Alfred Place Baptist Church

22:24-30 Who is the Greatest?

Luke 22:24-30 “Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

The Lord Jesus in the Upper Room before the Last Supper had spent up to an hour on his knees with a bowl of water and a towel quietly washing the feet of his disciples. It wasn’t long after this happened that these same men began arguing which of them was the greatest. I hardly think that that means John shouted out, “I am the greatest! I am greater than the rest of you, because Jesus and I have a special relationship. I rested my head on his chest after the meal. We are bosom friends.” Or that Peter chimed in, “No, I am the greatest, because when I said in Caesarea Philippi that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God, then Jesus told me that I was a blessed man and that Jehovah had taught me that fact.” I doubt very much that it was like that. I guess that they were thinking of a new situation that seemed to be arising; Jesus was going away to prepare a place for them. Who would be the natural leader then? It was more likely that some of the less significant apostles raised the issue and one of those men spoke out and said that he thought John should be the leader after Jesus John is the greatest, and others responded saying it should be Peter because he was the greatest. So the arguments began, John’s spokesmen reminding the others of how intimate and loving John and Jesus were, while Peter’s supporters mentioned how he was obviously leader material.

While all this was going on God the Son was looking at them and listening. Had he failed completely in teaching the nature of true leadership? He was the only truly great man in the room, the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, the one who raised the dead, the one whom winds and waves obeyed. He had just been washing their feet, the omnipotent, humble Jesus. They had just been eating bread with him – which he said signified his body which was to be broken for them, and sharing in his cup which he said was his blood he was going to shed to save them. And if ever they showed that they needed saving it was then in the Upper Room in this display of naked ambition, and envy. Just like the same stupid emotions can crash into our lives in a second just after we’ve been at a communion service and we’re on our way home in the car and something triggers off resentment and jealousy. This scene in Luke 22 is quite a horrible scenario, like a bitter family argument ruining Christmas Day. Were they actually thinking that they were worthy of having their feet washed by Christ and so they must be great? Had that event in fact bolstered their egos? Did they think that they were worthy enough for the Son of God to die for them? Was that their warped thinking? You remember that all this happened before the Spirit was poured out on them at Pentecost.

The disciples hadn’t got it had they? Have we got it? Do we know what real leadership is? What is true greatness? Imagine a cup final in Wembley Stadium, and a manager is giving his talk to the team before the game. He is telling them about being focused, and not giving away the ball by petty infringements and maintaining self-control. Good sportsmanship is not to be mocked, he says. He has shown them the way of victory by his own example. Their opponents, he reminds them, are very cunning. They are not below trying to bribe some of them to lose the game. They laugh at the thought “Nah . . . you don’t know us, not one of us. You’ve got to believe in us boss. None of us would take a bribe.” The coach warns them that their opponents will exploit any weakness on their part. “You watch out,” he tells them.

Then the players respond to him. “We’ve got a far superior team,” they cry. One shouts out the name of one of their strikers, and another shouts out the name of another striker, and they are arguing about their own merits and bragging about the players and how many goals they’ve scored – “Goal of the season!” Another shouts him down; “No! Not as good as my goal!” Resentments are there, that the club paid millions for that player and he has scored just three goals for the entire season. And who is going to hold the trophy afterwards? That becomes a big question, or who’ll give an interview to Match of the Day. Please! What a hopeless group of men, over-payed, over-confident and over-privileged. They seem to have learned nothing from their coach, because he can remember they were arguing just like that years ago. Then the captain tries to reassure the coach, “Don’t worry boss,” he says, “We’ll do it. One thing . . . you can certainly rely on me. If they all let you down I’ll never let you down.” His coach looks at him and then responds by telling his captain that before half time he’ll have given away two penalties and then be picking up a red card for another offence and be off the field. That is the analogy for this Upper Room argument and you can see the same tensions and vanity in banking, and in politics, and relationships amongst media people, and in school staff rooms.

What disciples they were! An acquaintance of mine was reading to his children in family devotions one of these passages about the disciples acting like this, and one of his kids said, “Oh, I love the disciples. They’re always messing up!” I suppose it’s an encouragement to us to be patient and forgiving when someone messes things up in this church. It will probably be my turn next. We seem to take it in turns.

