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The Path to Greatness

Date: Nov. 3, 2019

Author: Michael Mark

Mark 9:30-50

Key Verse: Mark 9:35

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."

Who here wants to be great?  What is the path to greatness?  When you think about some of the greatest people you know, do they continue to live great lives?  Some do, and some don’t.  What would you think is the path to greatness?  Things like sacrifice, dedication, discipline come to mind.  I typically think of greatness in terms of athletic or intellectual ability, so I was surprised to see the top Google search result for “path to greatness.”  The number one search result for “path to greatness” is for a volunteering and charity organization based in Maryland.  That is very interesting, and not far from where Jesus would show us the path to greatness – and this path, I think, for many of you, may be in a way you might not have expected.  But this path is not just for the select or elite few – this path can be followed and attained byanybody who would carefully listen to what Jesus has to say.

In the past two weeks, where we are in the book of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are in the area of Caesarea Philippi.  This area is in the northernmost region of Israel, and here three of Jesus’ disciples beheld a preview of the glorious kingdom of heaven, and later came down from the mountain to find their other colleagues in a dispute with the Pharisees.  The disciples found themselves unable to drive out a demon, and Jesus revealed to them that their faith was lacking because their prayer was lacking, and that this power was not their own, but came from Jesus himself.  It is from here we begin our passage.  Look at v.30, “They left that place and passed through Galilee.  Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.”  Jesus and his disciples were making their final pass through Galilee, because from this point, Jesus was preparing himself for the great mission that would await him in Jerusalem.  He and the disciples may have taken lesser known paths to avoid meeting up with more crowds, so that Jesus could concentrate on teaching his disciples and preparing them for what was to come.

This is what he taught them in v.31, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.  They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”  This is the second time that we see Jesus predict his death, although this might have been taught constantly during this time.  Jesus repeated and emphasized this teaching so that his disciples would know that his death was no accident, nor was it out of his control.  Jesus did not unwillingly go to die, no, rather, he came to do this by God’s set plan and foreknowledge.  He was telling them that this will happen, before it happened.  But the disciples still didn’t understand, and they were afraid to ask him about it.  They might have perceived that the kingdom was at hand, as Jesus’ name was well known all over Israel, and his power to heal and drive out demons was still as strong as ever.  How could he die or be killed?  Won’t Jesus just march into Jerusalem, tell people he’s the Messiah, zap the Roman governor, and then be embraced by all the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law?  How can this Messiah possible fall into the hands of men?  They haven’t understood yet why Jesus kept telling them he was going to be killed, but maybe they still didn’t want to hear the real truth.  Maybe they thought that his death on the cross was figurative, the way we understand it today, and then three days later he will rise as the King of Jerusalem.  They were afraid to hear the real, hard truth because it would have offended them, but because of that, they were entertaining a fantasy and avoided the truth.

Their wrong idea about Jesus’ death and resurrection led to an argument as they travelled through Galilee.  Look at v.33, “They came to Capernaum.  When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’”  Here Jesus asks the tough question, and you can almost feel their shame and embarrassment in the next verse.  Verse 34 says, “But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.”  It is possible that the argument came because Peter, James and John were picked to see the Transfiguration, and the other disciples could not drive out any demons.  However, they knew deep down that their quarreling was not right.  Usually Peter is the first to speak out, but even he was quiet.  You can feel the tension in the air.  Jesus didn’t call them out on it, and the disciples kept quiet.  The silence spoke for itself, and the disciples knew they were wrong.

Look at what Jesus does next.  Can we all please read v.35, the key verse, “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.’”  In Jesus’ time, when a rabbi or a teacher sits down, that means class is in session.  Jesus was about to teach his disciples a very important lesson.  No one mentioned that they were arguing about who would be the greatest, but Jesus knew – but Jesus didn’t blame anyone, although they were all worthy of blame.  Instead, he taught them the true path to greatness.  Anyone who wants to be first, that is anyone who wants to be great, must be the very last.  The person who wants to be first, must actually be lowest in rank.  But this person is not just a nobody, but a servant of all.  The path to greatness is through humility and service.  At first this seems like a contradiction.  How can someone of a very low rank, a very low place, be great?  How can the very last be first?  Jesus will continue to explain.

Look at v.36-37, “He took a little child whom he placed among them.  Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’”  There is both humility and service demonstrated here.  Jesus first placed the little child in their midst.  In Matthew’s account, he says “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:3).”  Now it is clear that even children have their faults, so Jesus does not mean to be like a child in every way, in this example it is to be like them in their status.  Children hold a low status in society.  In fact they are considered minors throughout their whole childhood.  But what beautiful qualities do they possess?  They follow their parents, trust them and depend on them.  They play well with other kids, and they share their toys together.  Me and my friends used to borrow each other’s Nintendo games and ninja turtles all the time.  I was always so amazed at my brother Joseph, when he was young, he followed me around everywhere, with almost no question, trusting that I would take care of him.  Jesus was teaching humility with the illustration of a child, and we can be childlike in these qualities – in total trust, dependence, and obedience to God, and in mutual, equal friendships with others.

