April 1, 2006
It’s tempting to shake our heads in disbelief at the insensitive and childish behavior of Christ’s disciples: as Jesus spoke of suffering and servanthood, they argued about status and jockeyed for positions of honor. Alistair Begg reminds us that we are not so different today, proudly seeking to exalt ourselves rather than offering ourselves in humble sacrifice. Like the disciples, though, we have been chosen by Jesus despite our imperfections, and He will never give up on us.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn once again to the passage of Scripture that was read from Mark chapter 9.
Let’s pray together:
Father, we want now to hear from you in your living Word, the Bible. We don’t need the imaginations of a man’s mind; we need the provision of your truth. We ask for the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit so that all that is of yourself may be ours, that we might learn from you—learn at your feet, as it were—that you will conduct that divine dialogue between your Word and the Spirit of God and our own spirits so that we might hear you and obey. To this end we turn to you now in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, if your Bible is open at chapter 9, you’re looking down at the section that begins at verse 30. Let me remind you that on these Sunday mornings leading up to Easter, we’re looking at the three occasions recorded for us by Mark in which Jesus predicts his passion. We began last time in 8:31 and noted that on that occasion, the teaching of Jesus concerning his suffering and death and resurrection then produced what we referred to as “an ill-conceived rebuke.” You will remember that Peter, having heard these words of Jesus, took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.
This morning, the subsequent prediction, which, interestingly, is in 9:31—we’ve gone from 8:31 to 9:31—this particular prediction comes in the context of what I want to refer to as “an ill-advised argument.” “An ill-advised argument.” And once again, the teaching of Jesus is responded to by the disciples in such a way as to reveal just how little they’re really getting of it—how difficult it is proving for them to grasp the nature of the kingdom of God, how their human valuations need to be reoriented, how their center of gravity needs to be replaced, how their topsy-turvy thinking needs to be brought under the tutelage of the words of Jesus himself.
As I studied this passage, I came to the conclusion that we can deal with it, I think, in a way that is understandable and manageable by paying attention to two questions: one which is actually an unasked question—or, if you like, the question the disciples were afraid to ask—and then, secondly, with the question that the disciples were ashamed to answer. The first of these comes in 30–32 and the second in 33 and following. So that’s really the outline of things.
Note number one: “Afraid to Ask.”
Now, you’ll notice in verse 30 that Mark tells us that Jesus was concerned for privacy. The Jesus who moved freely among the crowds, the Jesus who was accessible to men and women—far more accessible on many occasions than his own disciples—took time in his own personal life to be away from people so that he could be in communion with his Father. And now, as he approaches Jerusalem; as he’s turned, as it were, the corner of his earthly ministry; as he has, if you like, crossed the Rubicon on his way to his death and resurrection, it is a very important part of it all that he would have these times privately with his disciples. And so “Jesus,” we’re told in verse 30, “did not want anyone to know where they were.”
“Well,” you say, “why is this?” And you don’t have to look hard, because the answer is: he wanted privacy because of his priority. And what was his priority? Well, you’ll see there in verse 31: “because he was teaching his disciples.” You’ll notice “he was teaching.” It’s in the imperfect tense. It’s a reminder to us that the class which had begun back in 8:31 was an ongoing class. And the classroom for these disciples was essentially the journey to Jerusalem. And if the context of the class is marked by privacy, then the content is marked by clarity. And Jesus said to them—verse 31—“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.”
So he doesn’t arrive at this particular class with a great handful of new material. He doesn’t come with a whole new set of handouts to be given to his students, but it’s one of those wonderful days when the teacher arrives and says, “We’re not going to go any further this morning than we went when we were together last time. What I want to do today is go over the notes from last time.” I, for one, always enjoyed those occasions, mainly because it gave me a second chance and gave me the chance sometimes to pay attention, since I hadn’t paid attention in the previous class at all. I’m sure none of you were like that, and you were always very disappointed for the reworking of the material, ’cause you were such advanced students. But for the lesser mortals like myself, we were always glad when the teacher said, “We’re going to go over what we did last time.” We were like, “Yes!” Well, that’s exactly what he’s doing here, isn’t it? He doesn’t introduce anything new. “The Son of Man,” he says, “is going to be betrayed, he’ll be killed, and he’ll be resurrected.”
