A Sharp Contrast
The disciples wasted no time moving from “Who’s the worst among us?” … “Who’s the traitor?” … “Who could do such a thing as to betray our Lord?” … to jockeying for position, determining for themselves a pecking order. But if we read Luke 22:24 closely, we find that they aren’t even actually interested in being the greatest. At least not in this iteration of their favorite discussion. They are willing to settle for the imitation … “Who is regarded as the greatest.” They have been infected with the disease of the Scribes and Pharisees. They are more interested in appearance than substance.
Again, this isn’t the first time they’d had this sort of argument. The Gospel writers (at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, of course) decided that at least three such incidents were worthy of recording. Luke 9 || Mark 9 shows one such incident:
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.” (Mark 9:33–37 ESV)
Luke doesn’t even tell us about the 2nd incident, but we find it in the very next chapter of Mark. The Zebedee boys try to insert themselves at the top of the heap.
35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
One intriguing observation, though I’m not exactly sure what to make of it, is that each and every time this argument is recorded, Jesus had just announced that he was going to die in the previous two verses. It’s as if the disciples are Pavlov’s dog. Jesus says he’s going to die, and they begin to bicker over their status in the group.
The disciples’ argument has set up a contrast that could not be more stark. On the one side of the contrast, you have Jesus. He is truly great. And he’s great both in Who He is (the eternal second person of the Godhead) and in what he’s doing. He Who was owed service and allegiance didn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. On the other hand, we have the kings of the gentiles and those with earthly authority. Their habit is to lord their authority over those under their charge. And yet they manage a reputation as “benefactors”, while Jesus will be “numbered with the transgressors” (v. 37). Reputation is no sure guide for true greatness. The disciples’ argument shows that they have set their sights on worldly greatness, when they should have learned from Jesus.
The disciples clearly regard Jesus as the Messiah. That is likely the reason they are having this sort of debate … especially against the background of Jesus’ declarations of his impending death. They think they have gotten in on the ground floor of something great, and want to ride on Jesus’ coat-tails to grandeur and fame. But if they realize he is the Messiah, then they should also pay attention to what is happening. Jesus has girded himself with a towel and washed their feet. He stands among them as a servant. The Lord is serving creatures. The master is waiting on his pupils.
Through the Valley
That is, if they are interested in true greatness, then Jesus is showing them the way. Kingdom greatness is equated with humble service. Nowhere is this more evident than in church authority. It is with reason that the scriptures tell us not to be “hasty in the laying on of hands.” (1 Tim 5:22 ESV) There are two things that corrupt our hearts more quickly than anything else: money and power. Put a man in spiritual authority before he’s ready, and he will tend to emulate the gentile kings. He’ll lord it over those under his charge. But the disciples will learn that true greatness is found in following Jesus.
The path that Jesus trod gives us a road map. And yet there is a distinct difference between the path he trod and the path that we tread as we follow him. He was innocent and pure. We are not. He was truly great and humbled himself, wrapping himself in the frailty of flesh, being found a servant and being obedient even to death on a cross. We, on the other hand, are wicked at heart. We deserve to be brought low. He didn’t. So, when Jesus instructs us to take the least honorable seat at the feast, we take i (not so that we might be exalted, but) because that’s where an honest assessment of our hearts puts us. The irony, of course, is that, if we do actually consider ourselves abased (genuinely, not with a false or agenda-driven humility), then God will, in fact, exalt us.
That’s the kingdom order of things: Suffering in this age; glory in the next.
Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 (Luke 9:23 ESV)
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom 8:16–17 ESV)
Suffering first … then glory. It is the path that our Lord took:
[T]hough he was in the form of God, [he] 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. (Phil 2:6–11 ESV)
So time and again Jesus exhorts them them to a life of humility and service. And he promises them a kingdom reversal of fortune. He ‘covenants’ to them a kingdom, even as his Father gave him a kingdom by covenant. How unlike the gentile kings, who would never share their power. But by the magnanimous grace of our Lord, we will have a seat at Jesus’ table in glory. And around that table, every seat is a seat of honor. But that must await the next age. There are no thrones for the church in this age. It’s a matter of kingdom order. It’s a matter of following Jesus. And to follow Jesus is to take up your cross. It is to deny yourself. When you follow Jesus, you follow him through a valley. We will stand with him on the mountain top at the other side of this valley, but for now, we go as low as possible. It is where we belong, and it is the path our Lord laid out for us when he traveled it in our stead.
A good indicator of whether you are exhibiting true humility or false is to look at your heart response when you are treated beneath the dignity that you think you deserve. A true assessment of your heart will reveal that, no matter badly you are humiliated, it is several steps up from what you deserve.
Another good indicator is to examine your heart when you do take a low position. Are you doing so in order that you might be exalted, or appreciated for your humility? Are you reluctant about it? If exaltation does not come, will you be disappointed? The only way we take the position at the bottom where we belong is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Any flesh-driven effort will be reluctant and fleeting. It is true humility and selfless service that leads to glory. It is true selfless service that God calls greatness. And that is had by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who hides your life with Christ in God. It is the Spirit that helps you find your identity and dignity in Christ Jesus. It is the Spirit who leads you to say with Paul, “I will boast all the more in my weakness,” as it will show forth the power of God.
Let us follow Jesus through the valley. Let us never settle for a reputation of greatness, but seek our greatness by taking our proper place and putting God in His. Let no task be too menial, no position beneath our dignity. Let us boast in our weakness and give glory to the One who traveled through the valley, not because he belonged there, but to bring us to the mountain on the other side. Let us take hold of the One who became poor, became a servant, that we might be rich, and that we might reign with Him. In the valley, we’ll find greatness now, and glory will follow.