The Lord's Day Evening
March 20, 2005
“Mortification, Jesus Style”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now as we continue this evening in the Gospel of Mark, where we have been these Lord's Day evenings for some time now, we come this evening to a section that closes the ninth chapter, beginning at verse 43, and reading through to the end of the chapter.
Before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer. Let's pray.
Once again, O Lord, we would quieten our hearts. We would be still and know that You are God. We come before You in all of our needs, exposed as we are by the truthfulness and veracity of Your word. We have just heard the little children being taught a lesson about sin, and what every sin deserves, and we pray this evening as we come to this solemn passage that we might consider afresh the reality of our own discipleship and walk and communion with Yourself.
Lord, it is our chief complaint that our hearts and witness are not what they ought to be; that the good that we would, we do not; and the evil that we would no, that we find we do. And we pray now this evening as we look into the Scriptures together, come, Holy Spirit, and grant that by the encouragements of Your sovereign grace we might be motivated and challenged and enabled to run in the pathways of perseverance and obedience, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Hear with me, then, the Scriptures as we find them in the Gospel of Mark: chapter nine, and beginning at verse 43.
“...If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be case into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Amen. And may God add His blessing to this reading of His holy and inerrant word.
I'm somewhat wondering this evening...the attendance is due to the inclement weather, or Spring Break, or you saw the text that was coming up tonight! Someone e-mailed this afternoon and asked if I would preach an encouraging sermon this evening, and it's difficult to preach an encouraging sermon from this text. It's a very solemn text. It's a text of the words of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
And I was thinking this afternoon, had you been a teenager–oh, somewhere in the age range of 14 or 15 years of age–in the seventeenth century, and you had attended Christ College in Oxford, the largest of the colleges in Oxford–a college in which the Chancellor would have been none other than Oliver Cromwell, and the Dean and later the Vice-Chancellor would have been no less a person than Dr. John Owen–yes, you would have been 14 or 15 years of age. They went to university much younger then than they do now; and you would have been male had you been in attendance at this university. This was the seventeenth century. You might have gone to chapel one day and heard Dr. Owen say, “Suppose a man be a true believer, and yet finds himself, in himself, a powerful indwelling sin leading him captive to the law of it; consuming his heart with trouble; perplexing his thoughts; weakening his soul as to duties of communion with God; disquieting him as to peace, and perhaps defiling his conscience and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin. What shall he do? What shall he take and insist on for the mortification of his sin? His lust? His distemper? Or corruption?” Imagine–you’re only 14 or 15 years of age, and you are listening to that, in the middle of the seventeenth century. Owen is reflecting there his fundamental belief in the importance of the issue of repentance, the issue that's before us in the text that we have this evening.
Repentance is as necessary to salvation as faith is. It is as necessary to salvation as faith is, and it's worth remembering as we come to a passage like this one, that the very first words recorded in the Gospels of Jesus and in this Gospel in particular, are the words, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand.”
One of the great early church fathers in North Africa, Tertullian, in his marvelous and almost unique treatise on repentance, written, I think, towards the end of his life, wrote these words: “Sinner, as I am of every dye, I am born for nothing save repentance.” And what has emerged in our study of Mark, chapter nine especially, and in a startling way, in these preceding sections, is just how much sin, how very necessary repentance is–not just of the masses, but of Jesus’ disciples, His closest disciples. These very ones who have followed Him–hand-picked leaders, those with whom Jesus had established communion and fellowship and rapport, to whom He had taught the fundamental principles of the kingdom of God–and now here we find them, after returning from the journey to Caesarea Philippi where some of them, three of them, have witnessed the transfiguration of the very body of Jesus; and now they’re arguing amongst themselves who is the greatest. And forbidding–John, the disciple, forbidding one who was attempting to cast out demons, forbidding him to do that work because ostensibly this man did not belong to the inner circle of disciples. The pettiness! The envy! The sense in which at the very heart and lives of Jesus’ closest disciples repentance is so very evidently necessary!
It's not surprising then, although the text is a harsh one, a strong one–it's not your favorite text. I doubt you've got it highlighted in your Bible as ‘one of my favorite texts’ unless there's a streak of masochism in you. But you can see why Jesus now addresses these disciples on the need for repentance. Remember Luther, in The Ninety-five Theses–the very first one, as he nailed them to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, that our whole life is to be one of repentance. Repentance is a life-long duty.
And what I want us to see now in this passage that's before us–there are three things: The Where, and The How, and The Why. The Where, and The How, and The Why: Where we are to deal with sin; and How we are to deal with sin; and in the third place, Why we are to deal with sin.
