The Warning of Hell

The Warning of Hell

The Warning of Hell
Text: Mark 9:42-50

Main Idea: Pursue Christian unity and whole-hearted discipleship because the horrors of hell are infinitely worse than anything you could ever experience in this life.

I. Don’t Pursue Greatness at the Expense of Other Christians (Mark 9:42)
II. Don’t Choose the Fleeting Pleasures of Sin and Miss the Kingdom of God (Mark 9:43-50)

Mark 9:42–50

If the gospel is the good news that Jesus lived, died, and rose again for sinners, and that God will save you if you turn and trust Jesus,[1] what is the corollary bad news?  Or to put it another way, what do we need to be saved from? Throughout church history the traditional answer to this question has been, “faith in Jesus Christ will save you from hell—a place of eternal conscious torment—in the life to come.”[2]

At one level, this is the reason that the gospel is truly “good news.” Yet at the same time, the implications of this message are truly dreadful: perpetual hopelessness, eternal separation, and unending anguish. While we might not flinch at the thought of Nero, Hitler, Stalin, or Osama bin Laden being sentenced to an eternity in hell; it is unimaginably horrific to acknowledge that our family members, neighbors, children’s tee-ball coach, or even the addict on the street corner will be consigned to hell if they do not respond in faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hell is not the fabrication of overzealous Puritan evangelists’. Hell is not simply a place for murderers and moral deviants. It is the eternal place of punishment that God has prepared for Satan and his angels and every person who does not believe the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, just in case you are tempted to think that God is joyfully ushering humans off into eternal punishment let me highlight two very important texts:

Ezekiel 18:23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?

God is pleased when sinful men turn to him in repentance. And through the gospel of Jesus Christ he is calling stubborn sinful men to choose life because he is a merciful and gracious God.

 Exodus 34:6­­–7 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity [guilt] and transgression [rebellion] and sin [offences], but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Let me unpack three key terms in this passage that we often lump together.

Iniquity (עָוֺן): Is a term that emphasizes the legal consequences of sin, or guilt caused by sin. Sin is not simply a legal infraction, it carries divine consequences before God which must be satisfied.[3]

Transgression (פֶּ֫שַׁע): Is a term that denotes criminal activity. Therefore, it refers to outright rebellion against God’s commands, in that, the individual chooses to sin knowing full well that God has commanded otherwise.[4]

Sin (חטא): Is a term that usually denotes error, unintentional sin, or actions that miss the mark.[5]

How does God manifest his mercy and grace? He doesn’t just restrict his forgiveness to unintentional sins. No he forgives outright rebellion and in this forgiveness he forever removes the divine penalty or consequences of our sin and rebellion, which is eternity in hell. The only requirement is repentance and faith. Therefore, when God does not clear the guilty he is not being capricious, he is judging them for their refusal to repent of their sin and pursue forgiveness.

But as we turn to our text this morning, the surprising thing is not that Jesus is talking about hell; but that he is warning his 12-diciples—his personal representatives—about going to hell. Because, at this point in their lives, their ultimate commitment to Jesus is still in question. And the reality is that before it’s all over, one of them will chose selfish gain over everlasting life.

Main Idea: Pursue Christian unity and whole-hearted discipleship because the horrors of hell are infinitely worse than anything you could ever experience in this life.

Notice his warning is two-fold:

Don’t Pursue Greatness at the Expense of Other Christians (Mark 9:42)

Don’t Chose the Fleeting Pleasures of Sin and Miss the Kingdom of God  (Mark 9:43–50)

Don’t Pursue Greatness at the Expense of Other Christians (Mark 9:42)

The Devastating Consequence of Self-Serving Discipleship

Notice, Jesus and the disciples are still in the same conversation that began back in verse 33, which means that Jesus is still warning the 12 against their sinful pursuit of greatness at the expense of “less-important” Christ-followers who do not belong to the elite inner ring. Christ-followers who have a minimal understanding of the gospel and very little relational capitol within the broader fellowship of disciples. Simple disciples that need to be received, welcomed, and served NOT spurned, used, and abused. As John Calvin observes here, “Every man who thinks too highly of himself, or desires to be preferred to others, must necessarily treat his brethren with disdain.”[6]

But why does Jesus bring up “these little ones who believe in me” again? He brings them up again to warn the disciples about the tragic impact that their sinful pride can have on fellow disciples. What I mean by this is that Jesus is not worried about these “little ones” committing “an act of sin” he is concerned that prideful exclusion by well-known disciples might cause them to “fall away.”

