Who is the greatest?

gospel of mark humility jesus servanthood

I have often heard it said that it isn’t wise or becoming to brag about yourself, and if any bragging is going to be done about you, it should be done by someone else.  Personally, I appreciate the apostle Paul’s perspective on this when he reveals that if he was going to do any boasting at all, it would be about the work Jesus accomplished on his behalf at the cross (Gal. 6:14).

 Not everyone shares this perspective though.  In fact, several years ago I read an interview with the lead singer of a band I’ve enjoyed for almost two decades.  I won’t tell you the singer’s name or which band he leads, but I will paraphrase what he said.

In the interview, he stated that he believed he led the best band in the modern era and that he thought it was time people started giving his band more credit than they were getting for the influence they were having on the music industry.  While I agree that they have been a great band with lots of catchy songs, I found it painfully awkward to hear him brag about himself like that.  His high opinion of himself genuinely diminished my impression of his music ever since.

 As the events recorded in Mark 9 continued to unfold, it became obvious that the disciples of Jesus had elevated opinions of themselves as well.  They were looking forward to being culturally recognized as influential people because of their association with Jesus, but Jesus repeatedly attempted to temper those expectations as He revealed more about what it really looks like to follow Him, including the nature of what real greatness in the kingdom of God is like.

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.  (Mark 9:30-32)

 Jesus continued to travel with the disciples in preparation for His eventual arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.  I get the impression that the disciples really weren’t interested in hearing anything from Him that sounded like bad news.  They wanted to hear about Jesus ruling and reigning, not about Him suffering.  They wanted to hear about Him being lifted up in honor and glory, not being crucified and reviled.  But Jesus made a point to let them know in very clear detail that He was going to experience some painful things in the near future.  As He spoke of these things, the disciples admittedly didn’t understand what He was talking about, particularly the idea of rising after being crucified. 

 It’s also interesting to observe that at this point they were afraid to ask Jesus follow-up questions about this teaching.  Jesus had already told them about these upcoming events on other occasions, and you would think that the explanation He gave them previously would have been sufficient, but they still didn’t get it.  I wonder if part of the reason they were afraid to ask Him for further clarification was because He had already given it to them and no matter how many times He explained these details, they still struggled to comprehend what He was talking about.

 Eventually, they started to talk about other things that weren’t quite as “high-minded” as what Jesus was revealing…

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”  (Mark 9:33-37)

 It probably won’t surprise you to learn that during the past several decades of marriage, my wife and I have engaged in our share of arguments.  I’m grateful that we don’t argue a lot because most of the arguments we’ve had during our years of marriage have been about very trivial things.  I honestly think I’d be embarrassed if some of those topics were known outside of our home.

 Unfortunately, the disciples were also adept at arguing, at least at this stage of their spiritual journey, and their arguments weren’t very flattering either.  The Scripture tells us that as they were walking to Capernaum, they actually argued about which one of them was the greatest.

Knowing their personalities at this point, I can definitely picture this taking place.  Several of these men were known for being bombastic and forceful individuals who had the propensity for being out in front.  Peter was an outspoken and sometimes aggressive man.  James and John were known as the “Sons of Thunder.”  I’m guessing they were men who had loud voices and commanding personalities.  They probably spoke with zeal and approached life the same way.  But arguing over which of them might be the greatest seems like an embarrassing decision to me.

Even the mother of James and John wanted her sons to be considered “great.”  Just look at the request she made of Jesus…

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”  (Matt. 20:20-22)

 Coming back to the discussion among the disciples, Jesus knew what these men were arguing about, even though they clearly didn’t want to admit it to Him.  When He asked them to elaborate on their conversation, they kept silent because I think deep down they knew it wasn’t very mature of them to argue over their greatness.

 But Jesus used this as a teachable moment and He revealed something about the nature of His kingdom that drastically sets it apart from the kingdoms of this world.  In Christ’s kingdom, greatness involves service.  Jesus said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”  Few people approach life this way.  In fact, many people resist living this way at all costs, but this is the model for life, leadership, and the demonstration of faith that should be typical of anyone who follows Christ because that’s exactly what He demonstrated to us.

