Last week we looked at the most important question in the world, which is what must I do to inherit eternal life? The rich young ruler was considered a good person. But he found that he wasn’t good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. The question before us today in the passage we’re looking at, is how do you become great in the kingdom of God? A desire for greatness is a worthy goal, if it is achieved within the realm of the kingdom of heaven. But I would be willing to guess that many people who may desire greatness, consider it only within the temporal, earthly realm, and aren’t very concerned about being great in the kingdom of God.
We typically think of greatness in the realm of sports figures. Hank Aaron was a great baseball player. Maybe the best there ever was. Muhammed Ali considered himself the greatest boxer. That’s open for debate. Tom Brady could be considered perhaps the greatest quarterback in football. That is unless you’re an old Colts fan like my wife. Then you would probably say Johnny Unitas was the greatest quarterback. My sport of choice is surfing. But I’m not a great surfer by any stretch of the imagination. But there are a few icons in the sport that have achieved greatness to some degree or another. One such guy is a man named Laird Hamilton. And even if you aren’t a surfer, you might have heard of Laird.
Surfer Magazine once labeled Laird as “the sport’s most complete surfer, displaying almost unnerving expertise in a multitude of disciplines, and flat out surfing’s biggest, boldest, bravest, and the best big wave surfer in the world today, bar none.” I guess that qualifies Laird as being one of the greatest surfers ever.
Usually along with such physical feats of greatness come also a lot of arrogance and pride. And perhaps Laird was prone to that sort of thing at certain times in his life. But I understand that a near death experience may have tempered that arrogance to a certain degree. In fact, according to a YouTube video I saw, it would appear that he turned to the Lord in that situation. I can’t say that he is saved, but it certainly seemed like that near death experience may have humbled him to some degree.
So a while back I watched an interview with Laird in which they talked about all sorts of things that were going in his life, and the interviewer finished the talk with a last question which was “How do you define greatness?” You would half expect an answer like, “well if you look up greatness in the dictionary you will see my picture.” But the answer that Laird gave was really kind of out of character for him. He said greatness required compassion, being courageous, humility and love. There could be other aspects as well, he said, but those were in his opinion the top four. Not exactly the stereotypical answer you would expect from a great sports figure, is it?
The topic we are looking at in today’s passage is that of greatness, and I’ve titled the message “the gospel’s path to greatness.” This has really been a sort of a theme in this chapter and even in the previous chapter. There is a recurring theme about what it means to be considered great in the kingdom of God. And in regards to Laird’s answer to the question of what constitutes greatness, I was quite surprised to find a correlation here in this passage of those same four points, compassion, courageousness, humility and love. I think we are going to see Jesus illustrate each of those characteristics in the following passage, though not necessarily in that order.
Before we get into this passage though, let’s look back at the last verse of the previous passage which I think gives us spiritual insight into God’s perspective on greatness. Jesus said in vs.31, “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” That statement sets the stage by letting us know that God doesn’t look at greatness the way man looks at greatness. Let’s look now at the opening scene, in which we see the courageousness of Christ which is one of the essential characteristics of greatness.
In vs32 we see Jesus leading His disciples on the road to Jerusalem. Notice that He is taking the lead. He is purposely, resolutely heading to His destiny with the cross. The disciples aren’t fully aware of where He is leading them, but He knows very well the pain and suffering that awaits Him. So Mark says He took the disciples aside to explain to them more fully what lies ahead. Marks says the disciples are amazed and fearful. Yet Christ is courageous. He resolutely marches toward what most people would run from. Jesus knows the full ramifications of all that is inculcated in the cross. Far beyond what we can even understand from the benefit of having the scripture accounts, He knew completely in advance. And yet He faces towards Jerusalem, heading resolutely towards the cross.
Notice also what Jesus has to say about His destiny. This is the third time in Mark that we see Jesus foretelling that He will suffer death. He first did so in chapter 8 vs 3, after Peter had affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Then He gave a more detailed version of this prophecy in chapter 9 vs 31. And now in chapter 10 vs 33,34 He gives the most detailed version yet. This is a great illustration of what I have often referred to as “progressive revelation.” That as you walk in obedience to the light God gives you today, He will give you more light for the next step. It is important, not that we have full knowledge, but that we have full faith in what knowledge we have received and walk in it in obedience. And when we do that, then God will give us more knowledge that we might walk in it.
