Mark 9:33-37 | TRUE GREATNESS


True Greatness

Mark 9:33-37

Key Verse 9:35


“Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”’


Jesus was thinking about all that would happen to him once he reached Jerusalem. Yet, he didn’t change his course. He pushed on because he needed to be sacrificed there on a cross for the sins of the world. It was what he had come to this world to do. If Jesus didn’t, the world would remain in sin and all people would be lost to God. The salvation of the human race depended on this! So, Jesus taught his disciples what was about to happen to him. He taught them plainly about his suffering, death and resurrection. Of all people, Jesus hoped that at least these few men would accept this difficult but necessary teaching. But they weren’t listening! Their hearts were closed. They hated the prospect of suffering. It’s like those who eagerly listen to God’s message of love, and forgiveness but don’t listen to anything that is convicting and that requires sacrifice on their part. It was disheartening to Jesus that his most intimate friends didn’t listen to the whole gospel truth, especially to the great sacrifice he was getting ready to make for them and for the world.


They just did not understand. Verse 32 says: “But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” Mark explains their confusion or lack of understanding by telling us that they were afraid. Fear played a part in their confusion. The message was simple. But they didn’t understand the heart of the gospel message— why he had to sacrifice himself— why he had to shed his blood— why he had to die! They didn’t understand the gospel message. For Jesus to save people, he must die for their sins. This was God’s way of salvation— the way that God would save sinners from death and hell. There is no other way for anyone to be saved. His disciples— those who followed Jesus— must believe this truth and take it to heart regardless of whether they understand it or not! They understood that all men were sinners. But they could not understand that salvation from sin requires the shedding of Jesus’ blood, his death and resurrection.


The message was simple. But they did not understand. Maybe they didn’t want to understand — simply because one truth draws another truth with it. If they were to understand that the Lord has to suffer and die, then they would also have to understand that following him brings them no glory in this world— that their lot would not be much different than his. That is why so many people refuse to understand even when the word of God is as clear as daylight. If they were to understand that Jesus must suffer and die for their sins— then they would also have to understand that “— if anyone would come after [him], he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mk. 8:32) Mark said they were afraid to ask. They were afraid to know that he meant it! That he would actually suffer and die! That there would be no worldly glory at the end of this road; that there would be no cheering crowds; no status of honor. In this situation, they did not understand, and were afraid to ask lest they learn the truth. They are so much like us.


A young disciple loves to study the Bible, and wants to follow Christ with his whole heart. He loves to hear encouraging words of forgiveness, and the unconditional love of God. But he will not understand why he must strive for a pure heart— why he must not cause young girls whom Jesus loves to stumble and fall because of him. Sometimes we pretend not to understand whenever the subject hits home— when we know that we are sinning— when we do not want to hear the truth— when the truth convicts us and we are not ready to be convicted— when we aren’t ready to make changes in our lives. The disciples hardened their hearts to the gospel message, because they were not ready to understand. They thought they were confused. But Mark tells us that they not really confused, but just afraid to ask him about it. They were afraid of the answer. The answer would not be what they wanted to hear. It was a foolish thing to be afraid to ask him, when the very answer— painful as it may be to hear and to accept— can liberate me from unnecessary emotions and of sinful habits and sinful actions and from the wrong way of thinking, that keeps me at a distance form my Lord Jesus. It was a foolish thing to be afraid to ask him, when in him they had experienced nothing but triumph over all things in life. There are many things we do not understand. But we must never be afraid to ask, even when we know that we may not like what we hear.


When fear ruled the disciples’ hearts, their hearts were closed. Then their minds also went dull. Read 33,34. “They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” Their minds were dulled. Jesus had just taught them the greatest truth of all time. His message was a message of life. Even if they really did not understand, they should at least spend time discussing the Bible study he had just taught them, and perhaps learn something from it. But when their hearts resisted the gospel message, their minds also went dull. Suddenly, on the road they began to discuss a most interesting subject: “Who was the greatest.” They argued about who among them would be the greatest. (Lk. 9:46) It is unthinkable that the disciples would be arguing about such a thing when Jesus was on his way to the cross. What could possibly promote such selfish thinking and such a silly argument? They had no gospel message shining and living in their hearts. And when they had no gospel message in their hearts, nothing was left but the human nature— and that nature is sinful. So, instead of finding a way to share in Jesus’ suffering, they were arguing with one another as to which of them was the greatest! This is an amazing thing! We expect something like this as a promotion campaign from the greatest himself, “Mohammed Ali” but we never expect something like this from Jesus’ own disciples. Yet, in all honesty they genuinely discussed this among themselves.


This is a hard thing to understand, but at the same time, it is not all that hard to imagine when we consider the human nature. For example, is it so strange that two employees of a company who have been friends for many years suddenly become enemies, because one of them was promoted and the other was not? Not a strange thing that in itself. Why? Because obviously the one who was not promoted feels that he should have received the promotion instead. In fact, he feels he should have been the one because, whether he admits it or not, in his deep heart he feels that he is better for the promotion. In his heart, he considered the issue of who was indeed the greater, he or his friend, and has come to the conclusion that he is greater. His anger and sudden hatred for his friend tell us how he felt about himself in relation to his friend— among the two, he was greater! It is the same thing with all people who are led by the sinful nature — on every level of life— in every situation.


