The number three is interesting in scripture.
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons, but one in purpose. Peter denied the Lord three times (Matthew 26:72ff). The Lord asked Peter if he loved him three times (John 21:15ff). The Lord foretold he would stay in the grave three days (Matthew 12:40). There are others.
There is another series of three in the book of Mark. It was a series of three things that happened in three chapters and it followed a pattern.
Three times Jesus told his disciples of his death (Mark 8:21f; 9:31f; 10:32-34). Each time Jesus told this to his disciples they responded with either rejection of the idea or refusing to listen (Mark 8:33; 9:33; 10:35-41). Following the pitiful responses by his weak disciples, Jesus responded by teaching them about discipleship (Mark 8:34-38; 9:35-37; 10:42-45).
The first rule of being a disciple is to follow. In order to follow, one must get behind the leader. One who is in front is not following, but leading. Now, all this sounds rather simplistic, but think about how bad a job of following the disciples did in the book of Mark.
Peter’s rebuke of God the Son in Mark 8 is also recorded in Matthew 16 shortly after Simon had confessed Jesus as the son of God. But Peter’s response to the Master foretelling his death was blasphemy. Jesus’ reply to him was, “get behind me Satan.” In telling the Son of God he didn’t know what he was talking about, Peter showed he was not following Jesus. He had stepped in front of him.
In Mark 9, after Jesus foretold his death, the disciples began asking each other who would be the greatest in the kingdom. They were not following Jesus here, either.
Then, in Mark 10, Jesus told them what was going to happen to him again, and this time James and John stepped forward asking if they could have preferred seats with Jesus in the kingdom. Still, the disciples were wishing to be out in front.
It may seem odd for these men to act this way, but isn’t it common for people in the world to do the same? People seek the highest positions, not the lowest. But, having the most famous and greatest position in the kingdom must not be the aim of a disciple. Instead, following Jesus by putting others first is.
Of course, this is not the way of the world. Most people seek the position of greatest, not least. We should remember Jesus’ example was that of a meek and lowly servant of God. His example was as the servant of all men. This must be our aim: not the highest, but the lowliest. If one wishes greatness in the kingdom of God, one must become the servant of all (Mark 9:35).