Stature, prominence, and rank are the keys to greatness in our society. We are instilled with the drive to “make something of ourselves.” You and I are told to make our way to the top, regardless of how we get there. In fact, the reality television shows today glorify one’s ability to destroy the competitors, stab them in the back, and sabotage whomever he can to reach the goal. This mentality becomes a part of us in the workplace and among our families. These attributes are not exempt from showing up in local churches today. There are those who claim to be among the Lord’s people who will do whatever it takes to always remain in a position of rank and prominence. There are people who must have power run through them. This can sometimes be seen in the leaders of local churches, such as elders, deacons, and preachers. I know of one man who was put up for the position of elder and when he was rejected, he desired to know who went against him so he could change their minds. When this was not allowed, he moved his membership to another congregation where he would have the opportunity to be an elder. There can also be those who claim to be among the Lord’s people who are envious and jealous because they do not have the prominence that preachers, teachers, elders, and deacons have. These problems all come from an acceptance of the doctrine of the world to reach the top at all costs. This is a similar struggle that we see the disciples of Jesus encountering. Peter, James, and John were pulled away by Jesus from the other nine disciples and went upon the high mountain where they were able to see Jesus transfigured before them. One may wonder whether it is this separation that leads to the problems that we are going to read about in this text concerning position, rank, and prominence. In this lesson we will notice how Jesus told His disciples to conquer these problems and along the way we will make personal applications for ourselves.
Jesus teaches His disciples
After casting out the unclean spirit which the other nine disciples could not cast out, Jesus and the twelve leave there and pass through Galilee . We are told by Mark that Jesus did not want anyone to know He was passing through because He was spending time teaching His disciples. Therefore we can envision that Jesus did not go on the roads that passed through the cities, but kept away from where the people would be in an effort to spend important time teaching His twelve. Jesus continues to instruct His disciples about His coming suffering and death. Jesus says in verse 31, “The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” Jesus has begun to impress this teaching upon His disciples to make them understand what the future holds for Him. In this case, Jesus offers a little more information about what will happen to Him. This time Jesus tells the disciples that He will be betrayed. The Greek word that in the NKJV is translated “delivered” also has the meaning of “betrayed.” The NIV and NRSV so translate the word as “betrayed.” Jesus is telling His twelve for the first time that it would be someone close to Him who will deliver Him to be killed.
Disciples’ lack of understanding
The disciples still do not understand what Jesus is saying through this teaching. It is impossible for these men to fathom that the Messiah, the Son of God who has come to establish His kingdom could finally arrive only to suffer and die. Further, how hard of a teaching would this be for His disciples to understand that there would be a resurrection for the dead three days later. Peter had rebuked Jesus upon receiving this information in Mark 8:32 and we see that the disciples are still struggling with the reality of this teaching. Further, the disciples were unwilling to ask Jesus concerning this teaching because they were afraid. It is possible the twelve disciples were afraid to ask for fear of rebuke as Peter had received. But Peter did not ask questions. Instead, He had told Jesus as a matter of fact that these things would never happen to Him. I believe the reason the disciples were afraid to ask is because they did not want to know the answer. They did not want to know that these were going to happen and did not want to accept these coming events as a reality.
Mark 9:33 -41 Character Attribute #1: Lowliness
Dispute on the road
Jesus and His disciples are now in Capernaum . However, Jesus wants to know what the disciples were disputing with each other on the way. It is interesting to notice that every time that Jesus has taught concerning His death, the teaching has revealed a spiritual flaw in the disciples. The first time Jesus taught about His death, it caused Peter to rebuke Jesus. The second time Jesus taught about this, there was a question concerning how Elijah and the Messiah could bring about a restoration, yet still be killed. Now another flaw will be revealed in the disciples because of Jesus’ teaching. We would hope that the dispute between the disciples would be over the finer points of the law of Moses. Maybe we would hope the dispute would surround how the Messiah could die and yet rule. Maybe we would expect the dispute to be about the inauguration of a spiritual kingdom. But these hopes are wiped away as we see the disciples refusing to answer Jesus because they had argued about who was the greatest in the kingdom. The disciples’ silence certainly implies the guilty conscience they had about disputing over this matter. The disciples had the same ambition for greatness and desire for prominence that we feel today. Jesus is now going to explain in the rest of this chapter about who is the greatest in the kingdom.
The first character attribute that Jesus teaches for greatness in His kingdom is lowliness. Lowliness is not a word that is common in our vocabulary today, which is a shame and may show to us how far we have moved away from the character of Christ. Lowliness literally means “not rising far from the ground.” Immediately, we may object to this because it does not make sense that greatness can come through a mentality that does not let oneself rise far from the ground. Lowliness is counter-cultural, as we have already noted. Society tells us to advance ourselves to make ourselves great. Lowliness is also counter-natural. It is not a natural thought process to bring ourselves to the ground. When you get too low to the ground, there is a good chance that people are going to walk on you. So we do not like lowliness and we strenuously object to devoting ourselves to such a mindset. But Jesus is going to illustrate this characteristic through three teachings.
Servitude (9:35 )
Jesus teaches that if anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last. How does one make himself last? Jesus is very clear: we must become a servant of all. Lowliness is not serving those who serve us first. Lowliness is not in serving only the people that we like and want to subject ourselves to. Lowliness demands that we serve all people. This means that service must include people I do not like, people I do not get along with, people who have hurt me, and people who are my enemies. True lowliness is only found in serving those we deem unworthy of service. It is easy to serve our friends and those who are kind to us. But Jesus commands that His followers be servants of all.
We excuse ourselves from service because no one has asked us to help or serve them. But that does not alleviate our responsibility. We must volunteer our services to everyone we can. We need to see those who are physically in need and offer with visitation, with meals, with friendliness. We need to see those who are spiritually struggling among us and offer to read the Bible, study the Bible, pray together, and work together in building up in Christ. We must serve non-Christians by creating opportunities to build relationships and foundations so that we can share the gospel with them. The true servant of God does not excuse himself or herself from service because of a lack of time, lack of money, lack of desire, or anything else. The servant in the house is not afforded the opportunity to decide when he will serve. The servant gives himself or herself to the will of the other. We need to see our great failures in this area, and become more like Christ in serving Christians and non-Christians.
Humility (9:36 -37)
To become a servant as Jesus has commanded demands that we practice humility in the mind. I believe this is the attribute Jesus was seeking to illustrate when He took a little child into His arms. A child does not take into account a person’s accomplishments, a person’s name, a person’s influence, a person’s power, nor a person’s fame. These things are meaningless to a child. If I were to tell Paige that I am a preacher at the Haverhill Road church of Christ , would she care? If I were to speak to my daughter about all of my accomplishments and degrees, would that change her view of me? No, because these things do not matter to little children. But these things are very important to adults, and Jesus is telling us that this must change. Jesus is teaching that there is no rank in God’s kingdom. Our accomplishments are not going to be presented before God and He will give us greater heavenly riches. There is no merit with God. We also need to see that humility is not something you are born with in life. We sometimes speak of humility as if it were a genetic trait like hair color or height. Humility is something that must be practiced. It is a decision to choose others rather than ourselves. This is how we practice humility. We are not given the option of not being humble. We must practice humility in every decision we make.
Lacks envy and jealousy (9:38 -41)
Third, Jesus is teaching us to be free from jealousy. But the way this teaching comes about is because John is sparked to relate an experience to Jesus. The disciples saw someone casting out demons in the name of Christ, but because he did not follow with them, they forbade him to cast out demons. But Jesus tells the disciples that they should not forbid anyone who is working in His name. Jesus further teaches that those who are not against us are on our side.
Let us first deal with what this is not teaching. Most commentators use this passage to show that we should not be arguing over faiths and denominations. Since we are all working in the name of Christ we ought not worry about Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or any other denomination because we are on the same team, the argument states. But let us be clear that this was not what Jesus was teaching. Notice that Jesus says not to forbid someone who works “in My name.” The phrase “in My name” does not simply mean that people are claiming to be followers of Christ. “In My name” means by My authority. Jesus is teaching the disciples not to stop someone else who is working by the authority of Jesus Christ. All of the religious groups and denominations cannot have the authority of Christ when they all possess different teachings. Jesus is not teaching that we are to overlook all the differences and be united in Christ with our various beliefs. There is only one body, one baptism, one God, and one faith.
I believe this is teaching that there must be freedom from jealousy. It is interesting to consider that this one was able to cast out demons, while the disciples had struggled with casting out demons previously. We should not prevent others from being successful in working for the Lord simply because of our failures. For some reason, it is easy for us to be jealous of other Christians in the work they are doing. There are conflicts because someone is doing what we want to do. There is envy because a person receives praise for their good work while the work we are doing goes unnoticed. This attitude of envy can be found among members over the silliest of issues. Envy and jealousy come from our desire to be greater than one another. Yet this attitude keeps us out of God’s kingdom. Too often we expect other Christians to do things our way, and if it is not done our way, then we ruffle our feathers and cause problems. Of course, I am not speaking of matters of doctrine, but upon matters of judgment. Lowliness means that we will listen and we will yield to the other person upon matters that really are of indifference. The “my way or the highway” attitude is unacceptable in the kingdom of God .
