Intro – A pastor took one of his elders along to a conference where grand testimonies were being given about God’s work. But when someone asked the size of their church the elder was surprised to hear his pastor reply, “Between 8 and 900.” As soon as possible he pulled his pastor, “Pastor, how could you say we have between 8 and 900? You know we only average about 80 people each Sunday.” The pastor replied, “Right, and 80 is between 8 and 900!”
We all want to be somebody, don’t we? And if it takes a little spin-doctoring to make it happen, so be it! Jesus’ disciples are no exception. He has just reminded them that He’s on His way to die in Jerusalem. They are appalled, but afraid to ask for clarification. In fact, shortly they renew a habitual debate. V. 46, “An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.” This argument was their travel pastime and continued to the night before Jesus died. Jesus had no sooner served them the first communion in Luke 22 than we read in Lu 22:24: “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” These guys were incorrigible!
Thus Jesus grounds them with the unnerving observation in v. 48, “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” Such a statement defies human understanding – but it reflects God’s insistence that Humility must triumph over pride and human ambition. Why? Let’s look.
I. My Humility is the Best Thing For Others
V. 46, “An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.” The disciples were merely a product of their times. Palestinians looked up to the Pharisees as models of piety and decorum. And what did they see when they looked there? Matt 23:4-6 tells us: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” The Pharisees loved attention. Thrived on it. Made a career of it. Now here are the followers of Christ thinking against all odds that they’ve got the inside track to the kingdom. This is their chance to be somebody; don’t want to miss that!
But did the pride of the Pharisees benefit their society? Great question. Listen to Jesus’ answer in Matt 23:13. Man, it’s devastating. “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” Let me translate: “Better you guys had never been born. Not only are you going to hell; you are taking others with you who might otherwise repent. You are cursed.” Their pride was a curse on their life. It always is.
Pride says, “Look at me. Look how together I am spiritually.” But is that why we’re here? Aren’t we here to make disciples for Christ, not for ourselves. To glorify God, not self. To the praise of His glory, not ours. Pride shoves Jesus right into the backseat. Imagine finding out some day that someone missed Christ because of our posturing! That’d be devastating. But it’s what the Pharisees were doing and disciples copying.
A guy stopped at a yellow light one day rather than trying to beat it. The tailgating woman behind him was furious. She honked her horn and screamed in frustration as she dropped the make-up she was applying. She was still in mid-rant when a policeman tapped on her window, put her under arrest and threw her in jail despite her protests. A couple of hours later, she was escorted to the front lobby and released. The arresting officer told her, “I want to apologize for my mistake, ma’am. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front and cussing a blue streak. I noticed your ‘What would Jesus do?’ sticker, your ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, and your chrome-plated Christian fish emblem, so naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.” Is that devastating or what? How many times could that have been us? Dear friends, when we live like life is about us, not about Him, it is not good for others. Humility is good for others because it may attract them to Christ rather than repel them.
Humility is also good for other believers. Pride, devastates the body. Our function is to build others up, not to tear down by insisting on my way. God says in I Cor 12:7, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit (to show off? No!) for the common good.” It’s kind of hard to be working toward someone else’s good at the same time we are lording it over them, insisting on our way, our rights, or position, our priority in some way, don’t you think? Which is exactly why Paul says a few vv later in 13:2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” He’s saying, “Even if I were superior in every way to another person, but did not really love them, all my superiority would be absolutely useless.”
Have you ever noticed how certain things just go together? Cars and wheels. Tennis rackets. Cities and streets. Dave and Patty – my personal fav! Well, did you know there is something that goes with pride? There is. You can’t have pride without it. Pride has a partner. It’s in Prov 28:25, “A greedy man (literally “broad soul” – translated arrogant in most translations) An arrogant man stirs up strife, but the one who trusts in the LORD will be enriched.” Pride and strife – go together like a horse and carriage! That’s why God urges, unless it’s a moral issue or a gospel issue – give it up! Phil 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Hard? Yes, but this is how we put the gospel into practice, by doing humility for the sake of others – rather than pride for the sake of self! The disciples were certainly not edifying one another with their debate, right? Pride led to strife and bitterness as it will with us. God would rather we suffered wrong than create strife.
A Navy recruit stomped on a cockroach one morning. A petty officer asked, “What have you just done?” “Just killed a cockroach, sir,” the recruit answered. The officer replied, “Next time salute it first. It has more time in the Navy than you do.” We ought to think of that next time we are thinking our way is superior to our brother or sister. Before we kill them, it wouldn’t hurt to think about what they also have invested in their Christian life and experience. Am I guilty of selfish ambition? Do I consider that person more significant than me? It’s not a suggestion the Lord makes; it’s a command, and a whole lot less Christians would be getting killed by others if we obeyed it.
II. My Humility is the Best Thing for Myself
Jesus challenges His disciples’ juvenile behavior in two ways: humility, not pride, is the pathway to God; humility not pride, is the pathway to greatness.
A. Humility is the Pathway to God
V. 48, “ But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” To understand Jesus’ actions, you must know that children were not made the precocious center of attention then that they are now. Quite the opposite. That’s why in Mt 19:13-15, when people are bringing children to Christ for healing, the disciples turn them away. They are unimportant -- don’t count.
So, Jesus sits a child before them: “Guys, here’s the deal. How you treat this child, whom you despise even more than each other – well, that’s how you treat me and God the Father. If you can’t accept this child, you can’t be accepted by God. And if you can’t accept each other, you can’t be accepted by God. It’s just that simple.” You can’t harm the family and be right with the Father! The fellow-believer you can’t stand – God love them with a passion. If they are so wrong as you think, leave the discipline or vengeance to God. He’s perfectly capable without your help. What’s your responsibility? Glad you asked! Love them to death. That’s your instruction – subject to God’s discipline in your own life!
