Therefore, some may have chosen a great orator, or author, or actor, or singer, or artist, or ballplayer because greatness could be considered by what someone does and how well they do it. On the other hand, some might consider a friend or family member great because of who they are, not because of what they do.
And, of course, if we expanded this thought beyond the living, we might think of people who have been great in history in any number of ways as well. But, again, if we leave the definition of greatness to our own understanding, might we miss something important.
Such was the case for the disciples of Jesus day, and such is the case for most of us today as well. At some level, simply because we are human, we allow a faulty, or at least misdirected understanding of greatness to influence our thinking. We are often reminded of what true greatness is when we hear of some sort of heroic act, but we quickly revert into our own thinking until another hero emerges.
In our passage today, this contrast of perceived greatness versus true greatness could not be any more distinct. Let us look at the next several verses as we continue to march our way through Mark.
True greatness includes sharing with others. (Mark 10.32-34)
The disciples have been journeying toward Jerusalem, but now they are getting close because Mark mentions they are going up. Next week, we will see they make it to Jericho, and to then get to Jerusalem they will go up some 3300 feet. Jericho is only about 10 miles from the Dead Sea which is the lowest place on earth at about 1400 feet below sea level. So although they will be travelling southwest towards Jerusalem, they will be going UP!
As they travel, some with Jesus are amazed and others are afraid. In the English this is difficult to know if this is one mixed group or two distinct groups. The Greek makes it a little more clear and the idea is that the disciples seem to be amazed and others are in fear. This may have to do with what Jesus had just taught on the Kingdom (Mark 10.1-31 on divorce, family, and possessions), but it certainly would apply to what Jesus was about to teach again.
In verse 33, Jesus pulls aside the disciples to explain one more time why they are going to Jerusalem. It is His destiny. And they can accept that because He is Messiah. But they keep missing the truth of what He is saying. He is not going to conquer the Romans or overthrow the religious elite, He is going to be killed by them. Next week, we will come back and review this part of the passage in more detail as we look at the response of Bartimaeus.
For now, let us understand that as Jesus shares what His followers can expect, we can surmise that people would have received this information differently – just as we do with various topics today. Some will ignore, some will embrace, some will argue, etc. Again, the preceding verse reveals that the Twelve and the others following had a different response to the teaching which had just occurred (amazed verses afraid), so their reaction to Jesus’ reminder of what was to come would cause different reactions as well.
Everything that Jesus preached and taught was foreign to everyone who heard it. What He was preaching was – CHANGE, and we all know much that word is appreciated. And it was the changes He preached which would get Him killed. But Jesus wanted His followers to know the truth – to not be caught off guard. And so, this is the third time He has made a similar statement as to what was coming. Next week, we will compare these statements. For now, we move to the next portion of today’s passage.
Perceived greatness inspires schemes against others. (35-41)
Have you every plotted or planned for your advantage? Sure. The truth is we learn to do this in elementary school if not before. Sometimes the schemes can be relatively harmless, but other times, they can be extremely harmful – to others, and even to ourselves.
The story in these verses is one I preached a few years ago from Matthew’s version which reveals it is the mother of James and John who comes. But as I have said before, Peter is likely the one giving Mark details and he may remember it merely as James and John. This doesn’t mean the Bible contradicts itself, it simply means that the perspective is slightly different. What is important here is the request itself. Whomever may have made it – again according to Mark it was James and John, the request is what is outlandish. (Read verse 35.) Basically, before they ask a question, they scheme for the result. “Jesus, we want you to give us whatever we want.”
Do we do the same? “God, please do such and such. Please help so and so.” And just to make sure to get His attention we add, “In Jesus name. Amen.” The writer of Hebrews says that we can (and should) boldly approach the throne of grace. But Paul wrote in Romans that we should not dishonor grace, and continually praying for our desires – not God’s – can quickly approach, if not cross, that threshold.
Think of it this way. James and John are asking for a blank check. So, consider the following. What if:
- I gave you a blank check, what would you do? You might write it for a little bit, but would be concerned that a higher amount might bounce. (Good thinking, by the way.)
- Bill Gates or Warren Buffet gave you a blank check? You would probably be more bold in the amount, but you might still be a little cautious so as not to make them think you are greedy.
- God gave you a blank check? Would you show any restraint? Or simply ask for the world?
Asking God for a blank check is exactly what James and John are doing – but that is part of the problem, they are asking for what they understand from the perspective of the world. Their motives are wrong here, but thankfully, for their sake (and even for ours), they did come around!
Their request is really a sort of prayer. But what a foolish prayer. I am sure they would learn over time how foolish the request was, just as we sometimes become thankful that God does not answer us in our foolishness. However, in what might be the most astonishing part of the story, Jesus does not say, “No.” He asks them what they want Him to do. Jesus can ask this in full assurance because we cannot thwart God’s plans with our schemes.
- If our desires are God’s desires it will happen. (See Psalm 37.4; John 14.13-14)
- If not, it won’t happen.
