The Road to True Greatness – Mark 9:30-50
Good morning! If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. If you can grab a Bible, we’re going to be in Mark 9:30-50, this morning. I’m just going to read our passage for us, and then we will dive in. Mark 9, beginning in verse 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.’
“42 ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”
In early 2004, CBC Television put out a call for Canadians to nominate their choice for the man or woman they felt was the greatest Canadian in history. Months later, the top ten finalists were revealed, and after another round of voting, they announced the rankings of the top ten. Here is that list:
10. Wayne Gretzky, the most famous hockey player of all time.
9. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
8. Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister.
7. Don Cherry, former CBC hockey commentator.
6. Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada and founder of modern peacekeeping.
5. David Suzuki, environmentalist and CBC nature show host.
4. Dr. Frederick Banting, the inventor of insulin, for all you diabetics.
3. Pierre Trudeau, Liberal Prime Minister of Canada in the 70’s and 80’s.
2. Terry Fox, cancer activist who died during a cross-country marathon.
1. Tommy Douglas, NDP leader and founder of the Canadian healthcare system.
Regardless of whether we agree with this list or not, what it does is it begs the question: How do we define greatness? Is greatness defined by the ability to create? Is greatness defined by the ability to lead? Is greatness defined by the ability to rally people together toward a cause? Is greatness defined by the amount of accomplishments? How do we define greatness?
We live in a world where everything is about “me.” We are more interested in being served than serving. We are more interested in being the greatest than being the least. We are more interested in receiving than giving. We are more interested in exalting ourselves than being humbled.
The world says that the road to true greatness is found within me, and that I just need to unlock my inner potential. But in the passage that we just read, Jesus lays before us the road to true greatness—greatness as defined by God.
What we’re going to see, for our time together, this morning, is that true greatness is not found in my abilities or in my accomplishments or in my inner potential, but in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus is going to show us that the road to true greatness is marked by obedience to God, service to others, allegiance to Christ, and death to sin. And that will act as our roadmap, for our time together, this morning.
1. And we begin by looking at the road to true greatness being marked by obedience to God.
In verse 31, Jesus says to His disciples, “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.”
This is now the second time that Jesus has predicted His coming death and resurrection. Jesus has already warned His disciples of this, back in Mark 8. But in this second prediction of His death, Jesus adds an interesting phrase, saying that “the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.”
Now, that word, delivered, is the same word used to refer to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus—that Jesus was going to be delivered by Judas into the hands of the Jewish leaders. But Jesus is more than just being delivered into the hands of men by a man; Jesus is being delivered into the hands of men by God.
In Acts 2, after Jesus has returned to heaven and as the Holy Spirit is being poured out upon the Church, Peter stands up and addresses the people, in verse 22, saying, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
In other words, it was the eternal plan of God the Father to crush the Son. The means by which God would accomplish His plan was through the hands of men, but it was God the Father who was ultimately delivering His Son into their hands. The only reason the murderous intent of Jesus’ opponents succeeded was because God the Father delivered Him over to them.
But the disciples still don’t understand. They don’t understand that Jesus “must suffer.” They don’t understand how the Son of Man in Daniel 7 could also be the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. They understood enough of what Jesus was saying to know that they didn’t want to know any more, so they “were afraid to ask him,” but they don’t understand the necessity of His death and resurrection, until after it takes place.
But what Jesus is showing them and us is that the road to true greatness is marked by obedience to God.
Jesus didn’t come to make a name for Himself. He didn’t come to be the greatest teacher or the greatest miracle worker. He didn’t come to achieve greatness by the world’s standards, which would have Him “do whatever it takes to get ahead.” No, Jesus came to be obedient to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.
Philippians 2:8 says, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And Romans 5:19 says that “by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Through the disobedience of Adam in the garden of Eden, all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, but through the obedience of Jesus by going to the cross, all who trust in Jesus are in right standing before God.
