The following notes and references expand on the material I presented in today’s Bible Pacesetter podcast on this same passage, Discipleship the Hard Way. This includes my working translation (not to be mistaken for a polished and final one), some notes, and some additional quotations and references.
Translation and Notes:
Teaching about the Cross
30When he had left there, he traveled through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know.
Note that the secrecy here gives a clue to the secrecy theme in Mark generally. Jesus is keeping control of the agenda.
Barclay comments on the importance of teaching the disciples:
“He [Jesus] had to leave behind him a band of persons on whom these propositions were written.” — Barclay on Mark 9:30-31
As Barclay notes here, while Jesus didn’t leave us written words, he left us these disciples. This was the critical importance of his spending time with them and teaching them. They would be the human means–accompanied and aided by the Holy Spirit–of getting the word out to all of us.
31For he was teaching his disciples and telling them that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of people, and they will kill him, but when he has been killed, after three days he will rise again.
There is good indication that the teaching took place over some period of time. Wuest goes so far as to suggest different groups of disciples, traveling separately so as to be more secretive, but I think that goes well beyond the implication of the text.
“The human mind has an amazing faculty for rejecting that which it does not wish to see.” — Mark 9:30-31
Often a lack of understanding does not result from our inability to understand, but rather from our unwillingness to understand. We can even deceive ourselves into thinking we don’t understand when actually we do. Jesus will be able to tell the difference!
32They didn’t understand what he was telling them, yet they were afraid to question him.
Barclay suggests they simply didn’t understand the meaning of the upcoming resurrection, but I would suggest that with many other commentators that the problem was that the understood what Jesus said very well, but couldn’t integrate it with their view of the Messiah.
John Wesley comments:
Mar 9:32 – They understood not the word - They did not understand how to reconcile the death of our Saviour (nor consequently his resurrection, which supposed his death) with their notions of his temporal kingdom. — John Wesley, Commentary
The following quote from the Interpreter’s Bible on Mark 9:32 (Exposition) is enlightening:
Consider how reluctant multitudes in the modern world are to accept the Cross of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God. Other conceptions and idealizations fit so much better into our “onward and upward” thought forms. The serene teacher of Galilee, the persuasive expounder of wise and helpful axioms of living, even the Jesus of Palm Sunday, acclaimed and honored, is so much simpler, more attractive, more congenial to our culture, to our reliance on education, to our disparagement of extremes. Many prefer an intelligent, reasonable Jesus, an inspiring example, the counterpart of a broad-minded liberal, a leader of all good causes. They too find it hard to understand the saying about crucifixion and death. And because so many do not understand it, the Christian faith, instead of being conceived and presented to the world as God’s act of redemption, has dwindled down into another set of moral maxims, impotent to face and subdue the tragic evils of life and of history. When we think of the gospel in any such fashion as that, we make a detour around the Cross, and so miss the way. — IB exposition on Mark 9:32
Who is the Greatest?
33And they entered Capernaum, and while they were in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”
Hate it when this happens. You’ve been going along happily living your own life and ignoring what Jesus teaches, and suddenly he asks you what you’ve been up to!
The Interpreter’s Bible notes:
What a disconcerting question! How would we like to have it suddenly put to us? There is always danger of great embarrassment when Jesus joins the conversation and asks quietly, “What were you talking about?” — IB exposition on Mark 9:33
34But they were silent for on the way they had been discussing who was greater among themselves.
This is a complete contrast to what Jesus has been trying to teach them, and demonstrates the point of verse 32—they simply didn’t get it!
35And he sat down and called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, let him be the last and servant of all.”
Servant leadership—it’s something we talk about a lot, but it is very hard to practice. We are very much programmed as human beings to desire position and power. Sometimes servant leadership puts one in a position of power. When that happens it’s even harder to maintain the servant attitude.
“It is strange how a thing takes its proper place and acquires its true character when it is set in the eyes of Jesus.” — Barclay on Mark 9:32-35
“If we took everything and set it in the sight of Jesus it would make all the difference in the world to life.” — Barclay on Mark 9:32-35 [these two sentences come a few lines apart in the same paragraph -- HN]
36And he took a little child, he put it right in the middle, took it in his arms, and told them, 37“Whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but the one who sent me.”
Often even in service we want to serve the person who is most important. If we can just follow the biggest person in sight around, perhaps we’ll get somewhere. At least we can bask in some reflected brilliance. But Jesus asks us to serve people who are unimportant, who can’t reward us, and in many cases can’t even thank us. He’s asking us to make service the object of our efforts, and not the means.
The One Who Doesn’t Follow With Us
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a certain man casting out demons in your name and we hindered him, because he’s not following right along with us.”
Notice how this man is carrying out the work of the kingdom. Throughout the gospel of Mark, the sign that the kingdom is advancing is that the demons resist and then flee. But since this man is not part of the “in” crowd, the disciples want him stopped. What’s special about them any more if just anyone can do it? But Jesus again emphasizes the fact that service is to be our object, and not a means to importance. The important thing was that the kingdom was advancing and people were being set free.
John Wesley comments:
Mar 9:38 – And John answered him - As if he had said, But ought we to receive those who follow not us? Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name - Probably this was one of John the Baptist’s disciples, who believed in Jesus, though he did not yet associate with our Lord’s disciples. And we forbad him, because he followeth not us - How often is the same temper found in us? How readily do we also lust to envy? But how does that spirit become a disciple, much more a minister of the benevolent Jesus! St. Paul had learnt a better temper, when he rejoiced that Christ was preached, even by those who were his personal enemies. But to confine religion to them that follow us, is a narrowness of spirit which we should avoid and abhor. — John Wesley, Commentary
39But Jesus said, “Don’t hinder him. For there is nobody who will do a miracle in my name and will be able to speak evil of me right afterward. 40For whoever is not against us is for us.
Note the contrast to the similar statement in Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23. Both have their appropriate viewpoint. In this case, pride caused the disciples opposition to this man.
John Wesley notes:
Mar 9:39 – Jesus said - Christ here gives us a lovely example of candour and moderation. He was willing to put the best construction on doubtful cases, and to treat as friends those who were not avowed enemies. Perhaps in this instance it was a means of conquering the remainder of prejudice, and perfecting what was wanting in the faith and obedience of these persons. Forbid him not - Neither directly nor indirectly discourage or hinder any man who brings sinners from the power of Satan to God, because he followeth not us, in opinions, modes of worship, or any thing else which does not affect the essence of religion.
Mar 9:40 – For he that is not against you, is for you - Our Lord had formerly said, he that is not with me, is against me: thereby admonishing his hearers, that the war between him and Satan admitted of no neutrality, and that those who were indifferent to him now, would finally be treated as enemies. But here in another view, he uses a very different proverb; directing his followers to judge of men’s characters in the most candid manner; and charitably to hope that those who did not oppose his cause wished well to it. Upon the whole, we are to be rigorous in judging ourselves, and candid in judging each other.
And Barclay, on the same passage:
“It is necessary always to remember that truth is always bigger than any man’s grasp of it.” — Barclay on Mark 9:38-40
41Whoever gives you a cup of water in the name because you are of Christ, I tell you he will definitely not lose his reward.”
We don’t work for the reward, but God will reward.
These are some references I consulted:
Barclay, William. The Gospel of Mark (Daily Study Bible). Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956.
Bock, Darrell L. Jesus According to Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.
Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Via Logos Bible Software.
Wesley, John. John Wesley’s Commentary, from eSword.
Wuest, Kenneth S. Mark in the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950.