Jesus then takes the child in his arms, and says that the person who welcomes a child in his name, welcomes God himself.  This is the serving aspect.  To welcome a child, in this case, a child of God, means to receive them, and accept them, and love them by serving them.  See how Jesus took the child in his arms.  When you see a friend or family member, how might you usually greet them?  Probably with a nice warm hug.  Then you probably will proceed to do something together, whether its talking, or eating or fellowship.  Notice Jesus also says “in my name.”  This means to welcome someone because of Jesus, or on behalf of Jesus.  It is to welcome someone because you know that Jesus loved you and welcomed you, and wants you to do likewise to others.  So it may not even be someone you know, but if you welcome a believer, you welcome God.  To do something in Jesus name is to do it for Jesus, not out of obligation, but out of desire.  This will be important because everything Jesus tells his disciples to do in this passage is in his name.

As Jesus was teaching, John remembered an incident along the way, and wanted to ask.  Look at v.38, “ ‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’”  John’s question was, “we did not welcome him, should we have?”  This was a strange sight to them, because they themselves realized they could not drive out demons without Jesus’ authority.  Where did this guy get the authority, and he was not one of the Twelve?  So either the disciples were envious that someone else had this power, or they were afraid someone was abusing the power, was it right to forbid him?  We can see that this person was able to drive out demons, which required faith in Jesus, so he believed.  Also, according to Jesus in v.39, he was actually glorifying his name and not bringing harm to it.  So in response to John’s question, this person should not be stopped, because he is not against us, but for us, and he should be welcomed by the disciples.  At the least, they should rejoice that Christ is being glorified, and not be envious or quick to exclude another believer.

Jesus then continues to teach about the rewards of serving, in v.41, “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”  Jesus hear is talking about believers, those who belong to the Messiah.  Although Jesus’ disciples are called to be humble and lowly, he gives them special status if they are served.  Truly, it is blessed to serve all people, but here, especially believers.  And look here at the act of service – to give a cup of water in Jesus’ name.  To give a cup of water for Jesus’ sake, because Jesus loves you and wants for you to do this.  To give a cup of water – anyone can do this!  This is such a small task, but even this receives a reward!  Jesus says you will certainly not lose your reward.  God keeps tabs of even the smallest acts of service that you do, not one of your good deeds done in Jesus’ name will ever be forgotten, and you will be rewarded for it.  If even such a small and simple task has a reward, more complex or demanding acts of service will also surely not be forgotten.

God loves his little ones, so as to reward those who serve them.  This love extends so far that he will also punish those who do them harm.  Look at v.42, “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”  Wow that sounds extremely extreme, but the wrath of God is even more severe than this.  Millstones are stones that were used to grind grain, and there were two kinds.  One kind is a small millstone that can be manually used.  The other kind of millstone was so large that it required a donkey to move it.  Jesus was referring to the larger millstone to be tied around someone’s neck.  You can be sure they’re not coming back up.  So what does it mean to stumble?  In the old NIV Bible, the translation is “to sin.”  If you look up the original word in a lexicon, the definition of the original word means “to entice to sin.” 

Beware, Jesus warns sternly, of enticing believers to sin.  Also be very watchful of being enticed into sin yourself.  Jesus continues his teaching by saying that if your hand, or your foot or your eyes lead you to sin, it is better for you to be permanently crippled or blind and enter into life, rather than being whole and thrown into hell.  This life that Jesus mentioned is the life after the resurrection.  This life is the real life, it is the life that matters, it is the life that will extend to eternity.  In v.48, Jesus describes hell as a place “where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”  The original Greek word used for hell was “Gehenna,” which originated in Hebrew (Ge-Hinnom), that referred to the valley of Hinnom.  The valley of Hinnom was an actual place that existed in Jesus’ time.  It was located south of Jerusalem, and was basically a place where garbage, waste, and dead animals of the city were dumped and burned.  There you would see the worms eating the flesh of the animals and the garbage, and the fires burning the trash.  It was a place the disciples would be familiar with, and Jesus used this as a vivid picture of hell.  In the valley of Hinnom, eventually the fires would go out, and the worms would die, but in hell, the worms don’t die and the fires never go out.  This could be figurative of the actual experience in hell.  The worms would be all of the regret that you had, that will be with you forever, gnawing at your soul without end.  The fire would be the wrath of God, as you are cast outside of the New Jerusalem, cast outside of the kingdom of heaven and outside of God’s presence for eternity.  God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and this is a place he wishes no one to go, but in his righteous judgment all sinners and evil doers must go.  This eternal death is much worse, much more severe than the physical death on earth, which is why Jesus says it is better to be drowned in the sea with a large millstone around your neck, or to be permanently crippled or blind, than to be thrown into hell, and that is why he warns so strongly not to entice others to sin, nor be enticed yourself.

