“And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:33-34 ESV)
Sometimes the disciples were just plain embarrassing. This is one of those times. They are walking along the road with the Son of God while debating which of them is the greatest. By this, it doesn’t mean they were arguing that other disciples were the greatest, they were arguing for their own claim to greatness. In Mark’s account, this is just after Peter, James, and John personally witness Jesus’ transfiguration. You would think the sight of the very shekinah glory of God and the thundering voice of God the Father would have put a little humility in them. But no. Just a few verses later, they are making their best case for their own greatness and their own exalted place in Jesus’ kingdom.
Jesus calls them on it and asks, what were you discussing? “But they kept silent.” They were suddenly embarrassed. They looked down and tried to find a rock they could crawl under.
“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.’” (Mark 9:35) A parallel passage in Matthew says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)
To be first, you must be last. To be great, be a servant. These sound like backwards day. Oxymorons. Blatant contradictions to the norm. How is greatness servitude? How is firstness lastness?
Jesus is trying to help us see what is real and true in the eyes of God and in the kingdom of God. It’s challenging for us to understand because we are so enculturated in the kingdom of man. Greatness is kingship. Greatness is firstness. Greatness is winning. Greatness is people serving you.
But in the Godhead from which all truth flows, the Triune God doesn’t operate that way. God the Father doesn’t lord it over the Son and the Spirit. The Son and Spirit are not trying to usurp the Father. Their glorious perfections are expressed in service to each other. The Father serves the Godhead by leading. The Son serves by obeying the Father. The Spirit serves as the active agent in the purposes of God. Their starting point within the Trinity is, how can I bless the others? This basic selflessness is the eternal source of all divine love.
Jesus comes to the kingdom of man and all its org charts and pecking orders and dares to say, the servant around here is the greatest person. The disciples didn’t get it. We mostly don’t either. The story continues a chapter later:
“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’” (Mark 10:35) That is pretty much a summary of 99% of prayers we offer. God, will you please do whatever we ask of you? James and John’s brazen ambition is on display. “And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10:36-37)
Take a moment and just consider what they are asking. Jesus, other than you, we want to have the highest places of honor possible for a human to have and we want that glory forever, and ever. The right and left of the throne of Jesus? Are you serious? Here’s Jesus’ response.
“Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ And they said to him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’” (Mark 10:38-40)
James and John did suffer like Jesus did and endured their persecution faithfully to the end. The focus turns from James and John to the other disciples who hear about the brothers’ brazen request.
“And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:41–45)
The other disciples were upset. Was it because they thought it unseemly to ask Jesus such a question? Perhaps, but more likely they resented James and John beating them to the punch. If only I had asked, maybe I could be at his right hand.
We see this driving ambition to advance the kingdom of self even among the disciples. Now we give them some grace as this is before the cross and before their regeneration. They are arguably unbelievers at this point, but still, it looks a lot more like a backstabbing reality TV show than a Christian small group.
Jesus repeats an ethic in the kingdom of God, greatness is servanthood. To prove it he says, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
The Example – Our Servant King
Jesus sets the example of greatness by setting the example of service. He didn’t come to lord his authority, although he could. He didn’t come to show off his power, although he could. He didn’t come to impress us, although he could. He came to serve us. The highest king of all humbled himself to the lowest possible place and from that position of meekness served humanity. This is a wonder and countercultural even today.
How do you view greatness? Do you aspire to it? A quick summary of social media would be ordinary people trying to convince ordinary people that they themselves are extraordinary. If not them, then certainly their extraordinary children. It reminds me of my favorite Winston Churchill quote, he said, “All men are worms, but I do believe that I am a glow worm.” James and John thought they were glow worms among the normal worm-type disciples.
You can see Jesus sighing as he thought, how do I convince these ladder climbers that the way to greatness is to climb down the ladder? To go low. To go humble. To view other people as more significant than your own? One way we know he did was he gave them an object lesson:
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:3–5)
Washing feet was the duty of a servant. Jesus was the nationally famous rabbi. Yet he washed their feet? Washing feet really gets at the heart of servanthood. To wash feet requires you to go low. It means your lowest need is my highest priority. You have to get on your knees to wash feet. In doing so, the other person’s dirt becomes your dirt. Their feet dirt is now your hand dirt. Your head is at their feet. It’s a powerful picture of greatness God’s way.
In the kingdom of God, we don’t ascend to greatness, we descend to greatness. From that place of descent, the opportunity to serve our servant King by serving his people is viewed as a great privilege. Why? We are following his example.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
 Winston Churchill as quoted by Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership (Toronto: Random House, 2010), page unknown.
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