38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. 42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.
(Mark 9:38-42 NIV)
On their journey back to Capernaum, the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus questioned them about the argument; there was only silence, embarrassment, and shame. Jesus then picked up a small child as a living illustration of what it means to be His follower – to be the last and least is to be first in God’s economy.
As we open today’s text, Jesus and His disciples are still in the same conversation, still in Peter’s home. John, the youngest of the disciples, hears what Jesus says in verse 37 about discipleship and takes it literally. John (along with the other disciples) erroneously thought that the calling to follow Jesus and the power to cast out demons was exclusive to them because they were followers of Jesus, His disciples.
John and the other disciples had seen someone outside the Twelve casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John tells Jesus that they had told the man to stop because the man was not Jesus’ disciple and therefore was not authorized to use Jesus’ name.
Ironically, the man was successfully casting out multiple demons, whereas they had been unsuccessful in casting out one demon from a young boy just a few days before (9:14-18). The man’s faith in Jesus, obedience to God, and invoking Jesus’ name to perform the exorcisms were what differentiated this man from the disciples’ earlier attempts to do the same. The disciples had faith in Jesus but were attempting to perform the exorcisms under their own power.
In verses 39-40, Jesus corrects the disciples’ false presumption that they alone had the power and authority to act in Jesus’ name. Jesus shows His love, generosity, and authority by telling the disciples not to forbid this man from acting in Jesus’ name. Jesus gives a simple but clear principle by saying “whoever is not against us is for us.”
In His simple statement, Jesus redefines tolerance and warns against exclusivism and bigotry. Jesus points out that there are only two positions – either for or against Him. There are no shades of gray, no factions, no subdivisions, no splitting of hairs.
In verse 41, Jesus extends the principle of verse 37 to anyone who is recognized as a follower of Christ. If someone shows hospitality or kindness to another because they are a follower of Jesus, then it is as if they are showing hospitality to Christ Himself.
Likewise, verse 42 points out the negative of this same principle. Anyone who causes a little one to stumble in their faith invokes the wrath of Almighty God. Jesus says it would be far better for us to have a massive weight strung around our neck and be drowned in the in the depths of the sea than to face God’s righteous fury for our harmful words or actions.
As Jesus held the small child in His arms (v. 36) and the child snuggled against Jesus, the disciples’ hearts had been touched. Imagine that this little child, this toddler, had snuggled up against Jesus, wrapped its little arms around Jesus, and felt so safe and secure that it had fallen asleep. As Jesus continued to discuss these matters with His disciples, He tenderly held this sleeping little one in His arms. To accept Him was to be like this little child; to reject Him was to try to rip this little one out of the arms of God.
May we always remember that God’s ways are bigger than our ways, that His Providential workings are often hidden in plain sight as He moves throughout history for His glory and our good. While we are to combat the forces of evil in Jesus’ name, may we give grace to those who name the name of Jesus and follow Him in obedience.
May our actions match our words as we follow the Savior in humble obedience, as a child.