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HOW TO BE GREAT – Mark 9:33-37

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on March 3, 2016 under 2016 |

Message preached Sunday, February 28, 2016 from Mark 9:33-37

Theme: True greatness is measured by how far down someone will reach to serve in Jesus’ name.

(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

This morning, we come to a passage in our study of Mark’s Gospel that’s a favorite. It’s a passage that creates a wonderful image in our minds; and it presents a picture of Jesus that deeply warms and comforts our hearts.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that that’s all there is to this story. I believe that in this passage, the Lord Jesus teaches a principle that turns this world’s whole concept of leadership and power completely on its head! It’s a sweet story; but with a truly stunning message!

Let’s look at this story together. It’s found in the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had been traveling with His disciples through Galilee—heading southward from the regions of Caesarea Philippi for about twenty-five to thirty miles to the city of Capernaum. As they traveled along, Jesus was telling His disciples about how He would soon be going to Jerusalem; and of how He would be handed over to men for trial, would be crucified, and would then be raised from the dead three days later.

The passage begins with their having arrived at the city of Capernaum. Mark tells us;

Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (Mark 9:33-37).

It’s a very vivid, very heart-warming story. But wrapped up in it is an important lesson about ‘greatness’. It’s one that challenges just about every other concept of greatness we have ever seen put into practice in the history of humankind.

* * * * * * * * * *

Whenever I have read this story—either in this Gospel or in one of the others—it has always fascinated me that Jesus doesn’t condemn the idea of pursuing ‘greatness’. Perhaps we might have thought that Jesus would have condemned that idea. We’re accustomed to thinking that ‘greatness’ is the opposite of such qualities as ‘humility’ and ‘meekness’; and that therefore Jesus would have discouraged the pursuit of ‘greatness’ altogether.

It’s true, of course, that Jesus does command His followers to be a ‘humble’ and ‘meek’ people. But the remarkable thing to discover is that He never told His followers not to pursue ‘greatness’ if they really wanted it. Instead, what Jesus did was to radically redefine ‘greatness’ in such a way as to express it in true humility and meekness. And not only does He redefine ‘greatness’; but He also redirects the way we are to go about pursuing it.

There’s a story coming up in our study of Mark’s Gospel; and I hope you don’t mind if we jump ahead to it. It illustrates our Lord’s ‘new’ focus on greatness perfectly.

In Mark 10 tells the story of how two of Jesus’ apostles—James and his brother John—came to Jesus and asked a special request of Him. They asked, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” That was quite a thing to ask! And if you’re familiar with that story, Jesus told them that whoever it was that would receive the great privilege of sitting on either the right hand or left hand of His glory was something that the Father alone would decide. After hearing that, these two brothers walked back to the other ten disciples with, you might say, their hat in hand. I like to call it “the long walk of of the Sons of Zebedee.” You can just imagine how the other apostles felt about these two men and their unseemly and ambitious effort to grasp at ‘greatness’, and to place themselves ahead of all the rest.

But our wonderful Lord knows how to take even our worst failures and lovingly turn them around into valuable lessons. He took that opportunity to teach all of His disciples what true ‘greatness’ is—and how to achieve it. In Mark 10:42, Jesus called them all to Himself and told them;

“You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” (Mark 10:42).

And you and I know that’s how it is in this “Gentile” world, right?—that is to say, the unbelieving world? Everyone tries to vie for positions of power and authority over others. It doesn’t matter whether its in the business world, or at the school-yard, or in the political arena. It even happens, sadly, in church life. “Greatness” becomes measured by how much power and authority someone can exercise over others; and people try to obtain such positions by climbing over one another, and putting one another down.

Jesus reminded His disciples that hat’s how the unbelieving world does it;

“Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all” (vv. 43-44).

And can you see it? Jesus doesn’t say, “Now; don’t desire to be great!” Instead, He says that the world’s way of going about obtaining greatness “shall not be so” among His followers. Greatness, in His kingdom, is a matter, not of ‘power’ and ‘superiority’, but rather of humble service; and the way to achieve it is to become the ‘slave’ of others. He reversed the direction of ‘greatness’ entirely; so that instead of it being an ascent to the top through power and authority over others, it becomes a descent into humble service and sacrifice for the betterment of others. And He even pointed to Himself as the great ‘model’ for His disciples to follow. He said;

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (v. 45).

And now, turn back to our passage in Chapter 9. We have just learned something important about the lesson it contains: It was a lesson in true ‘greatness’ that the twelve disciples apparently would need to be taught more than once!

And dear brothers and sisters; I can’t think of too many things more relevant than this lesson! Just look around us! Everywhere you turn your head right now (and—without saying too much—particularly and especially in an election season), people are vying for the right to have positions of power and authority over others. They are willing to tear one another down to the ground in order to ascend themselves up the ladder of worldly greatness!

Jesus teaches us a completely different way in this passage. It’s His own way—the way that He Himself followed—to achieve true greatness. He taught us that true greatness is measured by how far down someone will reach in order to serve someone else in His name.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let’s look at this passage a little closer; and let’s learn from it Jesus’ lesson on how to be truly great. First, let’s notice . . .


