It’s been said that self-esteem is the single greatest need facing the human race today. One prominent pastor, in defending this thesis, has defined self-esteem as “pride in being a human being.”1 A sincere study of Scripture, however, seems to suggest that self-esteem, rather than being our greatest need, might be part of humanity’s problem. In Mark 9 Jesus teaches us how truly to care for our never-dying souls—not by thinking more highly of ourselves but by becoming the servant of all.
In the second half of Mark 9 Jesus continues to teach His disciples how to follow Him. Broadly speaking, the principles highlighted in this passage can be boiled down to one: Christ’s disciples must learn to deal with their natural overabundance of self-love. Excessive self-love keeps Christians from being effective followers of Jesus because true discipleship is characterized by self-denying servitude (v. 35). This message might not stimulate greater pride in being human. But, blessed by God, it will make us more like the One we have been called to follow.
Disciples Disregard Greatness (9:30–37; 10:13, 16)
Soon after the transfiguration Jesus and His disciples passed through Galilee on their way to Capernaum. The disciples must have been just out of earshot of Jesus as they walked. They certainly didn’t want Him to hear what they were discussing, namely, who among them would be the greatest (vv. 33–34). The disciples’ conversation topic is startling when you consider the context.
A Startling Context
First, the disciples had just been humiliated by their failure to cast out a deaf and dumb spirit from a young boy (Mark 9:14–29). Luke informs us that after Jesus performed the exorcism “they were all amazed at the majesty of God” (Luke 9:43). How could the disciples argue about personal greatness after being awe-struck by God’s majesty in contrast to their failure? Probably in the same way that we can transition from a service of divine worship to service of self on any given Sunday. One of the purposes of corporate worship is to astonish us with the greatness of God. In worship we affirm that “the Lord is great in Zion, and He is high above all the peoples” (Ps. 99:2), including ourselves. Weekly we come to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of the sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:22–24). The regularity and spiritual intensity of our worship provide a context in which concern for personal greatness should appear utterly insane.
Second, the disciples’ verbal battle for greatness follows directly on the heels of Jesus’ second passion announcement (vv. 30–32). Luke says that “while everyone marveled at all the things which Jesus did,” pertaining to the exorcism, “He said to His disciples, ‘Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men’” (Luke 9: 44). “And they will kill Him” (Mark 9:31). Christ says, “I will be betrayed and killed.” The disciples said, “I desire to be the greatest.” The incompatibility of these statements is partially explained by Luke: “But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying” (Luke 9:45). For the believer, the completed canon of Scripture and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit provide a context which should militate against a quest for personal greatness.
A Sobering Rebuke
Before Jesus even opened His mouth to rebuke the disciples they were rebuked by their consciences. “They kept silent” because they were ashamed of their thoughts (Mark 9:34). Conscience is a powerful aid to the Christian life. As Puritan Nehemiah Rogers said, a conscience well-informed by the Word of God will prove a friend and faithful witness for the Lord but an adversary against man.
Knowing their thoughts Jesus got right to the point: “If you want to be great in my kingdom, then be a servant.” Disregard greatness. Striving for greatness has no place in the church because it breaks with the example of Jesus, who gave up the glory of greatness to serve (Phil. 2:5–8). But striving for greatness is also inconsistent with trusting in Christ. When we trust in Christ we are saying, “There is no good in me [Rom. 7:18]; that’s why I need Him.” How can we then turn around and find prideful satisfaction in our own status? Christ prophesied that He would suffer and die for self-centered people like us so that we could find ourselves in Him (Col. 3:4).
To make His point that true greatness shines through humility (Matt. 18:4), Jesus used the visual aid of a child (cf. 10:13–16).2 Being a member of His kingdom means showing attention to those who are usually considered less important. In fact, the way believers treat children can be telling. Sometimes we yell at children when they displease us. Or we furrow our brow as we scold them for some misdeed. We treat children and other less powerful people with less dignity than we treat our peers. Our desire for greatness rears its ugly head with those who are weaker than us, often children. Disciples don’t just help themselves; they help those who are needy, like children.
Disciples Avoid Sectarianism (9:38–41)
After Jesus’ object lesson John says something that may well have been meant to deflect Jesus’ criticism of the apostles. Instead, He provides another example of that kind of self-love which is debilitating to Christian discipleship. “Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us” (v. 38). Clearly John did not properly anticipate Jesus’ response: “Do not forbid him,” He said (v. 39).
Instead, Jesus forbade an intolerant attitude toward dissimilar believers. The disciples focused on themselves (“he does not follow us”); they should have focused on Christ. The disciples’ intolerance reveals their selfish ambition. John Calvin explains: “Christ declares that we ought to reckon as friends those who are not open enemies.”3 Paul shared Jesus’ point of view. “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice” (Phil. 1:18 NIV).
Within our congregations we too often take offense at the way others are trying to follow Christ. We might disagree with a pastor’s leadership methods. We might not care for the style of worship. We might have our own ideas about how the Sunday school should operate. But when we understand the Spirit’s diversity in distributing spiritual gifts we will think twice about breaking fellowship over such matters. Paul points out the absurdity of expecting uniformity in the church. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be?” (1 Cor. 12:17–19).
We might also have a tendency to exclude new people in our church because “they are not one of us.” God expects us to treat newcomers with the same sort of love that long-time members have come to expect from each other. In fact, the “outsiders” that God brings into our midst should be our greatest priority (Deut. 10:18–19). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, alluding to Christ’s words in Matthew 25 (vv. 41–45) said, “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.”4 We are prone to think “this is my church.” But three times in this short dialogue the phrase “in Christ’s name” is used. This is Christ’s church.
The kind of narrowness here forbidden by Jesus is also evident in the way believers view other camps within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy. Can we say that Christian groups who disagree with some of the positions we take are “on our side” (v. 40)? We ought not be surprised to find a multiformity among true Christian churches. “We read in the ancient writers that there were manifold diversities of ceremonies, but that these were always free [to differ].”5 This diversity is clearly evident even in churches in the New Testament. “We know, moreover, what manner of churches the churches in Galatia and Corinth were in the apostles’ time, in which St. Paul condemns many and heinous crimes; yet he calls them holy Churches of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:2).6 Further clarification is provided in the seventeenth-century Westminster Confession of Faith. This confession explains that “this Catholic (or universal) church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (25:4, 5).
Notwithstanding their current negative reputation, denominations are a way that Christians with different convictions can recognize the legitimacy of other groups without having to face the near-impossible task of harmonizing each difference. The disciples were a denomination of sorts. But there were other Christians who did not follow Jesus as they did. Jesus said because they were trusting in Him they were on His side. All Christians are on the same team! Those who work for Christ have a reward in heaven (v. 41); should they not be received in the church? Jesus commends a certain level of cooperation and fellowship among distinct theological traditions. Rather than being unduly negative toward other traditions, let us strive to maintain our own doctrinal and moral purity while reaching out to those who love the Lord and His Word.
Jesus has already used a child to teach about discipleship. In the final passage in the chapter He does so once more, this time on the danger of coddling sin.
Disciples Cut Out Sin (9:42–50)
Knowing that His disciples are inclined to exalt themselves and look down on others, Jesus concluded this teaching session by emphasizing the need for personal holiness. The church is a “holy congregation of true Christian believers.”7 All those who follow Jesus regard sin as a danger to be avoided and a cancer to be removed.
Jesus’ method for dealing with sin is not the “cut back” method but the “cut off” method. If your eye sins, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If television causes you to sin, you too may have the satisfaction of throwing it out a window. If you are involved in pornography, tell someone and purchase some accountability software. If you aren’t taking drastic measures against sin, then you aren’t fighting sin with Christ-like tenacity.
