Imagine being an apostle walking with Jesus. Thousands of people crowd around and the apostles stand in the center of the crowd with Jesus. When it is time to get away, Jesus takes the apostles with Him. They go with Him in the boat and the secluded mountainside.
Jesus gives the apostles the authority to cast out demons and heal people of sickness. They are the chosen twelve with the special title of apostle. If people want to see Jesus, they must go through the apostles.
Jesus teaches the crowds in parables, and not everyone understands what He is teaching. But, when the teaching is done, Jesus explains everything to the twelve. The people do not know the identity of Jesus. But the apostles know that He is the Christ of God, the Messiah.”
The apostles eat, sleep, and walk with the Messiah. We might imagine spending all that time in the presence of the Son of God will make the apostles especially religious. They must be great spiritual men who treat one another with love. They sing psalms together and encourage one another. They walk along the road and discuss God’s goodness and His attributes. They exemplify how to live as a Jew.
Unfortunately, the apostles do not prove to be pillars of godliness. The gospels reveal that the apostles are nothing special. They are not the epitome of Jewishness or prime examples of virtue. They are like us.
What Is Greatness?
One of the things that makes the Bible believable is the honesty of its content. The only way Luke can learn about the apostles and their failures is if they tell him. One of the apostles, being interviewed by Luke, tells him the embarrassing story of how they argue, and Jesus sets them straight.
A week or two earlier, Jesus tells the apostles that to follow Him, they must deny themselves and pick up their cross daily. Rather than deny themselves, they argue over which one of them is the greatest.
They look forward to when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to sit on the throne of David. There has not been a king in Israel since Solomon. When Jesus sits on the throne, the Romans will no longer be in power. Israel will be the nation among nations, with Jerusalem as the capital.
Every king needs other men to help rule the kingdom, and as the chosen twelve, they assume they will sit in seats of world power.
It is likely they argue over who will sit closest to Jesus and be second in command. We do not know who is involved in the argument. Perhaps it is all of them. Peter, John, and James are the top contenders. Levi is most qualified to oversee tax collection and be the chief financial officer. Simon, the Zealot, is a policy expert. Who is the greatest?
Be great by being the least
Jesus knows their heart. In response, He does not say who is the greatest but uses a child for an object lesson. He says to the apostles, “Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.” (Luke 9:46-49)
There is only one person who can render a judgment as to who will be the greatest in His kingdom. The King of kings decides which of the apostles will be the greatest. It will be the opposite of what they think. The least among them shall be the greatest.
Jesus is not making a statement evaluating age. He is making a point about those who are helpless. In the time of Jesus, children are considered people of little consequence. Later in Luke’s gospel, people try to bring children to Jesus, and the disciples try to keep them away (Luke 18:15). Children in the first century are unimportant and insignificant.
Jesus teaches that to receive a child is to receive Him. When we receive people, we welcome them. We are hospitable, and we serve those who we receive. We receive people when we offer them a cold drink on a warm day or a meal as they travel through. If someone is a dignitary, we roll out the red carpet. The welcome reception that we give to a child is to be the same that we give to the King of Israel.
Do you remember what Jesus taught in chapter six? He said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6:32-33)
Receiving a child is to love someone who may not repay you in the same way. There is no reciprocity with a child. Greatness in God’s kingdom is to receive the least.
There are two very good examples of this principle. One is in the New Testament, and the second is in the Old.
Receiving the least is what separates the sheep from the goats.
Jesus says that how we receive people is evidence of our salvation. Turn to Matthew 25:31-40.
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For 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; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to 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? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)
Jesus is not preaching a works-based salvation. He is saying that the evidence of saving faith is seen in what we do (James 2:14-19). The righteous look to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, sick, or prisoner. To receive the least is to receive Christ.
The example of Job
An example of someone great in God’s kingdom is Job. Most people remember Job for his suffering. But let us recall why God tells Satan to consider the righteousness of Job.
Job speaks about his life before Satan wreaks havoc. Turn to Job chapter 29. As we read this passage, notice how Job receives the least.
“When I went out to the gate of the city when I took my seat in the square, the young men saw me and hid themselves, and the old men arose and stood. The princes stopped talking and put their hands on their mouths; the voice of the nobles was hushed, and their tongue stuck to their palate. For when the ear heard, it called me blessed, and when the eye saw, it gave witness of me, because I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the orphan who had no helper. The blessing of the one ready to perish came upon me, and I made the widow's heart sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I investigated the case which I did not know. I broke the jaws of the wicked and snatched the prey from his teeth.” (Job 29:7-17).
Job is great in God’s kingdom. God considers Him as an example of righteousness. When Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, Job is counted among the sheep.
Do you remember how Jesus announces that He is the Christ to the disciples of John the Baptist? “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Luke 7:22).
The Messiah is here! How do we know? The evidence of the Messiah is that He ministers to the least. The Messiah is God in the flesh, and we know because He evidences a heart for those in need.
To be great in God’s kingdom is the opposite of this world. The world says those who have servants are the greatest. Jesus teaches that the great in the kingdom of God are those who are servants of all.
In the world, College professors are great. In God’s kingdom, Sunday School teachers are the greatest
Jesus settles the argument. The apostle, who is the greatest, is the one who ministers to those who are the least.
In the kingdom of God, Jesus is greatest of all because He puts aside His rights and privileges. He steps off His throne and enters our world as a Servant of all, even to the point of death. Therefore, God highly exalts Him (Philippians 2:6-11). He is the perfect example of becoming the least. We are great in the eyes of God when we are like Jesus and deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him.
Be Great by Encouraging Ministry
Immediately after Jesus defines what makes His disciples great, John gives an answer. The connection between what Jesus says and John’s answer is unclear.
Perhaps John is convicted and is confessing. Or maybe John is seeking clarification about his ministry role.
John tells Jesus of an earlier incident when they saw someone casting out demons in His name. They prevented the person from doing so because he does not follow along with Jesus as an apostle. What is interesting is that they were doing what the apostles failed to do (cast out a demon).
Others are ministering in the name of Jesus. We know Jesus told the demon-possessed man in Gerasenes to proclaim the gospel throughout his region. Maybe Jesus told others to spread the gospel.
We do not have enough details to conclude what is taking place outside the circle of people surrounding Jesus. What we do know is that others who are not apostles are doing ministry in the name of Jesus.
Jesus tells John, “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50). He may be rebuking John and the apostles for stopping others from ministering in His name. Or it may be that Jesus is providing clarification to the apostles that what the others are doing is good.
We can understand how the apostles might restrict these men. Jesus does not call them apostles (Luke 6:13); they are not granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom (Luke 8:10), nor does He give them power and authority to heal the sick or cast out demons (Luke 9:1). It appears that because they are not part of the inner circle, the apostles think they are wrong to minister outside of Jesus’ direct authority.
The point Jesus makes is clear. Ministry is not exclusive to the apostles. Ministry is for all. For Jesus, either we are working for or against His kingdom. Those working for the advancement of His kingdom are great in the eyes of Jesus. Those who are not advancing His kingdom are working as sons and daughters of disobedience. They are under the influence of the enemy.
Too often, as Christians, we tear down people who labor for the sake of the gospel. We do not like their methods or their choice of Bible translation. We make fun of them if they sing songs that we choose not to sing. We look at them as being overly religious if they wear liturgical robes or burn incense.
Before going to South Africa, in missionary training, we learned to distinguish between what is different and what is unbiblical. Many cultures do things differently. In South Africa, the music volume is ear-splitting, they shout when they pray, and they form a line and dance to the offering box. What is different is not always wrong.
We are in error when we judge people for doing things differently than us, but they are busy building the kingdom of God. When we do, we commit the sin of having too much self-importance, pretending we know what is best.
There are many styles of ministry. We should never be jealous of a church when they are doing well, or rejoice when a church fails. Jesus does not approve restricting those who are doing their best to promote the gospel. Too often, we judge others and try to take the speck out of their eye when we have a log in our eye. Jesus wants us to be more interested in others succeeding than trying to stop them.
There are examples in the Scripture of people who wrongly judge God’s servants.
One example is when Moses calls the elders to the tent of meeting. Two remained in the camp: Eldad and Medad. Scripture says that the Holy Spirit rested upon Eldad and Medad, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses and said, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua told Moses that he should restrain them. But Moses said, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD'S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:26-29) Eldad and Medad are for God, not against God. Joshua is wrong to ask Moses to restrain them.
Another example is Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. There is a division in the church over who is the favorite preacher. Some prefer Apollos, others Peter, and others Paul. Apollos is an eloquent speaker. Peter is an Apostle who spent time with Jesus. Paul is not as eloquent as Apollos, but he baptized many of them.
Paul calls them immature. All three men are servants of God. It is God who gives the opportunity for Paul to plant and for Apollos to water. They have different styles, but to prefer one over another is wrong. God is the one who brings the growth, and He uses His servants to accomplish His purpose. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
We are to tolerate different styles and methods, but we are not to tolerate a different gospel. The church is the pillar of the truth. Paul writes a stern condemnation to the church in Galatia because they teach a different gospel (Galatians 1:8). Paul curses those in Galatia who preach a different gospel.
In contrast to Galatia, when Paul hears of some who preach the gospel with questionable motives (supposedly they preach to cause Paul distress as he is in prison), he says, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this, I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).
We need to rejoice and encourage all who preach the gospel of Christ and build them up, not restrict them, tear them down, or be critical.
Seek to be great in the kingdom of God
Jesus corrects the apostles' way of thinking. They think like the world. Jesus wants them to think according to the kingdom of God.
All Christians are called to stop thinking like the world. We will not find ultimate joy or peace when we think according to the world. Jesus wants us to be happy and blessed.
Romans 12:1-2 tells us to no longer be conformed to this world, but we to be transformed by renewing our minds. When we are conformed to this world, the measure of greatness is found counting the number of our servants. When our mind is renewed, and we think according to the kingdom of God, we measure greatness by how many people we serve.
When we are conformed to this world, we measure greatness by the company we keep. The great in this world keep company with the rich and powerful. In the kingdom of God, the measure of greatness is keeping company with those who are the least.
The world is full of jealousy and competition. If someone in the world does better, we are taught to fight and cut others down to keep them from advancing. Kingdom of God thinking, with a renewed mind, encourages all who work for the sake of the gospel. We help them and not hinder them.
We need to seek to be great in the kingdom of God by being a humble servant.