Alfred Place Baptist Church

9:46-48 True Greatness Displayed and Taught

Luke 9:46-48 “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and made him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest.’”

I suppose that one useful definition of a true Christian is to say in a negative form; a person who doesn’t keep the living God at a distance, right outside his life.

1. A TRUE CHRISTIAN WELCOMES GOD INTO HIS LIFE.

Positively stated, a Christian is someone who welcomes the living God into his innermost being, into the life of his home and family, into all his activities and relationships. There is no place he might be in which he is ashamed to welcome God’s company. Whenever it is, if there should be a knock on the door and he opens it and discovers that before him is the Lord standing there – then his face beams; “You are most welcome, wonderfully welcome, dear, my dearest Master. Please come in and join us Lord; we are honoured to have you.” There may be a party going on; it may be a business meeting; you may be in the middle of the duties of washing and working in the house, no matter, God is always welcomed at any time as spectator and counsellor and helper and friend. No activity in which the Lord is to be marginalized. A true Christian is someone who welcomes God into every part of his daily existence.

So what is this welcoming of God into your life, and how is this achieved? What is the first step? What are the basic essentials to living this kind of Christian life in which day by day and in every way God is welcomed? The disciples of our Lord are examples of this; they were people who never let him out of their sight; they ate and slept with him; he had to make an effort to get away from them when he wanted time to meditate, rising up early in the morning, quietly slipping away to some quiet place. These disciples of Jesus had seen the most stupendous miracles and heard the most powerful, moving words that this planet has every witnessed. They welcomed every opportunity of being with him.

2. A TRUE CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDS WHAT GREATNESS IS.

One unfortunate spin-off of their proximity to Jesus made them feel that they were pretty important men; he had chosen them hadn’t he? So they walked tall. They were the great ones in the world, the friends of God the Son, the one whom God spoke to. At times this realization went to their heads; they even wondered and argued as to which of them was the supreme, the greatest of all. Oh dear! You would imagine that they would be all talking about their wonderful spiritual experience. Today a huge emphasis is put on having a religious experience, having Holy Spirit baptism, and it is suggested that once you have had that then you become a hyper-Christian. Yet here was Peter and James and John arguing about which one was greater than the other two! 24 hours earlier they heard the voice of God. 24 hours earlier they had seen Moses and Elijah alive and transfigured before them. 24 hours earlier they had seen the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus and yet here they are 24 hours later unchanged by the remarkable experience they’d had! They are still the same. Experiences alone cannot change you. It is a great delusion to think they can. These boys were arguing proudly who was the greatest. They had seen ten minutes earlier another extraordinary event; a boy who was the plaything of Satan, horribly suffering, was delivered by Jesus. You would think they would gather round the boy; they would talk with him and his father; they would have a little prayer meeting of praise and thanks. No. They ignored the rejoicing father and the delivered son. “Which of us is going to be the greatest?”

They were, you realise, rather immature and young Christians; they didn’t want to know of the sufferings of Christ. They still were thinking as they used to think before they met him, just like the world around them thought, because in their culture that question – “Who’s the greatest?” – was often posed, and when the wine flowed and the meal was over noisy arguments would go on into the small hours. Who was the greatest general, poet, senator, philosopher, athlete or sculptor? And isn’t being judged the greatest very important in our day; ‘Parliamentarian of the Year,’ ‘Sports Personality of the Year,’ ‘Footballer of the Year,’ ‘Man of the Year,’ ‘Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize,’ ‘Top Ten Welshmen of all time,’ ‘the Dream Team,’ the ‘New Year Honours,’ ‘Cardiff Singer of the Year,’ ‘Greatest New Talent,’ ‘X Factor Finalist,’ ‘Oscar Winner for Best Actor or Best Actress.’ The Times even ran the ‘Preacher of the Year’ contest for some years. In all those categories, and many more, our culture is making its judgments on who are the men or women who have the highest status. So it was in Jesus’ time, and that spirit of longing for this world’s recognition had infected the disciples.

