True greatness defined…


Scripture : Luke 9:43-50 Video

Speaker : John Johnstone

Jesus has just been glorified on the mountain in his transfiguration, when for a time, his normally-hidden glory comes bursting out before Peter, James, and John. Shortly afterwards, Jesus is glorified again, this time down in the valley as he exorcises a demon, and in so doing transforms a boy’s life. And in verse 20, Peter has made the famous confession that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s long-promised king. The disciples (verse 1) have been given power to heal and have done just that. They must have felt so excited to be part of these wonderful events.

1. Seeing only half the picture
However, the disciples are getting carried away. They are only seeing half the picture, that of Jesus as the great King. The disciples here have been described in this way: “The throne of David did so fill their eyes that they could not see the cross”. I think that’s really helpful. They are so caught up with the earthly glory of Jesus that they completely miss the whole reason for his coming, to die in the place of sinners. They see Jesus’ Kingdom as an earthly one, and think that they too, as his right-hand men, will also receive glory and power and recognition. We know that the pattern for the Christian life is suffering now, and glory later, but at this point the disciples don’t get that at all. From the other side of the cross, it is easier for us to see that it is Christ’s 2nd coming which will be the time of lasting glory on the new earth. ‘Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.’ (Hebrews 9:27-28)

So, what does Jesus do? He punctures their balloon. He reminds them once again, as he had done just a week before, that he is going to be ‘…delivered into the hands of men.’ (verse 44) Jesus wants to move their focus away from pride, status, and glory and onto something far more important, humble service. What a contrast! The disciples are thinking of themselves but Jesus is thinking of others, and his mind is dominated by the cross, and his need to give his life for others. However, they do not understand what Jesus is telling them. How could the Messiah be held back in any way? This is our time! How could one who calms the storm, exorcises demons and feeds 5000 be ‘handed over?’

Perhaps you are here today and when it comes to Jesus, you only see half of the picture. You have heard often enough that Jesus is God, but if you are honest, you just struggle to see what the death of Jesus has to do with you. You hear the cross being mentioned but it goes in one ear and out the other, and doesn’t make a difference to your life. May the Lord help us all to understand how vital the cross is. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’
(Galatians 6:14)

Today is Remembrance Sunday, and rightly we remember the millions who gave their tomorrows for our today – they gave their lives for our freedom in the UK. Surely, we ought to be moved by that. Such a high price was paid. But there is a different kind of freedom to national freedom, and that is spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom was only possible if God provided a perfect sacrifice for us. Jesus lay down his life for us, so that those who receive the gift of God in faith might be forgiven and receive eternal life. Jesus is willingly betrayed into the hands of men. He goes through extreme pain, humiliation and death to win freedom for his people. The price could not have been higher: ‘For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’ (1 Peter 1:18-19)

Or perhaps we are like the disciples in that we are thinking selfishly about our Christian faith- only in terms of what we get out of it. But God did not save us for such a base purpose. He saved us for a higher purpose. ‘How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!’ (Hebrews 9:14)

2. True greatness defined
Who are the greatest Scots of all time? How do you even measure that? Many say Robert Burns, due to his great works of poetry. Then there are our inventors, such as those who invented the telephone, the tv, penicillin, the MRI scan and the fridge. Or perhaps our own Adam Smith and his development of economics. Not many will go for Jocky Wilson, though he was pretty good with the arrows! Some think of the great Scottish sports stars like Hoy, Grainger or Murray. Each one of these Scots has risen to the top of their respective field. They have made a name for themselves and are thought of as ‘great’ by many in the general public.

But who really are the greatest Scots of all time? Imagine it were God himself who was measuring this. His criteria would be very different to that of the general public. He wouldn’t measure greatness in terms of how high up the career ladder we have climbed, how well be have entertained others, how successful our business has been, or even how much money we have. Actually, Jesus spells out the key measurement here in this passage (verse 48): ‘For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’ Isn’t that important to know? God is looking for his children to be those who are truly humble, small in their own eyes, and faithful in their service of other people.

