An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. (Luke 9:46, English Standard Version)
Before you can adequately absorb this little moment in time, you need to know what has come before. Let me just summarize a bit of the story for you:
- Jesus, has recently shared with his twelve disciples that he must "suffer many things and be rejected by the chief priests and scribes, and be killed" (Lk. 9:22).
- Jesus has taught the disciples that the path and shape of his life will be the path and shape for their lives. Namely, if he must die, they must also die. Daily. The regular routine of the disciple is to arise and declare, "Today is a good day to die! It is a beautiful time to die to self, and my desires, and live for the King! Remember self: if you try to grab hold and cling to this life, you will only lose it. But Oh, if you would lose your life for the King, then will you save it!"
- Jesus has taken three of the disciples up to a mount to pray. There they get a glimpse of the glory of the King, seeing in just a small way the reality of who Jesus was, and is. Getting a peek at the glory that he laid aside, in the condescension of his incarnation, in submission to the Father, to come, die, so that all may live. And in that moment they heard the declaration of the Father, "This is my Beloved Son, listen to him!"
- And then, about two weeks later, Jesus again speaks of the path and shape of his life. He is crystal clear in his words. He is direct in his speech. "Let this sink into your ears: I am going to be delivered into the hands of men. I...am going...to die."
So there, you're caught up. We are back to where we started. Jesus. A crowd. A little boy recently healed of demon possession standing by with his father (Luke 9:37-43). Jesus talking about his impending, brutal death.
The response of the disciples? What do they discuss? What do they reason together about? What do they argue?
Who is the greatest?
As Jesus stands there, they, one by one, begin to jockey for position.
You see, they have begun to get the sense that Jesus is who he says he is. He is the Messiah. He is the King. He keeps talking about a kingdom, and a rule, and a reign. And, hey, they are the twelve. They are the first. They got in on the ground floor of this enterprise. So, to a man, the reasoning begins.
What will my role be?
What about my position?
What will I be in charge of?
Let the competition begin. Let the presentations commence. Who is qualified for what positions? And, as long as we are at it, who is the greatest? Who will be second-in-command to the King? It only makes sense right?
Theirs is a society concerned with honor and status. With hierarchy. And we get it, don't we. We've been asking the same question for millennia. It's not any different in the 21st century. We've been engrossed in the same arguments. Whether it is in your company, family, neighborhood, club, or church.
Who is the greatest?
I can't help but remember how Jesus answered this question without it even being asked. The disciples were there when it happened. They should remember too.
Some messengers from John the Baptizer had come, with a question from John. You remember John the Baptizer, right? He was the preacher with the ancient equivalent of the 21st Century megachurch. As Andrew Byers recently wrote:
The forerunner of Jesus was a major celebrity in the ancient world. Hordes flocked to him from a broad geographical range. His following was immense.
Influence. Notoriety. Status. Fame.
And then Jesus, speaking to the crowds upon those messengers departing, adds to the publicity this statement, "I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John." Well, that takes it up a notch now, doesn't it.
Who is the greatest?
How about John the Baptizer.
John the Baptizer, like the disciples, was linked and connected to Jesus. To the Messiah. To the King. His role had produced for him a massive following. Great crowds. A mega-church in the wilderness. But this is not what made him the greatest, in Jesus' estimation. It wasn't these apparent trappings of ministry success.
What made John the greatest?
We find the answer in another discussion between disciples. But this time, it is the disciples of John the Baptizer. They are observing the ministry of Jesus, that his disciples are now also baptizing, and that the crowds that once flocked to John, are flocking to him (John 3:25ff). Can't you hear it?
"They are leaving us John! Your numbers are down, his numbers are up. What are you going to do? Your greatness and influence are slipping away."
The response of John is stunning and beautiful. John answered,
“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent before him.’
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.
Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.
He must increase,
but I must decrease.”
(John 3:27–30, ESV)
What makes John the greatest is his all-consuming passion to proclaim the greatness of Jesus, the King. The reason for John's very existence, the aim of his life, was to point to someone greater, and, in the pointing, to fade away.
...the ultimate function of his public ministry was redirection. There is no self-orientation in John's celebrity status...for the Baptizer, [the increase of Jesus' ministry "draw"] was the surest sign of his ministry's success.
There is no question that John had a divinely mandated public persona. The man had a message, and he kept preaching as the crowds grew larger. But his calling was to highlight another then slip offstage to let his own ministry fade into obscurity.
Back to Luke's story: the discussion, this uncomfortable and embarrasing moment where twelve men are arguing for the top spot, right in front of their Master who has just spoken of his impending slaughter.
You see, John the Baptizer gets what the disciples of Jesus do not. Namely, it is not about them (or about me, or about you).
It's about Jesus.
Even as Jesus gently instructs and defines greatness with the illustration of a child in his lap (Luke 9:47ff), the point is clear.
Whoever receives this child in my name...
In his name.
In Jesus' name.
In the name of the King.
In a tremendous act of love, Jesus frees the twelve disciples - and all disciples across all time - from endless rivalries, jealousies, comparisons, grabs for power, and strivings for status.
Jesus, in this little moment as they live life together, hanging out in Galilee, shows his disciples the joy-filled truth that in his kingdom, people are set free from a life such as this. For it is a life of bondage. Of endless discontent. Because there will always be someone better, greater, cooler, more effective, more powerful, and with more status (from an earthly point of view). There will always be someone greater.
The path to joy is re-direction.
The path to joy is to do all you do in the name of Jesus. To die to yourself. To die to your constant yearning for greatness. To turn away from your hunger to be known.
The path to greatness and joy (remember what John the Baptizer said, "this joy of mine is now complete) isn't in thinking less of yourself,
it is in thinking of yourself less,
and of Jesus more.
You must decrease.
He must increase.
See you then.