In every human heart lies the desire for greatness. Most of us grew up wanting to be famous athletes or actors, and I’m convinced every child goes through a phase of wanting to be an astronaut (I never did!). I do not believe this is in itself a sinful desire. It can be twisted or expressed in inordinate ways so that it becomes sinful, and because it arises from a fallen heart it has the potentiality of being fallen, but I do not believe this is something that in itself must be mortified. In fact, much like with out inborn desire for joy and happiness, our Lord does not tell us to repent of this desire, but to redefine how we understand and express it. Just as our ultimate joy must be in God, so our desire for greatness must be radically God-centered.
We are in the section of Mark where our Lord has turned from the crowds and is now focusing on intensive training of the twelve apostles. The narrative pushes Him towards Jerusalem with each closing chapter, and Jesus is well aware that His earthly ministry—and thus His time to equip and train His men personally for His absence and their Spirit-empowered ministry on the world stage—is soon to be over as He dies for sinners and rises as universal Lord.
That death is not merely for the justification and imputation of sinners, but affects every aspect of life as it is intellectually perceived and actually lived. The twelve did not grasp this, just as they did not grasp the reality or fullness of the cross (recall that just a short while before that Peter has rebuked our Lord for mentioning His death!). And one of the implications of that death is that it changes how we understand greatness. This passage gives us two requirements for greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
A. Humility: As Modeled by the Lord Jesus (vv. 30–32)
As I already mentioned Jesus is shifting the focus of His ministry from the crowds to the twelve. All He does is now pointing to the cross. Interestingly, in chapters 8-10 our Lord mentions His death three times, and every time His men respond with unbelief, rejection, or incredulity. But He is persistent, and He wants His ne to understand (a) He really is going to die and (b) that death has massive implications both as the heart of the gospel and for all of the lived Christian life. Mark, too, in the context of his narrative is focusing in on just why God became a man. The whole point of the Incarnation is so the Lord could die for sinners—but also, as He also says, to rise victoriously and bodily to prove the Father accepted His payment and to secure our own redemption, for just as His death is ours by virtue of union with Him, so also He must rise from condemnation and death into glorious bodily life to ensure that His people will, too. Hallelujah!
The Lord adds something new to this declaration, however—He will be betrayed. The Gr. means literally “to be handed over.” Sometimes, it has a sinister connotation, as here, where the handing over is due to the machinations of ungodly, wicked people. But the word is also used in a judicial sense, like in Romans 4:25 where it speaks of God the Father handing Jesus over to death as the substitute for sinners. It was always the plan of God for Him to become a man and die. But He used the free, willing, sinful actions of rebellious man to accomplish the heart of that plan.
Jesus will die. He must emphasize this for His Jewish apostles, who have become so wrapped up in a distorted view of the Messianic work that they have no concept of His death. How can He die if He is to bring in the kingdom? They do not grasp that His death is the heart of the gospel. They also do not grasp that He has repeatedly said He will not stay dead, but rise victoriously to rule, redeem, and return. He will rule as king forever. But He must die to win a vast multitude of redeemed worshippers to populate that kingdom.
But alas they do not get it. Matthew tells us that they were “grieved” (17:23). This carries the idea of apprehension, anxiety, sadness. They are saddened, and confused, but they do not ask Him about it. They are too afraid. Afraid of the future, Afraid of the implications. Afraid of losing Him. Afraid of their hopes for Israel being dashed for a final, irreversible time. We often fear like this, too.
But God knew what He was doing. The cross changes everything. The cross is God Himself humbling Himself to all the lowliness and indignities of human life, being rejected and hated and misunderstood, and finally dying the death of a common criminal under the wrath of God. This is the humility we are to have. This is the devotion to God and His plan we are to have. This is the heart for sacrificing oneself to serve others we are to have.
And it is all rooted in the work of God at the cross!
B. Humility: As Instructed by the Lord Jesus (vv. 33–35)
Eventually the Lord and His men reach their destination. They are back home in Capernaum, and are back resting in Peter’s house. Jesus, ever the concerned pastor-teacher, asks them what they were discussing on the trip there. Of course He knows, even apart from His omniscience; this is a kind of leading question to draw them out and examine their motives and attitudes. But the men are too ashamed to answer the question, because they had been arguing over which of them was the greatest. They probably think that because Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem He is about to dole out positions in His kingdom, and their chests are puffed out jostling for prominence.
