Bible croppedContinuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 9:46-48

Who Is the Greatest?

 46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48and said to them,  “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

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Last week’s post discussed Jesus’s telling the disciples that He would soon be delivered into the hands of men. He was trying to prepare them for His death.

However, they were — according to the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) — either bemused or afraid at hearing His words. He did not press the issue. He did not want those who were afraid to leave Him and miss the final period of His ministry during which He would further prepare them to carry on His work. Those who were confused by His words were still adopting the mindset of the Jews who expected a temporal Messiah, an earthly king.

Therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that this next episode in their lives together describes an argument over who among them was the greatest (verse 46). Preceding this argument was the Transfiguration (Mark 9, Luke 9) which Peter, James and John witnessed. Jesus had also invested the Twelve with the gifts of preaching and healing (Luke 9:1-6), so they probably also compared the number of people they healed spiritually or physically.

Again, examining the Synoptic Gospels together helps to shed more light on where they were and what exactly happened. As with witness statements, people remember different details.

Mark 9:33-37 reads as follows (emphases mine):

Who Is the Greatest?

 33And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them,  “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Matthew also tells us that they were in Capernaum (Matthew 17:24). Here is Matthew 18:1-6:

Who Is the Greatest?

 1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Viewed holistically — taking all three passages into account — it is clear that Jesus is unhappy with their self-exaltation. He denounces their personal pride and competition.

Matthew Henry observes:

Christ will have his disciples to aim at that honour which is to be obtained by a quiet and condescending humility, and not at that which is to be obtained by a restless and aspiring ambition.

Returning to today’s passage, Luke relates that Jesus brought a child to His side (verse 47). This was significant, because in the Jewish tradition of their time, children were viewed as being the lowest on the human scale. John MacArthur explains:

It’s a good thing God made them cute or we might pay no attention to them. They take, they don’t give. The rabbis used to say that they would teach no child under the age of 12 the Torah because it was a waste of their time. The Jewish rabbis at the time of Jesus disdained children, didn’t bother with them, considered children accurately the weakest, the most unaccomplished, the most vulnerable, the least in value, those who made virtually no contribution and wouldn’t waste their time with them since most of them wouldn’t even survive until adulthood because mortality rate was so high. It is in that framework that Jesus does what He does.

Jesus adopts a radical position for His time (verse 48) by telling the Twelve that if they considered a child seriously as someone to be taught and cherished in His name, they thereby receive Him. And if they received Him, they also received God the Father.

As for the question of who is the greatest, He told them that the least among them would be great. Therefore, he says that all in Heaven will be considered of equal value and worth. MacArthur says:

Everybody in the Kingdom is the greatest…everybody. In fact, on another occasion Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man who lived up until his time, but nevertheless the least in the Kingdom is greater than John. Greatness is not relative in the Kingdom of God, there’s no such thing as a pecking order in the Kingdom of God. Greatness is absolute. You’re great because, if I can borrow from another theological category, your greatness is because God sees you covered with the righteousness of Jesus Christ and all believers covered with the same righteousness are therefore equal before God. So there’s no pecking order here.

And when the time comes on Judgment Day, we will not care who is the greatest, believe me. We will be so happy to be with our Lord that nothing else will matter.

Receiving children as human beings occurs in Mark 10:13-16 and Matthew 19:13-15.

The Apostles again dispute who among them is the greatest at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-30).

Jesus gives us two important lessons here. One is to put away our pride. He wants us to harness the power of the Holy Spirit to humble ourselves. How can we become Christlike if we are throwing our egos around at every turn? On our own we can do nothing which the Lord considers great. It is only through the work of the Holy Spirit in tempering our desires and by receiving God’s grace that we can do any good.

Yet, with the fractured Christianity that so many of us practise these days and with all the self-centred messages we receive, humility goes into the dustbin. MacArthur says:

People are proud and so they feed their pride. And we now have turned pride into a virtue and so every way possible we want to make people feel proud. This is absolutely contradictory to what the Lord wants us to feel. So what you get when you get pride is destroyed relationships. If this society keeps pumping pride the way it is, it will be impossible to imagine any marriage that could last, any family that could stay together, any relationship that could survive because selfishness just destroys everything by ruining unity and by raising relativity so that there’s this pecking order and people feel inferior and superior to each other.

Third thing, and now you’re getting to the core of the deal, pride reveals depravity. Proud people are manifesting their core depravity.

This is why we need to ask the Holy Spirit for help in subduing our carnal desires. No matter what people say, pride is a fleshly desire — ‘look at me’, ‘respect me’ and so on. MacArthur says:

Now that you’re a Christian, pride isn’t gone permanently, have you noticed that? It remains although in that moment of regeneration, in that miracle of salvation, it was overwhelmed by the power of the Spirit of God, miraculously the dead was made to live, the blind was made to see, the prisoner was set free all by the sovereign and supernatural power of God. And God granted you faith to embrace Christ and that glorious miracle. At that moment pride was overcome. But you know what? Pride has been severely wounded, it has been given a death blow but it’s still kicking in the throes of death, it hasn’t yet died and it’s flopping around in you still, isn’t it? Sure it is

And the Holy Spirit is constantly having to subdue that pride. And the spiritual growth process, the process of sanctification is the progressive triumph of humility over pride. That’s how you can measure your spiritual development by the measure of triumph your humility has over your natural pride. Humility comes very, very hard, very hard. In fact, it can’t come apparently just through the teaching of Scripture. You can have lesson after lesson after lesson after lesson on humility, but that’s not enough.

This also extends to the way we bring up and teach our children. Are we teaching them to be pleasant and helpful, displaying a quiet confidence in their abilities?

Or are we teaching them to lord themselves over their peers and bully those whom they perceive to be inferior? Are we teaching them to brag about what they can do? Are we giving them absurd names so they can stand out from the rest? Are we telling them they should demand respect from others? If so, we are teaching them to encourage the sin of pride.

Pride hurts. Pride tears apart. Pride destroys. Think of the bullied children who hang themselves. Think of the divorce rate and destroyed families. Think of the mundane examples in which those who shout loudest win something (e.g. awards, benefits) they do not truly deserve. The perpetrators’ rewards are of this world, not of the next. Judgment will surely come. By then, contrition will come too late for them.

It’s hard to buck the trend of pride when it is all around us and encouraged. But buck it we must. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit’s help in combatting pride. Let us put away the notion of personal greatness.

Next time: Luke 9:49-50