Greatness in the Kingdom

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

Matterhorn Sunrise - Photo by Dominic Spohr on Unsplash
Having once again predicted his trial and execution, Jesus observed the disciples jockeying for position and power in the coming messianic kingdom. As before, he taught them that citizenship in the kingdom means a 
life of self-sacrificial service to others. But at this point, even his closest followers had a very different idea of what it means to “rule” in the Kingdom of God - [Photo by Dominic Spohr on Unsplash].

DRINK MY CUP. James and John approached and asked Jesus that they might sit at his right and left sides when he came “in his glory.” It seems, they remained incapable of hearing his words or learning from his daily examples. Suffering and death must precede glory. In the minds of the disciples, quite shortly, the Messiah of Israel would manifest his royal glory and impose his absolute reign over the earth.
  • (Mark 10:35-40) - “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.’
Perhaps they still expected glory and power to come without cost or suffering. They addressed him as ‘Rabbi’ or “teacher,” a title of respect but one common enough among the Jews. The use of the term here indicates that James and John had yet to understand who Jesus was.

In the Old Testament, the “cup” often to symbolized something given or allotted by God, usually in the negative sense of receiving His judicial punishment. Though not stated by Jesus, the idea of drinking the “cup” suggests partaking of the wrath of God on account of sin. Likewise, the context indicates a negative sense for his metaphorical use of “baptism” - (Psalm 11:6, 16:5, Isaiah 57:17-22, Jeremiah 25:15-28).

When James and John declared that, indeed, they were prepared to drink of his “cup,” his response meant that they had no idea what they were saying. However, eventually, they would drink of the same “cup,” when years later they also suffered for the kingdom.

In the translation above, “I, myself” represents the emphatic pronoun in the Greek text (egō), which occurs four times in the passage. It points to his messianic role; the suffering and death of the “Son of Man” is the event that inaugurated the kingdom of God.
When Jesus stated they would indeed “drink of the same cup,” he was speaking not just to them, but to all the disciples. As a group, they were destined to endure suffering, deprivation, and persecution for his sake - (1 Thessalonians 3:1-4).

This referred to the suffering that all the followers of Jesus could expect on account of his kingdom. James was later martyred. John’s fate is uncertain, although several traditions claim that he died of natural causes in or near the city of Ephesus - (Acts 12:2).

BECOME SLAVE OF ALL. Contrary to the ways of this age, “greatness” for a disciple is found in self-sacrificial service, not in political power or societal rank. The one who wishes to be “great” in his realm must become the “servant” of all. The term translates the Greek noun diakonos, which is used elsewhere in the New Testament as a general term for a “servant” or “minister.”
  • (Mark 10:41-45) - “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 become the 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.”
Originally, in secular Greek, diakonos referred to servants who waited on tables. This is the term from which the title ‘deacon’ is derived. The Gospel of Luke uses it in just this manner:
  • (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.”
Thus, 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 diakoonos.

The Greek word translated “slave” (doulos) in the passage could refer to anyone who was a “servant,” but among Greek speakers, more commonly, it referred to slaves.

The “Son of Man” served when he gave his “soul” to ransom others. Jesus used “soul” in the Old Testament sense of referring to his entire person, both physical and non-physical. Thus, he gave his entire being or “life” on behalf of others.

The preposition rendered “instead of” is anti, meaning “instead of, on behalf of, for, in place of, in exchange for.” Behind the saying are themes from the ‘Suffering Servant’ songs in the book of Isaiah, for example:
  • (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.”
Jesus referred to the “many.” This does not mean a limited or exclusive company. The term serves as a verbal link to the passage from Isaiah, where “the many” referred to the “transgressors.” Moreover, the contrast is not between “many” and “all,” but between the one Christ who gave his life and the many beneficiaries of his sacrificial act. The passage from Isaiah also provided the term “soul” used in the saying of Jesus. The ‘Suffering Servant’ “poured out his soul”; so also, the “Son of Man” offered his “soul” to ransom the “many.”

In first-century society, 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 a great many others from slavery to sin.


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