I heard recently about someone who used to get annoyed when he felt like preachers were being too repetitive. He said, “First, they tell me what they’re going to tell me, and then they tell me, and then they tell me what they’ve told me. Why do you have to tell me three times? Just tell me one time, make it clear, and we should be good.”
But one day, he was sharing this rant with a friend of his, who was a preacher, and his friend said with patience and wisdom, “People need repetition. About the time you get tired of saying it, they’re just starting to hear it.”
And I think there’s some truth in that. Repetition is one of the most powerful tools available to us for learning. Most of us learned the alphabet and the multiplication table through the power of repetition. If you want to memorize a Bible verse, simply read it over and over and eventually you’ll be able to remember it for months, even years.
Advertisers recognize the power of repetition. How did McDonald’s grow to be a multi-billion dollar conglomerate? Do you really think it’s because of the quality of their food? No, it’s because they shouted at us over and over, “You deserve a break today…” We’ve heard all the slogans and jingles so many times that we’re sick of them. But we remember.
This morning, as we work our way through the New Testament, we come to the gospel of Mark. And, in the middle section of Mark, where Jesus is dealing with his death and what it really means to be a disciple, Jesus uses repetition. Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus predicts his death. Three times the disciples misunderstand. Three times Jesus has to teach them what discipleship is all about.
The idea that Jesus will be betrayed, that he will be executed, that he will be raised to life again; the principle of serving others, the need for humility, the last being first and the first being last – all of these are themes that are repeated over and over throughout the middle chapters of Mark.
And maybe you feel like all of this is a bit redundant. We’re almost offended that Jesus feels the need to repeat all of this so many times. There’s a part of us that wants to say to Jesus, “Enough already! I get the point! I understand!!”
But we don’t. Jesus wouldn’t have felt the need to say it so often if it was a lesson that was easy for us to learn. It is, in fact, a lesson so difficult to grasp that the disciples never seem to master it in the gospels – it’s only when the book of Acts begins that we see some glimmer of understanding on their part.
And like the apostles, we also have a hard time comprehending the lesson of the cross – what it means about Jesus, what it means for us. So Jesus repeats, over and over, time and again, hoping to get his message through our thick skull.
About 30 years ago, there was a movie by the name of Avalon. That movie had a scene in it that is reminiscent of Jesus’ apostles. There’s a boy in school who is having trouble understanding the many subtleties of the English language. They’re studying, as I’m sure we all did, the difference between the words “can” and “may.” The teacher is trying to teach them that “can” refers to ability; “may” refers to permission.
After the lesson went on for a while, the boy raises his hand and he asks, “Can I go to the bathroom?” The teacher responds, “Yes you can, but no, you may not.” And then, once again, she goes over the differences in those two words. Then she asks the boy, “Do you understand now?” He responds, “Yes, I understand, but can I go to the bathroom now?” You would think that he would catch on after a while, but he never does.
Well, the apostles are like that in the gospel of Mark. Jesus keeps teaching them lessons that are essential for them to learn, and what Jesus says isn’t hard to understand, but they just don’t seem to get it.
Let’s take a look at this overview of the gospel of Mark from the Bible Project, and then I’ll be back to talk about exactly what it was that the apostles found so difficult to understand.
Last week, we saw in Matthew how Jesus taught the disciples plainly that the Messiah must be rejected, he must suffer and he must die. And then he said that if we are going to follow him, then we must be willing to take up our cross as well. Mark records that same conversation in Mark chapter 8.
Then, in chapter 9, Jesus predicts his death a second time: “He taught His disciples and said to them, ‘The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.’” (Mark 9:31). And notice the response of the apostles in verse 32: “But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.”
Nobody wanted to look stupid. Nobody wanted to be the one to say, “Jesus, this doesn’t make any sense. Would you please explain this to us again?” So we find here in chapter 9 that, once again, Jesus talks about the fact that he’s going to die, once again the apostles don’t understand, and then once again, Jesus talks about what discipleship means.
