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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:The Lord Jesus addresses the prideful cliquishness of his disciples
Text:Mark 9:38-41 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 95
Psalm 25:5 (after the law)
Psalm 87
Psalm 45:1,2,6
Hymn 61

Reading:  Jonah 3 & 4
Text: Mark 9:38-41

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus,

Have you ever blurted out something without first stopping to think about what you’re going to say?  Your mouth seems to be ten steps ahead of your brain.  That can land you into some embarrassing situations, maybe even into some trouble.  You end up saying things that you might never say if you’d only stopped for 10 seconds to think about it.  You end up saying the things that are really in your heart and mind. 

Loved ones, the same sort of thing happened with some of the twelve disciples of the Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry.  On a number of occasions we see them doing or saying something impulsive – and then the Lord Jesus sets them straight.  He addressed what was living in their hearts.  Now occasionally it did happen that they impulsively said the right thing.  Think back to Mark 8 where Peter seems to impulsively blurt out that Jesus is the Christ.  He gets it right.  But more often than not, it’s not the true and the good that emerges from their mouths when they’re not thinking before speaking.

John was among them.  In our text for this morning, John seems to have an impulsive moment.  The Lord Jesus just finished teaching the disciples about the importance of being self-less servant leaders, about being disciples who focus on the little people, rather on their status and importance.  That was all about putting pride and self-centredness to death. 

Then John suddenly remembers something that recently happened.  “So, what about this?  Were we right in what we did?  We were right, weren’t we?  We were right for forbidding that man to cast out demons in your Name?”  If John had carefully thought before he’d spoken, he could have worked out the answer from what Jesus had just been teaching him and the other disciples.  But John still doesn’t get it.  Like us, he needs further instruction. 

With patience the Lord Jesus gives the further instruction that all disciples past and present need.  And so this morning, we’ll see how the Lord Jesus addresses the prideful cliquishness of his disciples.  We’ll consider:

1.      John’s complaint

2.      Jesus’ reply

The disciples and Jesus appear to be in the same house as in the verses preceding.  Our text just carries on with the conversation.  Now remember the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest.  They were pridefully jockeying for the position of World’s Greatest Disciple.  Jesus brought them back down to earth by telling them that true greatness is found with the servant at the back of the line.  True greatness is found with those who welcome the littlest of the little ones.  His message to them and us was and is:  see your pride?  It’s sinful and you need to put it to death.

Of course, that discussion took place right after the disciples’ inability to cast out a demon was exposed.  And that inability made their argument about greatness all the more ridiculous.  These men were acting like kids on the school playground. 

Then for some reason, John blurts this out in response to Jesus.  Christ had just been teaching them about selfless service and then John brings out this incident with the outsider.  As I mentioned in the introduction, the purpose for mentioning it seems to be an attempt to get Jesus to give John and the other disciples a pat on the back.  They want to hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful disciples!  You did the right thing!  You’re on the right track!” 

Let’s look closer at what John says and we’ll see why expecting Jesus to say that would be unreasonable.  John said that the man was casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  We really don’t know anything about who this man was.  We do know that the Lord Jesus had other disciples besides the twelve of his inner circle.  Later on Luke would describe how Jesus sent out some of these disciples and they were casting out demons.  We find that in Luke 10.  We also know that unbelievers, those who didn’t believe in Christ and follow him, they were unable to cast out demons in his name.  We know that from Acts 19.  There we read of some Jewish exorcists who tried to cast out demons in Jesus’ name.  They didn’t believe in Jesus, they just wanted to use his name to perform their miracles.  However, it backfired and an evil spirit attacked them, tore off all their clothes, and left them running away naked and beaten up.  To cast out demons in Jesus’ name, one has to be a follower of him.  So, we know that the exorcist that John mentions had to be a disciple.

Now it has to be said that the casting out of demons is not the infallible mark of a true believer, not in the time when Jesus was on earth, and certainly not today.  In Matthew 7, Jesus said that at the judgment there will be those who say, “Lord, Lord, did we not cast out demons in your name?”  Yet Jesus will disown them.  According to that passage, the mark of a true believer is obedience to the will of the Father in heaven.  So we have to be careful.  Yet it is still the case that during the days of the disciples, it was followers of Jesus who had been entrusted with his power and authority to cast out demons.  Whether these followers ultimately remained with Jesus is beside the point.  Those sorts of things belong to God’s secret counsel and will.  The focus here is on the fact that this man was a disciple.       

The problem for John (and presumably the other disciples) was that this man was not one of the twelve.  Look carefully with me at verse 38.  “We told him to stop,” John says, “because he was not one of us.”  Literally, the Greek there says “he did not follow us.”  He doesn’t say, “follow you,” or “follow Christ,” but “us.”  Isn’t that striking?  In other words, he is not a disciple of the twelve. Because he doesn’t belong to their clique, their little group, he had to be stopped.