In this third prophecy of vs 33 and 34, we see seven distinct prophecies that Jesus reveals. That’s pretty definitive prophecy isn’t it? Jesus is not just giving an indistinct allusion to something that may or may not happen, but very specific things regarding His Passion. Notice these seven points; 1, the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of the chief priests and scribes, 2, they shall condemn Him to death, 3, they will hand Him over to the Gentiles, 4, they will mock Him and spit on Him, 5, they will scourge Him, 6, they will kill Him, and 7, three days later He will rise again. That is incredibly detailed prophecy concerning Himself, and as we all know, all those things were fulfilled to the letter.
You know, I’m sure a lot of us we wish we could know the future. But to know the way you will die, especially the time and the manner, which in Jesus’ case was through torture, is not a knowledge that any of us would want to have. But to have this foreknowledge to this degree, and then to resolutely head towards it rather than run from it is to show courage at it’s greatest level. It is one thing to go on a dangerous adventure, perhaps to surf the biggest waves you can find, but you do so with the expectation that you will survive. Jesus went to Calvary knowing that He would be tortured and killed and yet willingly offers Himself up for our sakes.
And that courage illustrates another characteristic of greatness, which is love. Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lays down His life for His friends.” Jesus loved us with a sacrificial love. The greatest love that one can exhibit is to lay down your life for another. John 13:1 says, “having loved His own, He loved them to the uttermost.”
There is another essential element of greatness, which is humility. Yet first we see that the disciples illustrate the negative contrast to Biblical principle of humility, through their selfish ambition. Their selfish ambition is a sharp contrast to Christ’s humility. We see this starting in vs35.
The gospel of Matthew adds further detail to this situation – Matthew says the mother of James and John accompanies them, and in some way or another adds her request to theirs. They start by approaching Jesus and asking Him to do them a favor. It would seem they understood at least that Jesus was going to be established on His throne as the ruler of the Kingdom of God. So they have that going for them. They have faith in Christ the King and the gospel of the kingdom. But that’s where the good implications of their question ends. What they were asking for, and even recruited their mother to help them get, was to be seated on the right hand and the left hand of Christ when He sat on His throne. They were asking for the chief seats of honor in the kingdom. They were asking to be recognized as the greatest in the kingdom of God, second only to Christ.
Now this is nothing short of naked, unbridled, selfish ambition. It is a desire to be given preference over the other disciples. It is a desire to be recognized as greater than the other disciples. But as we will see, it was not a good desire, but a sinful desire born of of selfishness and pride.
Notice the sharp contrast between Jesus and the two disciples; Jesus is predicting His humiliation, while they are asking for their exaltation. But before exaltation must come humility. Humility is an essential characteristic of greatness. Jesus was a perfect example of humility, having left His glory in heaven to become a servant. The apostle Paul says we are to emulate this example of Christ’s humility in Phil. 2:3-8, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Notice that Paul said we are to have the same attitude as Christ did in regards to humility, putting the needs of others before yourself.
That’s the exact opposite of the attitude of the world, isn’t it? The doctrine of the world is go for it, grab all you can get, protect and proclaim your rights. I’ve often said in regards to surfing that it is one of the most selfish sports there is. There are no referees out there, no rules saying who’s turn it is. And so it’s every man for himself. And consequently it turns out to be a very selfish endeavor with everyone trying to get as many waves as they can. The better you are, the more waves you get. And that’s a good illustration of what is wrong with the world’s view of greatness. Climb over, walk over anyone in pursuit of your goals. All’s fair in love and war. Do whatever you have to do to advance yourself. But that’s not God’s path to greatness.