Don’t miss this: We are saved, because Jesus was obedient to God the Father. He gave His life, so that we might receive life. This is true greatness. If we want to know where true greatness is found, it’s not found in how prominent we are, or how much money or influence we have, but in the obedience of Jesus to God.
True greatness will not necessarily look glamourous, or result in being named to the top ten list of the greatest Canadians in history, but if we want to know what true greatness looks like, it looks like, first of all, obedience to God.
2. Secondly, the road to true greatness is marked by service to others.
In verse 33, Jesus asks His disciples, “What were you discussing on the way?” And it says that “they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”
And you can see the irony in this passage as Jesus’ apparent humility is contrasted with the disciples’ desire for distinction and recognition. The disciples clearly don’t understand what it means to follow Jesus.
But at the root of the disciples’ argument is pride. They had forgotten where they came from. If you remember, they were fishermen. One man was a tax collector. They were not prominent. They were not accomplished. They were nobodies. And yet, here they are arguing about who is the greatest. Are you kidding me?
But then, isn’t this all of us? Don’t we all naturally think of ourselves more highly than we ought? That’s pride.
The sin of pride goes all the way back to the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent to believe that God was somehow holding out on them and that they deserved more than what they got.
It’s a subtle sin, but it’s one that affects all of humanity. I mean, think about it. Does it matter to you that you get recognition for a job well done? Do you become jealous or critical of people who succeed? Do you have a hard time acknowledging when you are wrong? That’s pride.
1 Peter 5:5 says, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
When we are proud, we have an inevitable desire for position. We want to be the greatest. But it says that God opposes the proud. God can’t get involved in our lives, because when we are proud, who is at the center of our life? We are. And until we come down off the throne of our lives, and Jesus steps onto the throne, we will never understand true greatness, because we think we are great.
And thankfully, Jesus exposes the disciples’ pride and our pride by redefining greatness for us. Jesus is so tender and gracious in this moment. He sits down with His disciples, and He says to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
True greatness in God’s economy isn’t found by being first, but by being last and servant of all. True greatness is not found by being the greatest, but by being the least. And Jesus illustrates this for us, in John 13.
If you know the story, Jesus is having supper with His disciples, but during the meal, it says that Jesus got up, took a towel and some water, and began to wash His disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel. Now, this wasn’t something that teachers did; this was something that servants did. But Jesus is redefining what true greatness looks like. True greatness looks like being a servant.
And if you read just a few verses before this, it says that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray him.” And so, Jesus is not only washing the feet of His disciples, but He’s even washing the feet of the disciple who was going to betray Him in just a few short hours.
Jesus is showing us what being a servant of all looks like, and it looks like serving everyone, including your enemies, but even just the people you don’t like.
The apostle Paul, in Philippians 2:3, writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who,” the apostle Paul goes on to say, exemplified what true humility looks like, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
One commentator writes, “The world’s idea of greatness is to rule, but Christian greatness consists in serving. The world’s ambition is to receive honour and attention, but the desire of the Christian should be to give rather than receive, and to attend on others rather than be attended on himself. In short, the man who lays himself out most to serve his fellow men, and to be useful in his day and generation, is the greatest man in the eyes of Christ.”
The work of a servant is not glorious in the eyes of the world, but it is in the eyes of God. This is the posture of true greatness. This is what characterizes citizens of the kingdom of God.
And Jesus gives us an illustration of this, in verse 36. It says that 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.’”
Women and children were not viewed highly in this society. Children, especially, with the high infant mortality rate, were considered “the least of these.” And so, Jesus saying to them that they needed to embrace little children, just as He embraced them, would have been shocking to them.
But it’s a shock to us, as well. It’s shocking to discover that God appears in the small and powerless in the world, and that whatever we do to “one of the least of these,” we do to Him. When we are servants of all, embracing the little and the least in the world, we are in fact embracing Christ, and if we are embracing Christ, then we are embracing God the Father. That’s significant.
