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Christians Should Serve, Not Gain (Mark 10:35-45)

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 10:35-45

James and John did not understand what it meant that “the first shall be last” and so Jesus challenged them to think of themselves as slaves of every person—just as He came not to be served but to serve. Today, we are to think of our faith as what we can do for others, not what we can gain from it.

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Humble Ways You See People Serve at Church

You probably want to ask this in two ways—one “at church” and one anywhere. The passage this week includes Jesus’ incredible words, “If anyone wants to be great, he must become a servant.” Unfortunately in America, there are too many who think of their “social class” or “income bracket” as being too important to serve, and there are acts of service they simply won’t do anymore. That’s a real shame.

In my first church on staff, we didn’t have a janitor, so the church members shared janitorial duties. Deacons, Sunday School teachers, when the toilet needed cleaning, they just cleaned it. When a child spilled something, it was a race to see who could clean it up first. That was such a great and humble environment, and it instilled in me that there should never be a job that I think is beneath me. What are your favorite memories of seeing someone serve? Changing diapers or cleaning spit-up? Cleaning a mess in the kitchen? Running to get a wheelchair? Pulling up weeds? What I love about mature Christianity is how we’re all on the same level, and I think that could be a fun, meaningful topic for your class to discuss (assuming you have servants in your class!).

The Most Arrogant You’ve Ever Been

The opposite of that first idea is what James and John asked in our passage—to be given seats of power. Wow, they didn’t get it! Of course, we’ve all had some moments of astonishing arrogance. Perhaps someone in your class will confess to such a time? I remember the year after I graduated, a group of 12 of us decided to go to the football “kickoff classic” game at the Meadowlands (NY/NJ). One meal, I decided to show off my great job and made a big deal of picking up the entire tab for one dinner. First, big mistake. Second, that actually came off really conceited. I’ve since learned how easy it is to see someone else’s arrogance and what a bad look it is. Thank God for God’s grace.

Christians and Power: How Do We Reconcile the Two?

If you have history-minded class members, they might already be thinking of all the times that Christian leaders have failed to be servants, but rather “lorded over” everyone else. At one point, the Pope claimed authority over the Emperor. Calvin claimed the right to set laws for an entire region. Puritans in America “ruled” over their colonies. Basically, from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, various Christian groups thought of themselves as in charge of Western Civilization. In all of those cases, the non-Christians eventually rose up against them, and Jesus’ name was sullied.

What do we do with all of these examples of Christians not being servants, or seeking out high positions of great power? (And yes, that still goes on today in places.) A Catholic exile named Hans Kung gave the best answer I’ve ever read. He noted that Jesus has two comings. In the first, He came as a helpless baby, and He gave His life as a ransom for many. In the second, He will come as the Conquering King. Christians are to follow in the footsteps of His first coming. Unfortunately, some have thought to be “paving the way” for His second coming. Just a great error on their part.

This Week's Big Idea: Places of Honor in the Messianic Kingdom

Christians have coined a phrase to describe the way Jesus described His kingdom: “The Great Reverse”. Everything is upside-down or backwards—the last shall be first and the first last; the servants are the great and the great the least.

Roman society and class was not dissimilar to American. Yes, your birth played a significant role in your place (being born into wealth or poverty determined your starting point), but Romans believed in opportunity to demonstrate worth. Through learning, achievement, or physical strength, a man could greatly improve his social standing (the Emperor also had the ability to elevate someone to nobility). Just as in America, people of high class/celebrity were greatly honored in Rome. When some such person showed up at a banquet, they were given a place of honor. At a public event, they were put on the platform. And so on. Romans had hard-and-fast rules about this; for a host to violate those rules was a scandal. Americans might not be so hard-and-fast, but we still have conventions. If you’ve ever put together the seating chart (why do we have a seating chart in the first place?) for a banquet or wedding reception, you know what I mean.

That’s why it’s such a big deal that Jesus used a banquet as the setting for a parable not once but twice—the wedding banquet of Matt 22:1-14 in which the groom’s father took great offense at those who declined his invitation to the banquet, and the places of honor of Luke 14:7-14. In that very important parable, Jesus acknowledges that people’s tendency is to want to claim a “better seat at the table” for themselves. Jesus said that’s a big mistake and can only end in humiliation. (By the way, that could be another fun discussion—have you ever found yourself “at the wrong table”, surrounded by people who are much more famous/wealthy than you? How did that go? How did you feel?) Christians should gravitate toward the humblest position, and they should let the host elevate them. That’s what James and John were thinking about when they asked Jesus for the places of honor (basically, the two best seats at the table). They wanted this:

But they would actually be getting this:

It’s a mindset that Jesus had to correct. Do you want your “reward” in this life, or the next?

Our Context in Mark

So here’s your challenge: you’ve now gone out of order and you have to get everybody back in the right place! Two weeks ago, we reached the turning point in the Gospel. Peter had declared that Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus immediately told them that they were going to Jerusalem where He would suffer and die. We are now on the journey to Jerusalem, during which Jesus will try to correct the disciples’ lingering wrongthink. Two weeks ago, Jesus taught the disciples that “mountaintop experiences” weren’t for their own benefit but so that they could help others. He taught them that they had nothing in themselves to accomplish good, but must continually rely on prayer. He taught them that miracles weren’t for show but so that people could place their faith and hope in Jesus Christ.

Another common theme in this journey is one of greatness. We will focus on that in our passage this week, but make sure your class knows that it comes up a lot. Immediately after our passage two weeks ago, the disciples argued about who would be the greatest (9:33-37). Then, and at a separate incident, Jesus told them that they must be like a child to be a part of the Kingdom (10:13-16). The famous encounter with the rich young man who was unwilling to sell his possessions and follow Jesus (10:17-27) doubled as a lesson to the disciples about what they thought they were gaining by following Jesus (10:28-31)—money? power? possessions? No, they were giving all of that up to gain persecutions. Incredibly, even after all of that, James and John still wanted places of honor . . .

The other thing to point out to your class is that through all of these lessons, Jesus is consistently predicting that He will suffer and die in Jerusalem—8:31-33, 9:30-32, and 10:32-34. Somehow, the disciples manage to make it all about them and completely miss what Jesus is saying of Himself. Do they think they are better than He is? Those are the lessons Jesus is trying to teach before it’s too late. After our passage this week, Jesus heals one more person and then they are at the gates of Jerusalem.

As we read these verses this week, you might be shocked at the raw arrogance of James and John. What I hope you can help your class see are all of these little ways we, too, can be arrogant in our approach to following Jesus—the expectations we have of earthly reward, or the unwillingness to “demean” ourselves with certain tasks. We have a lot to learn about being like Jesus!


Part 1: The Request (Mark 10:35-39)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him and said, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask you.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked them. They answered him, “Allow us to sit at your right and at your left in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink or to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We are able,” they told him.

I think this is one of the most bizarre exchanges in the New Testament. James and John, along with Peter, were Jesus’ inner circle. Apparently that gave them a big head (considering all the times Jesus told them that the first shall be last, this really makes no sense). In Matthew 20, we learn that their mother got involved in the request (which takes this to another level; I’m not surprised that Mark left her out of this). It’s obvious that they’re not be-ing secretive about this—the other disciples can hear. So again, what are they thinking?? And their request—it’s utterly ridiculous! “Do whatever we ask”???! Really?

Jesus knew what was in their hearts, but He asked them anyway. Was He letting them set their own trap? No, He was probably just sighing internally and preparing to use this as a teaching moment for the whole group.

The “places of honor” they requested were all about ego. A visible, ceremonial position of prominence that everyone could see, and it didn’t matter if James and John did anything. They would just be visibly honored. This is absolutely the most arrogant request they could have made. I’m having a hard time coming up with anything even comparable! Maybe joining the choir in a televised church just so you could be on TV? Forming your own church just so you can call yourself pastor? I’m at a loss here.

Jesus responded as nicely as possible to such a wrong-minded request (from two people who should know better). They wanted the glory, but they didn’t realize what it took to get there. (“Earned” is the wrong word here; Jesus would have this glory “given” to Him by God in love for His sacrifice.) Jesus used two neutral images to reveal their misunderstanding: cup and baptism. A “cup” can be filled with joy (Ps 23) or wrath (Ps 11). A “baptism” can symbolize following (Mark 1) or dying (Rom 6). Thinking of the positive (or at the very least not understanding the true depth of suffering Jesus would experience), James and John wholeheartedly embraced His challenge.

With respect to our situations today, tell your class that it’s good to be bold in our verbal commitment to Jesus. But let’s make sure that we’re being honest and not brash. In his past two sermons, David Lambert has mentioned the brash claims of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22) and Peter (Mark 14:31). Peter went on to become the selfless leader he wanted to be, but not before great failures. We probably won’t face death for the name of Jesus here in Thomson, but we will face many tests of our faith—economic crisis, tragic accident, terminal illness, senseless violence—that we can either use to point people to Jesus or let destroy us.


