Summary: If you want to be first, learn to be last!
A CHILD-LIKE HUMILITY
1. CONTEXT (Mark 8:29-34).
On the back of Peter’s famous confession of faith (Mark 8:29), Jesus began to teach His disciples about His upcoming death and resurrection (Mark 8:31). About this the disciples were, to say the least, slow on the uptake: Peter’s first instinct had been to rebuke Jesus (Mark 8:32), drawing from Jesus what is perhaps the sternest reprimand that He ever made (Mark 8:33)! So, Jesus called the people to Him, along with His disciples, and taught them the necessity of self-denial, Cross-carrying humility, and loyal following of Him (Mark 8:34).
2. THE CROSS (Mark 9:30-32).
In the first part of today’s passage we again find the motif of secrecy (Mark 9:30; cf. Mark 8:30). This was because of the divergence between the people’s perception of what Messiah should be, and Jesus’ own agenda. The emphasis on the Cross was still uppermost in Jesus’ mind as the apostolic band walked through Galilee on their way home to Capernaum, and Jesus again sought to convey this message to His disciples (Mark 9:31): but again, they found it a difficult pill to swallow (Mark 9:32).
We need not be surprised at this, because the way of the Cross has always been a stumbling-block to religious people: ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness unto those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Left on his own, Man would rather trust in his own (in)ability to keep the Law of God than trust in the sacrifice of Another! Yet there is no other way (John 14:6; Acts 4:12): Jesus came ‘not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).
Speaking of His death, Jesus often refers to Himself grammatically in the third person as “the Son of Man” (Mark 9:31; cf. Mark 8:31; Mark 9:12; Mark 10:33). He who is fully God is also fully Man: who humbled Himself (Read Philippians 2:5-8) and gave Himself over unto death (John 10:18). He is the new representative head of the human race; ‘the last Adam’ if you will: and as ‘the last Adam’ He gives His life as a substitute for the many; and became, by His resurrection, ‘a life-giving spirit’ (1 Corinthians 15:45).
3. THE SUBTEXT (Mark 9:33-35).
The irony of this piece of peripatetic teaching is found in the subtext: meanwhile the disciples were “arguing about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34)! The solemnity of what Jesus was saying had almost passed them by: and again, on the back of yet another attempt to teach them (Mark 10:33-34), there would be a resurgence of this same distraction (Mark 10:37). Jesus’ initial answer was to invert the twelve’s perception of “first” and “last” (Mark 9:35).
4. THE LITTLE CHILD (Mark 9:36-37).
Jesus set a little child in their midst (Mark 9:36). Now such children, in the ancient world, had no rights: yet Jesus was happy to scoop one up into His holy arms and teach. A little child represents the least of the least; yet has a special place in the heart of Jesus: to receive “one such” is to receive Jesus; and to receive Jesus is to receive God Himself (Mark 9:37).
Luke’s account adds, ‘for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.’ (Read Luke 9:48).
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus seems to identify ‘these little ones who believe’ with His disciples. (Read Matthew 18:6 with Matthew 10:40-42). And things done/ not done ‘unto one of the LEAST of these My brethren’ shall be judged accordingly (Matthew 25:40; Matthew 25:45-46).
The Apostle Peter tells us that the suffering of Christ was an example for us to follow (Read 1 Peter 2:21-23). However, whilst the death of Jesus furnishes us with the supreme example of humility, it is unique in its application (Read 1 Peter 2:24-25).
The Apostle Paul teaches: ‘Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself’ (Philippians 2:3).
There is a chorus based on Mark 9:35: ‘If you want to be first in God's kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.’