Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sacrificial Service

In our study of Mark's Gospel we have arrived at Mark 10:32-45. If you’ve ever visited a waterfall you know that the velocity of the river accelerates on its approach to the falls. Likewise, as the earthly ministry of Jesus nears its climatic conclusion (the Passion Week is just around the corner) there is a frightening resolution about Jesus. Unique to Mark’s account is the vividly detailed snapshot of this event. Verse 32 doesn’t simply tell us that they went up to Jerusalem. Instead we read that “Jesus went before them.” This is no leisurely stroll up to the holy city. Jesus purposefully strides before His followers with an unwavering determination. His resolve intimidated the disciples; not because Jesus normally vacillated. Not at all! His followers were “amazed” and “afraid” because, to quote Sinclair Ferguson,

“the degree of commitment which Jesus manifested was something they had never before encountered. They could not fully understand it, but it unnerved them just because it drew them into its own orbit. They sensed that His commitment required their commitment!”

Jesus came down from heaven to do the will of the Father that sent Him. The “hour” that had been appointed in eternity past was fast approaching, and Jesus had set His face like a flint (Isaiah 50:7; Luke 9:51) towards Jerusalem so that He might accomplish His Father’s will. What is the Father’s will? It is this: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life; for God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world, through Him, might be saved.

As Jesus marched towards Jerusalem “he took again the twelve, and began to tell them what things should happen unto him.” He described for them, now for the third time, exactly what it meant for the Son of man to be lifted up.

Selfless Sufferings Predicted

Do you know what a polysyndeton is? It is a rhetorical device where conjunctions are repeated in close succession for effect, as in the phrase “neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail.” A better example is Mark 10:33-34. Each grisly aspect of Jesus’ soon and severe suffering is stressed with an “and”. “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem…”
  • AND the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests…
  • AND the scribes…
  • AND they will condemn him to death…
  • AND deliver Him over to the Gentiles…
  • AND they will mock Him…
  • AND scourge Him…
  • AND spit on Him…
  • AND kill Him…
  • AND after three days He will rise again!!
Praise God that the Resurrection of Christ was as inevitable as His death!

Of course, this was the third time that Christ had openly discussed with the Twelve that He would suffer, die, and be resurrected. His first mention of it was in Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:31). The news so shocked the Twelve that Peter actually “took him, and began to rebuke him.” This was tantamount to denying the Gospel. To this end Christ was born. He came into the world for this cause. Therefore, Peter received a stern rebuke from Jesus: “Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men” (Mark 8:33).

The second time Jesus taught the disciples about the cross was in Mark 9:31. But Mark says they didn’t understand what he said and were afraid to ask. Undoubtedly, the echo of “Get thee behind me Satan” was still ringing in their ears, but the greatest hindrance to their comprehending and accepting the idea of Jesus suffering and dying was that they did not want to believe in such a Messiah. How easy it is to ignore, either purposefully or by insincere ignorance, unpleasant truths. The disciples poorly reacted to Christ’s teaching for the second time; not only by their willful ignorance but by their audacious arrogance. They had disputed among themselves who should be accounted as the greatest.

True to form, this latest at more comprehensive instruction of the fast approaching suffering and sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of mankind was followed by a foolish, proud, and ridiculous request from the sons of Thunder.

Selfish Pride Revealed

We know from Matthew’s account that not only James and John but their mother also approached Jesus with a request that reeked of pride and selfishness. Speaking in private with Jesus the family wanted a favor. “Master, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Their approach is not unlike a child who wants his parent to agree before the request is made because he’s certain that it will otherwise be denied. “Dad, before I ask you this I want you to promise to say ‘yes.’”

Listen to their desire: “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.” These close followers of Jesus had still not grasped His ministry or their place in it. These must serve as a warning to those of us who have spent our entire lives in church and with a Bible. Familiarity with Jesus does not always equal singularity with His purpose. They recognized that He is the Christ. Three times now He has plainly and painfully described the suffering that awaits Him, and the best they can do is to argue over and maneuver themselves for the chief seats in the kingdom.

It appears that the disciples always assumed the kingdom would be established soon. This is one reason why they were discomfited by Jesus’ talk of suffering and dying. Jesus had also said, however, that He would rise on the third day. The brothers wanted to put in their request early; before anyone else had an opportunity. The arrogance of their request is staggering. Next to the king, the highest positions of authority and prestige belonged to those who were on the right and the left hand of the sovereign. In effect, they were claiming that of all the great people of God who had ever lived, they deserved to have the two highest places of honor.

Jesus doesn’t scold the brothers, but He does correct them by asking a question (Mark 10:38). Basically He asks them, “Do you even know what you’re asking?” It’s obvious that they didn’t.

The cup and the baptism that Jesus spoke of were clear allusions to His impending sufferings and death. Commentator John Phillips writes, “The cup spoke of His inward sufferings; the baptism spoke of His outward sufferings.” These sufferings far exceeded the physical agony of crucifixion and the emotional anguish of abandonment. The full measure of this cup was taking the world’s sin upon Himself. This was an agony so horrible that we read in John 12:27-28,
“Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. 28Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”
On the cross Jesus would drink the bitter cup of God’s wrath against sin, and He would be baptized (overwhelmed, immersed) in God’s judgment on the same. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” The proper answer was “no”, but James and John didn’t understand the question; so they answered, “Yes, we can.”

