Jesus and the Twelve were returning from a visit to the villages around Caesarea Philippi (Mk8:27-38) and from the Mount of Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-13), where Jesus had revealed himself to Peter, James and John in glory. At both places the Lord had talked to the disciples about the events soon to take place in Jerusalem involving His suffering, death and resurrection. He lays all His cards out on the table for each of the disciples to plainly see.
This was the Lord’s last visit to Galilee before His death, a private visit away from the crowds which had surrounded Him on many previous trips through this area. Jesus was not wanting anyone to know where they were. The reason for this period of privacy is told us in the words of our text: (31b) He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”
Public preaching was now relegated to the background. The private instruction of the disciples was the priority item on Jesus’ agenda. In these out-of-the-way places Jesus was devoting Himself to the last, intensive training of the Twelve, especially preparing them for the end. It all related to what would happen to “the Son of Man,” the Redeemer, in His divine-human natures. He who by his many miracles had demonstrated His power over all things was going to “be betrayed into the hands of men.” Did this sound like something that happens only to the greatest?
Jesus would be “killed” and would “rise again.” That which had been prophesied concerning Him from the beginning was about to be fulfilled. Indeed, it is precisely in the fulfilling of God’s Word for us that Jesus’ true greatness lies. This was no oblique and shrouded reference to the series of events which would earn salvation for all mankind. Jesus again spoke directly about the events that would soon come to pass. Events that make Him the greatest that ever was.
How disappointing, therefore, the words of our text which follow: (32) But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it. Mark describes a continuing state of ignorance and fear on the part of the Twelve. They simply would not grasp what seemed incredibly horrible to them. Unfortunately, their thoughts seemed to stop with the words “be killed.” This didn’t fit into their ideas of how Jesus would establish His Messianic rule. Great men like the Messiah don’t lay down their life. They ask others to lay theirs down for them! That is also why they even feared to ask about it. Don’t we do the same when we hesitate even to discuss matters that worry us or frighten us?
One might look upon this reluctance to accept the necessity of the cross in God’s plan of salvation as a matter of stubborn obtuseness. But should it surprise us? Many who wish to be called Christians today imagine that the chief purpose of the Church is found in activities which relegate into the background the message of a Saviour crucified for sin. They suppose that the main goal of Christianity lies in spectacular demonstrations for social and political reform, or in making this a better world in which to live, or in engaging in activist programs which show that the church is a real “force for good” in this world.
The central message of the Bible is clear, but a “blood religion” – death for life, and the sacrifice of God for us – does not appeal to the people of this world. Who really wants to hear repeated references to the ugliness of personal sin and the divine necessity of a sacrificial cross to atone for it. Sometimes even we Christians may cringe at the thought of having to hear it one more time. Yet, as Jesus reminded the Twelve repeatedly, these were inescapable requirements of His mission. This was the measure of His true greatness. Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection are mankind’s only way of justification before a holy and righteous God.
And what comes next shows us the response Christ wants to find in those who accept his notions of greatness: (33-34) They come to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
That the disciples were still filled with false hopes concerning the Messianic kingdom couldn’t be more apparent. The disciples did not want to say what they had been arguing about. “They kept quiet.” They clammed up. They must have sensed that their ideas of greatness did not agree with what Jesus had been talking about when He spoke of the necessity of His sacrifice and death.
And how right they were! (35) Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” True greatness is determined for Christians the same way it was for our Lord. Not by deeds which receive the greatest outward attention, but by humble service, often scarcely recognized, It is found in giving up those childish notions that there is some greater recognition we deserve, some reward to be gained. The essence of true spiritual greatness in Christ’s kingdom is determined by the amount of humble, selfless service which a person contributes on behalf of others. Again, not for any kind of personal gain, but simply out of thankfulness for grace already received. How different from the standards which the unbelieving world uses in determining greatness!
The weak, the lonely, the destitute … the cast off and the discarded … the sick and hurting … the disgraced and the unlovable … these are the recipients of our best love and attention. These are the focus of our care and our energies. Not because it is pleasant. Not because they can give anything back. Not because of something they might one day become. Just simply because the greatness of God is such that He has so much to give them in Christ — and He has chosen us to be the means by which it is brought to bear in their lives.
In order to illustrate this principle of greatness among Christian disciples, the Lord does a striking thing: (36,37) – He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him 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. What an object lesson for the Twelve! Whoever receives one of these little children “in my name” – literally “upon” my name, “on the basis of my name” – welcomes Jesus himself. To receive a child in the name of Jesus means more than physical care. It involves spiritual care as well — being concerned about the child’s eternal welfare. Jesus says that the business of taking care of this need is the highest kind of ministry in His kingdom. What Jesus calls greatness in his kingdom is also greatness in the eyes of the Father who sent him. This is why VBS, Sunday School, and Children’s outreach events are so important in the life of a congregation! In doing these things we were echoing our heavenly Father’s own priorities.
But whether we show our greatness in providing for the spiritual welfare of our city’s children, or by helping the homeless, sponsoring the refugee, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick or lonely, or giving dignity to the downtrodden and outcast; it is not really our greatness we are showing to the world. When we do these and so many other things, we are simply reflecting the greatness of Christ who has first done all this for us. His Baptism has given us a heavenly home, welcomed us into God’s family. His Word gives dignity, wisdom and forgiveness. His promises bring comfort in times of distress. His very body and blood feed us and give us strength to live in the greatness to which we are called. Remember the greatness of your Lord. Give thanks for his great mercies to you and then and only then you too will be great. Both here in this life and in the kingdom to come.