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 be lowly, so you must welcome the lowly (Mark 9:30–41)

I’d like to think that in Western culture, we respect and value the lowly and helpless, unlike many past and present cultures. It’s certainly the case that we’ve made progress; for example, slavery was made illegal in the 19th century, and there is an appreciation for the plight of the poor and marginalized across the world. Yet our values still don’t line up with Jesus’ values—not even in the church. Let’s consider this passage and the Jesus whom it reveals.

In chapter 8, it was finally revealed to the disciples that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the King sent from God to deliver his people. In the following chapters, Jesus tells his disciples three times that he has come to suffer, die, and be raised to life again. Each time he tells them, they respond by failing to understand. This is the second time Jesus warns them that he has come to suffer, and Mark records that “they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” In their worldview, glory and victory are valuable, not by a lowly and suffering “Messiah.” What Jesus is saying might as well be gibberish; it doesn’t fit into their paradigm of the world God has made. What they do recognize is that whatever Jesus means, it doesn’t sound good. So they’re afraid to ask him what he’s talking about; they’d rather stay in the dark on this one.

Their ignorance of Jesus’ mission becomes clear once they arrive in Capernaum. After entering the house where they’re staying, Jesus asks them, “What were you discussing on the way?” Like a troop of guilty children, they keep silent, “for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Who knows exactly what that conversation looked like! Perhaps Peter was showing off his charisma, or James wanted the other disciples to see that he was the most intelligent, or Nathaniel wanted to prove that he was the strongest. I suppose it’s encouraging that they feel ashamed. They’re beginning to recognize that Jesus isn’t too impressed when people start bragging on themselves.

Jesus sits them down for a teaching moment. He tells them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” His ethical system is a paradox, upside-down from everything they’ve been taught to believe. He proves his point by calling in a little child. In that culture, children weren’t valued until they became old enough to work. Until then, they were simply mouths to feed, a strain on the household budget. But Jesus picks up and holds the worthless little runt closely to himself. He tells them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Jesus identifies himself in a special way with the lowly, with the useless and worthless people around you and me. He says that true greatness is not found in associating with popular or charming or productive people; it’s found in serving the worthless people.

This isn’t just contrary to the mindset of the ancient world. It’s contrary to our mindset as well. In Western culture, we don’t value the unborn; they’re an inconvenience, particularly if they’re disabled. They’re prime targets for abortion. We view immigrants from Mexico as illegal scoundrels here to steal our jobs. We think of children as either a hindrance to our happiness or a tool to make us happy; we don’t value them for their own sake. We love the idea of sending money to Bono so he can help starving kids in Africa, but we skirt around the poor and homeless in our own neighborhoods. We avoid interacting with people who are stupid, unattractive, poorly dressed, or socially awkward. We believe that the key to greatness is to put such people out of mind; if we associate with them, others won’t think we’re great any more!

Jesus does a wonderful thing here. Because he was lowly, despised, and rejected, he identifies with the lowly in this world. What greater role could you and I play than to welcome him—and therefore welcome the God who sent him? Because Jesus came to suffer, he rerouted the path to greatness, ensuring that you need to serve the lowly to become great.

One of Jesus’ disciples, John, unintentionally provides another example of wrong thinking about greatness. He tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Like many fundamentalist Christians, John loves the idea of separation—he has convinced himself that the only valid followers of Christ are the people in his elite clique. He looks down on this “lowly” exorcist who is not part of Jesus’ “inner circle.” But Jesus contradicts him, saying, “Do not stop him.” He gives three reasons why you and I shouldn’t stop another genuine follower of Christ just because he or she is from a different tradition. First, such a person will represent Christ favorably. We need as many people as possible to speak well of Jesus! Second, such a person is on the same team as you. As Jesus says, “The one who is not against us is for us.” Third, God approves of their genuine servanthood. They won’t go unrewarded. So if God approves, what right do you and I have to reject them? There is no room for cliques in the body of Christ. We should not enjoy separating from other believers; we should only do it (reluctantly) in cases where Christ and his gospel are under attack.

Because Jesus came as a suffering Messiah rather than a triumphalistic Messiah, his mission pierces the heart of our hubris. “He was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3), and would we expect better for ourselves? Would we join the world in despising and rejecting the lowly? Will we despise and reject other believers just because they’re not in our cliques?