Posts Tagged ‘greatness’

Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are back into our series on Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Mark. And today we begin in on a passage found in Mark 9:33-50, which will take us a few weeks to work our way through.

We’re gonna look specifically at vs. 33-37 this morning, focused on arguments about who’s the greatest in the church community. But before we jump in, let’s back up and look at –

The bigger picture

Mark 9:33-50 is a part of a yet larger section of teaching that comes between Jesus’ second and third prediction of his death. This is teaching for his disciples about living life after his death and resurrection – after Jesus is gone. It’s preparation for this. The first part of this has to do with the household of the church: Mark 9:33-50 – which is our focus. The second has to do with earthly households: Mark 10:1-31 (marriage – vs. 1-12; children – vs. 13-16; wealth – vs. 17-31).

Now let’s look a bit more at what Jesus says about –

The household of the church – Mark 9:33-50

You have a handout that outlines the passage. This is where we’ll be going in the next few weeks. The common theme is relationships in Jesus’ community of disciples. And the point of this whole passage is found at the very end, in  v. 50 – “Be at peace with one another.”

As you can see in your handout, he covers three relationship problems: arguing over who is the greatest, rejecting those who are not from your group and looking down on those who seem unimportant. Then he stresses in the clearest possible way the danger that awaits those who cause division and strife in his community in, what I am calling the three amputation sayings and the three salt sayings.

So this is what we are looking at and we begin with the first kind of conflict, the disciples arguing about –

Who’s the greatest?

v. 33 – “And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’” Capernaum was Jesus’ home base. It was a fishing village on the  sea of Galilee.

Jesus checks in on his disciples to see what they were discussing. Maybe it was an especially intense conversation and he wants to see what’s going on.

v. 34 – “But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” They were silent because they knew better than to openly argue about such a thing.

Jesus has been teaching them about the coming of the kingdom of God and they expected to have an exalted place in that kingdom, based on their service to Jesus now.

And that expectation was right. As Jesus indicates in Matthew 19:28 – “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

But who would have the highest place? Whose throne would be the best? Whose would be next to Jesus and whose would be furthest away?

v. 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.’” Jesus sits down because this is what teachers did in that day. He has something to share with them about the true path to greatness – which is very different than what people in the world think.

The way to be great is to be “last of all and servant of all.” This is an important teaching that is repeated in different ways by Jesus:

  • Mark 10:43-44 – “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
  • Luke 22:26 – “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”
  • Matthew 23:11 – “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”

If in the world you become great by putting yourself forward to be recognized, clawing your way to the top while pushing others down, being arrogant and self-focused – in the kingdom you become great by lowering yourself and being the last of all.

If being great in the world means being served by others – in the kingdom being great means serving others.

Jesus is saying to his disciples – it’s OK to seek to be great, but you’re going about it in exactly the wrong way.

  • Don’t focus on raising yourself up and being recognized and served.
  • Focus on lowering yourself and serving others’ needs.

For this is what greatness means in the kingdom of God. And these God himself will raise up to be honored.

And then Jesus gives an illustration. v. 36 – “And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms . . .” Apparently the child is from the house where they are.

Remember that in biblical times children were not held in the same high regard as they are today in the West. They were often seen as no more than slaves, until they grew up. They had no power or social status. They were not put on a pedestal. They were on the bottom – lowly and last.

And so what does Jesus do? “Taking him in his arms” can also be translated as “embracing him.” Jesus hugs the child. A simple act of love; the giving of attention and affection. Jesus is saying, “This is what I’m talking about.”

Then he gives the lesson. vs. 36-37 – “. . . he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’”

 To receive someone means to welcome them. To welcome them in the name of Jesus is to do this on behalf of Jesus; as his representative; as his servant.

Jesus is saying that greatness comes from accepting the lowest social status in order to serve others – in this case a child. You put yourself below the lowly one, so that you can love and minister to their needs. Instead of the lowly ones focusing on you and lifting you up, you focus on them and lift them up by serving them.

And what you will find is that you will not be serving no-bodies, you know, people who can’t help you out in return (Luke 1413-14), you will be serving Jesus and indeed the Father.

Let me ask the question, then –

How do we seek out worldly greatness?