I. Where we are to deal with sin.
In the first place, then, The Where. Sin is something, Jesus says, that we need to deal with, you and I. He's speaking to disciples, and He's saying in this passage sin is a serious thing, and it needs to be dealt with. We were singing just a few minutes ago Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted. And the opening line of stanza three came home to me as we sang it this evening; “Ye who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great...” That's it, isn't it? And Jesus is saying that The Where is within ourselves. The Where is within ourselves.
Let's take a look first of all at something of the context in verse 42–and we took verse 42 along with the previous section. Jesus had said ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin...’ —and Jesus isn't, I think, reflecting there ‘little ones’ meaning children; He had taken, you remember, a little boy and embraced him, but I don't think He's referring there to children so much as this disciple, this unknown disciple who had been casting out demons, and John had forbidden him because he wasn't of the inner circle. And he had made him, caused him to sin. And in a sense, Jesus is thinking there of sin that lies outside of us, but that's not the focus of His attention now. It's not so much others who sin; we see sin in others all the time. We take note of them, and we underline the sins of others, and we talk about the sins of others, but Jesus is saying here it's not the sins of others so much–it's our sins. It's my sin.
And in verses 43 and 45 and 47, it's my hand, and my foot, and my eye that is the cause here. It's sin that lies within the hearts of disciples–of disciples of Jesus! Our sin can cause others to sin, but Jesus wants us to see the underlying seriousness of our own sin...of our own sin. “Ye who think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great....” I'm not asking if we are serious about other people's sins. Jesus says, ‘I am asking, ‘Are you serious about you own sin?’’
And we rush on in this passage, don't we, in this extended and somewhat severe hyperbole that Jesus is engaging in here about plucking out eyes and severing limbs and so on? And Jesus is almost saying, ‘Wait a minute! Stop!’ I want you to ask the more fundamental question: Do you see sin in the way that we're considering this evening? To the very children of the church, the consequences of sin...and I wonder, is that something we need to have underlined in our own hearts once again?
That great statement of J. C. Ryle's in the opening of his magisterial volume on holiness: that “he who would make great strides in holiness must first of all consider the weightiness of sin.”
And those famous words of Anselm, in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), in the character of Bozo, who didn't understand, and who didn't comprehend the necessity for the incarnation of Jesus: “You have not yet considered the weightiness, the gravity, of sin.” Because if you had understood the gravity of sin, you would understand the length to which God had to go in order to redeem us from our sins.
This is a point of advance here, in discipleship of these men, that Jesus is underlining for them the seriousness with which sin must be considered. Imagine...imagine if you went to a doctor, and imagine if he were to tell you after doing many extensive tests that there's something seriously wrong with you. And then he suddenly, as it were, gets up and opens the window and he says, “Well, let's forget all about that, because it's a beautiful day, isn't it? And we’ll just ignore all that.” And you’d be saying, “No! Let's talk about this! I need to know about this. This is serious!” And there are times when in God's dealing with us, you and me, as we read the Scriptures, as we attend the means of grace, as we fellowship with one another, there are times when this, as it were, this reality that we are sinners comes home to us. I think it came home to these disciples in this context, to be rebuked by Jesus in this way: the reality that they had found themselves discussing who would be the greatest; that something of the ugliness of one-up-manship had manifested itself in the life of this group of disciples.
You know, sometimes when you think that sin is dead and that it has gone away, those are the most dangerous times of all, because at the times when we think that it is dead, it is very much alive, because as you and I know all too well that it is often still water, rather than running waters, that are in fact deep.
And if tonight, as you approach this passage as a child of God to whom God has shown mercy, and He's brought you to Jesus Christ, and you've been adopted into His household and family, and He's made you an heir, and a joint heir with Jesus Christ, and His Spirit witnesses with your spirit that you are the children of God, and yet at the same time He's made you aware of the consciousness of sin in the sense that Paul can sometimes speak of it as he does in Romans 7, that “the good that I would, I do not; and the evil that I would not, that I find I do. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”–that those are in fact growing times, and discipling times, and Christ-shaping times in our lives.
So don't, my dear friend, be put off by a passage like this. Don't turn the page and look for something more comforting, because if God is going to shape you and shape me after the image of Jesus, if all of those habits that we have adopted from our union with Adam are finally going to be eradicated so that the pristine godliness of Jesus will be manifested in our lives, these are the very things that God will say to us we need to deal with. And so first of all, then, is this realization that The Where as far as dealing with sin is concerned, The Where is in ourselves, in me as a child of God.
II. The How
But then secondly, is The How. If The Where is within me, the second thing that Jesus here seems to deal with is The How. How is that sin of which Jesus has now made me somewhat conscious and brought, as it were, to the forefront of my mind as something which He detests and something which needs to be removed, and something which ought not to be, how is that sin going to be dealt with?
