The Surprising Kingdom
Let’s orient this passage in the larger narrative of Mark’s gospel. From the beginning, Mark announces that his is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. However, the revelation of the fullness of Jesus’s divine and Messianic identity doesn’t come about all at once. It takes time. It unfolds with many twists and turns. So in the first half of the book, Jesus announces the kingdom and marks it with exorcisms, healings, and displays of his authority and power. There are repeated collisions with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, as the arrival of the kingdom splits Israel in two, with some being hardened in their rebellion and others flocking to this wonder-working prophet. This is the purpose of Jesus’s parables, which he says are meant to ensure that those outside “see but do not perceive, hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:10-12). Jesus gives the parables, but only gives the secret of the kingdom to those who gladly leave their nets to follow him. What’s more, he gives his twelve disciples authority over unclean spirits and the ability to heal (6:7-13). This division between the disciples on the inside and the hardened Jewish leaders on the outside takes a surprising turn in chapter 8. There after feeding the 4000, Jesus tells them to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (8:15). They get confused. They don’t get it. They think Jesus is worried about loaves of bread. And Jesus says “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” (Mark 8:17-18). The question is: are the disciples as blind and deaf and hardened as the Pharisees? Do they get what Jesus’s kingdom is all about?
The next few chapters showcase a repeated pattern of confusion and sin on the part of the disciples. This is the point of Peter’s confession. This is a turning point in the book. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus says. Peter confesses, “You are the Christ.” “And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.” (8:29-30) Why? Why hide his Messianic identity? Because Jesus is a surprising kind of Messiah. The miracles, the signs, the wonders, the healings: all of these are true harbingers of the kingdom. However, they might be misleading. They might lead you to think that Jesus is a king like Caesar, that his kingdom is fundamentally a matter of power encounters and feats of glory displayed for all to see.
Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to announce his kingdom until they get it, until they understand the upside-down nature of the kingdom. So, for example, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus then says, “Good. You’ve got that I’m the Messiah. Now let me tell you what kind of Messiah I am. Let me enlarge your understanding of Messianic identity.” And so he begins to teach them about his coming betrayal and death and resurrection. He says it “plainly,” clearly, with no mystery. And then Peter’s Confession leads to Peter’s Confusion. He gets that Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t understand that Jesus is the Suffering Messiah. Jesus, then, puts Peter back in his place. Peter apparently thinks about the kingdom in a very worldly manner. His mind is set on the things of man (8:33). He thinks of kingship as power over others, as being the Boss, as unbridled glory and power and honor. But he doesn’t yet understand that in the kingdom of God, before you wear the crown, you must first carry the cross (8:34-36).
This is the pattern in this section of Mark, when the disciples have embraced the reality that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God:
1) Jesus explains what he’s about to do: “I’m going to suffer, die, and then be raised.”
2) The disciples rebuke him, or they’re confused, or they misunderstand the nature of the kingdom.
3) Jesus then instructs them further in the nature of the kingdom and how they must live as citizens of God’s upside-down kingdom.
In other words, the disciples are seeing that Jesus is the Messiah, but their picture is distorted. There’s a lot of static and interference that prevents them from grasping what Jesus is getting at. They see Jesus, but he’s like a tree walking (8:24). As Pastor David noted a few weeks ago, the two-stage healing of the blind man is meant to show that sometimes coming to Jesus and really “getting it” takes time. It takes teaching. Which ought to encourage each of us. We often focus on the fact that the disciples immediately left their nets to follow Jesus, and we praise them for their faith. But their constant misunderstanding, confusion, and sin ought to encourage us that Jesus is patient. He knows that we need teaching.
Which brings us to our present passage. Jesus knows that his disciples are struggling to perceive, to understand, to really “get it.” And so he foregoes his public teaching and healing ministry in order to focus on his little band of followers (30-31). It’s essential that they begin to grasp what Jesus is all about. So he tells them what’s about to take place: his betrayal into the hands of men, his death, and his resurrection on the third day. And again they don’t understand. But, now, they’re afraid to engage with him on it. Some commentators think this is because they don’t want Jesus to reiterate that he’s about to die. I think it’s because they don’t want to get rebuked like Peter.
Their confusion about the aim of Jesus’s ministry manifests itself in the rest of our passage. They don’t understand, they’re afraid to ask, and so their confusion leads to competition. They argue with each other about who will be the greatest. Now they clearly know that Jesus won’t approve; that’s why they go mute when he calls them together. But it’s important to see the connection between their failure to understand where Jesus is headed—the cross—and their false assumption that the kingdom of God is about who gets to be the boss.
Upside Down Kingdom: The First Shall Be Last
But Jesus is patient. He gives them two basic and related teachings in this passage. Let’s think about both of them. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” I want to make two observations about this simple statement. First, it’s not wrong to desire to be first. It’s good and right to seek glory, honor, and immortality. When they’re on the mount of Transfiguration, it’s okay for Peter to say, “It’s good that we’re here.” It is good. It’s good for them to see what humanity is meant to be. It’s good for them to see the blazing brilliance of manhood transfigured and glorified through the approval of a happy father. This is the destiny of God’s people, and it’s good to want it, desire it, and seek it.
But second—and here’s the key—there’s a specific path we must take in order to get there. The way up is down. Before there’s crown, there must be cross. Before glory, there must be sacrifice. Before you can be exalted to the highest place, you must first be humbled to the dust. In order to find your life, you must first lose it for Jesus’s sake. Before you can be first, you must be last of all and servant of all.
Let’s drill in to how this applies to marriage. One manifestation of “Who is the greatest?” is “Who has the harder job?” Husbands, you come home from work and you think, “I’ve been serving all day long. I have been toiling and laboring to provide for my family. I’m exhausted; I’m coming home to collapse on the couch.” And our attitude can be, subtly: I’ve got the harder job; it’s time for someone to serve me.
And there’s a simple test to know if you’re falling into this trap: when you come from work, do you make demands or relieve burden? Does your wife eagerly anticipate your arrival? Or does she dread it?
And this is a danger for wives as well. It’s easy to fall into the temptation that says, “He gets to go off to work every day. He gets to have conversations with adults while I have toddler talk for 8 hours plus all of the housework, and grocery shopping, and dinner preparation, and on and on.” In both cases, we’re in danger of being like the disciples who are competing about who is the greatest. “Who has the harder job?” is just one form of “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?”
Upside Down Kingdom: Receive Children in Jesus’s Name
This brings us to the second of Jesus’s teachings. The first thing to say is that we in the West have a hard time feeling how upside-down this exhortation is. One of the gifts of Christianity to Western Civilization is the dignity and value of children. The ancient world looked down upon children, dismissed them as inconsequential while they were young, relegated them to nannies and tutors until they were old enough to contribute to society. Christ’s teaching here and elsewhere in the gospel gave the West a new view of children, one that we often take for granted. We appear to be entering an era of history where this teaching will be increasingly relevant. Many in our day few children primarily as a burden, as obstacles to true flourishing. They get in the way of career and travel and friendships and a full life. Jesus wants us to see that our attitude toward children demonstrates how deeply we get what his kingdom is all about.
So let’s notice what Jesus does here. He wants to give a clear, visible object lesson in what his kingdom is like. He wants to rebuke our penchant for ungodly competition, rivalry, glory-seeking. He’s trying to undercut our lust for feeling important, our selfish ambition, our eager desire to get on our high horse and lord it over everyone else. So he gathers us all around, brings a child into our midst and says, “Here. See this little bundle of need with his never-ending questions and constant nagging. See this little teapot of sin with her whiny temper tantrums and ceaseless squabbling. Receive him in my name. Embrace her for my sake. And if you do, you’ll be receiving me. And if you receive me, you get my Father as well.”
Get what Jesus is saying here. God gives us children, because he wants you to receive Jesus by receiving children in Jesus’s name. And not just sweet and snuggly infants. Not just your kids or the nice kids or the cool kids or the cute kids. But kids who squawk and whine. Kids who are afflicted with a terminal case of the fussies. Annoying kids, frustrating kids, strong-willed, hard-headed, defiant kids. Receive the children, in all of their wide-eyed wonder and all of their playfulness and all of their immaturity and all of their dependency and all of their sin. Receive them in my name, Jesus says, and in so doing, you will receive me too.
Why does Jesus insist on this? Why make receiving children the lynchpin of receiving him? Because if you can climb down off of your high horse and get down on their level, if you can get past your silly self-importance and care about the simple things kids care about, if you can get over yourself and join them in their joy, if you can embrace children in good times, bad times, and ugly times, then you just might be able to receive anybody in Jesus’s name.