How do we try to be better than others in our church community? It’s usually not open. Like the disciples we know that we shouldn’t openly pursue this. But we do have subtle ways of seeking to put ourselves above others.

Here’s an example: a pastor who’s focus is on success, defined as having a bigger and bigger church and being recognized by others; a kind of celebrity. In other words this pastor has a worldly definition of success. Now, it isn’t wrong to grow or to be recognized. But the point of ministry is to place yourself below others to serve them, not above them to be recognized. To lift them up, not to be lifted up.

A church member who wants a certain role. And so pushes to get it, manipulates, pressures and politicks for it. This is really just self-promotion – seeking the honor of the role, not seeking to serve others.

Rivalries between church members. You know, over who is more gifted, or more faithful? Rivalries for the admiration of other members, or agreement on key issues that the church is discussing – creating factions.

A church member who wants to be recognized. You have worked hard and no one seems to notice. And so you are angry and a little bitter. And so you start laying out hints to get others to notice you. Again it is not wrong to be recognized. And maybe others are failing to appreciate you. But it’s wrong to seek to be recognized or to set your heart on gaining that. That is the way of the world.

When we take up the agenda of worldly greatness we strain, damage and destroy our relationships with each other. And the church is weakened and distracted from doing what God calls us to do. Any group that is focused on such things is not going to be able to be focused on loving God and loving each other and serving God in the world. So you can see the importance of us having good relationships with each other.

Jesus’ word to us

Stop seeking worldly greatness among yourselves, and “be at peace with one another” – v. 50.

Only seek kingdom greatness, which will eliminate the conflict over who has the most status and who should be recognized.

And then let God exalt you at the right time. Don’t even worry about this. Keep on lowering yourself to serve and leave the agenda of recognition in God’s hands. It may not come until the final day, but wait for it. It will be worth it.

William Higgins

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Jesus had a lot to say about children and we have looked at some of this – especially Jesus’ blessing of children. Today we look at Mark 9:33-37, a story that teaches us about the importance of ministering to children. Lets dig into this and see what we can learn from it.

Who is the greatest?

Our story begins with an argument – vs. 33-34 – “And they came to Capernaum. And when Jesus 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.”

This was not just petty vanity, you know, saying, “I’m smarter than you,” or “I look better than you.” Jesus is preparing for the kingdom of God and the disciples rightly expected to have a big role in that kingdom.

Jesus himself talks about greatness in the kingdom in several places. He talks about:

  • Those who will be the greatest in the kingdom – Matthew 23:11
  • Twelve thrones and those who will sit on these to rule over others – Matthew 19:28
  • Some sitting at his right and left hand when he is on his throne in the kingdom – Mark 10:40

So the disciples did think about these things and, of course, we find them arguing about this in several places.

In our story, no doubt, the fact that Jesus had just picked Peter, James and John to witness the transfiguration not long before had something to do with this debate about greatness.

The nine might well say, “Hey, are they better than us now?” The three may well have said, “Obviously we will have a higher place in the kingdom than you guys!”

And then add to this that the nine had failed to cast out a demon while Jesus and the other three were gone on the mountain of transfiguration. You can see how there could be tension.

When Jesus calls them on debating about this our text says, “they kept silent.” They apparently knew better than to be so openly ambitious; each putting themselves forward as the greatest.

By way of background, what we are dealing with here is a contrast of social standings on an honor/power scale:

  • You have those who are the first – in charge, with power – who are honored
  • And then you have those who are last – the lowly, the powerless – who are not honored

At the top of the scale – you are served. At the bottom of the scale – you serve.

Although it is a bit different today (we are not so hierarchical) it is still true today, just like back then that no one wanted to be a servant; to wait on others; to be lowly; to be at the bottom of this scale.

If you ask, how do you get honor & power? Well, according to the world you exalt yourself, put yourself forward, accumulate power and if you need to, put others down in order to lift yourself up.

And this is what the disciples were doing arguing with each other about who was the greatest. Maybe one said, “I’m have more spiritual gifts than you!” And another would say, “Oh yea, I’m more faithful than you!”

The true path to greatness: lowly service

Jesus confronts all this in v. 35 – “And Jesus 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.’”

It says that Jesus “sat down.” In the culture of that day teachers sat to teach. He has something important to tell them.

The disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest, but Jesus says – “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (see also Mark 10:43-45 and Matthew 23:11-12).  Notice that Jesus doesn’t challenge looking for greatness, just how to find greatness. Although the world works one way, a different path is required if you want to be great in the kingdom.

What Jesus is saying is that:

  • To be great in the kingdom, you have to be lowly right now
  • To be first then, you have to be last now
  • To be honored then, you have to lower yourself before others now
  • To be powerful then, you have to learn to serve others now

Its a paradox: You find greatness in the kingdom by being the lowest here on earth. The kingdom turns things upside down, at least as with regards to how the world works.

So our first lesson from this scripture is – If you want to be great, lower yourself to serve others. To get to the top of the kingdom honor/power scale, you have to go the bottom of the world’s honor/power scale and serve others.

In the rest of this passage, Jesus fleshes this teaching out with . . .

An illustration: Ministering to children

v. 36 says, “And he took a child and put the child in the midst of them, and embracing the child, he said to them . . ..”
 Now the word “child” here refers to anyone between the age of an infant to a 12 year old. Basically below the age of adolescence or puberty. This is how the word is used in the gospels.

A little background here on children. Today, we think of childhood as an age of innocence and we give great value and honor to children, more so than other cultures today, and certainly more than what prevailed in the ancient world.

In biblical times children were way down the honor/power scale, if not at the very bottom. They were often seen as no more than slaves, until they grew up. You can see this in that the word “child” in Aramaic (the language of Jesus) is the same as that for “slave.” Also, in Galatians 4:1-2 – Paul talks about how, until a child grows up (even a rich heir), the child is not different than a slave.

Basically, children had no power, status or rights. They were non-persons being non-adults, and were under the complete authority of their parents.

So Jesus picks out a child, an example of lowliness and one who is a servant, and he says in the first part of v. 37, “’Whoever receives one such child in my name . . .’” “One such child” is a reference to the child next to Jesus (Luke 9:48), as well as other children.

What does it mean to receive a child?

  • The word “receive” means giving welcome. Jesus does this here by embracing the child.
  • Also, remembering that this is an example of v. 35, “receive” equals being a “servant of all,” which means taking care of their needs.
  • At least a part of this receiving is illustrated for us later in Mark 10:13-16. In contrast to the disciples who do not receive the children, Jesus receives them by giving kindness, attention, and ministering God’s blessing to them.

We do all of this serving “in Jesus’ name” as his representatives, doing what he would do in the situation.

Putting this all together, Jesus is saying more specifically, and this is our second lesson – If you want to be great – lower yourself even below children – and serve them. There are many lowly ones we can serve, but here he focuses on children.

The last part of v. 37 says, “’Whoever receives one such child in my name . . . receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’” We have here the “shaliach principle,” a well known idea in Judaism – “a person’s representative is as the person them self.” So how you respond to the representative is how you respond to the one who sent him.

Jesus uses this principle several times to talk about how it works when he sends out the apostles as his representatives. For instance Luke 10:16 teaches, if you receive them, you receive Jesus, if you reject them, you reject Jesus.

What is amazing here is that not only apostles, but also children are Jesus’ representatives! The disciples saw ministering to children in worldly terms as serving nobodies, doing what is menial and insignificant.

But Jesus puts this in a new light, and this is our third lesson – When we minister to lowly children, we are doing what is truly great – serving Jesus and indeed the Father. When we receive them, care for them and bless them, we are really doing all this to God. But, when we do not receive them, or mistreat them, this is really how we are treating God.

This speaks to how important it is to care for children’s needs and also to the fact that this is how we can be great in the kingdom. There is nothing greater than ministering to God.

Some words of encouragement

We have lots of opportunities to interact with children and minister to their needs. As parents, grandparents, those who work with children in their careers, children’s Sunday School workers, children’s church and nursery workers, workers in our two girls’ clubs, and our vacation bible school workers this week – we have many opportunities.

In all of these situations, when the children are acting up, when they are impatient, when they are difficult and even worse – remember, when you are serving children in Jesus’ name you are doing something great, ministering to Jesus and the Father. And you are doing what it takes to be great in the kingdom. William Higgins

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