Greatness in Serving

In the gospel passage for today (Mark 10:35-45) we read how the two brothers, James and John, came to Jesus and said (to paraphrase), “Jesus, we want you to do us a special favour – we want you to allow us to be your left and right-hand men to help you rule over the world.

Interestingly, just before this, Jesus had told his disciples for a third time that he is to be arrested and falsely accused; that he will be unjustly condemned to death, mocked, whipped and cruelly killed. But once again, as they so often did, the disciples missed the point of what Jesus was saying. Once again, we see how spiritually undiscerning they were; or perhaps they just didn’t want to hear what Jesus was telling them – after all it would have been a hard prediction to accept.

Jesus’ response to their request reiterates Jesus’ earlier lesson. It was not the response that they would have been anticipating. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink …?” (v.38) In a number of Old Testament passages the metaphor of the cup refers to suffering and punishment, and here we understand that Jesus was referring to the suffering that he would have to endure before finally being glorified in heaven as the risen Lord over all creation. This was certainly not the glory that they were wishing to share in when they asked to sit at Jesus left and right hand in glory.

I guess we can’t blame them for again misunderstanding – in their position we probably would also have misunderstood. They knew that Jesus had great power and authority. They had seen Jesus perform miracles. They had seen him exercise power over sickness, death, evil spirits and nature. So, they knew that Jesus had the power to subdue all opposition and rule the world. How could he allow himself to be so cruelly killed as he was saying? Their expectation probably was that Jesus would take his rightful place of king over the Jewish nation, subdue the occupying forces and the Roman nation; and that all those loyal to him would share in his glorious reign.

So, it is not surprising that the two brothers were just thinking about sharing in Jesus’ glory by sitting beside him as rulers over the world.

We are no different today. One of the things that attracts people is the aura of success. We all want to get onboard with anything that appears to be successful and going somewhere. This is recognised by successful entrepreneurs. It is recognised by those who sell wealth creation schemes, and consumer products like expensive cars and land. If you take note you will see that often the message is, ‘if you get on board with this scheme or purchase this car then you too will be successful and influential in the world’.

The desire to share in Jesus’ glory is also a very real temptation for those of us who are in ordained ministry and licensed lay ministry (LLM). I have, in the past, known a deacon and an LLM who were in ministry, not to serve people, but for their own glory. It is important to remember that it is ‘God’s ministry’, not “my ministry”, and that we do what we do not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Of course, it’s not just ministers who need to beware of such temptations. We can all fall into the trap of thinking that some role that we have in the church is our sole prerogative and that no one else is allowed to do it. Perhaps we get our sense of worth from that role. We might jealously guard it; and when someone else, thinking they are helping, does what we see as our special job, we may feel affronted.

There’s a little jingle about the difficulties that can arise in trying to maintain harmony among church folk. It goes:

To dwell above with all the saints we love,

O that will sure be glory.

But to dwell below with saints we know,

Well, that’s another story!

Satan loves it when church squabbles occur. He is a master of the battle tactic of ‘divide and conquer’. Admiral Lord Nelson, the famous British Naval hero was also well-aware of this tactic because he employed it in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars when he defeated the combined fleet of the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar.

There is a story about an incident at Trafalgar that any church filled with strife would do well to remember. Coming on deck during the Battle of Trafalgar Lord Nelson found two British officers quarreling

. Nelson whirled them about, and pointing to the ships of their adversary, exclaimed, “Gentlemen, there are your enemies!”

Sadly, history has shown that the quickest way to destroy a church is for the parishioners to engage in petty squabbles among themselves rather than recognising that the enemy is not each other, but Satan himself.

So, it should be no surprise to us to read in the gospel passage that when James and John asked for special favour from Jesus, their request produced some disharmony among the small group of disciples.

The other ten of Jesus disciples became angry when they heard the request – possibly out of jealousy that the two may have been given favour by Jesus, or perhaps they desired the positions of prestige and power for themselves. Jesus’ disciples were just as susceptible to squabbling among themselves as we can be if we seek acclamation and glory for ourselves.

But now, in verse 43 we come to the main point of this passage. Observing the squabbling among the disciples, Jesus calls them together and, in a few words, overturns the value structure of the world.

He states that the way to greatness in the kingdom of God is not to lord it over people for our own gain; but rather, to seek to serve people. Those who exercise power and authority over people do so for their own ends; but, this is not the way it should be for the Christian. The life of discipleship is to be characterised by humble and loving service. ‘Whoever desires to be great’ in God’s kingdom shall become so not through exercising power over others; but, by serving them! And Jesus not only preached this, but he also practiced it.

In our worldly way of thinking, we might reason that if anyone has the right to lord it over people, surely this would be God who created and sustains the world. But, Jesus tells us that even He, God incarnate, ‘did not come to be served, but to serve’. (v.45)

His teaching, and the subsequent example of his life, shows that discipleship is ‘a self-denying, self-risking, self-giving part of lowly service for the redemption of the world’.[i] We ought to pay attention to this!

A commentator, Donald English, challenges us on this point by writing: ‘… so much of Christian life as one observes it is about gaining a secure position in society, inviting others to join where we are, doing little to change the structures of our political and social life, thus lending our support to structures which oppress the poor and needy at home and abroad …’ ‘We are not as crass as the disciples in jockeying for seats of power in the kingdom, but by much more subtle behaviours we show how little we grasp what it means to be disciples of a crucified Lord who gave his life as a ransom for many.’[ii]

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that denying the human need for honour and status is not easy – the disciples’ squabble over their place and status show how difficult it can be. Have you ever been in the position where people do not realise that you are the one who made some great contribution that is being praised? As we hear them speak about how wonderful it is that this thing was done, we want to tell them that we are the one who did it so that we might be recognised for our effort and achievement.

There is a story that when the famed English architect, Sir Christopher Wren, was directing the building of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, some of the workers were interviewed by a journalist who asked them, “What are you doing here?”

The first said, “I’m cutting stone for three shillings a day.”

The second replied, “I’m putting ten hours a day on this job.”

The third replied, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build the greatest cathedral in Great Britain for the glory of God.”

As I think about our many and diverse roles in this church in the Parish of Macksville, I think that each one of us is often in the position of making some contribution towards the overall mission of the church. It may perhaps be only a small thing; but nevertheless, it contributes towards the overall success of the mission. Often, there may be no personal recognition of the part that we have played. But in doing our part as a disciple of Christ to the best of our ability, we are serving one another and our Lord.

Reflecting on this passage can give us a new understanding of what it means to say that we are serving God. It is encouraging to know that in God’s eyes each one of us is achieving greatness in serving, no matter how small we think we are in the grand scheme of things. The great preacher, D.L. Moody once observed that, ‘We may easily be too big for God to use, but never too small.’

And for myself, I know that the greatest joy that I get in life is to know that God has used me in some small way to touch somebody’s life in a positive way.

So, this passage encourages us to seek not to lord it over others for our own glory; but rather to seek to serve others and not look for praise. It has been said that, ‘There is no limit to the good that a man or woman can do, if he or she doesn’t care who gets the credit.’

And again to quote D.L. Moody, ‘The measure of a man is not how many servants he has, but how many men he serves.’


[i] English, Donald, 2002. The Message of Mark (The Bible Speaks Today Series), Inter-Varsity Pres, p.182.

[ii] Ibid, p.183.

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