Updated: Mar 27, 2020
A video popped up on my feed with a preacher talking about Mark 9:38-40. He began by warning everyone that what he said would be a little controversial. With that, I knew what he would say before he said it. He quoted verse 40 and went on to say that these verses have been overlooked and disregarded by churches of Christ. He concludes that maybe we have been too rigid on fellowship with various denominations. Let’s open our Bibles and see if there is truth to that claim.
38 Now John answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. 40 For he who is not against us is on our side. 41 For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. Mark 9:38-40 NKJV
Let’s begin our study by noting that John asked the question. That is no insignificant detail because the response of Christ is tailored to the statement and the attitude of the one asking it. It does us well to think a little about John.
John came from a higher economic background than the average citizen of Palestine. Mark 1:20 tells us that he had hired servants, which would indicate some higher degree of wealth. John had privilege of financial security that many people of that day did not. It is likely that this is where his confidence and passion came from. We get glimpses of that passion and confidence especially in Luke 9:54. It is thought that these attributes are why Jesus nicknamed him and James the “Sons of Thunder”.
It is not surprising given this information that we find John in the mix of a number of discussions about greatness (Mt 20:20ff). John has the background of someone who would be concerned about greatness and stature. That is exactly the context of this episode.
The context of our study actually begins in Mark 9:33-37. Jesus asks them about a dispute they were having. As it turns out, they were arguing about who would be the greatest. Jesus gives instruction on what greatness actually looks like in the kingdom. John’s view about the kingdom is similar to the rest of the disciples, that Jesus is going to establish a physical kingdom with all sorts of seats to be had. They would carry this view even after the resurrection (Acts 1:7).
The statement John makes to Jesus in verse 38 is one that he thinks will prove to Jesus that he is a capable leader, and get him a seat at the table. In a physical kingdom, what John did would have been applauded. John had shown his worth and ability to take the initiative. But that is not the response he receives.
The Conversation between Jesus and John
Within verses 38-41, there are important key words that will help us understand this exchange. We need to notice that John admits to seeing this person cast out demons. John did not hear about it, this person was not claiming to cast out demons, rather John saw this person cast out demons. Not only did he see him do the act, but he also saw that he was doing it in the name of Christ. The word “saw” doesn’t just mean to visually see something; it means you perceive it. You process information that has come by way of sight. John’s conclusion, based on the visual evidence, was that this person was doing legitimate miracles in the name of the Lord.
“In the name” means by the authority of Christ (Col 3:17). This tells us that this person had been granted the authority to do this by Christ. It also tells us that Christ’s authority regulated his ability. In other words, this person was operating by the teaching and instructions of Jesus. This gives no wiggle room to insert overlooking false doctrines (1 Cor 1:10). Someone who does not operate by the teachings and instructions of Christ is not doing things in his name, and this story really does not apply to those situations.
Jesus uses logic when he answers John. “No one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of me” (8:39). The bible is very clear with the purpose of miracles. Prophets were able to do miracles to prove the message was from God (1 Kings 13:1-5), and that principle has carried through to the time of Christ (John 20:30-31).
Jesus doesn’t want John making hasty conclusions. He wants all of us to think and problem solve in a reasonable way. Jesus did his miracles by the power of God, which showed God’s approval for his message. If this man is doing miracles by that same power, doesn’t that prove the approval for what he is teaching? Absolutely, and if God was still using miracles today, this principle would still apply (1 Cor 13:10). But now there is no other message to be revealed (Jude 3) and no need for miracles.
John’s rebuke had nothing to do with what the person was teaching, or what he was practicing, rather John rebuked him for doing the job that Jesus had authorized him to do! That is why John was wrong. That is much different than rebuking and debating false doctrines.
“For he who is not against us is on our side” Mark 9:40
Verse 40 is really the verse that causes a lot of problems for people. This is one of those verses that if you lift it out of its context, you will have problems. On the other hand, when you get take a good look at the surrounding information, the problem basically solves itself.
These word’s must be defined by what we have already learned. When Jesus says “not against”, he is talking about those who operate “in his name” or under his authority, or by his doctrine. He is talking about the united church that is committed to truth (John 17:17,21).
He is teaching John how in his Kingdom there can be many congregations of the Lord’s people scattered around the world, and if they operate and are governed under the authority of Christ then they are brethren.
What did John take conversation to mean?
It is so helpful that Jesus was talking to John because we can actually look at John'w writings and see what he understood this to mean. Is there a better source we could turn to than to the man that Jesus was addressing?
“Now by this we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says, “I know him,” and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”. 1 John 2:3-4
There are a lot of people who say that they know Christ today that do not keep his commandments. John says that those people are liars.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether the are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world”. 1 John 4:1
John does not give instruction to accept every person that claims to operate in Jesus name. He tells us to test them. That test is given by the gospel (Rom 1:17).
“Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him”. 2 John 9-10
John did not give an ounce to thinking that what people teach and believe doesn’t matter.
John learned from Jesus that it is wrong for Christians to get an ego attached to themselves. Ego is actually the birthplace of all denominations. We must always remember that people don’t follow us, they follow Jesus. John learned that lesson.
However, had this person been teaching a false doctrine or practice, John would have had every right to silence them just like he planned to do with Diotrephes (3 John 9-10).
A deeper problem
Sometimes we stumble upon verses that we aren’t familiar with that may challenge what we have always thought. If we keep a sincere heart and seek answers in an honest way, we can have confidence that we will reach a sound conclusion. It is extremely arrogant to accuse our brethren of overlooking a text in the bible. Just because a text is new to you does not make it new to the Church. Our brethren have not overlooked the text, they have thoroughly answered it. My oldest brotherhood commentary on Mark is J.W. McGarvey’s. He addresses this text all the way back in 1875. I can’t speak for certain, but I am confident that in almost every commentary on Mark put out by gospel preachers, this text is addressed.
Instead of having confidence in the previous generation, many people are always looking for holes that they missed. Have mistakes been found? Sure. But we should know that those people had an honest heart for the truth too (And they put in way more study).