 I was thinking about this the other day when I showed up on Cairn University’s campus to teach my morning class.  I usually arrive a little before 8:00 AM, and when I pulled my car onto campus, I saw a woman emptying bags of trash into one of the outside dumpsters.  I see her regularly.  She’s part of a team of people who arrive on campus at around 4:00 AM every morning to do a deep clean of the buildings.

 While most of us are still sleeping, she’s vacuuming hallways, wiping off desks, cleaning restrooms, and restocking paper supplies.  It’s an extremely important role, but the nature of the tasks she takes care of isn’t typically glamorous.  I’ll admit to you, however, that nearly every time I see her accomplishing her work, I remember to thank God for her.  The work she’s doing is a huge blessing to us all, and without her daily contribution to the ministry of the university, it wouldn’t take long before we were unable to offer our contributions.

 That’s a good reminder of what it’s like to be part of Christ’s kingdom.  Jesus didn’t come to this earth to be served.  He came to serve and to give His life as a ransom for us.  He washed feet.  He sacrificed His life.  He endured pain, ridicule, and discomfort because in doing so, we would benefit eternally.

 To drive this point home even further, Jesus placed a child in the midst of the disciples and explained to them that they were called to receive children, not reject them.  What does it mean to receive a child in Christ’s name?  There are plenty of people in this world who want nothing to do with children.  Why? What does working with children require?  

Working with children requires sacrifice.  It requires service.  It guarantees that your hands, your clothes, and most certainly your car is going to get dirty if they’re anywhere near you.  They will test and try you in ways you can’t imagine, but they’ll also teach you what genuine faith actually looks like because they live every minute of their lives by faith.  They can’t do things on their own.  They have to trust you to do for them what they are unable to do.

  That’s how Jesus chose to confront the disciples’ visions of what “greatness” actually looked like.  Those who are great in faith are willing to serve others in Jesus’ name, even when those you’re serving can offer you nothing in return.  On the contrary, those who are weak in faith care more about being served.

 I will never forget a conversation I had many years ago at our church.  It was a conversation that my father overheard because he was visiting for a dinner we were hosting that day.

Toward the end of the dinner, a young man came up to me and said, “I’d like to volunteer to help with something here in the church.”  I said, “That’s great!  What would you like to volunteer to do?”  He wasn’t sure so he said, “Could you make a few recommendations?”

 At that point, I gave him an overview of just about every ministry department in our church and the service opportunities that existed in each one of them.  When I got to the end of the list, he said, “Nah.  None of those seem to fit.  Can you suggest something else?”

 I couldn’t think of anything else, so I said, “If none of these options fit, maybe you could suggest something to me that you feel is a better fit for your giftedness.”  He paused and said he would have to get back to me.  Not surprisingly, he never got back to me.

 Ironically, several months later, a mission agency he applied to work with as a missionary reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to serve as a reference for him.  I told them very clearly that I was not willing to be one of his references.  My answer surprised them, but when they pressed me further, I explained that even though I knew this young man, I had never yet seen him serve anyone.  The only thing I had ever experienced from him was watching him come up with excuses as to why he couldn’t serve other people.  Not surprisingly, the mission agency decided that he wasn’t going to be a good fit and they did not bring him under their ministry umbrella.

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.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.  (Mark 9:38-41)

 After Christ instructed His disciples on what greatness looks like, John asked Jesus an additional question.  He wanted to know if it was appropriate for people outside their immediate group to do spiritual work in the name of Jesus.  Jesus told John not to stop those who serve in His name.  He then gave an additional example of sacrificial service by mentioning those who would offer a cup of water to a thirsty person for Christ’s glory.  He said such people would be rewarded.

 This example coupled with the other things Jesus taught gives us a great picture of real greatness in the kingdom of God.  Greatness isn’t really about being thought of as great.  Real greatness is realizing how great Jesus is and being willing to follow His others-centered example.  He gave, so we give.  He served, so we serve.  He sacrificed, so we sacrifice.  He put the needs of others first, and as we do likewise, we have the privilege to demonstrate that our faith in Christ is sincere.

© John Stange, 2024


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