We live in an age of aggressive ambition, and it affects Christians. We can itch for more recognition, we want people to know how smart, or how talented we are. At home we want our sisters or brothers to lose so that we can win. We secretly get a thrill from hearing of failure or falls in fellow ministers. If there are some small positive comments on our sermons we want other people to hear about them. We print them in the weekly letters! We get disappointments when we hear of other churches growing or other ministers getting ahead while our own numbers stagnate. We don’t like to hear them being praised. We find it hard to be happy unless we’re receiving the plaudits that we imagine we deserve.

Let’s look at Jesus’ response to these men . . .

HE TELLS THEM THAT THEY ARE ACTING LIKE THE WORLD.

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that” (vv.25&26). You see the power words in what Jesus said? ‘Kings’ . . . ‘lording it over them’ . . . ‘exercising authority’ . . . ‘calling themselves “Benefactors”’ because they think they know what’s best for their subjects and they’re going to get it whether they want it or not. You remember what happened when Herod quarreled with the people of Tyre and Sidon. They became deeply apprehenisive and they sought in every way to be at peace with the King. They approached one of his servants, a man called Blastus, to act as an intermediary. This is what Luke records in Acts 12:20-22 that Herod “had been quarrelling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply. On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’” What lying flattery! What an odious group of servile toadies. See the power absolute monarchs have to make men sniffling cowards. There was no welfare state in those days, only the show of generosity they had with the money they got from other people’s taxes. Little wonder the world without God wants to be unscrupulous men of power. Nothing changes. Aberystwyth teenagers long most of all to appear on TV on a Saturday night, and sing and dance and get a contract to appear on stage and get famous and earn a lot of money. Only those who possess the Spirit of Christ are delivered from such vanity. Students at Harvard University were assigned to develop a strategic plan. It was entitled, “What Do I Hope to Achieve in Life After Graduation?” What was their number one aim? It was wealth. Number two was notoriety – fame. Number three was status. That is the chief end in life of the smartest and wealthiest and best educated men and women in the world. The people they admire and copy are those who have power.

“Not so with you!” said Jesus. The Christian lifestyle is so different. You know how it starts . . .

i] A sense of insignificance, because we are absolutely insignificant, and we are relatively insignificant. Our lives speed by to the grave and soon we are forgotten, a name in the memory of the next generation, carved on a tombstone and then largely forgotten. We are as nothing before God. We are as nothing in the universe. We are as nothing in the hierarchy of in­telligences. We are as nothing amongst the 7,000 millions of mankind. We are insignificant in gifts, in learning, in influence and power, compared to millions who have been before us, and to millions who are now on the earth. The Christian is conscious of this insignificance; he recognizes it; he confesses it; he makes no attempt to hide it. “I am the least of all the saints; I am the chief of sinners,” said the most brilliant man in the whole world of his day. Pride is refusing to acknowledge our insignificance; pride is deliberating forgetting about our insignificance; it is an unwillingness to be what we are, of no account, except to the God who has become our Father. Pride is asserting our own importance, and deluding ourselves that other people consider us to be important. Not so with you seeking greatness You have a sense of your insignificance.

ii] A sense of weakness. How does the Sermon on the Mount begin? “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is the key to all that follows, that in our hearts there is a sense of our own weakness, and that spirit opposes all pride, all reliance on self; it disdains the pride of intellect, any sense of superiority to others because of our intelligence or money or fame or race. No man can be a Christian without being committed to the beatitude, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