Remember, these were faithful men who loved Jesus. They had walked away from the family fishing business to follow Him, leaving their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants in order to be made fishers of men by Jesus. But with all of their passionate zeal for the Lord and His way they neither knew their own hearts nor the nature of the path before them. They were over-confident in their own strength. They still thought of temporal crowns and earthly rewards.

Are you any different? Is it yourself that you’re trusting in or do you lean on Jesus? I fear that we often expect, or at least would be content to receive, our rewards and ultimate joy here and now. We are apt to forget the cross and to think only of a crown.

Now it must be said that there is nothing wrong with desiring a crown. We are right to desire greatness, honor, and rewards. We are right to long for the day when Jesus will reign on this earth as King of kings and Lord of lords, and we shall reign with Him. Seeking greatness is right; it’s only wrong to seek the world’s kind of greatness. It is right to seek eternal glory because that kind of glory is God-given. Just consider these passages from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:11-12; 6:5-6; 16-18:
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly...Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
Paul spoke of a “crown of righteousness” that was laid up for him in glory which Christ the righteous judge would award to him (2 Timothy 4:8; cf. Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Nowhere does Jesus rebuke His followers for desiring greatness or rewards. What He always rebuked was the worldly pursuit of such things.

That was the problem with the “desire” of James and John, and that is what stirred the other ten “to be much displeased.” We are not told how the rest of the apostles discovered what James and John had requested. Surely, such a thing could not be kept secret for long, and perhaps the brothers had sheepishly rehearsed the conversation to their fellow laborers. However they learned about the discussion, when they learned of it they were not happy.

Sacrificial Service Required

Do not be fooled by the displeasure of the other ten. Theirs was not a righteous indignation. They were aggravated that James and John beat them to the punch! They resented James and John using their familial relationship to Jesus as a means to curry favor. We know this because Jesus gathered the Twelve together and reinforced a lesson that He had taught and demonstrated time and again: Godly greatness is the polar opposite of worldly greatness. True greatness requires sacrificial service, humbly and joyfully offered. As John MacArthur writes:
“The world’s way of greatness is like a pyramid. The prestige and power of the great person is built on many subordinate persons beneath him. But in the kingdom, the pyramid is inverted. As the great commentator R.C.H. Lenski has observed, God’s ‘great men are not sitting on top of lesser men, but bearing lesser men on their backs.’”
This is a simple truth that is not difficult to understand, just difficult to apply. The way of the disciple is different from the way of the world. According to God’s standard of measure true greatness is determined by sacrificial service not by the number of servants. It is seen, not in how high up the ladder we have climbed, but how far down the ladder we are prepared to climb for the sake of others. A genuine follower of Christ will let go of a desire for honoring himself or seeking to be honored, and will instead give honor to others. To walk in Christ’s steps is be useful to others. Not users of others. Not useless. Not used to getting your way all the time. Rather, it is to be useful to others by submitting ourselves as an instrument of God whereby our fellow man are made more holy and happy.

A life spent in this fashion is truly Christ-like, and brings its own glorious reward. To be this type of sacrificial servant is to be like Christ. He came to serve others not to be served by them. He came to give His life for others. “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This is the key verse, not only of this sermon but of this book. What a blessed truth it is. This is the atonement: the work Christ accomplished by His living and dying to earn our salvation. Christ died for us to remove us from the wrath of God that we deserved. This means that He is the propitiation for our sins, as the aged apostle John, years after his selfishly motivated request, would write, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Here is Bishop JC Ryle’s comment on this happy truth…
“[Christ’s] death was no common death, like the death of a martyr, or of other holy men. It was the public payment by an Almighty Representative of the debts of sinful man to a holy God. It was the ransom which a Divine Surety undertook in order to procure liberty for sinners, tied and bound by the chain of their sins. When He died, he died for us. When He suffered, He suffered in our stead. When He hung on the cross, He hung there as our Substitute. When His blood flowed, it was the price of our souls.”
This is what Christ has done for us, and we are to model ourselves after His example. Not seeking our own honor but desiring to honor others, and, most of all, to honor and glorify the Father in Heaven. The desire to be great is a good and Godly desire. It is also a summons to be a slave – doulos – that is the word translated as “servant” in Mark 10:44. It is not a grievous but a joyous thing to be Christ’s slave, and if you are a believer you have indeed been “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20) “therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

Don’t desire to lord over people. Instead be great by being servant of all. Be first by being last. Be willing to serve in the hard, uncomfortable, lonely, and demanding places. Time is short and eternity is long, so be willing to spend and be spent. Be zealous unto good works, but do so without becoming proud. Withstand criticism without becoming bitter. When you’re misjudged don’t become defensive. Endure suffering without succumbing to self-pity.

This is Christ’s example to follow. His steps may only be traced by the spirit that is totally surrendered to Him.

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