To be directly confronted by Christ with sin in your heart, as the disciples were in Mark 9.33, must have been powerfully convicting and embarrassing. We are told that “they kept silent”—they were speechless at His inquiry. They were caught in a dispute over “who would be the greatest” (v. 34), possibly triggered by the privilege granted Peter, James, and John to witness the Transfiguration. The disciples’ quarrel highlights their failure to apply Jesus’ explicit teaching on humility (Matt. 5.3) and the example of His own suffering and death (vv. 31, 32; 8.30–33). It also prompted them to ask Jesus to settle the issue, which He did—though not as they had expected.
Jesus “sat down” (v. 35)—rabbis usually sat down to teach—and said that “if anyone desires to be first,” as the disciples undeniably did (v. 34; see 10.35–37), “he shall be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples’ concept of greatness and leadership, drawn from their culture, needed to be completely reversed. Not those who lord their position over others are great in God’s kingdom, but those who humbly serve others (see 10.31, 43–45; Matt. 19.30–20.16; 23.11, 12; Luke 13.30; 14.8–11; 18.14; 22.24–27).
Then Jesus took “a little child”—the Greek word indicates an infant or toddler. If the house they were in was Peter’s, this may have been one of his children. The child became in Jesus’ masterful teaching an example of believers who have humbled themselves and become like trusting children.