A Lesson in Least-ness

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Mark 9:30-37 ESV

For a brief period of time, Jesus tried to maintain some sense of secrecy concerning His whereabouts so that He might spend more time instructing His disciples. This would not have been easy because Jesus attracted large crowds wherever He went. But Jesus did what He could to remain incognito as He passed through the region of Galilee. It was essential that He prepare His disciples for what was to come, and the information He was going to share with them was for their ears only. It was not intended for mass distribution.

These men, who had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, needed to come to grips with the reality of His earthly mission. Jesus was fully aware that they had drawn wrong conclusions about His role as the Messiah and were still expecting Him to set up His earthly Kingdom. To them, all the miracles and messages were simply the opening acts of what was supposed to be the main event: Jesus establishing Himself as the next king of Israel. And because they were His faithful followers, they believed they were destined to play significant roles in His royal administration.

So, for the second time, Jesus attempted to realign their expectations by revealing the facts concerning His coming death in Jerusalem. The first time Jesus had broached this uncomfortable subject, it had earned Him a stern rebuke from Peter. This outspoken and overly impulsive member of Jesus’ inner circle had found the news disconcerting and unacceptable and had told Jesus so. And a closer look at what Jesus told them makes Peter’s reaction somewhat understandable.

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and after three days rise again. – Mark 8:31 NLT

For Peter and his companions, this information seemed outside the realm of possibility. If Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah for whom they had long been waiting, how could His life end in death? What possible good could come from a dead Messiah? How was He supposed to rescue His people from their enslavement to Rome if He was dead?

Jesus had spoken plainly and quite bluntly. He had not sugarcoated the news or presented it in terms the disciples might find more palatable. But at the same time, He did not provide much in the way of further explanation. Yes, He mentioned His resurrection, but in such a cursory way that the disciples failed to grasp what He was talking about.

So, Jesus revisits the topic one more time. Bit it’s important to recall the event that is sandwiched in between these two disclosures. The transfiguration of Jesus was intended to give the three disciples who witnessed it a glimpse into the future. They were given the privilege of seeing Jesus in His glorified state, discussing His coming departure from this earth with Elijah and Moses.

That remarkable experience must have sealed the deal for Peter, James, and John. The vision of Jesus in His glory, the presence of the two prophets of Israel, and the audible voice of God declaring Jesus to be His Son, all provided incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was the Messiah.  And yet, as they came down the mountain, they could only think about one thing: What Jesus had meant by “rising from the dead” (Mark 9:10).

It’s likely that the transfiguration had only made Jesus’ comments about His death and rising again all the more confusing to the disciples. They were having a difficult time reconciling what they had seen on the mountain top with what Jesus had described as His future fate. And Jesus, fully aware of their lingering inability to process His words, simply repeated them.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” – Mark 9:31 ESV

And Mark indicates that they remained just as confused as before.

…they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. – Mark 9:32 ESV

These men weren’t afraid to ask Jesus questions. They did so all the time. But they were afraid of knowing the truth, so they kept their mouths shut. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Little did they know that they were on their way to Jerusalem, where everything was going to take place, just as Jesus had predicted. They could ignore the topic, but it was not going away.

When they arrived back in Capernaum, their unofficial headquarters, Jesus asked the disciples what they had been discussing along the way. But, once again, they chose to remain silent. And rightfully so, because to admit the topic of their conversation would have been embarrassing. But Mark spills the beans, revealing that “they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

Now, before we paint the disciples as egotistical and self-centered powermongers, let’s look at the facts. They had been handpicked by Jesus. They were His chosen followers and had been given authority by Jesus to cast out demons. When Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus had said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). And Peter, James, and John had been chosen by Jesus to witness His transfiguration. So, these men were somewhat justified in thinking that they would play important roles in Jesus’ coming kingdom.

The problem was that they were arguing over which one of them was the greatest. They had taken their eyes off of Jesus and had begun to focus on their own self-worth. And there is little doubt that Peter, James, and John were justifying their superiority with tales of their experience at the transfiguration. Rather than discussing the death of Jesus and what His reference to rising again might mean, they were busy debating their own value to the kingdom. This jockeying for position will continue on into the next chapter, where Mark reveals that James and John come to Jesus and make a bold request: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

These men were operating from a purely secular and temporal perspective. They saw Jesus as the coming King of Israel and they were hoping to garner key posts in His administration. While Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice, they were busy arguing over their own self-worth and qualifications for leadership roles in the new kingdom.

But Jesus gathered the 12 together and gave them a much-needed lesson on spiritual leadership.

“Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” – Mark 9:35 NLT

This comment must have caught the disciples by surprise. First of all, it revealed that Jesus knew the topic of their conversation, and that must have been embarrassing for them. But secondly, His words were incongruent. They didn’t add up. In their culture, servants were considered the least of the least. And last place was no place for a leader. The thought of willingly subjugating yourself in order to serve someone else would have made no sense to these men.

So, to drive home His point, Jesus gave them an object lesson. Picking up a small child in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37 ESV).

In their culture, children were considered the least of the least. They had no rights or privileges. They were powerless and helpless. And yet, Jesus stood before the disciples, holding one of these seemingly insignificant and unimportant children in His arms. And four different times, Jesus used the word dechomai, which can be translated as “receives” but carries a much fuller meaning: “to embrace, make one’s own, approve, not to reject.” In their society, children tended to be ignored. But by holding this child in His arms, Jesus was placing the least in a position of highest honor.

Jesus’ words should have had an air of familiarity to them. The disciples had heard Him say something similar. Just prior to Him sending out the 12 on their first missionary journey, He had told them:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. – Matthew 10:40 ESV

He used the very same formula:

To receive the least ——- is to receive Jesus ——–is to receive God

The disciples were to be the least. They were to be the servants of all. In other words, their role was going to be that of the lowest, not the highest. Their status was to be measured by humility, not glory. The child Jesus held in His arms had no inherent worth or value – from a worldly perspective. He had yet to accomplish anything with his life. He could not boast about his education or business accomplishments. But Jesus had chosen to use this insignificant child to convey a deep spiritual truth. And Jesus was going to use the insignificant disciples to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Not because they were great, but because they were the least. And all those who received the disciples and their message would receive Christ. And to receive Christ would be to receive a restored relationship with God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson