Theme: Service Through “Self”
1) Denial of the sinful “self”
2) Renewal of the faithful “self”
The Struggle of Self; it’s a difficult thing to understand. Two little children are playing on their own; plenty of toys for both. But before long, one toy in particular takes the spotlight. Both kids want it. It’s as if everything else is non-existent. They each must have it, and they begin to whine and fight over it. It’s not that either of them really needs it. But it’s that they can’t stand to see the other have it. The “self” must prevail.
A husband and wife live happily together with three children. They are comfortable and have no need let alone lack of modern convenience. But one day the husband hears about a job promotion for his buddy down the road. It gets him thinking; how could my life be better? What do I want? Why can’t I catch a break? Nothing has really changed to affect his previous contentment. But all of the sudden he’s miserable. He can’t stand the thought of someone out there having it better than he does. He hates the idea that his “self” could lack in any way. And overnight, the seeds of envy and discord are sown.
A teenage girl has a smart phone and tablet. She’s adorned with the latest fashions and has no shortage of friends. She’s popular and well-liked and most importantly she has the rock solid confidence of faith in her Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet, when minor things in life go wrong, she feels like the universe is crumbling. She struggles with an assignment or test and she immediately is overcome with stress. Her significant other of 6 months dumps her and she doesn’t see any way to move forward. Why? She’s still blessed. She has her entire life ahead of her. Yet, her “self” is affected.
There’s no doubt that we all struggle when our cares, ideas, or goals are threatened; because those are the things that define who we are. An attack against them is a direct attack against us. But is there really a reason for alarm? Could it be that in many ways we are a bit too enamored with ourselves? Consider another example, this time from Mark’s Gospel; a time when two brothers struggled with the same thing:
Mark 10:35-41 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask." 36 And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?" 37 They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory." 38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39 They said to Him, "We are able." So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; 40 "but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared." 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.
James and John didn’t ask for this honorable distinction because they needed it. Life was more than good enough for them. They, of all people, had no reason to complain or want more because they were able to walk and talk with` the very Son of God! Yet, they wanted more. The “self” inside each of them begged for a little more attention and a little higher status; something to separate them from the rest of the pack. They were like a couple of kids fighting over the same toy, when they had hundreds of others to choose from. But that’s what the inborn human “self” does. It wants to be distinguished from the rest, even if it already has every grace and blessing.
This was nothing new to Jesus. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and certainly He knew James and John well. If you follow the context before these verses, you can see how Jesus was patiently and persistently addressing this problem of “self-centeredness” in His disciples. At the end of Mark 8 Jesus predicted quite frankly that He would have to suffer and die in Jerusalem and rise three days later. When Peter tried to interject himself into the situation and “protect” Jesus, he was met with a sharp rebuke from His Lord: “Get behind Satan, you’re not mindful of God’s plan.” Shortly after that exchange Jesus instructed all of the 12 by saying, “Whoever desires to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me (Mark 8:34).”
In chapter 9, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection a second time and followed it by saying this: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).” Therefore it shouldn’t surprise us that as we reach the words of our text in chapter 10, Jesus followed the same pattern for a third time. Immediately before these words, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection and then replied to James’ and John’s request. And for a third time, His answer is the same. There is no room for your sinful “self” in the kingdom of God. Discipleship is not a beauty contest about who is wisest or greatest. Discipleship is about survival, plain and simple. And the number one threat to James and John was their own sinful hearts. The inward desire to have more and more, even though they had everything they needed. The competitive nature to be better or to have a leg up on others; to be viewed with the greatest esteem and to receive the loudest praise.
Jesus was right, they had no idea what they asked for; but they would get it. Not what they wanted or what they thought, but they would get what all Christians are in for. The cup of hardship and the baptism of persecution. James and John wanted something to stoke their egos; to inflate their sinful natures. But what they received by faith in Jesus was the opposite and they are eternally grateful for it. Because the path of the sinful “self” leads to destruction. As Christians, we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of heaven, but the kingdom is where we will be. Acts 12 tells us what happened to James. He didn’t receive fanfare and praise as the greatest apostle. He didn’t live in a beautiful mansion and exercise unlimited power over the rest of pitiful humanity. No, one short verse sums up James’ legacy: V.2 “Then Herod killed James, the brother of John, with the sword.” That’s it. That’s what James received for following Jesus.