In fact, in this case the request cannot be granted because Jesus says it is not under His purview to grant this request. How must James and John felt at this point? They had just cashed in all of their chips, and the result was nothing. They thought entering into Jerusalem meant Jesus would be king and they would be in positions of power. But Jesus had already revealed His true purpose for going. Instead of power they would face persecution, which is the essence of Jesus question: “You are asking to be great when everything appears favorable, but will you stand beside me when the persecutions come?” (paraphrased).
The answer comes back with a, “Yes.” But they both fled when Jesus was arrested in the garden. Thankfully, in the long term both were great leaders in the early church. And they did prove themselves worthy through persecutions (with James being killed as recorded in Acts 11).
One more thought before we move to our third point. Remember in Mark 9.34, the disciples were arguing over who was the greatest. This argument took place just after James, John, and Peter came down from the mountain with Jesus to a demon-possessed boy that the other disciples were unable to heal. I would guess that the argument at that time was probably the three disciples against the other nine. But last week we saw Peter stand up to make sure Jesus didn’t forget about him and what he had given up to follow, and now we see James and John making their appeal for supremacy among the group. And when the other disciples, including Peter, discovered this little scheme, they were mad (v. 41)! I just wonder if their anger was at James and John or at themselves probably thinking to themselves, “Why didn’t we think of that first?”
True greatness involves serving others. (42-45)
We now come to Jesus’ clarification on what James and John and the rest thought they wanted. Jesus compares the way greatness is considered in the world to what true greatness is. The world views greatness through the lens of power, money, the number of fans, the number of likes or follows on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But, in that day, greatness was often defined by power, and the disciples thought they were going to have power with Jesus. The problem was the rulers of that day were brutal, tyrannical, and oppressive. Jesus sternly says that His disciples will not be like that (v. 43). Rather than the typical ruler, they would be kind, loving, and empowering. How? By being a slave to others. That is, serving others, just as Jesus had come to serve. Jesus example was far different than what James & John observed as greatness in the world – power, money, etc.
Honestly, we can sympathize with the disciples because was Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. He admitted that He was the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi, and the Messianic expectations were for God’s anointed one to sit on the throne in Jerusalem when He came. Well, the Messiah was there – in that moment, heading to Jerusalem, so NOW is the time – or so they thought. But the disciples based their request on what they knew to be true. Jesus based His response on what is actually true.
This passage closes with one more verse. Jesus just shared what was about happen to Him – and now He shares the reason why in verse 45 – to serve others and to pay the ransom for others. This verse has led to an entire theory on why Jesus had to come. It is called The Ransom Theory which basically states that Satan set the price for the people to be set free from bondage, and that price was Jesus.
If that is true it is not found in Scripture. Furthermore, I would show that in Genesis 3.15, God reveals that the seed of the woman (that is, Jesus) will crush the serpent’s head (i.e. Satan). So, it was God’s plan all along that Satan would be destroyed. Thus, Satan cannot make these demands of an Almighty God. Jesus did ransom us, paying a price we could not pay for ourselves. That is His greatest service to us, and that is why we must choose to serve Him – in giving thanks for what He has done for us.
Think back to your answer to my opening question of someone who is great. Now, let me add a little to that question. Who is the greatest servant you know? Or knew? For some of you the answer could be the same, but for most all of us, the greatest servant is more fondly remembered than whomever else was in our mind. Why? Mainly because it is personal. I realize someone might say Mother Teresa or someone like that, but our first thought is probably someone that has served us or someone that we have served alongside at some point.
This idea of servanthood, like we have just seen, is what makes Jesus so great. Again, He not only asked people to serve, He invites them to serve. He equips them to serve. And He does so, having set the example of what it truly means to be a servant.
That’s why our JOURNEY letter for today is: J – Jesus.
If we want what Jesus offers, we should follow Jesus’ example – in the church, for the church, and ultimately for the Kingdom.
OPPORTUNITY: Give God a/another blank check on your life, and watch how you grow as you serve Him.
Let me encourage you by being brutally honest. It is hard to give a blank check. It is hard because we do not trust. But should that be true about God? I have given God a blank check before. But sometimes I pull it back or ask Him to hold on a little bit longer fearing that if He seeks to cash it in, I might not be able to cover what He wants. Again, that is not trusting God. God made me. God knows me. God wants what is best for me. Why? Because He loves me. He is not going to cash in a check for more than I can handle. He might write it for more than I have right now, but that is how He stretches me and helps me to grow. But He won’t take the check to the bank with that amount on it until I have made it that far. And then, He will ask for another blank check. And another. And another. But again, everything I am is because of Him and it is only when I lose sight of that fact, that I am hesitant to give over a blank check.
And the truth is, if we are unwilling to give God a blank check, then we don't trust Him, which is actually a reflection on our faith. After all, faith is trust.
Learn how you might best serve Him (in this church, in the Kingdom).
Live expecting God to use your service for His glory.
Love for others, for yourself, and especially for God grows when we serve without false motives.
Lead others by inviting them to serve alongside you (just as Jesus did).