Well, we’re back in Luke’s Gospel this week, and I’d invited you to turn in your Bibles to the end of Luke chapter 9—Luke 9:46. We’ve been following Jesus and the band of his closest disciples around Galilee throughout the text. We’re coming up into chapter 9 and most recently, they have been north of Galilee, up above the Sea of Galilee in the region of Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus has taken his twelve Apostles up there. He’s taken them away from the crush of the crowds, away from the frenzy and the hurry of ministry responsibilities and demands. He’s taken them away from all the controversy that comes and follows his ministry as the scribes and the Pharisees and all the rest hound him.
He takes them away up there in Caesarea Philippi to reveal some things to them, to teach them, to instruct them. And on this brief northern jaunt, they have confirmed Jesus’ identity as the Christ, as Jesus drew that confession out of them. They’ve heard Jesus reveal the future, his own rejection, death, and resurrection, which will be accomplished at Jerusalem. They’ve heard the nature of discipleship—all about self-denial, cross-bearing, following Christ in obedience. Some of them have even seen Jesus true glory revealed. All of them have learned some valuable, valuable lessons in faith, and it’s especially that virtue of faith that they will need to cling to most closely, exercise most diligently and fervently, as Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and comes to his appointment with the Cross.
When we were last in the text, in Luke 9:43-45, though we didn’t mention it, Jesus and his disciples were actually on the return trip from Caesarea Philippi. That whole account takes place on the move, on the journey. Luke doesn’t provide any geographical markers, but we do know by comparing with the other Gospels that from the middle of verse 43 through verse 45—that short section is en route to Galilee. They’re heading back to Galilee, back to Capernaum, and by verse 45 they had not arrived, yet, but in verse 46, they’ve come back to Capernaum. That’s been their ministry headquarters during their whole ministry throughout the region of Galilee—that’s been their headquarters. And in the scene before us today, Jesus is gathered here with his disciples, with his Apostles—the Twelve—and they’re in a home, probably Peter’s home according to Matthew 8:14. It was a home large enough to host all the Apostles and their family members.
So our text for this morning is Luke 9:46-48, but I’d like to begin reading at the middle of verse 43 and read through verse 50, and that way we’ll read it the way Luke meant us to read it, so we can hear and see two lessons in humility that really do go together. So starting in the middle of verse 43:
“But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put 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 all is the one who is great.” John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.””
Now, what stands out in this short reading—these verses here—is the contradiction between Jesus’ humility and the disciples’ pride. At the start, Jesus is talking, there, about self-sacrifice, significant self-sacrifice, ultimate self-sacrifice—like death on the Cross for their sins. But that’s immediately followed by the disciples engaging in an argument that’s really driven by their own self-centeredness. They’re going back and forth about who is the greatest. On the one hand, Jesus is modeling complete self-denial, the kind of self-denial that he called them to in Luke 9:23—it’s a mark of discipleship—“If any one would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” He is not commanding them as disciples to do anything he’s not going to do. He’s charting the course for them. He’s taking the lead in self-denying humility. He shows the way; he sets the example. And just by his example, it creates a command and a mandate for us.
But the disciples—they’re stuck. They’re stuck in self-focus. When someone is focused on self, that is the very definition of narrow-mindedness and small-mindedness. It’s like a city with walls and gates, and the walls are erected around the mind, and bars are on the gate of the mind, and all of it erected and sealed and guarded by self-interested pride.
So when Jesus says in versed 44, “Let these words sink into your ears,” when you consider this frame of mind that they’re in, is it any wonder that the disciples are not getting the message, as it says in verse 45—that they’re not understanding. Why? Because the walls are up. Self-centeredness dulled their spiritual perception. Pride made them even reluctant to ask for clarification, for help. This is what Luke wants us to see—the blinding, crippling effect of pride. Pride is one of those sins that the stronger it is in a person, the more blinding it is. That’s what we’re going to see today—how subtle and insidious, and yet how divisive and absolutely destructive the sin of pride is. But the good news is that we’re also going to get the antidote here. In his mercy and his grace, Jesus does not leave his children trapped in the bondage of pride. He opens the door to the cell, lets us out. And the key that turns the lock on our cell is humility. Greatness—true greatness—is really the antidote to our pride.
