For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Mark 10:45
(Please Note: This entry follows a longer account from Mark 10:35-45.)
Did you ever dream of becoming great? Do you still? Do you have the desire to create an impact on the world around you? Who of you hope and pray that someday your name is a common household name? That you’ve lived such a noteworthy life that perhaps the history books even speak of you someday?
If you were to ask a child, perhaps a young person in high-school or college, they may actually still believe that they might become great. The talented athletes among them may even work night and day toward accomplishing their goal of fame and notoriety. Skilled writers may pen draft after draft of a manuscript in the hopes that they might be the next J.K. Rowling.
By now, you might be an old enough reader to understand that you will likely never create the sort of craterous impact that leaves a mark on the world for generations. That’s the reality of the matter! Few people do. Even people whose names are as common to our tongues today as Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt, or Taylor Swift will be unremembered a century from now. People who have lived such great lives in the eyes of the modern world will molder under their tombstones just like everybody else.
Some do manage to earn their places in the pages of history, however. Only when time itself goes extinct will their accomplishments. Take Genghis Khan for example. He created the largest empire the world has ever seen. It cost the lives of an estimated 40-70 million people, though—about eleven percent of the world’s population at that time. Josef Stalin is another whom history will not easily forget. He consolidated his power in Soviet Russia by ordering the executions of an estimated 20 million men, women, and children. Did Genghis Khan and Josef Stalin become great?
Absolutely—according to human standards.
But that’s only according to the measuring stick that this world uses. We have to remember that we have an infinitesimally limited perspective compared to what God sees.
To God, Genghis Khan and Josef Stalin were bad men, not great men.
You see, God judges greatness by an entirely different standard, and because Jesus is True God, he judges by that same standard as his Father in heaven. James and John, along with the rest of the disciples, get a taste of what that true standard is in this lesson from Mark’s Gospel account.
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to [Jesus]. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
First, I love the way that James and John ask that first question, hoping that Jesus will blindly say “yes” before they actually make their selfish request. How many of you have ever done that to a friend? But Jesus is smarter than them and knows their hearts, so he doesn’t fall for it. He just asks them what they want of him. So James and John make their request, probably already uncomfortable because they knew they were being selfish. When Matthew writes about this, he adds the detail that mom was standing right there behind her sons. Maybe they were afraid of upsetting their dear old ma.
Jesus answers, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” And James and John, probably being poked by their mother in the back, foolishly answer, “We can.”
James and John misunderstood greatness. They thought that being disciples of Jesus meant that they would have chairs next to Jesus’ own throne in Israel. They believed that greatness meant following Jesus so that when their Messiah took over the rule of Israel from the Romans, they would be rich and powerful and they would be trending on Instagram and Facebook.
They didn’t understand that Jesus’ own greatness did not lie in ascending to the throne of an earthly kingdom. They didn’t understand that the path of Jesus’ greatness was in walking through a gauntlet of angry Jewish leaders, who would hit him in the face, call him names, accuse him of the worst crimes possible for a Jewish person to commit, spit all over him, and then demand that he be crucified until they whined enough to get what they wanted from the Roman governor Pilate. They didn’t understand that the path of Jesus’ greatness led him to a cross, to his own Father’s scorn and wrath, and to suffer the punishment of the sins of the whole world.
If James and John had known that this was the path of greatness—not according to human standards, but according to the Father and according to Jesus—they never would have asked the question.
Jesus, who knew what would happen to his disciples—he had stated many times to this point that they would suffer on account of his name—said, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” Basically, Jesus dismisses the whole thing by saying, “Sorry, that’s not up to me to decide. That’s the Father’s call, and he’s already preparing it for whomever he has chosen.”
But now we have another problem brewing with the rest of his disciples. When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. “Who do you think you are? Everybody knows it should be me who gets to sit there.” So Jesus calls them together to defuse the situation by explaining true greatness. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” That’s what greatness looks like to the people of this world. That’s the yardstick that kings and governors and ambitious people of this world use to measure success. Jesus continues, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
As he does so often, Jesus has just flipped the natural worldview concerning “greatness” upside-down. “This world measures greatness in the size of borders. I measure greatness in the size of humility. This world measures greatness in one’s ability to make himself or herself more. I measure greatness in one’s willingness to make himself or herself less. This world measures greatness in how many workers they have beneath them in their company. I measure greatness in how many in my company I place above myself. This world measures greatness in how much it can gain for its life from everybody else. I measure greatness in how much I can give of my life for everybody else.”
That’s the greatness of Jesus—to give all he has to spend for you, and you don’t even have to pay him a dime.
Now ask yourself: How have I been measuring greatness? Am I a servant, or do I demand that others serve me? Is my daily life wrapped up in making myself greater among my friends or higher on the social ladder, or is it wrapped up in thinking of myself less and instead propping up everybody else with my encouragements, my words of Christian love, and my willingness to serve?
Because wherever you live, whatever station you have in life—whether or not the world would consider these things great or lowly—you all have received power from God’s Holy Spirit to be great. Great in your opportunities to love and humbly serve your wife, your husband, your children, your churches, your bosses, your employees, and anybody else with whom you rub elbows.
I personally hope that some of you become great in the eyes of the world someday. I think it would be neat to pull up a Wikipedia page dedicated to you someday.
Remember, though, that true greatness is not in wealth. It’s not in power. It’s not in a well-known name. It’s in this: drinking the cup of Jesus, being baptized with his baptism, and serving others above yourselves. Honor your Christ and your Savior by being his image—an image of humble service—to this world. They won’t honor you or call you great for that.
But your God in heaven will.
May he live in you, so that you are great in humility.