Beginning in verse 33, “He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?’” (Mark 9:33). Jesus says, “I heard you guys had a little disagreement out there. What were you arguing about?” Verse 34 tells us, “But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.” But Jesus knew what they were arguing about. So he said again in verse 35, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
For Jesus to be the Messiah meant that he had to go to the cross. But what discipleship meant for the apostles was that they needed to learn to serve others. They had to stop thinking about greatness in terms of status and come to see it in terms of service. The greatest in the kingdom of God is the one who serves others.
Now, do you suppose the disciples understood what Jesus was telling them? Not really. And the reason I say that is because in the very next chapter, Mark chapter 10, Jesus has to give the exact same lesson all over again. They still don’t understand about the cross, and they still don’t understand what true discipleship means. So Jesus teaches them the lesson one more time.
I. The Prediction
“And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.…” (Mark 10:32).
Jesus is leading the way to Jerusalem. Time is growing short now. Only a few days are left before they will reach Jerusalem and Jesus will be crucified. There is a spirit of determination on the part of Jesus.
But, while Jesus is determined to head to the cross, those who are following him on this journey are both amazed and afraid. They know that something is about to happen and the nearer they get to Jerusalem the more this feeling of impending doom overshadows the disciples. Maybe they’ve even begun to grasp the idea that Jesus is going to be killed in Jerusalem, but they can’t imagine why he would be so determined to go. And so, they walk along the road with Jesus, but Mark tells us that they walk with anxiety and fear.
Jesus gives his disciples one final warning about his coming death. “Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him: ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’” (Mark 10:32-34).
This is the third time that Jesus tells his apostles what is going to happen to him. And this time, there are a lot more details. When they get to Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities will condemn him to death, hand him over to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles “will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him.”
And then, once again, after Jesus talks about what is going to happen to him, he talks about what all of this means to his disciples.
II. The Misunderstanding
In verse 37, two of his apostles, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus with a request: “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” (Mark 10:37)
Even after everything Jesus has just said, the apostles still that Jesus is going to sit on his throne in Jerusalem, conquering the enemy as a victorious Messiah. And they still believe that, because they are his disciples, they will have the inside track on upcoming positions of power.
So, Jesus, when you establish your kingdom (and they’ve got this picture in their minds of an earthly king sitting on his throne), we want to sit on your right hand (the most important position in the land) and your left hand (the second most important position). James and John felt like they deserved those lofty positions of honor. They had followed Jesus and they had earned the right and they wanted to receive what was rightfully theirs.
Now what I find most interesting in this passage is the response of the rest of the apostles. You would think they would be concerned about the lack of spiritual perceptiveness on the part of their fellow disciples, and they might try to help these two men understand what Jesus is going through at this moment and how inappropriate their question is.
But no, verse 41 says, “And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.” They were upset because James and John beat them to the punch and asked for the positions that they wanted to have! They were all so clueless.
III. The Teaching
So, in verse 42, Jesus tried again. “Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:42-45).
Jesus said that the Gentiles, the people in this world, all compete with one another for positions of power and prominence. They “lord it over” each other, which means they want positions of power so they can order people around. And after 2000 years, nothing has changed. We see it all the time We see it in politics. We see it in the workplace.
Because that’s the world’s way of looking at things — to be great, you have to be in a position of authority over other people. And so, status and leadership, and therefore greatness, is seen in terms of getting your way, exercising your will over someone else.
And I wish I could say that this attitude is only found out there in the world, but we sometimes find it in the kingdom of God as well. This past week, I heard a minister describe his position in the church. As I’m sure you know, many preachers like to add lots of titles to their name when they tell people what they do. But this one preacher described himself as a servant of his church. And it made me happy to hear that. Well, it would have made me happy if that’s all he said. Actually, what he was that he was the “chief servant” of his church. And I thought about what an oxymoron that is. How can anybody be the chief servant? And why is not enough just to be a servant? Why does someone feel the need to be the “chief” servant?
Jesus said that if we’re going to follow him, then we need to look at greatness differently than the world does. Because in the kingdom of God, it is not the one who is being served who is considered great, but the one who does the serving. Greatness in the eyes of God comes when you roll up your sleeves and you serve others. And Jesus used himself as the ultimate example here. The great God of this universe did not come to this earth to be served, but rather to serve others.
