42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. [KJV – 44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.] 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. [KJV – 46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.] 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Albert Camus’ The Plague is rightly considered a classic. It is the story of a plague that swept through the city of Oran and the various ways that different people responded to, interpreted, and/or sought to combat it. The plague itself is clearly metaphorical and has been interpreted in various ways. As the book appeared in French in 1947 then in English in 1948, it is widely held that the plague was intended, at least to some extent, to represent the Nazism and totalitarianism that had only recently thrown the entire world into such chaos. Even so, it is also believed that the plague represents the human condition itself or perhaps even the absurdity of life as so many see it.
I do not feel that it is at all inappropriate to suggest that the plague might also have been seen as the corruption of human nature, as sin, as that which is wrong and skewed within us. The book can certainly be read in this way. Consider, for instance, these words, spoken by the character Tarrou to Rieux in The Plague:
I know positively – yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see – that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity (if you like) – is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. That’s why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death.
At the end of the book, a character says, “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”
We might be tempted to discard such as so much pessimism and despair. For Camus, there is not a wholly unjust projection, for Camus saw life as absurd, as having perhaps no ultimate meaning, but as the arena in which we must fight against the plague nonetheless. Christianity disagrees with Camus’ conclusion, but not with Camus’ notion of the plague. Christianity does not deny that something is deeply wrong with the world, that something is deeply wrong with us. Christianity looks that difficult truth square in the eye and calls it what it is: sin and the fall of man. But Christianity says something more. Christianity says that there is a cure for the plague, that there is meaning in life, that the absurd was given meaning by God Himself entering this dark and fallen world in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and by His self-sacrifice on the cross. Christianity says that the plague was cured by the only uninfected one taking the plague willingly into Himself so as to set free all who will come and accept the new life that He offers us.
This is the gospel. We must see Christ as the cure…but we must also see the plague from which He came to save us.
Sin is a plague that leads to death…our own and others’.
It is fascinating to read the New Testament’s teachings on sin in light of the idea of plague. It is certainly depicted as a highly contagious killing disease that we spread and that leads to our own destruction. We find in the words of Jesus that we are capable of spreading the plague of sin to others through our own foolish sinfulness and recklessness.
42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
Here we find some of the most terrifying words that Jesus ever uttered. He warns that the person who leads “one of these little ones” to sin or, more literally, to be offended, will face profound judgment. In fact, it is such a serious thing to cause another to fall that “it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” There is some discussion in the history of interpretation surrounding this passage of whether Jesus is referring literally to small children or whether He using that phrase euphemistically to refer to His own followers regardless of age. Regardless, the point remains: we are capable of causing others to fall and to sin and, in fact, our sins tend to do this. Thomas Oden wrote,
The human tragedy would be much simpler if no one else suffered from my sins, and if I suffered from no one else’s sins. But that naivete is not consistent with our social nature, or with the Christian premise of the sociality of sin.
Sin, by its nature, is a contagious plague. It is rarely kept solely to oneself. “…[H]uman beings belong together and are bound together in status corruptionis [state of corruption],” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is true. We are bound together in such a way that my sins will always end up affecting you and vice versa. Sin is social because human beings are social.
And sin, of course, poisons the one who commits it. So destructive is it that Jesus’ words are presented with maximum urgency and with jarring force.
43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. [KJV – 44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.] 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. [KJV – 46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.] 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
Leave aside for a moment the question of how these particular injunctions are to be interpreted. It is sufficient to say at this point that sin is presented as a deadly, life-destroying, highly contagious plague. Those things we wink at and giggle at that fall in the realm of “sin” are truly no laughing matter. If we could see the spiritual carnage, in addition to the physical, emotional, psychological, relational, national, and international carnage, of sin we would never laugh! The landscape is strewn with victims of the plague called sin!