Do you see what I am saying? Here were a group of men who welcomed Jesus into every part of their lives. It was a privilege to be near to him, and yet one dangerous consequence of that was that they became proud of their status as his apostles, and competitive. Their Master had a kingdom, and he was the Son of God. Which of them would be the greatest in his kingdom? Would it be John because of his favoured relationship with Jesus of Nazareth? Our Lord loved him; surely he would make him the greatest. Or would it be Peter as the outspoken and insightful natural leader of the Twelve? Surely he must be the greatest. Others had other surprising choices as to whom they would judge to be the prime apostle; there were some dark horses in this race. There was a heated argument about who was the greatest which started within ten minutes of the healing of the little child. The crowd were only beginning to drift away, and they were drawn between watching the father with his healed child and yet also listening in on the disciples arguing.

Jesus knew exactly what was going on. We are told that knew their thoughts (v.47). They might have imagined they were talking out of earshot, but Christ knew. That is a very solemn fact, that God the Son knows my thoughts, why I ever went into the ministry, how much praise from men do I itch after, the lusts of my own mind and flesh – all are known to him. While I have hidden much from you and from those who love me the most I am utterly unable to hide anything from him. Such sins as my vaunted ambition, my pride, my resentment, my self-pity – all are an open book to Jesus Christ.

They make me ask this question; how can I hope to enter heaven if entry should hang on perfection in my inner life? God knows my secret sins; they are there, those noisy inward sins, drawing his attention to them, and exposed before his countenance. Don’t I need inward cleansing? Isn’t my conscience in need of washing? You’d think that King David would desire just one great sin to be forgiven after he had taken a man’s wife and arranged for that man to be killed. What wickedness! You would imagine that that was the one sin he’d long to be covered, dwarfing and shrinking every other, and yet in his great prayer of mercy in Psalm 51 he says this to Jehovah, “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (v.6); he prays, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (v.10); he states this, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v.17). David was concerned for inner deliverance. In our text, this vain argument about which one of the disciples was ‘the greatest’ was a barometer announcing the state of their hearts. How much vaunted ambition and an itch for the praise and admiration of men was there. We look around us; how much folly and pain over the last 24 hours in our town has been caused by that spirit? How much of it is in me or in you? God alone knows how much. But he does know; there is nothing hidden to him.

So I have said to you that a real Christian is someone who welcomes God into his life, but then I have shown you that such a person – a true disciple – is still quite imperfect. For example, he can become proud of the fact that God has chosen him; he can have foolish feelings of self-importance and rivalry. He has still to learn to pour contempt on all his pride daily.

So what is a mature Christian? What is a truly great Christian? Can we know that? He is someone who has welcomed the true and living God, the God who is light, in whom is no darkness at all, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, into every room in his life. He gives the key to every door to God. He gives him the key to his computer, to every file, to his book case and magazine rack and DVDs and his music. A great Christian welcomes God to supervise every part of his life. There is not a corner of his life which he declares off limits to God. There is not one no-go area at all. A real Christian is someone who welcomes God into his life, to have and to hold, in every part.

Now all that is the background to what Jesus was about to do and what Jesus was about to say, and it would all be very simple but yet very important. It was to teach those of us who have welcomed Christ into our lives how we must go on to live useful lives, and mature lives, and grown up lives, and yes, even great lives for him. I want each one of us to live a great life in Christ and for Christ, not a little life; not a pigmy life. I want us all to have high ambitions, but I want Christ to become our magnificent obsession. I want our lives to count for him; I want us to become great in him – as he defines greatness. I was once brought along to a little party for a 21 year old in Memphis and was briefly introduced to the minister who sort of welcomed me. What he did was to turn to the students in the party and said to them, “Hey you guys, I really want you to get to know this man . . .” and with that he walked away and ignored me. That was a welcome in word, but not in deed and in truth. That is not good enough. We have to welcome the Lord into our lives sincerely and deeply.

