A Lesson in Leastness

But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”

49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9:44-50 ESV

Jesus has made His destiny quite clear to His disciples.

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” – Luke 9:22 ESV

But these men found Jesus’ admission to be unfathomable. Peter found them to be unacceptable and even admonished Jesus for saying such things (Mark 8:33). Peter had just confessed Jesus to be “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20), the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, and Jesus had affirmed his answer. Yet, Peter had been shocked to hear Jesus talking about His coming suffering, rejection, and death. None of that made sense to Peter and his companions. There was no place in their concept of the coming King of Israel for martyrdom. They were looking for a Messiah who would rule and reign, not suffer and die. Peter found the prospect of Jesus’ death to be unacceptable and even called on God to forbid it. And he presumptuously and boldly proclaimed His intention to prevent it. But this exchange earned Peter a stern rebuke from Jesus and a not-to-flattering comparison with Satan. According to Jesus, Peter was guilty of “seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s” (Mark 8:33 NLT). And while Peter had been the only one of the 12 bold enough to  speak his mind, the rest shared his perspective. None of these men could understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. For Peter, James, and John, the transfiguration of Jesus only added to their confusion. This remarkable event had further confirmed for them Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. They had personally witnessed His glorification, His conversation with Moses and Elijah, and had heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35 ESV).

And all of the disciples had just watched Jesus display the power of God by casting out an unclean spirit from of a young boy. This was not the first time the disciples had seen a demon-possessed person set free. In fact, they had just recently returned from their first ministry assignment where they had each experienced the very same power.

And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. – Mark 6:13 ESV

But the nine disciples who had remained behind while Jesus, Peter, James, and John were on the mount of transfiguration, had repeatedly tried to cast the demon out of the boy but had failed. We can only conjecture what had happened because the gospel authors do not provide us with the details. But suffice it to say that these men must have displayed a confident assurance when the boy’s father approached them, begging them to free his son. After all, they had already proven they could cast out demons. So, they must have been shocked when their efforts failed. And it’s likely that they each took a turn trying to cast out the unclean spirit, only to meet the same fate as the man before them.

But when Jesus successfully exorcised the demon, the people marveled at the power of God. They recognized that what Jesus had just done had been a display of divine enablement. He was operating according to the power and authority of God Almighty. And as the people stood back in awe and amazement, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44 ESV). 

The timing of Jesus’ statement is significant. He had just displayed His God-ordained power over the demonic realm by delivering a young boy from possession. And yet, now He was telling the disciples that He would be delivered into the hands of men. To the disciples, all of Jesus’ talk of suffering, rejection, and death was a sign of weakness, not power. The Messiah they had longed for would be a conqueror and a king, meting out justice and judgment on all those who stood as enemies of God and His chosen people. But Jesus had just displayed His power over demons and then confessed that He would be delivered over to men.

What these men failed to understand was that this was all part of God’s divine plan. None of this was about a lack of power. Jesus had just proven that He had more than enough power to conquer the enemies of God. This was all about obedience and faith. Jesus was demonstrating His unwavering commitment to accomplish the will of His Heavenly Father. Jesus was not a victim. He was not at the mercy of wicked men. He was the all-powerful Son of God who could command demons, calm storms, heal the sick, and even raise the dead. But because His Father’s plan included His own suffering, rejection, and death, Jesus was ready, willing, and able to obey.

But Luke reveals that the disciples were unable to comprehend what Jesus was saying.

it was concealed from them. – Luke 9:45 ESV

Jesus was speaking plainly, but their hearts were incapable of comprehending what He was saying. This was partly due to their lack of faith, but it was also the result of God’s divine determination to conceal the truth from them. They were not quite ready to know what God had in store. All of this was a shock to their preconceived ideas concerning the Messiah. And even though Jesus was speaking openly and honestly, God was not allowing them to discern the full import of His words. It was not time yet.

And Luke indicates that “they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (Luke 9:45 ESV). This was uncharacteristic of the disciples because they were always asking Jesus questions. They did so all the time. But they were afraid of knowing the truth, so they kept their mouths shut. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Little did they know that they were on their way to Jerusalem, where everything was going to take place, just as Jesus had predicted. They could ignore the topic, but it was not going away.