And here’s the amazing thing in this passage. You can’t treat children as a means to an end here. You don’t get to use kids to get to Jesus. They’re not some kind of box that you can check off on your way to the important business of the kingdom. You can’t be mercenary about this, anymore than you can be mercenary about using Jesus as your ticket to the Father. You don’t use Jesus to get to the Father. You don’t receive him and then get to the Father and toss him aside like you’re over it. It’s in receiving Jesus that you receive the Father. So also with our children. In receiving them in Jesus’s name, in attending to their needs and desires for Jesus’s sake, in taking them in our arms for his name, we are receiving, welcoming, and embracing Jesus Christ, the suffering Messiah, and thereby dwelling in his upside-down kingdom.
Application: Serve Rotation
The thrust of this passage gives me the opportunity to talk about the Serve Rotation for Childcare at our church. And I want to do it in three stages. I want to begin with gratitude. I’m deeply thankful to God for you. Over the last four years, we have grown from a church of 40 to a church of 300+, from 2 CG’s to 20 CG’s, and from around 15 children to over 80. Not only have we offered childcare for those under 5, we’ve also offered Sunday School for our older children. And over the last year, you’ve served in this way as we’ve sojourned around the Twin Cities, using spaces and rooms that were not ideal, with a very limited amount of storage and resources. And now, even here in our new location, it’s not ideal. This building is still under construction, and the rooms that we share with the Conservatory are very small and filled with pianos. But you’ve continued to serve. And some of you have gone the extra mile, in assisting in the coordination of childcare, or volunteering to fill gaps when we haven’t had enough workers. So thank you.
Second, part of the reason that childcare has been difficult over the years is owing to weaknesses and failures, particularly on my part. I can think of two in particular. The first is that at various times, the complexities of the logistics and the amount of change (number of kids, space, technology) have overwhelmed by administrative abilities, and I’ve not equipped you well to serve. And for that, I’m sorry. Second, I’ve not done a sufficient job of communicating expectations and structure, or even simply noted what we’re waiting on. And that lack of communication hasn’t served this church well. And for that, I’m also sorry. And to remedy these two weaknesses, we’ve added Amelia Schumann as an administrative assistant to help me and Aaron Horn manage our ministry to children. And now that we have a better sense of the space that we have here, in the coming weeks, we’ll be having a training for Serve Team coordinators and for representatives from Community Groups would want to ensure that our childcare really does receive children in Jesus’s name. And if you’d like to assist in helping to make that possible, talk to your CG leader, or to me, or to Amelia. Second, now that we have a better idea of the space in which we’ll be working, we will be communicating more clearly about expectations for the rooms and providing structure and guidance. Part of that communication begins now. At present, we need approximately 30 workers each week to faithfully administer our nursery. That’s roughly 10% of our membership each week, using the five-week Serve Rotation.
And that brings me to the third element of this application—your responsibility. We need you. When your Serve Rotation Team is up for childcare, we need you to be there if at all possible. We know that people will sometimes be out of town, or they’ll be sick. We know that some of you have ongoing responsibilities in this church (worship team or coordinating setup and such). Which is why we need a large number of available volunteers in each Serve Team, who make it their goal to be here to serve the children and families of this church.
And we don’t just need warm bodies. We need people who show up eager and ready to serve. Because we’re not just putting demands on you; we want to give you something. Jesus wants to give you something. He wants to give you himself, and you receive him when you receive them in his name. Every few weeks, we’re placing you in the midst of the children, and asking you to find Jesus there. As I’ve said before, you miss the sermon, you miss the singing, you miss the table. But you don’t miss Jesus, if you receive the children in Jesus’s name. If you welcome them and play with them and read with them and pray for them and show them what Jesus is like and delight in them and laugh with them and hold them when they’re missing their mom, and you’re doing all of those things believing in the promises of Jesus, then you get more Jesus. But if you come grumpy and distant and distracted, or if you’re put off by the short attention spans and the fussies and the crying and the simplicity of their play, you’ll miss the service, and you’ll miss Jesus. The door to the kingdom is child-sized and those who won’t stoop can’t enter. So when your Serve Team is up, respond promptly to the email, get here early to prepare the rooms and prepare your heart to welcome children in Jesus’s name.
Total War on Indwelling Sin
The next section of the passage teaches two basic lessons: first, we don’t control where and how the kingdom of God spreads. You can’t manage the kingdom of God. We must avoid the spirit that says, “If someone isn’t following us, then they can’t be with Jesus.” They don’t need our stamp of approval. We ought not worry about hindering others when they proclaim the name of Jesus. We want people to move toward Jesus. We ought to be glad that others are laboring in the name of Jesus. And we should allow their profession and deeds to reveal themselves over time. In the end, there are only two sides—either you’re for Jesus, or your against him. And if you’re for him, you won’t just focus on the big flashy things like exorcisms; you’ll also give a cup of cold water to someone, simply because they bear the name of Christ. That’s the upside-down kingdom. From mighty works to receiving children. From casting out demons to giving a cup of cold-water.
And second, those in the kingdom must wage a total war on indwelling sin. First, we get a word about the gravity of causing others to stumble. And then we get a word about the gravity of causing ourselves to stumble. The word for “sin” in this passage is often translated as “stumbling.” It’s the word skandalizo. In Matthew 24, Jesus says that in the time leading up to his coming, “many will fall away [stumble] and betray one another and hate one another” (24:10). In Mark 14:27, on the night of Jesus’s betrayal, all of the disciples “fall away” or stumble, with Peter protesting, that even if everyone else stumbles / falls away, he will not. This isn’t mere sin, but a rejection of Jesus, a turning away from God, whether from hatred of God or fear of man. In Mark 4, stumbling shows up in the parable of the soils. The seed that falls on rocky ground, springs up, and then withers in heat, is said to “stumble” or fall away. When tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, the plant stumbles, falls away.
Stumbling is not an “oops” kind of thing. It’s not a momentary misstep. It’s not a little trip. It’s a reorientation of life away from Jesus. It’s erecting an obstacle to following Jesus. It’s a turning around and moving in a direction away from him. To stumble is to commit serious, flagrant sin.
And that’s why Jesus speaks so strongly about causing someone else to stumble, to fall away from the faith, to leave Jesus behind. To cause someone to stumble is to place a barrier between them and Jesus. It’s to build a wall that will make it harder and harder for them to know and trust and treasure him. That’s why those who do such things are in such danger. To put a barrier in between a young, immature believer and Jesus is a heinous offense. It would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck than to do this. Causing someone to stumble could be deliberate and intentional, as when someone tries to seduce a new Christian away from their faith. Exerting peer pressure, bringing persecution and tribulation on a believer, is a terrible offense to God. It could also be less intentional, as when someone flaunts their own rights and liberties in the face of a weaker brother, leading them to violate and numb their conscience. That’s why Paul is willing to forego meat rather than cause a weaker brother to stumble. Leading, enticing, and pressuring someone to violate their conscience, to disobey Jesus, to flaunt the law of God is unbelievably serious. Jesus hates it, and he will not be kind to those who cause others to stumble. That’s why those who numb the consciences of young believers by encouraging them to do things that God forbids are storing up wrath for the day of judgment. They are speaking evil of Jesus by claiming his endorsement for ungodly practices. And far be it from us, to put barriers between anyone and Jesus.
Total War Against our Own Sin
But not only do we wage war against the sin and stumbling of other people, but more importantly, we wage war against our own stumbling. So much so, that we’re willing to take drastic measures to avoid stumbling because we know the stakes are so high. The three verses here all teach the same basic point. (The reason for the threefold repetition is to stress the need for total war against sin. You can’t merely fight sin in one part of your life, and leave the rest untouched. There is no partial war in the Christian life. If your hand, eye, and foot are all causing you to sin, you don’t get to wage war on one of them, and leave the others alone.)
If some part of your life is causing you to stumble, that is, to fall into persistent sin, to be increasingly numb to God, to be unable to receive Jesus, then do whatever you have to do to get rid of the cause of stumbling. And do so, because the stakes are eternal. Jesus is calling us to enter life, to enter the kingdom of God. And if anything in your life is building an obstacle to that entry, go to war with it lest it prevent you from entering.
Jesus is not playing games here. Stumbling blocks are a big deal. Falling away from Jesus is a big deal. To do so is to step off of the narrow road that leads to life and instead to journey down the broad way that leads to destruction. This is hell. This eternal judgment, cut off from the glorious presence of God, because of persistent, willful rebellion, because you tried to make peace with sin, and therefore showed that you are an enemy of God. That because you’re not for Jesus, you must be against him.
And so this is the upside-down kingdom—a kingdom where the servant of all receives the first place; where we don’t seek to dominate others, but instead receive children in Jesus’s name; where we don’t try to manage the kingdom, but let the Spirit blow where he wills; and where we don’t put stones of stumbling in the path of others, nor do we make peace with our own sin. It’s a strange kingdom, a surprising kingdom, the kind that is offered to us in the bread and the wine.