Pres Truman picked up his newspaper on Dec 6, 1950 to read a review of daughter, Margaret’s, singing. Critic Paul Hume said she was attractive, but could not sing very well and “has not improved” over the years. Truman wrote a scathing reply: Mr. Hume: I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay." It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work. Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below. Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry. H.S.T.” I wonder if God would write us the same letter when we think we’ve got the inside track to right!
B. Humility is the Pathway to Greatness
At the age of 31, Abe Lincoln went through a depression so crippling that his friends removed razors and sharp objects from his room for fear that he might kill himself. His friend, Joshua Speed, warned him that if he did not rally, he would most certainly die. Lincoln replied that he was more than willing to die, except that ''he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.'' This passion to be somebody drove Lincoln. But he was not unique in that regard. God has placed within us the desire to be Somebody, to do something worthwhile that will be remembered. People pursue it in ways ranging from heroic to obscene, but it persists because we are human. The thought of living a meaningless existence is devastating to most of us. It drove the disciples desire to claim the title “Greatest” among Jesus’ followers. It was a legitimate desire pursued by illegitimate means. So – what’s the answer?
No one in that culture or ours would ever have come up with the solution that Jesus did. End of v. 49, “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” Really?! That’s not our world. No one says the janitor is greater than the CEO, right? Not going to happen.
But that is exactly the point, isn’t it? Jesus isn’t speaking from the perspective of this world. Jesus is speaking from a heavenly perspective. And there, greatness isn’t measured by who can make the biggest splash. Greatness is measured by who can give the most. When you become part of the kingdom of God, you commit to a whole different dynamic. A whole different set of values that finds its ultimate expression in the person of Jesus. Where is His greatness best seen? Is it in His miracles? Is it that moment when He stood and said, “Lazarus, Come forth,” as he raised Lazarus from the dead! Was that it? Will it be when He comes riding a white horse with eyes like a flaming fire, wearing the diadems of the King of kings, a sharp sword coming out of His mouth representing the power of His Word by which He will exterminate evil forever and bring in an eternal kingdom of love and light? Is that where His greatness is most exhibited?
No, dear friends, that is not it. It is none of those. His greatness is most exhibited at the cross where He, by an act of His will, not by compulsion, hangs between heaven and earth – naked before a mocking world – looking like anything but great. But beneath it all, He is absorbing the penalty for the sin of all mankind and pays the penalty for all who will believe in Him. The Father thinks that’s greatness personified – and so had we better. It is on the basis of that act that the Father has “highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11). The cross triggered all of that. Jesus’ greatness shines clearest in the greatest act of humility and service ever rendered in this universe. Without that, we would all be lost. Greatness is measured in who can give the most, not in who can get the most. Jesus gave the most by far, and modeled for us exactly what He taught. “He who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
So, how least are we? Not exactly our style, is it? Our world does not honor little people. But let me tell you, God does. His opinion is the only one that counts in the end. I saw this modeled in a wonderful way when we got to CA when I was 18 and began to attend Magnolia Church. It was a growing church with wonderful pastors who served well. They molded my life in many ways. I am here today as a result of Pastor Ken who is now with Jesus. But while these men were humble servants, they got acclaim from being up front.
But there was another man at that church. Paul Leuschner – the janitor. I had not thought of him for many years until I was preparing this. His brother was a dynamic evangelist, but Paul had none of that ability to communicate. Seldom said a word, actually. But for years, Magnolia was the most spotlessly clean, well-maintained church in Orange County, CA. Because of Paul. He lived next door and he was at the church all the time making sure everything was ship-shape for every occasion. He knew his gifts; he used them more fully than most of us ever will. Paul was one who was least, but who was great in God’s eyes. I expect to see Paul standing there right beside Pastor Ken one of these days receiving top honors from the Father – honors which I’m sure he will then rightfully cast at Jesus’ feet. Beloved, if you want to find true greatness in God’s eyes, you have to come thru the servant’s entrance, right? Humility is the only pathway to greatness. Want to know how you rate where it counts, in heaven? Ask yourself how much you serve.
III. My Humility is the Best Thing for God
Prov 16: 5) tells us, “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.” Pride touches the glory of God and that is a dangerous thing to do. These disciples were there to reflect God’s glory, not steal it. In rejecting the idea of Jesus’ coming death and continuing to argue who would be greatest in the kingdom, they showed themselves totally divorced from the mind of God. Out of touch with reality.
That arrogance showed up shortly in v. 49, “49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” Imagine John, thoroughly puffed up with self-importance, assuring Jesus they’ve got His back. No one is going to cast out demons without their permission. What arrogance. It’s our way or no way!
But He’s not helping; he’s thwarting the will of God, right? If demons were being cast out in Jesus’ name, God’s work was being done. John’s pride is now hindering that work. Pride always hinders God’s work. So Jesus answers gently, 50 “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” “Get some humility, John. You’re not the only one doing God’s work.” Others may do it differently; think differently. But our pride must not hinder anyone who is preaching the unadulterated gospel message, regardless of what else we may disagree with. Augustine said, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” That is in the humble nature of our Lord, and reflects His glory, not ours.
Conc – So, humility is worth pursuing. Best for others, for us and for our Lord. Jesus gave radical advice: “He who is least among you all is the one who is great.” The sergeant addressed his new recruits one morning with a question. “Does anyone here have experience with radio communications?” A long-time ham operator was quick to reply, “I do!” The sergeant said, “Good. You can dig the hole for the new telephone pole.” How do you spot greatness? By whether the guy dug the hole or not – willingly and enthusiastically. God give us a desire to be great – on His terms! Let’s pray.