First Shall Be Last


James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” But 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?” They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “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 has been prepared.” Mark 10:35-40

Matthew tells us that the mother of James and John (Salome, sister of Jesus’ mother Mary) made this audacious request of Jesus for them (Matt. 20:20-28). It might have gone something like this. “You ask him,” said John. “No, you ask him,” replied James. “While you both stand here arguing, I’ll ask him,” asserted their mother.

This is reminiscent of my recollection of the prototypical Little League dad or mom, pushing the coach to play their son.

All levity aside, this is an incredible exchange, and a window in on the hearts and minds of those to whom a Jesus would soon toss the keys. There’d need to be some serious teaching going on from here on out to get these guys ready.

James and John, known as the “Sons of Thunder,” may have thought of themselves as on the general’s staff in his campaign to establish his kingdom, but Jesus’ mission was to die a horrible substitutionary death on the cross, not to conquer the Caesar’s and Herod’s of the world, at least on this go-round.

Whatever the case, the brothers’ opinion of themselves was lofty. When all was said and done, they would suffer for their Lord as they said they would, but to sit at his right or left was not up to Jesus, for many would play critical roles in establishing his church.

Even so, following Jesus is not about self-fulfillment but a sacrifice of service to others. We need to drain ourselves in serving the Lord, irrespective of what crown may be ours to win.

But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. Philippians 2:17

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The Final Leg

They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking on ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were fearful. And again He took the twelve aside and began to tell them what was going to happen to Him, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. “They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.” Mark 10:32-34

The journey had been long, not so much in miles, but in the gradual unfolding of the identity and mission of the man the twelve were following. Now the final leg.

Still their minds were far behind their bodies in understanding what truly lie ahead for their master. He’d mentioned it twice before, but this time they heard a detailed prediction of his plight in the holy city ahead.

For the disciples who lagged just behind Jesus as he walked, surely a lump was in their collective throats when he said, “We are going to Jerusalem.”

It’s safe to say they had not yet set their hearts “as a flint” as he had done. Isaiah 50:7

The others who followed them felt a sense of foreboding in the air. There was a good possibility they too would play a role in this drama to come.

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Threading the Needle

And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” Mark 10: 23-27

What the disciples just witnessed was befuddling. How could such a successful man walk away from the chance to inherit eternal life? Jesus’ answer was even more incredible. That’s because he’s rich, and it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom, like threading a camel through the eye of a needle. What?

Well, Jesus didn’t say it was impossible, just hard. Even if it was impossible, nothing’s impossible with God. So I guess the Beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is true (Matthew 5:3). But it seems to be a raw deal for the rich.

It all boils down to a person’s need for a savior, which presumes there’s something that a person needs to be saved from. Riches do a good job of placating one’s life to the point of numbness. You can really think you don’t need God in that state. It’s conceivable that you might feel empty deep inside, but how about just buying something new to compensate? That’ll do it.

Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” 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 farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” Mark 10:28-31

Only God can strike the raw nerve that causes one to leave everything and follow him, like the very rich disciple Matthew. Somehow, all rationality is set aside for a vision of something bigger, better and real. Then all the things that you thought you left behind—that is, the truly important thingsare restored one hundredfold in this life, and surely by an astronomical factor, in the next!

But Jesus sneaks in something bittersweet in this present life, persecutions, to make us long for the next. There’s also a change in our economy. “The first will be last, and the last, first.”

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Answering the Question

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”  And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.  Mark 10:17-22

He put off approaching Jesus with his burning question, but now the “good teacher” was leaving and he had to act fast.

The man had amassed a fortune but lacked the capability to obtain eternal life. There are some things money can’t buy. It’s interesting that he seemed to inherently know that eternal life could not be bought, only inherited.

But there must be something, a task, he could do to get it! He’d soon find out what it was–in his case.

But first things first.

He did not know who he was talking to. The “teacher” part was true, but adding “good” to it was not.


“Good” could only be ascribed to God himself, Jesus said. While on earth, Jesus did not appropriate his rightful stature as King of kings but sought after God as we all do. The next time the man addressed him (in v. 20) he surely dropped the “good!”

As an aside, in the man’s world, you do this kind of schmoozing. It didn’t work with Jesus.

I’ve always read the list of commandments Jesus threw out as prerequisites and regarded the man’s self-assessment of having “kept all these from my youth up” as a bit self-aggrandizing. But on closer inspection, it was possible to run the table on these, if you leave aside Jesus’ clarifications in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:28), and Paul’s writings (Eph. 4:28). Under the law, the man could pretty much safely say he had done all these things if he truly did.

There’s a good chance the Lord agreed with the man’s assessment as he “felt love toward him.” This was agape love by the way. So, he told him what he had to do. He answered his question. Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. This, mind you, was in exchange for eternal life, no less. It sounds like a good deal in my book. But the man couldn’t do it. His countenance fell from giddy to gloomy, and he turned and walked away.

It’s not that he couldn’t, but he wouldn’t.

In this story is some important theology, the God part of Jesus knew upfront whether the man was in or out. Yet he felt love for him despite knowing what his reaction would be.

With everyone, the statement “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” is true. John 3:16

He gives all the chance to exercise his endowment of free will in answering “yes” to the question about eternal life. It’s a mystery how this all works, so don’t think for a moment that you’ve got enough to come down on one side or another, that is, whether he chose us, or we choose him. Both answers are correct.

In this case, the man could have done what he asked and inherited eternal life on the spot, but he didn’t! Remember James and John and Peter and Andrew did. Mathew did. Zacchaeus did. And many, many after them.

The issue is not, do we have to sell all to obtain our salvation. No. Here, as always, it boils down to possessing the modicum of faith to accept Jesus’ standing offer regardless of the worldly costs. Behind this faith is the trust that what is offered is far greater than worldly things, and that the giver can deliver what he’s promised.

Where this kind of faith comes from could only be God, and he is indeed “good.”

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Overthinking It

And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them. Mark 10:13-16

It’s hard to say why the disciples found it necessary to protect their Master from the intrusion or interruption by children in need of a blessing. I say “need” because what could have been more important at the time, a little rest and relaxation?

Maybe their focus was on those who brought the children to him. My guess it couldn’t have been anyone else than these “pushy” parents! These men, the Lord’s “handlers,”  were certainly missing the spiritual side of things. That they widely missed the mark is clearly evident in the reaction of Jesus, who was incensed.

Many times we’re guilty of overthinking or overreacting to things that should be so simple to see. A child doesn’t overthink and may not think at all. He or she also carries no preconceived notions and sees things on face value. Here perhaps the parents were seeing the extraordinary value of the Lord’s blessing. What parent wouldn’t want this!

Not lost on Jesus was the teaching opportunity. Bringing children to Jesus is commended by virtue of his reaction. The need and value of exposing children to Christ is paramount. At the least, it’s strategic to do so, because of the child’s unimpeded and innocent approach to what is taught. Now one might think this is tantamount to brainwashing! With the truth? I think not.

For us all, our faith should be like a child’s, unfettered by all the world’s entanglements.

In matters spiritual, we should think spiritually. Better, in all things think spiritually. We should always be on the lookout for what the Lord might find important in life’s situations.

The disciples learned this lesson the hard way.

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Next Question?

Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and femaleFor this reason a man shall leave his father and mother,  and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” Mark 10:2-9

From the beginning, biblical positions have been put on the stand. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees played the part of a shrewd prosecuting attorney, seeking to entrap him with their diabolical questions. The Lord was, of course, aware of their evil motives and played them like a fiddle.

The question of divorce was supposed to be the tripwire to destroy Jesus’ credibility. But citing the origin of man and woman and God’s intent for them to permanently unite as one flesh isolated man’s hardness of heart as the principal cause for divorce and Moses’ certificate of divorce as an accommodation for man’s willfulness.

In the end the Lord’s detractors must argue against settled law, and Jesus added the founder’s intent!

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On the Other Hand…

Putting yourself in a role as “pastor” of a flock of people as a new believer is a dangerous proposition. You will recall that Paul went off to Arabia to sit under the Holy Spirit for an extended period of time (Galatians 1:17-18) prior to being chosen to do the teaching on the first missionary team (Acts 13:2) and write most of the New Testament. While he did initially hit the ground running (“At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” Acts 9:20), he was led to gain the spiritual foundation he needed for the long and winding road ahead.

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. Mark 9:42

As a dad, I’m always worried about causing any of my four kids to stumble by my behavior or example. A heavy millstone is clearly not the kind of life preserver you’d want if cast into the sea, and this is better than causing innocent believers to go theologically astray. The same danger is faced by pastors of all kinds.

 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. Mark 9:47

There’s really nothing more important or anything worth keeping that causes you to stumble. I like the word eschew here. Get rid of anything deleterious to your Christian walk. That’s a pretty tall task for someone with everything, that’s done everything.

Hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. Mark 9:48

Also not lost in this passage is the clear indication from Jesus himself that hell is a real and horrible place to go. We know from the Bible it’s a fiery place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where eternal death is spent in separation from God. So, a Christian leader must make sure on his watch, no one goes there.

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