And you say, “Greatness? Not humility?” Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? I mean, humility as an antidote to pride seems more logical than greatness. Isn’t greatness the issue that pride strides for. Well, to be accurate, humility is a virtue; pride is the corresponding vice. But it does no good to tell a proud person that to overcome your pride, you need to be more humble. Because you know how the proud person responds? You guessed it—“Hey, I am humble. I’m really humble. Just ask me.” As I said, pride is one of those sins that the stronger it is, the more blinding it is, isn’t it? Seems like the last person to know about their pride is the one who has it.
The pathway from pride to humility isn’t a command: “Be humble.” The command is “Be great.” Be great. This text shows us what greatness looks like. With that in mind, let’s get into our outline. First, let’s look at the prideful division—that’s the first point. Verse 46 says, “An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.” The “greatest.” It’s a very clear, concise introduction to Jesus’ teaching on humility, and Luke has—by that clear introduction—masterfully summarized the problem, and he’s indicated its severity. For starters, Luke summarizes the problem. He says, “An argument arose among them….” The word “argument” is the word “dialogismos,” from which we get the word “dialogue.” The Greek “dialogismos” has an internal reference and an external reference. Internally, this word refers to reasoning—what’s going on in the mind, the process of reasoning and thinking. That’s how the word is actually used in the next verse—same word, verse 47—when it says, “Jesus knew the reasoning of their hearts”—same word.
But those thoughts in the heart—the reasonings of the heart—they wind up coming out, don’t they? The reasoning and the thoughts of the heart—they’re verbalized. “For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” right? The audible, verbal exchange between men of conflicting, competing ideas—men who reason differently, whose internal thoughts contradict other internal thoughts. The world “dialogismos” refers to the outward, the external dispute that results, and that’s what we’re introduced to.
This is talking about an argument. And the dispute actually began when they were traveling from Caesarea Philippi in the north down through Bethsaida into Capernaum, somewhere along this journey. It would have happened after verse 44 when Jesus told them about his impending death. But they had an argument with each other. And it was significant enough that all three Gospel writers record this argument. In fact, the same argument is going to come up later in Luke.
So this discussion—this argument, this dispute—it’s sourced in pride. It’s a stubborn and chronic condition in these men. As Luke summarizes the problem that Jesus is dealing with, he does so in a way, though, that it really hints at the subtlety and the severity of their pride. The translation is, in our Bibles, “An argument arose among them…”—that hints at it. But the verb Luke uses here is one that actually shows movement and motion. Literally, it’s “an argument came into” their midst or “entered into” their midst. It’s like Luke has personified this argument—it’s like a thing. The argument is like an evil spirit or something that’s entered into their fellowship.
That’s actually not far from the mark. Pride and demonic activity are connected. Just to illustrate that for you, take your Bible and turn over to the little letter of James. We read from Hebrews, and James follows it, right before 1 and 2 Peter. James chapter 3. In James 3:13, James enters into this portion asking a rhetorical question. He says, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” And you know what the proud are thinking, right, in the reasoning of their hearts. “That’s me, James. Over here. How can I be of service with my wisdom and my understanding.” James asked a rhetorical question, and then he answers it. He doesn’t wait for them. “Let him show by his good behavior his deeds and the gentleness of wisdom.” By the way, that word—“gentleness of wisdom”—is the same word Jesus uses to describe himself in Matthew 11:29. Jesus very rarely talks about himself even though the Gospels are all about Jesus—the epistles, all about explaining Jesus, pointing to Jesus Christ. But you know, you don’t hear him talking about himself. He says this about himself in Matthew 11:29, “I am gentle and humble in heart.” That’s how he describes himself.
We see Jesus acting in the gentleness of wisdom a little later in Luke 9 this morning. Out of the overflow of his heart, he is going to instruct us on overcoming pride. But look at James 3:14 and following:
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
Listen, that is exactly what is happening in the midst of the disciples, as this earthly, unspiritual, demonic spirit of pride enters in like a force into their fellowship, disturbing the peace, breaking apart the unity and the harmony and the fellowship and joy, turning them against each other. If there’s any doubt about how that looks, look down at chapter 4 of James, verse 1: “What causes quarrels, and what causes fights among you?” Think about this, husband with wife. Think about this, parents with children. Think about this, sibling with sibling. Think about this church, member with church member. “What causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and you do not have, and so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”
“Of all the sins, there is none which we need watch and pray about more than pride.”J.C. Ryle
Look—quarrels, fights, angry thinking which is the very root of murder itself—all of that is animated by a spirit of pride, with self at the center, with “me and my needs and my concerns and my wants and my desires and my passions—everything in me”—that’s what causes all this. That’s what leads to disputes and criticism and angry spirits and conflicts. When you see that stuff on the outside, look inside. James says, “All these things are within you.” “They are at war within you.” Turbulent passions always bubbling up, effervescent, contradictory thoughts, wicked reasonings that strive to be greater than the other. That’s what’s going on in the disciples’ hearts—this right here in James chapter 3 and chapter 4.
