and with ever-increasing delight. Eventually, the human spirit is so steeped in love for God and for God’s law that no evil spirit can approach. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “Great peace have they who love Thy law, and nothing can offend them” (Psalms 119:165). 17
Offending the “little ones” is just one of a series of offenses that Jesus addresses in this session with the disciples. He now goes on to describe three more offenses. “If your hand offends you,” says Jesus, “cut it off. It’s better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell (Mark 9:43-44). This is strong language, but it needs to be so in order to make an important, unforgettable point. The hand is a symbol of power. We can have ideas in our minds, but it is the hand, and the activities of the hand that give power to ideas. Therefore, the word “hand” in sacred scripture suggests those things that we do and the activities we engage in. If we discover that our actions are offensive to the life we should be leading, we need to stop. We need to cut it out immediately, no matter how painful this might be. In the language of sacred scripture, we need to “cut off” the offending hand. 18
Similarly, if our foot offends us, it should be cut off. “It’s better to enter into life lame,” says Jesus, “than having two feet to be cast into hell” (Mark 9:45). In other words, we need to stop ‘walking” in ways that transgress the commandments of God. It is, of course, painful to stop a bad habit, but no matter how painful, we must do so, even if it feels like an amputation. The cutting off the hand and foot represents a complete separation from the hellish spirits that have been “attached” to us. To “cut off” the hand or foot means that we are immediately “severing” our attachment and “cutting off” all communication with our spiritual enemies. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “Your hand shall be lifted up over your adversaries, and your enemies shall all be cut off” (Micah 5:9); also, “They shall sever the wicked from the midst of the righteous” (Matthew 13:49). 19
The final image in this series describes what we should do if our “eye” offends us. “And if your eye offends you,” says Jesus, “pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48).
The “eye,” like the hand and foot, is not the cause of the offense. The eye is simply an organ of the body which serves the mind, just as the mouth and lips express our thoughts but do not generate them. If we have said or seen something offensive, it would be better to change the way we think than to cut out our tongue or pluck out our eye. If our “eye” looked at something with covetous desire, it’s not the fault of the eye. Instead it would be far better to pluck out those covetous desires from our minds.
The organs of the body merely serve the mind, which, in turn, serves the desires of one’s heart. Changing an offensive external behavior takes place on the inside, first with a change of mind, and eventually with a change of heart. The truth of the matter is that a proper understanding of spiritual reality opens the eye to see all that is good and true; conversely, false thinking prompted by an evil desire makes us see everything in the worst possible light. 20
These, then, are the inner reasons why the hand should be cut off, then the foot, and then the eye should be plucked out. These graphic images are given to teach powerful lessons about the torment we bring upon ourselves by freely choosing to abuse the gifts we have been given. We have hands; this symbolizes the power we have from the Lord to do good. We have feet; this symbolizes the way we can walk in the path of His commandments. And we have eyes; this symbolizes our God-given ability to understand the scriptures. When we open our eyes to see the path of life, and choose to follow it, doing good whenever we can, we discover the greatest happiness. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law…. Make me to walk in the path of Your commandments, for there I shall find delight” (Psalms 119:18; 35).
However, if we choose to abuse these faculties, and deprive ourselves of these blessings, we experience, instead, what is called “the torments of hell.” These torments are not divine punishments, but rather natural consequences of our free choices. The “fire that is not quenched” (9:44, 46, 48) is a physical description of the burning anger and fiery lust that we continue to feed. Every evil that is experienced in hell is compared to a burning fire. Every grievance, every resentment, every complaint, and every criticism becomes another log for the fire, another flame that cannot be quenched. 21
Similarly, “the worm that does not die (9:44, 46, 48) is a physical description of the false beliefs that support evil desires. These false beliefs gnaw away at a person like worms that can never be satisfied. Constantly insinuating thoughts that are connected to dissatisfaction, these worms steadily to eat away at a person. Expressions like, “it’s been eating at me” and “I feel like I’m being eaten alive,” convey something about what it’s like to be tormented by consuming thoughts that worm their way into our consciousness. As Jesus says, it’s a worm that “does not die.” 22
Admittedly, these are hard teachings and powerful warnings. These are not images of a glorious kingdom where the disciples will sit on thrones and be served by others. Jesus is indeed talking about a “kingdom,” but not an earthly one. He is talking about what it takes to enter the kingdom of God. If the disciples are to follow Him into that kingdom, if their hearts are to become as tender and receptive as little children, they will need to practice rigorous self-discipline. It’s not that they will have to physically maim themselves, but they will need to scrupulously control their feelings, thoughts, and actions. They must be willing to sever themselves from every evil feeling and pluck out every false thought as soon as the feeling or thought arises. 24
Salted with Fire
49. “For everyone shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.
