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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:True Greatness
Text:Mark 9:33-37 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 100
Psalm 32:1,2 (after the law)
Psalm 75
Psalm 131
Hymn 23

Reading: 2 Chronicles 32:1-23
Text: Mark 9:33-37
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,

Most people remember Jonathan Edwards because of one sermon that he preached in 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut.  The sermon, of course, was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Jonathan Edwards had a prominent position in New England.  After serving for some years as a famous pastor and missionary, he eventually became the president of what would be known as Princeton University.  From a worldly perspective, if any man of his day could justify being a wee bit proud of himself, it would have been Jonathan Edwards.  He was always on the up and up.  Yet Edwards was well-grounded in the Bible and all of its teachings.  He knew what the Bible says about pride and so we find Edwards at one point writing these words:

Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building…[it is the sin] most difficultly rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret, and deceitful of all lusts, and often creeps  in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility.    

Did you get that last part?  Pride sometimes even appears under the disguise of humility.  People can flaunt their humility (“Why can’t you be more humble, like me?”), people can be proud of their humility and then the serpent really has his coils around your neck.  And Edwards says it creeps into the midst of religion.  People can be very religious, solid church-going people we would say, and yet be in the grip of pride.  And we all know that if there is any sin today that is a “respectable” sin, it would be pride.      

Pride used to be one of the seven deadly sins.  Certainly the Bible warns over and over against it.  Think of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”  In Romans 12, the apostle Paul defines what pride is when he says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”  Pride is thinking of yourself more highly than you ought to.  Humility involves sober judgment of yourself.  So he says a little further in that chapter, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.” 

Of course, the Bible is also full of stories of people who were prideful.  It begins with a story of pride in the Garden of Eden.  Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we read about people like Sennacherib, who exalted himself over the true God.  He mocked God and said that the God of Israel was nothing and unable to rescue.  He found out the hard way that the true God does not take well to pride.  He was eventually murdered by his own sons. 

The ugly sinfulness of pride is also clearly illustrated by numerous stories in the New Testament.  One of them is found with our text for this morning.  Here too we see some supposedly religious people who are in the grip of this deadly sin.  The viper is slithering around in their hearts and eager to inject his deadly poison.  The Lord Jesus comes to ward off this viper in them and in us.  And so I preach to you God’s Word and we see how in this passage the Lord Jesus teaches his disciples about true greatness.  We’ll explore:

1.      The discussion that led to this instruction

2.      The two components of this instruction

3.      The powerful illustration that accompanied this instruction

After the incident with the boy possessed by the deaf and mute spirit, Jesus and his disciples began travelling.  They were on their way through Galilee and as they travelled, Jesus was teaching them.  He taught them that his journey was one which was going to end in betrayal, death, and then finally resurrection.  But during parts of the journey through Galilee, Jesus walked by himself either behind or ahead of the disciples.  During one of those times, the disciples got into a lively discussion. 

Eventually they arrived in Capernaum and they went to a house there to stay overnight.  When they came in the house, one of the first things that the Lord Jesus did was to ask the question:  “What were you arguing about on the road?”  Jesus didn’t ask this question because he needed to know the answer.  The parallel passage from Luke tells us that Jesus already knew what they had been arguing about.  He knew what was living in their hearts and so the question was meant to prick them and to prod them into a change of mind.  He wanted them to see their sin and turn from it.  He could have come right out and accused them of their pride, but instead he comes with a question that’s meant to get them thinking and lead them to the right conclusion. 

His question was met with a guilty silence.  They knew full well what they had been discussing and arguing about.  They knew that it was wrong and their pride goes even further now because they can’t even bring themselves to admit it.  Not one of them speaks.  No one says, “Oh, we were just talking about how great we are and who is the greatest.”  They know in their hearts that the Lord Jesus wouldn’t look favorably on this discussion.  Maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t know and they’ll be off the hook. 

Now imagine:  they had been arguing about who was the greatest among the disciples.  You can be sure that Peter wasn’t saying, “Oh, you know brothers, that’s easy, it’s Thaddeus.  Thaddeus is the greatest – I mean, no one compares to Thad.”  You can be sure that James wasn’t saying, “Come on, brothers, we all know it’s Andrew.  Andrew has us all beat hands down.”  Instead, each disciple was his own self-promoter, jockeying for the position of World’s Greatest Disciple.  Perhaps the argument had taken place because Jesus picked Peter, James and John to come up the mountain with him.  While they were on the mountain hob-nobbing with Moses and Elijah, the other disciples were wringing their hands over a demon that wouldn’t listen to them.  Obviously some of the disciples are greater than others.  Obviously some of us are better than others too.  No, that’s the voice of pride speaking.  That’s a voice that we all hear and a lying voice that needs to be drowned out with the truth of God’s Word.    

There’s irony here too.  The irony comes from comparing what Jesus says in the verses right before our passage with what the disciples are talking about here.  Jesus has his eyes fixed on betrayal, suffering and death and his disciples are fixated on status and pride and their self-glorification.  Jesus is on one path and his disciples appear to be on another.  And these are paths that lead in opposite directions. 

The disciples were going down this path for number one, for the idol of self.  Meanwhile, Jesus was travelling his path for them.  These twelve prideful men were his prize.  He was going to suffer and die for them and for their pride.  And for you and me too and for our pride.  Loved ones, the gospel proclaims to us today that we have a Saviour who has paid for all our pride with his perfect sacrifice.  We have redemption from our self-absorption through his selflessness.  Not only are we forgiven all of it, we also have the blessing of receiving all his humility as our own.  Throughout all his life on earth, our Lord Jesus walked the path of obedient humility – and all of that is credited to us too.  Our heavenly Father looks at us through the lens of his Son.  He sees people who are humble, who don’t think of themselves more highly than they ought to.  He sees the person who can honestly have Psalm 131 on his or her lips:  “O LORD, my heart is free from pride, conceit my eyes cannot abide.”  We’re going to sing that after the sermon, and as we sing it, remember to think about Christ and remember that you’re singing those words as someone who has Christ’s righteousness imputed to you. 

Hearing and believing those truths is meant to bring a U-turn into our lives.  Those gospel truths are meant to lead us off the path of pride and into the ways of the Lord Jesus.  Since we have union with him, his way of life, his path, is to be ours.

So he not only exposes the sin of the disciples (and our sin), but also gives them concrete positive instruction about what true greatness looks like in God’s eyes.  A disciple of Jesus loves the Lord Jesus and seeks to follow him also in this.  Jesus is the teacher, the rabbi of all his disciples.  So, as was the custom of a rabbi, Jesus sat down and called the twelve disciples in and began teaching them.  This instruction has two related components. 

Jesus says that the disciple who wants to be great, who wants to be first, has to give up his or her ambitions.  He or she must be the last of all.  A disciple is only truly great when he or she has put to death prideful ambition and the desire to be on top and at the front. 

Let me give an illustration especially for the younger brothers and sisters.  When I was in school, there were kids and I was one of them, who always wanted to know what everybody got on the test.  And if you did well, you made sure that everybody else knew about it.  Of course, if you didn’t do well, you didn’t ask anybody else how they did, because you knew that it would make you look bad if you had to say what you got.  I’m sure this still happens today.  The Lord Jesus teaches that his disciples have to see this sort of thing as pride in their hearts.  We want to look good to others. We want to be seen as being the best or maybe one of the best.  But that’s pride and it’s deadly and sinful, and that’s true for all of  us, whether we’re young or old.  So, kids, young brothers and sisters, when school starts in a few weeks, you do your best on all those tests and assignments.  But you do your work for the Lord because you love the God who saved you; you don’t do it for your glory so that other students will admire you and praise you.  You are not God who deserves all the praise and glory.  You see, a disciple of Christ is only great when he or she is putting to death the desire to be at the front and on top and praised by everyone.  Disciples of Christ live for his glory not their own. 

The second thing Jesus says is that the one who wants to be great has to become the servant of all.  The word “servant” there means something like a waiter.  A servant was someone who waited on the needs of others.  He was at the beck and call of others, his time and energy existed for the service of others.  The servant is totally oriented to others, not to himself.

Now if you want a concrete illustration of that, let’s think about somebody in the Bible who did exactly that.  Who can you think of in Scripture who was totally oriented outside of himself?  Who consistently lived and died for others?  Who was the true servant-leader?  Christ, right?  Though he was the Son of God, he relinquished his glory and majesty and came to earth as one of us.  To buy us back from our sinful way of life with his precious blood.  He came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  This was and is what makes him truly great.  True greatness comes not from serving yourself and looking out for your own interests, but in serving others and looking out for their interests.  Christ did that and all who are his and who are united to him, they’re going to be growing in doing the same.

In Capernaum that day the disciples had their minds set on earthly glory.  Like us so often, they needed to be reoriented to Christ’s path.  They needed to be taught that lowliness and service are the most important things before God.  He gave them the instruction and then he also powerfully illustrated it.  He provided them with a sort of living parable right before their eyes.

In the house where they were, there was this little child.  We know nothing about who this child was.  Mark doesn’t tell us, and neither do Matthew or Luke.  All we know is that he was a little boy, perhaps a toddler.  Jesus took this little boy and had him stand in the middle of the twelve.  They were probably sitting around in a circle or semi-circle and Jesus put him where they could all see him.  Then he did something beautiful.  Our Bible translation (NIV) says that Jesus took the boy in his arms.  What that means is that he gave him a big hug.  The Lord Jesus hugged this little boy before all the disciples, these big grown men.        

