Who is the greatest? ∙
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. – Luke 22:24
21 But here at this table, sitting among us as a friend is the man who will betray me.
22 For it has been determined that the Son of Man must die. But what sorrow awaits the one who betrays him.”
23 The disciples began to ask each other which of them would ever do such a thing.
24 Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them.
25 Jesus told them, In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called “friends of the people.”
26 But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.
27 Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.
29 And just as my Father has granted me a Kingdom, I now grant you the right
30 to eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom. And you will sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
It was February 25, 1964, a time when heavyweight champions go to battle. A rather loud and confident pugilist was on the scene. He was not the tallest boxer, nor was he as bulky as most other boxers of his time, his punches were not the strongest, but he was still the best fighter of his time. His agility was impressive, but his confidence in himself was the most impressive.
Ali proclaimed to anyone who would hear:
“I am the Greatest. I said that even before I knew I was” (Muhammad Ali).
Here are excerpts from his 1963 poem, “I am The Greatest.”
This brash, young boxer is something to see. And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid fights great. He’s got speed and endurance. But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
This kid’s got a left. This kid’s got a right. If he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night.
And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts 10, you pray that you won’t have to fight me again.
For I am the man this poem is about, the next champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
He is the greatest. When I say two, there’s never a third. Betting against me is completely absurd.
“I am the greatest.”
“I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning and throw thunder in jail. You know I’m bad. Just last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
It was the spring of 33 AD, the week when the Savior went to die on the tree. It is the night of the Last Supper. The disciples are shortsighted. They miss the big idea and focus on irrelevant matters. They are driven by self-absorption and pride.
Imagine the scene. The Lord Jesus Christ has just finished explaining the meaning of Passover as it represents His coming sacrifice and death for sins. In no uncertain terms, Jesus said that He was about to die. He tells the disciples that one of them will betray Him.
Rather than take this to heart and concentrate on this seemingly incredulous prediction, the self-centered disciples focus on their own potential importance and future opportunities. They want to know which of them is the greatest of them all, “Numero Uno.” Who will have the greatest prominence in the coming kingdom?
“It is a terrible indictment of the human heart that immediately after the Lord’s Supper, the disciples should argue among themselves as to which of them was the greatest!” (MacDonald)
Barclay is even more direct, “It is one of the most poignantly tragic things in the gospel story that the disciples could quarrel about precedence in the very shadow of the cross.”
As the story reveals what is in the disciples’ hearts, what does it say about our own?
But it becomes a teachable moment. Christ explains that the greatest is not the one who is served but instead is the one who serves (Luke 22:27-30). True greatness comes through service.
What an odd, unexpected twist. The Father’s kingdom is nothing like the kingdoms of men. Those who are genuinely great in the Father’s kingdom are not the powerful. The greatest are not those who are in control, benefit from the labor of others, and ostentatiously display their position. Instead, the greatest are those who serve. The kingdom of God turns everything on its head. “It is a law of life that service leads to greatness; and the higher a man rises the greater the servant he must be” (Barclay).
Jesus is exhibit A. He who was the greatest was indeed the servant of all.
25 But Jesus called them together and said, You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.
26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant,
27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.
28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.
REFLECT & PRAY
In the Father’s kingdom, delusions of greatness are displaced by proven character.
Father if failure were a disqualification, who could ever serve You? Though we fall, we are not utterly cast down because You hold us up and never let go (Psalms 37:24).
Teachable moment two: Betrayal and failure lurk in everyone’s heart, even the most self-assured (Luke 22:31-38).
True greatness surfaces when extreme trials are faced and overcome. Jesus had great expectations for Peter. But the road to greatness was marked by tragic failure, crushing disappointment, and utter shame. Peter’s self-confidence regarding his commitment, character, and follow-through was to be totally shattered.
Peter was sure of himself, yet he utterly failed when the chips were down. He was discouraged, confused, and suffering posttraumatic stress. He had been willing and ready to die for his friend, whom he loved. But now, he could not find the words even to acknowledge that he knew Him. The Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus had predicted that this would be so.
31 Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat.
32 But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.
The Lord Jesus Christ had prayed for Peter, and the ultimate outcome was certain. He would fail terribly. He would experience tragic embarrassment. He would be dishonored and humiliated. But his story did not end there; it really only begins. Peter would pull himself together. Peter’s failure would be transformed, and the dross of his untested soul would be refined. His tarnished self-image would be purged. Unwavering character and dependability would become the characteristic of the remainder of his life.
Peter did, in fact, come through the fiery test approved and ready for service. He emerged faithful and stronger than ever. The crushed and mortified Peter could easily identify with the frailty of others and was now prepared and ready to strengthen them.
Psalms 37:24 When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong because the LORD is the One who holds his hand.