Sin is a plague that will lead to death…our own and others’! More than that, sin leads to judgment after death. Verses 44 and 46 are not included in many newer translations. This is a textual issue. These verses are not included in many of the earliest and strongest manuscripts. That is neither here nor there, of course, for verse 48 does have wide attestation in the manuscript tradition. It is thought that verses 44 and 46 were added to create a kind of structure and emphasis by putting the threat of hell after each offending member.
The manuscript discussion is interesting but it is not the point. The point is that sin deserves the fiery judgment of hell “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”
I have recently read a book by a Christian leader who wrote that the thought of conscious eternal torment in hell is profoundly psychologically distressing to her. I understand that. It is to me as well. It is to all of us. It should be. It is intended to be! The judgment of God against unrepentant sinners is a terrifying thought! But it being terrifying and psychologically distressing does not render it untrue. It is true nonetheless and we see it in the very words of our Savior!
I believe that a proper doctrine of hell should cause us distress. We do not, by and large, feel such distress because we do not, by and large, have a proper and biblical doctrine of hell. But hear the words of Jesus: sin is a plague that will carry you to eternal judgment in hell! Hear this and tremble!
Followers of Jesus must therefore be radical in their resolve to flee the plague of sin.
What then must we do? Jesus’ words hit us like lightning:
43a And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
45a And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.
47a And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out.
Put another way: do whatever it is you have to do to rid yourself of whatever it is that is killing you! Sin is a disease, a plague. Cut off those parts of your life that have been affected by it.
The question of whether or not Jesus is being literal here misses the point. The point is the deadly nature of sin! However, as far as that question goes, we can be sure that Jesus was speaking with prophetic hyperbole or else the entire human race would be hand-less, footless, and eye-less! What is more, literally cutting off a part of your body is too easy. What is really difficult is seeing real heart change take place!
No, this is an image, but calling it “an image” does not get us off the hook, for the bottom line is still dissection: dissection of those things that have become so precious to us that they have taken root in our lives.
It has been observed by many commentators that the word for “hand” and the word for “foot” were oftentimes used in the ancient world euphemistically to refer to the sexual organs. In this reading of the passage Jesus is speaking specifically of sexual sins. Furthermore, the possible reference to children in verse 42 has led some to propose that Jesus is here condemning sexual crimes against Jesus. This is possible, though it must be pointed out (a) that we may just as easily have literal references to hands and feet here and (b) an anathema against a specific sin (if that is what is happening here) does not undercut the more general point about sins in general.
I am more persuaded by the idea that the reference to hands, feet, and eyes is saying something about the various stages of proximity to sin. For instance, Joel Marcus makes the astute point that “in many biblical contexts…the hand is the instrument for the commission of sin, the foot is the means of transport to the place of its commission, and the eye is the means by which the temptation to commit it enters in…If this is true, ‘cut it off’ and ‘pluck it out’ are not to be taken literally but as injunctions of increasing inwardness against sin in general.” In applying this, Marcus suggests the following meaning:
“If your hand offends you…”
Don’t commit sins (9:43)
“If your foot offends you…”
Don’t go anywhere where you may commit sins (9:45)
“If your eye offends you…”
Don’t even think about committing sins! (9:47)
This is extremely helpful especially if one considers that something like this very point was being made by the psalmist at the very beginning of Psalm 1:
1 Blessed is the man who walks [feet] not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands [feet] in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight [eyes] is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
Read in this way, Jesus is saying something like this: “Sin is deadly! Sin will kill you! It is so deadly that you should not think about it, look at it, walk near it, touch it, pick it up, hold it, or carry it with you! Have absolutely nothing to do with sin! You cannot be too radical in ridding yourself of it!”
If we are honest about our sins we see this progression: we see it, we think about it, we walk near it, we take hold of it. Each step leads to the next and the ultimate end is hell. Sin cries out for judgment of sin that violates the eternal laws of a holy God!
The plague of sin is only eradicated by fire: either the purifying fire of the love of God in Christ or the eternal fire of judgment. We must choose our fire.
Through verse 48 we have heard dire and unsettling words of warning and judgment. We have heard violent words and frightening words about the deadly reality of sin. Then, in verse 49, Jesus speaks again of fire but this time in a way that expands our thoughts about the thought of judgment alone. He seems to speak of a kind of fire that is good for us!
49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
The word “everyone” in verse 49 gives us pause. Consider the two ways about which Jesus references fire in our text:
- verses 42-48: the fire of divine judgment against sinners
- verses 49-50: the salting fire that will come upon us all
What are we to make of this? We must conclude that the first fire is negative and speaks of the wrath of God. This second fire seems to be something else, for Jesus connects this fire with the image of salt and then says, “Salt is good.” So “everybody” will be salted with fire and salt is good.
We must understand that in combining the images of fire and salt Jesus was drawing on sacrificial language, language that would have been understood by his original hearers. Consider, for instance, the Old Testament injunctions to salt the offerings you bring to God.
In Leviticus 2 we read:
13 You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
And again in Ezekiel 43 we read:
23 When you have finished purifying it, you shall offer a bull from the herd without blemish and a ram from the flock without blemish. 24 You shall present them before the Lord, and the priests shall sprinkle salt on them and offer them up as a burnt offering to the Lord.
So an offering that has been salted with fire is a good thing! It is an offering to God for atonement and for forgiveness and for the blessings of God. It burns, but it burns for the good. The fire and salt of the altar is unlike the fiery judgment of hell. I agree with William Lane who wrote that verse 49’s reference to fire “speaks of a different kind of fire—the fire of purification. While verse 48 applies to the rejected, verse 49 has reference to those who are true to God in a hostile world.” I think this is correct.
Put another way, we might say that the plague of sin is only eradicated by fire: either the purifying fire of the love of God in Christ or the eternal fire of judgment. We must choose our fire.
Or, consider this way of putting it: the unrepentant will go into the fiery judgment of God’s wrath but the repentant will receive the purifying, cleansing, life-changing fire of God’s love. In light of this, read again the amazing Pentecost passage from Acts 2.
1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
Do you see? When God poured out His Holy Spirit upon His gathered Church He did so in such a way that they appeared to be being salted with fire! The Holy Spirit is the purifying fire of God given in love to take up residence within the hearts of all who trust in Jesus. This purifying fire of God burns out the impurities and the effects of plague. This can be painful indeed, but it is a work of love and a gracious gift!
This is what I mean when I say that we must choose our fire! In a sense, we are all going to burn! But by this we mean that we will either burn in judgment or will receive the holy fire of God through the gift of His Spirit who takes up residence and burns within us illuminating the dark places of our lives and purging us through the journey of sanctification of plague. Both are flames—the flames of hell and the flame of the Holy Spirit—but one speaks of divine wrath and the other of divine love.
We are now in a position to understand Paul’s amazing words from Romans 12:
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
By “living sacrifice” Paul means what Jesus meant by “salted with fire.” Our lives have been salted with fire and placed on the altar of submission to the will of our great God through faith and repentance. The Holy Spirit is the fire with which we have been salted and the doorway through which the Spirit comes is Christ Jesus crucified and risen again. For when all is said and done the altar of belief and repentance and faith has been made available to us only because of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus who alone could take the fire of the wrath of divine judgment into Himself and meet its demands on our behalf.
Said differently, Jesus gives us the fire of divine love because He has met the just and righteous demands of divine judgment.
He took the fire of judgment so that we could be given the fire of grace!
He took the wrath so that we could be given mercy!
We come to the altar of repentance because He went to the altar of the cross and accomplished for us there what we never could accomplish on our own!
His was the agony and ours is the joy!
His was the pain and ours is the reward!
His was the fire of judgment and ours is the gift of the Spirit!
We thank God for the fire quenching Christ who gives us, in turn, the fire of His presence within us!
 Albert Camus. The Plague. (New York, Vintage Books: 1972), p.235-236.
 Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.129.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol.1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p.108.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27A (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2009), p.697.
 William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark. The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Gen. Ed., F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p.349.