The gospel writer Mark talks about a time when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, said something that caused the other disciples to feel “indignant” toward them.
Indignant is a rather intense word. Some synonyms are outraged, incensed, angry and resentful. What was it that these two brothers could have said to cause their friends and partners to feel this way?
The reason was because James and John had come to Jesus with a request. They approached him and said this: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35 NAS).
If we read the same account in the book of Matthew, we see that their mother was also involved in bringing this petition. Certainly, this request does seem a bit audacious.
“Whatever we ask of you”? I wonder what Jesus thought of the way that the two men had put that request. Jesus may have had several thoughts, but he simply responded, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Grant that we may sit, one on your right and one on your left, in your glory.”
James and John were nicknamed the two “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). I take it that from this moniker that they must have had rather assertive personalities, and they must have been feeling particularly bold on that day.
Jesus knew that these two brothers had no idea of the magnitude of their request. “Do you know what you are asking?” Jesus responded. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:36-38 NAS).
As if it were a small and insignificant matter, the two brothers simply answered, “We are able.”
It was obvious that they did not understand the implications of what they were asking or what they were saying. Jesus knew better. Besides this, as we have just read, what James and John had said also caused the rest of the disciples to feel indignant toward the men.
An Animated Discussion
What James and John had requested, after all, was that they could be given places of prominence above the other disciples. We might see why the other disciples took offense at this. Nevertheless, some of that indignation they felt may have been a result of the fact that the two men dared to voice something that all of them desired. They all wanted places of greatness.
Why do I say that? I say it because of another incident that had happened between Jesus and his disciples not long before that time. On that occasion, the disciples had been trying to cast an evil spirit out of a young boy, but they could not do it. Jesus later came along, and, responding to the cry for help from the father of the boy, Jesus rebuked the spirit, and it came out of the young lad.
The disciples later asked Jesus why it was that they could not do it. Jesus responded with the words, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:14-29).
This little incident must have caused the disciples to question among themselves who was to blame for this failure, because they were later in an animated but hushed discussion about something that they hoped Jesus would not overhear. As they were talking, they were all walking down the road on a short journey to the place where they were to stay for the night.
I can almost picture this walk in my mind—the disciples holding back and allowing Jesus to go on ahead while they whispered to one another. Because they did not want Jesus to hear, instead of raising their voices to stress a point, they waved their arms in the air and pounded their fists into their hands.
When they all arrived at the house, Jesus asked them, “What was it that you were discussing on the way?”
The disciples were ashamed to say what the object of such an energetic display of muffled discussion on the road had been. Their shame was because what they were talking about was which one of them was the greatest—just like they were little boys talking about who was the best baseball player.
Because of this and just like a father who sits his boys down for a talk, Jesus sat down with the disciples. It is here that we begin our lessons in greatness:
The First Lesson in Greatness
“If anyone wants to be first, he shall be the very last and servant of all,” Jesus told his disciples.
Then, in order to stress his point, instead of waving his arms as did the disciples, Jesus took a child in his arms and said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:33-37).
The disciples apparently had not quite understood the point Jesus had made concerning this child, because not long after, Jesus made a similar statement, again using children as an example. While Jesus was with his disciples in another place, some people of the town began to bring children to Jesus so that he might touch them. But the disciples rebuked them.
This time it was Jesus’ turn to be indignant. “Permit the children to come to Me,” he told the disciples, “do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Mark 10:14-15 NAS).
The Second Lesson in Greatness
It was after all of this that James and John came to Jesus with their request to sit at the side of Jesus in his kingdom, and which made the other disciples grumble in the background. The lesson with the children not yet learned, Jesus again called all of the disciples to him. Here is what Jesus said:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of 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. (Mark 10:42-45 NIV)
We may fault the disciples for being so slow to learn, but we, much like the sons of thunder, are still learning this same lesson today. The two brothers were seeking to be placed in positions of honor and recognition. They thought that if they were seated in the places next to Jesus, certainly people would look at them and acknowledge their greatness.
We may fault them for this, but are we any different than they? Is not that same desire for recognition and feeling of importance still prevalent among us?
The Third Lesson in Greatness
I do not know how often the disciples had the same conversation, but we see them having it again right up to the time of their last meal with Jesus. This third lesson in greatness took place just after Jesus had initiated the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper and had revealed to the disciples that one of them seated at the table would soon betrayed him.
To what subject of conversation, do you suppose, did that piece of information lead the disciples? We read about it in the book of Luke. Jesus again found himself explaining the same lesson to them.
A dispute arose among them as to which of them would be considered the greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-26 NIV)
At that particular moment, there were no children around for Jesus to use as an illustration, but he used another example. “For who is greater,” he asked them, “the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27 NIV).
The Fourth Lesson in Greatness
The disciples seemed to be tediously slow at learning this lesson of greatness. Again, I need to also ask it of us: have we learned it yet? Do we still not desire to be the one who appears to be important?
This desire seems to have also been a problem with the church in the city of Corinth. There, the issue was over the different spiritual gifts. Some of the people of the church thought that their own particular spiritual gift and their ability was so vitally important that the other gifts were not really even needed. To help the people of that church understand, the Apostle Paul used an illustration. Once again, in speaking of the church, we find ourselves considering the example of a body.
“Even as the body is one and yet has many members,” he explained to them, “and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body. So also is Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
Paul’s point was that our own physical bodies need every member to function properly as they were designed. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor can the head say to the feet, “I have no need of you.” Neither in the church should anyone consider themselves so important as that.
In the same way, none should feel that their part is less important than the rest. A foot should not say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” nor should the ear say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body.”
