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The "Great Reverse" and Servant Leadership at Work in Mark 10:32-45

"The first will be last" applies to everybody, especially Christians.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 10:32-45

After Mark reports Jesus' third prediction of His death (and resurrection), James and John take their turn at putting their foot in their mouth by asking to be first in Jesus' kingdom. Jesus offers a very patient correction that their entire view of the world and their place in it is wrong. Christians are to willingly think of themselves and the very bottom of the totem pole.

whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all. (10:44)

We've Studied This Passage Before

A good chunk of this week's passage was covered back in 2019 --

My thoughts really haven't changed, so I'll be pointing us back to that post a few times. Here are some of the sections:

  • Discussion: humble ways people serve in your church

  • Discussion: your worst display of arrogance

  • Discussion: Christians and "power"

  • Big Idea: "Places of honor" in Jesus' kingdom

  • Aside: what "arrogance" means in the Bible

  • Focus: "sacrifices" as a Christian

  • Aside: slavery in the first century

  • Closing: church traditions of how the disciples died

Please skim through that post for info I will not be addressing below.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Has Mark "Shaken" You?

Let's think about the things we've studied so far in Mark's Gospel. Have any of them surprised/bothered you? Have you been challenged to change your mind about something you have long believed? Or have you been made uneasy by any of Jesus' hard statements that maybe you hadn't read too closely before? (Feel free to go back to our study of John and some of the difficult things we read.)

If nothing comes to mind, here are some options that show up in traditional "hard sayings of the Bible" lists:

  • “It is not those who are well who need a doctor, but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) -- this leads people to wonder about how they should think of themselves and others

  • “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. So then, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28) -- this leads to lots of questions about the Old Testament (and also the old Blue Laws)

  • “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for all sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29) -- wait, there's an unforgivable sin?

  • “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables" (Mark 4:11) -- so, does Jesus not want everybody to understand what He teaches?

  • “Daughter,” he said to her, “your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be healed from your affliction.” (Mark 5:34) -with- “‘If you can’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.” (Mark 9:23) -- are miracles about our faith?

  • “Let the children be fed first, because it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) -- was Jesus racist against Gentiles?

If any of those studies "shook" you, it means one of two things:

  • You didn't know the Bible as well as you thought you did, or

  • You hadn't considered other interpretations of the Bible.

Of course, the purpose of studying the Bible is to learn and grow! I hope we are challenged every week by something we read. But we all respond differently to learning something new.

How do you handle being challenged in your beliefs?

In this week's passage, we see that the disciples don't handle that well at all. They are still reeling from revelations about Jesus. Jesus isn't who they "wanted" Him to be -- He came to be a servant, not a conqueror (in they way they wanted Him to conquer). And worse, Jesus' plan for them isn't what they "wanted" it to be -- He calls them to give their lives as servants for the gospel, not sit on thrones as wealthy rulers.

This isn't what they signed up for.

[Note: Any time we complain about the disciples this week, remember that we have the benefit of the rest of the story -- Jesus rising from the dead, the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost, and John's Revelation of the death of Satan and the new earth. Knowing the "big picture" makes the things we will read a lot easier to cope with.]

When You Didn't Know What You Signed Up For

Have you ever signed up for something and not realized what you had signed up for? Or have you ever said "What have I gotten myself into?"

I've heard plenty of stories from other pastors about volunteering to visit someone in their home, only to find out that the need was, say, bigger than they had thought.

Or maybe you signed up for a certain class thinking it was a different class. Or you started watching a tv show thinking it was about something other than what it was about.

We've all gone into something with wrong expectations. (I remember visiting a church once I didn't know anything about, and how their service went was so foreign to me that I couldn't wait to leave. I always researched the churches I visited after that.)

The disciples really didn't understand what they had "signed up for". Thank the Lord for us, they stuck it out, and the gospel message has been passed down to us today!

