by John Henderson

“But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” (Luke 22:26)

Each of us, more likely than not, carries in mind some idea about greatness in human life. If someone were to ask, “What does it mean to be great, or a great person?” we could probably drum up some kind of definition. And that’s what I want you to do now. Define greatness. Consider what you think it means and involves.

Does it mean being wealthy or powerful? Does it mean being loved and accepted by people? Does it mean being served at nice restaurants, or spas, or resorts? Is greatness having a marriage you can be proud of at church? Could it be the quality of your children - their behavior, health, marriages, and ministries? Could it be your personal health, physical fitness, and body image?

Could it be your ability to resist temptation and not fall to sin? Could it be size of your ministry? Do you define greatest as being incredibly productive in ministry and better than all those people who don’t succeed, or fall so terribly short? Spoken or not, we each carry some kind of personal scorecard. What line items compose your scorecard?

In Luke 22 we get a glimpse into the upper room where Jesus and His disciples celebrated the Passover and established the Lord’s Supper. What a scene! Jesus reclining at table with His followers, enjoying a feast (Passover) that Jesus Himself fulfilled, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). At some point in the evening He established communion, a new ceremony to help us remember what He was about to do at the cross.

Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and then passed it to His disciples saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19) When I think about this image, substitution comes to mind - His body broken in our place. He became our sin so that we could become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In the same way He took the cup, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20) Here I think of atonement. His blood pays for sin. It ratifies the new covenant. The shedding of His blood satisfies the wrath of God. The substitution of His body and blood in our place absorbs God’s wrath and provides a way for us to be redeemed and reconciled. What a glorious Person and reality to remember!

The Unfortunate, Oh-So-Common Debate

In the atmosphere of this beautiful and critical event, “there arose a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (Luke 22:24). And I think we are meant to realize this wasn’t a random conversation, nor was Jesus Christ the unanimous and rapid choice. They weren’t actually focused on Him, or the significance of His body and blood being broken and poured out for their salvation. It’s been 5 minutes and they’ve already forgotten what He just said and did.

Something in His words, however, did register: “behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table” (Luke 22:21). The statement sends them reeling. They’re wondering, “Who’s He talking about?” Their argument about who’s the greatest probably builds from this question. Each man is submitting their compelling case for why it couldn’t possibly be him since he is, in fact, better than everyone else.

“Nothing can be more humiliating than that the disciples should have had such contentions, and in such a time and place. That just as Jesus was contemplating his own death, and labouring to prepare them for it, they should strive and contend about office and rank, shows how deeply seated is the love of power; how ambition will find its way into the most secret and sacred places; and how even the disciples of the meek and lowly Jesus are sometimes actuated by this most base and wicked feeling.” (Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament)

Why Does This Happen?

1.      Because our sinful flesh wants the glory

I think Barnes said it well, “deeply seated is the love of power.” We don’t have to develop our love for power. It’s already there in our hearts. Ambition finds its way into the most secret and sacred places because we carry it in. We carry it into the pulpit. We carry it into the elder meeting. It walks with us into the workplace, the kitchen, and the counseling room, just the way it walked into the upper room. Selfish ambition blinds us to the splendor of God displayed before our very eyes. It stirs irrelevant and fruitless conversations quite detached from what really matters.

2.      Because we tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought

The idea of betraying Jesus seems plausible for everyone in the room, except me, of course. Denying the Lord was inconceivable to Peter and the rest of the disciples, let alone betraying Him. If we were present, then we would have argued the same. We tend to think of ourselves, of our faith, loyalty, and strength too highly. When we’re told someone in the group will betray, deny, or abandon Jesus Christ, whether permanently or temporarily, whether completely or in part, we typically don’t step forward as the leading choice. We submit more likely candidates. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)

3.      Because we tend to move into a state of insecurity and defensiveness when life starts to go wrong

The scene in upper room was first a celebration, then a time for sober expectation. Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the One who would set everything straight and establish the kingdom of God on earth. Yet for a number of days Jesus has been speaking of his death and resurrection. Now He’s talking about betrayal and torture and execution. It’ seems to be getting worse, not better. The wheels of the kingdom seem to be falling off. The supposed-to-be-winners were apparently becoming the losers. The disciples, each in their own way, start to panic and defend themselves. We’re inclined the same way.

4.      Because pronouncing our greatness in devotion to Jesus Christ sounds good, not bad

Telling other people how much we love Jesus sounds like a wonderful testimony to the glory of Christ and His grace. Sometimes it can be. Or it could be a claim to our personal greatness. We can be slow to realize that our faithfulness to the Lord is firstly a work of His Spirit (Romans 12:3-21; Galatians 5:22-23). Peter and the other disciples had a delusional picture of their devotion to Christ. We often relate to the Lord and others inside the same delusional picture.

5.      Because we’re probably more shaped by the world than we realize

The rulers of the Gentiles lorded their authority. The great men of the first century demanded honor, respect, and service. They loved the title, “Benefactor” (Luke 22:25) – which means, one benefiting those put into their care. Yet almost every leader of Jesus’ day used their position for personal gain. Greatness meant being benefited. It meant standing on top. It meant wielding influence to get what you wanted. It meant being served, not serving. It meant being first, not last. The disciples were probably more shaped by their culture then they realized. So are we. Everything that was true then is still true now.

The Lord’s Response

Jesus responds to the disciples with challenging words and an even more challenging example. After summarizing the world’s way of lording authority, Jesus said, “Not this way with you.” (Luke 22:26) He gave a simple and clear corrective. Don’t define greatness the way the world defines greatness. Define it by humble, joyful service. Don’t claw for the top. Strive for the bottom.

The paradigm Jesus imparted would have strange to the disciples. It remains entirely unique. The world will do it one way. We are to do it another. The world handles rank, strength, and glory in one form, whereas the people God are to handle them in another. “Become like the youngest… like the servant.” (Luke 22:26)

In other words, become like one who expects and receives the least honor and power, especially those who occupy positions of authority. Become like the one who receives less respect; Deflect glory, don’t absorb it; Give deference, don’t horde it. Assume a kind of meekness the world tends to devalue and avoid. Especially if you have received a seat of leadership, occupy the place with the attitude of a servant. I think that’s what Jesus is trying to convey.

“I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) Even though He deserved all honor, all the power, all the glory, all the privilege, all the possessions, all the worship, Jesus lived as a slave. Even though He was their Teacher and Lord, as He remains today, He related to the disciples from the posture of a humble, sacrificial servant. In fact, John 13 tells the story of Jesus washing their feet. It shows Jesus putting His understanding of greatness into action.

Our Response

After washing the disciples feet Jesus said, “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” (John 13:15) Jesus provided words and works for us to enjoy and obey. He’s not telling us to forsake leadership, but to forsake the world’s form of leadership. He’s showing us who God really is, and how we can become like Him and reflect Him in the world. Consider a few questions for thought and prayer.

·         In your marriage, family, ministry, and relationships to others, do you assume the posture of joyful servant? Or is it beneath you?

·         In which direction do you exert most of your energy, to climb up or to climb down?

·         When humiliated, condescended upon, dishonored, or unnoticed in your service to others, what do you say to yourself and to God? Do you say: “This is good for me. Thank you Lord!” Or do you grumble, complain, defend, fight, and dispute?

·         When you consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, does it really humble you as a leader?