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Series A - Matthew
Series B - Mark
Series C - Luke
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Edward F. Markquart

Series B
Millstones, Hell, Gospel Analysis

Mark 9:38-50

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 159-161.

#167. The Strange Exorcist

Matthew 10:42, Mark 9:38-41, Luke 9:4-50

-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." Both the gospels of Mark and Luke agree that it was the disciple John who made the observation.

We recall that slightly earlier in the Gospel of Mark, Peter, James and John were on the Mount of Transfiguration and experienced the Christ of glory whose face shown like the sun. Meanwhile, the other nine disciples remained on the lowlands and had unsuccessfully attempted to cast out a demon from a boy who was sick and throwing himself into a fire. On the way back home to Capernaum, the disciples were arguing with each other about which were the greatest disciples.

Here in this situation, we are told of an unknown person, who was not one of the twelve disciples, but was successfully casting out demons. The twelve disciples tried to stop him.  The disciples had been recently unsuccessful at casting out demons and here was an outsider being successful at casting them out.

It appears on the surface that there was plain old jealousy at work here, that the disciples were jealous of an “outsider” having the power to heal a person possessed by demons.

We first encountered “demon possession” in Mark 1, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus cast out demons in his first miracle of healing. The following comments about “demon possession” were part of our Biblical study on Mark 1:21-34:

“Every generation an area of the world has its own particular diseases that are of primary concern. In the Biblical days of the New Testament, it was blindness, leprosy and lameness. Today, our society is concerned about cancer, heart attacks, and alcohol/drug addictions. The new modern plague and pandemic in the world is AIDs.

The people of the New Testament generation did not have concepts of viruses, germs, heredity, and environment factors that contribute to the cause of diseases. The New Testament generation simply believed that “sin,” “demons” and “evil spirits” caused diseases. The Old and New Testaments were written in a pre-scientific age. 

Diseases and illnesses are regarded as evil, regardless of century, including the century of Jesus.  People of every generation work to get rid of those diseases.

Mark 1:32 says,  “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.”

 There seems to be a distinction between people who were “sick” and people who were “demon possessed.”

Also see Mark 1:34 and highlight: “He healed many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons.” Again, there is a distinction between diseases and demon possession.

It seems that demon possession was a form of mental illness during Biblical times. Demon possession and fear of demons was part of the ancient Biblical world e.g. there was a blindness demon, a leprosy demon, a lameness demon, etc. The people of the ancient Biblical era lived in a world permeated with demons and evil spirits.

Henceforth, in this course, “demon possession” will be treated as a form of mental illness/emotional disturbance.”

-But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Jesus told his disciples not to stop the healing. If a person is involved with the healing of an emotionally disturbed person, and has asked for the presence of God/Christ to heal the inner turmoil of that disturbed person, everyone involved will be grateful to the healing presence of God/Christ.

-Whoever is not against us is for us. Underline. Highlight. Emphasize. It seems the disciples wanted to confine God’s healing activities to their club, their group, their circle of friends. The twelve considered the other man an outsider.

In today’s world, we often want to “box in” God’s goodness and healing and not allow God to work healing/health/goodness/justice/peace through others who are outside what we perceive to be our religious affinity club of Christians.

God’s healing/health/goodness/justice/peace are found throughout the world and are not confined to the efforts of loving Christians.

-For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. The Gospel of Matthew interprets these words of Mark to read, “whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple shall not lose his reward.”

#168. Warnings Against Tempations

Matthew 18:6-9, Mark 9:42-50, Luke 17:1-2 

This is another teaching about children. A few verses ago, we heard Jesus teach that the greatest disciple in the kingdom of God has humility like a little child. Jesus continues with his teachings about children.

-Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes 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. Matthew, Mark and Luke record the same teaching. “Little ones” could refer to children. The phrase could also refer to disciples. If anyone causes a disciple or a little child to sin, this person commits a severe offense against God. This severe offense will be punished in the worst possible way. To cause someone to sin is a serious violation of God’s law.

The giant millstone refers to a large millstone that could be found in the middle of a village and would serve the whole village. A donkey would turn that giant millstone and grind the grain/olives for people of the village.

The following is a photograph of first century millstones from Capernaum. You can see the giant village millstone which was normally located in the center of town. You can also see smaller household millstones.

Basaltic "millstone" at Capernaum

The following is a photograph of a first century millstone from the neighboring village of Chorazin. This village was built almost entirely of black basalt, a stone found in abundance in the area.