That's Greek to Me

Another version of the above topic is to think of a time you simply didn't understand what was being said to you. Not because you didn't understand the person's words, but because you didn't understand what they meant. That might have been your "what have I gotten myself into" moment. I signed up for a class that was being offered both in the Mechanical Engineering department and the Electrical Enginering department (I thought I was being clever -- this would be easy!). After two weeks, I simply had to admit that I didn't understand what the EE guy was saying and dropped out. I got an A in the ME class. Have you ever listened to a person, known the words they used, but not understand their meaning?

This is now the third time Jesus has explained His death and resurrection to the disciples, and they still don't get it.


Where We Are in Mark

Because I put so much in that 2019 post, let me simply offer a "running commentary" of the passages that connect last week with this week:

Mark 9:33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest. 35 Sitting down, he called the Twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all.” 36 He took a child, had him stand among them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one little child such as this in my name welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me, but him who sent me.”

-- the first shall be last; the disciples must be servants, humble like children

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” 39 “Don’t stop him,” said Jesus, “because there is no one who will perform a miracle in my name who can soon afterward speak evil of me. 40 For whoever is not against us is for us. 41 And whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ —truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward.

-- the disciples were making this about themselves

42 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away —it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 “And if your hand causes you to fall away, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to fall away, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to fall away, gouge it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt should lose its flavor, how can you season it? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

-- the stakes are higher than they realize; they will need to work together

Mark 10:1 He set out from there and went to the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Then crowds converged on him again, and as was his custom he taught them again. 2 Some Pharisees came to test him, asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He replied to them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses permitted us to write divorce papers and send her away.” 5 But Jesus told them, “He wrote this command for you because of the hardness of your hearts. 6 But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. 7 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother 8 and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples questioned him about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 12 Also, if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

-- a reminder about the opposition from the Pharisees

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t stop them, because the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 After taking them in his arms, he laid his hands on them and blessed them.

-- again -- the last shall be first; it's not about the disciples

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother.” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.” 21 Looking at him, Jesus loved him and said to him, “You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 But he was dismayed by this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions. 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were astonished at his words. Again Jesus said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were even more astonished, saying to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Looking at them, Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God, because all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to tell him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundred times more, now at this time —houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions —and eternal life in the age to come. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

--and again, the last shall be first and the first last

The things we talk about in this week's passage were not new to the disciples. Jesus has been saying them over and over.

Main context point: What Jesus had just said about rich people and about giving up everything to follow Him is why the disciples are "astonished" in this week's passage.

[Aside: if someone has read this and asks if rich people can be saved, tell them to hang tight because Jesus will talk about that in this week's passage.]

This Week's Big Idea: The "Great Reverse"

I'm not going to go into much detail here because we've talked about this before, and it's prevalent in the Gospels (especially in Luke). The "Great Reverse" is one of the terms used to describe the phenomenon mentioned there in Mark 10:31, "many who are first will be last, and the last first." Here are some examples from Luke:

  • Luke 1: 52 he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. 53 He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

  • Luke 6:20 Blessed are you who are poor, because the kingdom of God is yours. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, because you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, because you will laugh.

  • Luke 16:25 ‘Son,’ Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony.'

I would make this a discussion at some point during your group time: what does this mean? What is Jesus talking about? When is this happening? What is Jesus trying to help His disciples (and everybody else) understand?


Part 1: Jesus Came to Die (Mark 10:32-34)

32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. The disciples were astonished, but those who followed him were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them the things that would happen to him. 33 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 and they will mock him, spit on him, flog him, and kill him, and he will rise after three days.”

Jesus has already said this. In fact, this is the third time in this section of Mark that Jesus says this:

  • Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah (8:27-30)

  • Jesus declares that the Messiah must die (and rise again) (8:31)

  • Peter says that can't be right (8:32)

  • Jesus is transfigured on the mountain (9:2-13)

  • Jesus declares that He must be killed (and rise again) (9:30-31)

  • The disciples start arguing about being the greatest (9:32-37)

  • Jesus declares that He and His followers must give up everything (9:17-31)

  • Jesus declares that He must be killed (and rise again) (9:32-34)

  • James and John ask to be given places of honor (9:35-40)

Do you see the pattern? Mark the author has worked very hard to help us see just how foreign what Jesus was saying to the disciples. It didn't compute. They simply couldn't understand, it was too different from their expectations.

