Intent on Believing What?
They seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant. (Mark 9:10)
I continue my probing through the larger context of Mark 9 to understand better the words of Jesus and why He quoted the last verse of Isaiah about worms and fire. The more I expand my search the more fascinating are the results that keep showing up.
One of the biggest problems that we all have is our bent toward wanting to believe what we have always been taught to believe instead of allowing God to explain Himself and His ways to us that often contradict our cherished beliefs. We become so certain that our systematic theology, our set of doctrines, our established denomination or religion is the only possible way to know 'truth' that we become extremely resistant to being open to anything that challenges those beliefs. We view with great suspicion at best, anything that disturbs the status quo, the way we have been brought up to think, and as a result we remain locked in prejudice, bigotry and darkness for years instead of allowing the light of God's truth and His Word to continually transform our lives.
If we are brought up to believe in a God who tortures sinners in a literally burning hell for all of eternity (or even for a short time) for failing to accept His offer of salvation, then any verses that talk about unquenchable fire are going to be appropriated to fit our preconceived ideas accordingly. We will be very resistant to giving ourselves permission to try to look at those verses in any different way because we are afraid that maybe our world views of reality and religion might become threatened.
But this principle not only applies to the doctrine of hell but to every cherished doctrine that every church promotes as their bastion of truth and the only proper interpretation of the Scriptures. I am not insinuating that it is impossible to know truth from a careful study of the Scriptures. However, I am strongly stating that it is very easy to get trapped in a spirit of dogmatism and narrow thinking and prejudice when it comes to deciding what is real and true and what God intends to convey through His sacred writings.
The Jews of Jesus' day were a classic example of this problem. The disciples of Jesus were no exception to this and were repeatedly falling into the trap of misinterpreting many things that Jesus was trying to teach them. As a result, many of the things that Jesus tried to make very plain to them remained amazingly obscure because they insisted on viewing them through the lenses of their preconceived religious beliefs and the traditions of their established religion instead of allowing Jesus to explain things from His perspective.
Whenever the disciples felt so confused about something Jesus said in parables or in other teachings and came to Him to ask for clarification, Jesus was ready to help them better understand and would open things up more clearly for them. But far too many times they either assumed that they already knew what He meant or were too afraid to ask Him what He meant because of fear they might not like what He would say that might force them to challenge their entrenched and familiar beliefs.
As I look back over the previous sections of this passage I begin to see time after time where this situation came to the forefront. Jesus would say something or do something and the people around Him would jump to conclusions or even directly contradict what He was trying to tell them in order to maintain the traditional views of the kingdom of God that they had been taught all of their life. Here are a few of the events in the last couple chapters that illustrate this problem in various ways.
At the end of chapter 7 Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment and orders people not to tell anyone. But instead, the more He insisted on keeping it quiet the more they broadcast it all around.
In chapter 8 the disciples find themselves confronted with a situation of how to deal with a large crowd of very hungry people while Jesus requests their opinion as to what to do about it. It was not like they had never experienced something like this before. The feeding of the 5,000 had already taken place not long before, and yet they seemed unable to come up with any workable ideas as to what to do with a situation of 4,000 people in similar circumstances to what they had encountered before. While Jesus was telling them He felt compassion for the crowd, it seems that all they could think about was how short on supplies they were and how helpless they were to do anything about it.
Immediately after this they completely miss the point of Jesus words to them on the boat about avoiding the yeast of the Pharisees. Once again they assume they know what He might mean but try to apply His words so literally that they totally miss His point until Jesus once again has to spell out more explicitly what He was trying to tell them using heavenly language instead of earthly 'baby talk' from heaven's perspective. Jesus even gets to the point of saying, “Do you not yet understand?”
At this point the narrative relates one of the strangest miracles that has kept me baffled for many years until I began observing the context more closely and began to see maybe why Jesus did what He did. Here is a strange story of the healing of a blind man. It is strange because it seems to relate that Jesus couldn't quite get it right the first time and had to come back around and try again before the man was completely healed. For years that seemed totally bizarre to me. How could Jesus, God incarnate Himself, not know how to heal this man totally on the first attempt? Was it a mistake? Was Jesus having a bad hair day and just slipped up from being too tired to get it right the first time around?
If you read this story you see that Jesus does some strange things like spitting right on this man's eyes and laying hands on him but the only result seems to be that the man is only half healed as a result. Upon investigation it appears that the only result Jesus was able to get the first time was that the man claimed to see people walking around like trees. I have often wondered first of all, how a blind man would know what a tree, or a person for that matter, looked like to start with. Maybe he had not been blind all of his life I suppose. But for whatever reason, this man clearly could not see clearly enough even though Jesus had invested miraculous powers into trying to heal him.
