The disciples found it difficult to understand that the Messiah that the Old Testament foretold would be betrayed, suffer, and die. Seeing Jesus only as an earthly King, they argued among themselves concerning which of them should be given status within Jesus’ kingdom. Alistair Begg reminds us that despite the lack of humility on the part of the disciples, Jesus did not abandon them, but showed them grace and gave them a lesson in true humility.
And now, before we pray together, let’s read from Mark 9:30:
“They”—that is, Jesus and the disciples—“left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. 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.’ But they did[n’t] understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
“They came 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.
“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.’
“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.’”
Gracious God, we pray now that, as we have our Bibles open, that our hearts may be open to the truth, that our minds may be illuminated by the Holy Spirit so that beyond the voice of a mere man we may hear from you, the living God. And we pray earnestly and humbly in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but I find these descriptive passages very alluring, very endearing. I have occasion to read them with frequency, as you would think, throughout the week, as I have to study them again and again. But even as I read them in your hearing now, I hope that you recognize the wonderful way in which Jesus is continuing the pattern that was represented in Judaism within the family of those who were members of Israel to instruct their children when they were walking along the road, when they were lying down, and when they were getting up. And what we really have in this little section is Jesus instructing his spiritual children. And he is employing the methodology of Moses back in Deuteronomy 6, seizing the opportunity to instruct them and to guide them as they walk along the road.
The simplicity of the verses that we’ve read and the scene that is described in them stands, I think you would agree, in stark contrast to so much of our contemporary life. There is, if you like, a tranquility about the way in which we find them moving from one place to another: “They left that place,” they “passed through Galilee,” and so on. There’s a lovely cadence to it, even in the way that it reads, and it describes the way in which the disciples are making their journey.
We pride ourselves on the great advances of communication in our day, many of which are occasions of thankfulness. But one might argue that there is at least a distinct potential that in our ability to communicate so instantaneously, we are actually losing more than we’re gaining. Alas, the loss of the simple art of conversation and the peculiar joy of walking—the simple art of conversation and the peculiar joy of walking. Some of you may have benefited from Willard Spiegelman’s book Essays on Ordinary Happiness. It’s called Seven Pleasures, and in the course of his describing for us the ordinary pleasures of life—which I can identify for you as reading, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, writing, yes, and walking—in his chapter on walking, he writes as follows:
Strolling used to be an American custom, but hasn’t been for a long time. It still remains a powerful one in most European countries, especially in the Mediterranean …. The courtship ritual of the paseo [that is in Italy] allows young couples to be alone in public. Wandering one late Sunday summer afternoon on the Janiculum Hill in Rome, I noticed that amid the strollers—young and old, fat and thin, single, in couples, and in larger groups—the only people moving at a more intense pace were the determined American joggers, oblivious of the pine trees, the views, and the fresh air, impervious to everything except their pulse rate and the chore at hand.
And then he observes, “Never did running seem so inappropriate, so unnecessary, so modern.”
You see, in the way in which we live our lives in the twenty-first century, we actually deprive ourselves of some essential elements that make life life. Spiegelman’s onto something in that book. It’s a fairly obvious observation, but when you translate it back into the context of Jesus and the disciples, you see that Jesus is seizing the opportunity of talking while they’re walking. And on this occasion, the classroom in which the instruction is taking place is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
Now, the parallel passage in Luke’s Gospel was the focus of our study in 2006. And, no doubt, all of you who were present then have a vivid recollection of that study. And therefore, you won’t need me to remind you that the two headings that we gathered our thoughts under on that occasion were, number one, “a question the disciples were afraid to ask,” and number two, “a question the disciples were ashamed to answer.” Since that was our outline in Luke, we can’t use it now in Mark, and so I want us to look at these verses from three perspectives—from three perspectives.
And the first is to notice the instruction they don’t get, the “they” being the disciples—the instruction they don’t get.
Jesus and the disciples, Mark is telling us, are on the first leg of a journey to Jerusalem. And on this journey to Jerusalem, Jesus is explaining to them all that lies ahead for them. In Matthew’s account, he actually pinpoints it by saying, “From that time on”—that is, the time when Jesus had been declared Messiah by Peter—“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things.”
And so, if you like, to get the picture clearly in your mind, we have Jesus and the disciples, and they’re now moving towards Jerusalem—they’re about to come into Capernaum, they’re going to go on from there—and as they make this journey, they make it, as it were, under the looming shadow of the cross. All that awaits Jesus in terms of his death is now looming before them. The disciples don’t fully grasp this, but Jesus understands it perfectly.
