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TRUE GREATNESS

Luke 9:46-9:50
Key Verse: 9:48

Thank God for blessing our Thanksgiving worship service abundantly. May we really grow as thankful people remembering the LORD who is my strength, my song and my salvation. In today’s passage in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples exposed fundamental problems in human sinful nature: they argued about who is the greatest among them and showed narrow exclusivism toward those who did not belong to them. But Jesus bore with them and redirected them with the truth of God. In this study, let’s think about true greatness.

First, welcome a little child in Jesus’ name (46-49). Look at verse 46. “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” The desire to be great is a noble desire of human beings who are made in the image of God. The desire and struggle to be great before God is right and commendable. But to strive to be great before men, competing with one another among people is the problem. This is related to receiving human recognition and honour and ruling others. This has caused many tragedies in history. This problem arose even among Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus had taught them the way of the Messiah, that is the way of suffering and cross, and the way of his disciples, denying oneself and taking up his cross. And at the transfiguration on a mountain, God the Father said, “Listen to him.” When Jesus healed a boy with an evil spirit and people were marveling at all Jesus did, Jesus said to his disciples, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.” Yet, all these important teachings were not in the disciples’ minds. Certainly, something else occupied their hearts and minds. That was: who would be the greatest among them. Why? Perhaps it was because they had felt that when Jesus had taken only Peter, John and James to the mountain, he was setting an order among the disciples. Then they became very sensitive to their future, as they thought that the earthly messianic kingdom in which they would become cabinet members, was soon to be established. Peter, John and James were sure of their appointment, by Jesus, as first class disciples, but the nine other disciples could not admit it. It was likely that each one advocated his own greatness: Matthew, his thoroughness in following Jesus; Philip, his intellect; Andrew, his faith; Thomas, his courage. Even Bartholomew, a man of few words, spoke up for his greatness. Because of each one’s unique greatness, each thought he is the greatest. Then, finally, Peter declared, “Jesus raised me up as the top among us, so that's it. Okay?” Their argument was like a hot debate. They did not know that Jesus was shepherding each of them personally and wanted each of them to grow to be great in the sight of God. At this point, they seemed no different from the people of the world.

How did Jesus respond to them? He could have been disappointed at their poor spiritual condition and rebuked them, or kept silent. Look at verse 47-48a. “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 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.” This was a visual, audio education.

Let's think about Jesus’ action: he took a little child and had him stand beside him. What an embarrassing, yet jubilant and honourable moment to the child! Jesus did not pick up a handsome young boy, but an insignificant and helpless child who had no one’s attention. Certainly, the child could not even imagine that he would be picked up by Jesus. The disciples had to know that they were like this child when Jesus picked them up as his disciples. There is a story about how God chose and served Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16. “This is what the Sovereign LORD says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in clothes. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, ‘Live!’ I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels” (16:3-7b). This could be how Jesus called and treated each of the disciples.

Then having the little child stand beside him, Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” As we considered earlier, “a little child” stands for the helpless and the unimportant. Usually, people are not interested in such people. Such are not valuable and beneficial at all. Why do they invest their time and energy to welcome and serve such kind of people while they want to climb up the ladder of success to be great in this world? However, according to Jesus, anyone who wants to be great must learn to welcome and serve a little child-like person, and do so in his name. “In his name” means “because of him” and “in the consideration of him.” People can welcome a little child in their own names for their own recognition and honour as charitable persons. This cannot be counted to their greatness. But when one welcomes a little child and serves the child in Jesus’ name, that’s accredited to God. Such a deed requires one’s pure motive, humbleness, shepherd heart, much labour, prayer, patience, courage, and even misunderstanding.

There is the story of how Apostle Paul served Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, a Christian master. But he stole money from his master and ran away and came to Rome, where Paul was imprisoned. Paul met him and served this runaway slave, even while he was in chains. Paul served Onesimus until he accepted Christ and could be the one whom Paul called “my son.” In Paul’s shepherding he, once a useless person, became a useful one, and even useful to his master Philemon, to Paul, and to the work of God. Tradition says he became the bishop of the church at Ephesus, succeeding Timothy. Welcoming a little child and serving him was exactly what Jesus did in this world. For to Jesus, each person in the world was like a little child in helplessness under the power of sin and Satan. A hymn song well expresses how Jesus served each little child: “O to be like Thee, full of compassion, loving, forgiving, tender and kind, helping the helpless, cheering the fainting, Seeking the wandering sinner to find…” Jesus served the people of this world purely and truly with a clear direction to lead them to God. He was lowly in spirit, holy and harmless, patient and brave, meekly enduring cruel reproaches, willing to suffer to save others. So his life of serving was an example as a truly great one.

Jesus expressed the greatness of welcoming a little child in his name this way: “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” When one welcomes and serves a little child in Jesus’ name, Jesus is pleased with him, and he himself learns of Jesus by imitating Jesus. Furthermore God is pleased with him, and reveals his heart and purpose and hope for the world. What can be a greater life than the life of learning of Jesus and serving God’s purpose! So anyone who wants to be truly great is to welcome and serve a little child in Jesus’ name.

Second, the least is the greatest (48b). Then Jesus concluded, “For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” What a paradoxical statement! The least is the greatest? What exactly does this mean? We can understand this well when we think of what Paul said of himself. In 1 Corinthians 15:9, Paul said, “For I am the least of the apostles, and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” And then he said in Ephesians 3:8, “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” And he said in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Paul could be considered the greatest servant of God in all history. Yet, he regarded himself as the least. This made him truly great. So we can say that one’s view of himself is the measure of his greatness. Also, we can think of John the Baptist. At the height of his popularity, when people wondered he might possibly be the Christ, he clearly denied it. (Lk 3:15). And he considered himself far less than Christ’s mere servant. And he said, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Jn 3:30). We can say that one’s humbleness makes a man great.

What can make a person humble? When we think of Apostle Paul, we learn that the realization of the grace of Jesus make one humble. The deeper Paul realized the grace of Jesus, the humbler he became. Also, God disciplines us so that we might be humble. The author of Hebrews quoted Proverbs 3:11,12 and wrote, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb 12:5-6). Joseph received God’s discipline in his youth through many sufferings: the hatred of his brothers, which caused them to sell him as a slave to Egypt; false accusation by a woman that caused him to be unduly imprisoned; and endurance training while in prison, when a man’s forgot Joseph’s help for him. His youth seemed to be a life of incomprehensible suffering. But this was the process of God’s discipline, humbling Joseph so that God could raise him up to the position of Prime Minister of Egypt for God's great purpose. During the period of suffering Joseph firmly believed that God was sovereign and so the subject of his life. He had absolute faith in the sovereignty of God. Moses received wilderness training in the Midian desert for forty years, following his forty years of palace education. Then God called him to deliver his people enslaved in Egypt to lead them to the promised land. Numbers 12:3 says, “(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)” In his humbleness he could bear six hundred thousand Israelites full of slave mentality for forty years in the desert. Moses’ humbleness was well revealed in his response when God did not allow him to enter the promised land. Entering the promised land had been his hope and dream in this world after suffering together with his people for forty years in the desert. But God did not let him enter the promised land of Canaan because he did not honour God at one time: once when the Israelites were thirsty and without water in the desert, God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would come out. But Moses, angry at the people's continuous grumbling, struck the rock twice instead. So because of this, God did not let him enter the promised land. But Moses did not feel sorry for himself. Rather, Moses worried about the people, who, without him, would wander like sheep without a shepherd, and so prayed to raise a shepherd who could lead them in his place (Num 20:8-11; 27:12-17). David also went through God’s severe discipline in his youth, chased by king Saul who, out of jealousy, attempted to kill him time and again. But David bore the training with the fear of God, honouring Saul as God’s anointed, and not harming him at all, even when he had several opportunities to kill him easily. Then God made David a king of Israel, in his time, and for his great purpose of establishing a theocratic kingdom through him.

Suffering and discipline in youth are very precious and indeed necessary, even in childhood. Proverbs 13:24 says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him”, 19:18 says, “Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death,” and 28:15, “a rod and a reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces his mother.” Modern education seems to the opposite: giving children full freedom to do and act according to their own feelings and desires. But the words of Bible, as God's words, are true; they are the words of life and wisdom.

Peter wrote about the importance of humility in youth in 1 Peter 5:5,6, “Young men…clothe yourselves with humility…Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” And Luke repeatedly wrote Jesus’ words concerning humbleness and exaltation in 14:11 and 18:14b, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Actually this is the very life of Jesus. Paul excellently described this in Philippians: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (2:8-9).

In this part may we deeply accept Jesus’ words as the truth of God: “He who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” May we grow in the realization of the grace of Jesus, recognize the value of God’s discipline through sufferings, and bear the disciplines with a right attitude so that each may indeed be moulded as a humble man or woman who is truly great in God’s sight.

Third, watch out for narrow exclusivism (49-50). Look at verse 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.” Here John exposes human sinful nature, through narrow exclusivism. Exclusivism is not necessarily bad or wrong. We know how much Jesus struggled to protect his disciples from worldly influence (Lk 12:1). He prayed for his disciples, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name…” (Jn 17:11). A church must keep the Spirit of Christ, rejecting and excluding the spirit of the world. Nowadays many churches are becoming more and more secular, influenced by the world and drifting away by the trend of the world. Jesus said in Luke 11:23, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.” Each church member should be with Jesus and gather with him, for they are many counterfeits. Anyone who is not with Jesus and does not gather with him cannot be in the inner circle of a church. In other words a church is the gathering of those who make a clear confession of Christ and gather centred on Jesus. Membership in a Christian church cannot include everybody, although the invitation to worship is open to all.

It is good to have a healthy pride as a church member or a Christian or a disciple of Jesus. And it is commendable to be confident of belonging to Jesus’ circle. But mere group spirit or community sprit can be a serious problem when it becomes narrow exclusivism. Here John said, “Master, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” John’s standard of judgement was whether one belonged to his group, regardless of if one was doing right. He said that he had seen a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name, but he did not recognize it as the work of God. So he tried to stop the man along with other disciples. He may have expected Jesus’ praise for his seemingly courageous act.

Then how did Jesus respond to John? “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” Jesus did not agree with John. Instead, Jesus said first, “Do not stop him.” We should learn to recognize God’s work through others, not just me, and also God's work through other churches. And then Jesus said, “whoever is not against you is for you.” What a positive statement! This is a broad-mindedness and wide inclusiveness against narrow exclusiveness. There can be no neutrality in the war against evil. We cannot do anything with those who are against us. However Jesus wants us to be inclusive or open to those who are not against us. We can positively invite to Bible Study those who do not oppose us, not with superiority but with humility. We should always remember that God’s love is open wide to all (John 3:16).

Narrow exclusivism was a great mistake of the Jews. They thought God’s blessing was exclusively to them as God’s chosen people. That came from the ignorance of God’s purpose to bless all people of the world through them, which had been revealed by God even from his call to Abraham in Genesis 12:2. In history any Christian organization which stuck to narrow exclusivism out of the wrong concept of God’s chosen-ness was not right and God could not it use further. We need to strive to keep God’s community true to Jesus’ name. At the same time we should watch out for the narrow exclusivism of mere community or group sprit.

May we learn true greatness, serving a little child in Jesus’ name and growing in humbleness and broad-minded clarity.

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