Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Mark 9:30-37




30They went out from there, and passed through Galilee. He didn’t want anyone to know it. 31For he was teaching his disciples, and said to them, “The Son of Man is being handed over (Greek: paradidotai—from paradidomai—handed over or delivered up) to the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, on the third day he will rise again.” 32But they didn’t understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

“They went out from there” (v. 30a). Not long ago Jesus and his disciples were at Caesarea Philippi (9:27), far to the north. Then they came to the Mount of Transfiguration, the location of which is uncertain. It could be Mount Hermon, even further north than Caesarea Philippi, or it could be another mountain. After the Transfiguration, they went to the base of the mountain, where Jesus healed a boy (9:14-29). It is that from that place that they “went out.”

“and passed through Galilee” (v. 30b). Jesus and his disciples have completed their journey northward and have turned south—toward Jerusalem—toward Jesus’ cross. They are still in relatively friendly Galilee, but will soon leave it.

Galilee is Jesus’ home turf, Although he was born in Bethlehem of Judea, near Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary moved to Nazareth early in Jesus’ life to escape Archelaus, one of the Herods (Matthew 2:23)—so Jesus grew up in Nazareth. He made his home as an adult in Capernaum of Galilee (Matthew 4:13). Most of his healing ministry and teaching took place in Galilee. He called his first disciples in Galilee (1:16-20) and will spend his last moments on earth with them in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).

Jesus and his disciples have been visiting Tyre and Sidon (7:24-30) and Caesarea Philippi (9:27), far to the north, and are passing through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus has worked his last miracle in Galilee (8:22-26), and is shifting his focus from working miracles for the people to teaching his disciples. Jesus will not see Galilee again until after the resurrection (14:28; 16:7). It is a poignant scene. We have to wonder what Jesus feels as he leaves familiar and welcoming Galilee, where he has had so much success, to go to Judea, where he anticipates so much opposition.

Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know that he is in Galilee (v. 30b), “For he was teaching his disciples, and said to them, ‘The Son of Man is being handed over (paradidotai) to the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, on the third day he will rise again'” (v. 31). He and his disciples are “on the way” (v. 33)—a code phrase for their journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He is preparing his disciples for the journey’s surprise ending.

This is the second and shortest of three passion announcements in this Gospel (see 8:31; 10:33-34). In all three, he predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection.

“is being handed over” (Greek: paradidotai–from paradidomi) (v. 31). Paradidomi can be can be translated “is being handed over” or “is being delivered up” or “is betrayed.”

Mark uses paradidomi to describe John the Baptist’s imprisonment (1:14), Judas betrayal (3:19; 10:33; 14:10-11, 18, 21, 42, 44), and the involvement of the Sanhedrin (15:1, 10) and Pilate (15:15). Jesus uses it to warn the disciples that they too will be handed over and delivered up (13:9, 11-12).

But Jesus’ opponents are not the ultimate authority here. Paul uses this same word, paradidomi, to speak of Jesus being “delivered up for our trespasses, and …raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25; see also Romans 8:32). There was a Godly purpose to be served by Jesus being delivered up to his enemies, and God is the one in charge here.

Scholars refer to paradidomi as a “divine passive,” an oblique reference to God without naming God—meaning that God is behind the handing over—that it is God’s will that Jesus be handed over.

Jesus’ betrayer is almost surely among the disciples that Jesus is teaching on this day. It would be interesting to know what is going through Judas’ mind as he listens to Jesus talk about betrayal and death.

Jesus mentions the resurrection in each of the three passion announcements, but he emphasizes the cross rather than the open tomb. Note further that in this Gospel’s account of the resurrection (16:1-8) the risen Christ does not appear. The emphasis is on the cross.

