I’m going to date myself here by saying I used to enjoy the Comedy of the Smother’s Brothers. Tom and his brother Dick would get into some kind of argument and Tommy would inevitably respond, “Well, mom always liked you best!” I think it was funny because it was a feeling everyone could relate to.
From the very earliest times of life people fight for a position of significance. You see it even sometimes when a new baby enters a home. The former baby in the home often feels pushed aside and doesn’t like it. You can sometimes observe two children who both are competing for mom’s attention. I even see it with our family dog. She does not like her people petting other dogs because instinctively she seems to feel that she is “loved less” if she is not getting the attention.
We see this same competition in the Bible. We read of the competitions between Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Aaron and the family of Korah, Saul and David, and Daniel and the other members of the King’s administration. This morning we look at a passage where we see this kind of childish dispute going on with the disciples.
24 Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.
One Commentator summarized the relevance of the story with great insight,
In this private moment with Christ, first Judas, then the rest of the disciples portrayed the two pitfalls the church has to face. The first pitfall involves betrayal, defection, and apostasy—as portrayed by Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. The second pitfall is individual striving for power—as exemplified in the disciples seeking promotion, recognition, and self-acclaim. To avoid these pitfalls, Christians must stay loyal to Christ and serve him sacrificially and humbly.
The Fight for Significance
We don’t know when in the evening this conflict takes place because Luke says, “ALSO a dispute arose” which merely means this also took place during the evening. It is certainly possible that the dispute had something to do with seating arrangements for the Passover meal. It was traditional to have the host (Jesus) in the position of honor. Those on his right and left would be in the most honored positions and that would continue down from there.
We already know that Peter, James, and John seemed to be specially favored by Jesus. Perhaps some of the other disciples resented this fact. We are struck however by the timing of this dispute. On this night when Jesus talked about dying and being betrayed, the disciples were arguing about who was the most significant follower.
I see this often in gatherings of ministers at a conference. It feels like everyone is trying to demonstrate their significance by comparing numbers, educational degrees, and by pontificating on weighty issues.
It is a common human weakness. We are always ranking each other
- Who is the smartest?
- Who is the most attractive?
- Who has the most talent?
- Who is most valuable (measured by title, influence, or job)?
- Who is most successful (measured by money, acreage, home, or size of the crowd)?
This is the curse of our society. Two things are true of most people. First, we feel like we never measure up. We are always behind someone on some list somewhere. Second, we view everyone (and everyone else’s kids) as the “competition”. Because of this our society has tended to turn arrogance and pettiness from a vice into a virtue. We call it confidence or ‘feeling good about yourself’. We are so paranoid about hurting the ego of someone we love that we sometimes withhold the truth from them.
There Are Two Ways of Defining Greatness
Jesus addressed the conflict with these words,
25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
Jesus tells his disciples that they are defining “success” and “value” the wrong way. They are looking at things from the world’s perspective rather than from the perspective of Heaven.
The Common Definition According to the world the most important people are the ones who have the most money, the most influence, and the most education. The “important people” have the nicest cars, the biggest offices, the biggest salaries, the most degrees, and the nicest homes. And this is why people who have lots of these things want even more . . . it’s because they want to be seen as more “successful” than others.
Think about what the world tells us
- Promote Yourself
- Assert Yourself
- Indulge Yourself
- Pamper Yourself
- Stand up for your own rights
- Feel good about yourself
- Don’t let anyone push you around
Contrast this with what Jesus told us, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” Luke 9:23. J.B. Phillips once changed the Beatitudes so they reflected the heart of contemporary society,
Happy are the “pushers”: for they get on in the world
Happy are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.
Happy are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.
Happy are the blasé for they never worry about their sins.
Happy are the slave drivers: for they get results.
Happy are the knowledgeable men of the world: for they know their way around.
Happy are the troublemakers: for they make people take notice of them.
Jesus points out that the way of the world is to live life this way. His way is different.
The Definition of Jesus. Jesus gives us another alternative. He points out that though the world sees the teacher as the one who should be served, Jesus (the greatest of all teachers and men) took the role of a servant.
Jesus washed their feet (the job of the lowest person). Jesus, the one who should have been fed by others was the one doing the feeding. Jesus the One who deserved to have people give up their lives for Him chose instead to give up His life for others.
Jesus says the truly significant person is the one who is a servant of God and likewise a servant of others. The terms serves, servant and service occur over ninety times in the NT. The Greek word for “serves” is the word diaconon from which we get our word “diaconate”. It is a reminder that the chief role for spiritual leaders is to be servants.
Ruth Harms Calkin wrote a piece titled “I wonder”
You know, Lord, how I serve You
With great emotional fervor
In the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You
At a woman’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
A fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
At a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder
If you pointed to a basin of water
And asked me to wash the calloused feet
Of a bent and wrinkled old woman
Day after day
Month after month
In a room where nobody saw
And nobody knew.
Caulkin asks a penetrating question doesn’t she: Who am I really serving? Am I truly serving others or am I really just serving myself?
Organizations want their employees to be service oriented. They take a lot of time to educate and train people how to answer the phone, how to respond to customers, and how to handle complaints. A true servant attitude is not about marketing strategy, it is about the heart.
A true servant mentality starts by being willing to do whatever God asks of us. It is that attitude that says, “Whatever the Lord wants me to do, I will do.”
- Whether it is service in the public eye or service in secret.
- Whether it calls for suffering or leads to applause.
- Whether it is convenient or inconvenient.
This servant mentality comes from our love for and our trust in Him. This kind of love and devotion comes because we really understanding the greatness of God and what God did for us on the cross.
We serve the Lord not only because He has authority over us. We serve Him because we know that He loves us. We listen to Him, we follow, we serve, because we know that He loves us with a love that is greater than our minds can fathom. At the cross, God the Father turned His wrath toward God the Son, so that we could be made right with Him. The Lord of the Universe reached out to us so that He could love us and lead us to the life we were created to enjoy.
Here’s what we need to grasp: no one (not even us) desires what is truly best for us more than the Lord of life does. He knows what is in our best interest, we are only guessing. We would be wise to serve and follow Him wherever He leads.
Second, we must view others as treasures rather than as obstacles to endure or opportunities to exploit. Jesus listened to and heard hurting people even in the press of the crowd. He helped people because He cared for them, not because He wanted them to join His group.
If we are to serve like Jesus we must battle our tendency to look at others in terms of how can they benefit or how will they impact (good or bad) my life. When we do this we aren’t really concerned about the other person – we are concerned about ourselves!
A true servant gives themselves to others because he knows the joy of Heaven most fully when he loves with the heart of God. When we listen to people, when we weep with people, when we celebrate with them, when we help them, and when we enter into their world, we act with God’s heart.
The Reward for True Greatness
Jesus gave His followers an incredible promise,
You are those who have stood by me in my trials. 29 And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Since they have stood by Him (this is of course before they all deserted Him) they would achieve greatness. However this greatness would be a heavenly greatness, a reward in Heaven that will demonstrate just how valuable they are to the Lord.
Chuck Swindoll in his excellent volume Improving Your Serve gives us three principles to remember about God’s rewards given to those with a servant heart.
- Most rewards are received in heaven, not on earth
- All rewards are based on quality, not quantity
- No reward that has been postponed will be forgotten
It is important to remember.
- When we feel overlooked by those around us we know that God sees and loves our servant heart.
- When we feel taken advantage of, God sees the sacrifice and applauds.
- When we feel cast aside because of the superficial measurements of the world, God looks at our heart.
- Though you may be passed over for promotions here, the real promotion is something that happens in Heaven.
I think Jesus would say to us: you may think that it is a waste of time when you give of yourself to another. But it is not. It is only as you give of yourself that you will truly be able to find yourself. When we serve ourselves the best we can hope for is the applause of men. When we truly serve others we will experience the applause of the Father.
How many of us have grown up longing to hear our dad say, “I’m proud of you” or “good job”? Some live their whole lives and never hear those words they crave. How much more should we long for the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”?
Take Home Points
Let me share a couple of things in conclusion. First, the first step in the right direction is to acknowledge that you need a Savior. There seems to be this belief that some day we are going to stand before God in Heaven and then we will present Him with our resume. We will point to all the things we have done and show God how worthy we are of Heaven. Many people live their lives, it seems, trying to pad this resume.
The Bible gives a different picture. The Bible says we all fall short of God’s glory. No matter how great our resume, we can never earn God’s favor. The first steps to Biblical greatness is to admit our weakness, confess our sin, receive the work of Christ on our behalf and then ask for God’s help to think, feel, and live in a new way. Becoming a servant is not one more thing we have to do to “get saved”. A servant heart comes because we know we are loved by God through Christ.
Second, living with a servant heart is not easy because it means moving against the strong current of the world. To live as a servant is going to be a battle. Some will use you. Some will ridicule you. Some will overlook you and call you weak and say you have no ambition. Be prepared.
Third, servanthood is not something you learn, it is something you do. In other words it is not about reading more books or taking more classes, it is about relating to others with the heart of Jesus. We become servants when we start to give of ourselves to others. It may start in the home, extend to the church, and then hopefully to the rest of the world. William Barclay wrote
We can found our life either on giving or on getting; but the plain fact is that if we found it on getting we shall miss both the friendship of man and the reward of God, for no one ever loved a man who was always out for himself.
I believe the squabble of the disciples was recorded for us because God knew that this competitive nature is something the church will always struggle to overcome. Trying to gain a position of prominence is our natural instinct. The Lord knows that such an attitude undermines our ability to love and care for others.
The real question is not “Who does mom love best?” The real question should be: “Having been loved so greatly by the Lord, are we willing to show others that they are loved by God as well?” When it comes to the church, rather than asking, “How can the church meet my needs?” we should be asking, “What can I contribute to the body of Christ in this place?
If we will do this, it will change our demeanor, our speech and our actions. The people around us will take notice because a humble and servant heart is beautiful, unique and magnetic. People will start to see Jesus in our lives. They will see that He has changed us, and might then invite Him to change their lives as well.