I get this from the fact that Jesus does not use the typical Greek verb for sin in this passage. Rather, he uses the Greek verb σκανδαλίζω which means “to cause a downfall”[7] or “Cause the faith of a disciple to stumble.”[8] Let me turn to the ESV footnote here: The idea here is that a “little one”—a “seemingly insignificant” follower of Christ—has a fragile faith and that they could be so undone by the rejection of other Christians that they abandon the faith and abandon following Jesus. This is especially true of the 12-disciples because they function in many ways as the official representatives of Christ.

Clarification: I do not believe Jesus is saying that a true believer—someone who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirt—can lose their salvation.

John 10:27–28 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.

Rather, it’s a two-fold warning:

  • That we can injure a true Christian so deeply that they live their entire life as an spiritual orphan with virtually no benefits of their union in Christ.
  • That we can cause someone is pursuing Jesus, but who does not yet believe in Jesus, to completely abandon their pursuit of Jesus. Thus, cutting themselves off from their only hope of salvation.

The Horrific Warning Against Self-Serving Discipleship

So here is the warning: Are you are a person who (1) likes to pursue greatness at the expense of others, (2) believes that positions of leadership excuse abuses of power, (3) and refuses to build unity within the body of Christ; you are in the cross hairs of God’s fury? It would be far better if you were forcibly drowned and your body forever anchored to the bottom of the ocean; than if you cause the least of the least of Jesus’ disciples to “fall away” from him! (Better to be drowned than to damage a fellow believer’s faith)

Therefore, the call of this verse is, repent of your sin and do everything in your power to pursue true greatness by building unity in the body of Christ. Because persistent, unrepentant, hard-hearted sin may cause you to “fall away as well” and doom you to a fate that is infinitely worse than drowning.

Don’t Chose Fleeting Pleasures of Sin and Miss the Kingdom of God (Mark 9:43–50)

An opening observation

If you are reading from the NIV or the ESV you might notice that the verse numbers skip verse 44 and 46. And if you are reading from the King James or NASB you probably noticed that I “skipped” verses 44 and 46.

The NIV and ESV are not trying to diminish the doctrine of hell. The simple issue is that the earliest manuscripts of Mark do not contain verses 44 and 46, which are nothing more than a repetition of verse 48. In fact, the most likely explanation for verses 44 and 46 is that a later scribe inserted verse 48 in order to achieve three parallel warnings that ended with the same saying, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”[9]

The Ultimate Danger of Casual Sin (Mark 9:43–49)

So how do we get from “little ones” and “millstones” to self-mutilation and the unquenchable fires of an eternal hell? Remember, Jesus is in a home talking to his 12 disciples. He isn’t talking to the crowds or the Pharisees. I think that Jesus is confronting his disciples with the true cost of discipleship and the horrific cost of falling away. Jesus is shifting his focus from causing a “little one” who believes in him to σκανδαλίζω (to stumble spiritually and fall away from him), to a three-fold warning against any sinful activity, pursuit, or pleasure that might cause one of his disciples to ultimately fall away from (σκανδαλίζω) their discipleship.

Once again, I do not take this to be a warning that true believers can lose their salvation—Jesus will preserve his people until the very end. Rather, it’s a warning about how close a person can be to the truth of the gospel, how close a person can be to new life in Jesus, how close a person can be to everlasting joy; only to throw it all away because they prefer the temporal pleasures of this world to everlasting life. The author of Hebrews warns us of the very same thing.

Hebrews 2:1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.

And who does the author of Hebrews give as example number one? The exodus generation who were delivered from slavery and who heard God thunder from Sinai only to die in the wilderness.

Hebrews 3:18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?

Now we might be tempted to think that the problem was their acts of sin (grumbling, golden calf, rebellion against Moses) . But, the problem was far deeper.

Hebrews 3:19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

Their unbelief revealed itself in their behavior, and ultimately drove them to reject God’s grace by refusing to enter the Promised Land after the spies returned. Slavery in Egypt was preferable to the possible casualties of conquest. In fact, apostle John addresses this very same issue in 1 John.