Now turn back to Luke 9:46. The question that they’re all thinking about—what was on each man’s mind, the question that erupted into a verbal argument—is this question: “Which of us is the greatest?” The “greatest.” Notice they’re not asking how to be a great disciple, as in a really good one. They want to know which one of them is the “greatest” disciple. This is a superlative. “How am I superlatively better than you?” It rarely comes out that unvarnished, right? Usually, we try to mask it a little bit. They want to be the best one, the highest ranking, acknowledged by everybody.
We Americans think this way, don’t we? Culturally, this is in the air that we breathe. Some of you know I’m fond of the sport of rugby. International rugby is something I really enjoy and have had to treat like a temptation that leads me away from the study of the Word, so I have to guard myself against going into a sport like that, international rugby. My favorite team, though, is the New Zealand All Blacks. They are number one in the world. For such a diminutive nation to dominate the sport of rugby is a remarkable achievement, and I love that underdog story. We’re Americans, right? We love underdogs. One particular player, the All Black’s captain of years ago, a man named Richie McCaw, retired from the sport in 2015 after helping that team win their second Webb Ellis Cup that’s awarded to a World Cup-winning team. As a young man, young Richie McCaw, it became apparent that he had a measure of talent and a remarkable work ethic—I mean all these guys down there in New Zealand are farmers. They’ve just got that work ethic of farming and ranching and dairy. They’re humble people, the “salt of the earth”—that’s the way these guys are—with a measure of talent and a strong work ethic and a remarkable character. So Richie McCaw set his sights on becoming not just an All Black, which is the dream of every New Zealand boy growing up—they want to become an All Black—their heroes. He wanted to be a “GAB”—a Great All Black. That was his goal. Listening to New Zealand rugby commentators and reading the articles, though Richie would never, ever claim this for himself—never claim that title, never claim that he had done it. He’s a humble man; he avoided the spotlight although he was thrust into it all the time as the captain. But that moniker—Great All Black—was conferred upon him by fellow New Zealanders.
I see a contrast with the conversation here in America with American football, with discussions about the “Goat.” Anybody hear, “Oh, he’s the goat”? I’m thinking that doesn’t sound very flattering, actually, to be the goat. It’s not the animal; it’s the acronym: GOAT. Greatest of All Time. Does this recent Super Bowl finally give quarterback Tom Brady the high and holy honor and accolade of “Greatest of All Time”? Let’s ask Joe Montana.
You hear the contrast, though, between “great” and “greatest”? If you think I’m condemning Americans for this attitude, I’m not, because the Bible condemns us all for thinking like that. It’s an attitude that’s particular repugnant, though, among those who are called “Christians,” and sadly, it happens all the time. When we measure ourselves against one another, vying for prominence or covetous of the status and recognition of another, we fall into the same thing, don’t we? Whenever someone thinks to himself or herself, “Why did that person get recognized, and I didn’t? I’ve been doing a lot more.” Or, “Why did so-and-so get picked and not me?” When people “serve,” but the service is really just an opportunity to highlight themselves, to be recognized for achievement, to become prominent, or when people pull out of service because they’re like, “You know what? It’s really not going to get anything. I’m really not going to get anywhere.” Or when you hear people who are always pointing back to the past about what they did. “I gave such-and-such amount of money. You see that thing over there? I built that. That ministry that’s going right now—that started with me. I had that idea.” Ugly stuff, isn’t it? It’s in all of us, isn’t it?
And notice that’s what’s happening among the Apostles! The Apostles are the men who founded this institution that we’re part of. They are at the foundation level of this institution of which we’re all members—the church. If they’ve got this problem, we think we don’t? We think we are better than they? Then we are surely blinded by our pride, aren’t we? These men are all thinking about their own rank, their own personal prestige and honor, what they’re going to get out of it, what they’re going to stand to gain when the Kingdom comes around. They want to toot their own horn, blow their own trumpet. They want themselves to be higher than the others. They don’t just want to be a great Apostle; they want to be the Greatest of All Time Apostle. Notice the severity of their blindness is in this fact—is it lost on any of us that they’re having this argument in the presence of Jesus?
