Posts Tagged ‘Mark 9’

Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are wrapping up our series on being at peace with one another, based on Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9:33-50. So far we have looked at three different relationship problems that can happen in the church:

1. Competing with each other for status – the disciples were arguing over who’s the greatest.

2. Excluding those who are different than you – the disciples tried to stop someone working for the kingdom because he was not a part of their group.

3. Causing little ones to stumble – acting in ways that would cause those who are weak in faith to fall into sin or lose their faith in Jesus.

Today we look at the last part of this passage – vs. 43-50, a section that brings home this point – we need to get serious and work hard at having good relationships with one another.

Jesus begins by giving –

Three amputation sayings

They are all quite similar, one concerning the hand, the foot and the eye. (Just a note, in case you are wondering. vs. 44 and 46 are not in the oldest manuscripts, so they are not included in most Bibles today. They say the same thing as v. 48, however.)

v. 43-48 – “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the un-quenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, 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, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”

First, a couple of observations. Jesus talks about the resurrection in several different ways here, twice as “to enter life,” as in eternal life, and also “to enter the kingdom of God.”

But he talks even more about the opposite of eternal life, which is hell. Now this is not Hades, the place of the dead. This is “Gehenna,” the final place of punishment for the wicked. Gehenna literally means the “valley of Hinnom,” which was southwest of Jerusalem. It was once a place of idol worship, including human sacrifice, but later was made into a garbage dump. As such, it became an image of the final punishment of the wicked.

In v. 43 Jesus describes hell as the “unquenchable fire.” In v. 48 he quotes Isaiah 66:24 as a description of hell (via the Isaiah Targum) – “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” This comes from the original garbage dump imagery where there would be worms and fire. The idea is that the worms will always be eating away and the fire will always be burning. A gruesome picture.

There also seems to be a progression from v. 43, that simply says, “to go to hell,” to vs. 45 and 47 that says, “to be thrown into hell,” a more forceful phrase.

The focal point of these verses, however is Jesus’ concern about stumbling. We talked about stumbling last week in connection to how our words or actions can cause someone else who is weak in faith to stumble. Here the concern is what might lead you to stumble, not someone else. There is a shift of focus.

A stumbling block is what causes someone’s downfall, or what trips someone up so that they fall. Again, there is a metaphor here of the Christian life as walking on a path. And so you are walking with Jesus, but something trips you up and you fall into sin and stop following Jesus. So we certainly need to beware of such stumbling blocks.

But what is Jesus telling us to do?! Well, he’s not suggesting that we literally cut off our hand or foot or tear out our eye. After all, this wouldn’t help us keep from falling into sin. No, these are proverbial sayings that warn about the dangers of stumbling blocks to sin, in rather drastic terms.

What they mean is simple, get rid of anything that might lead you to sin.

And this is so serious that you should get rid of the stumbling block even if it is as precious to you as your hand or your foot or your eye; even if it is as painful as cutting off your hand or foot or tearing out your eye. Better to come to the resurrection having made painful sacrifices in this life, than to have stumbled and fallen into sin, so that you are thrown into hell, the place of unending worms and fire.

So this is a strong admonition to separate from whatever might cause you to trip up and fall into sin. Don’t just get rid of the sin, get rid of what might lead you to sin. And notice that Jesus wants us to get this point. That’s why he says it three times.

Now, this warning can refer to stumbling blocks that lead to any kind of sin. (Jesus uses this language in reference to adultery in Matthew 5:29-30). But in context, the point here is more specific. Cut off anything that might lead you to tear apart the peace of the church. Deal with any issues you have that might lead you to damage relationships and people in the church.

He is talking about getting rid of anything that would lead you to do what he has already talked about in this passage:

  • competing with others for status
  • unnecessarily rejecting others just because they are from another group or are different
  • or causing little ones to stumble

And the warning part applies to this as well. And it is clearly stated. If we don’t do this, and tear apart the church, we will be thrown into Gehenna. (See 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 for a similar warning about what will happen to those who tear apart the church.)

In Luke 17:3 these amputation sayings are paraphrased like this, “Pay attention to yourselves.” Jesus is saying, look at your own life to see what might cause you to do one of these things – and get rid of it.

Well, this raises the question –

What do you need to amputate?

