Difficult Bible Passages: Mark 9:38-41

Are miracles proof that someone is a true spokesman of God?

Most of the passages found in this series are either difficult and problematic to understand, or are texts that so often are misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical texts can be abused and misused, often because they are pulled out of context, or because other passages that discuss similar things are ignored. That is true of this pericope. It involves a brief exchange between Jesus and one of his disciples:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.

I discuss it here partly because it was used by a friendly critic recently in response to an article I had written. Among other things, my piece was critiquing various aspects of the health and wealth gospel, and the name it and claim it teachers.

Some critics thought I was in opposition to all healing today, or to all things miraculous – something I clearly am not. What I had argued was that we must test all things and be discerning, as Scripture commands. Yet this person, in defending these various teachers, quoted this passage from Mark.

While I have already offered a brief reply in the usage of this text, I thought it worthwhile to expand on this a bit here. There are at least three things that can be said about these words of Jesus: there are in fact false miracles; this was more of a general remark; and a main point was to warn against unnecessary sectarianism. Let me speak to each three in turn.

First, anyone familiar with the teachings of Christ knows that this passage is not the only place where he speaks about the miraculous, or ‘mighty works’. He of course often did these things, but he also spoke about them often as well. And part of what he had to say on this topic was to strongly warn against false miracles.

Consider just a few such passages. Matthew 7:21-23 says this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’.”

Or as we read in Mark 13:22-23: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.” A very similar verse is found in Matthew 24:24.

Paul could warn about the same thing. In 2 Corinthians 11:12-14 he says this: “And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”

Or as he put it in 2 Thessalonians 2:9: “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders.” There are of course such things as counterfeit miracles. So we must test all things and not believe every spirit.

Thus Jesus was clearly NOT saying in this passage that anyone doing a miracle – whether or not in his name – was always truly one of his. They might be – but not always.

Second, and related to the above, what Jesus said was more of a general rule than an absolute certainty. Generally speaking, yes, such folks are with him, but not necessarily. This is borne out in two ways. Such a person, says Jesus, will not “be able soon afterward” to speak evil of him.

As Mark Strauss comments: “The qualification ‘soon,’ or ‘quickly,’ indicates that this is a general rather than absolute truth. In general, those who evoke the name of Christ are his authentic followers. Exceptions no doubt occur…” And right after this Jesus uses a familiar proverb: ‘the one who is not against us is for us.’

As I have discussed elsewhere, proverbs by their very nature are not iron-clad rules and absolutes, but general principles. They are broad generalisations that should not be viewed as eternal verities that no exemptions can be applied to. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/05/24/bible-study-helps-proverbs/

Third, note the context. Earlier on in this chapter (verses 2-13) we have the account of the transfiguration. Peter is all rather amazed by this, and we find his comment in verse five: “And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah’.”

And then we have verses 33-37 which speaks about ‘who is the greatest’ immediately preceding the text under question:

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Those who seek to be great among men will of necessity be divisive. They will become sectarian. They will set up factions and divisions. So in good part what Jesus is seeking to do in verses 38-41 is to rebuke such a party spirit. He does not want his disciples to get into superiority contests with one another.

As many commentators note, this passage finds a parallel in the Old Testament. In Numbers 11:26-30 we have this episode:

Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Morna Hooker comments: “Jesus’ reply suggests that the real issue is not whether the exorcist is using his name without believing in him, but whether the disciples are falling into the danger of cliquishness which sets more store on whether someone belongs to the right party than whether he acknowledges Jesus as lord – the kind of situation described in 1 Corinthians (cf. especially 1 Cor. 12:3).”

Chuck Swindoll offers a practical word about this third point:

It is a curious fact that jealousy is a tension often found among professionals, the gifted, and the highly competent. You know, doctors, singers, artists, lawyers, business men and women, authors, entertainers, preachers, educators, politicians, and all public figures. Strange, isn’t it, that such capable folk find it nearly impossible to applaud others in their own field who excel a shade or two more than they? Jealousy’s fangs may be hidden, but take care when the creature coils . . . no matter how cultured and dignified it may appear.

So keeping guard about jealousy and the like is certainly one truth we can glean from this passage. But we need to be careful in how we use these verses. Generally speaking, to do something in the name of Christ may well mean a person is truly one of his and truly doing his work. But not always. Just because someone does some amazing work is no guarantee that the person is of God. This is a truth taught throughout Scripture.

Early on in the Bible for example (in Exodus 7-8) we find Pharaoh’s magicians able to replicate some (2 of the 10) of the miracles that Yahweh performed through Moses. And in Revelation 16:13-14 we read this: “And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty.”

So care must be taken here. And no, I am not a cessationist, and yes, I believe God is still a miracle-working God. But the biblical warnings about the vital need of discernment and testing all things must be carefully heeded.

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2 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Mark 9:38-41”

  1. Thanks Bill it wasn’t so much the miracles but the bit about “whoever is for us is not against us” but every denomination/church has its beliefs of what they believe so until Jesus comes back to rule and unite us we will always have differing views about some things. Numbers 11:26-30 to me is similar with Moses telling young Joshua he wished all the Lord’s people were prophets ie we shouldn’t stop or find fault with people who speak God’s words, but use discernment in case they are false prophets.

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