The key addition to this passage is Jerusalem -- the destination. Luke framed his Gospel around Jesus' turn toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), and this is the first time Mark has mentioned it. What might be "astonishing" to us about this idea that Jesus would be killed in Jerusalem?

The disciples are also astonished, but about something very different. We saw this word a couple of weeks ago in Mark 7:37. It's amazement mixed with fear. They're astonished by what Jesus had just said:

31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

I've already encouraged you to talk about what that means. But make sure to put a spin on it -- why would it have astonished the disciples?

This could lead into that "It's Greek to me" discussion. To me, it's pretty clear what Jesus is saying. "They are going to kill Me, and then I will rise again." What's so hard about that? Well, we have the benefit of hindsight. Why might they have been unable to understand something that seems pretty straightforward?

I wouldn't try to develop this too much because Jesus is about to give us some of the implications below.


Part 2: The Disciples Are Tone-Deaf (Mark 10:35-40)

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him and said, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask you.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked them. 37 They answered him, “Allow us to sit at your right and at your left in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 “We are able,” they told him. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink, and you will be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with. 40 But to sit at my right or left is not mine to give; instead, it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

This is where I get astonished. What is going on??!! Have these guys listened to anything Jesus has said? See how smug and confident (and intergalactically naive) they are -- "We are able." Jesus must have been righteously furious.

[See the 2019 post for more about the "cup" and "baptism" imagery.]

And in reality, the situation is even worse. According to Matthew, their mom was involved(!) (see Matt 20:20). (That might explain why it happened here -- maybe she had just shown up and had missed everything Jesus had just said? But when does John grab his mom's arm and say, "Not a good time, Mom!"?)

The other thing to catch here is that it's James and John. That's now all three members of Jesus' "inner circle" who have completely misunderstood Jesus' teachings on His mission. We already talked about Peter in Mark 8:32.

One common explanation is that these three had let their "inner circle" status get to their heads. Perhaps James and John were thinking that they should leverage their privileged position to get something good before Jesus got killed? (I just threw up in my mouth a little bit typing that.) Have you ever let a privilege go to your head?

Jesus is unbelievably patient with them. And they clearly don't understand what Jesus is saying to them. When they ask to sit at Jesus' right- and left-hand, what do they have in mind?

I'll use two of the images from my earlier post on this passage. They are thinking this:

But Jesus is saying this:

This section is all about the "Great Reverse" -- about turning expectations on their heads. Here, Jesus is not talking about someone sitting on either side of His throne in heaven (a lot of people think that's what Jesus is talking about). No! In heaven, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. There is nobody else on the dais. That means that Jesus is talking about the two men at His right and left in His "Great Reverse" of glory.

We talked about this when we studied John 12:

23 Jesus replied to them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. ... 32 As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate what kind of death he was about to die.

Jesus "receives His earthly glory" in His crucifixion. It's the ultimate reversal of fortune.

Phil 2:5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,
6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.
9 For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Do you see it? What was supposed to be to Jesus' greatest shame was actually His greatest glory. It's the "Great Reverse" in action.

It was not for James and John to be crucified with Jesus. They would indeed "drink the cup" that Jesus drank -- meaning they would also be killed for their faith (see the end of the 2019 post for traditions about what happened to the disciples). But it would not be here. God had another plan for them.

Discussion: do you know anyone who has "gotten into Christianity" for personal gain? Health and wealth preachers have done specifically so they can get rich. We all know politicians who have joined churches during election season. How about you? Did you start out thinking that "being a church member" would be to your advantage?

Things are changing in our country. Being a Baptist isn't held is the same "esteem" it once was. And conservative Christian beliefs attract negative attention in our culture. In my 2019 post, I offered these hypotheticals:

  • 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 denied a franchise in San Antonio due to their religious convictions).

Is there a hypothetical situation in which you might consider backing away from your church membership or your Christian identity? How far can we push this before you start getting uncomfortable?

