July 1, 2012

Pastor Joe Wittwer

Follow the Leader!

#4—The Greatest


    A week ago Friday, my youngest son, Michael married Sara Johnson.  They were gone all week on their honeymoon.  I don’t understand why he didn’t called me… ok…he did.

I wasn’t the only thinking of them.  On Friday, Laina and I were talking about Michael and Sara, and our granddaughter Jenna (age 4—giving me her “angry birds look”) said, “I wonder if they have any kids yet.”  Good question.

Today we look at a story in the gospel of Mark in which James and John ask Jesus a question like that—kinda clueless.

Introduction and offering:

    Open your Bibles to Mark 10—remember, you will be glad that you brought your Bible to this series, since we’ll be referring back to the text often.  

Last Sunday, we finished Mark 9, and we are jumping ahead to Mark 10:32.  We’ll come back in the next two Sundays and pick up the first 31 verses of Mark 10.  We read last Sunday about Jesus’ second prediction of His death and resurrection, and the disciples’ dim-witted response: they got into an argument about who among them was the greatest.  Jesus talked about sacrificing himself, and they argued about promoting themselves.  

In today’s story, the argument continues in a different form.  Here’s the story.

Once again, we are going to use the SOAP method, which I use when I read the Bible each day.

Scripture: read the Bible.

Observation: what does it mean?  

Application: what does it mean to me?  

Prayer: pray it back to God.

One of the reasons I’m using this is to model it for you.  I do this each day, and you can too—give God a chance to speak to you!

On your program, you’ll find the Bible Reading Bookmark for the next quarter—it starts today!  I hope you’ll join us reading the Bible each day and join the conversation.

    Here’s the story:

Scripture: Mark 10:32-45

32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

39 “We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    In a word or a phrase, what’s the big idea in this passage?  Greatness is service.

The Big Idea: Jesus is the greatest; He is the servant of all. Those who follow the leader will aspire to be like Him.  It’s a whole new kind of greatness!



    The story begins with Jesus and the disciples on the final leg of their final journey to Jerusalem.  It says, “Jesus was leading the way.” On His way to suffer and die, Jesus leads the way.  He is not holding back or reluctant; Luke says that He “set his face” towards Jerusalem; He is moving resolutely forward.  This is remarkable courage.  Someone has said that there are two types of courage.  There is the courage of the moment, the instinctive reaction in the face of danger that makes a man a hero.  Then there is the courage of the long view; you can see the danger coming for days or miles ahead.  You know what’s coming, and you go on anyway.  That’s the greater courage, and that was the courage of Jesus, who was “leading the way” to His own death.

    The disciples were astonished and afraid, but to their credit, they were still following.  They followed in spite of their confusion and fear.  They loved Jesus so much that they followed when they couldn’t understand.  I know people who have stopped following Jesus because they didn’t understand.  “Why would God let something like this happen to me?”  I understand that question—most of us have asked it.  But if you know Jesus, if you love Jesus, you keep following even when you don’t understand.  Do you love Jesus so much that you keep following through the hard times, when you don’t understand?

    Jesus pulls the 12 aside and gives the third and most detailed prediction of His death and resurrection.  In chapter 8, chapter 9, and now here in chapter 10—in real life, it would have been a matter of days or weeks—Jesus warns His disciples what awaits Him in Jerusalem.  And each time, the disciples fail to understand.  That failure was never more apparent than in what happens next.


    Jesus announces His upcoming death, and James and John privately ask Him for the top spots in His new Kingdom.  “In your glory—when you become King in Jerusalem—can we be your right and left hand men?  The VP’s in your new administration?”  Really?  Are they really that dense?

    First, let’s give them some credit.  They believed that Jesus was the Messiah and would triumph in Jerusalem.  They have faith!  It’s misguided, but they believe so deeply in Jesus that whatever happens, they think Jesus will come out on top!  So far, so good.

    But then the self-interest kicks in.  They want to make sure they’re on top with Jesus—top dogs!  Peter, James and John are in Jesus’ inner circle.  Peter was the acknowledged leader of the apostles.  James and John are brothers; maybe they are trying to get the jump on Peter, and ace him out.  

