Mark 09v30-50, Defining Greatness on the Way to the Cross

Introduction

1456053183_thumb.pngHow do you define greatness? Being at the top of your game? Being number one? The world is looking for greatness and defines it from the top down. Jesus says that we’ve got it upside down. He defines greatness from the bottom up. Do you want to be great?

1.      Looking for Greatness in All the Wrong Places

The desire for greatness can be found in most every one of us, in one way or another. We may define greatness and success in different ways, but we have a deep need for greatness, for significance. We seek meaning and purpose in life. It is often suggested that we may pursue greatness in trying to find something bigger and greater than ourselves.

Historically, the rulers of Europe were often given the attribute “the Great.” There was Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.), Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”, d. 814), Frederic the Great of Prussia (1712–1786), Catherine the Great of Russia (1729–1796), and Napoleon the Great (1769-1821), as well as many others.

In Bible times there was Cyrus the Great (c. 600–530 B.C.), kind of Persia; the Syrian ruler, Antiochus the Great (223-187 B.C.), and Herod the Great (73/74-4 B.C.).

Jesus spoke of these “great ones” when he said,

Mark 10:42 ESV … “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.

1.1.   Greatness according to the World

You do not have to be a ruler to pursue greatness. Perhaps you define greatness as being at the top of your game. Perhaps you want to be a great athlete, or a great teacher, or a great administrator, or a great leader. Perhaps you define greatness in terms of financial success, living in a nice home, eating the finest of food, and having people wait on you hand and foot.

Perhaps you define greatness in terms of intelligence, or scientific achievement, or as an artist. Or you may define greatness in terms of “the rich and the famous.”

According to the Wikipedia,

Greatness is a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person or object. Greatness can also be referred to individuals who possess a natural ability to be better than all others. The concept carries the implication that the particular person or object, when compared to others of a similar type, has clear advantage over others. As a descriptive term it is most often applied to a person or their work…[1]

Here greatness is defined in terms of comparison, being better than others, having abilities that are better than others, have a clear advantage over others.

This is certainly how the disciples understood greatness. In Mark 9:34, the disciples “had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.” They are each arguing for their own superiority over the others. They are vying for position.

Then we read…

Mark 9:33-34 ESV 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.

They were “on the way.” “On the way” to where? Jesus and his disciples were “on the way” to Jerusalem.

The disciples could not get beyond their ideas of greatness. In spite of all that Jesus had told them, and in spite of their fears and apprehensions, they knew that they were “on the way” to Jerusalem, and they remained hopeful. They are en route for Jerusalem, and “…the journey to Jerusalem has been fanning the flames of messianic and eschatological hopes in their minds. Surely the kingdom would break forth in Jerusalem, with Jesus — and they with him — at” the head of the kingdom![2]  But Jesus was on the way to the cross.

1.2.   Fighting for Greatness

So the disciples are arguing about which one of them will be the greatest in the kingdom.

This passage is thick with irony. Jesus has just announced a second time to the group of his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem not to be crowned as king, but to suffer, and to be rejected, and to die — and the disciples just do not get it.

Let’s retrace briefly what has happened in the last few sections of Mark. In Mark 8, Jesus asked his disciples who they believed him to be. Peter declared that Jesus was the Christ (8:29). Then Jesus told them plainly for the first time that as the Christ, he would suffer many things, be rejected and killed, and after three days rise again (8:30). Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, but then he rebuked Jesus because suffering and death were incompatible with his understanding of what Christ the Messiah would do.

In turn, Jesus sharply rebuked Peter for expressing not the thoughts of God, but those of men. And then, Jesus turns everything upside down

Mark 8:34-35 ESV And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

Here is the paradox of the gospel: If you try to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, you will save it. Save it and you lose it. Lose it to save it.

One week later, Jesus took Peter and James and John up to the top of a high mountain where he was transfigured before them with the glory that was his before the creation of the universe. Surely following Jesus would be worth the risk. Coming down from the mountain, Jesus tells those three disciples to tell no one “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9).

Now in Mark 9, Jesus spends time teaching all 12 disciples a second time about what he was going to do.

Mark 9:30-31 ESV 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.”

This is not public teaching; this is a private teaching session. As Jesus is en route for Jerusalem, he does not want anyone to know his traveling plans. Jesus does not want any interruptions from outsiders as he explains to them what will happen to him. This is a private teaching session with his 12 disciples, teaching them lessons which they must — by all means — learn.