What leads you to sin in general? What causes you to give in to your weaknesses? Here are some examples of such stumbling blocks:

  • If you struggle with alcohol addiction, this could be a person or a place that encourages you to give in to your weakness.
  • If you struggle with pornography, unfiltered access to the internet could be a stumbling block.
  • If you are a new Christian, hanging out with old friends who pressure you to forsake Jesus would be a stumbling block

Let’s get more specific – what might lead you to damage the peace of the church? Being too competitive? Always wanting your own way? Allowing yourself to hold on to some bitterness? Not dealing with conflicts, because you don’t like to do this? Being so comfortable with the way things are, that when someone new comes who is different, you get upset. Feeling superior to those who don’t know as much as you? Any of these things might well lead you to damage relationships in the church, and so if they lead you to this you need to separate from them.

In relation to all these stumbling blocks, there may be sacrifices, but the reward is more than worth it. We will enter eternal life in the kingdom of God.

Next Jesus gives us –

Three salt sayings

The first is in v. 49 – “For everyone will be salted with fire.” This is difficult to make sense of. There’s not much to go with. Our help comes from the context just before. It is connected to verse 48 by the theme of fire and judgment.

The point is that everyone will be judged. Just as salt is sprinkled or poured out, so will the fire of judgment come upon all, even if you are one of the twelve. So the amputation warnings apply to them and to all disciples.

Now, the righteous will not experience the fire of Gehenna. But a refining fire is connected to what the righteous will experience on the last day in Malachi 3:2-3. So both the righteous and the wicked will experience fire at the final judgment. (On salt and judgment – Genesis 19:24-26; Deuteronomy 29:23; On fire judging the work of Christians – 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. This text is also connected to breaking apart the church – 1 Corinthians 3:16-17.)

v. 50a – “Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again?” Salt had many uses: preservation, seasoning, fertilizer and more. It had real value. As Jesus says, “Salt is good.”

Here the disciples are the salt, who have been made salty by living out Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:13). But there is a warning. If you lose your saltiness, that is, you are unfaithful to my teaching – how will you be made salty again? If we don’t practice Jesus’ teaching we aren’t worth anything as disciples. Salt is good, but un-salty salt isn’t.

In Matthew 5:13 this saying is coupled with a clear statement of judgment. For such salt “is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

The application of this can be broad, to any teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5, Luke 14), but here it is focused on whether we are living in peace with one another in the church.

9:50b – “Have salt in yourselves . . .” Here the salt is simply Jesus’ teaching. He is saying, take to heart my teaching. Put it into practice. Again, specifically focusing on relationships in the church.

And then finally, 9:50c – “. . . and be at peace with one another.” This is the summary message of the whole of Mark 9:33-50, which begins with arguing and ends with this exhortation to peace.

Let me end with a question –

How salty are you?

Are you putting this teaching of Jesus into practice?

  • Lowering yourself to serve others?
  • Accepting others from groups that are different than yours?
  • Helping little ones who are weak and susceptible to falling?
  • And in general, living at peace with one another?

If you are putting Jesus’ teaching into practice, you are salty salt and you are useful for all kinds of good things in the kingdom. Let us all put this teaching into practice.

William Higgins

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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are continuing on in our series from Mark 9:33-50 on relationships among disciples in the church, and Jesus’ instruction to us to “be at peace with one another” in v. 50.

First, we learned that we are not to seek out status, you know, arguing over who is the greatest, or competing with each other in various subtle ways. Rather we are to lower ourselves to serve. We are to give up status to help others.

Last week we learned that we are not to reject other Christians who are doing work for the kingdom, just because they are from another group or just because they are different than us. Jesus taught us that if they are not against us, we are to see them as for us. We are on the same team.

Today we learn about how to treat “little ones” in our community. If in our previous two lessons there was something the disciples did or said that Jesus responds to as a way of teaching them something important about relationships, our lesson today has no such prompting. Jesus simply takes the initiative here to give us –

A word about causing “little ones” to stumble

(In the other two examples Jesus concludes by giving a “whoever” saying. Here we only have a “whoever” saying.)

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

This short verse raises three very specific questions. And the first is who are these “little ones”? The full phrase is, “one of these little ones” and Jesus uses this several times. [Although the “these” does not always have an antecedent (Luke 17:2)]. In line with its use in Zechariah 13:7, where “little ones” refers to God’s people, Jesus uses this as a way of talking about his disciples. (And Jesus alludes to this verse in Mark 14:27, making the 12 the “little ones.”)

Jesus calls his disciples children in other places (Mark 10:24, Matthew 11:25) and this is another, similar way a referring to them.