iii] A consciousness of guilt. A Christian considers himself to be destitute of all merit in the sight of God. That is utterly essential – if you have any knowledge of the Scriptures at all, because a stranger to one’s sin makes one a stranger to salvation. Two men, a Pharisee and a Publican, are presented to us by Jesus and the one in utter contrast to the other. One man was utterly offensive and he was the one who had the wealth and fame and power, but it was the other who was found acceptable in the sight of God and he had nothing at all. The moral man was conscious that he was a moral leader of his generation. He was puffed up and more offensive to God than the immoral man broken by a sense of guilt. God loves our sins when they are full of confession more than all our virtues when they are full of pride. We consider the number and aggravations of our sins, and we pour contempt on all our pride – what are our few achievements? How can we be arrogating merit to ourselves for the few things we have done, none perfectly, all flawed in some way. Christ alone we see as the altogether lovely one. Christians see ourselves not as others see us or as we would see ourselves but as God sees us, and then we know we are polluted, vile, distasteful, offensive in God’s eyes. The angels cover their eyes at the sight of God’s holiness. Of course we are loved by other friends of our own age and by our spouses and mothers, and by doting grandparents who don’t know us that well, and so we get quite complacent. How mortified we are to be told that in God’s sight we are like a pack of dogs returning to eat our own vomit, or like swine wallowing in the mire.

The truth is that we are exceedingly vile in the sight of God. The Scrip­tures exhaust the Hebrew and Greek languages and every language into which the Bible is translated setting forth the truth of this matter. We are all described as unclean, as full of sores, as deformed, as blind, as naked, as leprous, as dead. The heart is likened to a cage of reptiles and monsters. Every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts is only evil continually. The truth on this subject can’t be believed without producing self-loathing. It is totally offensive to the natural man. That sober acceptance of our fallenness was not the spirit pervading the Upper Room the night of the Last Supper. These twelve disciples argued about their superiority. They wished others to acknowledge it. They were offended if they were not considered number one. You can see how offensive this argument was – in the Upper Room of all places, where Jesus had washed all their feet.

2. HE TELLS THEM THAT THE GREATEST IS THE GREATEST SERVANT.

He says, “Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (vv.26&27). Jesus takes two pictures as symbols of greatness. The first is a toddler: “the greatest among you should be like the youngest.” When the Lord Jesus explains conversion to them he talks of their need to become as a little child. That is the only way they can enter into the kingdom of God. The most significant characteristic of a todder is its helplessness; you cannot say to a child, “Well, girl, we’ve looked after you for five long years, and now it is time for you to look after yourself,” and put her out of the home. A child is dependent for fifteen years and longer on its parents. So it is also with a Christian. He is a person who has come to realize that he depends on God’s power for everything, for the beat of his heart and the breath in his mouth and the daily bread on his table and for salvation in his soul. He is ignorant and God must enlighten him. He is lost and God must show him the way. He is defiled and God must clean him up. He bows before God as his creature, and he bows before God as a sinner. There is no place for vaunted ambition in a Christian. The greatest feels like a child in God’s sight.

The second analogy of true greatness that Jesus brings to them is that of the servant. He says, “the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (vv.26&27). At a great banquet who is the greater, the men and women who sit at the top table or the waitresses who serve them? When Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah he told us that he would be God’s servant. God loves those who serve. Don’t you know that God resists the proud and shows grace to the humble alone? Don’t you know that those who exalt themselves shall be abased, and only those who humble themselves shall be exalted? Don’t you know that the first shall be last, and the last first? Don’t you know God’s whole plan of salvation is about humility? Jehovah Jesus humbled himself to death, even the death of the cross, and so we humble ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him. It is all about humility. We weren’t the ones who thought of the plan of redemption or how it would be accomplished. We had nothing to do with any of that. It was all of God in its conception and achievement. By his grace we’ve been saved through Jesus Christ and the only way we’ve profited from has been by entrusting ourselves to our blessed Redeemer. We cannot enjoy the benefits of redemption unless we humble ourselves to be as little children. All men and women must stoop to enter heaven. The gate is low. No man ever passed through it with his head held high. Necks bent . . . the necks must bend. And the doorway is narrow, too narrow for both you and your sins to pass through.

How our land is cursed by vain ambition and frustrated ambition! Haven’t you suffered from the pride of men – the pride of school-teachers, and the pride of policemen, and the pride of bosses, and the pride of politicians, and the pride of the clergy, and the pride of family members? Haven’t you suffered from men who have missed the top posts and so squeeze every drop of power out of the authority they have now? Nothing is so offensive as pride, but nothing is so engaging as humility. A gentle answer turns wrath away. Men will resist even what they know to be the truth when a proud man is preaching it. Yet how they will yield to the entreaty of a woman or a child!