Jesus gives two reasons for taking sin seriously. First, we must fight sin for the sake of others (v. 42). Our sins cause others to sin. Young children quickly learn to imitate their older siblings. Children learn from their parents. As scary as this might be, the apostle Paul saw this principle of imitation as a critical component of discipleship. He told the Corinthians, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Testifying before a governor and a king Paul had the commendable audacity to say, “I would to God that . . . all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am” (Acts 26:29). Conversely, our sin minimizes our effectiveness in the world. If we are engaged in the sins of our culture, then we will be salt-less (v. 50). We will have nothing to offer the world. Christians who live in sin demonstrate a practical hatred of a watching world.
Second, believers must fight sin for their own sake. Jesus repeatedly spoke about the fires of hell as a deterrent to ungodly living (vv. 43, 45, 47). The person who does not deal with sin is better suited for hell than for heaven, because hell is for those who love to sin. The end of sin, if allowed to flourish, is death (James 1:15). William Jenkyn said, “There is nothing destroyed by sanctification but that which would destroy us.”8
Underlying each of these three narratives is one central theme. You and I tend to act as if we are the center of the universe. We are so wrapped up in ourselves. This is why we want to be great. This is why we take offense at those who are different from us either on a personal or a church level. And this is why we persist in sins that pleasure our flesh.
How do we remedy this self-love? Jesus’ emphasis on hell helps us answer that question. Thoughtful reflection on hell should rattle a believer out of sinful self-absorption. Imagine the most painful experience of your life and how much relief you experienced when it was over. There is no such relief in hell. Biblical references to hell are like so many warning signs emphasizing the memorable words of John Owen: “Kill sin or it will be killing you.” These warning signs should stir us to communicate the gospel of Christ to those who are not yet saved.
But, as always, the Bible’s warnings ultimately point us to Christ. As self-absorbed sinners we must ask Christ to fill the center of our lives. We naturally see ourselves as God. When Christ comes into your life, He begins to move into that center. And as He does He relieves us of all the burdens that self-love creates. When Christ is at our center we don’t have to be great. We don’t have to get angry over being disrespected at work or at home. Those who are united to Christ by faith God respects because of His respect for His Son. What else matters? When Christ is at our center we don’t have to take offense at people who do things differently. God, through the gospel, says to us, “It’s okay. I’ll cover you when you get offended. I’ve borne a million times more offense than you ever will, and I did it for you.” The person who trusts in Christ can say, “Those people differ from me, but Christ makes that okay. After all, I’m very different from Christ, and yet He loves me.” When Christ is at our center we don’t have to cling to our sins for satisfaction. Jesus becomes more important to us than our stinking sins. The only way to get over self-love is to grow in love with the only one who can give us the kind of love we really need.
1. Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 19. 2. Jesus didn’t have to send for a child; they were part of the group of disciples that followed Jesus. This fact does not prove the propriety of infant baptism, but it does support a covenantal approach to discipleship of which infant baptism is an appropriate expression. 3. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), vol. 2, 373. 4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954), 38. 5. Second Helvetic Confession, 17:15. 6. Second Helvetic Confession, 17:12. 7. Belgic Confession, Art. 27. 8. William Jenkyn, “An exposition upon the epistle of Jude: Delivered in Christ-Church” (London: John Childs & Son, n.d.), 12.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Why were Jesus’ words in Mark 9:31 so easily misunderstood by the disciples? 2. What are some ways that we strive to be first, contrary to Jesus’ words in Mark 9:35? 3. Why were children such suitable object lessons for Jesus (Mark 9:36–37; 10:13–16)? 4. In what way might Jesus’ teaching against sectarianism confront us? 5. What does it mean to cause a little one to stumble (Mark 9:42)? 6. Can you provide additional contemporary examples that fit with Jesus’ teaching in Mark 9:43–48? 7. Why do you suppose verse 44 is repeated two more times (vv. 46, 48)? 8. Can sin be defeated simply by taking drastic physical measures against it? Explain.