You find the context explained to us in verses 33-34. They had been traveling along—perhaps for a few days. And as they traveled, He told them about the sacrifice He was about to make for our sins. We’re told, “Then He came to Capernaum.” That, of course, is the town that came to be “His own town”. I’ve been able to visit there. It’s one of my favorite places in the world to think about. And in the midst of the ruins of that ancient town is a stone house that has been recognized, throughout the centuries, as the home of Peter and Andrew. We’re told that He came to “the house”; and I think it makes sense to understand the house to be that of Peter and Andrew—where He had stayed many times before.

Mark tells us, “And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?’ But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.” Now; stop and think of what it was that Jesus had been telling them as they traveled on the road. He had told them that He—the Son of Man; the long-awaited Messiah; the Son of God in human flesh—would shortly be betrayed into the hands of men, would be killed, and would then be raised three days later. He was telling them about the great act of service that He was going to perform for them in order to bring about their salvation. But apparently the whole journey long—at the times when they were not listening to His instruction—they were arguing amongst themselves over which of them was the greatest.

How might that have happened? I suppose that it’s possible that the story of the Transfiguration might have had something to do with it. You remember, don’t you, that Jesus only took three of the apostles up the mountain with Him to witness His transformation? When they came back down from the mountain together, He told them to tell no one about it until after His resurrection. We can imagine some of the other disciples saying, “So; what happened up on the mountain?” And one of the three might say, “Well; it was amazing. But Jesus told us not to tell you about it.” And you can just see how some would start to think that they were pretty special; and that the others were a little inferior. We can also imagine things being made even more tense by the situation that they found when they came down from the mountain. There was the boy who had an unclean spirit; and the disciples who didn’t go up the mountain couldn’t cast the demon out. Perhaps these three who went up the mountain were thinking that, if they had been there, they could have done it. After all, they were with Jesus.

It must be, however, that they knew that this kind of talk was all wrong. After all, when Jesus asked them about it in the house, none of them wanted to say anything. And why do you suppose Jesus asked? Was it because He didn’t know? Personally, I don’t think so. I believe He knew perfectly well what they were discussing. He just wanted them to feel the embarrassment of having such a wrong focus on ‘greatness’ when they were in the presence of Someone who was going to humble Himself so greatly for them!

And I see a couple of valuable lessons for us in all this, dear church family. First, let’s always remember that Jesus knows what it is that we’re talking about among ourselves. He knows the focus of our hearts—even when it is expressed in quiet whispers among one another. There are no ‘secret conversations’ or ‘whispers’ before our Lord in His household. As the apostle John later wrote in His Gospel;

… He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man (John 2:24-25).

Let’s never imagine that we can talk about or think about anything that our Lord cannot hear or perceive fully. As King David prayed in Psalm 139;

For there is not a word on my tongue,

But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether (Psalm 139:4).

When we’re out of focus in our thinking and in our attitude, He is fully aware of it. And let’s add to that another lesson to be learned. Let’s also always remember that He knows whenever it may be that we are vying for position and power over others—even when we’re pretending to be “holy” and “sacrificial” about it. He knows when we are doing acts of ministry or religious service from out of the motive of elevating ourselves over others, or when we’re seeking to use the things of God put someone down and lift ourselves up. As Pastor James once put it;

Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:9).

* * * * * * * * * *

So; Jesus knew what was going on. He asked His disciples about it in order to expose what was in their hearts.

But as I said earlier, I believe He always does this in love. He means for us to grow; and He turns our failures into teaching opportunities. And that’s when we find . . .


This is a remarkable passage in that there’s lots of action and motion in it. And I believe we need to pay careful attention to the things that are happening in it.

In verse 35, we’re told that after He asked this question, and after the disciples stood in embarrassed silence, “He sat down”. Why are we told that seemingly insignificant detail? We’re told of lots of times when our Lord taught His disciples; but usually, there’s no mention of Him taking His seat to do so. Why are we told about it in this situation? I believe it’s because He was clearly demonstrating before them that He Himself claimed a position of true authority over them. He was taking His seat as a rabbi would when he was about to teach an authoritative lesson. I believe we can even see this more evidently by the fact that He then “called the twelve”. What a picture! They had been arguing over which of them was the greatest; and then, after asking them about it, He sat down before them and called them to Himself. And they came to where He was to be the center of their focus.

You know; I think that anytime you and I might start to get into a debate amongst ourselves over which of us was the greatest, or any time we might start to put one another down in an effort to elevate ourselves, or any time we seek to rise above one another in importance or authority or power, our attitude would immediately change if we suddenly became aware of Jesus! I couldn’t elevate myself over you very much, and you couldn’t elevate yourself over me, if we both saw Jesus sit down and say to us, “Come here to Me.”