It is a simple matter for us to see this in our own physical bodies. Why is it so difficult for us to see it in the body of Christ? We tend to want to have positions of obvious importance, as did James and John, sitting at the side of Jesus in his kingdom.
It is not that there is no such thing as having responsibilities that are given to us by God, but it is that our perspective of importance is so influenced by the world’s standards that we miss entirely the point of the meaning of the “body of Christ.” In the world, those who exercise authority consider themselves as being important, but Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves.”
The Fifth Lesson in Greatness
The fifth lesson took place at this same meal where Jesus had already demonstrated this concept to the disciples. Sometime during the evening, Jesus got up from the supper, laid aside his garments, and took up a towel. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet (John 13:4-5). This act was a great show of humility in that day.
When Jesus had finished, he said to the disciples,
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. (John 13:12-15 NAS)
There are not many churches that actually practice foot washing regularly in their worship services. Some do. However, the point is not so much the act of foot washing as it is acting in a humble manner to serve even the lowest and most basic needs of the brethren.
This is contrary to much that we see in many churches today. Some leaders consider themselves too important to be involved with such menial tasks. Some people often feel that these things are below their dignity.
It is unfortunate that we have allowed ourselves to use the world’s standards as the pattern for our churches and for the people of our churches. Many times the pastors and leaders of our churches do not follow the example of Jesus in serving, but instead act as those Jesus referred to as the “kings of the Gentiles” (Mark 10:42). These are the ones who “exercise authority” and “lord over” those underneath them. It is a militaristic perspective instead of an ecclesiastical one.
But Jesus said, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Thinking back to Paul’s illustration of the body, he said that the head cannot say to the feet, “I have no need of you.” The head should not consider itself so indispensable that it fails to see the great importance of the feet.
However, what sometimes happens among the body of Christ in the churches is that the people in leadership act in a manner that serves only to secure their own importance. They think that they are indispensable, while the rest of the people are like feet. The feet may be useful for getting them where they want to go, but otherwise are of little use.
The leaders in this type of situation are not taking the needs of the rest of the people in the church into consideration. The members of the leadership instead compete for power, each trying to appear more important than the others.
Jesus showed us through the washing of the feet of the disciples that our focus should not be on ourselves, but on serving others. Our focus is not to be inward—that which would benefit self; but it should be outward—that which is to benefit others. In the washing of the feet of the disciples, Jesus demonstrated the standard which runs contrary to what we see in the world, but which we are to follow in the church.
The Sixth Lesson in Greatness
Paul spoke of this same servant-like attitude when he compared the functioning of the church to a human body. In any organizational structure that consists of people, there are inevitably those individuals who, by the world’s standards, would be considered lower than the rest.
In comparing the organizational structure of the church to the human body, Paul says, “The members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23 NAS).
When we unite Paul’s instructions about our attitudes to others with what Jesus demonstrated to us in the washing the disciple’s feet, we see that this servant-like attitude is achieved within oneself only when one considers one’s own self as the less honorable one. It does not matter what our particular gift or place of importance might be, we are to see the others as being more important than ourselves. Rather than using the standards of the world, perhaps we would do better to apply these standards that Jesus taught us and that Paul reinforced.
In light of this, we would do well to ask ourselves some questions. How are the people that attend the church but are not part of the leadership doing in their lives and in their ministry? How are the people of the church doing who are simply and honestly only looking for answers to questions in their lives, and who want to grow closer to the Lord? How are the children of the church? Are they being served and taught to follow the Lord, or is the example given to them by the leadership of the church driving them away from the Lord?
I am afraid that, sometimes, difficult things happened in our churches. I am afraid that because of these things, some of the people of our churches are shaken in their relationship to the Lord. Some leave the body of believers. Some no longer attend any church. I fear that much of this has happened because a few leaders consider themselves so important that they fail to regard the effects of their actions on the believers who are only seeking to know God—those people who go to church every Sunday because they simply want to worship Christ and to get to know him better.
There are wounds in our churches that sometimes are not healed. Again, we look at the example of the body that Paul gives us. When our own physical body receives a wound—a cut or a broken bone, it begins to heal itself. If it does not, we become very concerned and are afraid that infection might begin. If a wound is not healed in three months’ time, it demonstrates that something terribly serious is wrong.
The church body is not exactly like a physical body, and we cannot necessarily say that after three months all wounds should be healed. Nevertheless, if healing is not taking place within a reasonable time, then something is wrong.
However, we have a medicine that can help with the healing process. This medicine is called forgiveness. Like a medicine that a doctor would give us, this medicine of forgiveness also comes with directions for use.
The Seventh Lesson in Greatness
The directions for forgiveness are these: those among us who have inflicted these wounds upon the church must go to the ones offended and ask them for forgiveness. We must ask forgiveness not only from the ones with whom we have had a direct disagreement, but also from the people who have had their relationship with the Lord damaged because of a poor example that has given them. Often this damaging example has come from the very person who instead should have been a demonstration of how to have a good relationship with the Lord.
The directions for the prescription of forgiveness may even mean that someone who has been a leader in a church for many years must kneel down in front of a child and ask that child to forgive him for being a poor example. He or she must humble himself before the child.
Do any among you want to be great? Then you must learn to be the servant of all. The health of a church does not only depend upon who the pastor is, or the one who is in authority. The health of the church also depends upon the people who attend. If we care for our church, then we must care for the spiritual lives of the people who are part of the congregation that we attend. If there are people who have been wounded, we must seek to heal the wounds. Our own personal importance does not matter.
Paul says that it is “those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor” (1 Corinthians 12:23 NAS). That which matters in the church is those among us who want to worship God and to grow in his grace.