So, in the middle of their argument as to which one of them was the greatest, Jesus did something. He did not merely speak; he performed an action. They could easily forget his words; they would generalize the message; they would blunt the sharp edge of the sword of the Spirit if they could because he was very courageous; he wouldn’t fail to point out their wretched sins. So he spoke to them after first he had done something – just as we see in Jeremiah the prophet (in whom was the spirit of Christ). Jeremiah would perform a striking action as well as speak. For example, Jeremiah would make a model of the city of Jerusalem which would be destroyed, or he would bury an undergarment for weeks and then bring out its rotting rags. It was foul and useless. That was Jerusalem in God’s sight. Jesus like Jeremiah would also act in this way; by an action he would appeal to eye-gate, and by that means his message would enter their hearts and souls. So Jesus is going to give us a visual display of what true greatness was and is. So you see where we are? A real Christian is one who welcomes God into every part of his life. Such a person achieves greatness in the world, but only such people.

JESUS DID SOMETHING TO SHOW WHAT GREATNESS IS.

We read, “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him” (v.47). Now I believe that this little child was the boy he had just delivered from the evil spirit. We are clearly told that he was a boy; our text says that “he had him stand beside him.” It does not say specifically that it was the boy who had been delivered, and I cannot prove it, but it is the natural interpretation of this narrative. It is all in one long paragraph in the Greek. There is no movement elsewhere, no change in time or in location. The boy in this section is at first called the ‘son’ (vv. 38 and 41) and then he is called the ‘boy’ in verse 42 and here in our text, the ‘little child.’ My point is this that what Jesus did and said here he could say and do after any of his other miracles. He could take a leper he had cleansed and have him stand beside him. He could take the Gadarene demoniac and have him stand beside him. He would take the much married Samaritan woman and have her stand by him and then say these same words to his disciples who were far more interested in who would be the top man than in ministering to people at the bottom.

So what actually happened, as Luke described it, was this, that our Lord grasped this boy. He took hold of him and drew him to stand besides him. Now we have become very sensitive to religious men handling boys especially in recent weeks when the Roman Catholic church in Ireland has properly been pilloried by the media for a hundred of their priests’ obscene abuse of boys – a hundred! Think of it. One priest admitted he had abused more than 100 children, while another confessed to sexual abuse every two weeks during his 25-year ministry. They have brought suspicion and shame onto the holy office of the minister of God. They have done me no favours at all by their actions; parents no longer feel safe in sending their children along to a church. However, of course, there have been Protestant ministers who have also been wicked. I recognize that too many of our ministers have been unfaithful to their wives; one is too many. The situation in Wales today amongst Roman Catholics is this; they have reached a level of astonishment bordering on horror at the behaviour of their leaders. Rome once policed Ireland’s moral values with a rod of iron, but for years its own moral compass had lost its North.

It will not be enough to have wholesale sackings and resignations of those associated with this era of arrogance and infamy. There has to be a far more fundamental recognition that the Roman Catholic church has deliberately opened itself to sexual temptation by its commitment to celibacy. The movement into asceticism in the Roman church gained momentum about 300 to 400 years after Christ rose from the dead. It began to insist that every one of its clergy must be unmarried. In other words, it was a sin for a minister to have a wife. That is what they said and still say. It became not a voluntary personal choice of marrying or not marrying, even though Paul teaches Timothy that a church leader should be the husband of one wife, and then he says that “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry” (I Tim.4:1-3). Some of you are Roman Catholics; do you know that this is in the New Testament? Your priests ought to know, and yet in the year 1079 under Hildebrand (who was Pope Gregory VII) the celibacy of the priesthood was decreed, and Roman clergy have had to live under the prohibition of marriage ever since – with various degrees of obedience. These priests have to live without the presence of a wife but with the presence of pretty young boys and girls coming to them for instruction and confession. What a tinder box, self-inflicted by the Roman church! Yet when the Reformation came and men discovered what the Bible taught there was a great turning to Scriptural teaching on all of life, not just the great achievement of Christ and the person and work of the Holy Spirit, but the nature of marriage, so that from that time on pastors and preachers could get married, even as the apostle Peter himself had a wife.

