This post continues a study of the passages from Mark’s Gospel which have been omitted from the Lectionary used in public worship.

These omitted passages comprise my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s verses are from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Mark 9:49-50

49For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

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In order to understand this passage, it is worth noting an addition to verse 49 which appeared in certain manuscripts:

and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.

These two verses follow an instruction by Jesus about the importance of avoiding sins of the flesh — carnality. In Mark 9:42-48 we read:

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

Recall that in Mark 7:18-20, Jesus said that it did not matter what people ate. Food would be eliminated. However, it is what is in a person’s heart that matters, because that is what manifests itself as sin:

18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, ”What comes out of a person is what defiles him.”

Yet, in Mark 9:42-48, He spoke of parts of the body, not the heart. How do the two tie together?

The carnality in our hearts causes our sins: what we read (e.g. pornography), where we go (places which cause us to sin) and what we handle (perhaps another person’s flesh or an object which facilitates iniquity). Jesus said that it would be better for us to rid us of these body parts than to sin as a result. However, He did not want us to take this literally, but as a call to deaden our desire to see and handle things — or walk to situations — which lead to iniquity.  The general term for this in Christianity is ‘mortification of the flesh’. That does not mean self-flagellation, amputation or mutilation, but rather a deadening of the desires from the heart which cause sins of the flesh.

A refusal to mortify the flesh — deaden these desires — can lead to eternal condemnation, destination Hell:

48‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

John MacArthur expands on the references to and warnings about Hell in the Bible (emphases mine):

The word “hell,” by the way, is Gehenna…Gehenna. It is a very interesting term. It is always the term that refers to the Lake of Fire, not just the place of the dead like Hades, but the actual burning Lake of Fire. That is why verse 43 describes hell as the place of unquenchable fire. And verse 48, “Where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”

Gehenna, where did that word come from? The root of that word comes from the Valley of Hinnom…mentioned in Joshua 15:8. It is a steep ravine down to a valley, south of the city of Jerusalem, very severe. That was a place where Ahaz and Manasseh, two kings, offered human sacrifices to Molech. You can read about it in 2 Kings 16 and 21, 2 Chronicles 28 and 33. Human sacrifices in the land of Israel, in the Valley of Hinnom, to pacify this vicious, false deity named Molech…an unthinkable practice that Jewish people would sacrifice their babies to Molech. It was denounced, of course, by the prophets, particularly Jeremiah, Jeremiah 7:31, Jeremiah 32:35. In fact, Jeremiah renames it in Jeremiah 19:6, he calls it “the Valley of Slaughter…” And he also calls it the Valley of Topeth. Topeth comes from a Hebrew word that means drum.

Why would it be called the Valley of the Drum? Because some historians tell us that drums were beaten there regularly to drown out the screams of the burning babies. A horrendous place.

Josiah, the good king according to 2 Kings 23:10, shut that down, stopped all that and turned it in to Jerusalem’s garbage dump. I mean real garbage, no plastic, no paper. Rancid food, sewage, maggots and a 24/7 fire consuming it. And it was easily adapted as the word to describe eternal hell…unquenchable fire.

This is the emphasis of Scripture. All the way from the beginning, Matthew 25 to the end, Revelation 20, hell is a reality about which we are warned. Hell is mentioned twelve times in the New Testament, eleven of them by Jesus, the other one by James…James 3:6. And in this place, the fire is not quenched and the worm never die…that’s verse 48.

Therefore, Jesus counselled that, to avoid this fate, we must avoid sin and avoid encouraging others to sin, which is the meaning of verse 42:

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

‘Little ones’ means adults as well as children. St John also addressed his flock using the same words.

Sin can be greater or lesser. Examples of the latter include provoking people, inciting arguments and generally encouraging others to trespass.

MacArthur provides further examples:

You provoke them to jealousy by flaunting what you have. You…you provoke them to anger by indifference or unkindness, like your children … Ephesians 6:4, “Provoke not your children to wrath,” by inattention, lack of affection, lack of forgiveness, lack of kindness, overbearing expectations. You can do it directly or indirectly.

Thirdly, another way that you can cause people to stumble is by setting a sinful example, simply by doing things that people see that are sinful which path they perhaps will follow. Romans 14, it can be flaunting your liberty which will then lead someone else to do the same but because that conscience has not yet been liberated to understand the full freedoms in Christ, Paul says, it’s destructive because this is training a person to violate conscience and that has a very bad outcome. You have to be careful of the example that you set. Just when you don’t think people are watching, the truth is, they are.