Now, in terms of the English language—of course, it would have been in Aramaic as he spoke it and then Greek as it was written—in terms of the language, the syntax, the sentence itself, there’s nothing difficult about it, is there? Nobody misunderstands the idea of betrayal. It’s not difficult to understand getting killed. It may be a little more difficult to figure this notion of rising again after three days, but the problem does not lie in the conveying of the information. And yet you look down at verse 32: “But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” They just didn’t get it. It wasn’t they couldn’t figure out what it means to be betrayed and killed, but they just didn’t understand how that could possibly be. Any notion that they had of a Messiah had nothing at all to do with suffering. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with death. It was completely ridiculous—it was preposterous for them—to think of someone who was a Messiah suffering betrayal and rejection and then death. And, of course, as we’ll see in just a moment, they had a real difficulty with this “after three days” stuff.
It’s hard to come up with any kind of analogy to register for us the sort of incongruity of the notion. I suppose it would be like Phil Mickelson, now, I think who is about seven or eight strokes at least ahead of the field in the Bell Classic at the moment—I think he’s twenty-one under par—it would be as if Mickelson stood up on the first tee at around one o’clock this afternoon and announced that he was going to play the final round with his right arm or his left arm tied behind his back. I’d say, “That is the most bizarre notion I ever heard of in all my life. If you’re going to be the golfer, be the golfer, but don’t do that!”
“If you’re going to be the Messiah, be the Messiah! But don’t get yourself betrayed and killed! We want a real Messiah! We don’t want a betrayed, dead Messiah.” That’s their mind, you see. Remember what we said last time: we think we’re so smart because we looked behind the crossword puzzle and saw the answers. They only had the clues unfolding for them. And Mark is so honest in giving us this record and points out that they just didn’t understand what he meant.
And what about this idea of “after three days”? “They will kill him, and after three days, he will rise.” Well, you know enough to know that the Jewish mind lived in the expectation of the resurrection. At least the Pharisees, in their teaching, taught it. The Sadducees didn’t. And so in the mind of the Jew, there was the expectation, at the end of the present age, of some resurrection. We find that in various places in the Gospel—classically in the record of the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11. You can note it and turn to it for your extra reading. No points, but you can read John 11 for your homework. And you’ll remember that Martha sends for Jesus because her brother, Lazarus, is ill. Jesus delays in his coming, and by the time he reaches Martha on the roadway, Lazarus has died. In fact, he’s been in the grave for four days. Martha says, “[Jesus,] if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds by saying, “Your brother,” Lazarus, “will rise again.” She says, “I know [that] he will rise again … at the last day.” But she had no concept of her brother being raised to life in the immediacy of the circumstances.
Now, in the same way, these disciples had a concept of resurrection at the end of the age, but they had no concept, no expectation, of someone who would rise from the dead while the present age continued. If your Bible is open to chapter 9, you can look at verse 10. After the transfiguration—we noted it last time—“they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant.”
Keep this in mind, incidentally, when you meet the customary skepticism which is about to wash over us as Easter comes around. Time magazine and Newsweek, they’ll all be there again. There’ll be some heading somewhere that has to do with “Is the Resurrection a Myth?” or whatever it is. And the idea will be promulgated again that these disciples were prepackaged and were ready to believe this notion because of this and that and the next thing. You’ll be able to say, “Well, funnily enough, they weren’t.” And the reason you’ll be able to say so is because you’ve been reading your Bible. And when you read your Bible, you discovered that they had no concept of a resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And that explains why it was that the disciples, on receiving the news from the women when they came back from the tomb, said to the women, “Frankly, your words are absolute nonsense.” If they’d been expecting a resurrection, they would have said, “Oh, that’s the resurrection! Of course! That’s what he said: after three days, he’d rise again. Yeah, we knew that. Oh, we knew that. Yeah.” They didn’t know it. Well, they knew it cerebrally, but it only rattled in their head. It hadn’t made any transforming impact in their lives.