So our Lord took this boy in front of all the people. Our Lord was tempted in all points as we are and yet he resisted sin. He can sympathize with our hot temptations and longings for deliverance. You are in no safer hands than when Jesus comes near and takes you, but notice that he took the boy to stand alongside him. You will see the posture of them both. You could say it was a stance of friendship and not of intimacy. The Bible asks, “Can two walk together unless they be agreed?” The posture of friendship is of two people alongside one another going through life with one another’s companionship. The posture of a husband and a wife is of a man and woman joined together, the two becoming one flesh, facing one another. This boy stands right alongside Christ. He is not facing him, not kneeling before him but beside him. It is the place of brotherhood and acceptance and affection. Our Lord is honouring this boy. It is the picture we are given of Christ and his people in heaven when he will stand alongside us and present us to God with exceeding great joy. He will own us as his own. “These people around me and with me are the people who were not ashamed of me or of my words. They loved and served me. They confessed me with their lips and believed on me in their hearts.” Listen to Christ our advocate, the friend of sinners and he is our right hand man. He is acknowledging us before men and angels. He is not ashamed of us at all. He will own our worthless names before his Father’s face. This is what he is doing here to this little boy.

Now let us consider this child. You must not think of him as a cute boy from the cover of a expensive magazine. He is not a beautifully coiffured child in designer clothes. He is a silent, perplexed boy, poor and vulnerable. He is not holy; he is not humble and meek; he is not wise and mature at all. He is a boy who is a few years old wondering what is going on, and why everyone is looking at him. He is helpless, but what is unique about this boy is that the grace of Christ has delivered him from the power of evil. You consider children in the society of Jesus’ day. There was little sentiment about their rank. If they were baby girls and weren’t wanted they were frequently exposed over night. Let the dogs and the frost kill them off. Baby boys were more likely to be spared, but not invariably. Children were not bread winners; they were expensive to maintain for six years or so before they could begin their life of working. Children were the weakest and most vulnerable class of people. They had little implicit value as human beings. Many of them would not survive into adulthood. At least women were useful in bearing children, but kids? Who wanted them? They were the lowest status of all.

Yet is it Jehovah Jesus who is welcoming this child. The Lord of glory is honouring this disposable and helpless boy. “Stand right next to me!” That is greatness; to identify yourself as the eternal brother of any and every needy sinner whose only hope and plea is deliverance and salvation through your shed blood. Christ stands alongside a person like that, in solidarity with him, one whom he has delivered personally from the evil one, no matter how wicked he has been in the past. He stands with him as you, having introduced someone you love at a feast then escort them and stand with them, or you present your girl friend to your parents, or your newly wed to the those invited to the wedding party. Stand by your man!

Let me show you some verses in the Bible which underline this. Some of the Hebrew Christians were experiencing persecution and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was praising their friends for the encouragement they gave. He says, “Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (Hebs 10: 33&34). Sometimes they were the one whose calling it was to suffer for Christ. On other occasions it was the turn of their friends and when they were put in the stocks and pelted with filth and stones, then you stood side by side with them speaking to them and upholding them throughout the terrible ordeal, showing you were not ashamed to identify yourself with them. That is how they honoured those who suffered in the name of Jesus. They stood alongside them.

