One of the fun things in studying the Bible that is often difficult to incorporate into regular expository preaching is the bird’s eye view of the Scriptures. Normally we are focused in on particular verses at a time, looking at a story and its immediate context, because if you look at the Bible too broadly you’re not likely to strike home any important details that make for a meaningful sermon or useful teaching. But there is one thing that has stuck in the back of my mind for years which I’ve finally taken the chance to explore: the three predictions of his death that Jesus makes in the Gospel of Mark. What he says about his death, and how the disciples respond to that, is very instructive for us.
First Prediction: Mark 8:31-38
The Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, killed, and will rise again after three days. Peter rebuked him. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan,” and teaches them to take up your cross, deny yourself, and follow him.
Second Prediction: Mark 9:30-37
The Son of Man is going to be delivered and killed, and after three days will rise. They didn’t understand, stayed silent, then argued about who’s the greatest. Jesus taught them “whoever receives such one child receives me.”
Third Prediction: Mark 10:32-45
Going to Jerusalem, the Son of Man will be delivered, condemned, delivered to Gentiles, mocked, spit upon, flogged, killed, and after three days will rise. James & John request positions of authority, Jesus tests them but shows humble submission to the Father.
Compare & Contrast
It’s plain to see at this point that these stories are all very similar. Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in varying degrees of detail, the disciples fail to grasp the whole truth and go off on a tangent, and Jesus gets them back on track, correcting their faulty beliefs. The first time they don’t believe that Jesus will die, and get a harsh rebuke for opposing his prediction. The second time they start thinking about how to replace Jesus after his death because they don’t understand the resurrection. The third time, with its sense of immediacy, prompts two of the disciples to make a quick decision of who should replace him. Again, Jesus has to teach them about leadership as servanthood, kingship as slavery. Frequently in these episodes as well as other times, he points to his own example to show what it means to be a servant or slave of others, and how true glory is to be found on the other end of suffering. Even his three-fold prediction of his death highlights Jesus’ obedience.
But what must be noted, over the course of these three stories is that each time the disciples learn more! Yes they make mistakes each time too, but they’re always new or different mistakes. Even with Jesus right there in their midst, teaching them plainly face to face, they didn’t understand everything, and it took time to grow in faith. It is sometimes tempting to paint the disciples as buffoons, constantly misunderstanding Jesus, making stupid acts of non-faith, and generally making fools of themselves. This is a very uncharitable way to treat them, much less a responsible reading of the Bible. They were men, like any other men, who were learning step by step who Jesus is and who Jesus called them to be. Their mistakes and misunderstandings are not recorded so we can scoff at their ignorance, but be encouraged by the fact that the Gospel is something we often have to learn over an extended period of time. It’s okay if you don’t “get it” right away.
Perhaps the approximate three years that the disciples spent with Jesus was the model for the three-year catechumenate that the Early Church upheld for a while. Imagine how much more mature and solid in the faith people would be after three years of training, teaching, coaching, corporate worship, and mentorship! This stands in stark contrast to how evangelism and discipleship is often considered today, wherein we frequently attempt to “boil down” the Gospel to a simple message easy to summarize and communicate, and once you get someone to “accept Jesus into their heart” they’re “saved” and ready to be a Christian. What of the step-by-step learning, discovery, mistake-making, and growth that Jesus and his disciples modeled? After all, such spiritual truths are not natural to us – the wisdom of the world is contrary to the wisdom of God. Our closing hymn today will reflect on this truth:
Not by the wisdom of this world, Not by the warrior’s clashing arms,
Not by the great ones of the earth, Our heav’nly Father’s kingdom comes,
But by the foolishness of God, By weak ones who unceasing pray,
“Thine is the pow’r” their constant creed, Their hymn “Non nobis, Domine.”
Not in the firstborn nor the fair, Not in the angels’ legion ranks,
Not in the tempest nor the flame Which ravaged Horeb’s rugged flanks,
But in the still, small voice of calm, In Jacob’s bested wrestling mate,
In Jesus Christ the crucified, The pow’r of God has been displayed.
From suckling lips ordain thy strength, Thy beauty from despisèd things,
Thy pow’r from martyr and from maid, Thy majesty from infant kings;
Thy brook yield up to shepherd youths The dread Goliath-slaying stones,
That we, the poor, the base, the weak, May glory in the Lord alone.
In closing, let us consider the final verse of this morning’s story: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The opening words “for even” are normally both conjunctions in Greek, it looks like it reads “and for the Son of Man…” What this turn of phrase is doing is emphasizing the subject. You could also render it in English this way: “For he, namely, the Son of Man…” Jesus himself, the Son of Man, God the Son, came to serve! That is a huge, huge, lesson right there. He who was and is indisputably the greatest came as a servant and slave to his people. He did not come to be served. Now yes, there are commandments uttered forth from his mouth we ought to obey, and there are teaching he delivered that we ought to believe, but he did this in the posture and role of a servant or slave. His commands and teachings are not to aggrandize himself but to help and serve us.
Therefore, if you come to God, to Jesus, to the Church, with a sense of fear, or inferiority, or unworthiness, or inability, then you are coming to the right place. Jesus is no Lord, Master, Teacher, or King like the world knows, brandishing a whip, demanding utter obedience, disregarding your weaknesses. Rather, he is a Lord, Master, Teacher, and King who has walked among us, lived the life of lowliness, set aside his whip, sword, and crown; who has listened to us, experienced weakness with us, died with us. If you feel slow to learn, slow to obey, slow to love, Jesus is with you to help. Fear not, the Lord is with you.