The Pursuit of Greatness in the Pursuit of Christ (part 1)

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30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 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.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 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.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 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. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 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.

We come now to the end of chapter nine in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples have been ministering in the villages around Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27). Now, leaving from there, they are passing through Galilee, heading south on their way toward Jerusalem. They arrive in Capernaum on the north shores of the Sea of Galilee. There, Jesus questions the disciples about a conversation they had had among themselves (vv. 33-37). Mark then reports to us the words of one of the disciples regarding an unknown exorcist they had encountered and Jesus’ response to the situation (vv. 38-41). The chapter ends with more teaching from Jesus, including the most graphic words we have heard from him so far (vv. 42-50).

It will take more than a surface glance at this passage to see any connection between these three paragraphs. And yet, because Mark and the other Gospel writers are not merely relating history to us but rather are writing with specific aims in mind, we need to see the connection. These verses are grouped together by the setting indicators in Mark 9:30 (“they went on from there”) and in Mark 10:1 (“he left there”), so we have good reason to suspect that there is a central point to be made in these paragraphs.


In attempting to find this central point, we can take our clue from Jesus’ teaching as he traveled with his disciples toward Capernaum. Again we find the desire for secrecy we have encountered so frequently in Mark’s Gospel (v. 30). The reason Jesus wanted secrecy here was because he had something to teach to his disciples that he did not want anyone else to know about. But this was no new teaching.

“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.” (Mark 9:31)

This is the second time Jesus has predicted his coming death and resurrection (cf. Mark 8:31). And once again the disciples have a hard time handling this news. Mark tells us that “they did not understand the saying” and that “they were afraid to ask him.” Their ignorance is not because Jesus’ words are cryptic. His words are very straightforward, as they were in his first prediction where Mark tells us that he spoke “plainly” about his coming passion. The fact that “they were afraid to ask him” about this saying indicates that they had an idea about what he was talking about. They were afraid that if they asked him, they would be forced to dwell on what this coming death would mean for them. They would rather not talk about it.

What does it mean, then, that “they did not understand the saying”? This is the only time Mark uses this particular word. It means that they lacked the capacity for comprehending the full force of Jesus’ teaching. And this kind of ignorance is a threat to faith and therefore a threat to one’s soul. For example, in Romans 10:3 Paul says that because Israel was “ignorant of the righteousness of God,” they did not submit to it, choosing instead to attempt to establish their own righteousness. In 2 Peter 2:12 we read about the false teachers who blaspheme God with this type of ignorance, not understanding who it is they are dealing with. They will “be destroyed in their destruction,” Peter says.

So Mark 9:32 is a much more important verse than we might think at first glance, and it sets the stage for what Mark—and Jesus—wants to teach us in the next three paragraphs. The disciples have failed to understand the meaning of the cross and how that meaning will impact their own Christian discipleship. They have failed to understand by refusing to accept the clear implications of the cross. The question we need to ask ourselves is if we have done the same thing. Are we willing to go where the meaning of the cross must take us?

Just where will it take us? The following three paragraphs will show us where. Jesus has already told his disciples that if anyone wants to come after him, he must begin by denying himself (Mark 8:34). This commitment to discipleship will greatly impact how we relate to other people. As we will see, we are called to deny ourselves so that we can pursue true greatness—the greatness of God’s glory rather than our own. And we do this by being the servant of all, by valuing the diversity of God’s kingdom, and by furthering faith in one another and in ourselves.

SERVANT OF ALL (vv. 33-37)

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (v. 33). The disciples did not want to tell him, “for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” (v. 34). But Jesus knew what they were talking about. They cannot hide it from him.

Arguing about who was the greatest sounds more like the bickering of little boys rather than the serious discussion of grown men. And the disciples know Jesus will not approve, so they keep silent like the guilty children they were. But they lived in a culture that valued honor, rank, and status; and as the disciples travel with Jesus on their way toward Jerusalem, they cannot help but to imagine how their proximity to Jesus will lead to their own exaltation.

