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But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. Mark 9:34 KJV

And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. Mark. 9:35 KJV

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In many languages, including Greek, Latin and English, the word for "first" means "most important". For example, the Latin, "principio" means "beginning" or "first" from which we derive many words like

  • prince = first citizen of a principality
  • principal = first teacher in a school
  • principle = first idea that lays a foundation for others

In Greek, the word, ἀρχῇ (arche) means first or beginning, but its cognate relatives show a similar pattern as above:

  • Ἀρχέλαος = ruler (ie, first citizen)
  • ἀρχαῖος = first, original, most primitive
  • ἀρχάγγελος = archangel = first/ruling angel
  • ἀρχηγός = founder/leader = first person in a project, originator
  • ἀρχιερατικός = high-priestly
  • ἀρχιερεύς = leading/first priest, ie, high priest
  • ἀρχιποίμην = chief/leading/first shepherd
  • ἀρχισυνάγωγος = ruler of synagogue, ie, first member of synagogue
  • ἀρχιτέκτων = chief/first builder = architect
  • ἀρχιτελώνης = chief/ruling tax collector
  • ἀρχιτρίκλινος = master of ceremonies at a banquet, ie, first guest
  • ἄρχομαι = (verb) I begin/start
  • ἄρχω (verb) I rule
  • ἄρχων = ruler, governor, leader, archon.

Now, while the words in Mark 9:34 (greatest) and Mark 9:35 (first) are not those above, the point remains that these two ideas were often blurred in language and concept. Thus, there appears a simple transition between the two.

Indeed, the word translated, "first" in Mark 9:35 is πρῶτος which has the following meanings (BDAG):

  1. pertaining to being first in a sequence, inclusive of time, set (number)or space
  2. pertaining to prominence, first, foremost, most important, most prominent

Thus, again, this word's meaning show just how closely linked the idea of "first" and "most prominent" are in the Greek psyche.

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Because one of the meanings of the word "first" is "most important", so in this case the two words have the same meaning. That is confirmed by the end of your second quotation, where the opposite of "first" is given as "last of all" and also "servant of all".

Jesus talks about "the first being last and the last first" on several occasions, e.g. Matthew ch19 v31, Luke ch13 v30, Matthew ch20 v16. The first example is about importance (the reversal of fortunes after the losses mentioned in the previous verse). So is the Luke example, because Jesus has been promising that his followers will be "sitting at the table" after the workers of iniquity have been cast out. But the Matthew ch20 example is a pun, because it comes at the end of the parable about workers in the vineyard arriving late on the scene.

You may compare the deliberate word-play of John ch1 v30, where the Baptist exploits a similar double meaning; "After me [in order of time] comes a man who ranks before me [in order of importance], because he was before me [in order of time, because of the pre-existence of the Son]" (RSV)

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Jesus knew his disciples' hearts, and that some were desiring positions in God's kingdom that would (in their opinion) give them an elevated status - that they would 'rank' higher than their fellows. They were thinking of 'greatness' in human terms.

Jesus had to change their thinking by turning upside-down their ideas of what constitutes greatness. So, he sat them down and began to say that whoever wanted to be first, would be the last of all, and would minister to all the others. To illustrate what he meant, he took a child, set him in the midst of them and took the child in his arms. The point of Jesus using the word 'first' instead of 'greatest' comes in verse 37:

"Whoever may receive one of such children in my name, doth receive me, and whoever may receive me, doth not receive me, but him who sent me." YLT

What could be greater than receiving the Father, by receiving Christ (by faith)? Such humility, of serving others, not seeking to be great but to serve - that is what makes a person great in God's eyes. Having simple child-like faith and trust causes a disciple to humbly serve without any thought as to that working towards being 'elevated' and looked up to. Those who are first appear to be last, humanly speaking. Such ones are truly great though other humans might hardly even notice them.

The awful thing about this vital lesson is that a short while later, James and John (the sons of Zebedee) approached Jesus to request being positioned on his left and right side in the glory. (Mark 10:35-45) Had they learned nothing? So Jesus had to repeat what he'd said in chapter 9, that whoever wanted to be great among them must minister to the others; he who wanted to be first must be servant of all, as was he:

"...for even the Son of Man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Mark 10:45 YLT

It could not be any clearer, could it?

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