Who Is The Greatest?

August 6, 2006
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
Mark 9:33-41

Who Is The Greatest?

1. "[Jesus'] group came to Capernaum. After they arrived at the house, Jesus asked the disciples, 'What were you in debate about along the way here?' They were silent because they had been debating with each other along the way about who was the greatest," (verses thirty-three and thirty-four).

2. Have any of you ever been in a debate about who was the greatest? Has such an issue ever come up among your friends? In personal relationships debates do not normally take place over "Who is the greatest between you and me?" Whenever something like that becomes the topic among peers, we will inevitably declare that such relationships are very puerile.

3. But, on the other hand, there certainly are settings in which a debate about who is the greatest does actually become important. It is in organizations which clearly delineate between supervisors and subordinates, superiors and inferiors, or even parents and children. It's [in] pyramid type relationship structures. It is especially during the formative period of an organization. During that time, [everybody] cares a great deal about who will be on the top and who will be on the bottom. Here in this text the disciples are evidently placing themselves in that kind of setting. In other words, they are having a debate while having on their minds a pyramid type organizational structure putting Jesus Christ at the top.

4. If you would think about the situation in which the disciples were placed, you'd assent to that indeed. As we've seen in this gospel account so far, the preaching activities of Jesus in Galilee almost instantly became known by the people. Great crowds usually chased after them. At one time, counting the men alone, five thousand people had gathered. Thus, the flocks of people gathering around Jesus became enormous at one instant. Indeed, as for the general crowds, sketched in one stroke, the people were multiplying who would acknowledge themselves as disciples. We find here in this text "the twelve," but Jesus' disciples weren't just twelve people. In The Gospel According To Luke the story is found about the seventy two sent out on a mission, (Luke 10:1). Besides them, it is believed that there were perhaps great numbers of people acknowledging themselves as disciples.

5. Among them there was these twelve. They were the twelve, whom Jesus invited earlier, who were always close to him. It doesn't seem strange even though the twelve had begun to regard themselves as at the highest level of humanity. They must have thought they were important upon preserving order in the flocks of disciples that were continuously increasing. In the episode beginning in verse thirty-eight, the mentality of them like that is clearly revealed.

6. John gave the following report to Jesus. "Master, I have seen a person casting out evil spirits using your name but, since he was not following us, we tried to stop him," (verse thirty-eight). They were trying to keep Jesus' name from misuse. But, John does not say here that "since he was not following you, we tried to stop him." He says "since he was not following us." The "us" here more than likely means the twelve. Or, it means the thirteen, including Jesus. If you are to use the name of Jesus, [we have] required that you, as formally licensed disciples, ought to follow us.

7. If the twelve were that way, that they had begun to take issue with rank structures between themselves was a quite natural development in the course of events. People who think they place higher up than others will always take issue the next time with the rank structures among themselves. They were thinking, about themselves as the ones on the top level of the pyramid, who is closest to the top? That said, at the beginning of chapter nine, the story is found of Jesus bringing to the mountain, only three from the twelve, Peter, John and James. As might be expected, these three were getting the attitude that "We're special." Even among the twelve, [they had the attitude] "we three in particular are closest to the top." Among these three, James and John were brothers. Then it became a matter of discussion over whether it would be James and John, or if it would be Peter. In this way then, at the background to which the debate had arisen over "Who is the greatest?" is believed to have been this situation of ever enlarging crowds and continuously increasing numbers of disciples.

8. But, that wasn't the only reason they couldn't avoid becoming aware of the pyramid structure. There was truly a more fundamental reason. It was [their] faith in believing Jesus as the messiah.

9. In chapter eight the following things that happened are recorded. "Jesus left the villages of the region of Caesarea Philippi with his disciples. Along the way, he said to his disciples, 'As for the people, who do they say I am?' The disciples said: They say, '[You are] John the Baptizer.' Besides them, there are others who say, '[You are] Elijah,' or others who say, '[You are] one of the prophets.' Then Jesus asked them, "So, who do you say I am?' Peter answered, 'You are the messiah.'," (8:27-29).

10. "Messiah" in its origin means "the anointed one." And whenever you say "the anointed one" it means a king first. The one whom Peter and the other disciples were expecting was a powerful king who would bring salvation to its fulfillment. Specifically, it was a king who would set Israel free from Roman rule and who would set up the reign of the kingdom of God. And they believed Jesus to be that powerful king. Therefore, Peter said, "You are the messiah."