Their Lord is pushing towards an ignoble death with inexorable intent and purpose, and they’re fighting over who gets to wear the bigger crown. What self-centeredness!
But He, in His mercy, has yet more to teach them about humility and how it is connected to true greatness. He sits down—the archetypical teaching position in that culture—and says if we wish to be first, we will be last and servant of all (v. 35). Do you want to be great? Do you want to know the favor of God, the applause of heaven, the heights of the kingdom that will reign forever? Then it cannot be about you! Entrance into the kingdom is through humble, dependent, repentant faith—and we live in the kingdom exactly the same way. Saving and sanctifying grace comes through humility and is expressed in humility. Willing to be last, willing to serve all—that is the path to true prominence and greatness in the kingdom. And if you think true greatness is anything other than humility, you do not think Jesus Himself is great!
C. Service: As Illustrated and Expressed by the Lord Jesus (vv. 36–37)
But the handmaid of humility is service. Humility expresses itself in service—most specifically, serving the Lord (through loving obedience!) and serving other Christians. Of note here is Jesus does not condemn ambition or a desire for greatness—just as He does not condemn our desire for happiness and joy. But He does, as God and messianic Lord, reserve the right to redefine or refocus what ought to motivate those ambitions/desires and what their goal ought to be.
The lesson is not done. The Lord finds a small child—almost certainly one of Peter’s sons, though we can’t be sure—and picks him up into His arms, onto His lap, holding him close. The child is about to be a timeless illustration of the heart of humble service! Whoever receives one of these children in His name receives Him, the Lord says (v. 37a). It is very important to compare Mark’s account with the fuller one in Matthew or otherwise we will miss Jesus’ entire point. He is not talking about serving actual children here (though obviously we are to serve them). Nor is He simply talking about serving anyone and everyone regardless of whether they can pay us back (though again that is certainly true). What makes this biblical, Christian, God-centered service is that this is a Christian serving another Christian. The “child” in Mark is of the children in Matthew who humbly repent and are converted, the ones who are to be received by the apostles, the ones who must not be caused to sin (Matt 18:1-6). This is why, when we receive one of these children, we receive the Lord Jesus—because He has claimed them and indwells them through His Holy Spirit.
While the Lord is pleased with any humble service done to anyone in His name, the context is that our priority must be those in the family of faith, in the local church (as the rest of Matthew 18, in its church discipline and spiritual authority discourses, makes clear). How we treat another believer is how we treat the Lord Jesus. I tremble to think of the prideful ways in which some Christians have treated me—and how I have treated them. O the assault this is on the sovereign hand of God, who has chosen and called and redeemed us. Did you realize that means we are obligated to regard and do and feel certain things about each other? Your Father is their Father. Your Lord is their Lord. I am appalled by the way Christians treat each other on social media, especially if they fall into opposite camps on whatever issue is having is thirty seconds of scorched-earth uproar among the Lord’s people. Salvation is questioned, ministry is denigrated, motives are dragged through mud—often in the name of purity and discernment! And then, it’s only a problem when other people do it, but when we do it, it’s totally different!
How patient God is with all of us. How much more patient we need to be with each other. We must not excuse error or sin, but neither must we tear down people God has purchased with the very blood of His Son. How tragic to be right on the truth (if even that!) but wrong with God!
We must humbly welcome and serve other Christians, for God has welcomed them. If we welcome and serve them, we by faith welcome their Lord and ours. And not only that, but God the Father—who walks amidst the churches with His Son and His Spirit (2 Cor. 6), the One whom our incarnate Lord served and loved and shared in indissoluble divine nature from all eternity—is there as well, and we welcome Him.
Our Father and our Elder Brother look upon how we forget ourselves, and love and serve the other members of their beloved family, and they delight in their sacred work in us, and they are satisfied. May we delight to please our Triune God by lovingly, humbly, and self-forgetfully serving His Body and the whole world for the glory of His great name.