Servant of All: The "Great" Debate

Servant of All book

This post is the first of four installments in my “Servant of All” series offering a preview of my newly-published book, Servant of All: Reframing Greatness and Leadership Through the Teachings of Jesus [2019, Kirkdale Press]. Contact for bulk order pricing.


Few sayings of Jesus are more familiar than this one:

Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last,
and the servant of all. (Mark 9:35)


It should come as no surprise, then, that the concept of “servant leadership” is commended by both popular Christian leadership writers and professional leadership scholars. I’m afraid, however, that some of the people who most often quote this simple and straightforward principle are among the worst violators of its true implications.

Sure, some leaders are willfully dishonest as they give lip service to humble servanthood while they trample on their subordinates. But for many others, the disconnect between precept and practice is because much of our practical, theoretical, and even theological commentary on servant leadership fails to account for all the Bible has to say on the subject.

Jesus did not say these words in a vacuum, and he did not mean for them to stand by themselves. They were addressed to a specific audience, on a specific occasion, prompted by specific events. And what’s more, he expounded on this statement rather extensively. While we find the single sentence pithy and memorable, we can only access its full meaning by taking the circumstances surrounding it into account.

There are two main things we need to observe about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ assertion that Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all (Mark 9:35).

First, it was provoked by a series of events and an escalating debate. Jesus’ statement is preceded by a question: What were you arguing about on the road? (Mark 9:33)

Second, it launched a lengthy lecture that extends far beyond the few words recorded in the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. On the subject of greatness, Jesus gave an entire sermon, not merely the single sentence to which we have typically reduced the matter.


Greatness by Ranking

The Great Debate RankingMore about that second observation in my next post but, for now, let’s take a look at my first observation.

For some time, Jesus’ disciples had been discussing among themselves how highly each of them would rank in the anticipated new regime.

For the disciples, and for too many of us, Jesus’ kingdom is presumed to be like all the others—a hierarchy where rank is everything.

This key assumption underlies the debate the disciples were attempting to carry on behind Jesus’ back. But true greatness has nothing to do with comparisons, as they were about to find out.

We shouldn’t assume that the Gospels record all of the events and conversations that precipitated Jesus’ decision to confront the controversy that the text tells us had been going on for some time. That said, the series of events in the narrative preceding Matthew 18:1 and Mark 9:33, the moment at which Jesus decided to raise the issue of greatness, must surely have included feelings and exchanges of the type I am about to describe.

Careful review and chronological harmonization of the biblical text suggests Jesus’ statement about greatness and the lecture that accompanied it were provoked by a series of events that fueled an escalating debate among the disciples. Consider the following recorded events in the lead-up to Jesus’ intervention:

  •  Peter’s “confession” at Caesarea Philippi—and Jesus’ gushing affirmation of it—might well have fueled the disciples’ sense of rivalry and the discussion about their relative ranking in Jesus’ future kingdom (see Matt 16:13-20).
  • In light of the exclusion of nine of the twelve disciples from witnessing the transfiguration it is not much of a stretch to conclude they would have been mystified and more than a little miffed. It must have looked to them more and more like there would be a pecking order in Jesus’ coming kingdom and, if this episode was any indication, the nine just may already have been excluded from the highest echelons (see Matt 17:1-13).
  • While Jesus and the three disciples in his inner circle had been enveloped in the dazzling glory and intoxicating fellowship of the eternal realm on the mountaintop, the nine disciples who didn’t make the trip had to deal not only with their resentment at being excluded but also to confront personal futility and public humiliation in failing at something they knew they could do—indeed, had done before—the exorcism of a demon (see Mark 9:14-29).
  • The presumption of rank implicit in the local authorities’ approach to Peter concerning Jesus’ obligation to pay the temple tax and Peter’s apparently glib presumption to speak on behalf of his master and companions relative to legal and public affairs (see Matt 17:24-27).

I will gladly admit that my analysis of the background, including the disciples’ emotional and interpersonal dynamics, involves some plausible conjecture. But while I am happy to concede that any specific internal emotion or external conflict may not be quite as I have understood it, my overall point remains that Jesus’ statement and exposition on greatness were prompted by a build-up of circumstances and interpersonal dynamics that led to the disciples’ arguing about who among them was greater.

As I said previously, for the disciples, and for too many of us, Jesus’ kingdom is presumed to be like all the others—a hierarchy where rank is everything. Jesus met the disciples’ assumption head-on. He turned the assumptions behind their ranking system upside-down. To him, greatness should be understood in terms of character, not comparisons. Greatness is validated by serving, not status.


Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all. (Mark 9:35)


First observation: Jesus’ teaching on greatness has a circumstantial context that is crucial to its full comprehension.

In my next post, I will demonstrate how Jesus’ 1-sentence axiom is accompanied by extensive exposition that is crucial to its full comprehension.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


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