And on this journey, he desires privacy. That’s what Mark tells us in verse 30: Jesus didn’t want anyone to know where they were. And then, so that we’re not in any doubt as to why that is, he goes on to tell us in verse 31, “And the reason that he wanted privacy was because he was teaching his disciples,” and so that he could do so in a way that the disciples would pay attention, because they hadn’t done very well at paying attention the last time, and as a result of his instruction Peter had taken Jesus aside and tried to teach the Old Testament to him. And presumably, the rest of the disciples were caught up in that. And so, what you have here, as Mark tells us, is that Jesus is essentially taking his class—he’s got a class of twelve—and he’s taking the class back through the notes from last time. He’s telling them once again that as the Son of Man, he’s going to be betrayed, he’s going to be killed, he’s going to be resurrected.
And you will notice that his self-designation is the phrase “the Son of Man.” I don’t want us to delay on this, but I want you to understand at least a little of what Jesus is doing when he uses this as a description of himself. He’s not arbitrarily just using this as something that he has plucked out of the air, but he is using it purposefully, because the Old Testament anticipates the arrival of the Son of Man. And if at your leisure you care to follow up on this, you will find that in Daniel chapter 7, Daniel anticipates in a vision the Son of Man, and this is what he says—this is Daniel 7:13: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” And so, when people read this account in the Old Testament, they understandably said to themselves, “I wonder who this Son of Man will be? I wonder who this person will be?”—in the same way that they were asking themselves, “Who will be this king who sits on David’s throne? Who will be this prophet who out-prophets all the other prophets? Who will be the priest who finally makes a sufficient sacrifice for sin?”
So, when Jesus uses this phrase, it is descriptive of his majesty and his glory. And as a result, the disciples, recognizing this, cannot square it with what he now tells them concerning betrayal, suffering, and death. In fairness to them, they don’t have the opportunity to read the Bible backwards as do we. And it just didn’t square with their understanding of the Old Testament. They just didn’t get it. Afterwards, it was all going to come together for them, but at this point, as Jesus gives them this instruction, it’s all far too paradoxical for them. They don’t understand how all of the majesty and glory that is represented in a vision of the Son of Man may be combined with the humiliation and suffering that is represented in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy, particularly chapter 53.
And despite the fact that they’re mystified by this, verse 32 tells us that nobody was prepared to ask for an explanation. One of the commentators says in reference to verse 32, “Perhaps they [recall] that Peter’s earlier attempt[s] to express disapproval of Jesus’ prediction of suffering led to a harsh rebuke.” The funniest thing about that for me is the opening word, “perhaps.” Perhaps? Of course they remembered what happened before! It hasn’t been that long since; they’re not dimwits. Jesus had said, “I’m going up to Jerusalem. I’m going to suffer and die.” Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Jesus said to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Now you can see them looking at one another, saying, “I’m not gonna ask him. Remember what happened when Peter took it on? No one in their right mind is going to ask him. You ask him!” So he said, “I’m not gonna ask him.” So nobody’s going to ask him! Because they understood enough to be afraid of understanding more.
That was the point. Jesus had already told them that those who were his followers would be the ones who took up their cross to follow him. That’s at the end of Mark chapter 8: “Whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it. Whoever wants to keep his life will lose it. If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross.” And they’re beginning now to put the picture together. They say, “Wait a minute, now. If he’s going to go up, and this is what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem, what’s going to happen to us?” And they understand enough to know they don’t want to understand anything else.
We understand this, don’t we? I was thinking about it this week when I went for my six-monthly blood test. And as I was walking in on a nice sunny morning, just to have my blood drawn, I said to myself, “Well, maybe I won’t go and have my blood drawn. Maybe I’ll just assume the best.” And I thought, “What if I have my blood drawn and I get a bad report? Well then, if I don’t have it drawn, then I won’t know it’s a bad report, so then I could just go on as normal.” Then I thought, “That’d be silly.” So I had my blood drawn. And I still haven’t had the report.
They understood enough to understand they didn’t want to understand any more. If they found out more, they might realize what awaited them. They knew enough to know that this business of following Jesus is a serious business. If he’s going to suffer and die, then we may have to suffer and die too.
Well, that’s the instruction that they didn’t get. Jesus was teaching his disciples, and they didn’t get the instructions. Secondly, the discussion they shouldn’t have—the discussion they shouldn’t have. In fact, it was more than a discussion; it was a dispute, it was an argument.