And so, Jesus tells us here that discipleship — true discipleship — is all about service. It’s about doing good to others. It’s about washing feet. It’s about getting your hands dirty in the lives of other people. And if we truly begin to see discipleship in that way, then we’re going to see it demonstrated in some concrete ways as we live out our Christianity:
In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus suggests that the way we treat others will also be the basis of our own judgment. In other words, it is those who serve others who will be the ones who are saved. And I think it’s because they understand what Jesus is saying here – that discipleship demands service. As important as doctrine is, and as important as worship is, those two things can’t replace an attitude that is always looking for ways to serve others.
If we truly begin to see discipleship in this way, we will find our talents… and then use them. We are not all gifted alike, but we are all gifted. There are some talents and abilities that the Lord has given to each of us that make us uniquely qualified for certain tasks. If you’re someone who is good with children or skilled at teaching others, you need to be using that talent to teach. If you find it easy to sit and talk with others and carry on conversation, then you need to be using that talent to reach out to our visitors. If you can swing a hammer, balance a checkbook, or encourage others, then use that ability to the glory of God.
And when each of us finds ways that we can put our talents to use, then we develop an attitude of service that is not concerned with status. I call this the “John Brodie mentality.” Many years ago, when San Francisco 49er John Brodie was the top-rated quarterback in pro football, he was asked by a Sports Illustrated reporter why he held the ball for field goals and extra points. After all, he was the highest paid player in football, and many other teams used their back-up quarterbacks to do that job. Why did the best quarterback in the game hold the ball? I love his answer. He said, “If I didn’t hold it, it would fall over.”
That is a such great attitude. Suppose instead of saying “I’m not doing that, I’ll leave that for somebody else to take care of”, more of us started saying, “If I don’t do it, it may not get done. I’m just happy to serve.”
John F. Kennedy’s most famous quote was, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” There are a lot of Christians who want to know what everyone else can do for them. But true disciples ask instead what more they can do for others. They’re servants who aren’t concerned about status. They don’t need a leadership role in order to serve. And if they do become leaders, they will continue to serve just as much.
Again, Jesus set the supreme example for us. If anybody has the right to “lord it over” us and “exercise authority,” it was Jesus, but he didn’t claim that right. He didn’t come to be served, he came to serve, even to the point of giving his life as a ransom for many.
I wish I could tell you that after Jesus told them three times, the disciples finally understood, but they didn’t. John tells us that, at the last meal they ate with Jesus, not one of the disciples would lower himself to wash the feet of the others and so Jesus himself got up, wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the disciples’ feet. Luke tells us that just a few hours before Jesus was crucified, the disciples were still arguing over which of them was the greatest. Some lessons take a long time to learn.
And all of this breaks my heart. Not just because Jesus is so alone during these last few days. And not just because the disciples still didn’t understand. But because I realize that, if I had been one of the apostles, I would have been just as dense, just as blind, just as consumed with ambition.
I’ve told the story before about a mother who was preparing pancakes for her two sons, Kevin, age 5, and Ryan, age 3. The two boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother thought it was a great opportunity for a moral lesson. She said, “Now if Jesus was sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’ So Kevin turned to his younger brother and he said, “Ryan, you be Jesus!”
I love that story because it’s so much like all of us. I can preach for 30 minutes on how we need to be like Jesus and we need to be concerned about one another’s needs, and how Paul said in Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” And I guarantee as soon as this service is over, there will be somebody who will say, “That was a great lesson. When will everybody else put it into practice and start showing concern for me?”
Because we all want everyone else to act like Jesus. We want everyone else to be kind and caring. We want everyone else to take the time and effort to check on us. We want everybody else to meet our every need. And my concern is that we too many people in the church asking the question, “What are you doing to meet my needs?” than not enough asking the question, “What can I do to meet your needs?”
When will we ever get the point? When will we ever learn that greatness in the eyes of God comes not from position or power but from denying ourselves for the sake of Jesus? When will we ever learn that what Jesus wants from us is not so much worship about the cross and singing about the cross and observing a weekly ceremony about the cross, but what he wants is for us to be disciples who take up the cross and live that cross daily?
“But whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”