Who’s Jesus? Very recently, they confessed Jesus—back in verse 22. They said, “He is the Christ of God.” I don’t want to wager that he’s the Greatest of All Time. This is the Christ. He’s the God-man. There is no one like him. He’s called “the Son of the Most High.” He’s the one who would sit on the throne of his father David. He would rule over Israel in an eternal Kingdom that has no end by virtue of the fact that he is an eternal person—infinite and holy. He is the Son of God. Only one has that honor, and he did not seek it for himself; it was given to him. He was put forward by God. And it’s in the presence of that Jesus—the one who had just predicted his eminent suffering in verse 45—this is the shocking blindness produced by a spirit of pride.
J. C. Ryle said it very well. “There is something very instructive in this fact: Of all the sins, there is none which we need watch and pray about more than pride. No sin is so spacious that is unfounded or deceitful. It can wear the clothes of humility itself. It can lurk in the hearts of the ignorant, the ungifted, and the poor as well as in the minds of the great, the learned, and the rich.” Very true. Pride is a condition that affects us all. It is the original root of the original sin.
So pride was lurking in their hearts, and you can see how just in reviewing the text and where we’ve been, pride was awakened by recent experiences. It was inflamed with their own vanity. Pride worked to magnify their differences. It produced division through self-promotion. It totally disrupted any spirit of love and harmony among them.
Now if we engage in a bit of sanctified speculation, here—it’s educated but sanctified speculation, nonetheless—we can imagine the arguments that each man offered in his own claim to be greater than the others. Simon the Zealot—he was a card-carrying member of the conservative right movement in Israel—argued this way: “The greatest in the Kingdom in Heaven is the one who is politically savvy. The Kingdom, after all, is a political movement. It requires an equitable legislation, which I can provide, and be governed well. So the greatest is going to be the one who provides the strongest defense force for Israel—an iron dome, so to speak, to protect the land. Greatness is found in political wisdom—the power to enforce it.
Judas Iscariot speaks up. He agrees with Simon the Zealot, and does him one better because the power that runs the government is the power that funds the government. “Strong military, safe borders, peace for the nation—it’s all great, I agree. But who’s going to pay the bills? Money makes the world go around, so the greatest in the Kingdom is the one who can fund this whole project. Fundraising is important—secure banking, sound financial management, diversified stock portfolio. We must be in everything and all around the world keep this thing going. It’s the one who provides all that who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Andrew, Peter’s brother—he’s always running around making friends, right? He’s resourceful in a relational sort of way. He’s the one who connects people. He’s not into political savvy, power. He’s into building friendships and coalitions and partnerships, so he offers this: “The greatest in the Kingdom is the one who creates the most connections, brings us all together, keeps the Kingdom together, builds relationships among all the different groups of people. That one is the greatest. Bringing these strong wills together—the power that can create that bond is the greatest power. Positive coalition-building is greater than brute political force.
Philip pipes up. “Yeah, it’s about relationships, Andrew, but you and I know that the most important relational connection we can make is connecting people to Jesus.” So Andrew and Philip agree, and they come up with another criterion for greatest. The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who brings the most people to Jesus, most evangelism contacts, most conversions. An increase in the followers of Christ through evangelistic outreach—that is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Nathaniel—he’s also known as Bartholomew. You remember what John records in the first chapter of his Gospel. You probably just read it in your annual Bible reading plan. Nathaniel and Philip were Bible students—sharp guys, keen, discerning—probably came up together in Bible college and seminary. And Nathaniel says, “Oh, a lot of false gospels out there. We’ve seen our fair share of false Messiahs come and go in the land of Israel. If you’re going to bring people to Christ, that’s all well and good. ‘He who wins souls is wise.’ I agree with Spurgeon. But you have to know who the Christ is first. The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who knows Scripture and interprets it correctly. The greatest theologian is the greatest in the Kingdom.”
Doubting Thomas chimes in here: “I’m with you guys so long as you’re not some kind of ‘airy, fairy, head-in-the-clouds’ seminary students—ivory tower, no earthly good because you’re so heavenly minded.” Doubting Thomas says, “The greatest in the Kingdom is the one who knows the Bible, yeah, but isn’t going to be fooled. Bible knowledge is useless without practical discernment.”
