Confusion and stumbling - Mark 9:2-50

This is a sermon by Peter Birnie from 2nd August 2020.

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Look at this amazing and quite sobering picture. On the right hand side of the road there are beautiful houses with trees and gardens and space (even a swimming pool) and on the left hand side of the road is a shanty town crammed full of shacks and poverty and problems. I want to use this picture as an illustration that will help us to navigate Mark 9 (3 geographical locations) very profitably today. Imagine you are standing on that road, and an incredible stretch limousine pulls to a stop outside one of the most exclusive looking mansions in the whole street. What do you think will happen next? The driver should come and open the back door and an impressive looking figure should stride importantly into the mansion and carry on with their privileged and important life. But what if instead the door on the other side of the limousine was to open, and a man in work clothes carrying a first aid kit was to get out and head straight into the shanty town to give them his help. How surprised would you be?

If the answer was “very surprised”, in fact if the answer was “confused and staggered” then you would be in the same ballpark as the disciples in Mark chapter 9. They know by now who Jesus is – he is the Messiah and the Son of Man, the liberator-king promised in the Old Testament. But even though Jesus has plainly told them that he is going to suffer, be rejected, be killed and then rise again, they simply haven’t been able to take this in. They have no real understanding of why Jesus is here and what he is going to achieve at the cross.

As far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus, the Messiah, is the most important person who they could ever have hoped to meet. If Limousines had existed Jesus would be in one and the disciples, as his closest followers who have given up much to follow him, would be with him. So far so good – Jesus is extremely important, and where he goes his disciples must go too. But in Mark 9, whether it is at the top of a mountain, at the foot of a mountain, or journeying along the road, the shock for the disciples is that Jesus keeps getting out the wrong door of the limo, and the disciples are to get out on that side too.  

We begin in v2-13 where Peter, James and John have the very definition of a mountain-top experience that they are never to forget; “There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” Before we get into the significance of these things I think it is important for us to remember the type of literature we are dealing with as we read the gospel of Mark. This is Peter’s eye-witness account of Jesus’ life rather than a fairy story where magical things can happen (I don’t believe in the same heaven that my friends don’t believe in - little cupids and clouds and harps and so on). This event happened - it was shocking, it was supernatural and it was so important for Peter that he continued to testify to it in his letters to the churches in later years (to his death). Jesus was transfigured – what that means is that his outward appearance changed to match his glorious reality.      

But why is it such an important event? 3 reasons now;

a)The significance of the company; It is important because of the significance of the company. Elijah and Moses are there, both hugely important figures in the history of the Israelites, and yet it is Jesus who is shining. Moses was given the law which was glorious and he himself even shone with reflected glory for a while when God allowed his glory to simply pass Moses by (back in Exodus 33-35). Elijah the prophet was able to demonstrate God’s glory again and again to a watching and hostile world. Both of these men were associated with God’s glory but  in his presence, Jesus far outshines them; yes Moses and Elijah and all the prophets were leading up to Jesus, but Jesus is not the same as them, he has a greater glory, which we know and which the disciples are eventually going to realise is the glory of divinity, God in flesh.  

b)The significance of the voice from heaven; And then there is the significance of the voice from heaven. We have heard that voice once before in Mark, in chapter 1 at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, affirming the identity and character of Jesus and his relationship to the father. And in chapter 9, as the Messiah begins to head towards the cross, we hear it again. But this time there is a bit added at the end that really matters; “This is my Son whom I love. Listen to him!” Listen to Jesus. By itself that voice, the voice of God, carries more significance than all the words humans have ever muttered, but in the present company this is even more stark. In the presence of the great Elijah and the great Moses, the Father declares, Listen to Jesus.   

c)The significance of Jesus’ teaching (getting out the wrong side of the limo)

And this leads to the significance of Jesus’ teaching. In verse 9 they head back down the mountain and the disciples would be more convinced than ever of Jesus’ importance. This is definitely limousine stuff. Moses and Elijah there showing how the scriptures are pointing to a shining Jesus. The Father in heaven audibly speaking and affirming Jesus. But what does Jesus do? He tells them to keep quiet, in v9 they are not to tell people about this “until the Son of man had risen from the dead.” The disciples just can’t understand this because surely the Son of Man should get out of the limousine on the powerful side of the road. Surely right now he should stride purposefully to the place of highest importance, defeat Israel’s enemies, put his crown on and rule? What is going on? Why the wait and why the wait for a resurrection? Perhaps this is why they ask about Elijah in verse 11 – now they themselves have seen Elijah can they not expect Israel’s deliverance soon? Is the great day of the Lord here or not?     

And in verse 12 and 13 Jesus is saying that yes, that day is here. The day of changed hearts and judgement. But the Elijah who was to come was John the Baptist and he suffered and died. And it is written that the Son of man must suffer much and be rejected. Before Jesus can sit and rule, Jesus has got to get out of the wrong side of the limousine, this King has to be rejected and killed, he must rise again. The disciples need to listen to Jesus.     


If this conversation with Jesus hasn’t brought them back to earth with a bump already, when they get to the foot of the mountain in v14-29 they are very much back to reality. It is a chaotic scene with a large crowd and an argument going on between the rest of the disciples and the teachers of the law. Standing somewhere in the middle of it all is a sad and worn out looking man with his boy nearby. The disciples haven’t been able to deal with the evil spirit that has done so much damage for so many years to his loved son. This is strange because only a few chapters earlier the disciples had been able to heal many people with these type of terrible problems.

And Jesus’ diagnosis isn’t anything to do with the power of this spirit but rather all to do with the unbelief of humanity, and the disciples are very much included in this category. Remember our explanation of unbelief; “Doubt has trouble believing, unbelief obstinately refuses to believe.” Somehow the disciples have got something really wrong here and we will get to see what it was in a moment.  But first to this lovely exchange between Jesus and this desperate father.


The man pours out his sad story to Jesus, and lists the damage this spirit has been doing to his son and ends with this in v22 “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The man in his deep need and desperation has come to the right person for help. He isn’t a stubborn unbeliever, but his hopes have just been crushed when the disciples couldn’t help and so he has serious doubts.

“If you can? Said Jesus. Everything is possible for one who believes. Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.’” What a brilliant response this is. The man has already admitted his helplessness to do anything for the person he loves most in the world, and now he admits his helplessness when it comes to faith.

His approach to Jesus is exactly right here – I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief. He is at the point of utter dependence upon Jesus and so far in Mark’s gospel, people who know their needs and come to Jesus are never let down. And this man isn’t either – Jesus heals the boy and gives the man his life back. This attitude to Jesus should be the mark of Christ Church Riverside – we are not a bunch of good people who have got what we need for life and so are in God’s good books, instead we are a people who in our helplessness and sin and need have come to Jesus and asked for help, help even to believe, and he hasn’t let us down either. My prayer is that we will grow in that dependence and more and more come to God in prayer with our needs. Help us, help our unbelief.      


And this brings us to the problem with the disciples and their unbelief. When they ask Jesus why they couldn’t heal the boy he says (v29) “This kind can come out only by prayer.” The desperate man in this story contrasts with the disciples. Where he came to Jesus realising his need, the disciples seem to have forgotten their dependence upon Jesus for their ministry – as they tried to heal this boy prayer simply didn’t come into it. They had thrown spirits out before and so they surely should be able to do it again. Self-reliance is a form of unbelief.

We are back to the limousine again. The disciples are confused about what door they are getting out. They want to be on the side with the power and the glory and strength – after all they are the disciples of the Messiah. But what they have got to realise is that since Jesus is getting out the other door, they are as well, the door that leads for a time, to weakness and suffering and death. If they could only see that then they wouldn’t forget to pray, they wouldn’t imagine they can do without Jesus.      

And in the rest of this chapter, as they walk through Galilee, Jesus makes this clear. In v30-32 he again speaks plainly and deliberately with no distractions about the cross and the empty tomb. Do they get it? V32 “But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” So instead they have an argument about who amongst them was the greatest.  Again, one of those moments that would be funny if it wasn’t so awful and so recognisable in our own lives.


They are out the wrong side of the limousine and so Jesus has some serious teaching to do. The first will be last and the last will be first. The child sitting on his knee as he explains that this is how we approach Jesus, as humble children welcomed in. The side of the limousine that Jesus is getting out on will lead to suffering and death but then it will lead to eternal glory. Those who are willing to get out with him will go on the same journey, from last to first. Those who come to him like little children will be welcomed into his kingdom forever. True greatness comes from walking with Jesus – denying yourself, taking up your cross and following him. But those who are determined to be on the other side of that limo, who want to be first in life now, to be treated with importance and to seek greatness in the eyes of the world – they will end up going from first to last. They may gain the whole world but they will lose their souls. 


Jesus is deadly serious about this warning, and verses 38 to the end are sobering. Heaven and hell are both realities. The world is divided by their response Jesus, divided by whether they are prepared to be ruled by him or ruled by themselves, divided by which side of the limousine they are prepared to get out. The disciples aren’t to stop others who are working in Jesus’ name since they are on the same side in verses 38-41 and they are to be very very careful about causing anyone to stumble in v42-50. As you read through those verses you definitely want to make no mistakes here.

Millstones around necks, amputations, fire, hell, and worms. These are Jesus’ words so what should we do with them? We should believe them and take them seriously. And that is one of the reasons why we begin today as Christ Church Riverside in this new season for our church family. Because the chief way of causing little ones who would come to Jesus to stumble would be to fail to teach them the gospel and to preach something else instead. And with God’s help we are not going to do that. We want to be salt in this world, at work for God’s glory and the good of the people around us.


And so let us once again commit to believing and proclaiming the full gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel with the cross at the very centre. The gospel that tells people they must come to Jesus for forgiveness and new life, and they must stick with Jesus as their King. Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sin. He rose again to defeat death. He reigns now and one day will return and rule with his people forever. Get out of the limousine on the same side as him. The side that will lead to suffering and rejection and humility in this life, and the side that leads to glory forever.

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