We have noticed over the past few chapters that the Gospel of Mark is showing the glory of Jesus to the audience. We are to have a grander view of Jesus and his splendor as his disciples. But from the middle of chapter 9 through chapter 13 we are not only continuing to see the glory of Jesus but we are challenged to count the cost of following Jesus. Discipleship is a very important theme in this gospel and now we are taught to consider the cost to follow Jesus.
Difficulties Still (9:30-32)
Jesus continues to tell his disciples an important message. “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But you will notice that nothing has changed in the heart of his disciples. In verse 32 we read that the disciples still do not understand what Jesus is saying and further were too afraid to ask him. Mark continues to highlight the spiritual dullness of the disciples. What Jesus is saying still does not make sense to the disciples. But worse than all of these things, the disciples are too afraid to ask. Fear has been shown to be a problem in this gospel. In chapter 4-5 we saw that fear left to itself prohibits faith (4:40). Fear is supposed to lead to faith (5:36). Rather than their fear causing the disciples to ask for further understanding, the disciples’ fear keep them from understanding further.
In verse 33 we learn that the disciples were discussing something as they were on their way to Capernaum. So Jesus asks them what they were talking about. Of course Jesus knows what they are talking about and is going to use their discussion as a teaching moment. But you see that the disciples sheepishly refuse to tell Jesus what they were talking about because they were arguing with each other about who was the greatest. It is a selfish discussion and we are probably amazed at the fact that they would argue over who was more valuable and who was more important. We would never have arguments and fights with each other over who is more valuable in the church! We would never argue over who is greater. We would never argue over who contributes the most money or who contributes the most in their abilities or talents. We would never try to have titles or have people pay attention to us.
Unfortunately, while it is easy for us to have disdain that these disciples would argue over such selfish things as they follow Jesus, we must recognize that we can do the same thing. We want to think of ourselves as important. We want to be valuable and have people give us recognition. We think we need to have a say. people should run things by us. People should check on us. People should pay attention to us and fawn over us. People should need us because we are important. So Jesus has a message for his disciples and it is an important message for us.
And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:35–37 ESV)
Jesus starts with a key message and then illustrates the key message with the child. The key message is that to be first, you need to be the very last and servant of all people. Think about how counter cultural and counter natural this teaching is. You need to be the very last of all people and servant of all people. Each of us has to take last place to be first with Jesus and be a disciple of his.
Then Jesus does something beautiful. Jesus takes a child into his arms in the midst of this disciples. Just picture Jesus taking a child into his arms and teaching his disciples to receive such a child. Now we need to have the right cultural view of children to understand this message. Our culture, the Western culture, views children as innocent, vulnerable, gentle, and pure. But this is not the ancient Near Eastern view of children. In their world children were considered insignificant and without social status. Children cannot offer anything back. Doing something for a child means you are not going to get anything in return. Because of that, to welcome a child in that society was to break social norms. It meant to lower yourself to accept another of lower status than you, therefore risking your own position of power and prestige. Welcoming this child is an illustration of what is looks like to make yourself last of all people and servant to all people. Notice in verse 37 that Jesus says that by receiving a child, you are receiving Jesus, and by receiving Jesus you are receiving the Father.
To receive Jesus means to receive the lesser. We are to lower ourselves. We are not superior. We are not to make ourselves first. We are not to be a servant of self or even a servant of some. We are to be last of all and servant of all. The picture is that we would serve the weakest and least significant of Jesus’ followers because that is truly serving Jesus. When we read these kinds of passages I cannot help but be stunned how frequently this teaching is not practiced. I know we have all witnessed this failure where we see people who have been given spiritual authority like elders or preachers or a spiritual position of service like deacons only to see them be concerned about their status and power. They will act as if they have power and rule over others. How often spiritual leaders have made decisions not considering the weakest of Jesus’ disciples! Do we have in our minds that certain people are not as important as others in the church? Do we think that there are some who are less significant? Jesus says that if we have truly received him in our lives then we will serve the least. We will serve the weakest. We will never consider ourselves as superior. We will always lower ourselves in our hearts to serve all people. How many of God’s children have been hurt by status, power, rule, and posturing? No soul is lesser than another soul. No soul is over lesser value or importance before God. Now the next paragraph truly illustrates the problem.
