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A Big Difference
Jesus commends serving others
Years ago I made a large astronomical telescope, which provided me with hours of fun. Whenever I set up my telescope in the front yard, it took about fifteen minutes to draw a crowd. When people walk up, they see a large cylinder pointed up toward the sky. Invariably, someone will go around behind the telescope, crouch down, and look up through the bottom, expecting to catch a glimpse of the heavens. It shocks them to realize that they can’t see a thing!
Anyone who grows up in America develops a general concept of how telescopes work. Through limited experience they develop the idea that you use every telescope by looking in one straight line through the optics to the target. That holds true for most telescopes, but not for mine.
The eyepiece on my telescope is on the side, near one end of the tube. To observe with me, people have to give up their time-honored ideas about how telescopes work. They must use my telescope according to its special — Newtonian reflector — design.
Sometimes the way we look at things makes a big difference indeed. I’m personally convinced that our principle of looking at things in culturally conditioned ways applies to the way we see the church and its leaders. Having grown up in America, the great majority of us have become accustomed to thinking of the church as working much like a corporation. As we will see, that is quite different from the way Jesus Christ designed his church to work.
As a direct result of adopting corporate culture, some churches don’t function as they should. Some church leaders don’t follow the role that Christ intended; they too are caught up in the cultural pattern. That makes a big difference.
One of the most critical Gospel passages on church leadership comes from Mark 10. This passage also illustrates why the authors of the Gospels sometimes put stories side by side. At first glance, many of these stories may seem unrelated, but further study will reveal a strong connection. Such is the case in Mark 10.
Mark’s account flows through three stages of thought. In the first stage the focus is on serving self, strictly catering to one’s pleasures. The second stage stresses serving other people, placing other people’s interests ahead of your own. The final stage involves serving God, putting his kingdom above all else.
A Faulty Design
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.”
Those events probably took place on the east side of the Jordan River while Jesus and his disciples journeyed south toward Jerusalem. It may have been during a brief rest stop that James and John made their play for power.
They began with one of the most open-ended requests in the history of the world: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35, italics added). When they got down to specifics, they were asking for the number two and number three positions in the kingdom of God. They wanted to be the second and third most powerful people in all eternity.
The other Gospels inform us that, at that point, James and John still thought Jesus would set up the millennial kingdom very soon. They believed that the trip to Jerusalem would conclude with his glorious reign. I really don’t know why they expected that, because Jesus told them repeatedly what would actually happen. He was going to Jerusalem to die. From their request, we can plainly see that his plans did not fit into theirs.
Some days before the approach by James and John, the disciples had argued vehemently among themselves (Mark 9:33–34). Jesus asked them what they had argued about, but none of them wanted to tell him. They were ashamed to admit that they had fought over who was the greatest among them.
Their self-interest had not gone away. That’s why James and John reasserted their claims. They were trying to sneak in front of the other ten by asking Jesus for those privileges first. Such tactics would have been logical, had they been serving in the court of King Herod, that master of political intrigue. That’s the way the game is played in this world’s councils of power. But James and John had totally misunderstood the design of Christ’s kingdom.
In responding to James and John, Jesus tried in several ways to point them in the opposite direction. First he warns them that they don’t know what they are asking (Mark 10:38a). And so, Christ’s question likely means, “You can’t drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, can you?” (Mark 10:38).
To drink someone’s cup means to share his fate, in this case, death on a Roman cross. To be baptized means to be overwhelmed or engulfed, in this case by God’s wrath against sin that would engulf the Son of God. But James and John demonstrated their lack of spiritual insight and the keenness of their self-interest by ignoring the rebuff Jesus had given them. They said, “We can.” They were willing to do whatever was necessary to gain supreme power!
Jesus then predicted that they would experience part of his suffering. (In A.D. 44, James was martyred by Herod Agrippa. John was ultimately banished to the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean, from which he wrote Revelation.)
Next, Jesus flatly denied the two brothers’ request by saying that those places of honor “belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (Mark 10:40). In my view, Jesus didn’t have anyone specific in mind; he was speaking of a certain kind of person. It would soon become obvious that James and John did not fit the description!
An Astonishing Design
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.”
