Forest fires rage each year in California and Arizona in the summer consuming everything in their path. Saplings as new as the spring and mature trees as old as the Declaration of Independence are scorched to ash. Too often, pastoral ambition is like that—an all-consuming fire. The Bible recounts story after story of men and women who sought their own greatness. We see this in godless rulers such as Pharaoh in the book of Exodus and Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Sometimes we see worldly glory seekers among the faithful, like when God rebuked Jeremiah’s trusted scribe, saying, “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5).
Yet the quest of pastoral ambition still rages. Incalculable amounts of exertion, passion, money, and skill are employed in the pursuit. If we could know our own hearts perfectly, we’d have to admit that this is our story too. Some vision of greatness, whether consciously or not, tugs us along. It seems to be the subject of every commencement speech. “Go change the world,” ambitious graduates are told, which usually means, “Go become great in the eyes of the world.” Our current culture of side-hustles can stoke discontentment too; at times I’ve struggled to feel like my calling to pastor a local church is enough, as though if I did more then I’d be something more worthwhile. I’m probably not the only pastor who feels this way.
The disciples of Jesus had this same problem. In Mark 9, after beholding the glory of their Lord in his transfiguration, Mark tells us the disciples engaged in quite possibly the dumbest argument in the history of the world: a fight over which of the disciples was the greatest.
The context of the conversation makes their argument even more ridiculous. Consider what happened in Mark 9. Jesus revealed his glory on the mountain, showing he’s not weak and feeble but strong and glorious. Jesus then received the stamp of approval from God the Father and was highlighted as far more important than Moses and Elijah, two significant Old Testament prophets. Then Jesus victoriously battled a demon which had previously defeated the disciples. Then Jesus promised to rise from the dead, invoking imagery of himself as the exalted “Son of Man” figure mentioned in Daniel 7:9–14. The grossly understated takeaway from Mark 9 is that Jesus is a big deal.