1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

See, Jesus wants his disciples to understand that the demands of discipleship are real but wholly-desirable when compared to the reality of hell. But, before we turn to the warning of hell, what should we do with his command to cut of our arms and legs? Is Jesus telling us that the only path to eternal life it through self-mutilation? No, both masochism and bodily mutilation (with the exception of OT circumcision) were strictly taboo in Judaism (Deut 14:1; 23:1; 1 Kgs 18:28; Zech 13:6). Even more, amputation and asceticism cannot change your heart! And Jesus has already exposed the true source of our sin in Mark 7:20–23.

I believe Jesus is saying, as important as eyes, hands, and feet are to us—or whatever else claims our ultimate allegiance—they are not life; the kingdom of God is life. Therefore, believers must never allow anything in this life—no accomplishment, no pleasure, no pursuit of personal identity—to derail/replace their passionate pursuit of God. The choice is literally between the kingdom of God and “the fire that never goes out.”[10]

Clarification: Does this passage mean that Christians never struggle with sin? No. Frankly, many Christians will battle against the same sin for decades. Battling sin is not the same thing as cultivating sin or merely trying to manage sin. Rather, it is falling down in repentance every single time we fail, taking steps to cut off our pursuit of sin, and inviting other Christians into our battle so that we can experience greater joy in our Sovereign, Saving, Satisfier Jesus Christ.

I do not know where everyone of you is at today. Are you a true believer? Are you in the process of moving closer to Jesus? Are you ambivalent to Jesus? Are you skeptical about Jesus? Are you rejecting Jesus? Are you simply playing a religious game? You need to know that “to be almost saved—is to be altogether lost!” (Spurgeon)

Even more, the person who rejects God does not know the real horrors of hell. This may be because he does not believe hell exists, or it may be because he has convinced himself that it would be preferable to heaven. But whatever he believes or does not believe, when he chooses against God, he is wrong about God and about hell. He is not, at that point, preferring the realhell over the real God. He is blind to both. He does not perceive the true glories of God, and he does not perceive the true horrors of hell.

Hell is more Terrifying than Anyone can Possibly Imagine

Listen to these piercing insights from Jonathan Edwards: [11] (Read full sermon here)

How strange is it, that men can enjoy themselves and be at rest when they are thus hanging over eternal burnings, when they have no lease of their lives. They know not how soon the thread they hang by will snap, nor do they pretend to know; and if it snaps, they are gone, they are lost forever, and there is no remedy: and yet they don’t trouble themselves much about it. Nor will they hearken to those that cry to them, and entreat them to take care of themselves and labor to get out of that dangerous condition: they are not willing to take so much pains; they choose not to be diverted from amusing themselves with those toys and vanities which they have in hand. [Because they do not comprehend eternity much more eternal punishment]

Eternity is that duration which has no end. Eternity cannot be divided into integral parts, nor is it distinguishable by periods of time. It cannot be made less by subtraction or more by addition. In other words, whatever lies before—be it years, or centuries, or thousands of years—has no proportion to what remains.

And eternal punishment means that after the sinner has worn out the age of the sun, moon, and stars in their groans and lamentations, without rest day or night, or one minute’s ease, they shall have hope of ever being delivered. And when, after they have worn out a thousand more such ages, they shall still have no hope, but shall know that they are not one moment closer to the end of their punishment.

But, this doesn’t have to be your destiny! You can enjoy “that duration which has no end,” eternity, in the very presence of God. This is the promise of the gospel, that saves us from hell and opens the door to everlasting fellowship with God.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

You cannot understand the grace of God and the true gravity of the crucifixion if you do not understand the horrors of hell.

Three Exhortations:

If you have come to faith in Jesus Christ don’t coddle your sin, take it seriously.

If you are a true believer, the horrors of hell should not lead you to smug satisfaction but passionate evangelism.

If you have not come to faith in Jesus Christ. If you have been listening week after week, and have been moved by the gospel, I pray you would believe today. You may be living a life better than most of the Christians you know but apart from receiving God’s forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ, you are lost.

Ezekiel 18:32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

[1] Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2017), 298.

[2] See Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1995), 97–138; Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 702–22.

[3] Ludwig Köhler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1999).

[4] Köhler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

[5] Köhler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

[6] Calvin, John, and William Pringle. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 335.

[7] Walter Bauer et al., A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000), VII, 351–52.

[8] Gustav Stählin, “Σκάνδαλον, Σκανδαλίζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 7, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 339–358.

[9] James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 293.

[10] Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 294.

[11] Adapted from, Edwards, Jonathan. “Where Their Worm Dieth Not.” Jonathan Edwards Sermons. Edited by Wilson H. Kimnach. New Haven, CT: The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, 1730.