A Question of Rank

We live in a world where everyone, it seems, has a rank. Reality Television focuses on who has the best talent, who is the biggest loser, the best dancer, and the most appealing potential mate. Nielsen ranks television shows by the number of viewers, and movies are ranked by their gross income. We rank salesmen, new products, automobiles and much more. There are Class ranks and job titles are given to show who has authority. We are naturally concerned about the “pecking order”.

Don’t you wonder why this is so? We have come to believe that our value is measured by the people around us. We seem to think that we are more valuable when we possess a higher rank than someone else and are more important because we are more popular than others. Celebrities, executives and politicians seem to feel that a different set of laws apply to them because of their status.

You may be surprised to learn that this same thing was happening among the disciples of Jesus. In Luke 9:46 Jesus confronts the “jockeying for position” that was taking place among the disciples.

46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.”

Who is the Greatest?

We don’t know what provoked this argument among the disciples. Maybe Peter, James and John were bragging about how much more significant they were because they went with Jesus to the Mount of Transfiguration. I’m sure all the other disciples could point to something that argued for them having a higher place in the pecking order than someone else.

Let’s be honest, we are guilty of ranking people even in the Christian community by

  • The position they hold
  • The amount they give
  • The status they hold in the community (their potential “draw”)
  • Their reputation (good or bad)
  • Past successes or failures (how many times do we refer to people as “the person who had a problem with . . . “ even if that problem or failure was years ago?)
  • The talent they possess

People can sense this ranking attitude as soon as they spend any time in a church. They can quickly sense whether or not people consider them to be of any value. Kent Hughes writes,

Sometimes it is an acrid air of condescension or subtle, smiling hostility, or aloofness, or clubbing exclusivity, or doubt about God’s blessing on all who are not in the approved circle. This stench has kept multitudes away from the church and, more important, a knowledge of Christ.[1]

This constant ranking of each other separates people rather than brings them together. We become competitors rather than supporters. Tension is created rather than peace. We become guarded rather than open because we don’t want to give other people ammunition they could use against us! Do you see how destructive this is to what the church was meant to be?

We see this sometimes with parents. They are good friends until they get involved in sports or their children begin to compete in class rankings, or their children start dating. Parents who used to be friends are suddenly viewed instead as “the competition”. Hostility and tension increases the closer the competition between the children.

Jesus addressed the issue by taking a child and having the child stand next to Him. This is more significant that we realize. Children are cherished (sometimes too much) in our society. In Jesus’ day children were seen as much less valuable. Since a child under 12 years old was not taught the Torah, time with them was considered a waste of time. Jesus might make the same point today by having a homeless person, a pregnant teenager, or an Aids sufferer or maybe a person from a Nursing home stand next to Him. Jesus said,

“Whoever welcomes this little child (substitute the appropriate person) in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.”

Jesus tells us two important things here. First, He tells us that we should not look at others the same way the world does. We should not rank people or treat some as valuable and others as less valuable. Jesus affirms that people are valuable because they are created in the image of God. When we treat people with respect and honor (regardless of the worldly labels or reputation) we show respect for the Lord. When we show respect for the Lord we honor our Father in Heaven.

If someone treated your child in a disrespectful manner would you take it personally? Would you be angry and offended? You would. Likewise, if someone treated your child with kindness would you feel that a kindness had been shown to you? Once again we would answer “Yes”. In the same way, when we view other people with respect, and respond to them as people of value, we show honor to the One who made them.

Second, Jesus laid down a principle: greatness is more about our attitude than it is about our titles. In God’s eyes “great” is determined not by what we achieve for ourselves but by what we give of ourselves. The greatest person in God’s mind is the one who is willing to serve others. You can have a servant attitude as a student or a CEO. It’s attitude, not position that matters. In God’s eyes the truly great member on the team might not be the person who made the winning shot it may be the one who is cheering for his/her teammate and spurring them on.

Do you see the counter-culture nature of all this? The world tells us to climb over others to get to the top of the mountain. They say the only truly great person is the one who stands in the spotlight. Jesus says the truly great person is the one who serves God faithfully whether they are in the spotlight or helping others to be faithful and shine. Chuck Colson writes:

Jesus Christ ….served others first; He spoke to those to whom no one spoke; He dined with the lowest members of society; He touched the untouchables. He had no throne, no crown, no bevy of servants or armored guards. A borrowed manger and a borrowed tomb framed His earthly life.[2]

Stop and think for a moment about how much time we spend trying to impress other people. We trumpet our knowledge, our experience, and our significance. Many of our conversations are filled with attempts to prove to others how smart, competent or important we are. Jesus challenges us to forget about trying to impress others with our significance and instead to devote ourselves to trying to convey to others how significant they are to God.

Who Has the Keys to the Kingdom?

In verses 49-50 Jesus addresses this issue on another front. In the first part of the text He is addressed the competition between individuals. In these verses he is talking about competition between ministries.

49 “Master,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

50 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

There was a man who casting out demons and the disciples felt they needed to stop him. It wasn’t because the man was evil. It appears that God was blessing him since he was having success. If you remember a short time earlier in the text the disciples could not cast out a demon. The reason they told him to stop what he was doing was because “he is not one of us”.

How prone we are to do the same thing. We want other people to know that “our church is better because . . . “ Once again, we want to rank each other. We seem to think that if another church is not like ours one of us has to be wrong . . . one of us must be better than the other. Consequently we question the faith and sometimes even condemn another person or church over trivial things. Our focus turns to our differences than on what we hold in common.