But it’s part of Jesus’ redefinition of greatness. The way up is down. The way to be first is last. The way to be great is to be the least. This is the way of Jesus.
At Bible Study, this week, we were just talking about the needs that are around us. There are all kinds of opportunities for us to be involved and to show the kindness and love of God our Saviour. See needs and meet them. This is the road to true greatness.
3. The road to true greatness is marked by obedience to God and service to others. Thirdly, the road to true greatness is marked by allegiance to Christ.
In verse 38, John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
John was one of the three disciples whom Jesus took with Him into Jairus’ house, back in Mark 5, when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. John was one of the same three disciples, who had just been up on the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus. In the next chapter, John and his brother, James, are going to ask Jesus to sit at His right and at His left in glory. John is called “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
John had intimacy and companionship with Jesus. But unfortunately, this creates a problem for John when he sees someone else, someone he does not know, casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Notice John’s language. John doesn’t say that the man wasn’t following Jesus; he says that the man wasn’t following “us.”
And what John has just done is he has embraced an attitude that he is special and that the kingdom of God is exclusive to only their “denomination,” as it were. “If this man does not belong to the church of John, then he must be stopped.”
But Jesus’ response is the exact opposite of what John is expecting. Where John is potentially hoping for affirmation and accolades, what he receives is correction. “Do not stop him,” Jesus says. “Why Jesus?” Because “no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
The apostle Paul writes of this, in 1 Corinthians 12:3, when he says that “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
In other words, Jesus doesn’t want John to stop this man, because this man is clearly doing what he’s doing by the power of God, and by opposing this man, John might be found opposing God.
“For,” Jesus says, “the one who is not against us is for us.” There is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus. You are either “for Jesus” or “against Jesus.” You cannot be on the fence with Jesus. You can’t live how you want with Jesus on the side. It doesn’t work. You are either “for Jesus” or “against Jesus.”
We see an example of this, in Philippians 1:15-18. Here, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Philippi from prison, and in verse 15, he writes, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
In other words, Paul doesn’t care that Christ is preached at his own expense. As far as Paul is concerned, he’s expendable. It doesn’t matter if these individuals are “against Paul,” if they are “for Christ,” then he has reason to rejoice.
As one commentator put it, “Here is a nobody exalting a Somebody while the somebodies are worried about who is following a bunch of nobodies.” How ridiculous does that sound? And yet, who in these verses is on the road to true greatness? It’s the nobody. It’s the guy who isn’t proclaiming Christ for his own gain. It’s the guy who isn’t mentioned, because what matters is that Christ is made much of. That’s the road to true greatness. It’s allegiance to Christ.
The world doesn’t understand that. The world only thinks about ways to get ahead. We want to be the greatest. We want to be the best. We want to be known. We want everything to be about “me.”
One of the easiest sins for a pastor to commit is the sin of comparison. Oh man, it’s deadly. When you’re in a rural community with four other churches, it’s real easy to compare your church with the other churches in town. When you hear that attendance is up at another church, it’s easy to compare numbers.
But what allegiance to Christ does is it gets our eyes off of us and on to others who need the same Christ we need. Allegiance to Christ leads us to applaud all that God is doing, even if they are different than us, even if they are growing faster than us, even if they are more effective at reaching other people than us. What matters is that Christ is proclaimed and in that we can rejoice.
The gospel is more than growing our church; the gospel is about all people everywhere understanding their need for Jesus. And when we get that, when we see that our common allegiance is to Christ, we can rejoice. That’s the road to true greatness.
4. And so, the road to true greatness is marked by obedience to God, service to others, and allegiance to Christ. Lastly, the road to true greatness is marked by death to sin.
When I was asked to preach at Cowboy Church, a couple of years ago, I preached on Luke 7:36-50, which is about the sinful woman who is forgiven by Jesus. And I talked about how this passage gives us hope in the midst of a world marred by the presence of sin, and that what we need is Jesus to set us free from the penalty of sin and death.