The disciples made some assumptions.  They regarded exorcism, casting out demons, as one of the greatest miracles.  They were Jesus’ inner circle – which obviously meant that they were really something special.  Weren’t there twelve of them?  Didn’t that number evoke the twelve patriarchs of Israel?  Special.  Yes, definitely.  And this great miracle of exorcism  belongs with those who are very special.  There’s no way that Jesus would go and give his power to someone outside of their clique.  Blinded by their pride, they assume that the Lord Jesus has no prerogative, no right to work with or through others to advance his kingdom and to deliver people from suffering and slavery to Satan.  They’re thinking:  “Why would the Lord Jesus want to work with anyone other than us?”

The irony is that John calls Jesus, “Teacher.”  That sounds like a humble recognition of who Jesus is.  But in what follows we find anything but humility.  The words that Jesus spoke right before our passage for today haven’t yet sunken in.  It’s like there’s a hard layer of concrete encasing their heads.  It’s almost as if they’re parading their pride:  “Look at me, I haven’t heard a word you just said!”  Their pride is bringing them to a wrong understanding of who the Lord Jesus is and what his rights and prerogatives are.  Their pride says that Jesus has no business working with anyone but their little clique. 

It’s like Jonah’s problem.  Jonah had a problem with God giving any loving attention to Nineveh.  In Jonah’s view, God’s love and attention were only for the twelve too – for the twelve tribes of Israel.  In his pride Jonah became angry at God and complained about God showing mercy to the Ninevites.  It’s the same problem as with the disciples in our text.    

Now loved ones, does our pride sometimes blind us in the same way?  Do we think ourselves to be so special and to have such special gifts and blessings that Jesus really has no right working with anyone other than us?  Or perhaps on a broader ecclesiastical level, we might assume that if the Canadian Reformed Churches don’t have ecumenical relations with a church, then the Lord Jesus probably doesn’t have too much to do with them.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not speaking here about all kinds of sects and obviously false churches.  I’m speaking here about biblical, Christ-centered, confessional true churches, those that are Reformed according to the Bible, if not in name, then certainly in practice.  Just because we don’t have contact with them, because they are not “one of us,” it doesn’t mean that the Lord Jesus is not with them.  We need to guard ourselves against prideful cliquishness too.  We have no place restricting where and when and with whom our Lord Jesus works, whether inside our local church family, or outside in the broader ecclesiastical scheme of things.     

How does the Lord Jesus respond to John’s complaint?  He gives a gentle response.  He patiently teaches his disciples (including us).

His response cuts to the heart of the problem.  He begins by saying it bluntly, “Do not stop him.”  Don’t forbid him.  Leave him alone.  And then he gives three reasons.  These three reasons are closely related and they build on one another. 

First, Jesus says, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me...”  The man the disciples had been attempting to stop was not merely trying to cast out demons.  He was successful.  He did it.  That means that he had been invested with the power and authority of Christ.  This would suggest that he’d had some kind of personal interaction with Christ.  In that personal interaction, this man had responded with faith.  He may not have had any interaction with the twelve and may not have expressed any commitment to following them, but he had with regards to the Lord Jesus.

And Jesus says that such a person is not going to suddenly start speaking bad things about him.  Such a person is not going to quickly deny him or actively oppose his mission in this world.  Disciples just don’t do that!

Jesus’ words here take on new significance when we put them in the context of what is about to happen to him.  In Mark 11, Jesus enters into Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, suffer, and die.  Who will betray him?  One of the twelve.  Who will deny him three times?  One of the twelve.  Who will abandon him?  All of them.  While perhaps with their words they never said anything bad about Jesus, they certainly were communicating with their actions.  The disciples would look back on these words of Jesus in Mark 9 and wonder:  it is a miracle that Jesus still loves me and wants me to be his disciple.  I did miracles in his name, and then not long afterwards, I did turn my back on him, said bad things about him with my actions.  Yet he died for me.  He paid for all my sins with what he did on Calvary.  And his perfect righteousness is given to me for my own.  Brothers and sisters, this passage exposes our own failings too.  We often deny with our lives what we confess with our lips.  And yet, the gospel tells us that this Saviour is ours too.  Through him you are forgiven and restored.  The gospel calls our hearts to continue trusting him and resting in him.  To continue loving him.               

The second reason Jesus gives is in verse 40:  “for whoever is not against us is for us.”  Those words speak about a biblical concept that we call the antithesis.  The antithesis is the great dividing wall that exists, the wall that separates those who believe and those who don’t.  The antithesis reminds us that there is no neutrality in the world.  It’s an important concept that you find throughout the Bible.  One example:  2 Corinthians 6:15, “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?  What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”  So, we have the antithesis, the great opposition that has existed from the time of the fall into sin.  There are believers and unbelievers and there’s no middle ground.  Scripture says it’s black and white.

Jesus said that this exorcist, since he obviously believes, doesn’t stand opposed to the disciples.  The only way that he could be opposed to them is if they’re not on side with the Lord Jesus.  But they continue to follow him and listen to his teaching, even if they struggle with understanding and applying it.  This man stands alongside them in wanting to follow Christ.  He may not be in their clique, yet his desire is the same as theirs.

