Mark 9:30-37

MarkSeriesTitleSlide1Mark 9

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. 33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Some years ago CBS showed a miniseries on Jesus. Networks do this from time to time, usually with less than impressive results. Even so, Shane Clairborne noticed an interesting example of artistic license that CBS indulged in, an example that, surprisingly, offered an interesting and even profound observation. Clairborne writes:

I really hate to allude to the CBS miniseries on Jesus…but there’s a fabulous scene in which the Tempter meets Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane just before he is about to be crucified. The devil tells him, “They do not understand your cross, Jesus. They will never understand your cross.”[1]

I cannot believe I am saying this about a network television miniseries, but that is actually quite thought provoking and profound. Furthermore, history has shown that oftentimes that statement is true: the Church frequently has not understood the cross.

This was true in the gospels and it is true today. The reality of the cross and what it implies for our relationship with Jesus is a reality that many who profess His name not want to face. I would contend that we like the cross as it pertains to our salvation but we are terrified of the cross as it pertains to our lives, to our walks with Jesus.

This fear of the full implications of the cross can be seen more than once in the gospel of Mark. It can be seen specifically in Mark 9:30-37.

Failure to understand the cross is at the very heart of all the errors we as Christians commit.

The memory of the mount of transfiguration was fresh on the minds of Peter, James, and John, and the memory of the miraculous healing of the tormented boy was fresh on the minds of all of the disciples. Jesus had just demonstrated His power in two unique and unmistakable ways. It was surprising, then, that He turned once again to talk of His coming death. He had done this before, at the end of Mark 8. Now He does so again. The disciples’ reaction reveals yet again that they do not know what to do with this talk of a violent death.

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. 33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.

This is most troubling. Jesus again foretells His coming death and resurrection. The disciples’ response is telling. They are silent because they are confused and they are afraid. Specifically, Mark tells us, they “were afraid to ask him.” Why? It was likely because they knew that what they were going to hear did not fit their own limited understanding of who Jesus was and what following Jesus meant. Ronald Karnaghan says that the silence of the disciples gives “the impression…that they might have glimpsed or guessed where Jesus’ line of thought was leading and been afraid of the implications it held for them.”[2]

It reminds me of a friend of mine who told me about playing hide-and-go seek with some kids. My friend counted while all of the kids hid. When he opened his eyes and took a few steps out in the yard one of the kids there in the broad light of day laying on the ground on his back with his eyes tightly clinched shut. My friend went over to the boy and said, “What are you doing?” The boy responded, “I am hiding.” My friend responded, “You do realize that hiding means going somewhere where I cannot see you not going somewhere where you cannot see me, right?” The boy thought that so long as he did not see the one looking that the one looking did not see him! How silly, and how very much like us.

There are many Christians who think that if they can shut their eyes tightly enough then what they do not want to see simply will not exist. But that is not how reality works. No matter how badly the disciples did not want to see the cross of Jesus, it was still a reality in the plan of God. Shutting your eyes to divine truth does not remove the threat and challenge of divine truth to you! And the reality was not only that Jesus was going to the cross but also that Jesus was calling the disciples to take up their own crosses! They and we were not and are not to take up a cross in the exact way that Jesus did. We cannot. Only Jesus could lay down His life for the remissions of sin on the cross. Even so, in Matthew 16 Jesus said:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

This means that the cross is not only the means of our salvation but the path of our own discipleship. We are to be a people of the cross! But the disciples did not want to see that so they shut their eyes to it. In fact, Mark seems to be making the point in his gospel that the disciples not only misunderstood the reality of the cross they misunderstood it in the most absurd of ways! For instance, J. Painter has pointed out the interesting fact that after each of the three predictions of the cross that Jesus makes in the gospel of Mark the disciples “show themselves to be blind and devoid of any understanding of Jesus’ vocation as Son of Man and how this should involve them.”[3] Consider:

Passion Predictions in Mark               The Disciples’ Response

(1) Mark 8:31-32a                              Peter rebukes Jesus.

(2) Mark 9:30-31                                The disciples argue about who is greatest.

(3) Mark 10:33-34                              James/John ask to sit beside Jesus in glory

Consistently in the gospel of Mark the disciples miss the point of the cross and, in so doing, miss the point of Jesus. Let us understand: to miss the point of the cross is to so misunderstand Jesus that the Jesus we profess to have in the absence of the cross cannot even be called the Christ of Christianity. When this happens, when this distortion takes place, this crossless-Christ who really is no Christ is therefore seen to give assent to all kinds of things with which the true Christ would never agree.