Aside: Arrogance in the Bible

There’s a great word—hubris—which describes arrogance that becomes self-destructive. The Bible is filled with it. It’s a thread that ties together all of humanity, which is why it is no surprise when even Jesus’ disciples speak arrogantly. It is only through the Spirit that we can truly overcome that tendency. Here are some examples that came to mind:

A couple of years ago, we studied 1 Samuel (the life of David) and we were introduced to the forgettable character Nabal, who was so arrogant that he couldn’t be reasoned with (1 Sam 25). His life didn’t end well.

Plenty of world rulers were not surprisingly arrogant. Think about Pharaoh, who wondered why he should obey God (Ex 5:2). Or Nebuchadnezzar, who decided that he was just as great as God (Dan 4) and ended up acting like a beast of the field until he repented. Or Belshazzar, whose great price ended his life after the famous writing on the wall (Dan 5). Or Herod, who died an awful death as people were proclaiming him a god (Acts 12:22).

But plenty of God’s children also struggled with arrogance. You remember just last quarter how Joseph’s pride rubbed his family the wrong way. Or from 1 Samuel how Saul’s pride eventually cut him off from God completely. Or half of the Corinthian church.

You can look up “arrogant”/”proud”/ ”haughty” in a concordance for even more examples.


Part 2: The Reaction (Mark 10:39-41)

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with. But to sit at my right or left is not mine to give; instead, it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten disciples heard this, they began to be indignant with James and John.

Jesus’ response takes an unexpected turn. Indeed, they will get the cup and the baptism, but they won’t get the glory they seek. And in reality, as they would mature and become true leaders in their own right, they would realize that they didn’t want the glory (and they wouldn’t—they would want all the glory to go to Jesus). See the bottom for traditions of what happened to the Apostles.

When you read commentaries about why Jesus didn’t have the authority to let James and John sit at His side, they focus on “ability” (see the aside). But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about here at all. I think He’s talking about the crucifixion. The two people who are historically forever connected with Jesus’ right and left sides are the two criminals who were crucified with Him. To Jesus, when the Son of Man is “lifted up”, it’s not in glory, it’s on a cross. That’s what’s really going on in the background of this conversation. But Jesus can’t give those places to James and John because He literally can’t. Those places have already been reserved by the state for two criminals who have already been scheduled to die on that day (this exchange takes place about a week before Good Friday). It’s not about ability at all—the Roman government had already reserved those places for others.

The response from the other disciples is expected and appropriate. However, I can’t help but wonder how many of them were indignant because they didn’t ask Jesus that first! The word for “indignant” is not the righteous indignation that Jesus had toward the moneychangers in the temple (Mark 11:15-19); rather this word is often tied to jealousy. Peter had just said to Jesus that they had left everything to follow Him, with the clear implication of “what will we get for our sacrifice?” (Mark 10:28). This is a major theme in these chapters because Jesus knew how important this lesson would be to learn. The question to ask here is this: do we serve Jesus out of love and devotion, or do we want a reward? We get a reward—the greatest reward possible (peace with God and life everlasting)—but do we want more? It’s a great heart-check moment for us.


Aside: "Not Mine to Give"?

As I said above, I don’t think Jesus is talking about authority or ability at all in this context; He's talking about a decision that others have already made, and it is not His place to change it (in addition to defeating prophesy and giving the confusing message that perhaps James and John were also dying for the people’s sins).

But if you want to insist that Jesus is talking about His seat in heaven, I think there’s still a very simple answer. Heaven’s throne room isn’t set up like a banquet (see Rev 4). There is one throne in the center for God, and there are rings around them—the four creatures and the 24 elders. It has nothing to do with ability or authority; no creature (i.e. created being) gets to share the glory of God. Period.


Part 3: The Ransom (Mark 10:42-45)

Jesus called them over and said to them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to 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.”

As a good leader who is incredibly patient, Jesus stopped their squabble before they could lose sight of the actual learning moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if He told them to sit down (and be quiet)! Just a few days before, in this exact same situation, Jesus called a child and told the disciples they would have to be like a child (Mark 9:33-37). Now, He dispenses with the illustration and explains it clearly: “you are not to want positions of authority; you are to live as slaves”. And here’s His point: slaves by definition cannot have positions of authority. So, get that thought out of your head! That’s the true paradox of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom: the first are last; the greatest are least.

