“Great Service”

The following message is based on Mark 10:35-45 and covers the topic of pride and service within the Christian life.  It was preached at the Palm Schwenkfelder Church in Palm, PA on  October 21, 2012 for Schwenkfelder Ministerium Pulpit Exchange.

How do we define “greatness?”  With any word, there is often the world’s definition, then the Bible’s definition.  According to Webster’s, greatness is defined as chief or preeminent over others —often used in titles.  We witness people striving for greatness and notoriety on such popular shows as “American Idol,” “Britain’s Got Talent,” and “The Voice.”  And then there are examples from history.  Take, for instance, Alexander the Great, who before his death at the young age of 32 conquered much of the known world, from Greece to the Himalayas during the 4th century B.C.  He was undefeated in battle and considered one of the most successful commanders ever.

Usually, we define greatness as having to do with money, power and accomplishment.  Mohammed Ali often referred to himself as “the Greatest.”  Coach Urban Meyer has referred to Tim Tebow, his quarterback at the University of Florida from 2006 to 2009 as “GOAT,” which stands for “Greatest of All Time.”  These definitions usually have to do with money, power and accomplishment.

Then there is the Biblical definition, which Jesus gives in our passage today.  His meaning will surprise you.  We first learn that…

GREATNESS IS NOT MEASURED BY POSITION OR POWER.

Earlier in chapter 10, Jesus discussed how hard it was for the rich to enter the kingdom.  It is a call to forsake all things for the gospel (verse 30).  Notice His words in verse 31: “Many who are first, will be last; and the last, first.”   Jesus tells of His impending death in 32-34.  He tells His disciples that He is headed to Jerusalem and that He will be brought trial, and that He will die at the hands of sinful men.  This is the third time that Jesus predicts His imposing death.  As His followers, we must know that Jesus’ death was something necessary and by God’s design.  It was according to the Father’s plan and foreknowledge (Acts 2:23).  The disciples failed to understand its necessity or its enormity.

James and John approach Jesus, asking to sit at places of honor and authority.  There is quite a contrast in the nature of the subject preceding and the question asked by James and John in verse 35: “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” 36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37 And they said to Him, “Grant that we may sit in Your glory, one on Your right, and one on Your left.”  These were two men who walked closely to Jesus.  Peter, James and John were the threesome that Jesus invested the most time in.  They were the “Sons of Thunder.”  James and John were brothers, the sons of Zebedee.  It makes one think that what Jesus said did not sink in.

The disciples’ status and rank were discussed earlier in 9:34.  This is possibly a continuation of former times when they asked for special privileges when Jesus would rule, as was assumed that the Messiah would do after ousting the Romans.  When my child wants something, he or she asks me.  If he wants it more, he asks 2 or 3 times.  Or if they are really desperate, they can be downright incessant.  They envisioned an earthly kingdom that ran according to human norms.  David Garland notes: “The Zebedee brothers are not asking for the honor of being crucified with Jesus.  What they really expect is a kingdom for themselves, where they can impose their own will on others.[1]  They had it in their own minds what “greatness” was.

But Jesus turns their definition on its head by saying: “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to Him, “We are able.”  Cup and baptism are used to represent experiences that qualify for this place.  The cup is a metaphor for suffering.  “The cup,” was a cup of wrath.  That’s why Jesus prayed in the Garden in Matthew 26:39:  “”My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”  What’s the talk of baptism?  Here the word is used as a form of identification, that with calamity.  Jesus would be plunged into adversity.  The way of Jesus is one of suffering.  Garland writes: “The way of Jesus is self-giving service.  They are not to be on the receiving end of service but on the giving end.”[2]

Verse 40- “But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  These positions were not for Jesus to grant, but only the Father.  Only to those for whom it has been prepared.  Yet, many of the disciples would die a martyr’s death.  Peter would be crucified upside down.  James would be thrown off the temple roof.  Andrew would be crucified.  Paul would be beheaded.  The way of an apostle was hard and difficult.  And yet, all of them went down in the annals of history as being great men!  Greatness is not measured by position or power.  Secondly…

GREATNESS IS MEASURED BY ATTITUDE AND ACTION.

At this request, we read in verse 41 that the others felt indignant towards James and John.  Jesus uses it as a springboard to teach His disciples about greatness.  He says: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 “But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

He says that greatness is measured by servant hood; by serving others.  A few years ago, Central Church adopted a mission statement.  This is a short, concise sentence that tells what we are about and what we aspire to be about in our world and community.  It is simply to Love God, to serve others and to grow disciples.  Compare this with the secular and pagan world:  Rulers of the Gentiles lord over their authority.  Some of you may have caught the recent program on Caligula, the Roman emperor.  He was a harsh ruler, suspected of being insane.  He would go after his own family members and had them executed if he suspected them of treason.  Caligula had his family members put to death.  He wanted to be worshipped; and he decided to rule ruthlessly, with an iron fist in order to be revered as a god.  Caligula believed that in order to be great, you must become a god.  Jesus taught, in order to become great, you must become a servant.

In this background, Jesus introduces a bit of an antithesis: to be great, you must be a servant; to be first, you must be a slave.  This mindset is also listed in Philippians 2:3.  Here, Paul writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

Jesus is our ultimate example of service.  Here was the greatest, Who became the lowliest, for our sake.  Notice verse 45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Garland states: “Jesus has told his disciples that he must die, but this is the only passage in Mark that tells us why he must die: He ‘gives His life as a ransom for many. ‘The term ‘ransom,’ was used for compensation for personal injury or a crime, for purchasing the freedom of an enslaved relative.  And for the price paid as an equivalent for the sacrifice of the firstborn.  In extrabiblical sources, it referred to the amount paid to free a slave or prisoner, redeem a pledge, or reclaim something owned.

I was brought face to face with something extraordinary recently.  My wife and I visited the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Franklin Institute last weekend.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered by accident in 1947, is the single most critical literary discovery of our modern times.  Before the discovery, the oldest manuscript of the Hebrew Bible dated to around 1,000 A.D.  But the Scrolls uncovered portions of the Old Testament that predated Christ.  As I got in line to look at these darkened pieces of parchment under glass, one was a portion of Isaiah 53:11-12, dated to the year 1 A.D., around the time of Jesus’ birth.  It said: “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.”  Christ gave His life to ransom us from sin’s slavery.  He set us free to serve God.  Aren’t we glad that Jesus gave His life as a ransom for us!  Friends, that’s you and me.

What about us?  Are we making the most of the opportunities God places in front of us to serve others?

Today, we’ve been reminded that greatness is not measured by position or power, but by attitude and action.  In Christ, there was no polished rhetoric.  Only words backed up by actions.  Directly after this incident, Jesus heals Bartimaeus, Son of Timaeus.  This man, calls out to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, Son of David (anointed one, king of Israel, the heir of the house of David), asks: “What do you want me to do for you?”

It was the great Martin Luther King, Jr. that said: You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You don’t have to know Plato and Aristotle.  You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”[3]


[1] David E. Garland, “Mark,” The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 411.

[2] Garland, 413.

[3] Garland, 417.

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