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Mark 9

Scripture: Mark 9:2-50

Overview:

  • Six days later, Jesus, James, John and Pete head up to a high mountain. On the mountain top, Jesus transforms into a shiny, white, glimmering dude.
  • Moses and Elijah then appear and chat with Jesus.
  • The disciples are (understandably) terrified and Peter blurts out, “Let’s set up little houses of worship for everyone!”
  • A cloud shows up and covers them, then a voice from the cloud says, “This is my son, listen to him!”
  • Suddenly it’s just James, John, Pete and Jesus again.
  • On their way down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples to keep the whole incident under wraps until after his resurrection.
  • The disciples are confused by Jesus’ mention of his death/resurrection and ask him if it’s true that Elijah is supposed to come before the messiah.
  • Jesus replies that Elijah did come before the messiah, and that the way Elijah (i.e. John the Baptist) was treated (i.e. killed) would be how the Son of Man would be treated.
  • When they get back to the disciples, there’s a crowd and a commotion regarding a demon-possessed boy that the disciples can’t seem to heal.
  • Jesus is fed up with everyone and has the boy brought to him.
  • The boy goes into convulsions at the sight of Jesus. Jesus asks the dad about the symptoms.
  • The boy’s father tells Jesus that he’s been like this since he was little, and that the demon in the boy often tries to kill him.
  • The boy’s father begs Jesus to help… if he can.
  • Jesus says, “If I can?” [the disciples think, “Oh no you didn’t”]
  • The boy’s father says, “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”
  • Jesus casts the demon out and the boy looks like he’s dead. Jesus helps him up and everything’s cool.
  • The disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast the demon out and he tells them that it can only be done with prayer and fasting.
  • Jesus continues on his journey and teaches the disciples more about his upcoming death and resurrection.
  • When they get back to Capernaum Jesus knows that the disciples have been talking about who among them would be the greatest, so he reminds them that the first shall be last. He then takes a child and says that the one who welcomes the lowest person in society (“Like this little kid”) is the one who welcomes him.
  • John pipes up and says, “There was this guy casting out demons in your name, but he wasn’t one of us, so we told him to stop.”
  • Jesus replies, “Leave him alone. If he does something in my name, he’s on my side. Whoever helps out a believer is cool with me. Whoever hinders a believer is in deep, deep doo doo–you might as well be drowned in the sea.”
  • Jesus then tells them that, “If anything is going to cause you to work against me, you’re better off ditching it than ending up in hell (the very, very unpleasant place God will put all his enemies in the end). Everyone is going to be tested, everyone is going to be purified. Don’t lose your purity, because then you’re good for nothing. Let your purity bring peace, not conflict/dissension/division between you.”

Historical Context:

Transfiguration

The Greek word means “to change in form” (morphe), and occurs only four times in the New Testament (9:2; Matt. 17:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18). In each instance it denotes a radical transformation.[1]

Mark doesn’t usually give specific time references, but here he denotes that the transfiguration happens six days after Peter’s confession. This may be an allusion to Exodus 24:15-17 where Moses waited six days before being summoned by God for revelation on Mount Sinai. Six days is also the time period between Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles – which commemorates the Jews’ wandering in the wilderness for 40 years).[1]

Bright white garments are often signs of heavenly beings (ex. Dan. 10:5; Rev. 3:4; etc.). Matthew (17:2) and Luke (9:29) mention that Jesus’ face shone as well, which heightens the comparison with Moses whose face shone very brightly because it reflected the glory of God (Ex. 34:35).[1]

Peter, himself, wrote about this experience (2 Peter 1:16-18) reflecting how he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ majesty and how he heard God confirm him as his son.[3]

Moses and Elijah

Moses and Elijah are most often understood to represent the Law and the Prophets. How the disciples recognized the two individuals as Moses and Elijah is not explained.

It is also likely that the joint appearance of Moses and Elijah recalls the final verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:4-6), where Israel is commanded to remember the instruction of Moses, and where Elijah is introduced as the prophet who would turn the heart of the people to repentance on the Day of the Lord.[1]

Tents/Tabernacles

The primary reference here seems to be the booths or tabernacles set up by the people during the Feast of the Tabernacles.[1] These are small, walled structures set up and slept in to remind of the Jews of the fragile dwellings of their ancestors while wandering in the dessert for forty years with Moses.

The implication of Peter’s intent to build the tabernacles was possibly in a way to both glorify his visitors and enable them to stay a while.[2] Peter may have also been reflecting the long-held Jewish hope that God would once again “tabernacle” (dwell) with his people as in the time of the Exodus.[1]

Rising from the dead

Resurrection was a prominent belief held among Jews in the first century (especially the Pharisees). They believed that one day, God would give “life to the dead.” This belief finds its origins in the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel.[7] The Jews understood that both the righteous and wicked would rise from the dead on the day of judgment, the righteous to life eternal, the sinners to punishment and execution.[7]

The disciples would’ve surely known what rising from the dead meant.  They were probably more likely puzzled by Jesus’ insistence that he, an individual person, would die and rise from the dead before “the end of the age.” Resurrection of the righteous was generally understood to be a collective and eschatological (end of days) event.[1]

The Jews of Jesus’ day expected only one coming of the Messiah into history and this coming was related to the military victory and supremacy of national Israel on a global scale.[2]

Who is the greatest

Ancient rabbinic writings frequently commented on the seating in Paradise and argued that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels (since people such as the just, righteous teachers or martyrs were considered to be “the greatest”). Earthly seating orders at worship and meals, or authority within or dealings with inferiors and superiors were seen as preparation for the future order (cf. Psalm 68:24-25).[1]

“Servant” is translated from the Greek word diakonos, or  “one who executes the commands of someone” and looks after his needs. It refers to personal devotion in service as opposed to service as a slave.[1]

Up to this point in history, the mark of success was always measured by service received; not by service given.[1]

Children

Children were essentially “non-persons” in ancient culture. This was likely due to the high infant mortality rate, the great demand for human labor, and the fact that children (along with women) were totally dependent on others for food, shelter and protection. Children hand no right for self-determination. A man could not expect to gain anything either socially or materially from kindness to a child.[1]

“Being like a child” means to forgo status and to accept the lowest place. The use of a child as a teaching aid is explicitly about social status, not any child-like character traits.[1]

Only in Mark’s gospel does Jesus embrace the child (“take into his arms”). Jesus is literally showing his disciples how welcoming they should be of the insignificant and the ignored.[1]

Since they are back in Capernaum, possibly in Peter’s house, this may have been Peter’s child.[2]

The Aramaic word ‘talya’ can mean both ‘child’ and ‘servant’, there was no distinction in their social status.[2]

Invoking Names in Exorcisms

First century exorcists invoked various formulas and ‘words of power’ (such as the names of God, the angels, King Solomon, etc.) in their exorcisms and their incantations. Their widespread influence can be seen through the appearance of various Hebrew names of God (ex. “Iao”, “Adonai”, “Eloai” or “Sabaoth”) in magical amulets and papyri.[1]

The name of a spiritual being presumed to be greater than the possessing spirit was invoked by exorcists as a way to overpower the demon and free the person’s soul.

Hell/Gehenna

“Hell” is literally translated as Gehenna and refers to the Valley of Hinnon near Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was the place where the city’s garbage was burned. It had come to be used in this way because the valley had an embarrassing and revolting history for the Jewish people– it was there that in the past they had worshipped the fertility fire god, Molech, through the practice of child sacrifice.[2]

The valley is mentioned five times in the book of Jeremiah (7:31,32 19:2,6 32:35) as the place in which the people would “burn their sons and daughters in the fire.”[6]

King Ahaz of Judah sacrificed his sons there according to 2 Chron. 28:3.  The same is recorded of Ahaz’ grandson Manasseh in 33:6.[6]

The book of Isaiah does not mention Gehenna by name, but the “burning place” (30:33) in which the Assyrian army is to be destroyed.