Jesus does not ignore their argument but takes the opportunity to instruct the disciples further. Jesus has something important to say to the disciples, and he wants them to “get” it. So he sat down and summoned them to him.

Redefining Greatness

The first thing we might notice in Jesus’ teaching is that he does not rebuke the disciples for their desire to be “great.” He does not disapprove of their quest. We were all created by God on purpose and with significance. The desire you have (or should have) to make an impact is not a result of your depravity. Our lives count. God wants them to. It is not wrong to desire this. What Jesus does do is redefine greatness.

“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

This is not the way we or our fellow man define greatness. But while being the last of all and servant of all may not make you great in the eyes of your neighbor, Jesus says it is the way to be great in the eyes of God. It is exactly the way that Jesus himself pursued greatness, for his cross is the greatest example of humbling service—the holy Son of God taking upon himself the sins of a hostile humanity.

Ministry to the Lowly

But how are we to follow Jesus in this example? In what way can we aim to be last of all and servant of all? Jesus shows us how.

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 9:36-37)

‎To understand the impact of what Jesus did, we have to understand how children were viewed in first century Judaism. We today are much more sentimental about children than were the Jews in the first century. Children, while important, were very low on the social scale. They were not allowed to freely express their opinions and were typically excluded from the social circle of elite company.

So by bringing a child into their midst, Jesus is demonstrating how to be “great.” It is by associating one’s self not with the great and mighty but with the humble and lowly, with those who can and will do nothing for your image. Jesus says this is real greatness because when we receive, or gladly welcome, a child like this into our company, we are actually welcoming Jesus, and no less than God himself. In our ministry to the lowly we are in the company of the holy. There is no greater “greatness” than finding ourselves in the company of the one who is the greatest.

“In my name”

One word of clarification before we move on. Jesus’ point here is not that if we will hang out with the most underappreciated members of society that we will automatically find God there. His concern is not so much with the company we keep as it is with the reason we do so.

Here’s what I mean. Jesus shows us what it means to “receive” a child when he embraced the child. He is not using the child in any way to make a name for himself. He is showing genuine compassion and love, something that cannot be faked.

This is why Jesus says that the key to being “first” is being the “servant of all.” The word translated servant here refers to personal devotion in contrast to one who serves like a slave. In other words, the slave serves because he is for hire. But the servant serves because he values the one to whom he ministers. ‎The one who is the “servant of all” is the one who possesses the willingness to do good for others because he values others.

This is also why Jesus says that it is the one who receives a child in my name that thereby receives Jesus, too. The phrase “in my name” will occur 3 more times in the next section. Here it defines the one who receives the child, indicating the basis or cause for why he does so. He does so because of the name of Christ. He is moved to show genuine compassion and love for this child—or for anyone else for that matter—as a representative of Jesus himself. He loves his neighbor because he loves Jesus even more.

We can summarize Jesus’ teaching here by saying again that we are encouraged to pursue greatness. But the way to pursue it is not by working the angles and dropping names to increase your own fame. You see, there is nothing greater than being in the company of God, but as long as we pursue our own fame we will not be satisfied with his. So Jesus calls us to serve others, even the lowliest of others because this will get our minds off of ourselves. Jesus invites us to deny ourselves not because he is against us but because he knows that we are our own worst enemies in the pursuit of greatness.


This theme continues in the next section. John tells Jesus about someone he and the other disciples saw who was “casting out demons in your name.” They tried to stop him, “because he was not following us” (v. 38). At first glance this sounds very noble of the disciples, and I’m sure that’s what they hoped Jesus would think, too. Surely he would be impressed that they were defending his fame from this unknown exorcist who did not leave everything to follow Jesus as they had.