Peter, James, and John—what are they doing? They’re just smiling while all this banter is going back and forth—they let it go a little bit, probably winked at each other from time to time because they’ve got an ace in the hole, don’t they?—a little shared experience called the Transfiguration. It made them front-runners in the “greatest of” category. Jesus hadn’t allowed them to talk about it, but Peter—you know he just can’t help it—I mean, Peter! It’s going to squeak out: “Guys, maybe we’re thinking about this ‘greatest of’ thing in the whole wrong way. Greatest in the Kingdom of God has got to be the one who has seen and experienced the glory of the Kingdom, don’t you think? I mean is there anyone besides Moses himself who has seen the Shekhinah glory of God [wink, wink]. Any of you guys see that? No? Well, until someone stood alongside Moses, seeing the glory of God and his Christ, this whole thing is probably academic, isn’t it? True greatness is glory.”
James and John—Peter has opened the gates; they run through it. They cue off Peter’s argument. They’re thinking less about Moses and more about Elijah—the kind of Elijah that calls down fire, which is what they’re about to do on the Samaritans in verse 54. So here’s their claim: “The greatest in the Kingdom of God is the one who purges the land of apostasy with supernatural fire! Burn ‘em! Nuke ‘em! Elijah! The greatest in the Kingdom is going to be involved in that cleansing, purifying fire of holiness.”
While all this is going on, there is James the son of Alphaeus, known as James the Less or “little James” along with his buddy Judas the son of James—the other Judas, not the trader Judas, but this guy called Thaddeus, Lebbeus, the guy who’s all heart. I don’t know if you remember studying that way back when. But these two quiet, mild-mannered guys are listening to all this bravado and chest-thumping, and they can’t compete with these bombastic, fiery spirited men. But that doesn’t stop their pride, does it? Here’s their argument for greatness—this one is offered in somber, pious tones. Think like the medieval monk—he gets down with his Gregorian chants. “The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven won’t be the political power brokers.” You hear the wisdom coming out? “He won’t be the money man. God doesn’t need money. Won’t be the world-wide evangelists. It won’t be the theologians. The greatest isn’t found in experiences of glory or coming down in supernatural fire. Oh, the pride of men! Brothers, the greatest in the Kingdom must be the most obscure of saints. God will honor the greatest as the one we least expect—the praying grandmother, the poor beggar, all the anonymous servants who stacks the chair and cleans the toilets. The greatest is the quietest, the one who’s passed over and easily annoyed, like us. God is going to vindicate that one, lift him up over all the rest to expected greatness. God will bring the obscure saint out of the shadows and finally recognize the true greatness of the most anonymous, pious saint.”
You say, “Well, that’s a problem among those disciples. But that’s prior to Pentecost, right? I mean, these guys are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, like…I am.” Are things so different now in the church. If we’re honest, we’ve all had one or more of those thoughts in our hearts, right? In fact, some may have had all these thoughts in their heart at one time or the other. As one of my professors used to say, “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ we have pride; it’s a matter of where is it and how much.” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and right out of the gate he had to confront the heart of the problem—1 Corinthians 1:10 and following—“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”—like “I’m appealing to you, and I’m wanting you to remember Jesus Christ as I say this.” “I appeal to you that all of you agree, that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘Oh, I follow Cephas,’ or [‘I’ll do you one better’] ‘I follow…Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” Paul spends the next four chapters confronting Corinthian divisions and exposing and digging out the root of those divisions: the heart of despicable pride.
What about preachers? Pastors? Christian leaders? Are they immune? You all know the answer to that. Paul acknowledges that in Philippians 1:15: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry.” “Be the greatest preacher, theologian! Be the most sought after for theological counsel and advice! Be the greatest shepherd! The greatest counselor, greatest motivator, visionary leader! Come with all the ideas! Biggest church! Most conversions! Widest influence—everything going on in the community! Got my brand, my mark everywhere that I’m doing good deeds for everybody!” Listen—why do you think all those leadership seminars draw such huge crowds? They’re preying upon pastors and church leaders who are filled with envy and petty jealousy and abhorrent pride, longing for greatest for themselves or their church or their brand or whatever it is. Listen—a discontent-, pride-driven pastor is a curse to a church. That’s why you need to pray for your church leaders. It’s not foreign to any of our hearts, is it?
This is why Jesus must confront this attitude in his twelve Apostles, here, since they’re to be the foundation of the church—Ephesians 2:20. How does Jesus correct them? I mean, if it’s me—thankfully, it’s not me—but it’s a baseball bat to the forehead because they’re so hard-headed, right? How does Jesus do that? Second point on your outline: a gentle correction. He gives them a gentle correction. According to Mark 9:33, Jesus doesn’t actually confront that argument until they arrive in Capernaum. He doesn’t here confront their sin until they’re arrived at the house and they’re settled at the house, and he’s alone with the Twelve. And Mark tells us, “And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’ But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.”
