As believers, we are to represent the Kingdom of Christ in a way that highlights the Gospel as the primary catalyst for service. Our discipleship is not an overnight occurrence, but instead is an ongoing, refining process. Alistair Begg shows how this transformation enables us to have an impact in our churches and society.
Mark chapter 9, and we have two verses left, and we will make them the focus of our study. If you’ve come as a visitor, we’ve been studying Mark’s Gospel. We’ve decided that we’re going to take a break at the end of chapter 9 for at least a little while over the next—probably next, I don’t know, six weeks or so—and so tonight we want to tackle the end of it. So, we’re just going to read verse 49 and 50, which you will find as the very end of Mark 9. It’s page 715 in the church Bibles, if you would like to look it up and you don’t have a Bible in your possession.
Jesus is speaking. He says, “Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
We pray, gracious God, for your help, for clarity of understanding and expression, for obedience to your Word. Help us to take the warning seriously and to embrace the promises warmly. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
William Barclay, in his commentary on Mark, says of verses 49 and 50, “These … verses are [among] the most difficult in the [entire] New Testament.” It’s always a great encouragement when you read that as you anticipate studying it and then preaching on it. I’m prepared to take him at his word. I know that there are multiple interpretations of these two verses by commentators throughout the ages, and therefore, we’re going to ask God to help us to do our best as we look at them just briefly at the close of this day.
These verses reinforce what we’ve been discovering for some time, and particularly did this morning—namely, that following Jesus is a serious business. Anybody that has the notion of Christianity as being some kind of esoteric philosophical journey for those who are inept and in need of a crutch to help them through life is somebody who has never actually come up against the claims of Jesus of Nazareth. Because it very quickly becomes obvious that the demands of Jesus that are placed upon those who profess his name are significant and serious demands. And we’ve already seen this; Jesus has made it clear, particularly in chapter 8, after he had announced to his followers that he was going up to Jerusalem to “suffer many things,” to “be rejected by the elders, [the] chief priests and [the] teachers of the law,” to “be killed,” and three days later to “rise again,” and then it is immediately after that that “he call[s] the crowd to him along with his disciples,” and in Mark 8:34 he says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
And I’m sure that you were paying careful attention as we read from Acts chapter 9, and we noted what the Lord said to Ananias in his diffidence in being the expression of hospitality to Saul of Tarsus: he said, “This man is my chosen instrument to [bear] my name before the Gentiles. I will show him what a wonderful time he’s going to have as my follower.” No, of course, he didn’t say that. He said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” What a strange thing, to become the follower of Jesus and to be immediately introduced into a life that is demanding, and challenging, and full of anticipated suffering.
Now, the verses that immediately precede our two verses this evening have also reinforced this truth. His listeners would be in no doubt, any more than we should be in any doubt, about the demands of discipleship. And he has warned his listeners about causing others to stumble and to sin, and then he has issued a very clear warning about toying with sin in their own lives. He makes it perfectly clear, as I tried to point out this morning, that in this matter there is no place for negotiation. There’s no middle ground. He doesn’t suggest that we negotiate with sin, that we try and effect some kind of reconciliation between our sinful propensities and the demands of discipleship. No, he actually calls not for negotiation but for amputation—or, if you like, for eradication. And it is virtually impossible to read this without having to go away and reflect very carefully on the challenge that it brings.
Now, the transition from verse 48 into 49 becomes the fodder for vast numbers of paragraphs in the commentators. I may just be particularly dense, but I don’t think that it is as complicated as so many seek to make it, nor do I believe that verses 49 and 50 are as unrelated to what precedes them as many of the commentators suggest. And the suggestion is that somehow or another verses 49 and 50 were just stuck in here by Mark—he had some thoughts in his mind at the time of things that Jesus had said that were unrelated comments, but they seemed to fit appropriately at this point in his Gospel. That is not an impossibility, but I think it is unlikely.
