Oct 1, 2006

Who Is the Greatest?

Mark 9:30–41

After Jesus’ disciples argued about who would be greatest in the kingdom of God, the Lord brought a little child before them. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Mark to observe the surprising way in which true greatness is to be exhibited.


We’re turning our attention again to the 9th chapter of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, and I’ll be reading from verse 30 through verse 41. I’ll ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.

Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them. “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.”

Now John answered Him, saying, “Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”

But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

These are difficult sayings from the lips of Jesus. They are sayings for which we need the help of the Holy Spirit to grant us understanding, that they may pierce our hearts. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Again, our Father and our God, we are so grateful to have this record of the life and ministry of Jesus. Give us ears to hear Him as He instructs His disciples on these weighty matters. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

Heading toward Jerusalem

Jesus and His disciples are still moving, making the journey from the Mount of Transfiguration. They are headed south to Jerusalem. On several occasions, Jesus has warned His disciples about what awaits Him there in the Holy City. Mark begins this section by telling us that they departed from where they were and passed through Galilee. Remember, at the Mount of Transfiguration, they were above Galilee. Now they have to come back through Galilee and make their way further south to Jerusalem.

This is the last time that Mark tells us of Jesus spending any time in Galilee, where most of His ministry had been located until after the resurrection. Then we are told that He did not want anyone to know where He was, and He taught His disciples, saying to them: “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” They didn’t understand this saying, and they were afraid to ask Him about it.

No Divine Betrayal

In the passage that I read to you, there are three things that I want us to note as we examine this incident in the life of Jesus and His disciples. The first is when He again announces that He will be delivered into the hands of men to be killed. When He makes this statement, I believe the translation that I just read to you is a little bit faulty where it reads as follows: “He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of man.’” Notice it’s in the present tense, and He said that the action of being betrayed into the hands of men had already started. Jesus is not making a future prediction of what will happen when He gets to Jerusalem but is talking about something that is already in operation.

I don’t like the use of the term “betrayed” in this translation. It makes some sense because when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, one from His own group will betray Him to the authorities that want to put Him to death. However, what Jesus has in view is not the action of Judas or of the disciples or of any other people in this world. The primary point Jesus is making is that He, at this very moment, is now being handed over or delivered. That’s why the translators used the term “betrayed.” What I object to is that the one who is handing over Jesus to men is the Father.

When the Father delivers the Son into the hands of men, it is not an act of divine betrayal. Of course, on the cross, the Father forsakes the Son, but from all eternity it was the agreement among the members of the Trinity that the Father would send the Son into the world to bring about His plan of salvation for His people, and the Son and the Spirit agreed to that mission from eternity. Now the point of the mission is taking place where Jesus has to be delivered into the hands of evil men to fulfill His office as Messiah. Jesus acquiesces to that deliverance, and it is the Father who gives Him over to sinful flesh because Jesus comes to do the will of the Father. For Jesus to do the will of the Father, He must suffer at the hands of sinful people. So, the point comes where the Father hands Him over to fulfill His destiny. The disciples don’t understand these things.

Bickering about Superlatives

Then we read that He came to Capernaum. This is the last reference to Jesus visiting Capernaum in the gospel of Mark. Mark recounts, “When He was in the house, He said to them, ‘What was it that you disputed among yourselves on the road?’” Jesus noticed as they were traveling to Capernaum that the disciples were bickering one with another, and it was obvious to our Lord that they were unhappy with each other. They were in a heated discussion, debating with each other. Jesus said to them: “Tell Me, what were you arguing about?”

What was their answer? There was no answer. There was absolute silence among the disciples because when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they were overcome with shame and embarrassment, as well they should have been. Our Lord had just told them that He is on His way to Jerusalem to suffer and die, and they’re having a debate as to who would be the greatest among them in the coming kingdom. Who will be number one? Who will be at His right hand? Who will be at His left hand? Who will have the greatest position?

Notice the question concerns the superlative. This is an issue that we deal with in our discussions all the time. We argue about who the greatest singer of all time is. We argue about who the greatest baseball player of all time is. It’s not good enough that people are great, that they distinguish themselves in a superlative way. We want to know who is really the greatest among those who are great. Of course, Muhammad Ali settled that question for us once and for all when he announced to the world that he was the greatest. Well, the people who were asking about who would be the greatest should have asked that question to the One who was and is the greatest, to the only One who deserves that superlative degree of greatness, Jesus Himself.

Aspirations Turned Upside Down

Notice how Jesus responded to His disciples. He sat down and summoned them. After the inquiry, “What were you arguing about?” He sat down and called them over. What does that indicate? He was assuming the position and the posture of formal teaching. In those days, rabbis didn’t stand to teach. They sat down, and the pupils would gather and sit at their rabbi’s feet. When Jesus sat down and called His disciples to Himself, it was the signal that He was about to teach them something important.

After Jesus sat down and his disciples assembled, He said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” In this statement, Jesus turned the values and the aspirations of all human beings upside down.

Every person among us is born with an aspiration for significance. We want our lives to count. We do not want to fail in whatever goals we pursue in our lives. The last thing we want to do is to come in last. We’re not satisfied with mediocrity. We dream of glory, of winning, of reaching the pinnacle of success, of getting to the top, of reaching and attaining greatness. Even beyond greatness, we dream of the glory of being the greatest.

Friedrich Nietzsche called this the “will to power” that beats in the heart of every human being. We want to scale the corporate ladder and reach the top, to be king of the hill. Jesus said: “You want that? If you want to be great, let me give you the recipe for greatness. If you have this aspiration for significance, if you want your life to count, if you really want to be first in the kingdom, you must choose to be last.” This is the paradox of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus used the method of paradox again and again. If you want to live, you have to die. If you want to save your life, you have to lose your life. If you want to be great, you have to suffer, because he who is first shall be last, and he who is last shall be first. He said the way to greatness is the way of service. Do you want to be great? Be the greatest servant you can possibly be. The problem is that we don’t associate greatness with servants.

I remember the story of when Winston Churchill had a verbal tiff with one of his servants. Churchill had been abusive with his language as he chastised his servant. The servant had all of it that he could handle, so he talked back to Churchill in the same tone of voice that Churchill had spoken to him. Churchill said to his servant, “Who do you think you are talking to me like that?” The servant cowered, but he said, “Sir Winston, that’s the way you talk to me.” Churchill responded, “Ah, but I am a great man.” It was probably the lowest point of Churchill’s life when he appealed to his own greatness to excuse demeaning one of his servants. What Churchill didn’t understand at that moment was that greatness is found in service.

There is a distinction that we make in theology between a theologia gloriae and a theologia crucis. It’s the difference between what we call the “theology of glory” and the “theology of the cross.” We want glory without the cross. We want greatness without humiliation. But Jesus said, “You can’t get it that way.” What Jesus taught in this moment was not an abstract principle of life. It was the principle that He was living out in front of His disciples every single day.

Jesus’ Object Lesson

To punctuate His point, He used the old prophetic method of an object lesson. He summoned a little boy, took this child, and set him in the midst of His disciples. Jesus picked him up in His arms and said to them: “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me. And whoever receives Me, receives not Me but the One who sent Me.”

In our culture, babies are considered adorable, aren’t they? Somebody once asked me, “If I want to tell somebody who’s not a Christian about God, can you give me one word that I can use to express the nature of God?” One word. I responded, “Why don’t you speak of God’s being adorable?” She kind of looked at me funny, like she was thinking, “I don’t think I can use that one.” Here’s why I suggested it: when we use the word adorable, we’re often talking about some cute young lady or little children, but that which is eminently adorable is God.

When we see a little baby, we say, “Oh, isn’t he adorable?” In the ancient world, however, the mortality rate was so high that the vast majority of babies who were born perished before they were five years old. A little child was not considered very significant until that child reached an age where it was assumed that he or she would be able to survive to maturity.

Jesus took a little child, who was not considered of great dignity like children are in our culture, and said: “So, you want to be great? Whoever receives this child in My name, receives Me.” He did not appoint one of the twelve to a position of greatness to be His ambassador, to be His emissary, or to be His spokesman to the world. He picked up this little boy, saying: “Here is my emissary. Here is the one who will go out in my name. Here is the one who will represent Me, and whoever receives this child, receives Me. And whoever receives Me, receives the Father who sent me.”

Jesus used this principle again and again. It explodes the critics of our day who say: “Jesus we love; it’s the Apostles we don’t like. I can’t stand Paul. I can’t stand Peter. I can’t stand James. But I like Jesus.” Jesus would have none of that: “If you don’t receive those whom I send in My name, you don’t receive Me. And if you don’t receive Me, you don’t receive the Father.” Jesus would have none of this business about people who say, “We believe in the Father, but we don’t believe in Jesus.” If you don’t believe in Jesus, you don’t believe in God. That’s what He’s saying. This is radical stuff. “He who receives this child, receives Me. And he who receives Me, receives the One who sent Me.”

Differences vs. Essentials

The third aspect comes in when John interrupts the discussion and says, “Lord, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, but he was not part of us.” Do you hear that? “He wasn’t part of us, so we stopped him. We forbade him from continuing his ministry in Your name, because he didn’t belong to our group.”

Does that sound familiar? Notice that whoever was doing this exorcism, though not a member of the Twelve or a follower of the disciples, was a follower of Jesus. He followed Jesus, but he didn’t follow Jesus’ disciples. He wasn’t part of their group. So, Jesus said: “Don’t forbid him, for no one works a miracle in My name and then afterwards speaks evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

I remember when I was in graduate school, the more I studied theology, the more I was exposed to the great thinkers of traditions different from my own: great Lutheran theologians, great Anglican theologians, and so on. Reading their works, I began to see where they concentrated on certain things that were basically ignored in my own tradition. I discovered that there was much to learn from the Lutherans. There were things that I could learn from the Episcopalians. Not that I would say there is no difference among us—there are differences—nor would I say that the differences are unimportant. There is, however, a distinction we have to make between matters that are important and issues that are of the essence of the Christian faith.

Every time we have a new member class here at Saint Andrew’s, we have folks who inquire about our membership who come from Baptist traditions. The big question they have is: “Why do you baptize babies here? Our tradition does not believe in infant baptism.” What do you do with that? Well, let me say this: we can’t both be right. Either God is pleased with baptizing infants, or He isn’t pleased. Somebody has it right, and somebody has it wrong.

Issues like baptism are important. Both sides want to please God, but they differ on what will please God, and the difference is important. But I don’t believe for a moment that, as important as it is, it’s of the essence of Christianity. That is, we can come down on different sides of that issue and both still be redeemed, both still be in the kingdom of God, both be justified and adopted in the family of God.

There are people I know who won’t tolerate any difference from their theology from other groups. If a person differs at any point, whether it’s over baptism, art, justification, predestination—if somebody differs from us, they’re not saved. They’re not in the kingdom. That’s not just foolishness, that’s sinfulness. To assume that all differences divide us in an ultimate fashion is nonsense. There are people who are so narrow, who have just enough knowledge to be dangerous, that they assume that anybody that differs with them has to be on their way to hell.

Then you have another group, which says: “No difference is essential. It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” We have to say, “A pox on both your houses.” The New Testament calls us to discern the difference between essential issues and nonessential issues. Jesus had to teach His disciples that the only “sin” this exorcist had committed was that he wasn’t following the disciples.

There are lots of people who don’t do worship the way we do, who don’t share the same confession of faith that we have, yet who are ministering in the name of Jesus. We have to appreciate and embrace authentic ministry wherever we find it. We also have to distance ourselves from heresy whenever we find it. What is required is discernment, the discernment that the disciples lacked at that point. If they lacked it after three years in the seminary of Jesus, how likely is it for us to gain such discernment quickly?

We have to appreciate everything that is done in the name of Jesus. Even those who give a cup of cold water to somebody who’s thirsty, when they give it in the name of Jesus, that person is recognized by Christ. That doesn’t mean that you get into the kingdom by giving a glass of water to someone, but the point is that Christ knows and appreciates any time He is honored by anyone who honors His own people. It was imperative for Jesus to get these points across if the disciples were ever going to understand what was waiting for them in Jerusalem. Let’s pray.

O Lord, we are not great, but You are, because You are the greatest Servant of all. You came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to lay down Your life for Your sheep. Give us that pursuit of sacrifice that through our sacrifice Your people will be honored. For we ask it in Your name. Amen.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.