Jesus quotes three times the final verse of Isaiah which concerns the fate of those who have rebelled against God, Isaiah 66:24.[6]  Here, in the final section of Isaiah, the prophet is describing the great prosperity of the kingdom of the Messiah, and that the people of God shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of men who have transgressed against God. The messiahs’ enemies shall be overcome. The people of God shall triumph. The prophet says that there will be heaps of dead, slain in battle, whose number shall be so great, that the worm feeding on the dead shall not die, shall live long–as long as there are carcasses to be devoured; and that the fire which was used to burn the bodies of the dead shall continue long to burn, and shall not be extinguished till they are consumed.[4]

King Josiah destroyed the shrine of Molech to prevent anyone from sacrificing children there in 2 Kings 23:10. Jeremiah would still later include a prophecy that Jerusalem itself would be made like Gehenna and Topheth (19:2-6, 19:11-14).[4]

Salt

In Jesus’ day, salt was an important means of healing, purification, and preservation. It also was used to seal covenants (Num. 18:19).[2]  The Jews put salt on a gift/sacrifice to God (Leviticus 2:13) as a sign of the agreement between God and his people.[3] 

The implication may be that the disciples, via trials, beatings, persecutions, etc., were to be prepared as a sacrifice and offering to God.[4]

The text may also be implying that just as salt preserves meat, so too will the wicked be preserved by fire in their sufferings. .[4]

The terms salt and fire seem to both represent purification in this context.[2]

Observations:

  • Luke says the Transfiguration happened “eight days” after Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. This may be a contradiction, however, Luke admits that he is estimating (“Now it happened that about eight days after these sayings…”).[1]
  • Scholars are not in agreement on the location of the “high mountain” Jesus’ transfiguration took place on: some say that Mount Hermon is it due to its proximity to Caesarea Philippi and height (9,200 ft.), though many early Christian Fathers, place it on Mount Tabor (1,500 ft.), eleven miles west of the Sea of Galilee.[1]
  • Clouds were a sign that God was present. In Exodus, the cloud (God) led the people, and when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law a cloud covered the mountain for six days.[3]
  • When the voice in the cloud says, “listen to him” this is reflective of Deut. 18:15 in which God says he will raise up a prophet like Moses who should be obeyed.[2]
  • Jesus’ answer to the disciples’s question about Elijah is two fold: 1) He affirms that he, as Son of Man, is part of the same sequence of events as the return of Elijah; and 2) that Elijah’s experience has been one of rejection, which foreshadows what will happen to the Son of Man. Jesus links John the Baptist’s suffering and death with his own.[1]
  • The symptoms of the demon-possessed boy seem to describe an epileptic fit, however, Matthew, Mark and Luke all clearly state that the healing was done through an exorcism. Matthew includes the termselēniazetai (literally “moon-struck” or “lunatic”).[1]
  • Mark’s account of the epileptic/demon-possessed child focuses on the restoration of speech. Neither Matthew or Luke mention a speech defect.[1]
  • When Jesus takes the seemingly dead boy by his hand and raises him up, it echoes the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:31) and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5:41-42). The language of lifting up (egeirein) evokes the idea of a ‘resurrection’ – a motif confirmed by the addition of the verb anistēmi (“arose”) immediately afterward.[1]
  • When the boy’s father “cried out,” this can be interpreted more literally as he “said with tears.”[1]
  • When John, the apostle, says he wanted to stop the actions of a man “not following us,” it is implied that the person casting out demons didn’t have membership in the “authorized” circle of Jesus’ followers.[1]
  • Jews, as a rule, feared the sea (note how Revelation 21:1 describes heaven as a place where there would be no more sea). They regarded drowning as a horrible form of death – a symbol of utter destruction. When the rabbis taught that pagan and gentile objects were to be destroyed utterly, they say that it must be cast “into the salt sea.”[1]
  • The “little ones” Jesus warns the disciples not to make stumble seems to be young believers. The disciples were not to cause new believers to lose their faith by being exclusive or hierarchical.[3] Jesus issues a dire warning against his followers making it their business to monitor and pass judgment upon the works of others.[5]

Discussion:

  • What areas of our life do we need to ask Jesus to help us believe more?
  • What is the role of faith in soliciting Jesus’ help? How strong does it need to be? What happens if it’s not enough? How do we know it’s not enough?
  • Who is the lowest person in our society? How can Christians serve them?
  • Who do you consider to be outside of those who follow Jesus but invoke his name in their actions? Are they with God or against him? How do you know?
  • How do we exclude “little ones” from our belief? How are we hierarchical/exclusive in our thinking about who’s in and who’s out of the faith?

References:

  1. Catholic Answers
  2. Utley’s Commentary
  3. Free Bible Commentary
  4. Barnes’ Commentary
  5. Coffman’s Commentary
  6. Gehenna – Wikipedia
  7. Resurrection – Wikipedia

 

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