You can remember the great humanitarian parable in Matthew 25 where Christ speaks of identifying himself with them so closely that to reject them is to reject him, their hurts are his, and their comfort and healing become his comfort too. “You were there alongside me,” Jesus says, and that is greatness. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matt. 25:35-40). Alongside the needy believers stood helping brothers and sister. You understand what the mark of a true Christian is? A Christian is not someone who says, “Well, in my heart I am a Christian. I may not be one who speaks and acts in a public way, but in my heart Jesus Christ is my Lord.” That is not enough. A true Christian stands alongside other Christians. That is her place throughout her life. She stands with others when they get up and sing a hymn; she stands with others and puts money in the offering boxes. She stands with the poor believer and gives them what she can; she stands with the lonely and visits them. She is not a private Christian; she involved herself with others. She is alongside them, even insignificant and handicapped and difficult people. Christ stood alongside a child.

What happened this week? Two Christians Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang stood in the dock in a court in Liverpool. They run a hotel and a woman who was a guest there during this last year had accused them of making critical remarks about her Islamic faith. For nine months this Christian couple have had this court case hanging over them. As a result one of their hotel’s major clients stopped making bookings. There was an 80% fall in income. What are we told? Ben and Sharon’s pastor and the whole church stood by them. Some 200 Christians turned out to a special prayer meeting the night before the trial and when the case began 50 took part in an organised Christian witness outside the court. Once the Defence had finished putting their case at the end of Wednesday afternoon the case was over and these two believers were cleared of all the charges against them. The judge said that criticizing Islam was not a crime. Freedom to speak merely inoffensively is a freedom not worth having. This was the first case ever of Christians being prosecuted in England for comments about Islam. Christians stand alongside one another in times of trial. We are not a group of individuals isolated from one another. We are a body. The strong bear the burdens of the weak. We weep with them that weep. We belong together. That is greatness.

The supreme example is at the cross where the Saviour was mocked as he hung there and we are told, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene . . . Jesus saw his mother there” (Jn. 19:25). We are not told that they were near the three crosses; they were near the cross of Christ, so they were very near. Families were allowed to be close at crucifixions. They were not a great way off; the squaddies permitted them to come near to Jesus. They were no threat; they weren’t going to mount a commando raid, lower the cross and pull out the nails and free Christ. The women were there alongside Christ expressing their love and agony of heart and identification with him; four godly women alongside Jesus.

The Lord Jesus has delivered a mere child from Satan, and now he stood by the boy very publicly and drew attention to his relationship with him friend and defender, honouring this child. Then he spoke:

JESUS SAID SOMETHING TO TEACH WHAT GREATNESS IS.

“Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest.’” (v.48). He showed them what greatness was, that in fact it was doing what he was doing, standing in solidarity with the people who’d been delivered by Christ, lepers, demoniacs, people who had been covered in sores who had been healed by him, men blind from birth, very poor people who slept on the side of the road, tax-collectors who had repented of their sin, prostitutes who had asked Jesus for forgiveness, Samaritan women who trusted in him, men who had done unspeakable things but had found Christ as their Lord and Saviour – those are the people we stand alongside and we don’t ignore them; we genuinely welcome them. We are so glad to see them. We give them the right hand of fellowship and we welcome them into our church, we sit with them at the Lord’s Table, we set them aside as officers; we listen to their contributions in church meetings. That is what a mature Christian and a great Christian does.

Notice that we welcome them in the name of Jesus Christ. That is what he says. In other words, we welcome them because of Jesus Christ, what he means to them and to us; what he has done in them and us; because of all that he is; because you live your life under the shadow of his name; you live your life consistently aware of the glory and honour of the name of Jesus. You live your whole life under the authority of his name. You live according to everything that that name of Jesus stands for. You live consistent with the contents of the name of Jesus. You live your life faithful to the commission that Jesus Christ has given you. That is what welcoming other believers in Jesus’ name means.

