True greatness is rare these days though people need to see it. What is it? The path to true greatness is more different than what most everyone is naturally inclined toward. In a word, true greatness could be defined as humility. Humility should not to be mistaken to be merely a soft-spoken demeanor or a self-effacing temperament. But true biblical humility takes action – the action of self-sacrifice. Self-sacrificial love to be exact. Interestingly, the concept of self-sacrifice is replete in the art and stories of our culture. Love in the form of humility is what people being made in God’s image intuitively resonate with. Whether you reference a historical legend like William Wallace or Abraham Lincoln, Gandolf or Aslan, OB1 Kenobi, or The Lion King. Even last night’s children’s movie I watched where the father dinosaur flings his son to safety just before being swept away by the flood waters. Love that pays the ultimate price is the definition of True Greatness. You might say the path of self sacrifice moves us because this is embedded in our consciences.
Verses 32-34 is where Jesus brings up the ultimate sacrifice. This is his third prediction of his imminent suffering. This time has more details than the prior two. The focus of this scene is Jerusalem and here Jesus reveals that he will be “delivered over to the chief priests and scribes” and then “condemned…to death” which is legal terminology pointing to the criminal justice system that will try and execute him.
Liberal theologians cast Jesus as someone making logical predictions based on his human intuition and logic as the criminal’s death by crucifixion was a common and public practice. But Jesus was omniscient. He had access to the plan and detailed knowledge of it. This is implied in the fact that Jesus is said to be “walking ahead” (v. 32). Jesus was deliberately leading his disciples and whoever else was trailing along back into the city. Jesus was heading right into the thick of it and his disciples knew it as Mark said they were “amazed” and “afraid” (v. 32). Jesus had “set his face.”
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51 ESV)
What’s the point? Jerusalem was a dangerous place for Jesus. They were frantic – remember Thomas’ words in John 11:16 “Let us go along so that we may die with him.” There was disbelief for what they intuitively knew they were going to face.
We also know Jesus knew what was coming based on the fact of the level of details he used that match with the Old Testament predictions. Jesus uses the language and imagery from Isaiah 53 to describe what he knows will happen to him.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
The cross is core to his mission and Jesus knew this! And it is this message of the cross that always brings people to the cross roads! Jesus bringing up the cross incites a decision. The cross means self-denial. The cross means shame. The cross means self-sacrifice. All of the wonderment of Christ and his miracle glory halts within the question – “Am I willing to go the distance with Christ?” The natural man – or average person may be moved by self-sacrifice but this can quickly turn into what Paul calls “foolishness” or “folly” when there is the call for direct association or application. The cross either draws people to follow or repels people away.
Some get offended by the cross as if it is another form of bloodthirsty tribal god worship or even a form of divine child abuse or simply dismissed as emotionalized folklore. Most often the cross is simply given a blind assent and then dismissed as unimportant to life! “I don’t want the path of self-denial; I want the path of self-ambition!”
This all sets the stage for what happens with Jesus’ closest disciples. There are two paths to greatness and Jesus exposes how even followers of Jesus often choose the wrong one.
Two paths to greatness
1. The path of self-ambition (vv. 35-42)
I subhead this as “Entitlement” because this is exactly what James and John reveal as their attitude.
Who were James and John? They were part of Jesus’ inner three disciples. They accompanied Jesus to the Mount Transfiguration. They were called to pray and commune with Christ in deepest intimacy. John was called the disciple Jesus loved. Who reclined on Jesus’ chest at Passover. These were passionate followers of Christ.
They were dubbed by Jesus – as “Sons of Boanerges” or “Thunder.” This for good reason – back to the reference in Luke 9:53 where Jesus is headed to Jerusalem with “his face set.” They had to pass through Samaria and as you’ll recall there was major prejudices between Jews and Samaritans (religious and ethnic). Jesus sent a couple scouts to set up living accommodations. They were rejected and James and John flamed up with anger!
And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9:54 ESV)
These men still had something to learn. In verses 35-37 they approach Jesus for positions of glory! Wanting to be in the presence of Jesus’ glory is never wrong. We are called to be consumed by his glory in joy! This is the hope of heaven and the key to holiness. However, the way they ask their question shows a wrong motivation. They didn’t want Christ’s glory but their own. This distinction is subtle. Verse 35 is the old child to parent manipulation. “Say, ‘yes’ before you know what I’m going to ask!” “Ugh…how about ‘no’” is what we all should say as parents. Worse than this, according to Matthew’s account, James and John’s mother was involved and part of their scheme. Matthew 20:20-21
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (Mathew 20:20-21 ESV)
Who is this woman? This is one of the women at the crucifixion. There’s Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and Salome. In the Gospels Salome is referred to as the mother of the Sons of Zebedee and John calls her Mary’s sister which makes her Jesus’ aunt! This is a family matter! This is typical heavyweight family pressure.
Jesus response? (v. 38). Jesus doesn’t condemn them but does question what they are asking . It was obvious James and John had missed his message about the cross. Suffering must come before the crown. R.C. Sproul said of them that there is no “theologia gloriae without first a theologia crucis.” As someone put it, the disciples were saying, “When you assume your position of power, we want to be chief members of your cabinet.”
Suffering and glory seem like an utter contradiction but is the paradox of the Christian experience. There will be glory to be enjoyed in heaven but the path of true greatness comes through pain, through sacrifice, through justice, through substitution, through forgiveness, through love! The point is that James and John needed to be captivated by this path! Not the worldly path that skips this first!
Jesus clarifies that they “did not know what they were asking.” In essence asking to be at Jesus’ right and left hand would mean “drinking the cup of sacrifice” or being “baptized” or immersed in death! (v. 38). The “cup” is the word picture of justice served by God as a judgment against evil. The “cup” is the exact word what Jesus used when he prayed in Gethsemane on the eve of the cross. May the wrath of God for the sins of the world pass from me!