“Greatness is tested by its operation of love toward the most insignificant.”Dr. Paul Ellis
Why did Jesus ask the question? Didn’t he know? Hadn’t he heard for himself? Yes, he heard. Verse 47 says, “Knowing the reasoning of their hearts…” He knew. Jesus knows all people. John 2:24-25—He knows what’s in a man. He’s the Word of God incarnate. So whatever’s true of Scripture is true of Jesus. It says in Hebrews in 4:12, “The word of God is living and active”—sharp, penetrating, able to get down to the bottom of any issue, “able to [discern] the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” And verse 13: “[N]o creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” That is describing the Word of God, yes, but it’s describing God the Word Incarnate—Jesus Christ—as well. Jesus’ question pricks their conscience. They knew they were wrong. Their consciences here are smiting them.
But notice how Jesus confronts it. His confrontation is characterized by such wisdom and gentleness. He waits to confront their pride until they’re alone. He waits until the argument has died down. He knows the blinding power of pride—how it’s strengthened in the heat of the argument, when the blood is boiling. He intends to correct them, though. He needs to teach them, so he needs them calm. He needs them in a right frame of mind. And even when he begins the confrontation, he’s so, so gentle about it. He helps them recall the argument on the way. He raises that issue in their consciences. He sees that their consciences are his allies in helping them to overcome stubborn, deep-seated pride.
We read earlier from James 3, but you’ll notice that I skipped over a couple of verses. Verse 17 says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” And that is what we’re seeing right here from Jesus. His example teaches us such a magnificent lesson, doesn’t it? And again, whatever he does becomes a mandate for us inasmuch as we follow after him. We can’t do the same things as he does. We can’t die on the Cross for sins. But that’s been done. His example sets us a pattern.
So the disciples, here, are too ashamed to answer Jesus’ question, so he provides them with an object lesson—verse 47. Knowing the reasoning of their hearts, knowing their thoughts and desires; they’re saturated by pride. Their argument is fueled and fed by petty rivalry and selfish ambition. He does something remarkable. He takes a child and puts him by his side. This is really, really powerful. I can’t overstate how powerful this is. He’s taken the gentlest, most unassuming creature in their day—a little child—and he sets this little child before these rugged, able-bodied, strong men. Fishermen. Simon the Zealot—he’s ready to murder people. I mean, these guys are tough guys. A little child. And in so doing, he created a paradigm for all Christian discipleship. This is what it means to be a Christian. Using a little child to make his point—it’s as if Jesus has slapped the ground with a daisy and split the earth in two.
Why? How? What’s the big deal? Because Jesus has confronted the hardest, most stubborn, most deeply embedded sin—which is pride—and he so completely overcomes it. He so utterly destroyed it, and he uses the most unassuming, lightly regarded actions: attention to a child.
To understand the significance of this, you need to realize that children were not highly regarded in the ancient world the way they are in the modern world. In the ancient world, producing children meant survival. Hopefully, if they survived, it made an increase in one’s wealth. That’s why families were huge. That led to the temptation of polygamy: “Have more wives, so I can have more children, so I can spread my resources and build my wealth.” But until children reached a productive age, all bets were off. There were no guarantees when the infant mortality rate was 30 percent or higher in the first century. Children—until they could prove themselves—were a liability. They were another mouth to feed. Parents treasured their children, of course. But children in the ancient world were considered insignificant. They had no resources, no strength, no wisdom, no experience, nothing to offer or to contribute. One author gives us a perspective of first-century rabbinical Judaism. It says this: “The nature of a rabbi was not at all child-like. At most an odd Talmud anecdote might tell of a scholar spending time with a child, but this is regarded as a waste of time.” One rabbi said, “Morning sleep, mid-day wine, chattering with children, and tarrying in places where men of the common people assemble destroy a man.”
That is not the impression you get from Jesus at all, is it? Jesus loves the little children. And it’s his love for the most seemingly insignificant of society that is the mark of real greatness. Did you hear that? Let me say it again. There’s no virtue in being a child—young, small, weak, inexperienced, ignorant, simple, and all the rest of the liabilities of being a child in a harsh world—there’s nothing virtuous in that, in and of itself. This isn’t Jesus looking at the sparkle of innocence in a child’s eyes and saying, “All my disciples have to be like that.” He’s not looking at the purity and innocence of a child as if to deny original sin.
