Do you recall growing up and asking your parents for the keys to the car? Maybe you asked for an extension for your curfew? Or for money so that you can go out with your friends? I am sure you remember those days. Needless to say, you or I weren’t always successful in getting what we wanted. But, I wonder, how many of us asked our parents for a signed blank check, so we could get whatever we wanted? I know in my house, that would not have gone over well. And it didn’t go over well in the Gospel of Mark as well.
As a matter of fact, there were two disciples, James and John who made such a request. They basically asked Jesus to give them whatever they asked for. Can you imagine? Essentially asking Jesus for a signed blank check to do with it as they pleased. If you read Mark 10:32-45, you’ll see that Jesus took yet another opportunity to teach the disciples his expectations for following Him. In the previous two issues of the Diakonos, we were challenged to be consistent in our walk with Jesus (Mk. 8:34-38), as a loyal disciple, and the humility necessary as we follow Him (Mk. 9:30-37). This month, we’ll consider the self-sacrificing service and ministry on behalf of others that ultimately represents God and Jesus, not self.
The Gospel of Mark
Remember that Mark’s Gospel catalogs the life of Jesus as the Son of God (1:1), all the while reporting Jesus’ expectations of those who follow Him. The central section (8:22-10:52) features Jesus’ movement from Galilee to Jerusalem. In other words, He is “on the way” to the cross and identifying those who will follow Him regardless of where His journey takes Him or those who follow. This is the final time Jesus predicts His death prior to entering Jerusalem.
Mark 10:32-45 – A Servant
Here Jesus stated His mission for a third time, and it is still certain. He is destined, willed to die; it is part of God’s purpose and plan (vv. 33-34). The disciples recognized Jesus’ position in light of his mission; whereas the rest of the crowd was afraid. This fear was possibly due to the fact that some thought the Messiah was leading the way to war. Mark identified the destination of the mission as Jerusalem. Jesus was doing what he said He would do; that is, suffer in humility. However, He not only taught, but He also led the way to His own death (v. 32).
In response to Jesus’ third prediction of His death, James and John made a request. They stated, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (v. 35) i.e., the blank check. And the blank check included “grant us that we may sit, one on your right hand and the other on your left, in your glory” (v. 37). They requested seats of honor, the highest honor. The two disciples were self-serving and calloused toward Jesus’ ultimate mission. Their request was a question of rank coming from an inflated understanding of their own position. Basically, they were preoccupied with their place of honor. Their request was appalling. Jesus had been teaching repeatedly to the disciples about humble servanthood (the first will be last). And He just predicted His death for the third time. Are they listening?! In all reality, in their request for a blank check, they hoped to honor Jesus while honoring themselves. The disciples did not grasp the magnitude of their request.
Jesus took their request for a blank check to teach the disciples regarding their selfish and prideful ways. He asked them if they were able to share in His fate; that is, the messianic task that God had charted for Him; which was to undergo the divine punishment of God for the sins of the world. Jesus basically challenged their request and asked, “Do you understand the gravity of my role as God’s Son (vv. 38-39)?” Their naïve response: “we are able.” Fortunately for them, despite their claim, the two disciples cannot drink the cup and undergo the fate that only Jesus must endure.
What James and John did not understand was that their request was the Father’s prerogative; it was not Jesus’ to give. He couldn’t write the blank check. The whole matter of rewards and glory was in the Father’s hand. The disciples were not to follow God because they knew in advance what they hoped to get. They were to follow Him because it was where He leads (e.g., Jerusalem). When the others heard this, they were angry (v. 41). Each of the disciples’ misunderstanding (cf. 8:31-32; 9:32-34; 10:35-37) regarding Jesus’ mission demonstrated their spiritual insensitivity to God and His plan.
The first two times Jesus taught His disciples, He illustrated His point through the cross and a child. Now Jesus called them together for private instruction, and He used Himself, the Christ. Jesus stated to them, “you know.” The world practices leadership from a model of dominance, authority and the abusive use of power, prestige and coercion. They “lord it over you!” (v. 42).
It was ironic then, that in the two disciples’ struggle for rank and prestige, they desired to exercise authority over the 10 for their own advantage. The disciples were imitating those whom they undoubtedly despised. It is interesting that some of us are like the two disciples; we take advantage of situations to get what we want, only to find out that we’re selfishly becoming what we didn’t like in the first place.
Jesus, however, rejected the world’s model. Jesus said, “Yet, it will not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great (most significant) among you will be your servant (wait on tables). And whoever of you desires to be first (highest) will be slave (lowest) of all” (vv. 43-44). Jesus desired that His disciples would understand “true greatness.” Being a servant and a slave will not give a new definition of greatness or provide a new avenue to greatness by the world’s standards. Being a servant and a slave, denies greatness! However, based on Jesus’ definition, this transforms the question of rank and greatness into the task of service: only by service does one become great!
A Challenge for Followers of Jesus
Jesus illustrated the importance of humble, unrewarded service by using Himself as the supreme model for service. And Jesus’ followers, should also adopt the same posture of servants and slaves not based on ethical reasoning but because it is the posture of the Son of Man.
Jesus’ purpose “to serve” and “to give” vividly demonstrates His self-sacrificing attitude that He requires His disciples to have. Jesus does not want us to presume upon God for a blank check for honor and prestige in ministry. Rather Jesus wants our service, sacrifice and ministry to be for others’ sake. Therefore, as believers, we should genuinely serve others. There should be no seeking of positions of advantage or honor. There ought to be a willingness to be last and least, not first and most important.
My hope is to offer a sober reminder that following Jesus must be a priority. It is not about asking Jesus for a blank check for what we want; instead, it is thinking of ourselves less and others more.
Loyalty + humility + service = a true follower of Jesus
by Wayne Slusser, Ph.D., Dean of Baptist Bible Seminary