Pride Forfeits Honor (9:35)
Ironically, pride keeps people from obtaining the very honor that they seek. Proud people—even those in ministry—battle for position and seek to promote themselves, but end up forfeiting true honor and often end in humiliation. Honor is reserved for the humble. Like many in our day, the disciples viewed spiritual pride as normal, desirable, and legitimate. After all, pride characterized the most revered men in Israel, the religious leaders, who “[did] all their deeds to be noticed by men … they broaden[ed] their phylacteries and lengthen[ed] the tassels of their garments. They love[d] the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men” (Matt. 23:5–7; cf. 6:1–5).
Jesus knew what the disciples were thinking (Luke 9:47), even if they refused to express it. Sitting down, as rabbis commonly did when they taught, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” Pursuing accolades, affirmation, and exaltation from men forfeits the true reward (Matt. 6:1–5) that comes to those who are willing to be last, not to those who have to be first.
35 Jesus assumed the posture of a Jewish rabbi—he sat down (Mt 5:1; 13:1; Lk 5:3; Jn 8:2; cf. Mk 12:41) and called the Twelve to him. True greatness comes through service of others. To become first, you must be last—the position of a lowly servant. The term “servant” (diakonos) commonly referred to a table waiter or domestic servant, someone whose sole purpose was to meet the needs of others. Swete, 205, writes, “The spirit of service is the passport to eminence in the Kingdom of God, for it is the spirit of the Master Who Himself became diakonos pantōn [‘servant of all’].” This teaching is a complete reversal of worldly values. How important this principle was for Jesus can be seen by its repetition throughout the gospel tradition (Mk 10:31, 43–44; Mt 20:26–27; 23:8–11; Lk 22:24–27; cf. Php 2:1–11; Gos. Thom. 22). The very fact that the disciples were concerned about who was greatest underscores again their failure to understand Jesus’ statements about his suffering and death. The kind of service Jesus was talking about involved radical self-sacrifice for others.
35 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. The disciples’ thoughts were upon the period of glory, when questions of rank seemed appropriate (cf. Ch. 10:35–37); Jesus redirected them to his insistence that the way to glory leads through suffering and death. The point of suffering is here located in the service to be accomplished, where service means specifically sacrifice for others. The disciples cannot order their relationships as they please but are to recognize in one another men under whom they place themselves as servants. Jesus thus decided their question in a way which is in keeping with his proclamation of his own messianic vocation (cf. Ch. 10:43–45). This was clearly recognized in Polycarp’s exhortation to the men whose task was to discharge the office of servants in the church at Philippi: “Likewise must the deacons be blameless … walking according to the truth of the Lord, who was ‘the servant of all’ ” (ad Phil. 5:2).
Ver. 35.—And he sat down, and called the twelve. He sat down, with the authority of the great Teacher, to inculcate solemnly a fundamental principle of the Christian life. If any man would be first, he shall be last of all, and minister of all. These words are capable of two interpretations. They might be regarded as analogous to our Lord’s words elsewhere, “He that exalteth himself shall be abased;” as though they indicated the penalty which attaches to unworthy ambition. But it is surely far more natural to regard them as pointing out the way to real greatness, namely, by humble service for Christ’s sake.
The solemn moment has now arrived for Jesus to show his disciples what should be the true attitude of any kingdom citizen. 35. So he sat down, called the twelve to him, and said, If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.
Having summoned the men into his immediate presence, Jesus, by means of the gesture of sitting down, as already explained, indicates that as their Teacher, he is about to give them a very important lesson. That lesson is this: their idea of what it means to be “great” must be changed; in fact, radically reversed. True greatness does not consist in this, that from a towering height a person, in a self-congratulatory manner, has the right now to look down upon all others (Luke 18:9–12); but in this, that he immerses himself in the needs of others, sympathizes with them and helps them in every way possible. So, if any person—whether he be one of The Twelve or anyone else—wishes to be first, he must be last; that is, servant of all.
Jesus must have repeated this lesson many a time throughout his ministry, probably at various places and in slightly varying ways. See also Matt. 20:26, 27; 23:11; Mark 10:43, 44; Luke 9:48b; 14:11; 18:14. In fact, is not this a lesson that is stressed throughout Scripture? See Job 22:29; Prov. 29:23; Isa. 57:15; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5.
As to self-centered ambition and vanity, “Before downfall goes pride; and before stumbling, a haughty spirit” (Prov. 16:18). Was not this the experience of Sennacherib (2 Chron. 32:14, 21), of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:30–33), and of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:21–23)? On the other hand, note what is said about the commended centurion (Matt. 8:8, 10, 13), the humble Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:29; cf. Matt. 15:27, 28), and the penitent tax-collector (Luke 18:13, 14).
One reason why the lesson taught by Jesus is unforgettable is that he himself was constantly exemplifying it in his own life (Mark 10:44, 45; Luke 22:27; John 13:1–15; Phil. 2:5–8).
9:35. Jesus did not focus on their arguing about who was the greatest. He spoke frankly, telling them if they wanted to be first, they must be last. The theme of servanthood echoes throughout Mark’s Gospel and reaches its greatest expression in chapter 10. Jesus stated again that human values are not necessarily kingdom values. In human institutions, we may fight for status. We may be concerned about being in the right crowd or being seen by powerful people. The old adage, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know,” has no place in the kingdom of God in the way the world means it.
In another sense, it is only who you know that can gain you entrance into God’s kingdom. But the image of a humble man or woman falling on his or her knees before God in repentance and asking for pardon and grace is a much different image than that of the businessperson cuddling up next to the person on a higher rung of the ladder.
 Wessel, W. W., & Strauss, M. L. (2010). Mark. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 849). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.