As we see in our verse, these “little ones” are people “who believe in” Jesus. Again, he is talking about disciples. [More: The phrase “who believe in me” points toward disciples, not simply children. In Matthew 10:42 they are called disciples. Matthew 18 points to a disciple who has joined the community and made commitments of accountability. It is a church discipline context.]

But this phrase also seems to focus on a certain subset of disciples – those who are new, weak, immature or unlearned, and thus vulnerable. That’s why there’s such a concern about their well-being in our verse, that they not stumble. (The 12 are seen in this light as they scatter when Jesus is arrested – Mark 14:27/ Zechariah 13:7)

This same special concern is found in Matthew 18:10 where Jesus tells the apostles, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” God has a special concern for them.

In our Scripture today, the phrase most likely refers to the one who gives the 12 a cup of water to drink. Jesus had just talked about this person in v. 41. This person is “little” because he only gives assistance to those who are out proclaiming the Kingdom, as opposed to being an apostle, following Jesus around, knowing more or being more gifted.

The second question is what does it mean to stumble? Some translations today render it as “cause to sin.” But the word does literally mean “to cause to stumble.” It can also be translated to cause someone’s downfall or to trip someone up so that they fall.

The picture is of someone who is walking along and then trips over an obstacle and falls. It is seen metaphorically as applying to the Christian life. You are walking with Jesus on the path, but something trips you up and fall – and stop following Jesus. [Perhaps this is rooted in the literal command about stumbling blocks in Leviticus 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:18.]

The end result is that the person falls into sin or gives up their faith in Jesus. In Matthew 18, where Jesus talks about this, it is connected to a little one “going astray” or “perishing.”

The third question is how do you cause someone to stumble? Let’s take the hypothetical situation that I think Jesus is working with – someone offers an Apostle a glass of water because they want to support their ministry of preaching and healing.

But the apostle, because he thinks he is so important, and this person so insignificant, communicates condescension and contempt through his words and actions and makes the person feel inadequate, discouraged and shamed. The little one is crushed. He thinks, “One of the 12 thinks I’m not good enough to be a disciple of Jesus. The best I can do isn’t good enough.” And so the little one gives up following Jesus. The apostle has caused this little one to stumble.

You can see the core issue here, a disregard for the well-being of those who are not as mature or knowledgeable or gifted, or experienced as you are. You aren’t concerned with how your words and actions affect them. And this comes from a sense that you are better than these little ones.

This is why Jesus tells the 12 in Matthew 18, “do not despise one of these little ones.” Don’t look down on them, don’t treat them like they are worthless or expendable. [Not only are we not to cause them to stumble, when they do go astray for whatever reason, we are to go after them Matthew 18:10-14.]

Just because you are an apostle, or whoever, does not mean that you are more important than one of these little ones.

The last part of our verse shows us that this is really serious! This is a stern warning to the disciples and to everyone, to be careful how they treat little ones. If you cause one of these little ones to stumble, Jesus is saying, “. . . it would be better for you if a great millstone were put around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

A millstone is a rock that was used to grind grain, so that you can make bread. There were two of them together and they grind against each other. There was the hand-held kind and then there was the much larger kind that required a donkey harnessed to it to make it work. Here, Jesus is referring to this second kind. One of these stones could easily weigh several thousand pounds. It would be similar to having “cement shoes” as we say today. You would go straight to the bottom of the sea. Not a pretty way to die.

But the point here is that this would be better than the judgment you will receive, if you cause a little one to stumble. This is how important “little ones” are to God.

Now let’s shift the focus to us and how this applies to us –

Who are “little ones” among us?

It certainly applies to new Christians who have just begun walking with Jesus. Also immature Christians, who are older in years, but haven’t grown much. Also to unlearned Christians, who still don’t know much about the Bible and the Christian life. And it applies to weak Christians. We can all fit under this category because we all have specific weaknesses and under the right pressure might stumble.

But let’s also stretch this out a bit to cover Christians with mental health issues, who because of this are more fragile and thus vulnerable. And perhaps we can also include here Christians with developmental disabilities, whose faith is sometimes more elementary, and children with childhood faith, who are still coming to an adult faith.

This category really covers everyone whose faith is more weak and thus more susceptible to being tripped up.

How can we cause little ones to stumble?

This can happen in many ways, here are just two examples.

1) Use of alcohol. You feel comfortable drinking wine in moderation. You know that people drank wine in the Bible and that the line the Bible draws is drunkenness.

But there’s a new Christian in your church who has struggled with alcohol addiction. And you have him over for dinner. And even though you have heard of his struggle, you serve him wine to drink. Why not, you are free to drink it? And God can help anyone overcome temptation.