    There is no doubt they are asking for the top spots.  In Jewish culture, the place of highest honor in a group was dead center, followed by the right and left hand spots respectively.  By putting Jesus in the middle, they honor Him; but they honor him to honor themselves.  “You are the Top Dog; and we’re right here next to you.”  It’s amazing how easily we can mix worship and discipleship with self-interest.

ILL: We have had people host a Life Group and then try to sell their stuff there, or sign people up for their business.  

    Or think of Jesus’ telling us in Matthew 6 about people who pray on street corners to be seen by others, or announce it every time they give an offering.  

This is James and John: “You are the King, Jesus—and we’ll be right beside you.”  Mixing self-interest with their praise.

    Jesus answers by telling them, “You don’t know what you’re asking.”  They were clueless.  So He asks if they can drink the cup He will drink or be baptized with His baptism.  Jesus is talking about His suffering and death.  “Are you ready to shoulder your cross and suffer and die with me?”

    In the Old Testament, the cup was a metaphor for the experience God allotted a person; sometimes it was a cup of joy and celebration; most often it referred to suffering God’s just punishment.  Also in the Old Testament, to be submerged in water (baptized) was a metaphor for being overwhelmed by calamity.   

Still clueless, James and John mistake the cup for the cup of celebration, and the baptism for the act that initiates a person into the Kingdom (like John the Baptist did).  They misunderstand Jesus and blithely answer, “Yes, we can.”  Jesus promises that they will share in His cup and baptism of suffering—and they did.  James was the first apostle to die, murdered by King Herod in Acts 12.  John was the last apostle to die, exiled as an old man to the island of Patmos.  

Some people wonder if the cup and baptism represent the two Christian sacraments, communion (Eucharist) and baptism.  Mark’s readers certainly would have thought of these two rites.  Perhaps Mark wants to communicate that to truly participate in Jesus’ cup and baptism means more than just partaking in the rites; it means partaking in the mission and suffering of Jesus (which is what He promise James and John). Real discipleship is more than ceremonies; it is taking up your cross and following Jesus, even when it is hard and costly.  It is possible to reduce Christianity to a few church meetings and ceremonies.  Jesus meant for it to be a relationship and a lifestyle.  You can be a fan and do the ceremonies, but only a follower takes up a cross.

    James and John ask for thrones on either side of Jesus; He promises them suffering and death.  Here’s the kicker.

    The other ten were still ticked off at James and John.  You’d think after hearing Jesus’ answer, they’d be smirking.  “They asked for thrones and got crosses—serves them right!”  Instead, they totally misunderstand Jesus and are ticked off that the brothers beat them to the punch for the thrones!  They are jealous that James and John got the inside track on the top spots!  They were no better than James and John!

    And we’re no better than them!  We’re all motivated by self-interest.  


I am like James and John.

Lord, I size up other people

in terms of what they can do for me;

how they can further my program,

feed my ego,

satisfy my needs,

give me strategic advantage.

I exploit people,

ostensibly for your sake,

but really for my own.

Lord, I turn to you

to get the inside track

and obtain special favors,

your direction for my schemes,

your power for my projects,

your sanction for my ambitions,

your blank check for whatever I want.

I am like James and John.#

Robert A. Raines, Creative Brooding, (New York, MacMillan, 1966)

We all want to be honored, known, recognized, praised and served.  Have you ever seen someone honored and thought, “I deserve it more than them”?  Have you ever been treated commonly and said, “Do you know who I am?”

ILL: A heavily booked commercial flight out of Denver was canceled, and a single agent was rebooking a long line of inconvenienced travelers.  Suddenly an angry passenger pushed his way to the front and slapped his ticket down on the counter.  “I have to be on this flight and it has to be first class!” he insisted.

“I’m sorry sir,” the agent replied.  “I’ll be happy to help you, but I have to take care of these folks first.”  The passenger was unimpressed.  “Do you have any idea who I am?” he demanded in a voice loud enough for the passengers behind him to hear.

Without hesitating, the gate agent smiled and picked up her public-address microphone.  “May I have your attention, please?” she broadcast throughout the terminal.  “We have a passenger here at gate 7 who does not know who he is.  If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to the gate.”

As the man retreated, the people in the line burst into applause.

Peter S. Greenberg, LA Times Syndicate; Readers Digest, June 96, pg. 238  

All twelve disciples, not just James and John, wanted first class seats on the next flight—they all wanted to be the VIP, the top dog.  We’re not a whole lot different.