You see, the question that they’re afraid to ask is a simple question. And the question is: “What on earth does he mean?” “What on earth does he mean?” Literally, “What on earth does he mean? I mean, we’ve got an idea what this might mean out of the earth or above the earth or beyond the earth or beyond time, but what does he mean right now? What does this mean?” And their incomprehension (“They did not understand”) is matched by their fear (“They … were afraid to ask him about it”). It’s quite striking, isn’t it? Because if you’ve read the Gospels to this point, you know that the disciples were normally full of questions: “What do the parables mean? What does this mean? What does that mean?” They were very free in asking Jesus. And Jesus, of course, was a wonderful teacher, and teachers like it when people ask them questions. But on this occasion, no one was prepared to ask.
If you like, they’re all sitting in the class, the instruction has been given, and the time has come now for an opportunity for feedback, and no one’s prepared to put up their hand. And you have that dreadful silence when the teacher says, “And now does anyone have any questions about this?” And then somebody gets their ruler and pokes the person in front of them, says, “Go ahead. You ask.” Someone pokes Peters and says, “Go ahead, ask.” Peter says, “I’m not asking! I did the rebuke thing. How did that go? Thomas, you ask. You don’t know anything.” Thomas says, “I’m not asking. I doubt it would do any good anyway.” “Philip, you’re the master of dumb questions. You’re the obvious one to ask! Jesus is used to your stupid questions. You ask.” “I’m not asking!” It’s almost comic, isn’t it? All these grown men: “No, I’m not asking. You ask.”
One commentator puts it this way, and I think he’s probably right: “They under[stood] enough to be afraid [of] under[standing] more.” “They under[stood] enough to be afraid [of] under[standing] more.” They had just enough of a notion to recognize that if they actually defined their questions, the answers they would get would be answers that they really didn’t want to have. So, if you like, they were smart enough to hedge their bets, and when the opportunity came for the questions, no one wanted to ask a question.
The question they were afraid to ask.
Now, let’s go on secondly, in verse 33 and following, to the question that they were ashamed to answer.
Once again, the context is privacy. They’re in a house. It may be the house of Peter and Andrew. We can’t say with certainty, but you don’t need to worry—it’s not a main thing; it’s not a plain thing. But now, in the privacy of this home, although they had had no question for the teacher at the end of the class, the teacher has a question for them in light of their conversation going down the corridor, as it were—in light of their conversation on the journey to this house. The question is there at the end of verse 33: “What were you arguing about on the road?”
Now, I think we can safely assume that, as is so often the case, Jesus is not looking for information when he asks this question. He was tuned in enough. He was alert enough, just as a man, to have moved with them on this journey and to be alert to the fact that their conversation with one another—albeit perhaps behind their hands, perhaps when they thought he wasn’t listening—was a conversation that had to do with themselves and their status. And certainly, in terms of his divine ability to discern what was going on, we could say that unequivocally. Now, I don’t think we should imagine that Jesus didn’t know what was going on, and so he asked them because he was trying to find out. Rather, we ought to see him challenging them to bring into the open an argument about which they had good reason to be ashamed.
And once again, there’s an almost comical incongruity in the picture of these grown men acting like guilty schoolboys caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Now they’re confronted by the opposite challenge. Previously, they were prompting one another, “Go ahead and ask.” Nobody wants to ask. Now they’re prompting one another, “Go ahead and answer.” Nobody wants to answer.
“What were you arguing about when you came down the road?”
“I’m not telling him. You tell him. You were the one arguing.”
“I wasn’t arguing.”
“Well, you’re arguing now.”
It’s that kind of interaction, dealing with real men on the journey here—men whose lives have been picked up by Jesus, but not perfect men. Which is encouraging, isn’t it? Because if your life has been picked up by Jesus, you’re not a perfect man or woman either. You’re not perfect at all. You’re not perfect in your relationships. I’m certainly not! You’re not perfect in the questions you ask. You ask the wrong questions at the wrong times; you’re ashamed to answer questions you’re asked—just like these folks, if we’re honest.