So they came. The were coming to the authoritative Teacher—their Lord and Master. And Mark tells us that He said to all of them, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” He wasn’t telling them that it was wrong to aspire to be the greatest. What was wrong in it all was that they had embraced the world’s mistaken concept of what ‘greatness’ is—and of how to achieve it. They each wanted to make themselves ‘first’ by elevating themselves over all the others. He taught them, instead, to become ‘first’ by giving themselves to humble service of one another.

When I think of this, I think of a story that Jesus once told at the home of a Pharisee. He was invited to enjoy a Sabbath meal. And so, He came. And as He watched, He noticed how the guests all tried to chose the best places for themselves—the most honorable spot at the dinner table. And that’s when He told them;

“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:7-11).

If we want to receive honor in the sight of others, we don’t achieve it by grasping it for ourselves. It comes through humbling ourselves and taking the lowest position. I like to call it ‘the law of gravity in reverse’: Whatever comes up must first go down.

And we don’t just do this by simply seeking out bad seating arrangements for ourselves. We do it by giving ourselves in service to others. We follow Jesus’ example; who didn’t come into this world from the throne of glory into order to be served, but rather to serve. As the apostle Paul put it in his letter to the Philippians;

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Paul went on to point to Jesus. There is no greater example we could have of becoming the “last” of all and the “servant” of all than Jesus Himself. Paul wrote;

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (vv. 5-8).

* * * * * * * * * *

So; Jesus exposed to the disciples that He knew what had been going on in their hearts. He knew that they were arguing over which one among themselves was the greatest. And then, after He sat down before them and taught them that they were to become ‘great’ by serving one another, we now see . . .


Do you remember that I told you that this was a very vivid passage; and that we need to pay attention to every action and motion in it? Look at what it says in verse 36. After He sat down, and had called the disciples to Himself, and had spoken those words, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all”, Mark says, “Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them.” The word that Mark uses in the original language is very specific. It’s not just a boy or a girl. It’s a tiny child. A wee little person—little more than a toddler.

Whose child was it? I like to imagine that it was a child that belonged to Peter’s and Andrew’s family—perhaps a tiny little niece or nephew; or perhaps one of their own children. I guess I’m giving way to my imagination just a bit; but I suspect it was a little person who knew who Jesus was, because Jesus was there so often. I suspect that this tiny boy or girl was very happy to see Jesus. I suspect that this little person wanted to come and sit with Jesus or have Him pick them up; but perhaps some of the other apostles gently shooed the child away. (After all, they did that kind of thing before in another New Testament story; remember?) They didn’t think that Jesus would want to be bothered by little children. But He always welcomed them.

Imagine Jesus taking that little boy or girl—in that very teachable moment—and setting the child in their midst. I wonder if He perhaps left the little child there in front of them for a while, and allowed them to watch how the child loved Jesus—grinning widely with food on his or her fat cheeks, or maybe a little bit of goo running down from the nose, or maybe with some drool coming down, or maybe with the unmistakable smell of something that needed to be taken care of. It would be the exact opposite of what this world typically views as powerful or important or great.

And then, after everyone spends some time taking in the image of this little one in their midst who loved Jesus so, Mark tells us that Jesus takes yet another action. He took the child up in His arms—the Greatest of them all embracing the least of them all. And that’s when He said to them in verse 37, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.”

Notice three things. First, notice that Jesus speaks of “whoever receives one of these little ones in My name . . .” Jesus is not saying that greatness is achieved by simply doing acts of kindness for humble and needy people. Those kind of acts can be done in order to be seen of others. Instead, Jesus speaks of doing so in such a way as to actually “receive” or “welcome” such a humble one “in His name”—or as it is more literally, “on His name”. It is done as unto Him, in obedience to Him, as He Himself would do, and with complete reliance on Him in the doing of it.

Second, notice that whoever does such a thing “receives Him”. In some mysterious way, Jesus puts Himself to us in the place of that little, child-like, humble person that we are to receive. We would all gladly and eagerly receive Jesus; wouldn’t we? Well; Jesus let’s us know that we do so, not by ignoring the small and seemingly-insignificant ones around us, but by receiving them to ourselves as we would Him. Jesus even had the reputation of being the friend of sinners and tax-collectors; and that’s what we need to be too.

And thirdly—and very amazingly—Jesus says that there’s something that happens when we do that. It’s as if our action in His name of receiving Him in that way gets ‘scooped up’ and taken immediately before the Father in Heaven. Jesus said, “whoever receives Me” in this way, “receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” Can there be a greater pathway to greatness than that?

Jesus once put it to His followers in these words—in Matthew 10:40-44;

“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:40-44).

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; maybe have reacted to this story as I have. I become ashamed of myself because of it. This passage doesn’t make me feel that I have been very ‘great’. In fact, it makes me want to stand here in embarrassed silence like the twelve apostles.

But even if it’s true that we have spent far too much of our lives pursuing ‘greatness’ in the wrong way, we don’t have to keep doing so. Let’s repent; and let’s begin to pursue it in Jesus’ way. Let’s seek to be “first” by becoming “last”.

Let’s learn to become “great” by becoming “servant of all”.

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