This is how, for instance, many churches, then and now, could claim the name of Christ will indulging in something as ugly as racism. Let us use racism as an example of how this work. Racism within institutional Christianity is nothing less than the logical result of Christianity without a cross, for the cross is the great reminder that we are all equal, that we all stand as sinners in need of grace, that no sinner can reasonably profess to be in any way superior to another, and that, through the blood of the Lamb, we are now made a new people before God. The theological foundation of equality is found in the very beginning of scripture when humanity is created in the image of God but the cross is the exclamation point on that great fact.

The cross reminds us that God has come in Christ to reach out to lost humanity. More than that, it tells us that the blood Christ covers all who will come to Jesus in repentance and faith and that there is therefore now no distinction between persons. The blood of Christ is the great equalizer. It makes us one. What a shame, then, that there have been times when the Church embraced racist mindsets. And how embarrassing it is to a people who profess Jesus as Lord that sometimes the civil government has had to call the Church out on its hypocrisy and its failure to follow its creed to its logical conclusion. What a scandal it is when even non-Christians see what the end-game of Christianity should be even though the Church sometimes does not!

For instance, in 1956, William Faulkner wrote an essay entitled “On Fear: Deep South in Labor: Mississippi.” In the essay, Faulkner described the many voices that were trying to speak to the issue of race in the South. He cited the voices of senators, circuit judges, ordinary citizens, etc. He then wrote this:

There are all the voices in fact, except one. That one voice which would adumbrate them all to silence, being the superior of all since it is the living articulation of the glory and the sovereignty of God and the hope and aspiration of man. The Church, which is the strongest unified force in our Southern life since all Southerners are not white and are not democrats, but all Southerners are religious…Where is that voice now, the only reference to which I have seen was in an open forum letter to our Memphis paper which said that to his (the writer’s) knowledge, none of the people who begged leave to doubt that one segment of the human race was forever doomed to be inferior to all the other segments just because the Old Testament five thousand years ago said it was, were communicants of any church.

Where is that voice now, which should have propounded perhaps two but certainly one of these still-unanswered questions?

The Constitution of the U.S. says: Before the law, there shall be no artificial inequality – race, creed or money – among citizens of the Unites States.

Morality says: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Christianity says: I am the only distinction among men since whosoever believeth in Me, shall never die.

Where is this voice now, in our time of trouble and indecision? Is it trying by its silence to tell us that it has no validity and wants none outside the sanctuary behind its symbolical spire?[4]

It is a reasonable question: is the cross-tipped-spire of the Church merely that, a symbol? Does the Church that professes Christ even understand the cross to which Christ has called us? If we miss the cross, we miss the very point of Jesus.

In order to reach the disciples in their ignorance, Jesus chooses a more accessible example to illustrate how radically different the Kingdom is from the world.

Because of their gross ignorance and fear and pride, Jesus appears to decide to approach the issue of the cross from a different angle. It is as if the truth of the cross and what it meant was too much for them to handle when offered in a straight-forward way so Jesus decided to “tell it slant,” as it is sometimes put, that is, to approach a hard truth from an angle that people can hear. And Jesus appears to decide to do this by using an object lesson, in this case a child.

35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Who is this child? We do not know. However, some have proposed that the child is Peter’s, “ a proposal combining the location in Capernaum, which according to 1:21, 29 was Peter’s home, with the implications drawn from 1:30 and 1 Cor 9:5 that Peter was married and, presumbably, a father.” Furthermore, since the 9th century there has been a more fanciful tradition, namely that the child was a young Ignatius of Antioch, the great early church father.[5] There is, of course, no way of proving either of these proposals though we might note that the possibility of this child being Peter’s would seem to be higher than the possibility of it being Ignatius of Antioch.

Jesus calls a child into their midst and then Jesus takes the child into His arms. His words would have struck first century ears as more scandalous than they hit our own: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Why would this have hit first century ears as scandalous? It would have hit them thus because of the radical nature of the claim. The first radical thing this did was associate Jesus with a child, for Jesus said that in receiving the child they received Him. This was a most surprising development because of the way in which children were viewed in the ancient world. James Brooks speaks of “the lowly place occupied by children in ancient society” and notes that “the same Aramaic word means both child and servant.”[6] Witherington sees in Jesus’ usage of the Aramaic word the talya the possibility of “a deliberate wordplay” on the part of Jesus.[7]

The fact that the word for “child” was the same word used for “servant” tells us that ancient people as a rule did not indulge in what appears, at times, to be the near deification of children in our own society. I am talking about families that seem to be led by the children instead of the parents. I am talking about parents who are incapable of thinking that their children can be in error and should be actually raised by them. This was not the problem of ancient society. To be sure, ancient people may have gone too far the other way but the problem is not remedied by the exaltation of children out of the realm of those who need to be lovingly and carefully raised.