But afterwards, I was approached by a person who said that they hardly ever talk about sin when they talk about Christianity with another person, but all the same, they thought that I had done a good job of preaching.
And I wasn’t sure what to say in that moment, because how do you talk about the good news of Jesus, if you leave out the bad news of sin? If sin is not the issue, then you don’t need to be saved from anything, and if you don’t need to be saved from anything, then why do you need a Saviour? Why believe in Jesus?
That’s just where the logical progression goes. And so, I'm aware that sin and hell are not popular topics of discussion, but all the same, they point us to our need for Jesus. Jesus here is showing us the weightiness of our sin.
Jesus uses the imagery of a millstone to show that God will hold us accountable for causing those who believe in Jesus to stumble. If we don’t get rid of our prideful desire to be great, then we will become a stumbling block to others. And I feel the weight of this as your pastor.
James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” If I’m leading people astray in my preaching, that’s not good. It would be better to be given a pair of cement boots and hurled into the ocean and drowned.
Sin is such a big deal to Jesus, that He uses graphic imagery to show us how serious we need to be about cutting it off.
If your hand or foot or eye leads you into sin, cut it off. Jesus isn’t talking about bodily mutilation; He’s getting us to think through what are we doing, where are we going, what are we seeing? Is there anything in my life that is preventing me from entering the kingdom of God? And if there is, cut it off, before it’s too late.
John Owen, one of the Puritans, said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Romans 8:13 says, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
There’s a mean streak in Christianity, where we need to put sin to death. We must not let it live. We must not let it take another breath. Because if it we give sin even an inch of room in our lives, if we allow ourselves to be dominated by sin, it will kill us. According to Jesus, it will lead us to hell.
The word used for hell here is Gehenna, which was the name of Jerusalem’s city dump. This was where the bodies of criminals, the carcasses of animals, and all sorts of filth were cast. But Gehenna became the symbol of the place of the future punishment of the wicked, because of its lasting fire and ascending smoke. When Jesus uses the word, hell, He has in mind a real place of lasting torment.
Isaiah 66:24 predicts a future time when the righteous “shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me,” says the LORD. “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
This is the judgment to come, and what then will become of our prominence and our abilities and our accomplishments and our inner potential? It will not matter in that day who we were or what we accomplished, but whether we put our faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
The road to true greatness is marked by death to sin. We must take seriously how deadly sin is. Sins like pride and comparison and disobedience and the desire to be better and greater and higher than one another will ruin us.
And it’s why Jesus closes by saying, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” What we need is the preserving work of the Holy Spirit. We will not be able to fight against sin in our own ability. It is “by the Spirit” that we are able to put sin to death. But the road to true greatness recognizes that we need external help to deal with our internal problem of sin—that we cannot do this on our own.
The message of the good news of Jesus Christ is that, though we were lost and hopeless and completely incapable of escaping judgment ourselves, God, in His goodness and mercy toward us, would deliver His Son over to evil men who would nail Him to a cross, where He would bear the wrath of God against sin, experiencing the worst of hell on our behalf, so that if we accept the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as the means of salvation, we will be forgiven of our sins, and will be saved from eternal punishment.
You want to know what true greatness looks like? Look no further than the example of Jesus. It’s someone who gives and gives and gives, and doesn’t expect anything in return.
We will often find ourselves complaining that we’re not appreciated, or loved, or rewarded in the way we want to be rewarded, or honoured in the way we want to be honoured. And what Jesus is saying is that the road to true greatness is giving and giving and giving, expecting nothing in return. It’s about being last and least and servant of all.
Church, this is the heart of Jesus. He gave His life, so that we could have life. We can never pay Him back. There are no abilities, no accomplishments, nothing that comes close to paying for what Jesus has done for us.
And Jesus is saying, “Have this heart and mind among yourselves, that though you might not be great in the world’s eyes, you may one day hear the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,’ because when you hear those words, you will know you have arrived at true greatness.” Let’s pray…