The Paradoxes of the Servant
I recall sitting alongside my college classmates on graduation day and looking through the program I had just been handed. After searching for and making sure my name was spelled correctly, I glanced at the front cover. In large letters was the word, “COMMENCEMENT.” What a strange word, I remember thinking, to use for describing having finished an academic program. One would think “completion,” “conclusion” or “culmination” would be more appropriate.
After all, “commencement” refers to a “start” or a “beginning,” not an “ending.” But as every graduate soon discovers, it turns out to be an appropriate word. While graduation typically corresponds with the culmination of one’s formal education, it actually serves as the “launch” into the next stage of life for which that education has been preparing them.
Although Jesus’ disciples believed that their having sat at the feet of the Master had well-equipped them for carry out the ministry to which He had called them, the truth was they had yet fully grasped what that ministry would be or what it would entail. Time was getting short and Jesus still had much more to teach them. Far from their training being over, the education of the disciples not fully commenced.
Chapter 10 forms a distinct section in Mark’s Gospel. It is made up of a series of events that occurred during Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. Along this journey, our Lord dealt with the problem of divorce, blessed little children that were brought to Him, answered the question of a wealthy young man concerning eternal life and discussed with His disciples the matter of riches and reward raised by that inquiry, announced again to the Twelve about His coming death and resurrection, dealt with the matter of position in His Kingdom, and healed a blind beggar.
There is a lot here, and in Mark’s typical manner the action unfolds in rapid-fire fashion. In reality, however, these scenes probably played out over several weeks and possibly several months. It is significant that representatives from various segments of society are represented. As His providential appointment with the cross drew near, Jesus spent time dealing with the issues that affected married people, children, rich men, future leaders, and the disabled. All of those groups are represented in this chapter.
In training His disciples the Lord employed a number of teaching methods, one of which was the use of paradoxical comparisons. As you probably know, a paradox is a statement that at first glance appears to be contradictory. At first hearing, such statements sound absurd, but upon further reflection the point of the statement is seen as valid and able to be understood. An example of a paradox is found in the Apostle Paul’s familiar statement, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Here in Mark 10, Jesus addresses five paradoxical truths. Each one of them could yield a sermon of its own, but our purpose this morning will be to survey them all and hopefully learn from each one. The first is found in His teaching on marriage and divorce in verses 1 through 12. It is here we learn that...
The two shall be one (verses 1-12)
When we compare Mark’s record with those of the other Gospel writers, it appears that some time has passed between the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10. Much of Jesus’ Judean ministry and His repeated and intensifying conflicts with the Jewish leaders are omitted by Mark. He does, however, include the account of the Pharisees’ approaching Jesus and questioning Him about the legality of divorce. True to form, they are not seeking His opinion but are rather trying to trap Him in His words. In verse 3, He refers them to the Old Testament law, asking, “What did Moses command you?”
The matter centered on a passage of Scripture found in the first four verses of Deuteronomy 24. Regarding that text, there were two prominent schools of interpretation in Jesus’ day. The followers of Rabbi Hillel were quite liberal in the way they understood it and permitted a man to divorce his wife for almost any reason, including burning his food. But the school of Shammai was much more conservative and taught that divorce was only permissable if the wife had been guilty of certain immoral acts. Jesus’ response revealed a position that protected the marriage bond in a way that was much stricter than either of those.
While the Pharisees slightly misquoted and fully misappropriated the law, Jesus’ response preempted and superceded their views. Notice His reply in verses 5 through 9:
5 “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together let not man separate.”
We learn three things from Jesus’ brief statement with regard to marriage. First, it is a God-ordained institution. Second, it is a monogamous heterosexual (male and female) relationship. And third, it is to be a permanent union. Even in that day, those descriptions would have sounded more idealistic than practical. And how much more in ours! But if we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, then our every decision—and particularly in matters as important as this—must be grounded in God’s unchanging truth and not on the basis of our feelings.