What’s fascinating is that this disclosure by Jesus concerning His future fate was followed by a heated debate between the disciples “as to which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46 ESV). Here was Jesus letting them know that He was going to suffer, be rejected, and die, and yet they were arguing over which of them was the greatest. Little did they know that Jesus was fully aware of their topic of conversation. He knew their hearts, and He used this opportunity to teach them another valuable lesson on the reality of His mission and their misguided understanding of His kingdom. 

Now, before we paint the disciples as egotistical and self-centered powermongers, let’s look at the facts. They had been handpicked by Jesus. They were His chosen followers and had been given authority by Jesus to cast out demons. When Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus had said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). And Peter, James, and John had been chosen by Jesus to witness His transfiguration. So, these men were somewhat justified in thinking that they would play important roles in Jesus’ coming kingdom.

The problem was that they were arguing over which one of them was the greatest. They had taken their eyes off of Jesus and had begun to focus on their own self-worth. And there is little doubt that Peter, James, and John were justifying their superiority with tales of their experience at the transfiguration. Rather than discussing the death of Jesus and what His reference to rising again might mean, they were busy debating their own value to the kingdom. And this jockeying for position and prominence would continue. Mark reveals that James and John later come to Jesus and make a bold request: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

These men were operating from a purely secular and temporal perspective. They saw Jesus as the coming King of Israel and they were hoping to garner key posts in His administration. While Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice, they were busy arguing over their own self-worth and qualifications for leadership roles in the new kingdom.

But Jesus gathered the 12 together and gave them a much-needed lesson on spiritual leadership. And to do so, He used a young child as a visual illustration.

Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great. – Luke 9:48 ESV

This comment must have caught the disciples by surprise. First of all, it revealed that Jesus knew the topic of their conversation, and that must have been embarrassing for them. But secondly, His words were incongruent. They didn’t add up. In their culture, servants and children were considered the least of the least. And last place was no place for a leader. The thought of willingly subjugating yourself in order to serve someone else would have made no sense to these men.

In their culture, children were considered as little more than personal property. They had no rights or privileges. They were powerless and helpless. And yet, Jesus stood before the disciples, with one of these seemingly insignificant and unimportant standing by His side, in a place of prominence. And four different times, Jesus used the word dechomai, which can be translated as “receives” but carries a much fuller meaning: “to embrace, make one’s own, approve, not to reject.” In their society, children tended to be ignored. But Jesus was placing the least in a position of highest honor.

Jesus’ words should have had an air of familiarity to them. The disciples had heard Him say something similar. Just prior to Him sending out the 12 on their first missionary journey, He had told them:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. – Matthew 10:40 ESV

He used the very same formula:

To receive the least ——- is to receive Jesus ——–is to receive God

The disciples were to be the least. They were to be the servants of all. In other words, their role was going to be that of the lowest, not the highest. Their status was to be measured by humility, not glory. The child Jesus held in His arms had no inherent worth or value – from a worldly perspective. He had yet to accomplish anything with his life. He could not boast about his education or business accomplishments. But Jesus had chosen to use this insignificant child to convey a deep spiritual truth. And Jesus was going to use the insignificant disciples to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Not because they were great, but because they were the least. And all those who received the disciples and their message would receive Christ. And to receive Christ would be to receive a restored relationship with God.

But sadly, the disciples failed to grasp the lesson Jesus was trying to convey. Luke reports that John simply changed the subject altogether.

“Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn’t in our group.” – Luke 9:49 NLT

Don’t miss the irony in all of this. The disciples had been unable to cast the demon out of the boy. Yet they had been arguing over which of them was the greatest. And now, after Jesus had just talked about leastness and greatness, John was admitting their corporate pride and arrogance. They had called out someone for casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Why? Because he was not a member of their inner circle. He was an insignificant nobody. According to John, this man was an imposter and had no right to use Jesus’ name or appropriate their position as His disciples. But Jesus issued John a loving and patient reprimand.

Don’t stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9:50 NLT 

The disciples had much to learn. And fortunately for them, Jesus was far from finished with His lessons.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson