True Greatness – Part 1

True Greatness – Part 1

True Greatness – Part 1
Text: Mark 9:30-37

Main Idea:  Disciples demonstrate their true greatness when they humbly serve “unimportant” people.

I.  The Disciples’ Pride (Mark 9:30-32)
II. The Pattern of Christian Greatness (Mark 9:33-37)

Mark 9:30–37

As we turn to our passage this morning, it’s important to note that we are in the second of three “cycles” in which (1) Jesus predicts his death, (2) the disciples reveal their remaining spiritual blindness and self-serving pride, and (3) Jesus responds to their condition by teaching them about the nature of true discipleship.

See, the disciples are operating under the foolish assumption that their intimate proximity to Jesus, support of Jesus, and service to Jesus in relative obscurity will secure their place in the upper echelons of Jesus’ kingdom rule. They are hoping for privilege, power, and social prominence. They are hoping for special treatment. Whereas, Jesus is trying to help them see that:

Main Idea: Disciples demonstrate their true greatness when they humbly receive and serve “unimportant” people.

The Disciples’ Pride (Mark 9:30–32)
The Pattern of Christian Greatness (Mark 9:33–37)

The Disciples’ Pride (Mark 9:30–32)

A Private Journey

The first thing I want you to see in our passage this morning is that Jesus is not deterred by his disciples persistent and prideful hard-headedness. Rather, he finds a more private route to travel so that he can patiently explain the unexpected manner in which he is going to establish his Messianic kingdom.

A Preordained Plan

The second thing I want you to see is that there is a subtle difference between Jesus’ first warning and the warning in our text today, in that, he wants his disciples to understand that his imminent death is a essential part of God sovereign plan.

Mark 8:31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Mark 9:31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.”

While it is true that the elders and the chief priests and the scribes are plotting against Jesus and will deliver Jesus into the hands of other men to be put to death; the passive voice of the Greek verb translated “delivered” (παραδίδοται) in this verse indicates that God is the one ultimately handing Jesus over into the “hands of men.”[1] In fact, we see this Greek word used the very same way in both Testaments.

Romans 8:31–32 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Isaiah 53:5–6 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid (the Lord has delivered) on him the iniquity of us all.

The disciples need to know that the crucifixion is coming. Will it look like an unexpected tragedy? Yes. Will it look like the religious leaders have successfully defended their positions of power? Yes. Will it look like Israel’s Messianic hopes were nothing but a pipe-dream? Yes. But, even more Jesus wants his disciples to know that the cross is essential to God’s sovereign plan and that no one can derail his eternal purposes.

Isaiah 46:9–10 Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’

And if this revelation is not stunning enough. Jesus concludes again with the astonishing disclosure that God will raise him from the dead after three days.

Jesus isn’t concealing, he is revealing. He wants to prepare them for what’s coming. He wants them to confess their confusion and ask questions. But, once again, the disciples reveal the true depths of their pride. They are too afraid to pursue Jesus for further explanations because they are more concerned with their internal ranking system than understanding the truth. (Mark 9:33–34)

The Patter of Christian Greatness (Mark 9:33–37)

A Serious Disconnect

Imagine if I came home after church today and Colleen said, “Hey can we go sit down in the den I have something I want to tell you.” And I’m like sure, “Sure honey.” So we sit down, and she tells me that she just received test results back from her recent checkup, and that she not only has stage four cancer but she only has 6 months to live. I pause to take it in, turn up to look into her eyes and say, “Wow, that’s heavy… but did you hear my sermon today? I think it was one of the greatest sermons I’ve ever given!” What would my response say about me?

See, the contrast between Jesus’ recent revelation and the disciples discussion is just as jarring as my fictional response to Colleen. Jesus wants them to understand his humble devotion to God’s sovereign plan whereas all they want to do is argue with one another over their internal pecking order. They are not only prideful, they are completely oblivious to their own failures and inadequacies… they are still struggling with their partial spiritual blindness. They finally understand who Jesus is, but they do not understand—or do not want to understand—why he really came. They are simply hoping that he is their ticket to greater things instead of recognizing that he is the pattern of true greatness. (Mark 9:35–37)

An Important Clarification

Take a close look at verse 35, Jesus doesn’t criticize their pursuit of greatness.[2] And I think that’s because God created us to be great and to be significant—to come to the end of our lives and feel that they were well-spent and well-invested. But the problem, as John Piper observes here, is that this God-given desire has been corrupted in at least two ways:[3]

  1. It has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, BUT to be known as great.
  2. It has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, BUT to be greater than someone else.

In other words, Jesus wants them to know that (1) true greatness is not wanting to be first while others are second and third and fourth, but true greatness is the willingness to be last. (2) And true greatness is not positioning yourself so that others praise you, but true greatness is putting yourself in a position where you can serve everyone and be a blessing to as many people as you possibly can.

A Simple Illustration

And to drive his point home, Jesus reaches down to pick up a little child but why? First-century society did not believe that children were necessarily innocent, gentle, or pure; they believed that little children were insignificant and unworthy of substantial attention because they were not able to contribute to society in any significant way.

See, there is no political payback in serving children: they can’t vote. They don’t give speeches about your helpfulness. In fact they pretty much take for granted that you will take care of them. They don’t make a big deal out of the fact that you pour your life out for them. It is not the child who demonstrates what it means to be “the servant of all, it’s Jesus’ act of happily receiving the child. In other words, children prove, more clearly than any other kind of person, whether you are truly great or not—whether you live your life to serve OR you live your life to be praised.

Great people demonstrate their greatness by receiving seemingly “insignificant” people into their circle of friends and humbly serving their needs.

But, this presents us with another question: “Is Jesus talking about actual children, lowly members of society, or fellow believers?”

Mark 9:37 Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.

Well, while I believe that Jesus expects us to serve actual children and the lowest members of society, I think this command is directed toward fellow believers:

First, Jesus rebukes John for attacking the man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name (9:38–41). He is believing in Jesus and that belief is manifest in more than one exorcism. The problem is that he is not officially part of the inner circle.

Second, Jesus warns the disciples against causing “one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” (9:42). Notice, the little ones are people who believe in Jesus.

Therefore, I think Jesus is affirming the disciples unique relationship to him and their place in his kingdom in that he depicts these other believers as little children. But, these little children are not to be used, abused, or ignored; they are to be welcomed and treasured and served.

Let’s take a quiz together with some of my own experiences in Minneapolis. Did I serve and honor God more when I:

  • When I traveled half-way around the world to train pastors in Northern Burma OR when I led the 5th grade Sunday School Class at my church?
  • Spent my Sunday afternoon repairing a sewage pump for an elderly couple in my church OR when I gave John Piper a ride home from the airport?
  • Dropped everything to help my New Testament professor replace his ruptured water heater OR when I sacrificed study-time time to help a classmate replace the heater core on his rusty 1991 Corsica?

Well, according to Jesus, I honored him more when I served the people who had the least amount of relational capitol.

So how do we cultivate this kind of mind set? Well, according to Paul it begins by considering the needs and interests of others above our own.

Philippians 2:3–4 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Notice that Paul presents us with the obstructions to humble service and unity before he ever describes the path. And guess what? The greatest obstruction to humble service and unity is NOT your brother or sister in Christ, BUT your attitude about yourself!

Selfish ambition is an attitude that is driven by the lust for status, success, and personal recognition. You cannot serve others and build unity if you always have to be number one.

Conceit: is nothing but an exaggerated evaluation of your self-importance. It’s living as if you are the center of the universe and the sole arbiter of truth. But, there is another—more comfortable and common—barrier to our humble service.

Looking to our own interests, or self-absorption (1:4).

Self-absorption is different from selfish ambition in that, self-absorption is not necessarily driven by the lust for status, success, or personal recognition. Self-absorption evaluates every aspect of church life through the lens of self, always asking:

  • How does this decision affect me?
  • How does this ministry serve me?
  • How does my church, pastor, worship leader, elders, small-group leader uphold my priorities and serve my felt needs?

Self-absorbed people rarely—if ever—ask:

  • How can I best serve my church? Should I adjust my busy schedule so I can be more available?
  • How can I be an active agent of unity and a conduit of grace in my church?
  • Who is struggling in my church and how can I help?

But, here is the greatest news. Jesus doesn’t simply command us to put others first because it is the right thing to do. He could have ended with this command but he didn’t. He concluded with the astounding revelation that you and I serve God himself when we humbly serve his “least significant” followers.[4]

Mark 9:37 Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.

A Stunning Revelation

Would you drop everything and jump at the chance to serve your greatest hero of the faith or work closely with your favorite pastor, even if it required a significant sacrifice of time or investment of money? And if you had such an opportunity wouldn’t you go out of your way to tell everyone about your opportunity? I’m pretty sure I would.

But, here is the deal. You and I are receiving the King of the universe every-single-time we truly welcome another brother or sister in Christ into our circle of friends—not just politely acknowledging their presence on Sunday morning and never attempting to make them part of our life. You and I are serving the King of the universe every-single-time we assist another brother or sister in Christ. The greater their need, the greater your service to God!

See Jesus’ call to humble service is not a demand for heroic self-sacrifice. It is a plea to stop propping up your self-worth at the expense of others, to stop pursuing self-importance on the coat-tails of others, to stop chasing the soap-bubbles of man’s praise, and start pursuing true greatness by humbly serving those with the greatest needs. Only then will we find true greatness.

Philippians 2:5–11 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus left heaven and came to earth when we were his enemies. Jesus humbled himself by taking on flesh and taking the form of a servant. Jesus humbled himself to the point of death—even death on a cross—so that through his death you and I might be forgiven and restored through faith in Jesus. Once we children destined for wrath but now we are sons and daughters of God because Jesus set aside his glory and his rightful privilege as God for our eternal acceptance and adoption into God’s family.

If Jesus has declared through the cross that no one is beneath him, then how can we see anyone as beneath us? The ground is always level at the cross, which means there is never any room in the church for clothing assessments, or personal comparisons, or class evaluations, or racial stratification. Never!

Jesus purchased your eternal acceptance. The Father’s arms are open to youand the family of God is open to youbecause the Son stretched out his arms for you on the cross—the highest expression of the love of God.[5]

If you have truly experienced this love through faith than live it and pursue true greatness.

And if you have not, I pray that this would be the day that you finally see and receive God’s love for you in the cross of Christ.

You do not have to do great things to earn his love.

Nor can the greatness of you sin and shame overwhelm the infinite effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

The good news is simply this: Jesus lived, died, and rose again for your sins and that God will forgive you if you turn and trust in Jesus.

[1] “Support for this is reference to “human hands” (χεῖρας ἀνθρώπων), which may suggest a divine-to-human transfer. Paul uses the verb in this sense to speak of God’s “delivering” his own Son (Rom 4:25; 8:32; 1 Cor 11:23; cf. Gal 2:20, where Jesus “gave [delivered] himself” for us). In Acts Peter similarly reports (though using a different word) that Jesus was “handed over” [ἔκδοτον; an adjective] to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge (Acts 2:23; cf. 3:18). The same verb (παραδίδωμι) is also used in the Suffering Servant passages in the LXX (Isa 53:6, 12 LXX) of God’s actions in delivering over his servant to suffering and death;” (Mark L. Strauss, Mark, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014], 407).

[2] James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 287.

[3] John Piper, “Receiving Children in Jesus’ Name,” in Sermons From John Piper (1990–1999) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).

[4] Strauss, Mark, 409–10.

[5] Jason Meyer,