“Not so with you!” said Christ. So, bring your mind under the truth of what God says about your own condition. Live in the presence of God. Never act from the driving force of pride. Covet a meek spirit, by not seeking great things for yourself. Seek the indwelling of the Spirit, and the aid of Christ to live a modest and humble walk with God. What do you have that you did not first receive from God?

Who is the greater? Peter, Andrew, James or John? The Greatest One of all is Jesus Christ. That is the obvious, unspoken premise of all his life. He uses himself as the example; he rarely talks about the full extent of his greatness. In his teaching he didn’t go on and on about how great he was, although he had every right to do so. Instead, he lets the Father and the Holy Spirit testify to his greatness, but Jesus can’t deny who he is, and therefore his self-conscious divine greatness is the premise of his entire ministry. “But I say unto you . . . before Abraham was I am . . . I and my Father are one . . . if you have seen me you have seen the Father . . . no man comes to the Father but by me . . . one day all the world will stand before me and be judged. Heaven and hell for them depends on my verdict.” What claims to being God!

So, to know true greatness, you must look at Jesus Christ. He is great because of who he is: the Second Person of the Trinity, the only begotten Son of God. Jesus always is, always has been, and always will be very God of very God. He is not merely a man, but has every attribute of deity, every name of deity, every claim to deity. Jesus Christ is the Lord God. No one is greater than he is.

Jesus is great because of what he’s done. He has created this unimaginably vast universe; Jesus Christ is the Creator God. Nothing in all the vast galaxies of interstellar space is not the product of his divine mind. Jesus lived a great life. Through all the trials and temptations he suffered on earth, he never deviated from the path of righteousness. He is the only blameless individual who ever lived. Yet he gave his life in a great death to obtain for us a great forgiveness and a great salvation. No one has ever done anything greater for the human race than the Lord Christ did when he suffered the death that we deserve for sin and then rose again with the power of eternal life.

Jesus Christ is the Greatest One of all. If you doubt this, ask the angels who’ve been worshiping him without intermission since the beginning of time, and they’ll tell you that they have not yet given Jesus even one trillionth of the honour that he deserves. Jesus Christ truly is the Greatest One of all. Because he is so great, he is the one who deserves to be served. He is the infinitely supe­rior person. He is the one who ought to be reclining at the table, with his disciples all serving him. This is the proper order of things, and thus the premise of his example.

But, Jesus said, “I am among you as the one who serves” (v.27). This turns everything upside down, and opens up for us the true greatness of God. The Creator of this universe serve men and women. He is the one who says, “Not so with you” and now he is telling them why: “because it is not so with me. Although I am the Greatest One, I am the one who serves.” More literally, “I am the one who waits on tables (or, to use the title that the church later adopted, ‘I am the deacon’).” Jesus had proved this by the foot washing, and in doing so he had taken the lowest possible place – the lowest order of slave, the footman, washed visitors’ feet.

Jesus had been serving his disciples since the day they started to follow him—leading them, feeding them, healing them, teaching them, correcting them, training them, and loving them. Soon he would serve them all the way to the death, bearing their sins all the way to the grave. Jesus took his whole life and gave it to his disciples, as he gives it to us. The very Greatest One of all made himself our servant as he did the work of our salvation. One man converted under Archibald Brown’s powerful ministry in the East End of London was Bill Sykes a costermonger, that is, a greengrocer selling fruit. One of the missioners had come across Bill house visiting; Bill was a dying man and the missioner had visited Bill Sykes and told Archibald Brown about him. The two men spoke to him at different times, and he came to understand the cross of Christ and why the Saviour had died. The passage most helpful to him had been Isaiah 43:25, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Christ taking Bill’s sins and Sykes receiving Christ’s righteousness was all to him. One evening at the end Archibald Brown went to see him and talked with him. Bill interrupted, saying, “Give him that little bit.” “What little bit?” “That little bit about Christ taking my place, and how he had my punishment for me. That’s the bit.” Archibald spoke to him once more and he told his pastor that it was that little bit that did the business. The great Servant who displayed his service in dying in our place.

Now Jesus calls us to be like him, to find our true greatness in living for others rather than living for ourselves, forgetting ourselves for the sake of others. As far as Jesus is concerned, the truly great person is the one who serves. The point is not that service will get us to greatness, but that ser­vice is the greatness. Jesus is not saying that if his followers wish to rise to great heights in the church they must first prove themselves in a lowly place. He is saying that faithful service in a lowly place is itself true greatness.

To know who the great people are, look for the people who are serving in the lowest places. They arrive early and if men from the pub on Saturday night have urinated on the steps going downstairs to the church they will get hot water and disinfectant and wash it away so that our thoughts won’t be disgusted on the morning of the Lord’s Day. They will work at a work party on a Saturday and clean up around the sides of the church and do some extra cleaning; they will clean away the dust after the chapel has had some painting; they will wash up after Fellowship Lunch; they will volunteer for irksome tasks; they will be sitting down to talk with cranks or disturbed people with their complaints. They will distribute literature around the doors. They’ll volunteer for the Book Shop. Their voices will be heard in the prayer meetings. They will be visiting the elderly housebound; they will show hospitality to those who need it. They will spend their summers running camps or helping in summer evangelism. They are the great ones. They care for their husbands with dementia; they look after their children with learning difficulties for long years. No one has seen or known what they have done, no human eyes, but there is one who has seen everything and will reward openly.

3. HE TELLS THEM HE KNOWS EVERYTHING, AND HE WILL REWARD.

He says to them, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (vv.28-30). You read word like this and you say, “Hallelujah! What a Saviour!” He doesn’t rebuke them. He doesn’t give a sarcastic word. He teaches them simple lessons about greatness and then he praises them; “You’ve always stood by me.” When Nazareth men tried to throw him off the top of a precipice because of his preaching they stood by him. When the mighty influential Pharisees showed their hatred of him they stood by him. When the chief priest were rumoured to be plotting to kill him then they stood by him. One of his own betrayed him. Let me watch and pray. Let no one here presume that it will always be as it is today that you have assurance of faith and are surrounded by the Lord’s own dear people. Let me be on guard. But it was just one alone of the twelve, that none of you should despair. Let us acknowledge, “I have been vain and self-promoting and foolish. I am frequently desperately ashamed of how I have been, but this one thing I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and my Saviour and I am going to cling to him whatever. I shall stand by the Lord. I shall identify with him. I will not be ashamed of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ when it is the most unfashionable thing in my culture and in my job to believe in Jesus, even then I will stand by Christ in his trials.

Then Jesus says that he intends to confer on us a kingdom. He is going to make us kings unto God. It is not going to be an eternity of the mundane and the commonplace, cleaning up the incontinent, washing, ironing, getting out the vacuum cleaner, bringing the clothes in when it is raining, dressing the children up for school, nursing them in their frequent illnesses, writing thank you letters, and so on. Here is Jesus’ last will and testament. This is the solemn promise he makes to these limping men who have seen only half the truth. What does he leave them in his will? His robe and sandals? What does he have to leave them? An everlasting kingdom. They will sit in authority over these tribes who soon will be chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Those who will beat and imprison them will have to stand before them in the day of judgment. What special honours these men will be given, not lounging back on low couches around a table in an Upper Room, but sharing in the authority and power of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. There were unique blessings that the apostles knew. Their teaching would be utterly foundational. This congregation is instructed each Sunday by what these apostles wrote. They tell us what is truth and what is error. They tell us what is the righteous life and what is sin. We have to live our lives on the foundation that they have laid. Each church for almost 2000 years has had to do that and each congregation will continue to do that until the end of time. The blessed apostles are exalted to a special significance in this world and the world to come. Their names are on the foundations of heaven, but all our names are precious to our Lord, and he has promised each one of us kingship and authority. True greatness, the blessing of the Lord, will one day be ours. Now we sit in a high chair like children at the side of the table while the older ones sit at the table itself. We’re longing to be mature enough to be joining them. That will be true greatness, eating and drinking at the table of Jesus in the kingdom of God, not because we have earned it for being great servants but because the greatest Servant of all has obtained this seat for us and given it to us.

15th July 2012 GEOFF THOMAS