He asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 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.” – Mark 9:33–35
Rivalry is part and parcel of life. On a team, friendly rivalry can be a means of spurring each other on, helping the team members to become faster or stronger. But when rivalry becomes the occasion of selfishness and jealousy, it undermines unity.
On the way to Capernaum, Jesus had been teaching the disciples, saying, “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). Perhaps as Jesus walked ahead of them, He heard snippets of conversation from the disciples jostling their way along behind Him. Their discussion was filled with jealous rivalry over their own greatness.
That’s a bad topic of conversation on any occasion, but especially in this context. How incongruous that when Jesus was giving them instruction concerning His own suffering and death, they were preoccupied with their own status and greatness!
Jesus asked them about their conversation to use it as an opportunity for instruction. In the span of a sentence, He turned human ideas of greatness completely upside down. True greatness in His kingdom lies in putting yourself last and acting as servant to everyone else. This is, after all, how the King of that kingdom lived, and lives, for He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
If we’re honest, when we consider this scene we see our faces in those of the disciples. We hear our voices echoing theirs. We find ourselves scrambling for position as they did. Selfish rivalry rises to the surface often and in the most unlikely places. Yet the antidote is always the same: humility. We all need the kind of humility, writes David Wells, that is a “freedom from our self which enables us to be in positions in which we have neither recognition nor importance, neither power nor visibility, and even experience deprivation, and yet have joy and delight … It is the freedom of knowing that we are not in the center of the universe, not even in the center of our own private universe.”
This is a difficult lesson to learn. Yet despite our rivalry, despite the absence of our humility, Jesus does not abandon us. To see our faces in this scene is to be reminded that we’re constantly in need of God’s grace as we walk along the pathway of discipleship. Only the grace of God can get your focus off of yourself and set you free from yourself. Only gazing at the one who left the glories of heaven to die for you on a cross can change your heart so that you seek to serve, not to be served, and care less about your prestige than you do about the good of others. Jesus is calling you today to serve, even as He serves you.
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