Thus, in saying that the disciples received Jesus by receiving the child Jesus was saying that His greatness would reveal itself in a surprising way, in a way that the disciples would naturally scorn, in a way that they could not have foreseen. Jesus, in fact, would become the servant of all in laying down His life on the cross. Jesus would be like the child in His embrace of the cross: not exalted, not thought highly of, not seen as powerful. Even so, in taking the cross, Jesus was accomplishing one of the most glorious displays of obedience and true kingdom power the world has ever scene.

And the disciples were to receive the child. This was an unexpected object lesson. Great men in that time did not think of receiving children. Children were not part of the company of great men. Children were just that: children! But Jesus brings a child into the company of those who were arguing about greatness! In saying what he said, Jesus was telling the disciples that they were going to have to humble themselves. More than that, they were going to have to think differently.

This is what I mean when I say that Jesus decided to approach the reality of the cross from an angle where they might could receive it. Before they could accept the raw scandal of the cross they needed at least to begin to accept that their assumptions about power, about importance, and about significance were misdirected in powerful ways. And to do that, Jesus brought one of the more overlooked elements of society, a child, into their midst and used him to make the point.

What was absolutely essential, absolutely imperative, was that the disciples come to understand and embrace the cross. Cross-less Christianity cannot truly follow the Christ of Calvary. It cannot be what it must be. It cannot love as it must love. The Church without a cross is a consumeristic circus baptized in the language of the faith but missing its vital core.

We must embrace the cross.

In Makoto Fujimura’s beautiful and powerful book, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, he writes of the persecution of the Japanese Church and of the powerful monument on Martyrs Hill that memorializes them.

On a bright morning in December 2002, I had the privilege of standing on the spot called Martyrs Hill in Nagasaki. It overlooks that city’s Ground Zero from a distance of about a mile. That bright morning I visited the memorial to the bombing of Nagasaki and the museum with friends, and took a video piece in the pond at Ground Zero. (I later used this in my New York exhibits, calling it Nagasaki Koi.) The first thing one sees upon entering the museum is the façade of a church building, white with ashes— perhaps the type of church that many missionaries would have visited. Its windows are skeletons; their stained glass is melted into beads on the ground.

With that fresh in my mind, I then stood in front of twenty-six figures lined up as a horizontal wing of a bronze cross marvelously crafted by sculptor Yasutake Funakoshi. The cross is outdoors on Martyrs Hill; Nagasaki is to one side, and the ocean is at the other. My eyes went almost immediately to the two shortest figures, one slightly higher than the other. The two short crosses belonged to Saint Ibaraki and Saint Anthony, twelve-year-old and thirteen-year-old believers.

Twenty-six men and three children were paraded some 480 miles from Kyoto to this hill to be crucified. It was the magistrates’ logic that it would embarrass them to be taunted throughout their journey. Some bled as they walked; their ears or noses had been cut off in Kyoto. On a busy road in Kyoto today— right by a hospital, one of the first that was established in Kyoto by Christian missionaries— there is a stone that marks where the march began.

The story of their arrival at their destination is one of a remarkable display of faith. When they arrived at the hill in Nagasaki, crosses were already lined up. As the story goes, one of the two boys said, “Show me my cross.” Then the other echoed, “Show me mine.”[8]

These children understood Jesus and the life to which He calls us better than the disciples of Mark 9. “Show me my cross.” “Show me mine.” They understood the Kingdom and what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom. These children are the way forward for us all, showing us what it means to embrace the cross with courage and with faith.

If we miss the cross, we miss Jesus.

Do not miss the cross. Do not shut your eyes to the cross. Do not stop your ears to the message of the cross. The message of the cross is the message of Christ. He came to win us on the cross and through the empty tomb.

To follow Jesus means to follow Him to the cross.


[1] Shane Clairborne, The Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p.250, fn.3.

[2] Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.180.

[3] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), p.260.

[4] William Faulkner, William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches & Public Letters (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), p.92-106.

[5] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27A (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2009), p.675.

[6] James A. Brooks, Mark. The New American Commentary. Gen. Ed., David S. Dockery. Vol.23 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), p.150.

[7] Ben Witherington III, p.270.

[8] Fujimura, Makoto (2016-05-01). Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (Kindle Locations 640-655). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

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