“[And] they came to Capernaum”—verse 33—and “when he was in the house”—definite article rather than the indefinite article. I think it’s probably the house of Simon and Andrew. “Why do you say that?” Well, we’ve been remembering Simon and Andrew’s house since 1:29, because when they went to Capernaum, they went to the house of Simon and Andrew. Now they’re back in Capernaum, and “When they went into the house…” It may not be, but I think it probably is. And when they got into the house, Jesus had a question for them: “What were you arguing about on the road?”
Rivalry is part and parcel of life. Rivalry on a team can actually be the occasion of spurring somebody else on. When you run sprints, when you’re doing training for playing in a team, then the rivalry may help you to become faster. It can become the occasion of making you better which is required, and which is one of the benefits of being in a team. But when rivalry becomes the occasion of selfishness and jealousy, then it undermines the team.
And we’ve seen illustrations of that already in the World Cup, those of us who’ve been watching the World Cup, and classically in the French team, which went back to Paris earlier this week, all of them with their tails between their legs. And in an article in the Wall Street, the heading was, “Everyone Hates the French—Even the French.” Which was a sorry but accurate description of what had happened, because the thing had collapsed: eleven or twenty of the best players in Europe had come together and dissolved as a result of selfishness, and rivalry, and things which can destroy a team, which can destroy a family, which can destroy an office, which can destroy a company, which can destroy a church, which can destroy a discipleship band.
And Jesus says, “Hey, when we were coming up here, what were you talking about?” Now, again, I have this picture in my mind. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not. I don’t see them all walking, like, twelve side-by-side coming down Route 43, but rather in a far more rural scene, a narrow pathway, with somebody walking in front—namely, Jesus, a lonely figure, a solitary figure in many ways. He’s given the instruction, he knows under his Father where he’s heading, and as he walks on ahead of them, he just gets snippets of the conversation that is coming forward to him from the ribbon line of disciples as they’re jostling their way along behind him. And they’re having the discussion about which of them is the greatest.
Now, that’s a bad discussion on any occasion, but especially in this context, it’s incongruous, isn’t it? How incongruous that when Jesus is giving them instruction concerning suffering that they would be preoccupied with status! “The Son of Man must go up to Jerusalem now and suffer. Okay, let’s get going. We’re going to Capernaum.” And the discussion’s going on behind: “You know, I think I ought to sit next to Jesus. If he’s got a kingdom and he’s coming into it, I’ve been one of the…,” and so on.
“Well,” you say to yourself, “what a shame. I can’t imagine people treating one another like that.” Pardon? I beg your pardon? The tragedy of this is that we see our faces here. Because pride rears its ugly head all the time, and in the most rarified of contexts: in church contexts, in pastoral team contexts, in pastors’ conferences contexts. And the antidote to it is humility—a humility, writes David Wells, that is “freedom from our self,” a freedom “which enables us to be in positions in which we have neither recognition nor importance, neither power nor [validity], and even experience deprivation, and yet have joy and delight. It is the freedom of knowing that we are not at the center of the universe, not even in the center of our own private universe.”
And the disciples were at the center of their little universe. [Temple] says, “Every day, in a thousand ways, I’m tempted to make myself the center of the universe.” That’s a very honest acknowledgment, isn’t it? Classically stated in the twenty-first century as “It’s all about me.” And that’s what the disciples were into. There’s nothing new under the sun. First century AD, what they having a discussion about? About “me,” and “where I fit in the scheme of things,” and so on. So Jesus asks them, not because he needs the information, but because he wants to use it as an opportunity for instruction.
And so, he sits in the place of the rabbi or the teacher—verse 35: “Sitting down…” Jesus convenes the class. The teacher always sat in the context of the synagogue; now he sits to teach them. And in the matter of a sentence, he turns human ideas of status and greatness completely upside down. He only needs one sentence to deal with it: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. You’re here to talk about status, you’re here to talk about greatness, you’ve been talking about who’s the first in the list? Well, let me tell you.” On another occasion, remember, he says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over their people. But we must not be like that. You want to be first? Be last.” He’s going to go on and speak of himself—once again, “the Son of Man”—Mark 10:45—“the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This is a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it? And only the grace of God can set us free from ourselves. Only the grace of God can get the focus off me and off you. Because by nature we are bent in upon ourselves. You get a new telephone directory—they give them every so often, I don’t know why they ever do anymore—but you’ll find out just where you are if you look for your name, just to see if it’s in there. Why do you look for your own name to see if it’s in there? Why not look for the next-door neighbor’s name to see if it’s in there? “’Cause I wanna see if my name’s in there!” That’s it.