It was not until the second try when Jesus placed His hands directly on the man's eyes and it says that he looked intently that his eyesight was finally restored fully. I pondered this strange miracle of Jesus for many years until it began to dawn on me what the implications might be and why Jesus did such a strange thing that seemed so out of character for Him from the rest of His ministry.
The problem was not that Jesus couldn't or wouldn't heal this man the first time around. The real issue in this healing was the fact that Jesus was trying to convey to those around Him symbolically the problems that they (and we) experience all the time.
Like the disciples and other people in Jesus' day, we come to God for healing of our spiritual eyesight and receive ministry from Jesus and we begin to see some light. But just because we have encountered the miraculous healing power of Jesus in our lives at one point does not mean that we can see as clearly as God intends for us to see. We still view reality in very confused ways and what we believe we see is actually still quite confused. This is highlighted in many of the stories surrounding this event and is what I am starting to see in myself as I look at the context.
When Jesus healed the deaf man in chapter 7 and ordered people not to tell anyone, they thought that they knew better than Jesus what should be done and ignored His commands and instead did what felt exciting and right in their opinion.
When Jesus expressed His feelings of compassion for the 4,000 hungry people in the area of Decapolis, the disciples thought that these people were not as deserving of a miracle as the Jews were who had been fed last time, so they chose to operate in unbelief and pondered how they could solve the problem in practical ways without looking for the power of Jesus to provide for everyone's needs.
When Jesus spoke to them in the boat about the danger of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, they continued to see reality like men walking around as trees. They seemed to consistently miss point after point as Jesus was trying to unveil to them a reality of life so radically different that it simply would not fit into their religious mental boxes. Each time they tried to squeeze His words through their narrow filters it came out looking as strange as walking trees.
Throughout all of these passages, it is mentioned time and again that Jesus was trying to tell His disciples about His impending humiliation and death and resurrection. But this idea was so repulsive to them and so totally out of harmony with the power-based, glorious views of a conquering Messiah that they had been taught all of their lives that they simply could not reconcile these ideas at all. In the very next passage Peter finds himself at the point of one of the sharpest rebukes ever given to anyone as he tried to challenge Jesus' words about suffering and death and rejection. And this was right on the heels of one of the greatest compliments Jesus had just given to Peter for confessing Jesus as the Son of the Living God.
Imagine the emotions that must have been swirling around in the heart of Peter as he went from exhilaration from the compliments of Jesus to being the target of being called Satan and not having God's interests at heart in just a few moments. He must have felt enormously ashamed and humiliated and maybe even resentful. Given that situation, it is no surprise that Jesus' next words are a warning against feeling ashamed of Him and His words that are found at the end of chapter 8.
Immediately after this Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the high mount of transfiguration and allows them to see glorious realities of the Kingdom of heaven that few men have ever been allowed to see before. But then immediately following that we find the disciples feuding over who is more important. Not surprisingly, this comes right after the other disciples are shamefully humiliated by demons and religious leaders for their inability to perform a deliverance ministry for a young boy. As 9 disciples lick their emotional wounds and 3 disciples inwardly relish in their recent mountaintop experience, Jesus once again has to step in and confront them with their need to view reality differently than how they are perceiving it.
Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35)
Like the continuously confused disciples of Jesus, I find myself struggling often to perceive reality through the eyes of heaven. I can dimly see (like trees walking) that what I really need is a much more thorough healing of my own heart and attitudes and perception filters. In these last words of Jesus I find far too little resonance in my own spirit. I don't naturally want to serve others but I want to be ministered to myself. I am far too often looking at what I assume are the practical ways of solving problems instead of learning to always turn immediately to Jesus and seek Him to provide for my and others needs. I am too easily addicted to mountaintop experiences and wanting to stay there far too long when there are others going through severe trauma in the valley below that need our assistance and company for deliverance and encouragement. I need to trust the words of Jesus when He instructs me to keep my mouth shut as well as when He tells me to broadcast the Kingdom of love He has come to set up.
It is in this context that Jesus shares the verses talking about the hand or foot or eye causing me to stumble. It is in this context that I need to properly understand what these references to worms and fire and salt are supposed to mean. It is only as I am willing to open my mind and heart and be willing to rethink what I have assumed from my past and allow Jesus to introduce radical new thoughts and perspectives that I will be able to better synchronize with what God is trying to accomplish in and around me.
Father, go ahead and salt me (at least a little bit) with the fire of Your glorious passion. Dwell in me and be the spice of my life that will attract others to want to know You more intimately for themselves. When this block of salt has lost much of its flavor, fill me with fresh supplies of Your passion, of fire, of blessing and grace to lavish more frequently on those around me who are hungry for something more tasty. Glorify Your name and reputation through my life and keep me close to You today.