The Problem Illustrated (9:38-41)
John tells Jesus that they saw someone casting out demons in the name of Jesus, but they tried to stop him because he was not following them. What an interesting picture! Our first question that we wonder about is how someone could be casting out demons in the name of Jesus but not belong among the twelve. But we must not forget that Jesus has sent 70 out to preach, heal, and cast out demons (cf. Luke 10:1-17). Consider why the disciples had a problem with this person. It was not that he was not following Jesus but that he was not part of us. He was not one of our group is the idea of this idiom. The problem is that this person is not part of the twelve. I think it is interesting that John does not say that they stopped him but that they tried to stop him. This person casting out demons continued to do so even though the disciples told him to stop. He knew what he had been called to do as a follower of Jesus and was not going to stop doing the work given to him. Jesus responds to what the disciples attempted to do.
But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:39–41 ESV)
Jesus gives a general principle that those who evoke the name of Jesus are his authentic followers. Now Jesus clearly knew of exceptions. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus said that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. This is not a message to say that it does not matter what we believe or do because everyone who says Jesus is a follower of him. This is not the idea because Jesus flatly refuses this idea in many places in the scriptures. We need to keep to the context of this message and this scene. Jesus is opposing parties and cliques. Jesus is opposing those who focus on their own personal agendas and authority rather than the greater kingdom purposes. The scene here is very similar to Numbers 11:26-30 where Joshua complains to Moses that two individual were prophesying outside the camp. Those two were truly from God and Moses understood that it was not about him but wished that all God’s people were prophets at that time.
In the same way, if people are doing the will of God, they do not need our consent or approval. I am stunned how many times I have heard of elderships telling people they could not do something for the kingdom of God because they did not get permission first. We do the work of God because that is what God has called us to do. We want all who are truly followers of Jesus and truly are doing the works and will of God to be a success in all that they do in any and every place. Friends, every work that is done for the Lord is valuable in the kingdom. This is the point of verse 41. Even a cup of cold water is important. There is nothing trivial in Gods’ kingdom. The call is to support the disciples of Jesus in every way you can because every way is important. Lasting greatness is not measured by our standards but by God’s standards. Jesus sees every little bit that we do for each other.
This is a crucial theme throughout the New Testament. Believers are called to live lives of giving instead of taking and to think about the needs of others. The apostle Paul pointed to the life of Jesus in Philippians 2:1-11 as the ultimate example of a servant leader. The essence of leadership is being a servant. This is a message that needs to be proclaimed loudly and strongly in a world that sees leadership as demanding others in an unquestioning way or telling others what to do. It is a common problem in marriages. Husbands, leading your household is as a servant, not ruling with an iron fist, demanding unquestioned loyalty, or telling your wife and children what to do. In the same way, leadership in the church is not ruling with an iron fist, demanding unquestioned loyalty, or telling the flock what to do. It is so shameful and wrong that this has been a common message about leadership. Christian leadership is not about personal accolades, accomplishments, or recognition but about equipping God’s people to the work of ministry (cf. Ephesians 4:12). The goal is to help and enable others to be all that God has called them to be. We are lifting them up by letting them stand on our shoulders. This is a picture.
Being a leader and being a disciple is to be a servant. We make ourselves servants to each other. We make ourselves servants to all people. The heart of a servant welcomes others without consideration of what we will receive in return. A true servant refuses to show favoritism or prejudice toward others, especially toward those who are weak and vulnerable. We need to hate status and notoriety because these things only increase the temptations for pride and arrogance. Greatness is in serving.
Husbands, how are you serving your wife and children in your marriage? Wives, how are you serving your husband and children in your marriage? Parents, how are you serving your children? Please think about how serving your children is raising them in the instruction of the Lord and disciplining them as God disciplines and teaches us. Children, how are you serving your parents? Preachers need to ask how they are serving the flock. Elders need to consider how they are serving the flock. Deacons need to look at how they are serving the church. How are we serving each other? How are we serving each other spiritually, strengthening each other in the faith? How are we serving each other physically with our actions and our time? Who are we willing to serve? Who are we unwilling to serve? Each of us is called to be last of all people and servant of all people. Not just some people, but we are to serve all people. Any promotion of ourselves shows that we are not truly followers of Jesus and do not understand what it means to follow Jesus. No one is too small for the kingdom and no work is too small for God’s kingdom.