Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

115. Toleration and Intolerance (Mark 9:38-50; Luke 9:49,50; Matt. 18:8,9)*

Illustrating the wholesome Christ-like disposition which can ignore all pride of place, Jesus had taken a little child in his arms: "Whosoever receiveth one of such children in my name, receiveth me." John realised that the scope of this commandment went a long way beyond children of the kind Jesus was now holding. It meant adults also. Then here was a problem. Who were they to consider as included among Christ's "little ones"?

A Competitor?

So, with uneasy conscience, John told of a recent experience: "We saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him, because he followeth not us." The question in John's voice added: 'We did the right thing, didn't we?' There may even have been a suggestion of sour grapes about the apostles' antagonism, for this man was succeeding just where they had failed (Mk.9 :38). John's implication may also have been: 'Since he does not follow us, of course we have not "received" him. So he can hardly reckon as one of your 'littleones', Lord, can he?"

Yet it may be inferred that the man in question was a true believer in Jesus, for he was casting out devils, not merely attempting to do this. He was not like the evil sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14), dressing up a mountebank performance with an appeal to the well-known name of Jesus of Nazareth.

More than this, the Greek imperfect tense implies that several of the apostles had demanded time after time that the man desist from this practice which they disapproved of. But evidently, the man had taken no notice.

Another useful detail to observe is that when John said: "He followeth not us," he meant the "us" to include Jesus and the twelve, for this is the meaning of the "us" used by Jesus in his reply (Mk.9 :40). Thus John's words imply a marked sense of superiority over this lone disciple. What is worse, they breathe a distinctly sectarian spirit. There is no complaint of false teaching or unworthy character, but simply that "He doesn't belong to our fellowship!" For long generations this very thing has been the greatest evil in the Ecclesia of the Lord.

The Lord's comment on this situation is worthy of close study: "Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me." The actual doing of miracles was itself an evident sign of God's approval and support. Then who was John, to take upon himself the authority to forbid what was being done? And was it likely that a man who found power in the name of Jesus would be disposed to say anything damaging about Jesus?

Moses and Paul

The situation was exactly that which faced Moses when he chose the seventy elders to share his labours (Num.11 -.24-30). He gathered them at his tent outside the camp, and there the Spirit of God was poured upon them so that they "prophesied". But unexpectedly the Spirit also overflowed on to Eldad and Medad in the camp itself. Learning about this, and jealous for the authority of his leader, Joshua cried out: "My lord Moses, forbid them." But Moses' mature reply calmed him: "Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord's people were prophets!'—and he promptly went and joined them! (Cp. 1 Cor.12 :3). The exclusive attitude of Joshua was well-intentioned but wrong.

In Rome Paul had to cope with a much more provoking experience of this kind. Whilst he was a prisoner chained to a Roman soldier, certain of the brethren in the Rome ecclesia took advantage of his being under restraint to proclaim a slanted gospel in a contentious and factious spirit: "Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife... of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds." The surmise is almost certainly correct that these were Judaists, glad of the opportunity to spoil with their own dogmatic sectarianism the gospel Paul preached. They made hay while the sun shone. Paul, without his freedom, heard what was afoot but was unable personally to counter or correct their deleterious work.

Yet there is no hint of him writing sweeping censure of their activities, no hint of vexed, frustrated indignation. Instead: "What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice" (Phil.1:15:18).

The quiet steadfast faith that God can bring good out of men's evil intentions or imperfect understanding does not flourish in many minds. All too often the egotistic attitude is this: If /do not save the Truth of Christ, it will perish.

As was his wont, Jesus summed up the present problem with a governing principle: "He that is not against us is on our part." Separatists, who find little comfort or encouragement for their attitudes in this incident, are more at home with the complementary saying which Jesus had used on an earlier occasion: "He that is not with me is against me" (Mt.12 :30).

It seems necessary to supply the ellipsis (for it is obvious that there is an ellipsis) thus: "He that is not against us (when he might be expected to be) is on our part." Those who attempted the casting out of devils in the time of Jesus were usually people of the character of the sons of Sceva (Acts 19:14ff)-charlatans, impostors, rivals, rather than disciples. So the rare phenomenon represented by this lone healer who was also a firm believer in Jesus was one to rejoice in.

On the other hand, the scribes and Pharisees were able, Bible-instructed men who should surely have been among the first to recognize and acclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Instead, in a desperate effort to besmirch his character they blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, basely misrepresenting his gracious miracles as inspired by the Devil. So concerning them Jesus said: "He that is not with me (when there is every reason why he should be with me) is against me."


Jesus went on to warn against the grievous sin of discouraging one whom he is glad to recognize as "one of these little ones, that believe in me." And how needful such a warning is! lf apostles could blunder into this serious error, what likelihood is there that smaller men will avoid it?

A remarkable aspect of this present episode is this. By his earlier question: "What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?" the Lord had given further proof of his remarkable ability to read the minds of his disciples. Then must he not have been equally aware of their exclusive behaviour towards this "loner"? Yet he did nothing about it until they brought the problem to him!

But when they did so, how weighty was his disapproval! "It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, (as though he were a dangerous mad dog), and he were cast into the sea . . ." to stay there, so the Greek text seems to imply. In other words, better for such a man to die without any prospect of resurrection than to have to rise from the dead in the Last Day to give account for such an action! (But, for such a one, is a peaceful uninterrupted oblivion possible?)

Here, for the spiritual seed of Abraham, is the counterpart to that element in the earlier promise: "I will curse him that curseth thee" (Gen.l2 :3). On the other hand, the smallest gesture of goodwill-a mere cup of water-offered to a disciple, because he is a disciple, does not go unrewarded by heaven. The destitute and desperate widow of Zarephath gave a drink to Elijah, recognizing him to be prophet of the Lord, and thereupon received a reward beyond her wildest dreams (1 Kgs.17 :8ff). Think you, asks Jesus, that you are any less important than Elijah?


The Lord now turned from the much-needed lessons of toleration and kindliness, to the exact opposite—a ruthless intolerance of one's own besetting sins; and, appropriately, he employed some of the most vigorous language to be found anywhere in the gospels. The picture of a man (lilting off hand or foot or plucking out an eye, in order to save himself from the smoky destruction of Gehenna is not matched by any of the Lord's vivid figures of speech.

First, it is well to recognize how hopelessly mistaken are the misapplications of these words in support of the old and still widely held doctrine of hell torments. Taken literally, this language makes nonsense. "It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, halt, with one eye, than to go fully equipped into hell." Is it possible to conceive of enjoyment of everlasting life bereft of powers and faculties with which God graciously endows a man in this life?

Again, "where their worm dieth not" positively refuses a literal interpretation. So also does the picture of a man plucking out one of his eyes, because it is a cause of offence, for obviously with his one remaining eye his vision is not drastically impaired; he is, for example, still well able to "look on a woman to lust after her."

Self discipline

Of far greater importance than the misapplications of these words is their far-reaching relevance to the problems of daily living. The Law of Moses has a very dramatic picture (Dt.13 :6) of drastic action against others who would draw away the people of God from their loyalty to Him. Now Jesus bids his follower direct the same intense spirit of intolerance against the evils of his own life. Whereas there is to be every possible allowance made for weakness in others, and forgiveness extended unto seventy times seven, with the faults in oneself the Lord calls for relentless ruthlessness. A man is always in love with his besetting sins. That is why they are always with him. So, very honest and frank appraisal of one's own spiritual hindrances is a responsibility no true disciple would want to evade. Especially do the practical activities of life represented by hand, foot, and eye, need to come under constant scrutiny in a spirit of self-mistrust.

It is something of a puzzle why Jesus selected these three examples. The high priest was anointed on hand, foot, and ear (Lev. 8:23). Perhaps the third item was intended to signify the consecration of a man's head to the service of God—all the faculties of mind, speech and hearing being included. More likely, both in Law and Gospel the three powers mentioned are no more than examples, to remind the man of God that in all life's activities there is a call to rigorous self-discipline and the fullest possible consecration to God of whatever a man finds himself endowed with.

The hand stands, of course, for a man's daily work and for the special skills with which God has blessed him. The younger generation, planning careers for themselves, are well advised not only to choose such are reasonably clear from worldly defilement or temptation, but also to aim at a means of livelihood which makes a positive contribution to the well-being of society and is not parasitic.

The hand also represents hobbies and ploys to which a man turns in his leisure time. Some of these can be dangerous, luring him into undesirable company. Some are obsessive, capturing imagination and enthusiasm to such an extent that, instead of filling the odd hour of relaxation, they become insatiable. Bridge and billiards fall readily enough into this category. But it is little realised that the more respectable diversions such as music, chess and gardening can be every bit as evil. Elegant time-wasters, all of them!

Very expressively, when the Old Testament wants to say "dedicate" it makes use of the idiom: "fill the hand" (e.g. 1 Chr.29 :5; 2 Chr.29 :31). This goes back to the consecration of Aaron as high-priest. In that ritual the Lord's portion of the sacrifice was put "upon Aaron's hands, and upon his sons' hands", and thus it was presented before the Lord (Lev.8 :27). Now the exhortation of Jesus bids a man take care to consecrate all the activities of daily life to God. He is to "fill his hand" with that which pleases his Maker. And where there is risk of diversion or perversion of effort, He calls for unhesitating self-discipline.

"It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell." This, one may be sure, is how it may appear to limited human judgement. To worldly acquaintances many a saint in Christ appears to live a cramped and stunted life. But that individual, who has, for Christ's sake, foregone interests and activities which are deemed by the world desirable or even fascinating, knows that he has made a good exchange, finding profound satisfaction in this life, whatever the life to come may have to offer. And what value have all the fine cultural and entertaining diversions of this life if the end of them is an irreversible fate in Gehenna?

During the reign of some of the apostate kings of Judah, the valley of the son of Hinnom had been given over to the worship of Moloch. There little children had been passed through the fire in an act of dedication to Moloch, most of them—one may be sure—not surviving the frightful ordeal. Later Josiah's reformation devoted that valley to the disposal of the city's rubbish and sewage. Thus the fires constantly burning there became a well-understood figure for utter destruction. It was a place where "their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (cp.Jer.7:20; 17:27).

The figure of speech went right back to Isaiah. He used it to add vigour to his prophecy of a Jerusalem finally cleansed of all abuses: "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me."

It is their "worm that dieth not." It is they who shall be an "abhorring unto all flesh" (ls.66:24).

With powerful admonitory repetition, the Lord said it all again about the foot and the eye. In not a few Scriptures the foot is associated wild the religious side of one's life: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet . . . holy ground!" (Ex.3 :i). "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God" (Ecc.5 :1) "Trampling my courts" is Isaiah's caustic phrase for heedless insincere worship (1 :12). At other times the warning is against intimate social contact with the godless

There are dangers both ways. It is often a big temptation to let the outward forms of religious service do duty for true piety and the realities of a dedicated life. Attendance at Fraternal Gathering or Bible School may afford much religious and social pleasure without adding appreciably to the joy in heaven. It all depends on the attitude of mind.

Young people especially need to be alert to the dangers of where their feet— or their wheels — may carry them. Choice of friends and social activities is a far more serious matter than is usually assessed. It is so easy to drift thoughtlessly into friendships and activities harmless enough in themselves, yet fraught wild many a subtle unspiritual risk.

The eye, similarly, may be the cause of many another danger. In these sex-ridden days there is no need for warning against the havoc which the lust of the eyes can let loose. The saint in Christ who weakens his own defences with time spent on bad novels, salacious magazines, blue radio and TV programmes, is a fool (cp. Jud.16 :21). Corruption spreads fast in our time. There is no need to give it a helping hand, "Flee also youthful lusts" (2 Tim.2:22). "If thine eye cause thee to stumble, pluck it out."

In many another way, the eye may be the gateway of evil. Looking at oneself or one's belongings with pride! Looking at the possessions or the happiness of others with envy! Such attitudes, always evil, may become positively cancerous.

And is it not evident that Jesus also intended reference to the imagination? One of the most spiritually enervating habits it is possible to cultivate is that of idle reverie and unwholesome fantasy. Here again is a a vice to which young people are specially prone. It never does any good. It often works serious damage on mind or character.

Whatever kind of self-indulgence calls (or self-discipline, the counsel of Jesus is: "Cut it off... pluck it out." The world in its plausible cynical wisdom says to its cigarette smokers: "Phase it out gradually." There is no false wisdom of this kind to be found in the Bible. "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth" (Col.3 ;5)—and "mortify" means "put to death." Regarding other, and worse, things than smoking, the world's rotten pseudo-science of psychology says: "This is your inheritance from your parents or youir upbringing. These guilty feelings are uncalled (or, they are themselves a guilt. So, follow your inclinations, express your personality, work it out of your system. You are burdened not with a besettting sin but with a complex. Do your own thing, and you will be all the better for it." Alas, they do not add: "But all the worse in the sight of me Lord you say you follow."

Hi's counsel is: "Pluck it out, and cast it from thee." Follow this road of self-discipline, and the world will deem you to be mutilated, handicapped, disfigured. But Jesus would rather see you like that, and entering into "life." Nor does he lack the power to make the loss good. "When they saw . . . the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see, they glorified the God of Israel" (Mt.15 :31-hand, foot, and eyes, both eyes).

Also, as far as possible, let there be positive effort at replacing unworthy activities and habits with the healthy directives of a Bible-guided outlook on all the routine of life: "These words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest in the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shall bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes... (Dt.6:6-8).

"Salted with salt"

At this point the thought of Jesus appears to go off, somewhat enigmatically, at a tangent: "For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt." The meaning is not exactly obvious, but two observations can be immediately made with fair confidence. There is a definite link with what has gone before. The conjunction "for" requires this. Also, "salted with fire" is a meaningless expression, since it is only possible to salt with salt. But "salted for the fire" (a perfectly valid translation; see Notes) makes sense. Thus the idea is that, as in the temple every sacrifice must be salted (Lev.2 :13) before being given to the fire which devotes it to the glory of God, so also the salt of self-discipline is needful in the life of every disciple before he may consider himself worthy of God. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom.12 :1,2).

But, Jesus warned, to be of real value self-discipline must be lasting: "If the salt become saltless, wherewith will ye season it?" Whilst salt is valuable to impart flavour to many a food otherwise insipid, there is nothing that can similarly add a tang to the taste of salt. Then the only alternative is the fire and salt of heaven's reprobation: "The whole land thereof shall be brimstone, and salt, and burning . . . like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah" (Dt.29:23).

Concluding this part of his discourse Jesus came back to the problem of relationship with other disciples, as it had been raised by John: "Have salt in yourselves, and (so) be at peace one with another.'—meaning, fairly obviously: Cease this concern about applying discipline to others; concentrate on the discipline of yourselves; in this way you will establish, and maintain, a wholesome fellowship in Christ with one another.

In this century has there been any commandment of Christ more blatantly disregarded than this?—and by those who call themselves disciples!

Notes: Mk. 9:38-50

John answered him. In the synoptic gospels, these are the only words attributed to John, acting alone (Mk.10:35; 13:3). In the fourth gospel, 13 -.25 and 21 :7.

One casting out devils in thy name. Gk.: a certain man in thy name casting out devils. There seems to be the implied query: "But, lord, when is a man in thy name?" Contrast 3 Jn.7,8,9.

He followeth not us. Lk: with us. Which of these readings represents John's ipsissima verbal Is Luke diluting the strength of the more contentious assertion?
In my name links with v.37-39.
In the parallel passage in Mt.18 there is a closer connection than is usually recognized between v.6-14 and v.15-35

Cast. Mt. uses the same word as in Mt. 14:30
Enter into the kingdom This and v. 43,45: "into life," explain each other.
Where their worm dieth not. Manna gone bad through ignoring of God's precept; Ex. 16:20.
Salted with fire "for the fire (of the altar)." Compare the force of the Greek dative in Rev.21 :2; Heb.6;4; Jn.3 :26; Mt.6 :25;2 Cor.2 :1;5:13.

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