Interestingly, the Pharisees can offer no response to Jesus, but the disciples do. Alone with them now, Jesus adds to His statement what we read in verses 11 and 12: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and whoever divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
If you happen to be familiar with Matthew’s parallel version of this conversation, then you know that an “exception clause” is attached to Jesus’ words, so that it reads, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
It is beyond the scope of this message to dive into the complete teaching of Scripture on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Suffice it to say that Matthew’s version is the more complete rendering of what Jesus said. But let’s be clear, the “exception clause” is one of concession, meaning that it was permitted but not mandated. In other words, divorce should never be considered a “first option” when a marriage is “in trouble.” Jesus’ statement should be understood to mean that no matter how rough things are, regardless of the stress and strain or whatever is said to cause incompatibility, divorce should not even be considered until all attempts at healing and reconciliation have been exhausted.
Perhaps you are here this morning and have experienced divorce on what might be considered “less-than-biblical” grounds. If that is the case, then rejoice in the fact that no sin—not even the sin of divorce—is beyond the pale of His sovereign grace. The Bible has much more to say on this important subject, and I would be more than happy to sit and talk with you who have questions. For now, however, let us realize that God’s ideal—which Jesus affirms in this passage—is summarized in verses 8 and 9: “‘The two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
The first paradox, then, is that two shall become one. The second paradox is found in verses 13 through 16, where we learn that...
The child-like shall be mature (verses 13-16)
Let’s read those verses:
13 “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
At the risk of passing over some of the finer points in this brief paragraph, it pretty much speaks for itself. Jesus didn’t display anger very often, but He does so here. Not long before He had rebuked the disciples for their spirit of exclusivity (cf. Mark 9:38-41), and here we find them at it again...this time with regard to children.
Once again, Jesus is being counter-cultural in the manner in which He welcomed and embraced children. Think back and recall how often young boys and girls had been the beneficiaries of His miracles. Clearly He elevated the status of children in a time when their value to society was considered minimal. And just as significant is the observation that children seemed instinctively and authentically to be drawn to Christ.
So, what is the lesson here? Jesus seems to be saying that just as there is a helpless dependence that characterizes young children, we must all recognize that no one will be able to enter the Kingdom of God—no one!—unless he or she receives the Lord’s gift of salvation in childlike faith. What that implies is a complete awareness on our part of having nothing—absolutely nothing!—to offer that would merit God’s forgiveness and secure my entrance into heaven. There is no self-sufficiency when it comes to matters of faith, especially as faith relates to eternal salvation. All of us are as helpless and dependent as small children.
As a youngster in our Wednesday afternoon Good News Club, I can recall reciting the couplet: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” As my faith has matured through the years, I have been able to understand that with even greater clarity. No matter how long we follow Jesus, our faith must remain childlike and dependent on the One in whom we can confidently trust. As the Apostle has written, He alone is able to “supply every need of (ours), according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
Moving on to the third of Jesus’ paradoxical statements, Jesus tells us in verses 17 through 30 that...
The last shall be first (verses 17-31)
Most of us refer to this section as “the story of the rich young ruler.” It is positioned here because it stands in stark contrast with the previous paragraph. Children are by nature dependent, but here we find a man who believed that he was independent and self-sufficient. He was willing to take his chances and stand before the Lord on the basis of his own merits.
We are told that this man, whom we might think of today as a “high achiever” or an “up and comer,” approached Jesus and even knelt before Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Right away, Jesus responds, saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” In other words, “Are you willing to call me ‘God’?”
Before the man can answer, Jesus explains what is necessary for eternal life: “You know the commandments,” and He then cites commands five through ten of the Decalogue. Interestingly these last six commands flow out of the first four and deal with our relationships with our fellow man. “Are you keeping the commandments?” is Jesus’ implication. Unflustered, the young man replied, “All these I have kept from my youth.” In that response we find the same answer that every self-righteous Pharisee of that day and ours would say.
But what we read next is surprising. Rather than correcting the man’s faulty theology, Jesus looked at him with eyes of genuine “love” and said with compassion, “You lack one thing: go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” In effect, it was the same call that He had extended to Simon and Andrew (cf. Mark 1:16), to James and John (cf. Mark 1:17), to Levi (cf. Mark 2:14), and we presume to the rest of the Twelve. It was the call to discipleship. Those men indeed had left all in order to “follow” Jesus, but would this rich young man now do the same?