The first time, Jesus had spoken of suffering many things, of being rejected, and of being killed. This time he adds an element: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.”[3]

  • Jesus will be delivered — betrayed — by Judas, one of his own disciples (14:10-11, 18, 21, 41-42).
  • He will be delivered by the high priest’s council into the hands of Pilate, the governor. They will force Pilate’s hand so that he decides to execute Jesus (10:33; 15:1, 10).
  • “Pilate will deliver Jesus into the hands of the soldiers who will crucify him (15:15).”
  • Yes, the Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of sinners (14:14). All of “humanity falls into this category.”

“But there is another hand behind all this handing over. It is the hand of God, whose purposes are being fulfilled unbeknownst to any of the actors in the drama.”[4]

After the resurrection of Christ, it is clear from the preaching of the apostles and from the New Testament epistles that God had delivered his one and only Son as a sacrifice for our sin. The Apostle Paul says it like this in Romans:

Romans 8:32 NAU He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?

Jesus told them plainly that he was going to be delivered and killed and after three days, rise from the dead.

  • Jesus is talking about his suffering; they are arguing about their own significance.
  • Jesus is talking about being rejected; they are arguing about reigning.
  • Jesus is teaching them about his death; they are arguing about domination.

The disciples simply embody man’s normal and sinful ambitions. The world defines greatness as

  • Getting to the top
  • Being number one
  • Securing wealth, power, and position

Mark 9:32 ESV But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

How could they understand what Jesus was saying? What Jesus was saying was totally incompatible with their notions of greatness. They were not looking for a crucified Christ. That was an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms. The cross was incompatible with their notion of the crown and the kingdom. How could they possibly understand? Jesus was not fitting into their categories. He was not conforming to their way of thinking. But our way of thinking should not be like the world’s way of thinking because the world has it all wrong. That’s why the Apostle Paul tell us,

Romans 12:2 NLT Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Jesus has now told his disciples twice that he was on the way to the cross… “he was teaching his disciples…”

Mark 9:32 ESV But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

They did not understand, but apparently they understood something, for they were afraid to ask him. Perhaps they remembered before when Peter had rebuked Christ and had been in turned rebuked for setting his mind on the things of man instead of on the things of God (Mark 8:33).

We recreate a gospel to suit us, a gospel of health and wealth and prosperity. Like the disciples, we do not want to hear about denying ourselves, or suffering, or rejection, or death to self, or losing our life so that we may yet save it.

We recreate our gospel to suit ourselves, but it is not a full gospel; it is a diminished gospel. It is a gospel that tells us to repeat a prayer and all will be okay. Get yourself baptized and you have a sure ticket to heaven. Make sure you go to church on the right day of the week and all will be okay. But that is our contemporary gospel and not the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the gospel of the apostles, and not the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation.

2.      Greatness according to Jesus

Greatness according to the world is diametrically opposed to greatness according to Jesus. The world lives according to the principle dominance, “looking out for number one,” being first in line.

Mark 9:33-34 ESV 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.

2.1.   Jesus Redefines Greatness as Serving, Not Dominance

So Jesus sits down and takes the position of a teacher:

Mark 9:35 ESV 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.”

Once again Jesus is turning their categories upside down. Jesus has already declared that whoever would save his life must lose it for Christ’s sake and for the gospel’s. Save it and you lose it. Lose it to save it.

2.2.1. First is last, last is first

Now Jesus gives a second paradox: To be first, you must be last.

Mark 9:35 ESV … ”If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

You want to be number one? Then you must be last. Do you want to be great? Then you must be last of all and the servant of all.

Jesus is not telling us that we should not pursue greatness; he is redefining greatness. We think that greatness is being at the top; Jesus says that greatness is serving someone at the bottom. We think that greatness is going first; Jesus says that greatness is letting everyone go ahead of us. We think that greatness is ruling over others; Jesus says that greatness is serving others.

We are so concerned about pride of place. The Rabbinic writings (the writings of the Jewish rabbis) “frequently comment on the seating order in Paradise, for example, and argue that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels.”[5]

We talk about “bigman” and even in the church we introduce guest preachers as “a great man of God.” We are to give honor to whom honor is due, but we disobey Christ and dishonor God when we exalt man in the presence of God. This is what Jesus said about the Pharisees:

Matthew 23:6-12 NLT And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. 7 They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’ 8 “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. 9 And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. 10 And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The disciples are fighting for first place in the kingdom, but they have not understood that to go up, you must go down. If you want to go high, you must go low. If you want to be great, you must be a servant.

