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Who is the Greatest?

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It is written in Mark 9:33:  They came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest, as is recorded in Luke 9:46:  An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.

It is these arguments, which started after three of them were on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, that distracted the disciples from what Jesus was saying and doing all through their journey with Him and even past the time when Jesus returned to the Father. These arguments brought them to distraction where they were jostling with each other for the position of the ‘greatest’, even though Jesus had told them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” [Mark 9.35] These arguments about who was going to be the greatest were a constant diversion from what they should have been doing, which was listening to and watching Jesus, but with their minds on something else it hindered their receiving the teaching Jesus had been giving them.

The first arguments among the disciples occurred just after Jesus drove the demon out of the boy at the base of the Mount of Transfiguration. They came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom He placed among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My Name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.” [Mark 9:33-37]

At another point when Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, another argument started with a power grab when James and John, assisted by their mother, asked Jesus to do a favour for them. Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want Me to do for you?” He asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at Your right and the other at Your left in Your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at My right or left is not for Me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:35-45]

The third recorded argument was after the supper, when Jesus required their attention the most. He had just told them that He would go as it had been decreed. In Luke’s account, the disciples argued about who would be the greatest again. What is wrong with this? For how much love did they have for Him? They were like sons who could not wait for their father to die so they could take the inheritance! It is written: …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.” [Luke 22:24-30]

These arguments about who would be the greatest kept the disciples’ focus away from Jesus and what He was saying and doing, and so stopped them from hearing everything He had to say. While Jesus was trying to teach them, in the back of the disciples’ minds were the constant thoughts of who would be the greatest. They were competing with each other for the highest position, worried about who would be the ‘chosen one’ to replace Jesus, as if anyone could.

So, how did these arguments come about?

After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If You wish, I will put up three shelters—one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” He said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” [Matthew 17:1-9]

As they came down the mountain, they were instructed by Jesus not to tell anyone what they had seen, and again, according to the account in Mark, they were ‘ordered’ by Jesus not to tell anyone what they had seen. In Luke’s account it is recorded:  The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen. [Luke 9:36b]

Luke’s account says that the disciples kept what happened to themselves at that time, but what it does not say was that the three who were on the mountain told the other disciples about what they had seen on the mountain soon after. Yes, they told the other disciples what happened when they had an opportune moment after Jesus drove the demon out of the boy, for why else would the arguments start when they were on the road to Capernaum? For after seeing Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest prophets, their minds were overawed with excitement when thinking about what just happened. Was this to their minds the ‘sign’ from God that they were to become great? What happened to the command from the Father, “Listen to Him”? You can imagine what the three were thinking after this event, how amazing it was to them, and that in their excitement told the others – forgetting what Jesus had ordered them. Then after hearing what had happened, the other nine were possibly wondering, “Why didn’t He take us also?” The command, “Listen to Him,” was broken not long after they were told not to tell anyone. This divided the twelve and allowed the arguments and the race for the greatest to start among them.

Wanting to be the greatest has always been on the mind of men. Little children argue about who is the greatest and often act as though they are the greatest, even arguing about whose dad is greater. It has been and is as Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.” Men have fought each other to gain the highest position, to ensure their own comfort, and rarely have helped anyone except themselves. But Jesus clearly said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” What did He mean when He said this?

Serving God for many has been something they have wanted to do, for even this is within a person. Many have had in mind the opportunity to become great like Moses, Elijah or the disciples, and have found themselves in the position where either they are lorded over in the church or they lord it over others in the church. The desire to become great like those recorded in the Scriptures has driven men mad to the point where they will kill any and all who oppose them, for they have not understood how to serve God.