What’s marked here is the virtue that Jesus is demonstrating of himself. It’s the divine virtue of caring for all—even the least of these—when there is nothing to commend them, when there is no profit in it for the self. Jesus’ love for the least of these, for the little children—that is the mark of true greatness. That’s greatness.
Let’s look at his love for the child. The translation in verse 47—Jesus “took a child and put him by his side…”—if we read that too quickly, we miss the affection that comes across in the original, especially when we compare the other Gospels, Matthew says, “Jesus called the little child to himself”—Matthew 18:2. So the child is old enough to understand. He’s actually comfortable in Jesus’ presence and with Jesus’ instructions to him when he calls. Jesus put the child in the midst of his disciples—right in their midst. The child feels secure. Mark also tells us that Jesus put the child in the midst of them, and also that he took the child into his arms. Not only is the child old enough to understand Jesus’ command, but he’s young enough to be held by Jesus. We see in that the tenderness of physical contact—close, intimate proximity, the affection in Jesus’ touch. Luke brings us into the scene after Jesus has called this little child, and after he’s presented the child to his disciples, after he’s taken the child into his embrace. And Luke says Jesus, after calling and presenting and embracing the child, he then sets this little child alongside of himself. The preposition is showing a close intimacy—right next to him, right at his side.
What’s this all about? Jesus has shown interest in calling the little child. He’s called attention to the insignificant, here, by putting him in the middle, at the center of the disciples—among them. He’s shown affection and intimacy by taking this little child in his embrace. And now he puts this little child in the place of special honor—right next to him, at his side, alongside of him.
From the perspective of Heaven above, from the divine vantage point, in the eyes of God the Almighty, how do human beings rate on the scale of power and might and significance and resourcefulness and everything else? We acknowledge men of strength, amazing achievement, incredible accomplishment, but how does God weigh them. Isaiah 40:15 and 17: “Behold, the nations”—that’s all of men, collectively—“are like a drop from a bucket. They’re counted as dust on the scales. Behold, he takes up the coast lands like fine dust… All the nations are counted as nothing before him. They are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”
If the nations are weightless on the scales, then from God’s perspective, what difference is there between men and boys, and women and girls? Whether infants, little children, or full grown—are we not all like little children to him? The amazing wonder, here, in this text, is that Jesus would regard anybody, especially these arrogant, puffed-up, self-inflated disciples, who do make a contrast with this unassuming child because they are less attractive, not more. The way they view the child is insignificant, meaningless until it grows into a productive age. They way they view themselves—might, productive, vying for greatness. The greatest. What a gentle way Jesus has corrected them! What a gentle way he’s removing the scales from their eyes to help heal them from their blinding pride. By putting the child next to him, right by his side—you see that Jesus is identifying with the child. That’s greatness. It’s a greatness greater than any of them could hope for—that the Lord of Heaven and earth, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords would call us, would present us before his Father in Heaven, would embrace us, would seat us next to himself in a position of honor, that he’d call us, that he’d put us in the midst of the host of Heaven where the angelic realm is looking at what God does with the saints, that he’d embrace us as his own and put us alongside of himself—isn’t that enough, beloved?
The writer to the Hebrews portrays Jesus in bringing sons to glory—Hebrews 2:10. He calls them brothers, verse 11; he rejoices to teach his brothers about God, verse 12; and to sing God’s praises with his brothers. And then Jesus presents them to God in Hebrews 2:13, saying, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Same word in Hebrews 2:13, by the way, that Luke uses in Luke 9:47: “paidion.” So it’s “I and the little children that God has given me, old enough to understand and heed my call, small enough to be insignificant on their own, small enough to hold with affection and tenderness and intimacy.
Beloved, that’s how Jesus thinks about all of us—as little children. We’re not to make distinctions among ourselves in that way—of who’s greater and less. That’s why Jesus says—Luke 8:16—“Let the little children come to me. Don’t hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” That’s us, folks—all of us. That’s the gentle correction illustrated by Jesus showing the highest honor to the most seemingly insignificant person the disciples could possibly imagine: a little child.
Let’s hear how Jesus instructs us—point three: a simple explanation. Verse 48—Jesus turns from authoritative example to authoritative teaching. He says to his disciples, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” You see the connection. Receive the little child, you receive Jesus. Receive Jesus, you receive the Father. Receive him who sent Jesus. It’s interesting—I don’t have time to really unpack it—but “him who sent” indicates purpose in God, by preferring measuring self by other people, making distinctions, greater or lessor, “I’m on the path, you’re not on the path”—whatever—all that stuff—Jesus shows us controverting and contradicting divine purpose. “The one who sent me.” What makes the child important, here. Of himself, nothing, really. And that’s the point. This little child is a symbol, he’s an object lesson. The child represents the lack of power. He represents insignificance, the inability to contribute. Children are consumers when they’re young. There not producers. There’s nothing in a little child that provides a benefit to make one man greater than another. A child represents us, beloved. Sinners. Sinners who stand before a holy, all-knowing, all-powerful God. Sinners who can build themselves up not one iota. Sinners who cannot make themselves acceptable before a holy God. Sinners who have everything condemn them and nothing to commend them. But God in Christ has reached down to us—those whom Paul describes as helpless, powerless, sinful—God has reached down as Christ and he has rescued us. “By grace you have been saved.” And then he did more. God raised us up with him and took us higher still. He seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. We’re like that little child—all of us. We’re seated and at rest, embraced and at the side of honor with our Savior. Why would God do that? Why would he do that? “So that in the coming ages, he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus received a little child. Jesus is great, is he not? That’s the argument Paul made in Philippians 2:5-11:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So if we will follow Jesus’ example, does that not put us on the path to be a great Christian? It does. Jesus shows us how, here. He says, “Whoever receives this child in my name”—that is, “for my sake, regarding my will, regarding my concerns, my intentions”—“that’s somebody who receives me.” Receive the fellow believer, even the one who seems to you to be of the utmost insignificance, simply because that’s what Jesus wants—you receive Jesus. You receive Jesus, you receive the one who sent him. You’re working along in the flow of divine intention. It puts you in direct contact with the living God because “Whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
Why did God—the living God, the great God—send his only Son? You know the answer: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world”—no, the world is condemned already if they don’t believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God, but God sent his Son into the world “in order that the world might be saved through him.”
What’s it going to take to receive that little child? It’s this little matter of self-perception, right? It’s so easy to comprehend—but so hard to put into practice. End of verse 48: “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” How do you think of yourself? Do you think of yourself as least among all? Frederick Godet says this: “Here, Jesus lays down as the measure of true greatness not a tender sympathy for the little, but the feeling of one’s own littleness. The child set in the midst is not presented to the disciples as one in whom they’re to interest themselves, but as an example of the feeling of which they themselves must be possessed.” What’s the feeling? Philippians 2:3—“In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Mark 9:35: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all, and servant of all.” True greatness is not the one who serves for a time in a lowly place, like “doing my time, and then I’ll get greatness.” Greatness is driven by love. It’s driven by the service of love. And love is not self-interested. It’s interested in the other, in the blessing and the goodness of another.
As Ellis put it, “Greatness is tested by its operation of love toward the most insignificant.” Greatness is found among those who identify with the least of these, those who receive and welcome the least of these, those who are counted as insignificant, those who are by all measure truly have nothing to offer. But in receiving them in Christ’s name, for his sake, counting ourselves and our interests as nothing, but counting his interests as everything—that demonstrates true greatness and true humility.
When we live that way, beloved, we see petty rivalries vanish, contentious spirits depart from our midst. We see loving, joyful harmony, cheerfulness, service—everybody’s needs met. At the end of verse 48, notice Jesus does not say, “He who is least among you all is the greatest.” He doesn’t make a comparative. He transcends that. He rises above to say, “He who is least among you all is great.” Great. There is no greater. There is only great—or not great. If we’ll make it our ambition to be like him, never regarding ourselves, but becoming servant of all, loving them all, beloved, that is true greatness. That’s the antidote to pride. So let us excel in that. Amen? Let’s do that together. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, we do want to thank you for teaching us how to overcome pride, which is a stubborn sin in every single one of us. We all acknowledge it. We’re all condemned and guilty before you. You see all. You know our hearts. You know our hearts and intentions and motivations. And you know that many times—most of the time, we might say—they’re not pure. Even our best intentions and services can be mixed with impurity and bad, sinful motives. And we just want to push those things away and ignore that they’re there, but they are there, and you see them all. Now you’ve given us the antidote—if we’ll just take the antidote and consider ourselves as least and consider your purposes in loving all the saints greatly. Let us be like you. Let us be, Father, like your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ—the one who sacrificed himself as the least that we might become great before you. Thank you for your Word. In Jesus name, Amen.