In the first half of Luke 22 Jesus has taken the Passover meal and created a memorial to his death, which we call the Lord’s Supper. Jesus has announced his impending death with this memorial. He has further revealed that one of his own apostles is going to betray him. One of the very people who is participating in this memorial supper will be the one to betray Jesus. It seems that this questioning of who could possibly be the betrayer degenerates into pride and selfish thinking. An argument breaks out over who is the greatest. I read this and I think to myself that this is simply unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is that they had this argument earlier as recorded in Luke 9. Jesus has eagerly desired to enter into this moment with his disciples to share with them this communion in which he established his memorial. The disciples are arguing over who is the greatest. What a polar opposite to the meaning of communion! Isn’t it amazing how quickly we turn to self-centered pride? We can sit here and partake of the Lord’s Supper, recalling his death and committing ourselves to the covenant of Christ, only to say “amen” to the closing prayer and start back into our selfish thinking and prideful actions.
Now consider the foolishness of this dispute. Jesus and his apostles are in an upper room and have completed the memorial to Jesus. Who is the greatest in the room? Who should be regarded as the greatest? It is not any of the disciples. Jesus is the greatest. Who is the greatest in this room today? None of us are the greatest. Jesus is the greatest. He exclusively holds that title. None of us are to be regarded as great. Only Jesus is to be regarded as great. So Jesus is going to show us what true greatness is in the kingdom of God. Jesus will define for us what greatness truly is.
True Greatness — What It Is Not (22:25-26a)
Jesus begins by implying that the way the disciples are thinking and acting is the way the world thinks and acts. Worldly kings exercise their lordship. Worldly people lord their power over others. Leadership is not telling people what to do. Using your authority to make people do things is to lord your power over them. This is what the world does. We experience this at work and we experience this with those who have authority. They simply tell us what to do and we have to comply. The apostle Peter gave the warning in his letter that shepherds who lead the flock that is among them are not to lord it over the flock (1 Peter 5:3). I am so saddened to see how often this is how shepherds exercise their authority in many churches today. They think they have the right and the power to tell people what they can and cannot do. Deacons believe they have some power and can tell people what to do. Preachers think they have authority to compel people to do something. Leadership is not telling people to do something. We do not lead by an exercise of power and authority. So this is Jesus’ first point. Leading is not bossing others around. Leading is not telling people what to do. Leading is not using your authority to compel people to do something.
Second, Jesus describes these in authority as being called “benefactors.” This was a title that existed in the Greco-Roman world. The wealthy would use their wealth to give gifts with strings attached. They would do certain things and give gifts with the expectation of things in return such as service and honor. Worldly people not only command people to do things, but they will do things for others to put that person into debt so that there is an expectation of return. Jesus says that this is not how we become great either. We are not doing good so that they will have to do something for us. We are not to try to force obligations out of people through our wealth.
True Greatness — What It Is (22:26b-27)
Now Jesus tells his disciples what true greatness looks like. In verse 26 Jesus says that the greatest will become the youngest. This does not really translate too well in our society. The youngest was the one who received the menial tasks in the family. Young people had the lowest place and the aged people were respected and venerated. This fits with the rest of the verse: “and the leader as the one who serves.” Leadership is not telling others what to do. Leadership is doing the work yourself. Leadership is not in speaking but in doing. The greatest person is not the one who strives to be on top, but the one that chooses the bottom.
Listen to the question Jesus asks in verse 27. “For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves?” Jesus answers the question the same way we would answer it. We would all say that the one sitting at the table is the one who is greater, not the one who serves. But Jesus turns that thinking upside down as he goes on to say, “But I am among you as the one who serves.” The way the world looks at things is not the way God looks at things. Jesus is the picture of true greatness. But what did Jesus come to do? He came to serve. Jesus is the one who is serving. Jesus is our model for true greatness.
To live like Jesus means that we find true greatness in living for others rather than living for ourselves. We forget ourselves for the sake of others. We do not tell people what to do. We do the work. We serve and we do not tell other people that we are doing it. Leadership is in serving.
Greatness is doing the thing no one else wants to do. Great people are those who clean the building. Great people are those who make the Lord’s Supper. Great people are those who teach the children. Great people are those who send cards. Great people are those who visit the sick. Great people are those who greet our guests. Great people are those who teach their neighbors the gospel. Greatness is found in doing the behind the scenes work. Ladies, greatness is not in leading worship. You should never look with jealousy or envy at preachers or shepherds because you cannot function in that capacity because of the Lord’s command (cf. 1 Timothy 2:12-15). Instead, men, we need to see that greatness is not in song leading, preaching, and the like. Greatness is doing the things that are unseen but necessary. Great people serve and no one notices the serving that they do. We have so many great people in this church who are serving in such important ways, ways that you and I do not see. If the only service we will offer is something that is seen, then we are seeking greatness in a worldly way that is condemned by God. Jesus does not offer titles. He hands out towels to serve.
True Greatness Jesus Gives (22:28-30)
Jesus now makes a point about the greatness Jesus will bestow on his apostles. The “you” in verse 28 is plural. The apostles have stayed with him through his trials and Jesus is going to assign to them a kingdom. They are going to share in Christ’s kingdom, eating and drinking at his table in his kingdom, sitting on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a beautiful picture. Every Jew expected to sit with the patriarch at the messianic banquet. The Dead Sea Scrolls record the Qumran community’s expectation of feasting at the Messiah’s table.
Now it seems impossible that as the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest in the kingdom and Jesus blesses that by saying at the final judgment these twelve apostles will be sitting on thrones judging the Jews. Rather, Jesus is picturing the apostles fully participating in the kingdom of God. In fact, verse 29 says they are assigned the kingdom. Consider that the apostles were given authority over Christ’s kingdom. That is how the gospel ends as Christ gives his authority to the apostles to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. It is this gospel written by Luke and its sequel, Acts, where we read the apostles having authority over Israel and judging Israel through the preaching and teaching of the gospel because they were speaking the very words of God. Their greatness would come through the fact that they were serving Jesus, serving Israel, and serving the world by proclaiming the very words of God, the good news, throughout the earth.
Lessons For Today
- Jesus is great; we are not.
- True greatness is not by compulsion or power. True greatness is found through serving.
- Great people do the work others don’t want to do. Great people do the work behind the scenes.