Well, he sees you drinking and even though he knows it is very dangerous for him to drink, he thinks, “Well you are a mature Christian who knows the bible well so it’s probably all right.” And so he partakes.

And sure enough his resolve is weakened by this and he begins once again a pattern of alcohol abuse. For you drinking wine is not an issue of sin. But for this person drinking any alcohol leads to sin. Instead of thinking of his need, his weakness, instead you are focused on your freedom and strength in this area. But you have caused him to stumble into sin. What is the obstacle that tripped him up? You, your words and actions.

2) Church snobbery. A new believer comes to church and is eager to learn. She is full of questions and is curious about a lot. Well, you are the Sunday School teacher and are get annoyed after a while. She never seems to shut up. And she don’t understand the most basic things. You are frustrated because you can’t get through your lesson plan.

One day you complain to a friend at church, “Did you hear that she asked today? She wondered where they put the 10 commandments on Noah’s ark! Can you believe it? She doesn’t know the differenced between Noah’s ark and the ark of the covenant! She’s so ignorant she should just keep her mouth shut. How embarrassing!”

Well the woman overheard this and she was crushed. She looked up to you as the teacher and thought you liked her curiosity as a new believer. She thought Sunday school was where you come to learn about the Bible. But she clearly heard your contempt and condescension. She was so upset that she never came back to church. And when others later tried to get her to return she said that she would never go to a place that would say something like that. She stopped following Jesus. What is the impediment that tripped her up? You, your words and your actions.

Again, this kind of thing can happen in many different ways. Anytime the weak and vulnerable are looked down on, instead of being helped there is an environment where this kind of thing can happen.

Let’s listen now to –

Jesus’ word to us

“Be at peace with one another – Mark 9:50. If you are strong, mature or a leader, don’t see this as an opportunity to look down on little ones and act in ways that have no regard for their well-being; that cause them to stumble. See it as an invitation to care for the weak, the fragile and the vulnerable. If you are strong, if you are gifted, if you are knowledgeable use these things to help the weak to grow and be strong. This is why God has given you these things.

An important part of what Jesus is teaching us in this verse is that every disciple of his is important. The 12 are important, but so is the one with the cup of water. Leaders are important, but so are those who are brand new Christians. Those who have much knowledge are important, but so are those who barely know anything yet. Those who are gifted are important, but so are those who don’t have flashy gifts.

All disciples of Jesus are important and we all need to live in peace with one another acting in each other’s best interests. We need to love and care for one another.

William Higgins

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Series: Be at peace with one another!

We are looking again today at the larger passage of Mark 9:33-50, focusing in on relationship problems that can happen among followers of Jesus in the church. As we saw last week, the point of this whole passage is found at the very end in v. 50 – “Be at peace with one another.” Jesus wants his people to live in harmony with one another.

You have your handout again today, so you can see the bigger picture of the series we’re in. Last week we talked about arguing over who’s the greatest. And Jesus taught us not to seek after recognition and status. Rather we are to lower ourselves below even those with no status, so that we can serve them. We learned that this is what true greatness means in the kingdom of God.

Today we look at not rejecting disciples who are not from your group. Our text is Mark 9:38-41. This is the story of –

The unfamiliar exorcist

v. 38 – “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.’”

So the situation here is that a person, who was not a part of the twelve, is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He is doing real ministry because the demons are being cast out, and people are being set free.

That someone else was casting out demons is not that exceptional, for instance there were Jewish exorcists who were sometimes successful in casting out demons (Matthew 12:27). The focus here is that he was doing this in Jesus’ name, that is, he has taken it on himself to act on behalf of Jesus or as Jesus’ representative. [This story is different than Acts 19:13-17. This person is a real follower of Jesus.]

Now Jesus had a number of disciples beyond just the 12. There are the 72 that are sent out in Luke 10 and we learn about a number of other disciples in the Gospel of John. And this fellow is one of these, although maybe Jesus himself had not met him. Perhaps he is a convert of one of these other disciples of Jesus.

From the point of view of the 12, however, this man, whoever he was, was different than they were. He was not, as they said, “following us.” He was not a part of their group. So they tried to stop him.

(Were the disciples envious since some had just publicly failed to cast out a demon Mark 9:14-29)? (Also, see Numbers 11:26-30 for a similar story.)

v. 39 – “But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him . . ..’” He has a very different take on this situation. And he gives two reasons why the man should not be stopped.