No, they remain tight-lipped, because they recognized just how much dissonance there is between the expectation of Jesus and his focus and their focus and their expectations. Jesus is focused on his suffering. That’s what he’s just said to them again: betrayal, death, “three days,” resurrection. It’s all about suffering. But what are they on about? They’re on about status. He’s on about rejection; they’re on about position: “Where do I fit in the scheme of things?”
Now, let me ask you a question: If your Bible is open there at chapter 9, do you see anywhere in the page in front of you that there is the possibility for triggering this kind of argument amongst the disciples? Now, it’s rhetorical. You don’t have to put up your hand. We’re not going to have “And everyone was afraid to answer the question.” We’re not trying to reenact that. But some of you have got it already, ’cause you’re so smart, and that is the transfiguration. Because what happened in the transfiguration? Jesus singled out three individuals—took three out of the Twelve: Peter, James, and John. You know how that goes, don’t you? As a schoolteacher: “Why is it that Mary and Jane and Bill are going to be representing the class at such and such an event? What happened to me?” Or when you look at your sales team, and you pick three people out of your sales team to go to the convention in San Diego, and all the recriminations around the water cooler and the memos and the emails that are flying all back and forth: “What’s up with me? Why am I not going?”
If, again, we think that the disciples all said, “Well, that’s wonderful for you, Peter, James, and John; we are so glad that you’re having that wonderful transfiguration experience,” we’ve probably got the wrong end of the stick. If we see them going, “I don’t know why you think you’re such a big shot, Peter. I mean transfiguration, transfugeration, whatever that was—I’ve been at one of those.” “No, you have not! There’s only ever been one!” “No, there was another one. You just don’t know about it.” That kind of thing. That’s what may well have triggered it! Nine are left out; three are taken. The nine don’t like it, or the three are boastful: “Let me tell you about when I was at the transfiguration. That was an amazing event!” “Oh, be quiet! We don’t want to hear about your transfiguration.”
Or maybe they just were processing the information, and they understood that Jesus said, “I’m out of here. There’s coming an end to my leadership. There’s coming an end to my earthly pilgrimage. I’m going to be gone.” So they said, “Okay, he’s going to be gone. That means the vacuum must be filled. That means somebody must be the leader.” And then, quite naturally, they start jockeying for position. Right now, in the British Isles, with the question every day in the New York Times and so on about whether Tony Blair is going to live out the next few years of his prime ministership or not, along with that comes all the jockeying for position and all the questions about who could possibly be what and so on. And somehow or another, that’s exactly where these disciples had arrived: “I think I’m the best man for the job. I think I’m actually the best of the disciples.” “Oh, you do? Well, I don’t think you are.” Jesus said, “Hey, fellas, just a question for you: What were you arguing about when we were coming down the road together?” But they’re too ashamed to reply. So they should be. So we should be.
Now, it’s at that point that Jesus calls a time-out, isn’t it? Doesn’t say that in the text, but that’s really what’s happening between verse 34 and 35. And Jesus sits down. “Sitting down…” It’s interesting, that little note, “sitting down.” It must be significant, otherwise it wouldn’t be written there. It’s probably to give indication of the fact that Jesus secured this as a specific teaching moment. Remember, it was customary for the teacher to be seated: standing up to read the Scriptures in the synagogue in Nazareth, and when he had handed the scroll back to the servant, he then “sat down.” And Luke records, “And all the eyes of the people in the synagogue were fastened on him to see what it was he was going to teach them.” He sat in the position of the teacher. He does it again. He sits down, and he says, “Okay, let’s gather around, fellas. This is a teaching moment. We’ve got an issue here that we need to address.”