The two brothers’ power politics soon blew up in their faces. The other status-seekers learned what had happened and became “indignant” with the two. This word means to be angry at impropriety.
In trying to sneak in ahead of all the others, James and John hadn’t played by the rules. The other ten apostles actually wanted the same thing James and John did, but they didn’t get off the starting blocks quite as quickly. So, in the midst of his solemn journey to Jerusalem, where he was to suffer for humanity, Christ had to straighten out the twelve men in whom he had invested the most.
Jesus cut straight to the heart of their problem. They had totally misunderstood his design for the relationships among his followers. They had drawn their model for behavior from the surrounding pagan world. The rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them”; the Greek verb has the clear nuance of self-interest.
The Herods and Caesars did not rule in the interest of those being governed, but solely for their own purposes. Their kingdoms functioned for maximum personal benefit. In the Roman world the high officials “exercise authority” over others, again with the implication of self-interest and exploitation. The whole power structure of the Gentile world served the interests of the people at the top, at the expense of the people on the bottom.
We should understand that, because we live in a world just like it. Like James and John, we have all grown accustomed to it and think that such power structures are normal. Within their cultural context, the request of James and John made complete sense, but they had drawn their model for the followers of Christ from their culture.
In response to that viewpoint, Jesus uttered four of the most important words in the New Testament: “Not so with you” (Mark 10:43). With this firm and simple statement, Jesus wiped the top-down model — power exercised for self-interest — right off the blackboard. Those who follow Jesus must adopt a totally different design.
Jesus then described what it takes to be great as a follower of Christ (Mark 10:43–44). To be great involves voluntary service on behalf of others, which is the underlying meaning of the Greek noun translated “servant.” To be first in the body of Christ, as James and John wanted to be, requires even more. Such a person must be the “slave” of all. The Greek noun refers to a person who has completely subjected his own interests to the interests of another.
Instead of drawing their model from the world, the disciples should have watched Jesus, who put his own interests aside. Christ voluntarily set aside the privileges of heaven to come to our world and share our struggle. Paul tells us that Jesus condescended to come in the very form of a slave (Phil. 2:7). God was trying to teach us something by the way that his Son came into the world. His message to us was totally counter-cultural and goes against the designs that we’ve all grown so accustomed to. But among us Jesus wants a different design, and leaders are to function there in a completely different way.
A Missed Opportunity
Now I want to give you a brief exposition of what is not written in the biblical text at this point. Mark should happily have reported that James and John repented of their extreme self-interest and bad attitude. But we don’t read that, do we? They appear unaffected by what Jesus had said.
And what would you expect Jesus to have done, in light of their lack of response? We might guess that Jesus would rebuke them and tell them that he was going to make them act like servants. He had the power to make them act any way he wanted. Jesus had both the power and the right to do that, but he knew that would be a violation of the very principles he was trying to teach them. It would have violated his design for those who follow him.
The church does not function by its leaders’ forcing others to do what they are supposed to do. Jesus didn’t work that way, either. He did exactly what he wanted future Christian leaders to do: after teaching others by word, he taught them by personal example.
An Incredible Request Granted
46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”
50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
After teaching his disciples in a private setting, Jesus modeled for them in a public setting. Because Jesus was near Jericho, a large crowd had gathered around him. As the crowd walked along the road with Christ, suddenly one of Israel’s many blind men cried out. Most blind men probably would have welcomed a crowd as an opportunity to receive alms, but Bartimaeus was not like the others. He had heard that Jesus of Nazareth was coming (Mark 10:47).
Bartimaeus began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Think carefully; Bartimaeus was told that “Jesus of Nazareth” was coming. Nazareth is not the city of David; that distinction belongs to Bethlehem. So, Bartimaeus must have known more about Jesus than the average blind man did. He apparently understood who Jesus was and what he had come to do (“have mercy”).
Bartimaeus didn’t ask Jesus for position or power, but for something in keeping with the design and purpose of Christ’s mission. James and John had requested something in opposition to Christ’s mission, and they had been denied. Jesus didn’t come to hand out seats of power, but to show the mercy of God.
For his outcry, Bartimaeus received nothing but grief. The crowd, the disciples, and — I would be willing to guarantee you — the Twelve joined together to rebuke the man. In effect, they said: “Shut up! Keep quiet. The Great Man doesn’t have time to fool around with the likes of you. Don’t you know he’s going to Jerusalem to do something important?”
They considered it improper for a blind man to halt Jesus on his holy mission. But Bartimaeus understood the design of Christ’s life far better than the multitude or the disciples did. He simply cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:48).
At this, Jesus stopped dead in his tracks, and the whole multitude must have gradually ground to a halt. The Son of God, on his way to atone for the sins of the world, paused to meet the needs of one blind beggar. By his example, Jesus showed that he came to serve and not to be served.
Christ instructed those around him to call the blind man. Then the mood of the entire group changed, and the people began to encourage the blind man. When Jesus called him, Bartimaeus demonstrated all of the spiritual insight and faith that James and John had previously lacked. He threw his cloak aside and quickly approached Christ to make his request. In a matter of seconds, his eyesight was restored.
Consider what this man had done even before he approached Jesus. He had thrown his cloak aside! It gets cold in the Jericho valley at night, and he undoubtedly would have needed that cloak to survive. The poor often had to depend on such garments for shelter, because they couldn’t afford a house. In my opinion, Bartimaeus threw his cloak aside because he knew that in a few moments he would be able to find it with no difficulty. He believed that Jesus would grant his request.
Consider too why Bartimaeus wanted to see. He didn’t use the gift for his own interests. He immediately began to follow Jesus with his newfound eyesight. He wanted to use it to serve God and not just himself. The other Gospels tell us that he gave praise to God along the way to Jerusalem.
A Backward Glance
By placing these two incidents side-by-side, Mark made his point powerfully. The section begins with two men who were serving themselves. Jesus rebuked them and taught that anyone who wants to become great among his followers must put the interests of others ahead of his own. Jesus then modeled this principle, with the result that men praised God. Selfish interest leads to quarreling and bickering, but serving others leads to the glory of God.
James and John failed to understand the design of relationships among the followers of Jesus Christ. They lacked spiritual insight and drew their model from the world. By contrast, Bartimaeus understood what Jesus had come to do and tailored his request to fit that. As a result, Bartimaeus came away a big winner. It makes a big difference to follow the design that Jesus has revealed.
Finally, I think these incidents amply demonstrate how leaders ought to function within the body of Christ. Not only should they set aside any interest in power and status, but they should also realize that they will not accomplish Christ’s goals by commanding and controlling others. Jesus taught first by word and then by the model of his own life. He expects leaders in the body of Christ to follow the same pattern.
Greatness in the Family of God
What Jesus taught his disciples applies to everyone, not just leaders. Use the following ideas to evaluate your own life:
1. Climbing to some pinnacle of power is the sole pursuit of many in our culture. But Jesus firmly rejected power-seeking as a relational model among his followers.
Are you involved in the great power game advocated by this world? In what settings?
If so, have you brought those values modeled by James and John into the church or into your circle of Christian relationships?
2. Jesus did not say that a Christian must reject a position of great authority within the power structures set up by this world. Indeed, a Christian general in the Army or CEO in a company could have a great influence for Christ. But . . .
How would a Christian’s leadership in a secular setting be influenced by the idea of serving others rather than oneself?
In a secular setting, how might a Christian’s ambition and efforts to rise above others be affected by the values Jesus taught his disciples?
3. Above all, the church must honor the leadership design that Jesus taught his disciples.
To what extent does your church or Christian group function according to the design Jesus intended?
A Final Word
A problem once developed deep under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. This granite giant houses the North American Air Defense Command and contains huge electronic display screens that signal the onset of any foreign military threat. One morning, a screen lit up suddenly, indicating that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed for the east coast — Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or some other major city might only have a few minutes to live.
Signals immediately went out to American defense forces all over the world. Our bomber forces launched their armed flights to retaliate. At about that time, the attack signal vanished from the screen. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Later, military technicians discovered that within the computer a forty-nine-cent part had malfunctioned and reported an attack when, in fact, there had been none. That tiny part nearly changed world history.
What we need, for the church to function as Christ designed it, is a small but crucial change in each of our hearts. I think it boils down to a willingness to do things his way, not ours.
Coming next . . .
In Chapter 11, we learn how Jesus dealt with enormous pressure during a trial that was awash in Roman politics.