Jesus has come to suffer and serve, so you’ve got greatness upside down (Mark 10:32–45)

If you didn’t think Jesus’ disciples were a bit thickheaded before, you will now.

For the third time, Jesus predicts that he will suffer and die and rise again from the dead. What’s unique this time is that now he has set out toward Jerusalem, the headquarters of his enemies. The religious leaders of Israel hate Jesus’ guts, yet he’s leading his disciples right into the teeth of their religious empire. I suppose you could say that it’s an invasion of sorts, and his disciples are “amazed” and “afraid.” And when Jesus announces that it’s a death march, it doesn’t help matters.

However, a couple of his disciples are unflappable. James and his brother John look right past Jesus’ gloomy forecast and see only the glory on the other side. Jesus has called himself “the Son of Man,” and they probably remember from Daniel 7:13–14 that this “son of man” will be given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” They’d like a piece of that, thank you very much.

But how to broach the subject? “Teacher,” they say, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Uh-huh, very subtle. Jesus offers no promises, but they still request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Jesus tells it like it is: “You do not know what you are asking.” They still haven’t picked up that Jesus isn’t the glorious, victorious political Messiah they’re wanting. He asks them if they’re able to suffer what he will suffer, and they respond, “We are able”—with a healthy dose of naïveté and arrogance. They have no idea what they’re in for. Jesus agrees that they will suffer, but still he won’t promise them the glory they’re looking for. “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant,” he says, “but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” He defers to his Father’s sovereign assignments. Positions of prestige in his kingdom can’t be bought with charm or good deeds; they can only be given freely by God.

James and John are finding out the hard way that to follow Jesus requires suffering, and it is not the sort of suffering one endures in order to gain prestige. We’re about to find out why not.

Word gets out to the other ten disciples that James and John tried (and failed) to pull of this power play. So of course they’re ticked. (“No fair! Why didn’t we think of it first!”) If I were Jesus, I’d throw up my hands at these boneheads, but he sees it as an opportunity to show them the upside-down kingdom of God. He reminds them that the present world system, as exemplified by the heathen Gentiles, values prestige, prominence, and the possession of power. In this world system, greatness means gaining power and using it to benefit yourself.

But Jesus tells them, “It is not so among you.” This is not how the invading upside-down kingdom works. Its economy is the exact opposite. In God’s kingdom, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Well, that sounds annoying. Who wants to be at the beck and call of other people, many of whom are more stupid or boring or ugly or evil than you? How about you take it easy on us, Jesus?

No dice. “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all,” he adds. Not just a servant, but a slave. Not just a slave of a handpicked few, but a slave of all.

Why is this? Where does this upside-down reality come from?

Jesus doesn’t derive it from abstract philosophical principles. No, he draws it from his own person and his own mission. “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” he says. Remember, this is the same “son of man” in Daniel who is to be served by “all peoples, languages, and nations”! And he has come to serve? Yes! In fact, his greatness in God’s kingdom comes from this mission. He will be the greatest of all because he will “give his life as a ransom for many.” He will give up his life as a price to God to pay for the sins of many. This atoning work will be the ground for the “dominion and glory and a kingdom” which the Ancient of Days will give him. He will receive the all-conquering upside-down kingdom as its King. Anyone who wishes to be great in this eternal kingdom must serve and suffer like he does.

So this is Jesus—the triumphant Son of Man, yet a humble, devoted slave who lays down his life in our place. As Samuel Crossman writes,

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.

If you and I are his disciples, if we belong to him, then we must also serve and suffer. We have to give up any idea of an easy life. It’s okay if things are hard and painful. And we have to give up any idea of popularity or fame or influence. It’s okay to be small and unnoticed. In fact, it’s far better to serve others in small and unnoticed ways than to have the attention of the world fixed on you. For Jesus will not be disappointed with you.

Jesus has come to submit to God’s will, and so should you (Mark 8:31–9:1)

There’s a lot of ground to cover today, so let’s dive right in!

Today’s passage overlaps a bit with the passage we studied last week, because really it’s all one long story that we’re examining a piece at a time. After eight chapters in which Jesus’ divine authority is on display, his disciples begin to understand what’s going on. Peter realizes, “You are the Christ!” So finally we’re getting somewhere. Jesus is the king, anointed by God, whom the prophets had said would come to rescue Israel.

Unfortunately for Peter’s dreams of a glorious political kingdom, Jesus announces that his mission is to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again. That doesn’t exactly fit into his disciples’ mindset of what glory looks like, so Peter takes him aside to rebuke him. But Jesus turns the tables on Peter and chews him out, calling him Satan and telling him, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Now, I think most of us would agree that what Peter said was wrong. But why does Jesus come down so hard on him? Well, we’re about to find out, because Jesus won’t let this teaching moment slip by. There’s a crowd following him and his disciples, so he calls them all together and tells them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Apparently, Jesus isn’t trying to be Mr. Popular.

Remember from a while back that to be a disciple of Jesus means that you need to be with Jesus and you need to imitate him. To be with Jesus, you need to know who he is—that he’s the Messiah. To imitate him, you need to know his mission, and his mission is to fulfill all that God the Father has in store for him—his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He has come to submit to God’s will. Now, Jesus is also calling his followers to submit. He tells them that they need to deny themselves; they don’t get to choose for themselves how they will live. Every disciple must “take up his cross.” This is a vivid and repulsive image in the mind of the crowd. They’ve seen crucifixions take place at the hand of their Roman overlords. The main point of crucifixion isn’t to torture a person to death; it’s to present that person as a public spectacle of what happens when you defy the might of Rome. A man going to his crucifixion would be led through crowded streets, bearing the crossbar of his own cross. On his public death march, he is no longer acting as a rebel; Rome has won, and he has submitted to its authority. In the same way, Jesus is telling his disciples, “If you want to follow me, you must join me, abandoning your old mindsets and old ways of life. You must come alongside me in absolute submission to God.”

Now, that’s a tough pill to swallow, so Jesus tells us why it’s necessary. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Counterintuitively, a disciple must give up his entire life to God in order to save it. Like the oil in the jar of the prophet’s widow (2 Kings 4:1–7), it can’t be renewed unless it’s entirely poured out. A disciple can’t hold back a few corners of his life for himself. He can’t play it safe. He must devote himself exclusively to his Lord, take risks for him, wear himself out with the Lord’s work. If he tries to hold back, he’ll give up the very life he’s been trying to keep for himself, because God will take it away from him.

You’ll lose your life if you try to keep it for yourself; you’ll save it if you let it go. Jesus explains this paradox: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” If you keep yourself back from God, it won’t be gain at all, even if you got all the approval and money and comfort and pleasure and self-esteem you could dream of. You’ll lose your soul, and you won’t be able to get it back. “For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Jesus asks, and the answer is, “Nothing.” All that honor and luxury you’ve gained won’t be enough to buy it back.

Why can’t you buy back your soul? Jesus warns, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” You can’t buy your soul back because Jesus will be too embarrassed to be seen with you. He’ll be too ashamed to be around someone who prefers “this adulterous and sinful generation” to “the glory of his Father” and the presence of “the holy angels.” No amount of contaminated money or worthless prestige that you can offer will ever wallpaper over that shame. Jesus can’t be bribed.

But then, Jesus delivers a guarantee to the crowd. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Jesus won’t allow you to buy your way into his kingdom; he offers it freely. And there are some in that crowd who will consider the cost and still choose to be his disciples. And three of them are about to catch a glimpse of the King with his veil removed and his glory revealed. This kingdom is of supreme worth, more valuable than any earthly kingdom.

So Jesus has come to submit himself to his Father’s will, and his disciples are called to do the same. If you tend to be a self-ambitious person, Jesus is warning you not to seek earthly glory but to submit to God, devote yourself to him, and in this way receive the glory of his kingdom. If you tend to be a lazy person, Jesus is warning you to stop holding back and to start pouring yourself out for God. Go all in. And then…then you’ll begin to see a radiant sliver of the glory that awaits you.