Notice also that what the result of that is; Jesus says that when we welcome them in that way we are welcoming him. Imagine that you were going to have the privilege after the morning service of welcoming Jesus to your home, that you were going to have a meal with him. He was going to sit in your arm-chair and listen to you and talk to you. He was going to sign your visitor’s book. You would have spent a long time thinking of the menu; you would cook your favourite meal for him, the dishes you cook best, but you would get the finest cut of tender meat. We know that Jesus was not a vegetarian because he ate lamb at the Passover meal and fish beside the lake with his disciples. You would make your favourite pudding as the penultimate course, and then fresh ground coffee, After 8’s and cheese and biscuits. Imagine it, Jesus of Nazareth is being welcomed to your house. You say, “Yet that would be something. One can dream . . .” No! Jesus says that that it is a reality, that “whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me” (v.48). You don’t say that “Corned beef sandwiches, or fish fingers and a boiled egg will do for him because he’s a little child.” Yes, corned beef sandwiches are very nice, and a boiled egg too. I am trying to describe something very plain, not giving much trouble. I am saying that you know that every true Christian lives in solidarity with Christ. He is joined to Christ; Jesus and he are one. As much as you do something for the least of those who are in Christ you do it to him. You’ve had Jesus to deal with this last week as you bumped into another believer and stood in the street and talked with him or her, as they came to your house and ate with you, as you talked with them after church and made them welcome – then you were showing love to them in solidarity with Christ. Welcoming them you were welcoming Christ, and so aren’t you mighty glad that you gave them time, and affection, and prayerful interest. You were doing it to the Lord Jesus.

Then Jesus says something more; “and whosoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (v.48). You say you want to become a real Christian and welcome God into every part of your life. The God tells you to begin with his Son Jesus. Go to Christ first and welcome him into your life. Remember the famous verse in Revelation chapter three and verse twenty, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” God the Father and God the Son stand in solidarity with one another. “I and my Father are one,” said Jesus. So it is impossible to accept the Father and not accept his Son, but you have to begin with Jesus because he said that he was the way, and that no one came to the Father but by the Son. The Son has lived the perfect of life of righteousness before his Father in our place. The Son has also died the atoning death in our place to obtain pardon for our sins. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world and because of the sinless Lamb then God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me. So you must welcome Jesus Christ into your life. Welcome him into every part of your life. Don’t keep one room locked and barred to him. Don’t pull a veil over any activity and hide anything from him. Welcome him as your teacher; from now on he is going to teach you what is really valuable in life, what things honour him how to be the best father or mother or wife or husband that you can be. Welcome all his instruction. Welcome him also as your great high priest, your mediator with God. Always go to God in the name of Jesus and God will hear and answer your prayers in Christ’s name. Welcome him also as the one who protects and keeps you from the world’s enchantments, and from remaining inward sin which can be so powerful and from the devil. Welcome Jesus as your Saviour and friend, and you will find that when you do that you also welcome God too, the one who sent Jesus.

You need God. Who needs God? Weak people. Helpless people. Sinful people. Tempted people. Falling people. A man in the temple whom Jesus saw, who was too ashamed to look up gazed down into the dust and beat his breast and said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He needed Jesus and our Lord said he left the temple justified, right with God, pardoned, healed, restored and forgiven. Who did that to him? Jesus did it, and then he became right with God. Then he became great! Remember that children’s book about Christians who had given their lives to serve God. Do you remember the book I am referring to? You know what it was called, John Tallach’s God Made Them Great. That’s who great people are, needy people – “the least among you” Jesus calls them in our text – yet they are the one who welcome Jesus into their lives. Then they humble themselves and welcome all who belong to Jesus, however poor and needy they are, into they lives. They stoop down and serve them, just as he “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phils 2:7&8). When they serve and welcome others then, to their amazement they discover that they have welcomed Almighty God into their lives too, right in, right inside them and into every activity. That is a real Christian, one who doesn’t keep God at a distance but lives with him and in him day by day, all life long. Come to Jesus Christ and welcome!

13th December 2009 GEOFF THOMAS