A couple of weeks ago, now, we had the privilege, Sue and I, of going down and watching a couple of the men had qualified for the US Open at Pebble Beach. And we followed one group in particular, and there was one moment that stood out to me in the entire day—not the moment of wonderful success on the part of the golfer, but a moment of self-abnegation on the part of the caddy. And I will forever have a picture in my mind of the caddy being in the bunker after the hole has been finished, raking the bunker.
You say, “Well, there’s nothing unusual about him being in the bunker, raking a bunker. That’s what caddies do.” Well, yes, it is what caddies do. But the thing that struck me was, his pro had already hit out of the bunker and was finished, the hole was completed, and they had begun to move off to the next tee, but he was still raking the bunker. Why was he raking the bunker? He was raking the bunker because he should, but he was raking the bunker with consummate skill for the sake of somebody who would come behind him. He was going the extra mile in order to make it as pristine as possible for a person with whom he had no peculiar relationship at all. And I looked at Andrew and I said, “Andrew is great. Andrew is great.” Someone else would have said, “No, the pro is great. He’s six under par at the moment. He just won the Senior PGA. He won the British Open before that. He’s the great one.” Well, he’s great in that respect, but Andrew displayed greatness: hot, sweaty day; bib without his name on it; subjugated to the position of the one whom he serves. That’s greatness.
If Jesus is the pro and we are the caddy, then it’s entirely inappropriate for us to try and make such a show and display of ourselves, as if somehow or another we would outshine the one we’ve been called to serve.
And finally, if there is an instruction they don’t get, and if there is a discussion they shouldn’t have, there is, finally, an illustration they can’t miss.
A good illustration helps, doesn’t it? Jesus takes one of the little ones into his arms. There’s no name; it’s a faceless little child. “He took a little child and had him…” So, we know it’s a little boy; let’s call him Simeon. He’s able to stand on his own, but he’s small enough to be picked up and gathered up in Jesus’ arms. So, what is he, three years old? I don’t know. Two, three, four? And Jesus takes little Simeon. And he takes Simeon, and he says, essentially, to his group, he says, “Listen, little Simeon here has no status or prestige. Little Simeon is entirely a dependent child. He’s needy. He is, if you like, at the lowest end of the social order.”
That’s an anachronism, isn’t it? Because the average three-year old child at the moment in twenty-first century America could never be said to be at the lowest end of the social order. But that’s a matter for a different sermon altogether. The fact is that in the context, Jesus was able to use this child as an illustration of littleness. And look at what he does: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.” He’s using the kid as an illustration. “When you have learned to welcome those who are like little children in their littleness, and in their unimportance, and in their need, then it will be clear that you have learned to welcome me, and my Father, too,” he says.
Perhaps he is even suggesting to them that “it is only when you receive me as I am, in my need, in my despisedness, in my rejection, me as a man of sorrows; it is only when you’ve accepted me as I am, the one who is about to suffer and to be betrayed and to be nailed to a cross; it is only when you’ve acknowledged me to be that that you have truly become my disciples.” It won’t be the last time that Jesus uses such an illustration, but it would be difficult for them to miss the point.
So, let me say this by way of conclusion. First, what a challenge these verses contain! What a challenge they contain! Because how sadly we see our faces, we hear our voices, we find ourselves scrambling for position. Of course, if you don’t, then that’s fine; you can give yourself a gold star and look forward to the rest of the afternoon. But if you are like some of us, then the tragedy is that you can’t sit on the balcony and look down on these poor disciples, but you see your face in the group, you hear your voice advancing your “cause” and your “position” and your “prestige,” and why you “should be…” And we find ourselves having to say with Daniel, “Lord, you are righteous, but today our faces are covered with shame. You’re righteous. You’ve done everything right. You always do everything right. But we don’t. We haven’t. And today our faces are covered with shame.” That would be a right response, I think, to this study—the challenge in it.
But that’s not the only response, because there’s a tremendous encouragement in it. And the encouragement is found in this: that Jesus doesn’t abandon this group. Jesus doesn’t say to them, when he finally deals with their dispute amongst each other, he doesn’t say, “And by the way, I’ve kind of enjoyed the time that we’ve spent together, but I’m going to send you home like the French team. You’re all going home now, and frankly, you go back to fishing, go back to whatever you want, ’cause I’ve never seen such a miserable bunch in my entire life. I can’t believe I picked you; I can’t believe that after all I’ve been with you, and lived with you, and slept with you for twenty-five years, and so on, all of these things… And so, fellas, thanks a lot. On you go, home.”
But he doesn’t do that. The coach doesn’t send us home. The coach doesn’t treat us the way we deserve. Why? Because, again, of Daniel’s prayer! Daniel says, “Lord, you are righteous, but today our faces are covered with shame.” That’s his prayer in Daniel 9:7. But he then goes on to say, “The fact is that you also, gracious God, are”—let me quote it exactly for you—“[you are] merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against [you].” “You are merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against you.” And here’s the story of the Christian life: “Lord, you are righteous, and my face is covered with shame. You really ought just to get rid of me. I shouldn’t be on your team at all. But Lord, you are merciful and forgiving, even though my face is covered with shame, and even though I have rebelled against you.”
So, despite our rivalry, despite the absence of our humility, despite the fact that we’re guilty as charged, God does not abandon us. To see our faces in this little scene is to be reminded that we’re constantly in need of grace, that the entry point on the pathway of discipleship is God’s grace. It’s only by grace that we could ever enter into the benefits that he has provided for us. The story of the Bible is not the story of man’s attempt to make himself acceptable to God, but it is the story of God’s willingness to come down and take the place of man. If you come to Parkside routinely, I hope you’re beginning to get this picture—that this is not the story of a God who grades on the curve, that a good God will try and be nice to good people if they do their best, but rather that it is the story of God’s invasion of our circumstances; it’s the wonderful story of God coming down into our rivalry, into our pride, into our rebellion, into our confusion, into our mistrust, and bearing in himself all of that, and crediting to us in himself all that is of grace. And so, the stony terrain and the rocky road of discipleship is traversed only by grace. And when we finally stand before God, it will only be on account of his grace.
What did these characters have to plead on their defense on a day like this? Last time Jesus explained it, Peter took him aside and rebuked him. We had to have that sorted out. Now we’ve gone again, Jesus has explained it again. They decided to use it as an opportunity to talk about whether Muhammad Ali was the greatest or whether one of them was the greatest, and Jesus has to instruct them again.
A wonderful Savior is Jesus our Lord,
A wonderful Savior to me;
He hideth my [life] in the cleft of the rock,
Where rivers of [mercy] I see.
“He does not treat us as our sins deserve [n]or [reward] us according to our iniquities,” because he has brought forward the judgment of the final day into time in the person of his Son so that all who are in Christ may live in the wonderful assurance of his commitment to see right through to the very end that good work which he has begun in our lives.
Our final hymn this morning, which we’ll sing in a moment, contains such a wonderful invitation. I love the word whosoever. It comes so often in the Bible, in the New Testament particularly. And when we sing it this morning, I hope you’ll notice it, and I hope you’ll ask yourself the question, “Have I ever put my name in that ‘whosoever’? If I resang the hymn—if I sang it just with my name rather than the ‘whosoever’ name in it—would the flow of the hymn be representative of my life? And if not, then why not? Why not?”
There are two caricatures that are represented Sunday by Sunday here at Parkside, and both of them are absolutely wrong. Caricature number one is a person who says he wants to believe in Jesus, but God won’t let him. Caricature number two is somebody who says, “I don’t want to believe in Jesus, and God made me.” Neither is the case. “Whosoever cometh, I will not cast him out.”
Let us pray:
Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank you for the clarity that is within its pages. Help us to think on these things, and as a result to learn what it really means to trust and to follow. For we pray humbly in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Deuteronomy 6:7 (paraphrased).
 Willard Spiegelman, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009), 61.
 Matthew 16:21 (NIV 1984).
 Hans Bayer, note on Mark 9:32, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 1912.
 Mark 8:31–33 (paraphrased).
 Mark 8:34–35 (paraphrased).
 Darren Everson, “Even the French Hate the French,” New York Times, June 23, 2010.
 David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 204.
 William Temple, Christianity and Social Order (London: SPCK, 1976), 60. Paraphrased.
 Mark 10:42–44 (paraphrased).
 Daniel 9:7 (paraphrased).
 Daniel 9:9 (NIV 1984).
 Fanny Crosby, “He Hideth My Soul (1890).
 Psalm 103:10 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).
 W. Chatterton Dix, “Come unto Me, Ye Weary” (1867).
 John 6:37 (paraphrased).