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Greatness Demonstrated: Jesus Leading the Way

  • C.J. Mahaney Sovereign Grace Ministries
  • Published May 22, 2006
Greatness Demonstrated: Jesus Leading the Way

Here’s an essential truth: To learn true humility, we need more than a redefinition of greatness; we need even more than Jesus’ personal example of humble service.

What we need is His death.

Listen again to what Jesus said in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Savior here is clarifying for His disciples the difference between His example and theirs; He’s emphasizing the uniqueness of His own sacrifice. He’s telling them not only that true greatness is attained by emulating His example, but also that true greatness is not even possible for us apart from the Savior’s unique sacrifice.

This is a crucial point. It’s no exaggera¬tion to say that understanding the place of the cross is essential to grasping the principles of humility. So if necessary, read slowly—because we are approaching holy ground.

Jesus alone came to give His life as a ransom for the sins of many—and this separates Him from any other sac¬rificial service that anyone else anywhere could ever offer. Here we find what is completely, utterly, and categorically unique about the Savior and His example. And in true humility, our own service to others is always both an effect of His unique sacrifice and the evidence of it. His sacrifice alone makes it possible for us to achieve and experience true greatness in God’s eyes.

Donald English expresses the point this way in The Message of Mark: The Mystery of Faith: “At the source of all Christian service in the world is the crucified and risen Lord who died to liberate us into such service.” That’s why all Christian service not only reflects the Savior’s example, but should also remind us of His sacri¬fice. Ultimately our Christian service exists only to draw attention to this source—to our crucified and risen Lord who gave Himself as a ransom for us all.

Let’s move in for a closer look at this incomparable sacrifice.

Jesus Leading the Way

In Mark 10 we find Jesus and His disciples on the road, going up to Jerusalem. This is the last journey of Jesus’ ministry, and the final destination is in full view. The hour for which He ultimately came now approaches. The cross is on the horizon.

This long journey to Jerusalem and the cross will apparently be a lonely one for the Savior, for He’s making it without the full understanding and support of His dis¬ciples. They continue to be blinded by selfish ambition, so He must continue to teach and instruct them and confront their arrogance.

And yet, however grieved His heart must surely be at this moment, we see Him “walking ahead of them” (v. 32). No one is prodding Him on; no one is forcing Him. He’s leading the way. And the One leading the way is the only One in this group of travelers who’s aware of what indescribable anguish awaits Him there.

Pause, if you will, and picture Him in your mind. Behold this lone figure out in front, fully aware and informed of what awaits Him in Jerusalem. See Him stead¬fast in heart, determined, setting the pace for His disciples, striding purposefully forward.


To Jerusalem.


To die.

He will not be deterred. He’s full of resolve as He keeps this appointment made in eternity past. Relentlessly He proceeds to a place where He’ll be betrayed and arrested, where He’ll be accused and condemned, where He’ll be mocked and spit upon and flogged and ultimately exe¬cuted. And there’s no hesitation, no reluctance in His steps. Though unimaginable suffering is before Him, He’s walking ahead, leading the way.

The Ransom

This then is the background for Jesus’ encounter with the proud words and actions of His arrogant and indignant disciples. And as He confronts their pride—and our own —Jesus for the first time defines the purpose of His approaching death and what it will accomplish: “The Son of Man came…to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Earlier in this chapter, Mark has provided additional information that deepens the meaning of this profound moment: Not long before this time, Jesus had encountered a rich young ruler who wanted to know how to earn eter¬nal life. After hearing the Savior’s answer, the disciples had been “exceedingly astonished” and had asked Him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus had looked at them and replied, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (v. 27).

Having revealed the impossibility of salvation apart from God, now Jesus is revealing how God will save. The Savior describes His coming death as a “ransom.” He’s intentional and strategic in His use of that word.

Unfortunately, ransom has a fairly limited meaning to us. We don’t encounter it much except while watching TV shows or movies with a kidnapping in the plot. But the meaning of this word was much more intense and imme¬diate and familiar to the disciples that day. As Donald English reminds us, “Ransom was a familiar image in the Jewish, Roman, and Greek cultures. It was the price paid to liberate a slave, a prisoner of war, or a condemned per¬son.” A ransom represented the payment of a price required for deliverance from various forms of bondage, captivity, or condemnation that were common in those days.

Missing Respectability

Moreover, ransom wasn’t a term associated with respectability. The person being ransomed was either a slave, an imprisoned enemy, or a condemned criminal.

How does that apply to us? Only too well. As John Stott writes in The Cross of Christ, the emphasis of the ransom image “is on our sorry state—indeed our captivity in sin—which made the act of divine rescue necessary.” That’s the focus revealed here. So to hear the Savior speak the word ransom and understand it rightly is to be freshly reminded and affected by our own serious and sorry state, our miserable lostness and wretched bondage to sin. We cannot free ourselves from pride and selfish ambition; a divine rescue is absolutely necessary.

Jesus is seeking to impress this message on each one of us: “You’re lost. Your situation couldn’t be more hope¬less. And on your own, you’re incapable of altering or escaping it.”

Why was the death of Jesus necessary? Because all of humanity is corrupt and condemned, and we all have an acute tendency to deny the reality of our lost state before God.

Here We Are

To clarify the seriousness of our plight, we need look no further than here in Mark 10. Observe carefully and you’ll find your own face among the various portraits Mark pro¬vides in this passage of Scripture.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in the rich young ruler who valued his possessions more highly than the Savior’s words. Perhaps you see yourself in James and John and their selfish ambitions. Or, if you consider yourself superior to James and John and their attitude, then you’ll fit among the other disciples in their indignation, which revealed not only their own desire for glory but also their self-righteousness—possibly a far more serious sin than James and John’s.