How horrible it is in the church today when people fight for position and power and dominance! How ugly it is when pastors campaign like politicians to get the votes of church members! That is not the way of servanthood. That is not the way of the cross of Christ who said,

Mark 8:34 ESV … “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

On the other side of the cross, perhaps the disciples had an excuse for not understanding, but we are on this side of the cross and the resurrection. We are on this side of Calvary. We have the New Testament Scriptures which had not yet been written, not even the first word. The disciples may perhaps be excused for failing to understand, but we have no excuse.

Mark 9:35-37 ESV 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.”

2.2.2.   Jesus Illustrates Greatness by Taking a Child in His Arms

Jesus took a child and put the child in the midst of them. Here in the middle of the disciples was a child. Children were of no account in Roman and Jewish societies. Today, more and more, to our great shame, children are becoming throwaway commodities. But Jesus not only took the child, but he took the child in his arms. He cherished and loved the child.

Now Jesus was not using the child as an example of humility. No, the child was “an example of the ‘little’ and insignificant ones whom followers of Jesus are to receive.[6]

Mark 9:37 ESV “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Disciples are thus not to be like children, but to be like Jesus who embraces them. It is Jesus, not the child, who here demonstrates what it means to be “the servant of all.”[7]

2.3.   Jesus Redefines Greatness as Openness, Not Exclusion

The second worldly way of seeking of greatness is through exclusion. This is greatness by monopoly. This is being great because you have eliminated the competition. You have become the only source for the commodity that you offer.

Mark 9:38 ESV 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.”

Let’s note that…

  1. This person was casting out demons.
  2. He was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, that is, with the authority of Christ.
  3. He was successfully doing something that the disciples had just failed to do earlier in this chapter when a father brought his son to the disciples to have them cast out the demon, but they were not able (9:18).
  4. John tried to stop this man because he was not one of their group: “because he was not following us.”

This is seeking greatness by excluding all others, but this is not the way of Christ.

Mark 9:39-41 ESV 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.

Remember that John was part of the inner circle. Peter and James and John were the only disciples that Jesus took with him when he raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. Those three were the only disciples to witness the transfiguration of Christ on the mountaintop. John has begun to think that he is part of an exclusive group. He was one of the twelve. He likes being part of that special group. And he wants his group to be exclusive. He wants them to be the only ones.

And then John sees someone else doing what the disciples are called to do. He sees someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus had previously sent out the 12 disciples and had given them authority over unclean spirits (Mark 6:7, 13). Perhaps this man had seen the disciples casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He believes and does the same thing: he begins casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John sees him casting out demons in Jesus’ name and tries to stop him because he did not belong to their group.

Mark 9:39-40 NLT “Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.”

Some churches claim to be the only true church. They want to exclude all others. That is one of the marks of a false cult. Some churches claim to have apostolic authority. Apostolic authority does not come from apostolic succession or having the right person lay his hands on you; apostolic authority come from believing and preaching what Christ and his apostles preached.

2.3.1. The One Who Is Not Against Christ Is for Christ (9:38-40)

This is all about Jesus. It is not about me or you or my church or your church. It’s about Jesus. The question is not, “What church do you belong to?” The question is, “What Christ do you preach? What gospel do you preach? Are you preaching the Word of God or the vision of a man?” You may not be a member of my church or of my denomination, but if you are following my Lord, if you are preaching the Word of God, if you are proclaiming Christ and him crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, then I rejoice that Christ is being preached! The first missionaries that came to this country and laid down their lives, they did not preach their church; they preached Christ. They did not preach a certain day; they preached Christ. The question is not whether you are Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist or Nazarene or Anglican or Assemblies of God or apostolic. The question is, “Do you know Christ? Do you preach Christ?”

2.3.2. The One Who Serves Christ Will Be Rewarded by Christ (Mark 9:41)

Mark 9:41 ESV 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.

“Whoever” means you. Jesus is telling the disciples that anyone who identifies with Christ and shows his allegiance to Christ by serving those who serve Christ, that person will not lose his reward. Jesus sees. Jesus knows. He will “reward the smallest and humblest acts of service done to others” in his name.[8]

2.3.3. Warning: Do Not Cause Believers to Stumble

Jesus promises a reward to the humblest believer who serves Christ by serving others. But he warns us not to cause these believers to stumble. We must not hinder the humblest of believers in their service for Christ.