“Like most villages in the north Galilee, Chorazin was dependent on the olive. Here is one of several olive mills in which the olives were mashed. A pole was inserted in the hold in the millstone and a donkey or camel probably pulled it around and around. After the olives were mashed, they had to be pressed to squeeze all the liquid out of them.”

A millstones factory? Excavations at Capernaum unearthed a significant number of first century millstones. According to Josh McDowell, “so many were discovered that it appears the inhabitants took advantage of the plentiful volcanic rock to make and export mills to other areas.”

-If your hand, foot, and eye cause you to sin, cut them off.  We have previously studied these Aramaic phrases of condemnation. Obviously, we are not to take these phrases literally. On the other hand, these phrases are very strong language, as strong as language can get.

The remark of “casting someone into the heart of the sea with a millstone around their neck for leading a little one into sin” is also very strong language, as strong as language can get. 

Discussion Question:
Share a story where someone lead a child into sin or astray and what were your feelings?

-If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. We remember the same teachings that were recorded in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Here again is another example of Aramaic exaggeration or hyperbole in order to make a statement. Our hands can get us into trouble sexually, stealing, hitting, pointing, insulting. Our human behaviors become addictive and need to be reformed.

The problem is with both the heart and hands. The sins of the heart and hands can become addictive and repetitive. Even so, the origin of the sin is in the heart and not the hand and Jesus is dealing with human hearts.

Circle the word, “hell.” We know to interpret the concept of cutting off your right hand and throwing it away as Aramaic hyperbole. Perhaps we should also interpret the concept of “hell” as Aramaic hyperbole. It is easy to take the concept of “hell” literally and at the same time to take the concept of  “cutting off your right hand and throwing it away” symbolically.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, we have seen several examples of Jesus’ teaching by use of Aramaic hyperbole. His listeners knew better than to take his words literally. They took his words fundamentally, seriously, and knew the meaning behind the words.

-And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.Notice that the same theme and word-picture is also in Matthew 18:8-9 and adds the image of a foot causing a person to sin. Again, feet don’t cause sin, but the human heart causes feet to wander of in sinful directions.

-And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. Almost the same words are spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  Here again is another example of exaggeration or hyperbole in order to make a point. We Christians know that our hearts can look lustfully at a person of the opposite sex and greedily at someone else’s possessions. Jesus is interested in healing our inner hearts so that we are not dominated by unhealthy sexual desires or covetous desires.

Circle the word, “hell.” Most Christians know to interpret the concept of “tearing your eye out and throwing it away” as Aramaic hyperbole. Perhaps we should also interpret the concept of “hell” as Aramaic hyperbole. It is easy to take the concept of “hell” literally and at the same time to take the concept of  “cutting out your eye and throwing it away” symbolically. It seems that there is an inconsistency to take the concept of “hell” literally and “cutting our eyes out” symbolically.It seems this whole section of Scripture is filled with Aramaic hyperbole, including both “hell” and “tearing your eye out.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, we heard another similar teaching about name-calling and the threat of the punishment of a firey hell: “And if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

In this class, we need to pause, stop and think about hell. We need to think carefully about what the Bible teaches about hell and how we interpret the Bible’s teachings about hell.

“Hell of fire. Hell.” Highlight those words on page 52-53. Matthew 5:23, 29, 30; Mark 9: 43, 44, 47. In these passages, we are confronted with the primary teachings in the New Testament about a burning hell. Read carefully read all of these passages. 

Perhaps the sermon for this coming Sunday on Pentecost 17B needs to focus on the concept of hell since this is one of the primary places in the Bible where “hell” is taught.

There are thirteen references to hell in the New Testament; seven of these are in Matthew and three in Mark (in the gospel lesson for today). There is one reference to hell in Luke, in James and in II Peter. There are several references to hell e.g. in Revelation 20:14, about the lake of fire: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

In the New Testament, the threat of hell is found primarily here in these two passages of the Sermon on the Mount. Six of the thirteen references to hell occur in these two passages.

Other Biblical authors do not use the concept of hell. That is, the Gospel of John talks about darkness and the Apostle Paul speaks of judgment. Neither one of them speaks about hell.  John’s darkness is equivalent to Matthew’s hell, just as John’s life is equivalent to Matthew’s kingdom of heaven.

