The Greatness of Servants

Mark 10:41-45 “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 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. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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 does not want his church on earth to be a rudderless ship. It needs leaders. He gives it leaders, like these 12 men he chose as apostles. In the book of Hebrews we are even urged to obey our spiritual leaders and submit to their authority.

That does not mean he wants us to take our model for leadership in his kingdom from the world around us. “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them.” The disciples understood this all too well from personal experience. They lived under the rule of the Gentile Romans, who did not ask the Jews whether they wanted to be governed. They didn’t work to win their trust or prove their capable and efficient administration. They simply invaded and took over because of their superior military might. It was purely a matter of who had the greater power, who had the ability to force others to submit to their will.

 Our world sees that as a kind of “greatness,” doesn’t it? When Jesus says, “their high officials exercise authority over them,” literally, “high officials” is “their great ones.” Think about the names of world leaders who have had “the great” added to their names: Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Charlemagne (which is Charles the Great), Peter the Great. Generally, these were men of blood and war who expanded their influence by forcing their will on others. Their greatness came by way of power.

“Not so with you.” Greatness with God’s people is not about having the power to force your will and get your way. The Church throughout the ages has suffered far too much from such a caricature of godly leadership, and those of us who lead should repent for the times that we have tried to use our positions that way. But if not by one’s own force or power, then by what?

“Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Do you want to be great in God’s eyes, playing a key role in God’s plan to save people, being an important part of the work of his kingdom? Then be a slave to all, someone who has completely given up one’s own will, who has stopped thinking about what is best for me and makes me happy, to take care of the needs of others. This does not remove all authority or a godly chain of command from the church. But it does remove the self-seeking spirit of the sinful nature from that work. It follows the path to truly godly greatness, which comes not by power, but by service.

Doing so is following Jesus himself. “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 is the very Son of God. Yet when he came into our world he did not throw his weight around. He didn’t use his divine power to control everything that everyone else was doing. He didn’t force people to agree with him or become his disciples. He didn’t expect people to wait on him hand and foot.

He served. He healed. He taught. He pleaded. He loved. He went without sleep. He went without food. He gave away much of the money he received. He won our trust. He proved his love.

Then he gave his life as a ransom for many. Just because God’s view of greatness is such a foreign concept to us, just because I want to bend everyone’s else’s life in service to myself, just because I am so obsessed with the respect and honor I believe are due to me, just because the one area of my life that truly deserves the adjective “great” has to do with my sin, Jesus traded places with you and me. His life given at the cross became the ransom, the price that pays for our sins and sets us free from them.

When we follow Jesus, we can follow him through serving other people. We can follow him in suffering for what we believe. But when we come to his cross, he stops us. “This is as far as you go,” he says. “In order for you to get up there, I will have to trade places with you. Give me your sins and your guilt. I will carry them up on the cross with me. That is the last you or anyone else will ever see them.”  

Then they are gone, forgiven, completely taken away. When God looks down on us from heaven, it looks to him like we have finally achieved greatness, because Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many.

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