But was this really about Jesus’ fame? Apparently not. Remember, the disciples have just been embarrassed by their failure to exorcise demons (vv. 14-29), and now they encounter one who is apparently successful in that very task. What bothered John and the other disciples was that this man was not one of them. “What John is looking for is not so much personal allegiance and obedience to Jesus, but membership in the ‘authorised’ circle of his followers.”[1]

This explains the difference between what Jesus replied to the disciples in this context and what he said elsewhere. Note:

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. (Mark 9:39-40)

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30; Luke 11:23)

The issue here was not whether this unknown exorcist was “with Jesus” or not. Clearly Jesus assumes that he is because he was performing the miracle of exorcism in the name of Jesus. Again this means that the exorcist was doing his work as the representative of Jesus. He was expressing faith in the power and fame of Jesus, and Jesus was confident that such faith would not quickly fade away and turn this exorcist away from him.

John was concerned, not about protecting Jesus’ reputation, but rather about protecting his own. So Jesus takes the opportunity to help him—and us—pursue greatness by directing his eyes off of his own kingdom so that he will value the diversity of God’s kingdom.

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 9:41)

Offering someone a drink of water was a basic courtesy in that society, so Jesus is referring to a rather menial task. But the phrase “because you belong to Christ” is literally “in the name that you are Christ’s,” our final occurrence of the phrase “in the name of” in our passage. Jesus is telling his disciples that even the most basic acts of love done on the basis of a love for Christ will not be overlooked by God.

Verse 41 is the proof that the unknown exorcist was not “against” Jesus. By casting out demons he was assisting the disciples in the work that they had been commissioned to do (Mark 6:13). This in spite of the fact that he was outside their circle. And yet Jesus concludes that he will be rewarded just as the disciples will be. So Jesus tells the disciples to be tolerant toward this unknown exorcist. What matters is allegiance to him, not allegiance to them.

We cannot escape the implication here that God’s kingdom is much bigger and diverse than our own, and that God is far more gracious than we usually are. And that’s a good thing, because when we see one day how great and diverse his kingdom is (Rev 7:9) we will forget about our own kingdom and will glorify him forever for his. This does not mean that we should be unconcerned about theological differences with other professing Christians. But in our defense of the faith, we need to constantly ask ourselves if our skepticism toward others is owing to a jealousy for our own ego (being “right”) or to a jealousy for God’s glory. You see, God’s kingdom will be filled with subjects who are loyal to him, and this means there very well will be those who differ from us. Therefore, we must be very careful in making judgments about those who are different from us (Rom 14:4). We need to be firm in our beliefs, knowing why we believe them (Rom 14:5), yet we also need to be gracious toward those who follow Jesus but do not follow us.

CONCLUSION: Why You Don’t Want to Be the Greatest

Next week, Lord willing, we will conclude this message with Jesus’ final words from Mark 9. But it would be good for us to step back for a moment at this point and take a look at the larger picture.

Ever since Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah in Mark 8, Jesus has been clarifying exactly what following him entails. He is not trying to scare us off. He wants disciples. He wants us to deny ourselves, and take up our crosses, and pursue him with great passion and zeal. But he also wants us to take this invitation seriously. These are massively important matters that we are dealing with here.

The problem we have is not a lack of understanding of the way of Jesus. The problem we have is a lack of acceptance of the way of Jesus. It is crystal clear that following Jesus requires us to deny ourselves, but we are programmed to indulge ourselves. So there is nothing natural within us that would make us want to accept this way of the cross.

Still, the way of the cross and Christian discipleship is not about forgoing pleasure, joy, and satisfaction. It is about believing that the greatest pleasures, joys, and satisfactions in this life are only a small sampling of what is available to us in Christ. The call to deny ourselves, then, is simply the call for us to look away from ourselves and the teaspoons of joy from which we sip and to set our hopes on the cisterns of joy offered to us in the gospel. You don’t really want to become the greatest. You want to be in the presence of the one who is and who always will be. And the invitation to deny yourself and follow the way of the cross is the invitation into the presence of our “great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

[1] R. T. France, Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2002), 377.

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