2.3.3.1.           Learn the Lesson of the Great Millstone (Mark 9:42).[9]

Mark 9:42 ESV “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

Do we see the danger? Forbidding people to do what they can for Christ may cause them to stumble. It would be better to be drowned in the depth of the ocean than to offend the humblest believer in Christ.

2.3.3.2.           Learn the Lesson of Self-Mutilation (Mark 9:43-48)

But then Jesus expands the warning. He tells us that saving faith is a fighting faith. We must pursue holiness “with passion and discipline.”[10] Jesus speaks of our hands, our feet, and our eyes: what we do, where we go, and what we see:

Mark 9:43-48 ESV And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 44 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 46 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

Jesus uses the language of hyperbole, or the language of exaggeration because the importance of what he is saying cannot be exaggerated. Cutting off our hands and feet, and tearing out our eyes will not solve the problem because Jesus has already told us that sin is deeply rooted in the heart (7:21). But Jesus is telling us that we must be violent with the sin in our lives. It must be cut out. Three times he tells us that it is better to be crippled, lame, and one-eyed than to be thrown into hell. He tells us that hell is a horrible place where the fire never goes out and the worm never dies.

What are you doing to get the sin out of your life? You must kill sin or it will kill you.

Romans 8:12-13 NLT Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. 13 For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live.

2.3.3.3.           Learn the Lesson of Good Salt (Mark 9:49-50)

Mark 9:49 ESV For everyone will be salted with fire.

Jesus picks up the word “fire” and tells us that everyone will be salted with fire. The unbeliever will be salted with “the perpetual fires of final judgment in hell.” The believer will be salted with “the preserving and refining fires of trials and suffering that mark the road to true greatness.”[11]

Then Jesus adds,

Mark 9:50 ESV Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again?

Salt preserves, but “unless we maintain the purity of our own lives (plucking out the eye, etc.) and are purified by the flames of testing, and remain faithful to Christ, our lives will have no preserving influence on this corrupt world.”[12]

Finally, Jesus tells his disciples,

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They were vying for position and superiority. Jesus showed them that greatness is not found at the top; it is found at the bottom, serving one another.

It is no wonder that the early Christians were described as those who had turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Conclusion: An Upside Down World or a Right Side Up World?

The world thinks that Christian values are upside down, but in reality, the world is upside down. Jesus came to set it right side up. The world fights and clamors to get to the top, but Jesus showed that the way to be exalted is to humble ourselves.

Philippians 2:4-11 ESV Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What kind of a world would this be if

  • Instead of trying to get to the top, we began serving those on the bottom?
  • Instead of lifting up ourselves, we would humble ourselves
  • Instead of putting people down, we tried to lift them up
  • Instead of seeking to be served by others, we served others
  • Instead of trying to be number one, we were last
  • Instead of trying to stop others who are serving Christ, we rejoiced that the Gospel was being preached.

What kind of a world would this be? You can begin to make a difference today. You can demonstrate true greatness.


See also “Gospel of Mark”:


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greatness

[2] Edwards Jr., James R. The Gospel according to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2009. 9:34.

[3] Garland, David E. A Theology of Mark’s Gospel. Zondervan Publishing House: 2015, p. 421.

[4] Garland, David E. A Theology of Mark’s Gospel. Zondervan Publishing House: 2015, p. 421.

[5] Edwards Jr., James R. The Gospel according to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2009.

[6] Edwards Jr., James R. The Gospel according to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2009. 9:36-37.

[7] Edwards Jr., James R. The Gospel according to Mark (Pillar New Testament Commentary). Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2009. 9:36-37.

[8] Akin, Daniel L. Exalting Jesus in Mark (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary). B&H Publishing Group: 2014.

[9] Akin, Daniel L. Exalting Jesus in Mark (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary). B&H Publishing Group: 2014. 9:42

[10] Akin, Daniel L. Exalting Jesus in Mark (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary). B&H Publishing Group: 2014. 9:43

[11] Akin, Daniel L. Exalting Jesus in Mark (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary). B&H Publishing Group: 2014. 9:49

[12] Sinclair Ferguson in Akin, Daniel L. Exalting Jesus in Mark (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary). B&H Publishing Group: 2014. 9:49

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