And there are, it seems to me, at least two things here that Jesus seems to be saying by way of response.
The first–and at first I think it's somewhat obvious, but perhaps it needs to be underlined for all of us–is that sin takes physical dimensions. Sin takes physical dimensions. I'm saying that because Jesus here specifically refers to hands and feet, and eyes.
Now before we elaborate on that, I think it's important for us to say that that is not all that there is to dealing with sin, and elsewhere in the teachings of Jesus, and particularly in The Sermon on The Mount, and particularly when Jesus is encountering the Pharisees; and elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in Paul in Romans 8 and in Colossians 3, for example, other things come to the surface, too. And the importance of motivating desires–because if the heart is wrong, everything else is wrong. If the motive and desire and the inner impulses are wrong, then the outward physical manifestations are also going to be wrong. And the corollary, that it's more than possible to deal with the outward, in the sense that the Pharisees often dealt with the outward and the external without dealing with the real internal issue; so don't misunderstand Jesus here. But Jesus is here giving expressed shape and form to the manner in which we are to deal with sin, and we are to deal with it in its physical dimensions.
Isn't it interesting that when Paul comes to write what perhaps is the most important chapter in the New Testament–and that's saying something, I suppose–I'm referring to Romans 6, when Paul comes to deal with the reality of what we are in Jesus Christ: that we are in union now not with Adam, but with Jesus Christ; that we have been raised with Christ; that we've been baptized not only into His death but also into His resurrection, so that Paul can say elsewhere “we sit in heavenly places in Jesus Christ.” You remember one of the things that Paul goes on to say in Romans 6: “Do not present your members as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members–your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
And that little word instruments, it's a very interesting word. Paul is talking here about “the members”, and I think he's speaking specifically here about the physicality of our members: that our holiness and godliness, and Christ-likeness, that our life in union with Jesus Christ is to take shape in physical dimensions. And Paul is saying that we are to use them as instruments. Actually, it's a word that could be rendered weapons. Instead of employing your bodies as weapons in the arsenal of the evil one, instead employ your bodies, Paul is saying, as weapons in the arsenal of Jesus Christ, and for the goal of godliness.
And doesn't the apostle go on elsewhere in Romans, in chapter 12, to appeal to those Roman Christians to “present their bodies a living sacrifice unto God, which is your reasonable act of worship”? What Jesus seems to be saying here to these disciples is that holiness, holiness takes very physical dimensions. So that we need to ask ourselves questions of the like: What is it that I am reading? What is it that I am watching? What is it that I am looking at? What is it that I am holding? What is it that I'm allowing my feet to take me to? What paths of unrighteousness and ungodliness and disobedience am I engaging in with my physical body?
And perhaps if you’ll allow me to make an application here at this point, as Reformed Christians who have a world and life view, I think Jesus at the very least is saying to us, ‘You need to ask yourself, ‘What is it that you are watching on television? What is it that you are watching in the movies?’ And don't think for one minute that other Christians–you can sit there are watch it and be totally unaffected by it–that the rest of your being is not also caught up. And Jesus is saying, ‘Sin, my friends, takes on physical dimensions.’
But a second thing He seems to be saying is this: that sin is something to which we should show no mercy. Sin is something to which we should show no mercy. Now, to be sure, Jesus is implying here severe hyperbole. He's not suggesting for one moment (though some of the early church fathers interpreted it that way, as though Jesus meant this literally–that somehow or other this was some kind of recipe for sadomasochism)–but rather, what Jesus is employing here is a graphic illustration of what putting sin to death actually is; and what the Apostle Paul elsewhere in Romans 8:13 and in Colossians 3:5 will refer to as “mortifying the deeds of the flesh.” We are, you and I, to kill sin! That's what Jesus is saying. We are to put it to death. We are to show it no mercy. We are, in the language (and somewhat graphic language) of John Owen, we are to ‘lay our hands upon the throat of these things and not to let go until it has stopped breathing.’ That's what He says. And it is painful. It is extraordinarily painful to deal with our sins in this way.
And, nor is Jesus suggesting here that we only have to deal with particular sins once and they will disappear. Sadly, the reality is that we will have to deal with our sins again and again and again–all the way, in fact, to glory! And Brister and I were commenting as we were walking down to the church sanctuary this evening that in our younger days we actually thought that discipleship would get easier as we grew older and more mature; but the reality is that it actually gets more difficult, because Satan has an arsenal, the like of which we only glimpse in his ability to bring us down. ‘Lay your hands,’ Jesus is saying, ‘on this sin's throat and don't release the pressure until it stops breathing.’ That's The How. Put it to death. Sever that right arm if necessary; pluck out that right eye if necessary; sever that foot if necessary; because the most important thing of all, the most important thing of all is walking in the pathway of godliness and holiness.
Whatever it costs, whatever you may have to deny yourself, whatever you may have to say no to–and it's all too easy for me now to try and legislate for all of you what you can and cannot do, and I can't do that because it will be different for different people. But if God, in His providence and through the reading of Scripture, makes it clear to you that this is something you ought not to be doing, then make sure, my dear friend, make absolutely sure that you don't rebel against the voice of Jesus as He speaks to you, even through the word and in providence.
But if The Where is in us, and if The How is by systematic killing of sin, there is a third question it seems to me that Jesus is addressing here, and it's The Why.
III. The Why.
Why is sin something which Jesus tells us that we need to deal with? Why is that? Why is that?
And Jesus is underlining for these disciples a view of salvation that says at the heart of it that the way you can be assured that you truly are a child of God is not because you have experienced something in the dim and distant past, important as that may be. The way to assurance that you truly are a child of God is that you continue to walk in the pathway of godliness and obedience. We have absolutely no right to think that Jesus says to us that having experienced something of His grace that we can therefore “sin that grace may abound.” We cannot allow ourselves to think that way! “Pursue after holiness,” the New Testament says,
“without which no man shall see the Lord.”
That's why the Apostle Paul can say in another context, “I discipline my body...”–and he's using a metaphor that comes from the arena of boxing. “I discipline my body and keep it under control.” Why, Paul? Why? “Lest after preaching to others I myself should be a castaway.” Imagine! The Apostle Paul is saying that! That the only reassurance of his salvation is that he continues to walk in obedience to Jesus; that having tasted grace in forgiveness, he gives his life away in obedience to the Lord as His disciple.
But there is, of course, here also a second motivation and a second answer to the question “Why should sin be something that needs to be dealt with?” And that is because of the repeated phrase (and it's repeated in some of your versions more than others, reflecting some manuscript issues that we need not go into here), but the allusion of Jesus...the allusion of Jesus here to the fires of hell–to the fires of hell, where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
And isn't that interesting and alarming at the same time? That Jesus is speaking to His disciples–to His disciples–and He's saying to His disciples, the motivation...the motivation for pursuing holiness of life is that if you don't–if you don't–you will end up in hell! That's what Jesus says. Those aren't my words; those are the words of Jesus.
And isn't it interesting that the motivation that Jesus is employing here is not simply motivation of grace? It's the motivation that if you don't, you have no right to entertain an assurance that grace has been manifested in your life. Just as the Apostle Paul in another context can say (II Cor. 4), ‘The reason why I preach the gospel is that the love of Christ constrains me.’ But he can say in the very same passage–in the very same passage he can go on to say, ‘We must all be before the judgment seat of Christ.’
Not only is the love of Christ a motivation, but the fact that one day we must appear before the all-seeing eye of God on the Day of Judgment. And that's what Jesus is saying here to the disciples. The reality of hell for those who are not walking along this pathway of obedience, having tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
Oh, my friends, it would be all too easy now to engage in something of a negative assessment of what Jesus is saying here, and I imagine that many of us find it difficult to respond to these words of Jesus, because I think it's almost instinctive with us that the very language of a place that burns with fire that does not quench is almost instinctively distasteful to us, and that not in part because grace has transformed us so that we long for that eternal city where joy abounds and the presence of Christ abounds.
But there may be some here this evening, and your problem may be not so much the fear of hell, because you are perhaps surrounded by the fear of hell; and maybe that's all that you see, and maybe what you need to see this evening instead of looking down and raking in the muck that is below you, you need, as Bunyan portrays in that second part of Pilgrim's Progress, you need to look up, my friend! You need to look up and see that crown of gold that hangs above your head, and to see that the fires of judgment have been quenched in the person of Jesus Christ as He was nailed to that cross at Calvary.
You see, my friends, as we look at this passage all too simply this evening, how serious the issue of indwelling sin is, and sins like pride. Sins like pride...and that's why Jesus says at the close of this passage, “Have salt within yourselves,” alluding in fact to something in Old Testament with regard to sacrifices where salt was in fact used. “Have salt within yourselves”– let it have its preserving feature about yourself as you walk now the pathway of obedience, and be at peace with one another!
And do you see what Jesus may well have been alluding to? That one of the very sins that had manifested itself in the lives of these disciples was the pettiness of one-up-manship–the pettiness of one-up-manship, thinking one higher and better than another–and be rid of the sin for the good of the fellowship, and for the peace of Jerusalem, and for the assurance of your own soul as you walk in union and communion with Jesus Christ all the way to glory.
Well, let's pray together.
Our God and our Father, we thank You now for Your word, solemn as it is. We ask for Your blessing. Hide it in our hearts, and give us grace of holy obedience for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.