    The disciples are all worked up again about who is the greatest, who is the top dog. It’s time for a teaching moment.  Jesus starts by saying, “Here’s how authority works in the world: those in power lord it over others, exercise authority over others.  It’s “over them”.  It’s power, domination, exploitation, and oppression.  It’s me over you.  I win, you lose.  I’m top dog, you serve me.

ILL: Galba, who succeeded Nero as Roman Emperor in 68 AD, summed up the notion of greatness when he said now he could do what he liked and do it to anyone.

Jesus is saying, “You all want to be my vice-presidents.  You want power.  You want to be able to do whatever you want to anyone you want. And I’m telling you, no—that’s not what it means to be great.”  

    Do what you want to anyone you want.  “Not so among you.”

    Then Jesus radically redefines greatness.  

43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

Do you want to be great?  You must be a servant.  The Greek word is diakonos; it is the word for a paid servant, such as a table waiter; they serve voluntarily, of their own free will; they choose to serve.  In Luke’s version of a similar discussion, Jesus asks the disciples:

Luke 22:27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Who is greater?  The world says it is the person being served.  Jesus says it is the server.

ILL: I get really torqued when I see people treat waiters or other serving personnel with a condescending, snooty attitude.  I hope that as a Christian you will treat everyone with kindness and respect—but especially those in the service industries, who often have to put up with a lot of insufferable egos.  Remember, Jesus came as “one who serves”—He came as a waiter.  And that waiter is closer to greatness at that moment than you are sitting there being served!

In the world, the higher people are, the more they are served.  In God’s Kingdom, the higher people are, the more they serve.  Greatness is measured by service, not by power, position or prestige.

    Do you want to be great?  Be a servant.  Then Jesus goes on: if you want to be first, be the slave of all.  The Greek word is doulos, and it is the word for a slave who is the property of someone else, and has no rights of his own, no freedom, no choice.  

    The last verse, verse 45, is considered by some the key verse in all of Mark.

45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus offers Himself as the example and reason for serving.  He did not come to be served, but to serve.  He came as a servant; if we’re going to follow Him, we must be servants.  Jesus is the greatest; Jesus is first among us; and Jesus serves.  

    And He gave His life as a ransom for many.  Here is the ultimate service.  Jesus gave His life for us.  The “for” means “instead of” or “in place of”.  Jesus died in our place.  The wages of sin is death.  I am a sinner.  I deserved to die, but Jesus died for me, in my place.  The theological term is “substitutionary atonement”.  It just means that He died instead of me, to bring me to God.

    A ransom was a price paid to set a captive or slave free.  Some people have gotten sidetracked trying to say to whom the ransom was paid.  That’s not the point here.  It’s that Jesus is the ransom—His life was the price of our freedom.  We were trapped in sin, selfishness and death, and Jesus died to ransom, redeem and free us.  

    Jesus redefines greatness as service, and He is the example. Service and sacrificial giving are not just the ethics of the Kingdom, they are the way of Jesus, and the means of our redemption.  So we serve because we love Jesus and want to be like Him. Jesus is the greatest!

Application: The greatest…

    Seeks to serve, not be served.

    Just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve, we seek to be like Jesus.  We seek to serve, not be served. Think of all the ways we seek to be served.  If you can’t think of any, remember James and John’s question: “Lord, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  What do you want others to do for you?


  • I want my wife to keep the house clean, the meals delicious (with variety), and the kids happy…and out of my way when I’m busy or trying to watch the game.  I also want her to make love whenever I want, and tell me I’m fabulous.  

  • I want my kids to love me, obey me without question, and grow up to be sterling citizens, a credit to my parental genius.  I want them to have lots of beautiful grandchildren…for me.

  • I want my co-workers to respect me, and to make my job easier by doing theirs well.  I want them to make me look good and make me successful.  

  • I want my teachers to love my work and give me straight A’s and write on my paper, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever read!”  

  • I want everyone to notice anytime I do anything good, and praise me for it, and thank me and tell me how incredible I am.

  • I want slower traffic to get out of my way.  

  • I want the church to meet all my needs.  I want the worship to be my favorite songs played in my favorite style at just the right volume, led by my favorite worship leader.  I want the pastor’s sermon to be short but profound, and leave me laughing, but still moved to tears.  