11. So, since they were regarding Jesus as the powerful king and they looked at him as the one to fulfill the kingdom of God, as you might expect then, they were imagining the composition of the kingdom in which the king would rule in it. When associated with the figures of the kingdoms' of this world, they inevitably began to imagine the structure of the government with Jesus the king at the top over it. It was a structure with the people on the top ruling the people on the bottom and the people on the bottom serving the people on top. By the people on the bottom serving the people on the top, they would be serving Jesus the King positioned at the very top. By the people on the top ruling the people on the bottom, they would bring the government of Christ the King into realization. That's the kind of structure it was. And it was commonly held that serving Christ the King in that manner was serving God, and bringing the government of Christ the King into realization was bringing the rule of God into realization.

12. Thus, when you figure on the kingdom of God as a kingdom that has a governmental structure with Christ the King at its top point, as you might expect, you will come to figure on an organizational structure that has a rank structure even among the disciples. This very thing was already taking place among the twelve. That's why they debated with each other, "Who is the greatest?"

13. Well, actually, this is quite a very familiar issue even for our church life, for our day to day lives in the faith. Everyone knows that recently another religious cult has stirred up trouble in society. We wonder how such a repulsive thing could happen. But, what is generally known as religious cults do have structures like the disciples had imagined. It is the structure of the bottom serving the top, that is, serving God. This kind of thinking that "disciples" were doing can take place just the same way even among us. The world of faith is constantly fraught with cult-making dangers. Consequently, we must pay strict heed to the words of Jesus being given here in this text.

To The Ones Serving Weakness

14. Jesus called these twelve aside and spoke to them as follows. "Let the one who wants to be first be last to all others and become a servant to all others," (verse thirty-five). The [command] itself of "becoming a servant" was not something that the disciples did not consider at all. As I already mentioned, they had assumed that when they thought about the kingdom of Christ the King, the people on the bottom in the kingdom were "to become servants to" the people on the top, and by doing that they would "become servants to" Christ the King. However, Jesus is saying to them that was not [right]. Jesus said, "Become a person who serves all people (a godly servant of all)."

15. [To explain] what in the world that means, Jesus took the hand of a child and set him in their midst, held him up in his arms, and spoke as follows. "Whoever receives a child such as this in my name receives me. Whoever receives me receives not me but the one who has sent me," (verse thirty-seven).

16. It turns out as the word "receive," but it means essentially from the flow of the speech "to serve." But, they do not serve the ones on top. They serve "a child" such as this, held up in the arms of the Lord. What kind of being is a child? A child is weak. A child needs attention and work. A child cannot repay in any favorable sense. To receive a being such as a child, to serve such a child is, in other words, but the same thing as to welcome weakness, to serve weakness.

17. As I mentioned before, when you think of a pyramidal structure of government, it turns out that to serve those on top is to serve Christ, it is to serve God. But, that's not what Jesus said. As the statement "to receive a child" shows, to receive the weakness of the weak, to serve weakness, to serve in a place without reward, is, for example, to receive Christ and to serve Christ.

18. Going still further with this, it doesn't stop with accepting somebody weak. Each one of us has different weak parts, parts that need attention and work. We are required [by the Lord] to mutually receive each one, to mutually serve each other in our weak places. That's serving Christ. And that's receiving and serving the God who has sent Christ. That's the structure of the kingdom of God. That's also the structure which the flock of the disciples, the church, is supposed to have. The question of "Who is the greatest" should no longer exist there [in the church].

The King Became A Servant Of God

19. Today we read from verse thirty-three. Before that is recorded the passion prediction of Jesus. The Lord said, "The son of man will be handed over to the hands of men and be killed. On the third day after being killed, he will rise from the dead," (verse thirty-one). The Lord was going to Jerusalem. The Lord was headed for the cross. The words I read you today must be read as the words of Jesus when he was headed for the cross.

20. Jesus said, "Become a servant to all," but then later the Lord actually said the same thing again to his disciples. "Let whoever wants to become the highest become a servant of all persons," (10:44). Then the Lord went on to say, "The son of man came, not to be served but to serve and to offer his own life as a ransom for many people," (10:45).

21. Peter said to Jesus, "You are the messiah." And it is true. Jesus certainly is the messiah, that is, the Christ. He is the anointed one, the true king. We, too, believe that. But, the fact is this true king that he is came in order to serve, and he came in order to serve by offering up his life. He did it for us. He served by offering up his life for us, weak and impoverished, [though worthy] only for destruction because of our sins. The true king has served on our behalf, [though] we cannot pay him back anything for it.

22. The king himself has become a godly servant to serve all people. -- This is the structure of the kingdom of God, which Jesus Christ has shown us. Those disciples must have found out that we are called to live in such a kingdom of God. We, too, who are in this place, must find out that we have also been called to the kingdom of God such as that.