Jesus told His disciples, “whoever is not against you is for you”. In Luke 11:23 Jesus seems to say the opposite thing. He says “he who is not with me is against me”. If you listen closely you will see that He is not contradicting himself. In our text Jesus is saying, “If people are not opposing you . . . if they are not hindering your ability to serve me faithfully . . . they are with you.”  In other words, “don’t sweat it”. However, in the second text he talks about their relationship with Him. Those who do not stand with Jesus are against Him. Not standing with Christ makes you a non-believer.

Throughout the Bible we are warned to beware of false teachers. We must make a distinction between things that are a tenet (or core essential of belief) of faith and that which is an expression of faith. For example, a tenet of faith would be the nature of Christ.

  • Jesus is God
  • He is sinless
  • He is the only way of salvation.
  • He is the only sacrifice for sin.
  • He has truly risen from the dead.
  • He is coming again

The view of Scripture as the authoritative Word of God would be another tenet (or essential element) of faith.

An expression of faith would include,

  • The form we use to worship the Lord (style of music, worship order, attire)
  • The amount of water we use in baptism
  • The version of the Bible we prefer
  • The frequency of our communion
  • The way we declare our allegiance to Christ (private prayer, walking an aisle, praying a particular prayer)
  • The timing and order of events at the second coming of Christ

When we get these things confused we begin to attack as enemies those who are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ. It would be like those in the Army attacking those in the Navy, Air Force or Marines because they are different. It would be crazy! They are serving the same country and fighting for the same goal. They are part of the same team even though they express that service in different ways!

Differences in the Body of Christ do not mean someone is right and someone else is wrong. In Numbers 11:26-29 we read the story of Eldad and Medad who were prophesying in the Israelite camp (instead of with the group of “designated elders”. Everyone thought this was horrible and Joshua told Moses to “make them stop”. Moses said, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” This is the kind of attitude Jesus wants for His people. Instead of being threatened Moses was grateful that others were filled with the Spirit.

So what is it that Jesus would have us do? Let’s start with the negative: He is not telling us to simply ignore unbiblical teaching to get along with others. There are some who take this approach. To do so is to destroy the clear teaching of the Bible that Jesus is the only way to come to the Father. Essential truth is not ours to negotiate! We must hold uncompromisingly to the tenets of the faith. Those who deny essential truths are outside of the community of faith. They are not Christians.

Positively, Jesus is telling us to recognize that there is diversity among people and that God uses that diversity to reach a variety of people. Think about a track team. You have on that team a number of different kinds of people: there are those who can run very fast, there are those who may not run fast but they can run a long time, there are those who may not be fast or able to run long but they can jump high, there are still others who may not be able to run or jump very well but they can pick up heavy objects and throw them a long way. Now what would you say if I asked: “Which of those people is the “True” track member?” “Which one is the most significant?” The question wouldn’t make any sense would it? When we try to rank believers and the churches they attend we are often guilty of doing the same thing.


Let’s draw some conclusions. The first conclusion is We should pursue a different kind of greatness than that which the world applauds. We tend to daydream about standing before cheering crowds or having great power. We run after the marks and perks of “success”. The Bible encourages us to pursue a life of character and service. Our goal should be to become the best person we can be. We should want to be as generous, giving, and supportive as possible. We should pursue the advancement of God’s Kingdom rather than our Kingdom.

This sounds easier than it is. This desire for superiority goes deep. We compare houses, cars, children, incomes, vacations, resumes, clothing sizes, playing time, and even television screen size in an effort to determine who is “ranked” higher. All of these things are all superficial. They are surface issues. Jesus challenges us to be deep rather than shallow. Paul said we should “consider others better than ourselves looking out not just for our interests but the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3)

Jim Collins wrote a very popular management book called “Good to Great” which examined some of the most successful companies to see what made them successful. Collins identified two specific character qualities shared by the CEOs of these good-to-great companies. The first was no surprise: These men and women possessed incredible professional will—they were driven, willing to endure anything to make their company a success. But the second trait these leaders had in common wasn’t something the researchers expected to find: These driven leaders were self-effacing and modest. They consistently pointed to the contribution of others and didn’t like drawing attention to themselves.

Practically this means

  • Draw attention to what others do right rather than what they do wrong. Spotlight their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Catch someone “doing something right” and celebrate that fact.
  • Sincerely applaud and celebrate the victories and joys of others (without adding, “I wish I had money to burn” or “It must be nice.”)  This is much harder than you think.
  • Work hard to see the hidden potential in those the world tends to dismiss.
  • Focus a conversation on the other person rather than ourselves (which is tough because we find ourselves so interesting). Ask about their children instead of bragging about your own. Talk about their struggles without comparing them with your own. Choose to truly care rather than simply waiting for an opportunity to prove your own superiority.
  • Try to help someone else grow spiritually instead of trying to show why you are the one who can help them grow spiritually.

Second, refuse to divide the body of Christ. Practically this means refusing to enter into the “my church is better than yours” debate. Affirm the work of other churches. Thank God for what they are doing. Take the time to understand what is behind the differences so that even when we don’t agree we can still respect the viewpoint of another.

Again, this is not to say that we should not care about doctrine . . . we certainly should and must care about doctrine, but we must be very careful to distinguish between “essential truth” and “expressions of that truth”. On one we have no flexibility, on the other there is a great deal of flexibility.

When all is said and done Jesus is calling us to stop focusing on ourselves and start honoring the Lord. When John the Baptist first met Jesus he was the hotshot preacher. Everyone knew about John and respected him as God’s spokesman. When Jesus came on the scene John’s crowds started to diminish. John refused to be competitive. In fact, he said, “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease”.

It is no wonder that Jesus said of John that he was the greatest of men. It wasn’t because of his accomplishments . . . it was because of His heart.

True greatness is working hard to make it possible for people to look past us . . so they can see Jesus. If we can remember that, we’ll enjoy each other a whole lot more.

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