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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 2/26/95

Luke 9:46-50

He Who Is Greatest

Luke 9:46 And an argument arose among them as to which of them might be the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by his side, 48 and said to them, "Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me; for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great." 49 And John answered and said, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to hinder him because he does not follow along with us." 50 But Jesus said to him, "Do not hinder him, for he who is not against you is for you."


In the last few weeks, beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we have seen Jesus reject the offer of a worldly throne and commit himself to walk the way of the Cross. We've seen him declare that if we want to be his disciples, we have to walk with him on that path, denying our selves, taking up our own crosses, and following him. We have seen the disciples' inability to make sense of this teaching. And we have seen the Father, on the Mount of Transfiguration, approve those very teachings and exhort the disciples to "Listen to him!" But listen though they might, the way of the Cross still does not make any sense to them. We can see this clearly in the conversation hinted at in our text today. Who is the greatest? I think we can imagine all too well how it might have sounded.

The Three must have insisted, "Well, it pretty much has to be one of us, doesn't it?" To which the rest probably responded, not without a certain credibility, "Oh, he just takes you three along to keep you out of trouble!" John: "Hey, I'm the one who leans on the Master's breast." James: "Yeah, and he's going to get tired of you hanging on him like that all the time, too." Peter: "Hey, I'm the Rock, after all, the foundation of the Church!" Andrew: "Oh, yeah? If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't even be a disciple!" Matthew: "Well, I used to be a tax collector, so I'm clearly the most improved." Judas Iscariot: "Well, that's all well and good, but it's obvious that I'm the one he trusts the most--after all, he did make me the treasurer." Hmmm.

"And an argument arose among them as to which of them might be the greatest." What clearer symptom could we want of the fact of their complete failure to understand the way of the Cross? They were not denying self; they were affirming self. They were not taking up the cross; they were competing for a crown. They were not following Christ; they were pursuing their own self interest, their own glory. They had not yet been liberated from the world's concept of greatness, what we have called the "Gentile Paradigm" of leadership as superiority which allows you to "lord it over" your subordinates. They needed desperately to learn the principle that the Lord tries once again to teach them here: the world's concept of greatness is backwards, and the Christian concept is radical: "for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great."


The world finds greatness in status, and therefore orients itself around the pursuit of status. Webster defines status as "position or rank in relation to others; position in a hierarchy of prestige." The key idea is rank "in relation to others." Status is a zero sum game in which, as you go higher, everyone else ends up lower. It is not enough that I be recognized; I must be recognized as better than you. It is not enough that I be honored; I must be honored more than you. It is not enough that I be valued; I must be valued more than you, or it is worth nothing. This is the default position in a fallen world. Sinners automatically think like this, though the more civilized among them have learned to hide it. The disciples had at least not become hypocrites about it yet! They wanted to know who was the greatest.

Well, if that is what status is, how do you acquire it? What are the sources of status? In our society there seem to be mainly three: power, wealth, and celebrity. Power is the most important of them all, perhaps because it is a key to getting the other two. Professional athletes make more money than the president of the U. S., and some movie stars get more publicity. But he is the most powerful man in the free world. Only one person can be president of a nation of a company at time, but everyone can pile up wealth--or, what may be more important, the appearance of wealth. That is why fads are so potent. You have to have the right possessions or you lose status. My house has the most square feet. I trump your square feet with a Jacuzzi, or by parking a Lexus in my driveway. For about $20,000 you can get a good, reliable car that is even decently accessorized. For twice that you can get a "luxury car." Is the luxury car really twice as good? Is it really twice as comfortable? Twice as fast? Twice as reliable? No, it is only marginally better. In fact, it may be built on the very same frame and have the same engine and drive train. So why don't we pay just marginally more for it? Because what we are buying is not a better car at all, but the status that having it confers. The hollowest source of status of all is celebrity. Celebrity has been defined as being famous for being famous. Now, most of us aren't really famous, but we can pretend to be by playing the name-dropping game. Back in the mid eighties, Michael Jackson had a concert in Atlanta. It was announced that for fifty dollars you could "apply" for a ticket. If you were chosen, you would get to fork over another hundred or more, depending on where you wanted to sit. It was a sadistically brilliant publicity stunt. A sufficient number of idiots were falling all over themselves to get one of those coveted tickets. Why? Because his music was really that good? No, it was because the publicity created a kind of illusory sharing of his celebrity: you were "special" if you actually got to go. (I would have paid real money to be spared; fortunately, that was still free). Do you think believers are immune from such absurd temptations? Think again. A person I know once met a woman whose big thing was to get all the really big Evangelical celebrities--TV preachers, pastors of famous megachurches--to autograph her Bible. And he was dumbfounded to discover some of the names of people who had been silly enough to do it. I will not reveal them here, but they were people you have heard of! And oh, was she proud of those signatures! Then she offered him the opportunity to add his autograph too, right under . . . oh, that's right, I wasn't going to tell you. He said, "Lady, there is one Name in that Book that matters, and it isn't mine." He had witnessed to or counseled prostitutes, adulterers, and gossips; I don't think he ever felt soiled by an encounter the way he did by this one. Thiking about it, I want to rend my garment and cry, "Blasphemy!" that someone should demean the Word of God so. Yet his objections produced only an uncomprehending stare. Why wasn't he granting her the status she had obviously earned by traveling around to these huge churches and stroking the egos of their pastors? Maybe because it would have been a betrayal of everything the Lord is trying to teach us here.

What is the result of the quest for status? Spiritual impotence. It is great super-churches only half or less of whose "members" actually bother to show up on Sunday morning. It is "Christian" TV modeled on secular media techniques developed to fuel and exploit the celebrity syndrome. It is great hue and cry and impressive statistics but no spiritual reality. Why? Because it is the exact opposite of the way of the Cross. Those on this path have their backs to the Cross; and therefore they have their backs to Christ. Which of us has not been touched by this? To the extent that we have our backs to him, he calls us to turn around and face him, to move towards him, again. And he does it by means of a little child.

"But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by his side, and said to them, 'Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives Him who sent me; for he who is least among you, this is the one who is great.'" This child is the Lord's alternative to the search for status. To "receive" this child--to accept him, to take him in, to care for him--is to receive Christ. Why? Because the child is weak, he is insignificant, he is a nobody. He is utterly lacking in any ability to confer status on you. Nobody will be impressed that he has autographed your Bible! He is not going to give you one iota of power, wealth, or celebrity; in fact, he may cost you quite a bit of some of those things. So why serve him? Only one reason: love. Because in so doing you are serving Jesus.

Who has status in the Kingdom of Heaven? Billy Graham? Spurgeon? They have their honor as faithful servants, no doubt. But who has STATUS? The nursery worker! The nameless, unsung nursery worker has a status in the Kingdom that is not eclipsed by the famous preacher who has evangelized millions. How? Because status as the world defines it is irrelevant in the Kingdom. All who are truly Christ's have everything in him. Comparison with others is therefore totally superfluous. The only thing that matters is pleasing the Lord, and to do that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. Specifically we must follow his example and serve the brethren. The world finds greatness is status, but the Lord finds it in service.


There is a second point to be made here. John tries to salvage the situation, which has become rather embarrassing for the disciples jockeying for position, by changing the subject to an encounter he has had with what he considers a potential rival, expecting the Lord to be pleased that he has put him down and discouraged him. Oops! But Jesus said to him, "Do not hinder him, for he who is not against you is for you." Why was Jesus not in fact pleased by John's care for the apostolic band's market share? Because John's motive for putting down the potential rival was one more manifestation of the very pride that had been fueling his quest for status. Jesus was zealous for the glory of the Father. As long as that is maintained, it did not matter to him which human being got the credit for the ministry. What matters to him is that the ministry happens and the Father is glorified. But those among us who are trying to build their own little kingdom have a different agenda altogether. Show me a church with a closed and self-perpetuating board (i.e., one that chooses its own replacements), and nine times out of ten it will be populated by people like John in this encounter. You see it in certain denominations where it seems more important to them whether you are a member of their group than it does whether you are a Christian or not. It is one more manifestation of the search for status. When this attitude prevails, servanthood is not the model and ministry is not the priority--unless we get the status of the inflated numbers as a result. And so, in our missions program, in our building fund, we should be constantly examining our motives. Are we doing this to build His kingdom or our empire? To gain status or to serve better? The answer to that question will determine the kind of blessing we receive. For the world forms a monopoly, but the Lord furthers the ministry.


The concept of greatness through servanthood we see here is not just an arbitrary ethical rule the Lord made up. It is central to the very Gospel itself. How? The Gospel is the good news of salvation by God's grace alone accepted by faith alone. The notion of fallen human beings earning salvation is anathema to Christ. This salvation can only be received as a gift by the undeserving. No one who believes he deserves salvation has it. For it is by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, lest any man should boast! (Eph. 2:8-10). Don't you see? In principle you gave up the world's view of greatness when you accepted Christ. How inconsistent it is for us to return to it in our practical lives after we are saved! Servanthood is not something tacked on to the Gospel, but something that flows inevitably from it. Therefore, to be a slave to status and to those means of achieving it we have been studying, to seek fulfillment and self worth from the world, in the world's way rather than from Christ in Christ's way, is to live in a manner utterly incompatible with the belief in the Gospel we profess to have. Thank God we are not saved by our consistency! But we must come to see inconsistency as intolerable, because it is a betrayal of our Savior and our Lord. And it causes us to forfeit many of the blessings salvation brings: freedom from the tyranny of the opinions of the crowd, freedom from the rat race, and most of all the fulfillment that comes from denying ourselves, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus.

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated Jun-04-2005