Reason #1. v. 39 – “. . . for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.’” Here we see a bit more of why the 12 are trying to stop this man. They thought that he had a crowd from casting out demons, he might end up saying something bad about Jesus.

There is a real “name focus” in this passage, with several instances of the phrase “in Jesus’ name” being used (v. 37 just before, vs. 38, 39, 41). Here the disciples are concerned for Jesus’ name, as in his reputation. They don’t want this man, who might seem like a loose cannon to go off and slander Jesus.

Jesus’ response to this is simple. No one who is doing a mighty work such as casting out a demon in his name, is going then to speak evil of him. How can you see how powerful Jesus is and the freedom he brings – right in front of you, and then turn right around and say something bad about him? This is no guarantee of the future for this man, but it would be hard, Jesus is saying to put these two things together at the same time – seeing one thing and saying another.

Reason #2. Next, Jesus lays down an amazingly inclusive principle for this kind of situation. v. 40 – “For the one who is not against us is for us.”

Usually people think like this – You are either with us or against us. And if you’re not on my side you’re on the wrong side and an opponent. It is true that Jesus does have a saying like this. In Matthew 12:30 he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” This has to do with being with or against Jesus. And you do have to choose here.

But when it comes to relationships between disciples, or different groups of disciples – things are different. There’s a different rule.

As long as the person is “not against” you, you should see them as “for” you. That is, on the same side. As long as they are not opposing you, undermining you, or persecuting you – accept them as fellow disciples.

With Jesus there is a clear, black and white standard. But with fellow disciples the standard is much more open and inclusive.

In this particular case, Jesus is saying, even though this man was different from them, not a part of their group, he is not opposing them. In fact, he is “for” them because he is doing the work of the kingdom – casting out demons. He is not the competition, he is an assistant. A fellow worker for the kingdom. Therefore they should not try to shut him down and get him to quit.

A final thought. v. 41 – “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” [Note: The Greek after “to drink” is a bit convoluted. It says literally, “in the name because you are Christ’s.” I am following the NIV that translates “in the name” as a variant of “in my name.” The rest is ESV as usual.]

Jesus is helping them put things in perspective here. The phrase, “truly I say to you” means this is really important, so listen up. If a small act of help, like giving them water because they are working for Jesus is rewarded, then surely what this man is doing, casting out demons will be rewarded too. He too is giving them assistance in the work of the kingdom. They are on the same team.

How do we do reject other disciples?

There are many differences between various groups of Christians today; a bewildering variety.

  • As groups we have different histories coming from different places and with different stories.
  • We have different human traditions about how we worship, how we organize our communities, how we do mission, and so forth.
  • We have different beliefs on any number of issues. We don’t agree on all things. And we even emphasize different things where we agree.

How then do we look at these other Christians groups? Those who are not “following us”? Christians who are different than us? We are from the Mennonite tradition here. But what do we think of the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Catholics the Eastern Orthodox?

Now, I’m not talking about false teachers. I’m talking about people who are real disciples of Jesus who are doing real ministry in his name.

  • Do we think we are the only real Christians? There are still Christians who think their group will be the only one to make it.
  • Do we put these other disciples down? You know, if they only knew more and were more committed, they would be just like us!
  • Do we dismiss their ministries? Ridicule them? Rejoice in their failures? Hope they will stop?

This is unnecessary exclusiveness. We are all, after all, the people of Jesus. And although concerning him you are either for him or against him, that’s not how it works when it comes to our particular Christian groups.

I’m not saying that these differences aren’t important. They can be really important! This is not a call to look down on having strong beliefs. It’s just that we need to realize our differences are not as important as our common connection in Jesus.

Let’s listen to –

Jesus’ word to us

Don’t reject disciples who aren’t from your group. Don’t try to keep them from ministering in Jesus’ name. Rather, “be at peace with one another” – Mark 9:50.

Just as in the episode before this, we were taught to receive or welcome the lowly one who has no status, so here we are to welcome disciples from other groups who are doing ministry in Jesus’ name.

We’re on the same team! And they are helping out in the larger task finishing Jesus commission to us, which is too big for any one group by itself.

Imagine if the church had followed this teaching of Jesus through the centuries, so that we lived in peace with one another – instead of fighting, persecuting and killing each other. What if we didn’t try to dominate each other so that everyone has to believe and live like we do? What if we had listened to Jesus. What a witness it could have been.

But it’s never too late to start. May the Lord help us in this.

William Higgins

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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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