The way of power, the way of prestige, the way of great reward, comes via the way of the cross, the way of service, the way of suffering.
Even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand this. Mark’s gospel presents us with a kind of living parable: Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus on the way to the cross, Jesus teaching about discipleship, Jesus telling His disciples to take up a cross and follow Him, and Jesus’ response to the two disciples who tried to elevate themselves to positions of power in the coming kingdom.
When James and John approached Jesus in Mark 10 and asked Him to let them sit on either side of Him when He entered His kingdom, they completely misunderstood the nature of His Messiahship:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38)
Suffering precedes glory.
Here Jesus draws upon an Old Testament metaphor–the Cup of Suffering is either the experience of suffering or the experience of divine wrath. Jesus also speaks in this passage of baptism in terms of the act of immersion. He will be immersed in the experience of suffering.
James and John answered with a kind of foolhardy bravery, “We are able.” Jesus predicted that they would, indeed, suffer:
The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not mine to give; but it is for those for whom it had been prepared. (Mark 10:41)
James and John should have known better. Jesus reminded them,
You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant. (Mark 10:42-43)
If you want to be great, be a servant.
The word that is translated servant here is a demeaning term; it is a common word for slave. No one would dare take to himself the social status of a slave, yet Jesus tells His disciples, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.”
Jesus goes on to appeal to His own story. His own Messiahship stands as the basis for the kind of discipleship that His followers must put into practice. If it is true of the Son of Man that He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for the many, then it is also true of the servants of the Son of Man. Our discipleship is to be characterized not by glory-seeking, not by egotistic self-will, not by the assertion of self-directed power, but by the pattern of service and giving.
This is a lesson that requires constant reinforcement. It is a lesson that requires a deliberate act of the will on our part, a calling to memory.
Mark 10:45 is one of my favorite verses, but the status of this as a remembered favorite verse should not lead me to assume that its practice is commonplace in my own heart and life:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for the many.
What does servant leadership mean for your life?
In our day and age, we find ministers of the Gospel for whom the gospel ministry represents a ladder to success. There are those in the ministry for whom the church is not a place to minister but a platform for public acclaim and success. We are called upon to live as servants of Our Lord and Savior. We are called upon to take to ourselves the values of the kingdom of God.
Because Jesus Himself died on a cross, we as His followers should not be so arrogant as to presume that ours is a different way. There is, even now in Christian piety, a kind of “Piety of Triumphalism.” There are those who will tell you, “Jesus died on the cross, and the cross was once for all, so that is not our way anymore.” I have heard ministers laugh from the pulpit at the notion of following Jesus by taking up a cross. The author of Hebrews does make it clear that Jesus died once for all, but let us not blaspheme the memory of Our Lord and Savior. Let us not contradict the clear teaching of Scripture that we are to take up the cross and follow Him. (Matthew 16:24)