What does this have to do with the path to greatness?  Because the opposite of humility and service in Jesus’ name, which is pride and selfish ambition, can cause us or others to fall into sin.  Selfish ambition is defined as being concerned primarily with your own interests and benefit, regardless of others.  This includes envy, greed, lying or slandering others.  James 3:16 says, “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every evil practice.”  1 John 2:15-17 says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.  For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”  Our hands can be the instruments to commit sin.  Our feet can lead us into sin.  With our eyes, we do not only sin with our bodies, but with our thoughts.  They lead us to gain for ourselves the things of this world, which are only passing away.  This is similar to what Jesus says in Mark 8:36, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”  Jesus’ path to greatness is different from the world’s, it is not like the world’s path at all.

When Jesus tells us to cut off our hands and feet if they cause us to sin, he does not mean that literally.  Because even if we do, our we can sin with our thoughts, even if you eyes are plucked out.  So how do we preserve life?  How do we maintain life?  Jesus closes out his teaching with a metaphor: Have salt among yourselves.  In Jesus’ time, there were no refrigerators, so the primary means of preserving food was salt.  Salt was not only a preservative, but a flavoring.  It made whatever food you added it to way more delicious.  So the first thing Jesus says in v.49 is, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  Woah, wait a minute.  That doesn’t sound good.  But it is.  It’s not painless, but it’s good for us.  There will be some pain involved, but it’s for our gain.  Jesus is telling us how we will be made like salt.  To salt something is to sprinkle salt on it.  We salt things with a salt shaker.  So you can say to your dinner plate, “Everything will be salted with the salt shaker.”  But spiritually, we are salted with fire.  What is this fire?  It is everything a Christian goes through.  It is the trials we face, the struggles we endure, the discipline we are given, and the persecutions we go through.  These fires have the ability to check our pride, to convict us of our sins, to burn away any worldliness in us, to make us holy, and to seek God for his grace and strength, ultimately to make us humble and useful to him.

Lev 2:13 says, “Season all of your grain offerings with salt.  Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; and salt to all your offerings.”  Eze 43:24 says, “You are to offer them before the Lord, and the priests are to sprinkle salt on them and sacrifice them as a burnt offering to the Lord.”  These verses show how the Lord was pleased with salt on his offerings.

As Christians, we become the preserving influence and flavor for the world.  We don’t just keep our salt to ourselves, but we share it and pass it around.  As we just heard, this salt comes from God.  It is the preserver and flavor of life.  The world is dead in its trespasses and sins, it has not flavor of life.  Christians are to bring their saltiness into the world.  Jesus rounds out his teaching, ending his discourse that began with the disciples’ argument, in v.50, “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?  Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”  Don’t quarrel over who will be the greatest, rather, work together, play together, run this race together, so that everyone will achieve the prize of eternal life.  Have salt among yourselves – meet together, pray together, encourage one another, help one another in trials, sing songs to God together, and season your conversations with salt – the word of God that preserves with the flavor of wisdom.  Serve one another, not out of self interest, but in humility in the name of Jesus.  Being at peace with one another will bind us all together in unity in the Spirit of God.

In review, Jesus said “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  Why is Jesus’ way the best way to greatness?  Because it is the way Jesus himself followed to bring us all into glory.  Jesus was the greatest example of humble obedience and service.  He is God, and yet he came down to this world without a deed or house to his name.  He tireless healed the sick and taught his disciples.  And in his greatest act of service, the Son of Man laid down his life in order to preserve our lives and save us from hell, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.  As Philippians says, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.  After three days, Jesus rose from the dead, ensuring that all those who believe in him will certainly also rise and enter into eternal life in the kingdom of God.  Because we share in this glory, we should also be like him, giving up our position in this world above one another, and serving one another in His name, as he commanded: love one another.  Our reward in heaven will be far beyond what we can imagine.  Don’t worry about what you lose in this world in giving up your pride and selfishness – here’s a glimpse of what you will gain.  Matthew 11:11 says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  Who is the greatest person you can ever think of?  Well, even if you become the least in the kingdom of heaven, you’ll be greater than that.  Until then, let us serve one another humbly in Jesus’ name, following in the path to greatness that he has taught and taken.  The path to greatness is to be the very last, and the servant of all.

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