Wednesday, February 3, 2021
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
Who Is the Greatest?
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
One recent Sunday, after having had the privilege of preaching, I was feeling pretty good about myself. After the service a few folks graciously shared some affirming and encouraging words and I felt confident that I had been able to communicate the message that the Lord had laid upon my heart. Then, on the way home, our eldest daughter chimed in with her assessment from the backseat. In the most sincere and cheerful voice she called out, “Great job preaching today Daddy, I almost wasn’t bored.” Without skipping a beat, Meagan turned and said “Coming from her, that’s about as good a compliment as you could hope to receive.” Regardless of all the kind words that everyone else could ever say, I was instantly crushed by just a few innocent words from one of the most important people in my life.
As they walked the more desolate roads of Galilee, Jesus once again sought to teach the disciples about His impending death and resurrection. This was a quieter time without the hustle and bustle and excitement of the crowds that typically surrounded them, because Jesus knew what awaited them all in Jerusalem, including the existential crisis they would face, once He was taken from them. While the distractions were gone and Jesus spoke in clear and direct language regarding the fate of the “Son of Man,” the disciples still could not understand Him. Luke 9:45 says “it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it,” and Matthew 17:23 adds that “they were greatly distressed.”
Although none of them understood what Jesus was saying, Mark tells us they were too afraid to ask Him about it. Surely they remembered the last time one of them had dared to speak out against Jesus’ depressing words and as a result received a biting rebuke. This time they simply put their heads down and continued traveling the lonely road in dejected and confused silence.
When the reality of what Jesus said started to sink in they allowed themselves to ponder what their lives would look like without Him. Careful to ensure that Jesus was out of earshot, they began to argue amongst themselves about who would emerge as their next leader once Jesus was gone. While we don’t know the specifics of the conversation, we do know a fair amount about the life experience and personalities of those involved and can imagine that the conversation was likely long and intense.
It would be no surprise if Peter, among the eldest of the disciples, kicked everything off by not so subtly “reminding” the others not only of his special position within the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, but also that he was the first to declare that Jesus was the Christ. To this of course the others probably responded with something along the lines of, “Not so fast, Satan.” James and John, appropriately nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, would have also been quick to throw their hats in the ring as a dynamic leadership duo fashioned in the form of Moses and Aaron. Those who had not been on the mountain with Jesus could have pointed to their powerful works which had not ceased while the Big 3 had been enjoying their respite.
Regardless of the particulars, the discussion was certainly hot and fierce and brought out the worst in each of the disciples. By the time they reached Capernaum there were certainly some bruised egos and hardened hearts. It is not a stretch to believe that some may no longer have been on speaking terms. Although Jesus was greeted with silence when He asked what they were talking about on the way there, of course He already knew.
Ever the Teacher, He sat them down and, without calling anyone out by name, He spoke directly to their sinful pride. “If anyone would be first,” He began, “he must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples sat in stunned silence as Jesus then took a child and tenderly held him in His arms. He continued, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
With just a few simple words, Jesus challenged everything the disciples thought they knew about leadership. Even though they had spent the better part of the last three years walking in the footsteps of Jesus, they still subscribed to the idea that being a leader was about nothing more than the projection of power and strength. According to the ways of the world, if you want to be the greatest, you have to make sure that everyone knows it. In the words of fictitious race car driving legend Ricky Bobby in the movie Talledega Nights, “If you’ aint first, you’re last.”
But again and again, Jesus countered that idea by telling them that, in His kingdom, the last are actually first. Leaders are actually servants. There is none greater than the smallest child.
In Aramaic, the language which Jesus and the disciples spoke, “child” and “servant” are actually the same word. While many of the “leaders” we look up to often treat those beneath them as worthless or invisible, Jesus said that true leaders, servant leaders, value and embrace the weak and the lowly. They love and care for the powerless, they speak up in defense of the cause of the widow and the orphan.
As Jesus has shown repeatedly, both through His words and His actions, it is impossible to “live” the Christian life on our own in isolation. He has called His followers to live counter to their natural desires and proclivities. Christian leaders must never boast or brag of their own accomplishments or talents, but must be quick to humble themselves and, like Jesus, assume the role of the servant. For when we welcome and embrace fellow servants in the name of Jesus, in reality we welcome and embrace the Lord Himself.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, although we often claim that we want to be like You, we so easily become puffed up and conceited. Help us as we wrestle against our own sinful desires for control and significance. Remind us that true strength can only be found when we surrender to You and true significance can only be found when we lay aside our pride and find our identify in You alone. Thank you for Your gentleness, grace, and kindness which leads us to repentance. We ask this in Your mighty name, Amen.