24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
28 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. – Luke 22:24-30 ESV
This passage leaves most people a bit stunned at the audacity of the disciples. How in the world could these men be so insensitive after all that Jesus had just said to them? He had just used elements from the Passover meal to describe His coming death on their behalf. Then He had followed that up with a disclosure that one of them was going to betray Him. But the gravity of His words didn’t seem to sink in. Oh, they spent some time discussing who the possible identity of the betrayer, but that quickly devolved into a pride-filled comparison. Upon close inspection, it becomes painfully evident that these men were debating about which of them mighty be capable doing such a thing. It conjures up images of the 11 remaining disciples (because Judas had already left the room) pointing fingers at one another in a perverse version of the blame-game.
In Matthew’s account of that fateful night, he indicates that each of the disciples had asked Jesus, “Is it I, Lord?” (Luke 22:23 ESV). And while Jesus seems to have made the identity of His betrayer quite clear, them disciples missed it and continued to argue over who the culprit might be. This suggests that they had no suspicions about Judas. While he had left the room, they did not jump to conclusions and immediately assume he was the guilty party.
And Luke seems to suggest that their debate soon turned into an argument about superiority. They went from distancing themselves from possible culpability for Jesus’ betrayal to bragging about their personal qualifications to to lay claim to the coveted title of “Greatest of all Disciples.”
It’s absolutely mind-boggling to think of these men having such an arrogant discussion in the very room where Jesus had just informed them, “This is my body, which is given for you” and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19, 20 NLT). Even if we assume they didn’t quite comprehend the meaning behind His words, there is no way they could have missed what He meant when He said, “…here at this table, sitting among us as a friend, is the man who will betray me. For it has been determined that the Son of Man must die. But what sorrow awaits the one who betrays him” (Luke 22:21-22 NLT).
But rather than console Jesus and offer their commitment to stand by His side to the bitter end, they made the focus of the entire evening all about themselves.
Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. – Luke 22:24 NLT
What makes their self-centered obsession so egregious is that the Messiah, the Anointed One of God was standing right in front of them. And to make matters worse, John reports that Jesus, the Son of God, had prefaced the Passover meal by washing the feet of His disciples.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. – John 13:3-5 ESV
And John indicates that immediately after Jesus had performed this lowly, selfless act of servanthood, He went out of His way to ensure that they understood the meaning behind His actions.
“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” – John 13:12-17 ESV
Their Lord and teacher had just washed their feet, providing them with a vivid illustration of the ministry they would soon be commissioned to carry on in His absence. And yet, they seemed to have missed His point altogether. Jesus was not calling them to become washers of feet, but to become the servants of all. In other words, Jesus was asking them to carry on His ministry.
Amazingly, this was not the only time Jesus had to have this discussion with His disciples. Matthew records another occasion when the mother of James and John approached Jesus and asked, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Matthew 20:21 NLT). This rather presumptuous request was met with jealousy-fueled anger by the other disciples. They were convinced that James and John were behind this gratuitous act of self-promotion. But Jesus responded to their frustration with the same basic message about selflessness and service.
“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. ” – Matthew 20:25-27 NLT
Then, to make sure they understand His meaning, Jesus used His own life as an example .
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mathew 28:28 NLT
The disciples had a worldly based perspective on leadership that promoted power, prominence, and position. The goal was to work your way to the top and then enjoy all the benefits your hard work afforded. But Jesus gave them a completely counter-cultural model to follow.
“…let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” – Luke 22:26 NLT
And, once again, Jesus reminded of them act of service He had just performed a few minutes earlier.
“For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” – Luke 22:27 ESV
There is no indication that the disciples answered Jesus’ question because it required none. He had just demonstrated that He, the greater one, had served those who were His inferiors in so many respects. He was their Lord and teacher. Not only that, He was the Son of God and yet, He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8 ESV).
Jesus declared, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27 ESV). That was the whole reason He had come to earth. And now, He was preparing them for the role they would play after He had given up His life in the ultimate act of selfless service.
Jesus wraps up this little lesson on leadership with a fascinating promise concerning the kingdom. It’s important to recognize that the kingdom is exactly what the disciples had been longing for ever since they began following Jesus. They had been hoping that He was their long-awaited Messiah and would set up the Kingdom of God on earth. But Jesus tells them something quite different.
“I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom…“ – Luke 22:29 ESV
In a sense, Jesus was giving them a mandate to have dominion over the world He had created. He was putting them in charge of His realm in His absence. But the kingdom to which He was assigning them authority would not be the final kingdom to come. It would not feature Jesus sitting on the throne of David in the city of Jerusalem. It would not feature James and John sitting on Jesus’ right and left in the royal palace. No, for the time being, it would consist of the disciples continuing His carrying the good news of the Kingdom of God to the ends of the earth. But then Jesus promised them that their longing for an earthly kingdom would one day be fulfilled. He assured them that one day they would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30 ESV).
Now was not the time to argue about greatness. The days ahead would not be filled with power and prominence but with serving, suffering, and selfless obedience to the King and His mission.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20 ESV
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.