“But they didn’t understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him” (v. 32). Even when Jesus speaks plainly, the disciples do not understand. There is such a great gulf between their expectations and Jesus’ predictions that they are afraid even to ask for clarification. They do not want to reveal their ignorance. They have seen Jesus rebuke Peter for misunderstanding (8:33), and are reluctant to invite a similar rebuke for asking a question that Jesus might think foolish. And it seems possible that they have caught a glimpse of a terrible future, and prefer not to examine it further.

The disciples look doltish in this account, but we must reserve criticism. The cross was a scandal in Jesus’ day and Paul’s day, and the cross is still a scandal today. It is no wonder that people crowd churches for Easter, but not for Good Friday. We are always tempted to “make a detour around the Cross” (Luccock, 785) in favor of the open tomb.


33He came to Capernaum, and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing among yourselves on the way?” 34But they were silent, for they had disputed one with another on the way about who was the greatest.

“He came to Capernaum” (v. 33a). Capernaum is Jesus’ home (Matthew 4:13; Mark 2:1; Luke 4:23) and Peter’s home (1:29). It seems surprising that Jesus would go to Capernaum seeking privacy, because he would be certain to be recognized there—but he finds privacy by taking the disciples into a private home.

“when he was in the house” (v. 33b). Mark doesn’t specify whose house this is, but the use of the definite article (te oikia—the house) suggests that it isn’t just any house. The privacy afforded by the house highlights the disciples’ insider status, and reminds us of his earlier comment, “To you is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables” (4:11).

“What were you arguing among yourselves on the way?” (v. 33c). Jesus’ question brings a hidden subject into the open—provokes an embarrassing silence, making it clear that the disciples understand the inappropriateness of their earlier conversation. While Jesus was telling them to expect his betrayal and death, they were thinking about their place in the kingdom. This juxtaposition is jarring, and suggests that the disciples, befuddled by Jesus’ talk of death, simply ignored what they could not understand and changed the subject to something nearer their hearts.

Note that, after the third passion prediction, James and John will ask Jesus to grant them seats in glory at his right hand and his left hand (10:35-37).


35He sat down, and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any man wants to be first, he shall be last (Greek: eschatos) of all, and servant (Greek: diakonos) of all.” 36He took a little child, and set him in their midst. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me.”

“He sat down, called the twelve, and he said to them” (v. 35a). The twelve are in the house with Jesus. His sitting down (the posture of a teacher) and calling to them is his way of getting their attention—of telling them that he has something important to say—something that they need to hear.

After each of the passion announcements, Jesus responds to the disciples’ failure to understand with some form of teaching. Here he sits down, assuming the posture of a rabbi conducting instruction and signaling the importance of the teaching that follows.

“If any man wants to be first, he shall be last (eschatos) of all, and servant (diakonos) of all” (v. 35b). In this context, the Greek word eschatos (last) means last, lowest, or least.

Diakonos (servant) is the Greek word from which we get our word “deacon.” The way that the word is used in the New Testament makes it clear that this kind of servanthood is a humble position. Paul uses the word frequently to show that he is merely a servant of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 6:4; Ephesians 1:23; 6:21; Colossians 1:23, 25). He also calls Christ a diakonos (servant) (Romans 15:8)—and even a doulos—a slave (Philippians 2:7)—an even more humble status than diakonos).

This is one of Jesus’ Grand Reversals. The Beatitudes were a series of reversals (Matthew 5:1-12). Jesus told a story in which the last hired becomes the first paid (Matthew 20:1-16). The cross, of course, is the ultimate reversal. Who could imagine that Jesus could save the world by dying a particularly heinous death?

Jesus stands conventional wisdom on its head—reversing first and last—emphasizing servanthood. He doesn’t tell us that ambition is bad, but rather than one’s ambitions are best directed to serving others rather than self. The truly great person is a diakonos—a deacon—a servant—a person who spends his/her days taking care of other people.

Diakonos is a humble role, and we have to wonder whether Jesus is telling the truth when he says that the servant is great—but we have seen evidence that he is. Servant-people—the Father Damiens and Mother Teresas of the world—inspire great affection and wield great influence. They not only relieve the suffering of those whom they touch directly, but they also inspire greatness in people whom they have never met. Their witness draws people to Christ and Christian service. Small wonder that Jesus calls them great!

But one need not be a Father Damien or a Mother Teresa to qualify for greatness. There are only a few famous saints, but there are many not-famous ones. We all know Godly men and women who go through life doing one small act of kindness after another. Most congregations have a few of them, and Christ has millions. Few people know their names, and only God knows the total sum of their good works—but Jesus calls them great!

We think of successful people as being “on top” and unsuccessful people as being “at the bottom.” Geddert offers another image—that of “arounders”—people who gather, not in row 1 and row 2 and row 3, but rather in a circle around Jesus. There is no front or back to a circle, so “arounders” have no need to push others out of the way. They are all in the front row (Geddert, 236).

“He took a little child, and set him in their midst” (v. 36a). We could see this child only as an “object lesson”—a visual illustration of the point that he is trying to make. But Jesus treats children with too much respect to believe that this child is nothing more than an object to him. Verse 37 will make that clear, as will his remarks in the next chapter: “Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Most certainly I tell you, whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it” (10:14-15).

Jesus explains that, if the disciples want to know who is truly great in the kingdom of God, they should take a good look at this child. He takes the child in his arms or embraces the child—the Greek admits to either translation. Since Jesus is seated, we can imagine him putting his arm around the child and pulling the child close.

Jesus’ gesture must be disturbing to the disciples because, in that time and place, children have so little status—ranking somewhere between women and slaves. Children spend their time in the care of women, and know better than to interfere in men’s affairs. For a rabbi to take a child in his arms in the presence of his disciples is remarkable.

“Whoever receives (dexomai) one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me” (v. 37). In Matthew’s version, Jesus calls the disciples to “become as little children” (Matthew 18:3), but in Mark’s account he calls the disciples to receive (dexomai) the child. This word dexomai means to welcome a person to one’s circle. To receive a child would involve affection as well as practical caring (feeding, housing, etc.).

Receiving a child in Jesus’ name means doing so as a disciple—acting in behalf of the Lord—acting as his agent to do what he wants done.

Jesus links the child to himself and himself to God—thereby establishing a link between the child and God. The person who welcomes a child gets credit for welcoming Jesus, and the person who welcomes Jesus gets credit for welcoming God. By extension then, the person who welcomes a child gets credit for welcoming God. At 10:15, Jesus will call the disciples to “receive the Kingdom of God like a little child,” but here (9:37) he calls the disciples to welcome children as they would welcome Jesus or God.

Jesus clearly means that we should accord children with great respect, but the child is also a symbol for anyone who is in need, helpless, or of lowly status. Verses 42-47 tell us that “little ones who believe in me”—people of any age who are nevertheless immature in faith—are also included. By extension, we should consider that Jesus is calling us to welcome the homeless, the disabled, the mentally ill, the sick, the uneducated, the Third World person, and anyone else who cannot repay our hospitality or make it “worth our while.” With this teaching, Jesus does not abolish ambition, but redirects it—teaching us to be ambitious for the other person instead of for ourselves (Barclay, 229).

The church has been greatly affected by this passage. It has fed the hungry, housed the homeless, cared for orphans, provided medical care to the sick, taught people to read, and met many other basic needs. The church has loved the helpless and the hopeless. However, the church needs to be constantly reminded of Jesus’ call to welcome “little ones.” We are tempted to curry the favor of the wealthy and powerful in the hope that they will fund our ministry or smooth our pathways. We are tempted to take our ministry to beautiful people and to ignore the unlovely. We are tempted to build churches in the suburbs and to ignore the inner city. We are tempted to covet titles such as “influential church” and “prominent church leader.” If the original disciples needed to repent for arguing among themselves who was the greatest (v. 34), we also need to repent.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan