If there is any theme that runs through Mark 9:30–37, it is the reality that the disciples who walked with Jesus during His earthly ministry did not have an easier time grasping His message than do those who follow Him today without the benefit of His physical presence. His disciples could not understand that Jesus would have to die (vv. 30–32). And as we see in verses 33–35, prior to the cross, they did not understand what it means to be truly great.
We see a stark contrast between verses 30–32 and verses 33–35. In verses 30–32, Jesus teaches that the path to greatness and glory for the Messiah runs through suffering and death. Since “a disciple is not above his teacher” (Matt. 10:24), one would think that such a teaching would temper arguments over what it means to be first among others. At least, it should have given the disciples an inkling that if the Savior cannot be revealed in all His majestic glory apart from suffering and death, they likewise cannot attain greatness apart from lowliness and humiliation. But that is not what we see in today’s passage. Instead, we find the disciples arguing over which one of them will be greatest, jockeying for the first position in Christ’s kingdom (Mark 9:33–34). In so doing, they were not acting much differently than their Jewish contemporaries. Historical evidence shows that first-century rabbis, the Dead Sea Scrolls community, and others debated who would sit closest to God’s throne in heaven and many other such things.
Jesus’ response and His definition of greatness turn much of the first-century debate on its head. Notice in Mark 9:35 that He does not dismiss greatness as something that should not be desired. Instead, he transforms the disciples’ and our understanding of true greatness. The way to be first in Christ’s kingdom is to “be last of all and servant of all.” It is to put the needs of others before ourselves, to not think of ourselves as above any task that might be seen as trivial or lowly. Greatness is achieved through humility, through thinking of others first and ourselves last. C.H. Spurgeon, in an exposition of Mark 9:30–40, writes: “This is the only way to get to the front of Christ’s army—he who would be chief, must always be aiming at the rear rank, willing to do the most humble service and to be the lowest menial in his Master’s service. Only in this way can we rise. In Christ’s Kingdom, the way to go up is to go down. Sink self and you shall surely rise.”