Many people, after coming to salvation through faith in Jesus, have desired to serve Him and have ignorantly presumed that serving in the church is the same as serving God Himself. But is it? In the church you are encouraged to work for God by doing various duties to expand the ‘kingdom of church’, building up the manmade organization’s name for the greatness of that organization. There can be found those who wish to be the greatest, and they will use others to build up their own greatness to the point where they ‘lord’ it over others, going back to the way of the kings of the Gentiles. Yes, you get to ‘serve suffering humanity’ as one organization has put it, and you will get to feed the poor, give your time (that God has given you) and money, and do many other activities to keep you busy and make you feel like you are serving God, but is this what Jesus, the Father or Holy Spirit had in mind? For after all, you are supposed to be following Jesus, aren’t you?

The Jews made the same mistake when they worshiped the temple and not God, as recorded in Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.” [Jeremiah 7:3-8]

Even now, many in the churches have fallen into the same trap, where those in the churches are lorded over by those who wish to be great to the point where the church is more important than the true God whom they claim to serve. This is the fruit of the great prostitute – Babylon the great. They do not know their Father or how to serve Him.

How do you serve God and at the same time be the least, and yet become the greatest? What did Jesus have in mind when He said, “‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only,'” [Matthew 4:10; Luke 4:8] and “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all,” and “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”? How do you put these three verses together? If you are in the Kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of joy, peace and righteousness in the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of power, you cannot from a worldly point of view see how to be a ‘slave’ and at the same time be with full power! A slave in this world with full power would not remain a slave for long, for the thought of overthrowing his master would come to mind!

Paul wrote: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of Heaven and Earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. [Acts 17:24-25] For God said, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are Mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is Mine, and all that is in it.” [Psalm 50:9-12] If God said, “If I were hungry I would not tell you…” how are you ever going to know how, when or why to serve Him? So then, what does God not have?

The way to serve God only and be a slave to all is by first serving God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – only. It is the Holy Spirit who is with us and He will bring to you the people whom He has chosen to be served by you for Him, as they are His honoured guests. For the guests whom the Holy Spirit brings in are the ones who are to be served with the gospel, healing, deliverance, and other ways that He chooses for each one. They may not appear as you expect them to be, and some may even offend you. By being the least, a slave to all whom the Holy Spirit sends you, you become great in the eyes of His guests when you display the greatness of your God whom you serve with humility. You will always know and love serving Them, for They – God – are the greatest. Never forget this. It is God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who is the greatest. Do not just serve anyone, because they may not have been invited by the Holy Spirit, but get to know whom the Holy Spirit wishes you to serve, that you may serve them for the Holy Spirit. In this way, being in the Kingdom of God you will serve with His power and will never have to worry about who is the greatest among you, but will share in the greatness of God!

Did Jesus have to feed the 5000? If you or I had 5000 men following us, not including the women and children also following us, knowing that they don’t care for us, for they all have their own problems and issues to deal with, bringing their diseases, sicknesses, pain, problems… would we have the attitude to serve them all? Think about it. A potential crowd of over ten thousand, mostly poor and sick, and they have all come to be healed. You heal them, and then you turn around and go the extra mile by also feeding them all. Such was the thinking of Jesus, and therefore the Kingdom of God. Yet, if you are of the world, subduing them, lording over them and building them up to fight for your own cause would be what is on your mind at best.

Did Jesus serve everyone? No, it is recorded a few times that Jesus was asked for a miraculous sign, to which he answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” [Matthew 16:4] Jesus did not serve them directly or immediately, for wickedness, which is God-forsaking, and adultery, which is serving other gods by being intimate with them, were in them. Jesus did not prostitute the Kingdom of God so He could become acceptable to them. Jesus also said to them, “For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation.” [Luke 11:30] A miraculous sign for the sake of a sign serves no one, so the only sign that they would see was when Jesus would be in the depths for three days, for this is what God had in mind so that they might repent. Giving them a chance to repent was the only thing God had in mind to serve that generation. So, miracles for the sake of doing miracles so that many may believe and accept you without repentance will not occur, and it has never been on Jesus’ mind that we should do miracles for the sake of doing them, but we are to serve God with the people He wishes for us to serve.

Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves Me must follow Me; and where I am, My servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves Me.” [John 12:23-27]

Jesus knew what the disciples were arguing about on the road. Peter was worried about his own greatness and was positioning for power at the supper, because he wanted to have the greatest position for himself – to ‘lord’ it over others. Was this why Peter was quick to pull out a sword during Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane – to show himself worthy? Peter and the others never really heard what Jesus had said about being resurrected on the third day, and so they could not perceive what He was saying about being resurrected, for that would interfere with their plans. There was one who did hear, but even though she did not fully understand it, she knew that Jesus was about to die and she was able to serve Jesus before this event. Because she served Jesus, what Jesus said about the Father, “My Father will honour the one who serves Me,” [John 12:26] happened because Jesus said of Mary, “I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” [Matthew 26:13] Mary Magdalene, who served Jesus, became great in the eyes of God, and was in a unique position because she was one who considered herself never to have the opportunity to become great, and as she was a woman she was considered the least among the disciples. Yet it was her love of Jesus that allowed her to hear and then serve Him.

Was Peter ever given a chance to prove himself a leader amongst the disciples? Yes, but not in the way he or we would have expected. It was during the trial of Jesus when Peter denied Him that the opportunity was given. What would have happened if Peter said that he knew Jesus? If Simon Peter had not denied Jesus but had admitted that he knew Him and that he was a disciple of Jesus, [John 18:17] Peter would have been arrested and they would have made him carry the cross for Jesus on the way to Golgotha. This would have been the least that would have happened to Peter. Peter would have also received a flogging and possibly have even been crucified with Jesus, and even be resurrected with Jesus. At the very least, Peter would have been serving Jesus, honouring Him, and therefore the Father would have honoured Peter… maybe with the words, I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what he has done will also be told, in memory of him.”

When you read the four gospels’ accounts of the trial of Jesus, you will see several times Peter was given the chance to be arrested by those who asked him, “You are not one of His disciples, are you?” “Didn’t I see you with Him in the olive grove?” “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” [John 18:17, 25; 18:26; Luke 14:67, 70] He was given many opportunities to be arrested, so that he would have been with Jesus and eventually forced to carry the cross for Jesus, but Peter denied Jesus even though he said that he would never deny Jesus. Since Peter denied Jesus, a stranger was given the task to carry the cross for Jesus as He was being led out to be crucified. The position ended up with Simon of Cyrene, though it had been intended for Simon Peter to hold it, as Jesus said “…and where I am, My servant also will be.” Thus it can be seen that Peter’s love was not agape, for “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13]

Even after the resurrection, the eleven’s minds were still on leadership for themselves, for they were so focused on being the greatest and/or the leader that it was as if they could not see Him or hear Him. It was as if He was still dead to them. No wonder they were in confusion. We see this in the account of Jesus with Peter towards the time of His ascension:  The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.” [John 21:17-22]

It is when you hear yourself saying, “Lord, what about him?” like Peter did, that you will find yourself being distracted away from Jesus. There is only One who is/are the greatest and that is the LORD, the LORD, and the LORD, and He/They will not die. Do not make the same mistake as the disciples did by thinking that you have the opportunity to be the greatest. For when you start comparing yourself with your fellow disciples, you only distract yourself from what Jesus is really saying and you will miss out on the opportunity Jesus has for you. Remember always what Jesus has said, and remind each other of it, “You must follow Me.” For as the Kingdom of God starts to release full power, many new disciples will join with little ability to only follow Jesus. Stop the arguments ‘on the road’ towards getting things ready for the King’s return, and remind them of what Jesus said. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by the fear of others being greater than you and thus lose out on the greatness that Jesus has prepared to share with you, for the opportunity that Jesus has for you will come, but not in the way you expect it, and to see it you must have agape love in your heart, so always remember what Jesus said… “You must follow Me.”

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2010 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan.  All rights reserved worldwide.  www.zondervan.com

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