And so, let me suggest to you, at least, the way I have resolved this in my own mind. Jesus has just finished saying in verse 48, concerning hell, that “the worm does[n’t] die” there. The picture is of Gehenna, a metaphor that is used for the destructive dimensions of eternity without God, the refuse dump outside of Jerusalem. There, “the worm does not die,” there “the fire is [never] quenched.” And the people in Jerusalem would have looked down at Gehenna and said, “You know, it’s true. When you get up in the morning, you can still see the fire burning. When you go to bed at night, the smoldering embers are still evident in the darkness.”
And so, this notion of fire, this picture of fire, is in their minds. And I imagine—and this, of course, I have confessed to you before my imagination—but the way that I see this unfolding here is that Jesus is essentially saying to his followers, “You know, mentioning fire reminds me to say something else to you. And here’s the first thing I have to say to you…” Verse 49: “Everyone will be salted with fire.”
What in the world does that mean? It seems such a strange thing to say—especially to our ears, removed from the circumstances by such time and distance.
Well, a knowledge of the Old Testament, and particularly the sacrificial designs in the temple, are a help to us in getting started. And if you want me to guide you through this, I can. If you want just to listen to me, that’s fine as well. But I turned in my Bible to Leviticus 2:13, and there I discovered that in the design for the offering of grain offerings in the temple—and this is not the only occurrence of this—but in Leviticus 2:13 the instruction is given, verse 12, “You may bring [these] to the Lord as an offering of the firstfruits, but they are not to be offered on the altar as a pleasing aroma.” Well, how will we offer them, then? Well, “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.”
Now, this would be familiar territory to Jesus, and it would be familiar to many of those who were listening to him. Some of them would recall that salt was part of the provision necessary in the time of the exile that you can read of in relationship to Ezra in chapter 6 and so on. And the people recognized that when these offerings were brought to the temple in that context, they were burned, and as a result they were destroyed, and consequently the offerings were complete and they were irrevocable. And in the context of these complete, these total, irrevocable offerings, the folks understood this in relationship to the nature of God’s covenant with those who were their own. Jesus appears to be reaching back into this arena, collating, if you like, the picture of fire to which he’s just alluded and the notion of salt which comes from that context, in order that he might remind his followers that following him is going to involve a process whereby they are salted; the offering of themselves is going to be a refining process, if you like. The refining process is referred to in this way: “Everyone will be salted with fire.”
Now, it just sits there as a verse at the end of Mark chapter 9, and one of the ways that we try and understand the Bible is to look not only back to see if there is anything that precedes it, but to look on to see if there is anything that follows it. And if your mind works as mine does, you may find yourself going to 1 Corinthians chapter 3. And in 1 Corinthians 3, after Paul has talked about the preoccupation of the Corinthian believers with personalities and with divisions in relationship to personalities, and after he has pointed out that Apollos does the job, and he does the job, but in actual fact the real work is the work that God does—and referencing the work of God and his part in it, he says in verse 10, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation, someone else builds on it; each one should be careful how he builds.” Why? Well, because “There’s no other foundation that can be laid apart from the foundation that has already been laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Then he goes on to make application of it: he says, “If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work”—his work—“will be shown for what it is, because the Day”—the day of judgment—“will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” You got this picture, again, of the refining process that is taking place.
You have the same thing in the writings of Peter. And in 1 Peter chapter 1, as some of you will know, in verse 6… Let’s forget that. Let’s go to [James] 4:12: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and to destroy. But … who are you to judge your neighbor?” In other words, we are moving towards a day, and that day will reveal whether we are those who have taken seriously what Jesus has just said about our eyes, our feet, and our hands—whether we have responded in the correct fashion to the seasoning, refining process that takes place in the lives of all who follow Jesus. “Everyone will be salted with fire.” In other words, there’s no special pass. There’s no flying “to the skies on flowery beds of ease.” “No,” he says, “you fellas need to understand this.”
And memorably the hymn writer puts it for us when in “How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord” we have the verse,
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
His grace, all sufficient, will be your supply;
For he will be with you, in troubles to bless,
And sanctify to you your deepest distress.
And it seems to me that whatever else is being communicated in the forty-ninth verse, it is at least that—what Paul eventually refers to in Romans 12:1–2: “I beseech you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, which is wholly acceptable to God,” and that picture of sacrifice, the sacrifice in relationship to the covenant, the use of salt, and then this collating of the notions—as Jesus puts it here, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”
And then it’s as if he says, “And while we’re talking about salt, let me say something else.” Verse 50: “What good is unsalty salt? What use is unsalty salt?” It’s a good question.
Salt was vital in that day. Salt was regarded as a necessity of life. Some of us who have great difficulty prying the salt cellar out of the fingers of our wives to disburse with wonderful quantities onto our food and constantly have to listen to the stories about how bad it is for you, I like to remind myself that salt was vital then; it was a necessity of life. That doesn’t really get me any more salt, but nevertheless, there it is. Salt is good—it is in the Bible, Mark 9:50. It was good because it was a preservative. It was good because in certain cases it was a purifying agent. It was good because it made things taste better. Hence the ludicrous thought of trying to season the seasoning. “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?” You imagine somebody sitting at the table saying, “Do you have a little salt for my salt? I just need a little salt for my salt.” It sounds silly, doesn’t it? That’s what Jesus is pointing out.
Now, for those of you who are chemists—which is, for me, to delve into a realm that should be left well alone—you know that sodium chloride is a stable compound. Therefore, it has an inherent quality that actually can’t be lost. So then, why would Jesus use this picture of salt losing its capacity for being salt? Answer: salt in this region was dredged up from the Dead Sea or from the salt pans, and in those salt pans the water evaporated. In that process, salt—the pure salt—leeched out, leaving a residue of other minerals—for example, gypsum. And so it was quite customary for the saltiness of the salt to have dissipated. And so Jesus says, “When you think about your lives—when you think about yourselves now as the salt of the earth,” which he says elsewhere, “I want to ask you a question: What good will you possibly be if you lose your saltiness—if you succumb to the things that will leech the salt out of your life?”
What things? “Like not paying attention to what I just told you about what you’re doing with your feet, what you’re doing with your hands, what you’re doing with your eyes.” The warnings are not hypothetical warnings; they’re real warnings. He follows them up and says, “By the way, none of you are going to escape this. Everyone’ll be salted with fire. The refining process is one through which all my disciples go. And secondly, I want to warn you about losing the very property which makes you precious, which makes you vital, which makes you a useful impact in society.” What is it that makes the disciple useful in society? The gospel. The gospel. Isn’t that what he said back in chapter 8? “For whoever who wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
The disciples are described, like salt, as a source of life and health, as a preservative, as an additive. And the picture of us as disciples is making an impact on society, preserving society in some measure, exercising a purifying influence, and also adding taste to society. Unless, of course, we become tasteless. Unless our eyes are filled with the same trash that our nonbelieving friends’ eyes are filled with. Unless our feet walk the same bad paths that our unbelieving friends walk. Unless our hands grasp for those things which our unconverted friends fill up to their own destruction.
In other words, unless the purity of the gospel in its proclamation and the purity of the gospel in its application is at work in our lives, then we must face the question of 50a: “What use is salt that has lost its saltiness?” What a tragedy for the believer to lose their way, for our influence to be leeching out and dissipating because we have failed to take seriously what Jesus says about the purity of our lives and about the clarity of our lips.
By the time Paul writes to Timothy as a young pastor, maybe in his early forties, he says—and this you’ll find in 1 Timothy 4:16—“[Timothy,] watch your life and [your] doctrine closely.” “Watch your life and [your] doctrine closely.” In other words, we’re unable to secure, as it were, an intellectual or a theological erudition absent from its impact in our lives, nor are we able simply to establish a way of life that is divorced from the truth of the gospel. Therefore, we must beware on both fronts. After all, “What good is salt if it loses its saltiness. How can you ever make it salty again?”
We could say more, but we’ll make one final comment. And, I think, probably that is the way in which Jesus would probably have approached it. I think there is a logical progression here just in the use of language: “Everyone will be salted with fire, let me just say a word about salt, and by the way, let me say a final word about salt: have salt in yourselves. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
It almost sounds anticlimactic, doesn’t it, after such a dramatic chapter? But not if we think about it. Because if the gospel is the saltiness of the Christian life, it is the gospel which unites one Christian with another. It is selfish preoccupations with things that are unrelated to the gospel which make Christians fight with one another. And when Christians fight with one another, we lose the opportunity to be salt in a community that is consumed with fighting with each other; we lose the opportunity to fulfill what Jesus says elsewhere: “By this will all men know that you’re my disciples, that you love one another.”
So he says, “Fellas, I want you to be full of salt yourselves, and I want you to live at peace with each other. And as you live at peace with each other, people who are robbed of peace will have occasion to say to you, ‘How do you live at peace with each other?’ And you will have the opportunity to say, ‘Well, it’s not because we’re all just a tranquil group of people. Because actually, we have in our group the Sons of Thunder, and they’re calling down fire from heaven every twenty minutes. We have Philip, who frustrates us by always asking questions all the time: “Show us the father, and that will [suffice] us.” It’s just, he’s an annoying character with his questions. And Thomas will never take anything first time around! He’s always got another reason why “I need to see it myself, I need to prove it for myself.” He’s a real nuisance. So it’s not because we’re all holding hands and dancing down towards Jerusalem. No! We’re actually a ragtag and bobtail group. We’re really a pretty bad group, when you think about us. We desperately need to pay attention to what Jesus is telling us. Because so much in us wants to go in an entirely different direction.’” So Jesus says, “Listen, fellas: have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” And the key to peace for the Christian is to be gospel-centered—to be gospel-centered. And then the flags that will fly from the castle of our hearts will be the flags that are emblems of the gospel.
Did you see all those wonderful flags of the nations there at St Andrews over the last four days? I’m sure you did. If you didn’t see them there, you saw them in the World Cup. And by means of those flags people are identifying their affiliations. And what the Bible says is that—if we pick up from the metaphor of this morning in terms of God at work fashioning us as a palace in which he lives rather than just a little cottage—if you go to Buckingham Palace and you wonder if the Queen’s there, just look up to the flagpole. The flagpole will tell you if she’s there. The royal standard is flown at Buckingham Palace when Her Majesty is in residence. And when His Majesty is in residence in the palace of our hearts, do you know what the flags are? “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness … gentleness, self-control.”
And once again, Sunday school comes through for me. We used to sing,
Love is a flag flown high
From the castle of my heart,
For the king is in residence here.
Peace is a flag flown high
From the castle of my heart,
For the king is in residence here.
Peace, in the midst of turmoil. Peace, in the midst of chaos. Love, in the face of animosity. Joy, in the pain of disappointment and sorrow. “Come on, fellows. Have salt in yourselves. Be at peace with one another.”
Well, what is he saying to us? He’s saying this: We dare not treat sin casually. Be aware that we must be refined continually. We may then make an impact on society as we learn increasingly to live in peace and in unity.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, grant to your people that they may love what you command and desire what you promise, that so among the many changes of the world our hearts may be surely fixed where true joys are to be found, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Mark (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew, 1975), 233.
 Mark 8:31 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 9:15–16 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 3:6 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:10 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:11 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:12–15 (NIV 1984; emphasis added).
 See Mark 9:43–47.
 Isaac Watts, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross” (1724).
 Attributed to George Keith or R. Keen, “How Firm a Foundation” (1787). Paraphrased.
 Romans 12:1–2 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 5:13.
 See Mark 9:43–47.
 Mark 8:35 (NIV 1984).
 John 13:35 (paraphrased).
 John 14:8 (NIV 1984).
 See John 20:25.
 See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., New York: HarperOne, 2001), 205.
 Galatians 5:22–23 (NIV 1984).
 Traditional children’s song.
 Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 167.