Verse 22 provides the answer. “Disheartened by the saying,” the text reads, “He went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” No doubt, Jesus grieved as the man walked slowly away. At his critical moment of decision, his wealth prevented the helpless, childlike dependence that Jesus had just said was necessary for Kingdom entrance.
This man had come to Jesus seeking an eternal reward, not an eternal relationship. He did not see himself as a sinner in need of mercy and grace, but rather as one who had something to offer the Lord. He was self-assured and reliant on his money and his possessions to sustain him through every threatening circumstance. He was wrong! As someone has put it, “Money can be a marvelous servant, but it is a terrible master.”
Turning again to address His disciples, Jesus explains how material riches can be a handicap to salvation for the one who becomes so attached to them that he or she forgets what is infinitely more important. Wealth can easily pervert our ethics and ideals, so that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. That describes this young man.
Verses 23 and following include another of Jesus’ “hard sayings.” Lest He be misunderstood, let’s be clear in realizing that He is not making a case for universal asceticism and calling us to live in abject poverty. Being poor does not deliver one from the love of money...it may, in fact, create it. Conversely, the Old Testament provides several case studies of wealthy men who were declared to be “righteous” before the Lord. Abraham, Boaz, and Job immediately come to mind. It is the attitude one has toward wealth that is at issue.
Jesus is imploring us to consider taking two actions in this section. The first is to divest ourselves of our dependence on our wealth or material possessions. Because it is true that “the more we get, the more we want,” we should evaluate ourselves often to make certain that we are not trusting “things” to do for us what only God can do. The second action is to invest our wealth in the things that count for eternity. As our incomes rise, we should be giving to God’s work in such a way that what increases is our standard of giving rather than our standard of living. Each of us must decide what that means for ourselves and our families, and that is why our evaluations should be bathed in prayer. “Divestment” and “investment” is what the Lord calls us to.
As this section concludes, Jesus makes a remarkable promise to those who are willing to forsake all and “follow” Him. Let’s read verses 29 through 31: “Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” And perhaps still thinking of the rich young man, Jesus adds, “but many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Amazing! Not only shall the last be first, but in Jesus’ economy the poor shall be rich! And please notice, our Lord doesn’t say that those who surrender all to Him will receive one hundred percent more...but rather, “a hundredfold” more.
As we come to verse 32, Jesus for the third time speaks of His impending death and resurrection, this time adding additional detail to what He has already disclosed. In a series of predictive verbs He specifically describes what awaits Him when He arrives in Jerusalem for the final time. He “will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” It is the most detailed prediction of the Messiah’s suffering since Isaiah 53. And it is foretold here because it introduces the fourth paradox, which is that...
The servants shall be rulers (verses 32-45)
The disciples’ sense of timing never ceases to amaze me. Apparently soon after Jesus had spoken of His impending death, two of them come to Him and ask about being granted positions of authority within His kingdom. It is perhaps a resumption of the conversation that had begun back in chapter 9. At that time it was over the matter of which one of them “was the greatest” (Mark 9:35). And there, as well as here, it had followed an announcement that Jesus was soon to die.
On this occasion, James and John approach Jesus with a rather bold request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” In response, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Remember that question because soon we will see it again.
The disciples’ request is stated in verse 37: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” I have heard sermons preached where James and John are actually praised for being “ambitious” enough to approach Jesus with such a bold request. I do not see it that way at all, and I think Jesus’ response bears this out. The sons of Zebedee were “ambitious” alright, but theirs was a selfish ambition.
Jesus responds in the next verse by telling them that what they were requesting would demand much of them: “You do not know what you are asking.” Adding emphasis, He asks two questions of His own: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Both questions related to the suffering He was about to endure, something that continued to evade their comprehension. Would they be able to share His fate? Their immediate reply, “We are able,” exposes their inability to grasp the full implication of what Jesus was asking.
And so He adds this detail in verses 39 and 40: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” In other words, James and John, it is one thing to ask for deeper blessings, but it is quite another thing to stand firmly during the refining process that makes us fit to receive what we ask. What they still had to learn was, the higher the position, the greater the sacrifice required.
The rest of the disciples, upon hearing the request of the other two, became “indignant.” So Jesus gathered them all together for another “teachable moment.” The words He spoke to them take us into the book’s core. Verses 42 through 44 summarize the entire three years He had been with the Twelve. This is where His ministry has been leading:
42 “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
In other words, the ones who rule will be those who serve. As if to add the exclamation point to that paradoxical statement, Jesus presents His own example as the prototype for this kind of “greatness.” Verse 45 is the key to the entire book: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Therefore, to return to the original request of James and John, the ones who are nearest in time to Christ the crucified will be those who are nearest in eternity to Christ the glorified.”
This is one of the clearest New Testament passages dealing with the substitutionary nature of Jesus’s death. The “ransom" speaks of the price that He would pay with His own blood in order to propitiate the wrath of God with respect to man’s sin. That term was used within the context of securing the release of a prisoner or a slave. Theologically, it refers to the purchase of one’s redemption from the penalty of sin by the blood of Christ. He sacrificed His own sinless life on behalf of sinners like us.
The preposition “for” emphasizes the idea of substitution. It means “in the place of” or “instead of.” Jesus died “in our place.” Or, as one has said, “He lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died.” By His own selfless example, Jesus demonstrated the paradox that it is those who serve who shall rule.
Chapter 10 closes with the final miracle of healing recorded in the Gospel of Mark. In a way it encapsulates everything we have seen with regard to the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching and the character of the Kingdom He was building. Verses 46 through 52 tell us that...
The blind shall see (verses 46-52)
This is the story of Bartimaeus, who was a “blind beggar” who would daily sit near the gate of Jericho and beg alms. One day he heard that Jesus was passing by, and as He did he cried out to him repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Others tried to quiet him, but he persisted, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” To the surprise of all, Jesus stopped and “called him” to Himself. Now face-to-face before the man, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Does that question sound familiar? It is exactly the same one Jesus had asked James and John in verse 36. There response was to request greatness for themselves, but the response of Bartimaeus is different. We see it in verse 51, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” “Jesus, I want to be able to see.”
The disciples thought they could “see,” but they really couldn’t. Bartimaeus knew he couldn’t “see,” and in admitting it and casting himself in humble dependence upon Jesus, he soon would see. “‘Go your way,’” Jesus told him, “‘Your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.”
Jesus is still asking people, “What do you want me to do for you?” Are you aware that He is still opening the eyes of the spiritually blind? Even this morning, as He passes our way, He is listening for cries of faith that will respond to His call. By recognizing Jesus to be the Messiah and Savior, those who have been blind are made able to see. And when they see Him—when they truly see Him with eyes of faith—they, like Bartimaeus, will too “follow” Jesus.
Is He is calling for you this morning? What is it that you want Jesus to do for you?
The paradoxical nature of these episodes would have sounded absurd when compared with the cultural and societal norms of Jesus’ day. Hearing them as they did, the disciples should have been alerted to the fact that a new order was coming in which life under the Lordship of Christ would be far different than what they might expect.
Jesus Himself was a living, breathing paradox. Consider His Sermon on the Mount, in which He said such things as: “Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek...Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness... Blessed are those who are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:3-6 and 10). Really? And what about His repeated insistence that it was necessary for Him to die in order to be raised to life? Fictional writers refer to this as “alternate reality.” But Jesus calls it “eternal life.”
What this means for the followers of Jesus is something radically different from what we might expect. In recent weeks, the elders have been reading together and discussing Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s book, The Vine Project. In closing, allow me to share a paragraph from what those authors have to say regarding the educational process through which Jesus has been taking—and is still taking—His disciples. Listen carefully. I hope it will be as challenging to you as it has been to us:
“In the case of Jesus’ disciples, the outcome of this learning was not simply the mastery of a certain body of knowledge—what we would today associate with classroom or academic learning. What the ‘learners’ were learning from Jesus was a way of life based on an understanding of certain truths about reality...The goal was for them not only to know what their teacher knew, but also to be like their teacher, to walk in his ways. They weren’t learning a subject; they were learning a person, if we can put it like that—his knowledge, his wisdom, his whole way of life.”
other sermons in this series