Who is the greatest! Is this problem only a problem of the world or does it include the children of God? Here is an example. Suppose Jesus’ disciples never discussed who among them was the greatest. But suppose the content of their conversation and their thoughts were something like this: “You do not give me much attention.” “You love her more than you love me.” “He gets all the respect and I never do.” “I should be the one put in charge.” “I think you favor them more than us. Yes, that must be it! That is why they always get to do what they want, and we always get scolded.” Suppose then Jesus had also said to them: “Instead of looking for attention, and wasting your time in childish thinking, why don’t you give attention to someone who needs it instead?” Suppose he says: “If you think I respect someone more than you, why don’t you try to find out what he does to earn my respect, instead of holding bitterness against him in your heart?” Even if Jesus’ disciples had not argued about who among them was the greatest, their hearts betrayed their feelings about themselves. Each one of them thought he was better, did things better, serves better, and loves better. Each one thought so because in each of their hearts the issue of who is greater bothered them. With their minds were dull, they stopped looking at and learning from Jesus what true greatness is. And they were fixed on looking at each other, measuring one another— not with the measure of truth— but with the sinful nature. Who is the greatest? Yes, who is the greatest? And relative to whom— or to what? If Bartholomew thought he was greater than James, the question is “greater than James compared with whom or with what”? Whatever we use for a standard is useless if its origin is here in this sinful world. The only standard of true greatness can be found in Jesus. Therefore, true greatness must be measured relative to only Jesus. In that sense, they were dull because even if James were a better fisher of men than Nathaniel, or Judas a better Bible teacher than Philip, compared with Jesus, both of them weren’t all that great!


They should have been learning from Jesus the meaning of true greatness. They should have been imitating his life and learning his example instead of focusing on their childish thoughts and futile competitions with one another. But since they were only fixed on themselves instead of on Jesus, they missed the point of what greatness is. What does it matter if they were great in a worldly sense but they were not so great in God? What would it matter if their names were famous on earth, but in the kingdom of God no one knew who they were? It was a terrible thing that these disciples had no clue yet as to what greatness in God was. It was equally terrible that they really did not care much about their heavenly situation and only cared about what others thought of them. But even though they were so dull, Jesus loved them too much to let this argument go without learning something from it. When he asked them what they were arguing about, of course they remained quiet and did not say anything. They were either too embarrassed about what had been the content of their conversation or they were too angry with each other’s pride and arrogance to speak. But Jesus spoke.


Read verse 35. “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Jesus taught them that true greatness has nothing to do with worldly standards. True greatness must be measured in God— and God measures greatness by the humility of a person’s heart. For example, God considered Moses to be the most humble man on earth. (Numbers 12:3) From a human point of view, Moses did not look like a humble man when he gave orders to the leaders of Israel. Moses did not look like a humble man when in holy anger he rebuked the people of God until they trembled. He did not appear humble when he spoke and acted as God’s voice to the people. In fact, to the eyes of the people he seemed like a dictator who was so full of himself. Even to the eyes of his own sister, Moses appeared as if he thought too much of himself. So his sister Miriam rebuked him saying: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Nu.12:2) It seemed to Miriam that Moses was pretending to be a one man show, not considering her advice nor the advice of his brother Aaron. But to the eyes of God, Moses did not look like a proud man. He did not look like someone who wanted to grab the first position. He did not look like someone who did things in his own way not listening to anyone else. Moses looked like the most humble man on earth, because he listened to and obeyed God first. He looked like the most humble man on earth because he did not try to please people, but only tried to please God. Most of all, he looked like the most humble man on earth because his only desire was not self glory, but to honor God and to serve his people. In a sense he was not the first but the last and the servant of all.


Jesus is the Son of God, the First, the Best, the Greatest, the King. But he did not act like the first nor like a king. He acted as a servant. He did not demand honor. He did not struggle with men. He did not demand service. Rather, his heart fixed on honoring God and serving others. He served with his whole heart. He did not care if he himself were the focus of attention. Rather he made God the focus of attention, and gave himself to teaching us, loving us, serving us, and finally dying for all of us. He was the Greatest because he humbled himself and obeyed the will of God for him— even when God demanded that he die. Jesus wanted his disciples to learn what it means to be truly great. It means to be humble. It means that each of us must consider ourselves not the first— but the last. It means that each of us must learn to serve others as Jesus had served. To Jesus, if the disciples would do that, they would be truly great. As servants, they might not look as dignified as those who are served. But in the eyes of God, each servant who serves Jesus and the gospel with humility, is truly great.


Read verses 36,37. “He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’” To teach them the meaning of true greatness Jesus needed to teach them to serve. And so he gave them an example. So he brought a child— and he taught them that to serve a child in the name of Jesus makes a person great. But why a child? Because a child is helpless and needs the love and protection of his parents until he can stand on his own two feet. To the eyes of Jesus, all human beings are like helpless children at the mercy of the devil. They need to be welcomed in the name of Jesus and served with the word of God until they can stand on their own two spiritual feet. Jesus did not say to welcome a child if he is lovely and obedient, and to turn away the rebellious and rude child. In the same way, not all people are lovely and obedient. Most are cautious and afraid ready to lash out at anyone who comes near them. It is easy to stay away from them. And it is hard to welcome them in the name of our Lord Jesus. But great is the one who know the Messiah’s heart and who welcomes them in the name of Jesus leading them by the hand to Jesus.


Most people want to be great. And in the process of desiring to be greater, they do terrible things. Even if they achieve some form of greatness, it is vain because even if the world recognizes their greatness, heaven despises their deeds and would not welcome them. Christians cannot learn from such people what greatness is. Christians can only learn true greatness from the truly Great One— Jesus himself. I can learn greatness when I listen to Jesus and begin to humble myself, accepting his teaching, rather than pretending not to understand it, and learning to imitate him in all things.I can learn best when I learn to serve as my Lord served me. And I can serve when I am willing to accept a person sinner in the name of Jesus, leading them to Jesus. God bless you to learn true greatness from the Lord Jesus, and to imitate his humility and servantship.

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