But let me be clear. All of us appear somewhere in Mark’s portrait gallery of sinners. And Jesus Himself drives home for us what that means—a humanly unalterable condition of captivity to sin.

Our situation couldn’t be more serious. Prior to our conversion we were sin’s prisoners, and even after our conversion we continue to fight the presence of sin, though we’re freed from the power and penalty of sin. And if you aren’t aware of this danger, you’ll never suf¬ficiently appreciate the significance of His death. It’s this captivity to sin and continued tendency to sin that necessitates the Savior’s death as a ransom for many. That’s the price the ransom requires: the life of God’s only Son.

It was humanly impossible for the disciples to free themselves from their selfish pursuit of self-exaltation, just as it’s impossible for us to free ourselves from the very same sins. But God accomplishes that which is humanly impossible! He pays the price for our freedom, and that price is the sinless Son of God’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross.

The Good News

How will God save? He will save by executing His Son— for the sake of rich young rulers, for the sake of James and John, for the sake of ten indignant disciples, and for the sake of proud sinners like you and me. How will God free us from the prison of pride? How can we be liberated from the dominating power of the world’s empty definitions of greatness?

For those who feel the effect of their serious condi¬tion, who realize their humanly unalterable condition, the good news is that there’s One who appears on the scene and says this: “I’ve come. I’m leading the way. I’m moving relentlessly to the place where I’ll be nailed to a cross and lifted up as the ultimate example of suffering, and there the concentrated fury of the Father’s wrath for your sins will be visited upon Me. And I will groan, for I am sinless and I’m unfamiliar with any sin, with even a single sin. Yet on that cross I will experience the sins of many visited upon My body. And I will die.”

This is the death that awaits Him. But joy will follow His suffering: the certain joy of knowing His death has ransomed the many!

That’s the effect of the atoning death of the Son of God.

If God Wants Us Back

In The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance, Leon Morris describes our humanly unalterable condition in this way:
God created man, created him to be His own…. God set him in Eden to live in fellowship with Him, but man sinned. Man became the slave of evil. He cannot break free. This is precisely the situation that the ancient world saw as calling for an act of redemption. We who belong to God have gotten into the power of a strong enemy from which we cannot break free. If I can say it rever¬ently, God, if He wants us back, must pay the price.

And the great teaching of the New Testament is that God has paid the price. He has redeemed us. Christ became our Redeemer…. To release the slaves of sin He paid the price. We were in captivity. We were in the strong grip of evil. We could not break free. But the price was paid and the result is that we go free.

That’s exactly right. We do go free! We’re ransomed…lib¬erated…forgiven of our sins. What a relief!

And then we’re transformed throughout our lifetimes into the image of His Son, serving others for the glory of God. That’s the effect of this sacrifice: Many are ransomed, many are transformed. Including James and John. Because this account in Mark 10 is not the final chapter in their story.

James and John Transformed

James and John were ransomed by the Savior’s death and forgiven of their pride and all their sins. And they would be transformed as well, from self-confident men into humble servants who would live to serve others with the gospel for the glory of God.

And they would suffer.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, James was the first of the apostles to be martyred, as we read early in the book of Acts: “About that time Herod the king laid vio¬lent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:1–2).

Scripture tells us, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). How profoundly precious in His eyes must have been the sight of this once self-confident and selfishly ambitious man kneeling down while the executioner’s sword was raised above him! What had transformed James? What had happened between Mark 10 and Acts 12?

The Savior had died as a ransom.

John, his brother, would be transformed as well. John was apparently the last of all the apostles to die, but he suf¬fered persecution and was banished to the island of Patmos. It’s obvious from the letters John wrote that he understood his Savior’s teaching on humble servanthood: “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). John got it right.

What transformed John? What had happened between Mark 10 and the writing of John’s epistles?

The Savior had died as a ransom.

The James and John we see back in Mark 10 were emphatically not laying down their lives for others, but they would be wholly transformed. And the explanation for this transformation wasn’t just our Lord’s example but our Lord’s sacrifice. His sacrifice was a ransom for sin, and its effect was a liberation for James and John from their selfishness and patterns of pride.

Here were two men transformed into humble servants of the gospel and servants of the church by the Savior’s sacrifice. Two men who ended their lives truly great in the eyes of God.

Why? How?

“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).


Seeing the Source

As you encounter those who humbly serve, know that they’re truly great in the eyes of God. But understand also the source of their serving. Their humble service should remind you of this death, this ransom, this price paid to liberate the one whom you now see serving.

Consider your own life for just a moment. Where would you be today if He hadn’t ransomed you, if He hadn’t liberated you? I’ll tell you where. You would be self¬-sufficient, seeking to cultivate self-confidence for the purpose of self-glorification.

But what has happened to you? If you’ve been gen¬uinely converted, you’ve been forgiven and transformed. And though for now there remains in you a temptation and tendency to sin, a fundamental and radical change has occurred so that you have the desire to serve others and to see God glorified. We know the inner call to lay down our lives for one another because He laid down His life for us.

What a powerful death! The cross ransoms, the cross liberates, the cross transforms! So make it your aim and lifelong habit, when you see someone who’s serving, to be reminded of the sacrifice of the Savior, for apart from His sacrifice there is no serving. True greatness is attained only be emulating the Savior’s example—and made possible only by the Savior’s sacrifice.