Why had the disciples failed to see this?  Their eyes had been krazy-glued shut by their pride.  They couldn’t see Christ’s work in the life of this brother.  In their thinking, whoever is not part of us twelve is against us and against Jesus.  But Jesus says, “No, this man is your brother, he too is one of my mine.  He’s not opposed to my mission, he’s on my side.  And he also has an office and calling and you need to come to terms with that.  Stop trying to put me in your little twelve disciple box. ” 

The third reason comes in verse 41.  It has to do with the cup of water.  In Jesus’ day, and in that culture, a cup of water was fairly standard hospitality.  If you were to go to someone’s house for a visit and arrive there after a long journey, you could expect a cup of water.  It’s valuable and refreshing, but it’s nothing particularly spectacular.  It’s certainly nothing as grand as casting out demons. 

But Jesus is saying that if you were to go on a road trip and stay with someone and they were to give you a cup of water, and if they were to say, “I’m having you at my house and I’m showing you hospitality, giving you a cup of water, because I belong to Christ and so do you and I’m doing this for him.”  That would be evidence of Christ’s work in the life of this person.  This person too is one of Christ’s disciples, someone who believes in him and follows him. 

Then Jesus says that such a person “will certainly not lose his reward.”  As we confess in the Catechism, God rewards our good deeds in this life and in the next.  And this reward is not earned, but it too is a gift of grace.  The Lord Jesus is not speaking here about salvation, but about God crowning our good deeds done out of faith, done out of love for him and gratitude to him.  The reward includes a blessing of peace and a promise of public acknowledgement at the return of Christ.   

The disciples had to realize that not every believer was called to follow with the disciples.  Jesus chose 12 and not 13.  Back in Mark 5, the man who had been demon-possessed wanted to be disciple number 13.  But Jesus would not allow him and instead sent him home to his family and he testified for Jesus that way.  So, the disciples had seen that there were people who loved the Lord and believed in him, but didn’t follow him everywhere with the twelve.  And when they receive a cup of water in Jesus’ name, they ought to be able to recognize the sovereign work of Christ.  He works where, when, and with whom he wants and the disciples can’t control him or manipulate him or tell him what is or isn’t appropriate.

Do you see the issue here?  In the passage before this one, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest.  Their argument was on a purely horizontal level.  It was just about them jockeying for position among themselves.  However, in this passage their pride is exposed as being far deeper and far worse than what we first thought.  Now they not only exalt themselves over fellow believers, but also, implicitly over the Lord Jesus.  Their pride takes on a vertical dimension as well as the existing horizontal.  They want to dictate to Jesus what he can and can’t do as far as gathering disciples is concerned. They’re lifting themselves up in arrogance over the Son of God.  And that is a bad idea.    

Pride is a most deceitful sin and it lives in all of us, each and everyone, myself included.  It damages our relationships with one another and with God.  But there is hope for change.

If we skip ahead a little ways in the New Testament, we find that the disciples are changed men in many regards.  Still sinners, but they have grown.  In the book of Acts, we find the story of a persecutor of the church.  On his way to Damascus to round up Christians, Saul of Tarsus was confronted by the Lord Jesus himself.  Jesus took Saul and made him into a disciple, and even an apostle.  Saul would become Paul and he would drive out demons too, and preach and be a mighty instrument in Christ’s hand for the advance of the kingdom.  In Acts 9, we read about how Saul (as he was still then known) came to Jerusalem as a Christian for the first time.  He tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him because they didn’t really think that he had changed.  However, Barnabas spoke up for Saul and vouched for him and they did accept him.  They accepted not only him, but also Christ’s work in him, and Christ’s call to him to serve as Christ’s chosen instrument to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.  The disciples (now apostles) were putting their pride to death; their union with Christ was bearing fruit in their lives.

And so it must with us too, brothers and sisters.  As we look to Christ and are taught by him, we too will say, “Enough with pride!  I know the world values it, but I belong to Christ and he teaches me to kill it.  I’m going to kill it in my relationships with other human beings.  And I’m not going to begin thinking that I can dictate to Christ what he can and can’t do with others.”  And we’ll pray for God’s help in not only saying those words, but also putting them in action in our lives.  Here too, we desperately need the gracious help of the Holy Spirit.  May he give that help to all of us.  AMEN. 


Gracious Father in heaven,

Again your Word has exposed our sin and misery.  We are in need of your grace and forgiveness through Christ Jesus.  Pride lives in our hearts so often and it vandalizes our relationship with you and with our brothers and sisters and with others.  Please forgive us for the sake of Christ and his perfect redemptive work on Golgotha.  Father, we ask for you to continue looking on us as we are in him.  We also ask for your continued work of sanctification in us.  Please work with your Spirit and give us your help so that we may strive at killing the pride that lives in us.  We pray that you would help us with that so that we would more consistently live for your glory.  Father, we are committed to that with our lips, help us also to be committed with our hearts and wills. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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