The Messiah is a Suffering Servant

As Jesus and his disciples headed to Jerusalem, he reminded them about what lies ahead. The Son of Man will be betrayed, condemned, flogged, humiliated, and executed though raised from the dead three days later. There must have been an ominous foreboding among the disciples, but their focus is not so much on these future horrendous events as much as it is on their role in the coming reign of the Messiah. They anticipate glory, rank, and power.

James and John approached Jesus with a request. They wanted to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory. When the kingdom fully arrived, they asked for the highest honors in the kingdom. They asked Jesus for hierarchical power.

But they did not understand what they were asking for. Jesus used two metaphors to describe how one becomes great in the kingdom of God. He asked, “Can you drink the cup?” and “Can you be baptized?” Both metaphors point to suffering. Jesus, having just told them about his future in Jerusalem, asked if they are willing to suffer as he will suffer. Are they also willing to suffer for Israel?

Their request angered the other disciples. They have previously, perhaps on many occasions, argued about who is the greatest. Despite Jesus’s focused teaching about greatness and his exemplary life, the disciples still hungered for rank, power, and status in the coming kingdom.

While the disciples thought of greatness along the lines of Gentile kings who exercise power through status and even violence, this is not the nature of greatness in the kingdom of God. A different sort of power-ranking exists in the kingdom of God. It is not rooted in the exercise of power but in service. Greatness is defined by servanthood rather than status.

Jesus did not come to reign like Gentile leaders do. Jesus did not come to be served as if others bowed down to his higher rank and catered to his every need. Instead, he came to serve. He came to die as a “ransom for many.” The mission of Jesus is to serve, and through this service Jesus would become great in the kingdom of God.

That kingdom does call us to greatness through popularity, fame, or even success. The kingdom calls us to greatness through self-giving and service to others. The one who would be first must become last, and the one who would be great must become the servant of all (Mark 9:35).

This is a difficult lesson to learn. It reverses our violent, self-centered human culture; it reverses the American Dream where greatness is about success, wealth, and power. But greatness is not found in awards, honors, and pulpits. Rather, it is found in self-giving service. Greatness is not defined by how many people hear a lesson from a particular pulpit or watch a particular YouTube video; it is defined by those who visit the prisons, the sick, and the oppressed. Greatness is found in service to the least of these, service to those who are last.

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