There are two references to the concept of hell and fire in the Gospel of Luke. Luke 16:19ff: ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” … Lazarus said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

The second reference to hell as fire in the Gospel of Luke is from a quotation from Q: Matthew 3:11-12/Luke 3:9/Q “He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Luke: “cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Notice that the concept of hell as burning fire is part of these teachings of Jesus in which there are Aramaic hyperbole. A question is: Are “the fires of hell” also part of Aramaic hyperbole or overstatement in order to make a point? Like the teachings about anger which use Aramaic hyperbole, (if you call a brother a fool you are liable to the fires of hell), is the very concept of hell an Aramaic exaggeration of the truth which, if taken literally, would not be true?

Also, notice that the Gospel of Matthew often uses the expression, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” which is an Aramaic expression for hell. Six of the seven uses of the phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth” occur in Matthew.

Matthew 8:12 “But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  (NIV)

Matthew 13:42 “They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (NIV)

Matthew 13:50 “and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (NIV)

Matthew 22:13 "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 24:51 “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 25:30 “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 13:28 "There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, seven of the thirteen references to the word, “hell,” are located in this gospel. Six of the seven references to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” come from Matthew. If you add the words, “hell,” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” there are thirteen references (out of twenty in the whole New Testament) to hell in the Gospel of Matthew.

The New Testament Scriptures consistently teach about the final judgment. Perhaps the “fires of hell” is an Aramaic expression that points to the final judgment.

For many people, the last judgment is separation from God. For them, hell is separation from God, rather than a firey eternal torture in the lake of fire. For them, the firey eternal torture in a lake of fire is picturesque language that is not to be taken literally, any more than we take literally the “pearly gates” and “streets paved with gold” found in heaven. (Revelation 21:21). “Firey hell” and “pearly gates” are both picturesque language.

The concept of fire and hell comes from images of the valley of Gehenna/Hinnom. Wicked King Ahaz burned his children in the valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 28:3) The Greek word for hell is “gehenna” and it means the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was and is located southwest of Jerusalem and near to the city.

“Below is the valley of Hinnom, just outside of Jerusalem, as it looks today.

In Lesson 42 of this course, PARABLES ABOUT THE END, there is an appendix in which there is a sermon about a Biblical understanding of hell as separation and hell as a place of torment and eternal torture.

Below are two pictures of a lake of fire, a concept that is part of the Book of Revelation. The concept of a lake of fire is found in Rev 19:20; 20:10; 21:8; Isaiah 30:33.

The concept of hell as eternal fire is found in Mt 25:41; 13:42; Jude 7; Mk 9:43,45,47; 18:8,9; Mt 3:12; Luke 3:17.

The concept of a furnace of fire is found in Mt 13:42,50; Mt 3:12; Luke 3:17, Daniel 3.


Patricia Marvenko Smith

Human anger and Divine anger:  It is interesting that in this section of Scripture when we are dealing with human anger, we are also dealing with the concept of Divine anger, including God’s punishment called “hell.”

From a human point of view, punishment is appropriate but torture isn’t. From a human point of view, torture is not appropriate in any circumstances. Applying this same reasoning to our Eternal God, we would say: Punishment is appropriate but eternal torture isn’t. Hell has the connotation of eternal torture.

Questions are asked: “Does a loving God exercise in judgment?” Yes. “Does a loving God exercise of final judgment?” Yes.  “Does a loving God give out eternal torture?”  No.

 “It is impossible for our five senses to detect heaven and hell. How then can God describe for us something that we cannot see, taste, touch, smell or hear? He employs the use of symbols. For example, God says that heaven is a garden and a city. Heaven is not actually a city and a garden. Rather heaven is merely like a city or a garden. There is nothing within our five senses that can actually explain what heaven and hell are like, so God uses a series of "word pictures" to convey the next best thing.

Remember, heaven is not literally a city, nor is hell a literal garbage dump, but they are LIKE these earthbound symbols. They are the closest think in our understanding that describes what heaven and hell really are like. But we really only have a fuzzy image of the real thing until we actually get there!”

In the ATHANASIAN CREED (the Trinitarian creed which is occasionally recited on Trinity Sunday), in the next to the last paragraph of that creed, it says: “Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.” The other two creeds (Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed) only talk about Jesus returning to judge the living and the dead and not about the eternal fires. 

Discussion Question:
What do you think that the Biblical teachings about Hell mean? What do you personally believe about Hell? Is the concept of Hell part of Jesus' hyperbole in order to make a point? Is the concept of a firey Hell to be t aken literally?


-"For everyone will be salted with fire.

-Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?

- Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

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