These verses are a call for us to become the best Christians we can by renouncing temptation, which leads us to verse 49, a cryptic verse, to say the least. Both our commentators acknowledge this. Matthew Henry writes:

The two last verses are somewhat difficult, and interpreters agree not in the sense of them; for every one in general, or rather every one of them that are cast into hell, shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Therefore have salt in yourselves. [1.] It was appointed by the law of Moses, that every sacrifice should be salted with salt, not to preserve it (for it was to be immediately consumed), but because it was the food of God’s table, and no flesh is eaten without salt; it was therefore particularly required in the meat-offerings, Lev. 2:13. [2.] The nature of man, being corrupt, and as such being called flesh (Gen. 6:3; Ps. 78:39), some way or other must be salted, in order to its being a sacrifice to God. The salting of fish (and I think of other things) they call the curing of it. [3.] Our chief concern is, to present ourselves living sacrifices to the grace of God (Rom. 12:1), and, in order to our acceptableness, we must be salted with salt, our corrupt affections must be subdued and mortified, and we must have in our souls a savour of grace. Thus the offering up or sacrificing of the Gentiles is said to be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, as the sacrifices were salted, Rom. 15:16 … The pain of mortifying the flesh now is no more to be compared with the punishment for not mortifying it, than salting with burning. And since he had said, that the fire of hell shall not be quenched, but it might be objected, that the fuel will not last always, he here intimates, that by the power of God it shall be made to last always; for those that are cast into hell, will find the fire to have not only the corroding quality of salt, but its preserving quality; whence it is used to signify that which is lasting: a covenant of salt is a perpetual covenant, and Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, made her a remaining monument of divine vengeance. Now since this will certainly be the doom of those that do not crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts, let us, knowing this terror of the Lord, be persuaded to do it.

As Scripture mentions salt in both positive and negative contexts, Christians would be reminded of the context of verse 49. Salt preserves and flavours. Salt also corrodes permanently. Will we choose to emulate the disobedient example of Lot’s wife who was told not to look back at Sodom and Gomorrah, yet she did. This is what Genesis 19 relates:

15As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” 16But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the LORD being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. 17And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.”

23The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. 24Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven. 25And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

Alternatively, Christians also look upon salt as a reference to God’s grace, which is why Jesus reminded the disciples about the varying quality of salt (verse 50). Similarly, today, are we Christians going to exhibit the fulness of that grace in what we think, do and say? Or are we going to be second-rate in our discipleship, presenting ourselves to the world as inconsistent Christians, not fully using His divine gift of grace?

MacArthur explains that there were varying qualities of salt in the Holy Land:

Now if any of you are in to chemicals out there, chemistry, you know that sodium chloride is stable. Just sitting around it doesn’t lose its saltiness. So the question comes up, “What can this mean, since salt is stable and doesn’t lose its property, even over a long period of time? What can it refer to?”

We’re helped by some historians. Some of them may be ancient like Pliny who recorded the fact that there were several kinds of salts in Israel and many of them had properties that made them impure and they were basically worthless. One kind that seemed to be in some abundant supply with salt that was imperceptibly mixed with gypsum and it was worse than useless.

So our Lord says … Salt is good but it’s only good if its unmixed.

Jesus calls us to use grace to its fullest. It is the best salt. This is a call to personal purity, to what MacArthur calls a ‘radical discipleship’ — following Him and dedicating ourselves to Him completely.

When Jesus concluded with His exhortation to have salt in ourselves and be at peace with each other, He meant that we are to use divine grace in everything we do and to live in Christian harmony.

MacArthur concludes:

I think our Lord simply says, “You need to be unmixed in your obedience, and here’s your command for today. Stop fighting. Stop elevating yourselves. Stop the competition. Stop being the cause of temptation such as the essence of radical discipleship then, to love extremely, to deal with sin severely, to sacrifice one’s life wholly and to obey fanatically.

And what is the outcome of this? What is the result of this? Turn to Matthew 5…Matthew 5, “You are the salt of the earth.” You’re the only hope the planet has for a spiritual influence. So what you have as a result is radical witness. “And if you become tasteless, you’re not good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” Might as well remove you. Hum…maybe that’s what happened to the people at the Lord’s Table in the Corinthian church who died, or the sin unto death that John talks about. The Lord is saying, “Look, have salt in yourselves,” in Mark. Here He says, “You’re the salt of the earth, there is no other salt.” There are no other spiritual influences in this world than the true disciples of Christ who are known by the radical nature of their discipleship.

Then He changes metaphors, “You’re the light of the world. A city set on a hill can’t be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, it gives light to all who are in the house. So let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” The end of all is that God would be glorified, right? And what is going to attract people to glorifying God is going to be the witness you give because you are salt and light by virtue of your radical discipleship.

Just as the sacrifices in the Old Testament required salt in order to be acceptable to God (Leviticus 2:13), we also must have salt — God’s grace — in order to make ourselves acceptable sacrifices to Him in our daily lives. This is why we pray for increasing holiness, purity and Christian witness.  We pray for the ability to turn away from the world and towards Him.

Next time: Mark 10:1, 10-12