I’ve never played basketball and never will in my life. Whether they’ll have it in heaven is a real moot point. I suppose they will, because a number of you would like that. But those time-outs—I don’t get them. You can tell me afterwards. This is genuine inquiry; this is not a rhetorical device. But when I see the fellow, and he sits down—most of the time the guy has a stool. I don’t know what he does. He’s got a stool, and he sits down, and everybody huddles around, and then he draws all over a thing, a whiteboard—squiggles and circles and diagrams. I don’t think so. I don’t think anything’s happening. ’Cause I’ve seen the guys. They’re like, “Hmm.” And he’s like …. I think that’s for him. I think they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But they shouldn’t. They should pay attention.
And these fellows have got to pay attention. “Gather round, fellas. I’ve got something I want to address with you. I’ve already given you one tutorial on this, the reversal of human valuation, when we talked about saving your life or losing it, or losing it and saving it. But I want to put it to you even more concisely, even more succinctly this time. Let me just give it to you in a phrase: if any one of you wants to be first, he must be the very last and the servant of all.” Boy, what a… That must have been like a juggernaut hitting them! “What are we arguing about on the road?” “Nothing.” “Well, okay, well let’s not worry about that just now. Let me just tell you: if you want to be first, you need to be the very last and the servant of all.”
Now, this isn’t the last occasion, as we’re going to see next time, when Jesus has to confront his disciples with his radical reorientation of their thinking. It is a challenge to natural human valuation. It’s a challenge which demands constant repetition. Constant repetition. “If you want to be first, you need to be the very last.” See how upside down it is in thinking? How counterintuitive it is to twenty-first century thought about how you advance in the company, about how you secure influence in your realm? Jesus takes human evaluation, turns it completely upside down in terms of the realm of his kingdom.
I don’t know about you, but I should have this written on the back of my eyes. I find it so easy to forget or to ignore. And as a masterful teacher, Jesus then says, “In fact, let me just give you an illustration of this to drive it home. My instruction is succinct, and it’s clear: if you want to be first, be the last; be the servant of all.” And then he says, “Would somebody bring Simeon to me?” (I invented Simeon, but…) “If somebody’d bring little Simeon? Get Simeon.” Someone shouts in the house, “Where’s Simeon?” “Well, he’s up the stairs playing with LEGO.” “Okay, get him down the stairs. Bring him here. Jesus wants him.” So he comes down the stairs… (The first century equivalent of LEGO! Please.) So he comes down the stairs, and Jesus takes Simeon in his arms, and then he says, “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.”
Now, a child had no status, no prestige. A child was, if you like, at the lowest end of the scale of social order. They were under the authority and care of others. That’s why when, later, Jesus says, “Unless you become as a little child,” what he’s saying is “I invite you to forgo your status. I invite you to accept the lowest place. I invite you to become a little one.” You see how that doesn’t play in twenty-first century America either? Because twenty-first-century America is about being the big man on campus: “Oh yeah, he was a big man on campus.” Jesus says, “I don’t care. I have come to call the big men on campus to become little men. I have become the prominent and the first. I have come to call those to get at the back of the bus. And I have come to call my servants to focus their service not on the basis of the status of those to whom they go but actually on the reverse of that”—which is such a challenge then and such a challenge now!
“You,” he says to his disciples, “have only learned what it means to welcome me when you are prepared to welcome the little ones.” And presumably, the child represents those who, like children, are marked by littleness and by unimportance. Jesus says to his disciples, who are stuck on who’s the greatest and who’s first and where they’re going to be and so on, he says, “You’ll know that you’re grasping this kingdom story when you learn to welcome these, because when you learn to welcome these, it will be indicative of the fact that you welcome me. And in welcoming me, you are welcoming the Father who sent me.”
Well, let’s just wrap it up with a couple of observations.
Observation number one, concerning the disciples: any notion that we might have of the disciples being a united little group, all closely knit, sitting around, holding hands, singing, “I love you with the love of the Lord,” is flat-out challenged by this little incident, isn’t it? I mean, I think we have every right, because the Scriptures demand of us our love and care for one another, but I think we live so often in the realm of flat-out hypocrisy that we neither achieve one thing nor the other. You can neither have a jolly good disagreement and deal with it, nor can you really enter into the fullness of relationships with one another, because we create a kind of mythological relationship with each other.