50. Salt [is] good; but if the salt become saltless, with what shall you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.”
As Jesus comes to the end of this instruction period with the disciples, He says, “For everyone shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt” (Mark 9:49). And He adds, “Salt is good, but if the salt becomes saltless, with what shall you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace, one with another” (Mark 9:50).
It should be remembered that this entire episode began just after the incident with the boy who could not be healed by the disciples. When they asked Jesus why they were unable to heal the boy from his violent seizures, Jesus said, “this kind only goes out with prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). We said that “prayer” is looking to the Lord, and “fasting” is shunning evils as sins. As they depart from that place and pass through Galilee, Jesus reminded His disciples, once again, about His death and resurrection. This seems to go right over their heads. They don’t understand what He means, and they are afraid to question Jesus about it. Instead, they get into an argument with each other about who among them will be “the greatest” when Jesus sets up His earthly kingdom (Mark 9:34).
This becomes another opportunity to teach the disciples valuable lessons about the true kingdom that is about to come — the kingdom of God. Jesus begins by talking about the various offenses that must be avoided. This includes offenses against the little children, as well as offenses that might take place by means of the hand, foot, or eye. Each of these offenses will prevent a person from entering the coming kingdom. Instead, these offenses will cast the offender into hell, where the infernal loves of self and the world will burn eternally, and where false beliefs will perpetually devour their host like hungry worms that refuse to die.
These are not pretty pictures, but they are necessary for the disciples at this stage of their development. Jesus then addresses the issue underlying the entire lesson: their quarrels with each other. He begins by taking them back to an ancient practice in Israel, the salting of meat before a sacrifice. As it is written in the Hebrew scriptures, “When you have finished the purification, you are to present a young, unblemished bull and an unblemished ram from the flock. You must present them before the Lord; the priests are to sprinkle salt on them and sacrifice them as a burnt offering to the Lord” Ezekiel 43:24).
The disciples would have been familiar with this temple practice, but unaware of its symbolic meaning. The most obvious symbolic meaning involves the use of salt as a means of preservation and purification. When Jesus says that “everyone shall be salted” with fire, it refers to the purification process that we all must go through as we shed the inherited layers of evil and falsity. Just as fire can purify metal and kill bacteria, a life according to the truths of religion can purify the human spirit. In this way, Jesus is telling His disciples that they must be “salted with fire,” that is, they must be cleansed of inner impurities through living what Jesus is teaching them. Instead of arguing about who will be greatest in the coming kingdom, they should be living according to the laws of that kingdom each day.
One of the fundamental laws of that kingdom is that truth, and the affection for truth, is given as a gift to all people, but this gift is intended to lead people on to use. Truth without use is dry, dull, insipid and flat. It has no life in it. It is worthless, comparable to salt that has lost its saltiness. For this reason, Jesus says, “Salt is good, but if the salt becomes saltless, with what shall you season it? (Mark 9:50). Salt is not only a preservative and a purifying agent; it is also a seasoning that adds spice to life, and zest to eating. In this regard, it corresponds to the eager desire to put the truth that we are learning into effect. Like a child who is not only eager to learn, but also to do, the imagery of salt corresponds to that child-like quality in each of us that wants to be active, not just learning truth, but doing the good that is connected to that truth. 24
When Jesus cast the demon out of the boy who suffered from seizures, He made it quite clear that the kind of demon that possessed the boy only went out with prayer and fasting. As He concludes this episode, however, He switches the imagery, this time speaking about the use of salt to increase the flavor of food. Fasting from evil and falsity is one thing. This is the rigorous aspect of religious life that requires self-discipline. But we must eat. If we only fasted, we would eventually starve to death. That’s why the Lord provides food, not just physical food, but spiritual food — goodness in place of evil, and truth in place of falsity. He desires that we eat this food and enjoy it, salting it liberally with both the affection for learning truth and the desire to put that truth into our life.
In the case of the disciples, this could begin immediately. “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says to them, “and be at peace one with another” (Mark 9:50). This will be their first step into the kingdom that Jesus is setting up. As the disciples will discover, this is not an earthly kingdom where people vie for important positions and argue about who is greatest. Instead, it is a heavenly kingdom, where the least are first, and where people live “at peace with one another.”
This is because all in heaven desire to serve and find their chief delight in serving. The privilege of being able to serve is, for them, the sweetness and goodness of life. This is yet another way of understanding the words that were quoted earlier at the end of the episode about prayer and fasting, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalms 34:8) 25