Verse 39 shows James and John living up to their nickname “Sons of Thunder.” They said, “We are able” (v. 39). What did they mean? They were ignoring the cross, the shame, the suffering of Christianity and seeking a physical kingdom now. This is not the right path. This is actually a joyless path.
Jesus answers that they in fact will “drink this cup” and will be “baptized” meaning they will suffer and die for Christ! Their deaths, not atoning deaths, but deaths by association. How did James die? James dies as a Christian martyr, by Herod’s sword (Acts 12:1-2).
About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, (Acts 12:1-2 ESV)
John, was exiled on the island of Patmos. A Son of Thunder transformed into the Apostle of Love. The persevering aged and last Apostle. One filled with love and joy for his children.
I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. ESV 3 John 1:4
Do you know what these verses mean? It means they eventually got it! The glory they were seeking through selfish ambition was trained to seeking glory through self-denial and sacrifice.
Does this sound a bit sadistic? Remember the greatest acts of love come through self-sacrifice, self-abasement, and humility. Isn’t this what we long for our families to be? Isn’t this the one attribute we want said of our children? Do we really long for our kids to be marked by money and power? By the empty promises that kill the soul? NO! We want our kids (physical and spiritual) marked by love.
Ironically, Jesus promised suffering but didn’t and couldn’t promise a position of power. The right heart was the aim not the right position. Jesus wanted their hearts.
Sadly, James and John were not the only ones struggling to grasp the point. Verse 41 says the other 10 Apostles hearing this exchange became “indignant” – literally “angry” with James and John. There’s no sense that the other 10 were “righteously angry” with them. They weren’t disappointed in them. No, they were mad that James and John tried to make a move on what might be theirs. They were just as bad – they were jealous.
This is simply why Jesus needed to expand on his point! All 12 Apostles needed this lesson! Jesus appeals to their consciences. He says, “You know…the rulers of the Gentiles” (v. 42). You know how they act and you do not want to be like them…do you? Pursuing the path of selfish ambition takes ruling in a heavy handed way!
It is so easy to get swept up into this spell isn’t it? It is so tempting to forget the precious nature of a healthy family. Don’t you long for your family to know and love Jesus? You can’t put a price tag on this? You can’t. So often is the case that family is left in the dust as someone seeks to love the world instead of what Jesus loves.
What’s beautiful is that Jesus lived the path of humility – the path of self-sacrifice – the only path that is truly fulfilling – the only path that truly leads to freedom! He wasn’t enslaved by anyone or anything – he shows us how not to be!
2. The path of humility (vv. 43-45)
a. Our standard
Verse 43 is the corrective. Here Jesus defines true greatness with sharp contrast. “But it shall not be so among you” (v. 43). Jesus had exposed the sin that was inside each one of the 12 and laid down the a hardcore directive! This by the way is how to deal with sin! Expose it, dig it out, and replace the new mindset and actions!
True greatness is defined by being a “servant” – literally a “deacon” [deakonos]. Verse 44 continues this thought. “and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (v. 44). The word “slave” [doulos] is extreme. This title is less than “servant” (v. 43). A servant has a job title – a slave is property is owned and is underneath everybody. This might seem like a contradiction to God’s purpose for your life. This doesn’t smack of having a Christian identity! This is being a “slave of all” (v. 44). This is the mindset of Philippians 2:3, “esteeming others higher or better than yourself” (Phil. 2:3).
b. Our example
This is seriously unsatisfying unless you put it in the context of verse 45. Your motivations have to be melted in the cross to make a willing “slave” life to be freeing!
Jesus ties this together. “For even the Son of Man” meaning even the one predicted in Daniel 7 – the one who will come as the Warrior King – God as Messiah who comes as the sovereign ruler – the God/Man of Revelation 19:11 the Rider on a White Horse – even he did not come “to be served” (v. 45).
It goes without saying, Jesus deserved and deserves our “service.” The 12 should have dropped down to serve Jesus but the Gospel is summarized by Jesus’ mindset. Jesus’ driving motivation was not to be served but to serve!
Do you remember what kicked this whole discussion off? It was the question asked by James and John in verse 37. They said, “Grant us to sit” – give to us – promise us prominence! Jesus responded in verse 40 using this same word saying, “but to sit at my right hand or…left is not mine to grant” (v. 40). Christ said, “I can’t give you that.” In verse 45 he tells them what he can give. “The Son of Man came…to give [to grant] his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus is saying the gift I’m giving you isn’t the gift of “selfish ambition” – this path promises a life filled with bondage! Heartache! This path makes you a “manipulator” (v. 35 “Teacher…do…whatever we ask of you”). This path makes you “indignant” – “angry” – “jealous”.
Jesus instead gives the gift of freedom! The word “ransom” is key! Nowadays we use this word in terms of paying a kidnapper to get someone who’s been taken back. The context here is paying a large sum to buy a “slave’s” freedom!
Do you realize the passionate love of this act toward you! You were a slave to your own selfishness! You were on the path of self-gratification, self-destruction! And Jesus said, “I’m going to pay with my life.”
As one writer put it: “A death by crucifixion seems to include all that pain and death can have of the horrible and ghastly dizziness, cramp, thirst, starvation, sleeplessness, traumatic fever, tetanus, shame, long continuous of torment, horror of anticipation, mortification of intended wounds, all intensified just up to the point at which they can be endured at all, but all stopping just short of the point which would give to the sufferer the relief of unconsciousness.”
Jesus suffered hell on earth for you! To free you to become a “slave of all” (v. 44).This is the path of true greatness! Choose this path!