The disciples were not all “Come along, Philip, let’s hold hands,” and they’re having like a kumbaya moment. No, they had Jesus as their Captain. They had decided together under God’s leading that they were going to follow Jesus, and off they go. They’re following Jesus down the road. Jesus says, “I’m going up to Jerusalem. I’m going to be betrayed, going to suffer; I’m going to be rejected; I’m going to die.” And as they come behind, they’re going, “I am far more significant than you, Philip. I’ll tell you that.” And just little snippets of conversation: “I’ll tell you, there’s a good reason why you were not at the transfiguration, Thomas. You are useless for transfigurations”; “Philip, it’s questionable whether you should even be in this group.” That’s the kind of thing that was going on.
And this is Jesus’ core! Jesus gets them round, and he says, “How many times am I going to teach this stuff to you? Have I been so long with you, and still you do not understand?” And the great encouragement is, he sticks with them! And the great encouragement is, he sticks with us—not because we are prepared to ask the question when we should and we’re prepared to answer the question when we ought, but even when we are afraid to ask when we ought and when we’re ashamed to answer when we should.
It’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? No brilliance in that. But I think the even greater challenge is in this: that the servant, says Jesus—his servant—is recognized not by the honor he gives to those who have particular status but by his response to those who, like children, possess neither status nor significance. That’s why I said our overarching heading for these studies ought to be, They Just Don’t Get It. Do We? I look away from this passage in shame. I see my face in this passage. I hear my voice in this passage. I see myself scrambling for significance in this passage. But maybe that’s just me.
Did you ever meet a more insecure bunch of goofballs than two hundred pastors in a room? “Well,” you say, “I wouldn’t say that.” Of course you wouldn’t. You’re nice people. I said it. You just have to answer it in your minds. Don’t shout out; it’ll be embarrassing. Pastors are some of the most insecure people you’ll ever meet in your life, and our insecurities come out in jockeying for position with one another. Oh, we’re smart enough and skillful enough not to say, you know, “I am more significant than you. I am doing better than you. I have more than you.” But if you listen to the way in which they talk, there is a code language which is used, which I won’t go into right now, which essentially says, “I have completely lost the pastoring plot.” What Jesus says is all about servitude. The pastor has concluded it’s all about status.
And Jesus actually says here, “Whoever welcomes…” “Whoever.” It’s as if he’s saying to the disciples, “You think you’ve got a leg up because you’re closer to me than the rest of those people that didn’t get in this house? You think that because you serve in a particular capacity for Jesus, that you somehow or another have a prerogative that others don’t have?” Jesus says, “No, I want to tell you something: whoever does this—whoever the person is who does this, whoever the person is—they are able to bring people into the presence of divinity. They are able to bring others into the presence of Christ.”
So this is a question that we should be ashamed to answer, especially when we’re arguing about who’s the most significant. But the other is a question that we should never be afraid to ask—the question of who Jesus is and why he came and what his death meant and what it means that he was raised after three days from the dead. If you have been afraid of asking those questions and would like to consider them even this morning, it would be our privilege to address them with you now or at your convenience.
Father, thank you that your Word cuts into the core of our being and shows us what we’re really like. As painful as it is, we know that you never wound arbitrarily, capriciously, but you do in order to heal. You ask us the hard questions so that you might bring out into the open that which needs to be addressed. Forgive us when we think that you are the one who deals in the realm of servanthood and we are the ones who enjoy status, that you should think in terms of rejection and we might think in terms of position. Help up to understand, Lord Jesus Christ, that you are King, but that you are a Servant King, and that you call us into line with your example and that you empower us by your Spirit. May we live what we learn by your enabling today. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 John 11:21, 23–24 (NIV 1984).
 Ernest Best, Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplemental Series 4 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1981), 73.
 Luke 4:20 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 4:20 (paraphrased).
 See Mark 8:35.
 Mark 10:15 (paraphrased).
 Jim Gilbert, “I Love You with the Love of the Lord” (1977).
 See John 14:9.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.