To be a citizen of the kingdom requires a life of self-sacrificial service for others, and not power over them – Mark 10:35-45.
The New Testament teaches that Christians are a “kingdom of priests.” As citizens of this realm, we rule with Jesus both now and in the “age to come.” But such a high calling raises the obvious question: How do we participate in his reign? Fortunately, both Jesus and Paul provided down-to-earth explanations of how we are to implement his sovereignty on the earth.
One day, James and John approached Jesus to request high positions for themselves “when you come in your glory.” To this he responded, “You know not what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am drinking, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am being baptized?” – (Mark 10:35-40).
In the Hebrew Bible, the “cup” often symbolized something given by God, and usually in the negative sense of judicial punishment. Likewise, here, the image of drinking the “cup” illustrated how Jesus would partake of the wrath of God on account of sin, and likewise, his “baptism” – (Psalm 11:6, 16:5, Isaiah 57:17-22, Jeremiah 25:15-28).
When James and John declared they were indeed prepared to drink his “cup,” he declared, in essence, that they had no idea what they were saying. However, eventually, they would drink the same “cup” when they also suffered for the kingdom.
When the other disciples heard what James and John had requested, they were indignant. But Jesus took them all aside and explained what it meant to become “great” in his kingdom – (Mark 10:41-45).
Contrary to the ways of this age, “greatness” is found in self-sacrificial service to others, and not in political power or societal rank. The one who wishes to be “great” must become the “servant” of all. In the passage, “servant” translates the Greek noun ‘diakonos,’ used elsewhere in the New Testament as a general term for “servant.”
In secular Greek, ‘diakonos’ referred originally to servants who waited on tables, very often a slave, for that was considered a lowly task. Luke uses ‘diakonos’ in just this manner in the parallel passage in his gospel:
- (Luke 22:26-27) – “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.”
So, also, in Mark, 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 verb rendered “served” is the verbal form of the noun ‘diakonos.’
In Mark, the Greek word translated “slave” (‘doulos’) could refer to anyone who was a “servant,” but among Greek speakers, more commonly it referred to slaves. Unfortunately, because of the negative connotations we associate with the word “slave,” many English versions prefer to translate ‘doulos’ as “servant,” unintentionally dulling the sharpness of the original point.
Unlike the political rulers of this age, his disciples are not to lord it over others. Instead, to reign with him means the disciple must become the “servant” of others, and to be “first” among others, his follower must become the “slave of all.”
And that is exactly what Jesus did, for the “Son of Man came to serve, not to be served, and to give his soul a ransom instead of many.” The saying alludes to the ‘Suffering Servant of Yahweh’ from the Book of Isaiah:
- (Isaiah 53:10-12) – “Yet Yahweh purposed to bruise him… 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 soul, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, Yea, he the sin of Many bare, and for transgressors interposes.”
The “many” is a verbal link to the passage from Isaiah, where “the many” were the “transgressors” for whose sins the “servant” made atonement. Just as the “servant of Yahweh…poured out his soul” for the “many transgressors,” so, likewise, the “Son of Man gave his soul” to ransom the “many.”
In first-century Greco-Roman society, often a “ransom” was paid to purchase the freedom of a slave. The statement is a declaration of his mission: To give his life as the ransom price to free others from slavery to sin. And he summoned his disciples to emulate his example by becoming “servants” and “slaves” of others.
Paul made a similar argument to the Philippians, also using the same language from Isaiah. The Christian is to exercise the same “mind” Christ did by “counting each other better than himself.” Unlike Adam, Jesus did not consider the “being like God” something to be seized. Instead, he “poured himself out, taking the form of a slave… and he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,” even to the shameful death of crucifixion. It was for that reason that God exalted him and appointed him the ruler over all things – (Philippian 2:1-11).
Paul then provided two real world examples of what he meant. First, Epaphroditus, his “fellow-worker” and “servant to my need.” Epaphroditus became seriously ill, “nigh unto death,” for the “work of Christ, having hazarded his life to supply” what was lacking in the Philippians service to Paul. Thus, he, also, “poured himself out” for the sake of others – (Philippians 2:25-30).
Second, himself. For the sake the “excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus” Paul experienced the “loss of all things.” Previously, he had placed great value on his Jewish heritage. Had he not been “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of Israel and of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, regarding zeal, persecuting the church, and regarding the righteousness that is in law, blameless.”
Yet the “apostle to the Gentiles” left all that behind to serve Jesus. Nevertheless, considering what he gained in Christ, he came to value his ancestral heritage and past accomplishments as little more than “refuse” in comparison – (Philippians 3:4-11).
Disciples of Jesus become citizens of his “kingdom of priests,” a priestly kingdom, and in the here-and-now. That means they are part of a real political order, including authority and sovereignty. However, unlike the institutions of the present age, they do not become lords and tyrants. They are “priests” and rule as such.
In Ancient Israel, priests were vital to the national health and highly regarded by society. Nevertheless, they served the people, not vice versa. Their function was to intercede between Israelites and Yahweh, by making offerings, sacrifices and the like, and to mediate the truth and knowledge of God to the nation.
To change the imagery, anyone who wishes to become a disciple of Jesus and reign with him in his kingdom must first “deny himself, take up his cross,” and follower Jesus “wherever he goes,” even when doing so leads to very unpleasant places.