By Barry Mershon, Jr.1
The following is from The Grace New Testament Commentary (Vol. 1, pp. 180-81). This passage has long confused many people. The Lord seems to be teaching works salvation here. It appears that to enter the kingdom (to enter into life) one must reform his life and turn from all his sins. But we know from many other texts that eternal life is a free gift and that it not of works lest anyone should boast (John 4:10; 6:28-29; Eph 2:8-9). So what does this passage mean? Barry gives us a reasonable interpretation that does not contradict faith in Jesus Christ as the sole condition of eternal life.
9:42. In contrast, whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble will be punished. The fact that Jesus speaks of little ones who believe in Me means that children can indeed believe in Him for everlasting life. These little ones lived in the unbelieving culture of Judaism and were easy prey for the false teaching of the religious leaders (cf. 8:15). His warning to the offender that it would be better for him if a millstone (a large millstone required a donkey’s strength to move) were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea is deadly, temporal judgment.
9:43-48. Many things may hinder one from believing in Christ. Hand (v 43), foot (v 45), and eye (v 47) refer to things one handles, places he goes, or things he sees that can cause him to stumble (cf. vv 43, 45, 47). Therefore Jesus commands to cut it off (hand or foot, vv 43, 45) or pluck it out (eye, v 47). Jesus is using hyperbole to make the point that drastic measures are sometimes required to remove hindrances to faith from an unbeliever’s life. Belonging to an unbelieving religious group, reading heretical books, attending a liberal, unbelieving school, or having close friends who are unbelievers, all can hinder faith in Christ.
To turn from such hindrances may be painful, but Jesus reasons that it is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands(feet, eyes) to go to hell. It is better to believe in Jesus having cut out of one’s life things that a person once enjoyed, than to keep those things but never believe in Jesus.
Hell (gehenna) is described as the fire that shall never be quenched (lit., “inextinguishable”) with the quotation from Isa 66:24 (Mark 9:44, 46, 48) that the worm does not die (eternal torment) and the fire is not quenched (eternal, not simply millennial).
Gehenna is a transliteration of two Hebrew words meaning “valley of Hinnom,” which was a deep valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem. It was a detestable site where pagan child sacrifices took place (e.g. Jer 7:31) which later became a garbage and sewage dump where fire and worms continually consumed the trash. Jesus uses this imagery to warn of eternal hell.
Barry’s exegesis is based on a fundamental principle of hermeneutics called the analogy of faith. The Bible does not contract itself. Whatever the Lord means here,4 He is not contradicting His own words elsewhere (e.g., John 3:16; 6:28-29; 11:26). Everyone who simply believes in the Lord Jesus has everlasting life.