One of the things that’s clear about our Lord Jesus from all the gospels is that he had a soft spot for children.  This is not the only time that Jesus welcomes children in his arms and blesses them.  He truly loves the little children.  All you younger brothers and sisters, all you children here in church, you should know that Jesus loves you.  He really does.  If he were here in person right now, he would give you a hug too and he would bless you.  But did you know that Jesus is here?  You can’t see him, but Jesus is here.  Not in a way that you can see him or hug him, but spiritually, with his Word.  And Jesus is telling you through me that he loves you.  He is very happy that you’re here in church today with your mom and dad.  He has told me in his Word to tell you that.  And you have to believe that.  Believe that Jesus loves you and that he will always be your Saviour and that he loves to see you in church with the rest of his people.  Jesus loves to hear you sing.  He loves to see you folding your hands and closing your eyes and praying with us.  He loves to see you listening to the sermon like you are right now.  Jesus loves to see you putting the money in the collection and helping to show his love to others who might be having a hard time.  And mom and dad, it’s good that you bring your kids with you to church every Sunday because they have a Saviour who loves them and wants to see them here too so that he can tell them of his love. 

So, Jesus took this little child and hugged him in front of all the disciples.  Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me...”  Jesus takes the child as a living parable for the disciples.  He doesn’t do that because of any sort of character traits that go along with toddlers or little children.  The child is there because of the status given to a child.  A child was powerless and had no status in that culture.  Children were thoroughly dependent on others and vulnerable.  Children were the littlest of the little people.  And Jesus says, these are the ones that disciples focus their attention on.  The disciples aren’t to be about getting the attention of the high and mighty, the influential and the big-wigs, but the little helpless children who might not even be able to string words together into a sentence. 

Jesus says that when his disciples welcome one of these littlest of the little ones in his name, they are actually welcoming him.  You see, he identifies himself with the little boy that he hugged.  He says that when you care for the little people and look out for their interests, you’re taking care of me, welcoming and receiving me.  Conversely then, when your interests are oriented to the big people, to the influential and powerful, where is Jesus?  You won’t be welcoming or receiving him.  He identifies with the weak and the powerless, not the big shots.  And I think you can see quite easily how that turns the world’s thinking on its head.  Because the world around us is not about the little guy.  Power, wealth, and prestige are what makes the worldly world go ‘round.  But those things are not what makes Jesus’ world go ‘round.

He says that receiving the little child is receiving him, and receiving him is more than meets the eye.  It also includes receiving the one who sent him, in other words, receiving God.  This is the only place in Mark where Jesus explicitly and directly says that he was sent by God.  And he says it in just the right place.  This reminds us that when God sent Jesus, he agreed to go.  He humbly submitted to his Father and agreed to come into this world for our redemption.  He wasn’t forced, he didn’t have to be cajoled or bribed.  He willingly came – the perfect to live for the grossly imperfect, the innocent to die for the guilty, the humble to serve the constantly proud.  God sent him and he came.  And when we have our world reoriented so that we see the child as the way of the kingdom, God is being received and welcomed into our lives too.

Brothers and sisters, we have to get this, we have to believe and understand.  Everything in our sin can be traced back to pride.  Spend some time thinking about it today.  Every sin you commit finds its roots in your far-too high estimation of yourself.  Pride is the root idolatry that undergirds every single sinful word, thought and deed.  There is nothing good about pride.  Absolutely nothing.  The way of salvation is found with humility.  Being able to admit that we are recalcitrant glory-hounds.  Being able to admit that we need Jesus because we are just like those disciples in our text, fixated on ourselves and our own status and glory.  Humility is the divine anti-venom to the poison of pride.  And this humility is not something that we can muster up out of our resources and willpower.  True humility, the kind of humility described by Christ here, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a fruit of faith and of the new birth worked in us by God.  It’s something to desire earnestly to grow in, to pray for.  When we long for a greater measure of humility and value it and pray for it, and obey the Word that leads us towards it, God will grant it to us in greater and greater measures.  He’ll continue working in our lives. 

I’d like to finish by looking up and reading with you from two Scripture passages.  The first is Isaiah 57:15 [look up and read].  God promises to live with those who are humble and contrite.  The second passage is 1 Peter 5:5,6 [look up and read].  “God gives grace to the humble.”  May he give that grace to all us as we follow our Master Jesus Christ.  AMEN.       


Our Father in heaven,

We confess to you our pride and self-absorption.  So often we look out for own glory and advancement rather than yours.  We put the big people first because we want their praise.  Father, please forgive us all our sins of pride and vain selfish ambition.  We ask that you would do that because of Christ.  And we pray that you would always look upon us as we are in him, and account all his righteousness to us.  Father, we thank you for a humble, self-less Saviour.  We thank you for his love for us and for our children.  We love you, O God, for what you have done through your Son.  Help us with the Holy Spirit so that we may grow in humility.  Please give us more grace so that we may put others first, and so that we can be servants rather than those who aspire to be masters, so that we look out for the weak and helpless and put them first.  Father, here too, we acknowledge our total dependence on you.  We want to serve you in your ways and we pray for your help and strength.  Please continue working in our lives – and we pray that for your glory, because you deserve all the praise, and not us.     


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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