Notice what Jesus says in regards to this request of James and John. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
James and John seem a little overconfident in their answer that they would be able to drink the cup that Jesus drinks, and be baptized in His baptism. Whether or not they fully realize it, Jesus is talking about the agony that He will suffer at the cross. To “drink the cup” was a Hebrew idiom which they should have realized meant to fully undergo the same experience. And to be baptized they should have been understood meant to be engulfed, or overwhelmed. Their answer showed they obviously did not understand what He had just said about being scourged and delivered up to be killed. They probably thought that was just hyperbole. Just like we think that it is hyperbole when Jesus said in the previous passage that it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. We have a tendency to disregard those truths which don’t fit our template.
But Jesus out of His compassion for these two disciples does not rebuke them, in fact He acknowledges that they will in fact endure a similar baptism of fire and drink the bitter cup. Little did these aggressive, ambitious young men who, by the way were known as the Sons of Thunder, little did they know then that one of them, James, would become the first martyr of the church, and the other brother John would be imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos. But it should be noted that while Jesus’s suffering and death was vicarious, their suffering could never be, but nevertheless it is related in the sense they would suffer for Christ’s sake.
However, it needs to be pointed out that they were overconfident in their assertion that they could endure what Christ would endure. In fact we know that on the night of His arrest, they initially ran away as did all the disciples. But at this moment, they are full of bravado. And that is an important distinction in the pursuit of greatness. One must not mistake bravado for courageousness. There is an old adage I like a lot which was spoken by a king of Israel, ‘Let not the one who puts on his armor boast like the one who takes it off.’ Jesus is courageous in the truest sense of the word. The disciples are full of bravado. They have not yet had their faith put to the test. After the resurrection, they will exhibit some of that courage that Christ had. But up to this point they are full of their own self importance.
Well, lest we think too little of James and John and too much of the other disciples, note that in vs 41 that when the other disciples hear this they become indignant towards the two brothers. They are indignant because the greed of the two is exposed, but their indignation exposes their greed as well. This desire for greatness is a long standing issue with the disciples. Remember back in chapter 9 vs 34 they are discussing among themselves which one of them would be the greatest. So if anything, they are just jealous that James and John spoke up to claim those thrones before they did. All of them are guilty of the same selfish interests.
But before we move on, let’s be honest about ourselves. It is human nature to think of yourself first. It’s human nature to look out for number one. But though it may be human, it is indicative of our sin nature. That is why Jesus said the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. The first commandment is to love God above everything and everyone. The second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.
So Jesus needs to correct this attitude among the disciples, so He stops and calls them together for a lesson. And He tells them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
First, Jesus uses an analogy of the world’s great men as compared to those who would be great in the kingdom. In the world’s system of greatness, the rulers exercise authority over the others. To exercise authority is to lord one’s superiority over people, to oppress people, to govern people. They make laws and ordinances to restrict or control. And in so doing they make the people serve them.
But that is not the way God would have greatness expressed. In the kingdom of God, the great serve the weak. The ruler becomes the servant. As illustrated by the Lord Himself, He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
Jesus is saying that in the kingdom of God in which He is Ruler, it is the exact opposite of what is practiced in the world. Greatness consists in serving, in the outpouring of self in service to others. It is to practice sacrificial love, and that not just to those who can reciprocate by advancing you, but even to those who cannot repay or to those who are undeserving. This reveals yet another characteristic of greatness, that of humility, and no one is more humble than a servant. Remember the text we looked at earlier in Phil. 2:7,8 “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The service which Jesus came to give was to give His life as a ransom for many. This ransom paid in Jesus’s blood is what is known in theological terms as substitutionary atonement. Isaiah 53:11 in speaking prophetically of the Messiah says, “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.”
Now finally, Mark gives us an illustration of greatness in the account of the healing of a blind man named Bartimaeus. As Jesus and the disciples are walking out of Jericho, Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by. And so this poor blind man, a beggar, begins to call out in desperation for Jesus to have mercy on Him. Bartimaeus is a perfect picture of a man who is lost. He is the perfect picture of a man who needs to be saved. First he is blind. The image of blindness is a common metaphor presented in the gospel for those outside the kingdom of God. Paul says in 2Cor. 4:4 “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Secondly, he is a beggar. In the eyes of the world there is certainly nothing great about him. In regards to salvation it is necessary to see yourself as a beggar. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” To be poor in spirit is to recognize that you are spiritually bankrupt. To be a beggar means you recognize that you have no means by which to be saved. To be rich is to think yourself as self sufficient, when in fact that very attitude prevents you from receiving the grace of God unto salvation. So the fact that this blind man is a beggar makes him an excellent candidate for salvation.
And thirdly, notice his desperation. His urgency. He cries out repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” People around him told him to be quiet. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Listen, that is how you are saved. That is how you enter the kingdom, as a beggar, as one who realizes that he is blind, hopeless and helpless to affect anything on his own. And then a desperate appeal to God for mercy. A blind person in those days had no other recourse than to beg. There were no state resources available to such a person. There were no cures, no doctors that could offer help. There were no jobs to be had for blind people. You had to beg. It was a hopeless situation.
And so is our natural condition. God wants us to recognize the reality of our sinful condition. He wants us to realize our hopelessness, so that our hope is in Christ, our faith is in Him alone. So Jesus says, “call him to come here.” So they said, “Take courage, stand up! He is calling for you.” Notice that characteristic of courage again, but now it’s on the part of the blind man. And here we see the proper application of courage. Courage is acting in faith to what God has promised. If the Lord calls us to it, we may be courageous because we know that it is according to HIs will.
So Jesus asks him “What do you want Me to do for you?” Jesus asks this not because He doesn’t already know the answer but because He wants Bartimaeus to confess what he desires of the Lord. The Lord knows what we need, but He wants us to ask for it. He wants us to confess it. And so Bartimaeus says, “Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!” It’s interesting that he said, “regain my sight.” That would indicate that at one time he had his eyesight, but for some reason or another had become blind.
The linguists tell us that Rabboni is equivalent to calling Jesus Master. First he called Jesus “Son of David.” That’s a Messianic title. Now he calls Him “Master.” That is a recognition of Jesus’ superiority. He recognizes that Jesus has control over His creation.
And in response, Jesus praises him for his faith. Vs 52 “And Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him on the road.” The word there that Mark uses which has been translated as “made you well” is actually in the Greek “souzo”. Souzo may also be translated as your faith has saved you. I think that’s more accurate. He asked for physical sight, but Jesus gave him spiritual sight and physical sight.
But notice Jesus says, your faith has made you well. Faith in what, you might ask? Faith in the power of healing? Faith that he could be healed? Not at all. But rather faith in Christ, in who He is, in His authority and power as Lord and Christ. And immediately he received his sight. And when the procession started up again for Jerusalem, Bartimaeus followed them.
Listen, this healing of the blind man is not only an illustration of the greatness of Jesus, as illustrated by His compassion, His love and humility in serving a beggar, but also the greatness of Bartimaeus. This man went from being the least in the eyes of the world to great in the kingdom of God. Jesus said in Matthew 11:11, that he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist, who was the greatest among men. To see Jesus in the light of His truth, to have faith in Him and to forsake all and follow Him, is to begin a journey on the path to greatness according to the gospel. There can be nothing greater than to inherit eternal life, to become a citizen of the kingdom of God, and to become a child of God. That is greatness that far surpasses all the world’s concept of greatness.
The question for you then is, have you begun that journey to greatness? According to the standards of man you may think you have already accomplished much in that regard. But in the kingdom of God, it begins with a new birth, becoming like a child, realizing like Bartimaeaus that you are helpless and hopelessly blind, unable to do anything of your own power, and calling upon the mercy of God to save you. And then in the light of God’s truth, to follow Him in faith. That is the path to greatness.
As I was talking about this concept to someone the other day, I said that before you can become great, you must first become good. Before you can become a great surfer or great football player, you must first become good. But becoming good spiritually is not something we can achieve through our own efforts. We become good through faith in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, believing in who He is and what He has accomplished on our behalf. And through faith in Him, our iniquity is transferred to Him, and His righteousness is transferred to us, so that we are made good, made righteous in Christ before God. Then, and only then, we may be able to do even greater works than these, as Jesus Himself promised.