And then He gives the real teaching: the reason He came. What an offense for the disciple to want better than the master! How arrogant for the disciple to seek a better life than the master! And how wrong-minded. Jesus came to this earth to give His life. His disciples are to give their lives so that many can hear the message (even though Jesus’ death is sufficient for all to be saved, only those who believe/”the many” are actually saved). The Bible calls Jesus’s sacrifice (1) a substitution (His life for ours), (2) a satisfaction (of the sacrificial system), and (3) a propitiation (of God’s wrath). But here Jesus calls it a ransom. That’s in keeping with the slavery illustration; the word used here (lutron) is used of the price for a slave’s freedom. It’s a neat twist—”You balk at becoming a slave of all, but in reality you’re already slaves to your own sin, and only I can set you free from that.” How apt, and how powerful. Paul will pick up on that image quite a bit in his letters.

Unfortunately for us, this association of Christianity and power is a problem in the modern world. People become pastors or church leaders for the prestige it brings. Kids go to Christian schools for the social benefit. Politicians join churches for the voter boost. It’s very much not the world Jesus’ disciples lived in! However, our world is changing, and we are coming to a place where it will not be convenient or expedient to be a committed church member. (Of course, Thomson is in a bit of a bubble with respect to this, but one day our bubble will burst.) Here’s the thought exercise for us: how committed are we to Jesus? List some hypotheticals for your class.

  • If being a church member meant you couldn’t keep your current job.

  • If being a church member meant you had to pay higher prices at the store.

  • If being a church member meant you wouldn’t be allowed to expand your business (Chick fil-a was just denied a franchise in San Antonio due to their religious convictions).

Keep ramping it up: access to health care; right to vote; legal representation; etc. Here’s the point: there should never be a price we’re not willing to pay in service of Jesus. But is there?


Aside: Slavery in the First Century

We’ve talked about this many times, so I’ll just give a brief reminder: slavery in the first century was nothing like the race-based, chattel slavery of Africans in the Americas. War captives (and there were many wars) generally became slaves (to make sure they could not rise up). Anyone who could not repay a debt often became a slave to the debtor until working off that debt. Freedom could be purchased or earned, and it was not uncommon for a slaveowner to emancipate his slaves in his last will and testament.

Educated or skilled slaves were often treated somewhat gently (serving as doctors, tutors, craftsmen or artists). But it was not good to be a slave! Slaves had no rights, and they could be put to work in horrible conditions in mines or fields.

Jewish slaves like those Jesus talked about were generally slaves due to debt or to theft. They were often treated better than in other parts of the Roman Empire (there were fewer slaves in Israel than elsewhere). They would often have their own homes on the estate. Because of the potential for years of labor, a wise master would take care of his slaves. Sabbath laws applied to slaves, and they even had protections from maltreatment. When Jesus calls on His disciples to be “slaves to all”, He’s not talking about living conditions or treatment expectations—He’s talking about the attitude of willingly taking on the lowest place in society for the sake of the gospel (which is the opposite of what James and John seemed to be wanting).


Closing Thought: What Did Happen to the Disciples?

In the case of James and John, the Bible actually tells us their fate. James was the first Apostle to be martyred (Acts 12), at the order of Herod Agrippa as part of a regionwide persecution against Christians. John was apparently not martyred, but he was exiled to the island of Patmos where he had the vision that he wrote down as the Revelation. Tradition says that he survived the exile and fought heresy until his death.

Most famously, Peter was martyred in Rome in 66. Tradition says he was crucified upside-down.

Tradition says that Andrew preached in Asia Minor before going north into modern Russia. He was eventually crucified in Greece.

A strong tradition says that Thomas went to India; an ancient Christian community claimed him as their founder. He was executed by spear.

Philip preached in North Africa (the church there became very strong) before converting a proconsul’s wife and being killed in retaliation.

Matthew went to Ethiopia where traditions are mixed on whether or not he was martyred.

Bartholomew was linked with very widespread travels, and multiple locations claim to be the place of his martyrdom.

James the younger is said by Josephus to have been stoned in Syria.

Simon the zealot was martyred in Persia for not worshiping their gods.

In the Middle Ages, it became fashionable to have the remains of an Apostle in your church, so many conflicting traditions arose. But some of these listed above go back a very long way, long before the Middle Ages.


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