Greatness in the Kingdom of God

SYNOPSIS:  Jesus taught that to be a true member of the kingdom of God necessitates a life of self-sacrificial service to others, not power over them – Mark 10:34-45

His "Crown" of Thorns

As in Mark 9:31-37, once again after predicting his upcoming suffering and death, the disciples of Jesus jockeyed for rank and power in the coming messianic kingdom. As before, Jesus taught them that to be a true member of the kingdom necessitates a life of self-sacrificial service to others rather than power over them.

James and John requested to sit at Jesus’ side when he comes “in his glory.” They were still not hearing his words or heeding his example. Suffering and death must precede glory. Apparently, John and James expected Jesus to come shortly into his kingly glory.

Perhaps they still expected glory to come without cost or suffering. They addressed Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ or “teacher,” a title of respect but one common enough among Jews of the period. The use of the term provides no indication that James and John yet understood who and what Jesus is.

(Mark 10:35-45) – “And, approaching him, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are saying, ‘Rabbi, we desire that whatever we ask of you, you will do for us.’ Now he answered them, ‘What is it you are wishing me to do for you?’ Now they said to him, ‘Grant to us that we may sit in your glory, one on your right and one on your left.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You know not what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that «I myself» am drinking, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I myself am being baptized?’ Yet they said to him, ‘We are able.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that «I myself» am drinking you will drink, and the baptism with which I myself am being baptized you will be baptized, yet to sit on my right or left is not for me to give, but for those for whom it has been prepared.’ And hearing this the ten began to be indignant concerning James and John. And, having summoned them, Jesus says to them, ‘You know that those considered rulers of the nations lord it over them and their great ones take dominion over them. Yet not so is it among you, but whoever desires to become great among you, he will be your servant, And whoever desires to be chief among you will be slave of all; For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his soul a ransom instead of many” (Parallel passage: Matthew 20:20-28).

In the Old Testament, the “cup” was sometimes used to symbolize something given or allotted by God, most frequently in a negative sense of punishment (SeePsalm 11:6, 16:5, 75:8, Isaiah 57:17-22, Jeremiah 25:15-28, 49:12, Habakkuk 2:16).

Though not stated, the idea of drinking God’s cup implies the partaking of His wrath on account of sin. The context indicates a similar negative sense for Jesus’ metaphorical use of “baptism.”

When James and John answered they were able to drink of the same cup, his answer indicated that they did not understand what they were asking for, though they would eventually drink of the same cup as Jesus when they also suffered on account of the gospel.

In the translation above, “I myself” represents an emphatic pronoun in the Greek (egō), which occurs four times in the text. When Jesus stated James and John would drink of the same cup, he had in mind not just them, but all his disciples. As a group, the disciples of Jesus are destined to endure suffering, deprivation, and persecution for the sake of Christ (1 Thessalonians 3:3).

This was not a specific prediction of the martyrdom of James or John but a reference to the suffering all followers of Jesus can expect on account of the gospel. James was later martyred (Acts 12:2). John’s fate is uncertain though several later traditions claimed he died of natural causes at an extreme old age near the city of Ephesus.

Contrary to the ways of the world, “greatness” for a disciple of Jesus is found in self-sacrificial service, not in political power, authority, or rank. The one who would be great must become “servant” of all. This translates the Greek noun diakonos used in scripture as a general term for “servant” or “minister.”

In secular Greek, diakonos referred primarily to servants who waited on tables. This is the Greek term from which the title ‘deacon’ is derived. Luke used diakonos for one who waits on tables in his gospel:

(Luke 22:26-27) – “But not so with you but let him who is the greatest among you become as the youngest and the leader as the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”

The Greek word translated as “slave” (doulos) in Verse 44 can refer generically to anyone who is a servant, but among Greek speakers of the first century, it more commonly referred to slaves.

Jesus defined his mission as one who came “not to be served, but to serve and to give his soul a ransom instead of many.” The Greek word rendered “served” is the verb form of the word used previously for “servant” or diakonos. The Son of Man came to serve and ultimately does so by the giving of his life to ransom others.

While most English versions translate the word “life” here, technically the Greek word used is the noun for “soul” or psyché. Jesus used “soul” in the Hebrew sense as referring to all aspects of his entire person, whether physical or non-physical. Jesus gave his entire being or life on behalf of others.

The preposition used for “instead” is anti, meaning “instead of, on behalf of, for, in place of, in exchange for.” Lying behind this saying are themes and verbal links from Isaiah’s ‘Suffering Servant’ songs, especially Isaiah 53:10-12. Note the following:

(Isaiah 53:10-12) – “Yet Yahweh purposed to bruise him, He laid on him sickness: If his soul become an offering for guilt, He shall see a seed, He shall prolong his days, and the purpose of Yahweh in his hand shall prosper. Of the travail of his soul shall he see, He shall be satisfied with his knowledge, a setting right when set right himself shall my Servant win for the Many, since of their iniquities he takes the burden. Therefore will I give him a portion in the great, and the strong shall he apportion as spoil, because he poured out to death his own soul, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, Yea, he the sin of Many bare, and for transgressors interposes.”

In Mark 10:45, when Jesus referred to “many,” he was not describing a limited or exclusive company. This was not a reference to some supposed “elect” company predestined by God. In the first place, this is a Semitic way of expressing “all.”

In the second place, Jesus found the word “many” in Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song. In the third place, in Isaiah “the many” refers to the “transgressors,” not a select or predestined group of the righteous. In the fourth place, the contrast in this statement is not between “many” and “all,” but between the one Christ who gave his life and the many beneficiaries of that self-sacrificial act. Note also that in Isaiah 53:10-12 the “Suffering Servant” poured out his “soul”; likewise, Jesus offered his “soul” or “life” as a ransom.

In first-century Greco-Roman society, a “ransom” was frequently paid for the release of captives but, most often, was the price paid to obtain the freedom of a slave.

Verse 45 was not just a statement about what happens to the Son of Man, but also a declaration of his purpose: To give his life as a ransom in order to free others from slavery.

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