Greatest in the Kingdom

jesus-and-disciplesIn next Sunday’s Gospel, we will encounter the disciples wondering about who among them will be the greatest in the Kingdom – and Jesus’ response to their chatter: Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.”  (Mark 9:35-37)

The conversation in Capernaum is no longer addressed to “disciples” but to “the Twelve.”  In the gospel of Mark, the Twelve (hoi dōdeka) are a group of disciples chosen by Jesus to be his special companions (Mark 3:14; 4:10; 11:11; 14:17). They were particularly instructed by Jesus (Mark 9:35; 10:32) and were sent by him to proclaim the coming of the kingdom and to cast out demons (Mark 3:14, 16; 6:7). While we naturally add the phrase “Apostles” to the text, the emphasis is not on the 12 people in charge after the Resurrection, but rather the restoration of Israel as the people of God. The number was symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; Rev 21:12–14) and pointed to the eschatological nature of Jesus’ mission. [AYBD 670] We can see this clearly in the Matthean account: 27 Then Peter said to him in reply, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:27–28)

Those closest to Jesus do not understand and so they must be again taught. The phrase “Then he sat down” shows Jesus taking the formal position of the teacher. The content of his teaching is directed at the content of the discussion among the Twelve and their presumption that human convention will suit the working of the Kingdom. Jesus intends to overturn those presumptions with two short, vivid lessons:

  • Greatness does not consist of who is first served, but rather in self-sacrificing service to all, and
  • Greatness consists of seeing with the eyes of God – being able to see the dignity and worth in a child, someone convention held to be a non-person.

Servant of all. Regarding the first teaching, Lane [339-40] writes: “The question of precedence was resolved on the authority of Jesus: he who wishes to be first must determine to be the servant of all. This surprising reversal of all human ideas of greatness and rank is a practical application of the great commandment of love for one’s neighbor (Ch. 12:31; Lev. 19:18) and a reaffirmation of the call to self-denial which is the precondition for following Jesus (Ch. 8:34, where the formulation “whoever wishes to come after me” is parallel to “whoever wishes to be first” in Ch. 9:35). The order of life for the disciples in their relationship to each other is to be the service of love. By transforming the question of greatness into the task-orientation of service, Jesus established a new pattern for human relationships which leaves no occasion for strife or opposition toward one another.”


  • Mark 9:35 greatest: I do not often cite the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, but the record of this encounter does seem to reflect the natural and human concern: “The disciples said to Jesus, “We know that you will go away from us. Who is it that will then be great over us?’” [logion 12]
  • Mark 9:35 If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.. Jesus’ reply went in the exact opposite direction as the debate; he stressed that those who took the last place and served others stood in first place, as far as he was concerned. The term “servant” (diakonos) stands for one engaged in everyday service, such as Elisha was for Elijah (Josephus Antiquities 8.354), or like government officials, table attendants, and couriers (Rom 13:4; Col 4:7).
  • Mark 9:36 little child. Mark uses the general term for a child (paidion), so it is not clear just how old he was. Since Jesus took the child into his arms, he was probably small. Children were largely ignored in the ancient world, so they are good examples of people lacking status.
  • Mark 9:37 Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.. In bringing up a “little child” (paidion), Jesus illustrated his point about service (Luke 9:48) in a natural way, since the word for “child” in Greek (pais) could also be used to mean “servant.”


  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 336-41
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994) 635-38
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources
  • The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
    “The Twelve”  Raymond Collins, 670

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