As for John, he didn’t suffer martyrdom but he did live in exile. He survived longer than the rest of the twelve, but many could argue that the isolationism and loneliness was even worse. Indeed, how very far from the truth James and John were as they dreamt of these lofty goals in this world. It’s a difference temporary, present satisfaction leading to eternal condemnation and temporary pain leading to eternal glory. But they were no different than the rest of the 12, as we see from the their reaction to this peculiar request, from vv. 42-45: But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 "Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 44 "And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45 "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
This was one of the last times that Jesus would have to talk to His disciples about this. Holy week, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Ascension were all on the doorstep. Soon, events would be put into motion that could not be reversed and the 12 would be tasked with bringing the truth of salvation to the ends of the earth. You can sense the seriousness of the times in the fact that Jesus doesn’t mince words. Unbelieving rulers abuse authority and rights in order to keep those under them in subjection. This wasn’t the way God’s Church would be and it started with the disciples and their own self-denial. They needed to be the examples. They needed to set the tone. But they wouldn’t be alone. Up to this point they had failed miserably; so much so that Jesus had to address the exact same point on three separate occasions.
They would fail in the future too. It wouldn’t be long before each of the disciples were running scared as Jesus walked the path to the cross alone. Shortly after that moment of cowardice they would be huddled together behind locked doors; feeling as if everything had fallen apart. But no matter how bad things were, or how bad they would get, they would never be left alone. They fled from Jesus, but He would never flee them. His Church was different. Different in that it was not about the sinful “self” but about the Savior. But also different in that it would never fade away, because it was established by One who came to serve, not to be served. One who came and set the example and established the tone.
What we see in all this for our lives is that Jesus does care for a “self.” Not the self that seeks its own or that struggles to be called “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus cares for the “self” that is an individual lost in sin and unbelief who needs renewal. Unlike other religious leaders, Jesus did not come to be served. He came to help; to serve others. But in order to do that, He had to come for you, as a unique individual, as a “self.” Part of the beauty of God’s kingdom is that it’s meant for every single person. It’s not a kingdom where everyone blends in together and has no individual identity. Jesus knows you by name and He daily calls to you through the Gospel. He wants you to be part of His Church, just as you are; with everything that makes you unique and one of a kind.
You, as an individual, were so important to Jesus that He willingly sacrificed himself to pay for your sins. He mentions the great love He has for sinners with one word in our text, from verse 40, the word “prepared.” That’s what Jesus did for you. He prepared salvation for you. Jesus didn’t do this for a random portion of people with whom He has no connection. Neither did He leave anyone out; or forget anyone because they weren’t important enough. The preparation of salvation was accomplished for each individual person. Jesus went to the cross, knowing your very name, who you would be, what you would make of yourself in life; even knowing all of your failures ahead of time. You are that precious to Him, and He values your unique identity, your “self”, so much that He wants you to serve Him through it.
That’s why Paul, in another area of Scripture, likened the Church to a body. A body has several unique parts; all with their own particular function. But no matter how different they are, they all serve the same purpose, and have the same goal of getting the entire body to function properly. That’s the true image of “self.” We are not part of God’s kingdom to serve ourselves; to see who is the greatest over all. We already know that that title belongs to Jesus alone. That’s the self we need to do away with through contrition and repentance. But Jesus still takes you as you are. He wants you to be His own child, by name; a unique “self,” an individual identity whom He has redeemed by His blood on the cross. Through that faithful self, what we typically call the “new man” you can serve God and you can serve your fellow Christian; for the building up of the Church.
Sometimes we forget how important the “self” that serves Jesus is. Sometimes we get caught up in the politics of the congregation and we wonder how we, as individuals, can possibly make a difference. Not everyone is a pastor or teacher. In fact, the make-up of our congregation relies on relatively few leaders who have the task of representing the entire body. How can the proper “self” exist in that format? What can regular, individual Christians do? The truth is, it’s the regular members who make the difference. If they don’t a congregation won’t work well at all. Just as Jesus was teaching to James and John, it’s the same in a Christian congregation. Those who serve are the ones who change the world. Good leaders act upon what the servants are already doing; they don’t dictate what must be done. In a church, the leaders need be the greatest examples of service. It’s the entire body of members, working as individual people, who determine the work and goals of the congregation. The leaders are simply present to guide the course.
There are plenty of ways to serve God with your “self.” Not through the sinful actions that come from a selfish heart; from the old Adam as it’s called. But the “self” that has been regenerated and renewed through the Gospel of forgiveness. The “self” that serves in true righteousness and holiness; because that’s what Jesus has given it. Jesus taught you the truth, provided you the example, and paved for you the path of victory. It’s not an easy path; just look at the life of James and John. Nor is it a popular path; just look at what we humans want by nature. But it is the path of Jesus. Therefore, greatness is in serving Him. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.