Encourage people's honesty in this discussion! And be real with one another. We need to be aware of the limits of our faith. But make sure to bring it back to something we talked about a few weeks ago:

Mark 8:38 For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

This is the sort of thing Jesus was talking about. If there's something that would cause you to step back from your public confession of faith, then you need to reevaluate your faith. And that's where last week's passage comes in:

Mark 9:24 “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

No one is expected to "get it right" on the first try. The disciples obviously didn't. It took an extended series of miracles for them to eventually become the bedrock leaders who would die for the true faith. But they did get there. What is your faith trajectory?


Part 3: Jesus Came to Serve -- and so should we (Mark 10:41-50)

41 When the ten disciples heard this, they began to be indignant with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to 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.”

Now Jesus explains the implications of the "Great Reverse".

First, don't feel good about the other disciples. They were indignant because they hadn't asked Jesus first. They were envious that James and John jumped the line. That's why Jesus spoke (extraordinarily calmly) to the whole group.

And He dismantles the classes of power with one sentence.

Where does power come from in today's world? It comes from money, from celebrity, from government position, from family -- basically from all the same things in Jesus' day.

How do people abuse power today? My guess is that the principle behind whatever your answer is the same as in Jesus' day.

What kind of a leader is Jesus describing? And probably more importantly, why does He think it is so important?

Of course, Jesus is talking about servant leadership. "Servant leadership" is something you can read about on the internet:

I'm fascinated when secular groups try to use biblical principles. Servant leadership works, and the world would certainly be a better place if more leaders used it! But what is the limitation for a non-Christian to apply servant leadership principles? What is Jesus really saying here?

To make a long story short, rulers and tyrants have a gross misunderstanding of who they are in the "cosmic scheme of things". It's what makes us laugh at Lucy in this comic:

Everybody wants to be first. Or in the words of my favorite subversive Brit-pop, "Everybody wants to rule the world." And it's easy for a follower of Christ to be tempted to follow that path (beware the "yeast" of the Pharisees).

When Jesus says "slave", think "bondservant" -- think "the lowest social position you can voluntarily claim". If we want to follow Jesus, we must think of ourselves as "selling ourselves" into the service of the human race until the day we die.

And then here's where you want to go with your final discussion and application: why must a Christian think of himself as this kind of lowly servant? And how should that affect the way you think of every person around you?

One focused discussion you may want to have is how this applies to Christians in positions of leadership. You may have managers or business owners in your group, and they may struggle with how Jesus wants them to lead. What a great opportunity to study how Jesus "managed" His followers -- you could get a lot out of how Jesus handled this situation just in this week's passage!

Jesus had to get His disciples to completely change the way they thought about

  • the purpose of their life,

  • their approach to their standard of living,

  • the way they view "success".

And of course a reason we are studying this passage now is perhaps we also need to change our perspective on these things. Perhaps we've gotten caught up in a desire for wealth/power/influence/prestige. What would Jesus say to us?


Closing Thoughts: When Christians Get Caught up in Power and Money

Sometimes, we can look at the behavior of a Christian leader and say pretty quickly that so-and-so is in this for the wrong reasons. They want to get rich. They want to have power. They want to be on tv.

But more often, and when it's closer to home, it's not so easy to make sense of. Earlier this week, I saw this article:

I won't go into the larger saga, but a former employee has requested that Southwestern (a seminary I attended) pay him $5 million for the hardship he has endured related to his termination. There aren't many pastors who will make that much money in their entire life. And earlier this year, I read these articles:

What do we do with that? I know people who know those men, and they have said that those men did good work in the name of Jesus. How did they get caught up in (what sure seems to be) the pursuit of money or influence?

Sometimes, I don't know what to say. I don't know those men. I don't know what was in their hearts. I don't know what else is going on behind the scenes. I just don't know.

But I do know this -- Jesus has called me (and you) to be a servant, to be willing to give up everything to follow Him, to store up treasures in heaven and not on earth. I can't control what other people do or think, but I can control myself. I am responsible for myself. And God will hold me accountable for what I do -- for where my heart is.

In other words, when someone brings up examples like these when we study a passage like this week's ("But what about so-and-so ..."), lament that Jesus' name is raked through the mud in front of the world, and use it as a call to search your heart and motives.


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