As Christians, our focus should not be on recognition from the world, or even others in the church, but we must live to please our heavenly Father, and long to hear him saying: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ (Matthew 25:23) God will judge each one of us, and makes no secret of the criteria he will use. He wants us to follow in the footsteps of his Son Jesus, the servant-king. True greatness, says God, is all about serving others, particularly the poor and vulnerable and lowly.

We might feel embarrassed for the disciples as we hear about the topic of their conversation – who will be the highest ranked disciples when Jesus is installed as King? Will it be Peter, James or John, or maybe Thomas or Matthew? But let’s not be too hasty to condemn the disciples in their obvious pride. We too can be proud, even if it is more subtle. We can come to church more interested in what we can get out of it than what we put in. We can come to church for selfish reasons and focus more on how we are treated than how we treat others. And when it comes to serving the needy, we are all capable of not even seeing a need in the first place, or saying to ourselves, ‘Someone else can do that.’ During the week, we might be aware of those who need our help at home at work or in the community, but we do nothing, as deep-down life is more about ‘my time’, the money I’ve earned and the way I feel. We can be selfish and self-serving.

Jesus gives his haughty disciples an object lesson by taking a little child alongside him, and telling the disciples that true greatness means welcoming the weak and needy and overlooked in his name is the true path to greatness. In 2021, much of family life revolves around children. There can be both good and bad things about this. We need to understand that in Jesus’ day, children were not highly regarded; quite the opposite. Children had the lowest status in that society. They would commonly be ignored. Jesus is saying that true Christian discipleship involves helping those who cannot repay you, such as children, and by implication, others who are vulnerable, needy, poor, messed up, broken, and who cannot pay you back. We are to focus on serving such people, not to enhance our own reputation, but because we are following in Jesus’ footsteps and that’s what he did – he died for undeserving people like us, who cannot possibly pay him back.

What a simple but profound and life-changing truth: we follow a servant-king and are called to be like him by putting the needs of others ahead of our own. That is mature Christian living. And that is something which pleases both the Father and the Son.

‘… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:26-27)

The attitude you have to those of no standing in society reflects the attitude you have to Jesus. Bearing that in mind, what is your discipleship like at the moment? Let’s keep on trying to put this into practice in all areas of our life- church, family work and in the community. It’s all too easy to be like priest and the Levite in the parable (Luke 10) and walk past the needy, because we don’t want to get involved, get our hands dirty, and spend our time and money on others. That being the case, we are not great in the Kingdom of God. This is challenging stuff.

The law of gravity means that what goes up must come down. The law of Christ is that the way up for us, is the way down, the way of serving others, for Jesus’ sake. You might not get noticed by others in the church, but Jesus sees all you do for him, and what else really matters?

3. We’re not the only church in town
Jesus has just corrected his disciples’ pride; now he must correct their narrow-mindedness. Perhaps the apostle John is beginning to regret his past action here (we can’t be sure) but, in verse 49, he informs Jesus of his attempts to stop the work of an unknown disciple: ‘Master, said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.’ Perhaps, John and the others were sincere in their action, but they were wrong nonetheless. Jesus says plainly: ‘Do not stop him for whoever is not against you is for you.’ (Verse 50) Why did the disciples try and stop a fellow believer from such a positive work- after all he was successfully casting out demons, something which some of them had failed to do? It is important to note that this unknown man was a genuine believer, who relied on Jesus’ power for this work. They ought not to have tried to stop him, just because he was not part of ‘their circle’.

For us today, this lesson reminds us that we ought to be for any Christians who preach the gospel in Christ’s name, even if they do not belong to our circle. Sometimes churches become overly territorial or denominational. Even in independent churches I’ve heard Christians say things like ‘that church is only growing because they are watering down the teaching’. We can be jealous of the success of other churches and secretly want our church to grow larger and others to weaken! That is a terrible attitude to have. Remember the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians: ‘It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.’ (Philippians 1:15-18)

In Scotland, let’s be aware of our fellow workers in other branches of the church, and work with them when we can. We are on the same team. We are rowing in the same direction. Of course, this does not include every place which calls itself a church; if the gospel itself has been changed, then we are not on the same team.