I could go on, but you get the point.  We are motivated by self-interest.  We naturally seek to be served.  But Jesus models a different way and calls us beyond ourselves: seek to serve, not be served.  This is the way of Jesus.  This is the way to be great.

    What would it look like in all those areas to seek to serve?  At home, school, work, church, even in traffic.  

    Let’s take home as an example.  At weddings, I read Ephesians 5:21-33, which begins by calling us to submit to one another.  To submit is to yield to another, or to put the other ahead of yourself.  (The Greek word is a military term that means, “to arrange under” and is concerned with rank.)  Put the other person ahead of yourself.  Serve the other person, rather than be served.  This command is given to both the husband and the wife.  Neither is to think he/she is above the other and wait to be served.  Both are to put the other ahead of oneself.  Can you imagine what your marriage would be like if you both did this?  It would be great!

    Or how about church?  Do you come to church to serve or be served?  Are you thinking only of what you might get out of it?  Do you ever think about what you have to offer?  We often think of church as a distributor of religious goods and services, and we are the consumers.  Instead, church is a community of believers that meets for mutual service and encouragement.  What would happen if everyone came to church not just to be served, but to serve?  This would be a great church!  How is your being here today serving someone else?  

    The greatest seeks to serve, not be served.  It’s not about status, but service.

ILL:  My first week at college, there was a kangaroo court—a crazy event put on by the upper classmen that resulted in lots of freshman being soaked with water or covered with food.  The room was a disaster!  When it was over, most of the students headed for the exits, happily leaving the mess for someone else to clean up.  One of those someones was Dr. Alger Fitch, one of the most beloved profs on campus—a great Bible scholar and lecturer.  Dr. Fitch grabbed a mob and bucket and started cleaning up the slop and stayed late into the night until it was done.  He didn’t have to do it—he chose to.  In fact, most people would have said he shouldn’t have done it. He was a professor, not a janitor or a student or even our class advisor.  He hadn’t made the mess—a bunch of stupid teenagers had.  Yet here he was, on his hands and knees, Dr. Fitch, cleaning other peoples’ mess in the middle of the night.  I saw that and knew I had a lot to learn from Dr. Fitch.

The greatest seeks to serve, not be served.  It’s not about status, but service.

    Serves voluntarily and sacrificially.

    The greatest serves voluntarily (servant) and sacrificially (slave).  You choose to give up your rights, to put others first.  This is love.  Love is sacrificial.  Love is doing what is best for others no matter what it costs you.  

ILL: In the spring of my freshman year at college, I helped bring Wendell Wallace to our campus.  Wendell was a fabulous African American Pentecostal pastor from Portland, where he led a great multi-racial church.  He was a sought after speaker all over the country.  I had first heard him in Washington DC speaking to over 5000 people at a Full Gospel Businessmen’s International Convention.  He was hot stuff!  We invited Wendell to be our inspiration week speaker, and he brought it!  He preached on Elijah calling down the fire—“Let the fire fall!”—and prayed that the Holy Spirit would fall on our anti-charismatic college!  Woohoo!  

    During that week, Dr. Fitch struck up a friendship with Wendell Wallace.  The little-known white, anti-charismatic, Bible professor and the famous black, Pentecostal preacher.  They were the odd couple, for sure.  Dr. Fitch would drive to Portland some weekends and sit on the front row of Wendell’s church, and tell us about it in the class the next week.  He didn’t agree with Wendell’s theology but he loved his church and his preaching, and he loved Wendell.

    Then disaster struck.  Wendell had an affair.  He lost his job, his church, and worst of all, his marriage and family.  He was abandoned by all the people who had befriended or used him.  He was discarded.  He ended up in California with his new wife, working as a hod carrier.  No one bothered to try to redeem him.  No one…but Alger Fitch.

    Dr. Fitch drove to California—his nickel, his time—found Wendell, and told him, “You are too valuable to God and His kingdom—I’m here to help you find your way back.”  It was a long slow process.  Wendell ended up taking classes from Dr. Fitch, and slowly, carefully was restored to preaching again.  

    Alger Fitch didn’t even agree with Wendell’s theology…but he loved the man.  I heard that story and I knew that I had a lot to learn from Alger Fitch.

The greatest is the servant of all.  We seek to serve voluntarily.  The first is the slave of all.  We seek to serve sacrificially. This is the way of Jesus.