Mark 9:42 -48 Character Attribute #2: Holiness
Do not be a stumbling block (9:42 )
The second characteristic that Jesus will describe for those who want to be great in His kingdom is holiness. Jesus now reverts back to the illustration of the child when He speaks of “these little ones.” The little ones are now a reference to those who are disciples of Jesus Christ, “who believe in Me.” Jesus gives the warning that no one cause another believer to stumble. Jesus says that it would be better if a millstone were hung around our necks and we were cast into the sea than to be stumbling blocks to others. We must accept the seriousness of this command for holiness. How easy it is to do something that causes another to fall into weakness and sin. Our personal liberties must be restrained when we know that such an action may be cause for another to fall into weakness. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:13, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” As many of you know, there are many arguments concerning smoking, drinking, dancing, modesty, and other such issues. This law of Christ applies to all of these areas and more. There are some here who have struggled with modesty and lusts, with drinking and alcoholism, with smoking and nicotine addiction. What danger am I placing myself in if I do these things with the knowledge that many here are weak in such areas? We are challenged to be examples not only to the unbelievers, but also to other believers who have struggles and weaknesses. Many weaknesses we may not be aware of with our brethren, so we must always be careful even with things that are clearly liberties of the Christian, and much more things of sin and of questionable repute.
Sin must be personally confronted (9:43 )
Jesus also teaches that holiness demands that we confront our sins. It will be absolutely impossible for us to fulfill the commands that are given in verses 43-48 if we do not acknowledge and confront the sins that plague our lives. Jesus is making us accountable for our actions. It is our hands that handle and guide our minds where they should not be. It is our feet that run to evil. It is our eyes that we allow to see things that should not be seen and envision evils that should not come to mind. We are responsible for our bodies and must confront the sins that plague us, and take control. Sin cannot be ignored and pushed into the closet, hoping no one will know so that we do not have to deal with it. Time to pull it out and address the sin for what it is.
Sin must be cut off (9:43 -48)
Once we have identified our weaknesses and sins, we are told that we must cut the sins off. This should be obvious to us, yet it is an action that many of us do not want to take. But it is the only action we can make if we are going to have our souls saved from the fiery judgments of hell. Why do doctors still use amputation as a method of treatment? Are they being barbaric doctors who are using medicine from the dark ages? Of course not. Amputation is used to preserve the body from further infection from disease. We would not look at an appendage that has gone gangrene and decide that this was okay. We would have the appendage cut off to preserve the health of the body. This is the analogy that Jesus is trying to strike in our minds. If sin is not cut off, it will infect the soul so that it will be lost in the fires of hell. Cutting off is the only remedy. We cannot poke at it, play with it, or ignore the situation that sin leaves us in. To cut sin off means that we must remove all the temptations we can from before our eyes, hands, and feet. We cannot leave the temptations in the way such that we will so easily fall back into sin. If I want to stop sin, I must remove anything that will remind me of the sin and cause me to want to fall back into my weakness. Cut off sin or we will be cut off from our Father’s presence and the kingdom of God .
Mark 9:49 -50 Character Attribute #3: Usefulness
Useful to God (9:49 )
Jesus also describes that those who want to be great in the kingdom of God must be useful to God. All of us will be tested by the fires of trials and temptations. This is the purifying process that builds our faith and cleanses our character. Jesus further says, “Every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.” This is an allusion that refers back to the Old Testament when all of the sacrifices had to be seasoned with the salt of the covenant. Having been salted, a sacrifice was rendered acceptable to God. We must become a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord, purified for the Lord, as if by salt, from the decay of the world. Jesus used this imagery in the sermon on the mount when Jesus told the multitudes that they are the salt of the earth. We are of no value to the kingdom of God if we cannot be put to use by the Lord. But God can only use those who will submit to His will. God will not override our desires to make us what He wants us to be. We must submit to His power and will to be transformed into sacrifices well pleasing to Him.
Useful to others (9:50 )
Not only must we be useful and presentable to God, we must also be useful to others. Our saltiness must extend to others in the world to cause them to hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God. Unfortunately, too many Christians have lost their saltiness and no longer are attracting people to thirst for the Lord. What good are we to the Lord and to our fellow man if we are not salty with the righteousness of God? When we are not thrilled about serving Christ, how can we expect others to be excited about Jesus? We are to be useful to others because we draw people to Christ. We must be causing spiritual conversations and studies concerning the Lord. We must be making invitations for people to get better acquainted with the Lord. We cannot expect that we will be in the Lord’s kingdom when we are not fruitful. In John 15 Jesus said that He cuts off the branches that do not bear fruit and casts them in the fire. Let us bear the fruit of the Spirit and therefore have peace with one another.
Jesus has taught that greatness comes from doing the opposite of what the world says to do to be great. Greatness is not about receiving salvation for ourselves, but getting as many as possible to taste the heavenly gift we have tasted. There is no neutrality with Jesus. Either we are for Him or we are against Him. To be in the kingdom we must become lowly, holy, and useful servants of Jesus Christ. That is true greatness in life now and in the heavenly places.