A Vision of God’s Glory

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. 10 As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. 12 And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. – Ezekiel 1:4-14 ESV

It was while Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon, living near the Kebar River, that God came to visit him in a vision. Little did Ezekiel know that his role as a priest was about to be expanded to that of a prophet. A long way from home and far from the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians, Ezekiel was going to receive a vision and a commission from God Almighty.

Ezekiel would later describe this life-changing event in very intimate terms.

the hand of the Lord was upon me there – Ezekiel 3:22 ESV

…the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there. – Ezekiel 8:1 ESV

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:28 ESV

God revealed Himself to Ezekiel in an unforgettable and virtually indescribable manner. This was no burning bush encounter like the one Moses experienced in the wilderness. Ezekiel was given a much more intense and comprehensive glimpse of the Almighty, and it began with a vision of what the dumbfounded prophet describes as four living beings.

As I looked, I saw a great storm coming from the north, driving before it a huge cloud that flashed with lightning and shone with brilliant light. There was fire inside the cloud, and in the middle of the fire glowed something like gleaming amber. From the center of the cloud came four living beings – Ezekiel 1:4-5 NLT

One can only imagine Ezekiel’s shock as he witnessed these strange-looking apparitions appear before his eyes. The text does not reveal whether this bizarre vision took place while Ezekiel was awake or came upon him in the form of a dream. But the strange and surrealistic nature of what Ezekiel saw must have left him shaken and more than a bit scared.

A powerful thunderstorm suddenly appeared on the northern horizon, accompanied by lightning and brilliant light. This was no ordinary storm and that face was quickly confirmed by the sudden appearance of the four creatures. Ezekiel’s attempt to describe these bizarre beings reveals just extraordinary they were. He had never seen anything like them before and was at a loss as to how to describe them. To his eyes, they were an other-worldly amalgam of human and animal characteristics that were beyond belief.

At first glance, they appeared to be human but, upon closer examination, Ezekiel saw that they each had one head with four faces. “Each had a human face in the front, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle at the back” (Ezekiel 1:10 NLT).

Ezekiel is given no explanation for this disturbing combination of facial features. But it would seem that each was meant to represent something significant about God’s creative order. Man was meant to be the apex of all the living creatures God created. The lion was the king of the beasts, the most powerful of all the wild animals. The ox was the most valuable of all the domesticated animals, a creature equipped with great strength and intelligence. And the eagle was considered the king of the skies, a majestic bird of prey whose keen vision and powerful talons made him a mighty hunter.

According to Ezekiel, these four-faced creatures each had four wings and human hands. They used one pair of wings to cover their bodies, while the other pair of wings were fully extended with the tips touching the wings of the creature next to them. It seems that the four creatures formed a square so that “each one moved straight forward in any direction without turning around” (Ezekiel 1:9 NLT).

But even as mesmerizing as these creatures were, Ezekiel’s attention was drawn to something that appeared in the midst of them.

In the middle of the living beings was something like burning coals of fire or like torches. It moved back and forth among the living beings. It was bright, and lightning was flashing out of the fire. – Ezekiel 1:13 NET

It is difficult to ascertain whether this light emanated from the creatures themselves or from something else. But it seems as if the vision was meant to draw Ezekiel’s eye ever higher, exposing him to something far more significant than the creatures themselves. As fantastic as these heavenly beings appeared to be, they were not the focus of the vision. They were simply a preview of what was to come.

“These spiritual beings who were part angel, part human, and part animal were fitting representatives of the whole created order. Their activity affirmed the relationship of God to his creation as Lord of all things. This idea was vital in helping Ezekiel and the captives in exile and the people in Judah understand that in the midst of the storms of life, God was still on his throne. He was not oblivious to their circumstances.” – L. E. Cooper Sr., Ezekiel

God was setting the stage for what was to come. These divine apparitions were meant to get the prophet’s attention and prepare him to receive the message God had in store for him. God could have just appeared to Ezekiel, but He chose to preface His appearance with a supernatural outpouring of signs that accentuated His power and glory. In the midst of all the doom and gloom of captivity in Babylon, Ezekiel was being given a veritable light show designed to remind him of Yahweh’s majesty and holiness.

The God of Israel was manifesting His presence in the midst of His exiled people. He had not forgotten or forsaken them. He had always promised to remember and redeem them, and He had communicated those intentions to the prophet Jeremiah.

“When the time for them to be rescued comes,”
says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
“I will rescue you from foreign subjugation.
I will deliver you from captivity.
Foreigners will then no longer subjugate them.
But they will be subject to the Lord their God
and to the Davidic ruler whom I will raise up as king over them. – Jeremiah 30:8-9 NLT

As Ezekiel’s vision will make clear, God was still on His throne and fully in command of all that was going on in the world. The captivity of His chosen people had been part of His plan, and their future redemption would also come about just as He had promised. Ezekiel was being given a much-needed reminder of God’s glory and greatness so that he might receive, believe, and deliver God’s message for the helpless and hopeless living in exile in Babylon.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

True Greatness

1 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Luke 21:1–6 ESV

Jesus and His disciples remain in the temple courtyard, where He underwent a series of confrontations with the religious leaders who had been attempting to entrap Him. In a bold affront to their arrogant sense of superiority, Jesus had labeled their displays of self-righteousness as nothing more than hypocrisy.

Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Luke 20:46 NLT

These men were addicted to fine clothes and flattery. They craved recognition and demanded the respect of all those whom they considered their inferiors. And almost as if to provide a glaring contrast to their style of behavior, Jesus directs the attention of His disciples to a poor widow. He has positioned Himself opposite the temple treasury where He is silently observing the various people bringing their offerings and placing them in one of the 13 trumpet-shaped receptacles arranged around the perimeter of the Courtyard of the Women.

As Jesus looks on, a variety of people drop their freewill offerings into the boxes, many of whom are wealthy and can be seen donating large sums of money. Luke’s inference seems to be that their actions were intended to attract attention. The size of their contributions was intended to be noticed. Since all currency was in the form of coins, their gift would have made a great deal of noise as it clanged on the metal trumpet that topped the offering box. All heads would have turned to see who was giving such a generous amount.

But Jesus takes note of “a poor widow put in two small copper coins” (Luke 21:2 ESV). This woman’s small gift would have garnered little attention from the people who crowded the temple courtyard, but she caught the eye of Jesus. She was exactly the kind of person He had mentioned in His diatribe against the scribes.

“…they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. – Luke 20:47 NLT

This widow was someone the scribes and other religious leaders would have taken advantage of in order to line their own pockets. Yet, to Jesus, she represented the truly righteous. Her two small coins would have made little noise as they descended into the offering box, but to Jesus, her actions spoke volumes. So, He pointed her out to His disciples and said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3 ESV).

It was not the size of her gift that mattered, but it was the state of her heart. She had not given to be noticed. Her gift had not been meant to impress. But Jesus knew that her gift had been a great sacrifice because she had “given everything” she had to live on (Luke 12:4 NLT). This entire scene is a visual demonstration of Jesus’ lesson from His sermon on the mount.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get.” – Matthew 6:1-2 NLT

This woman, though poor, had sacrificed everything in order to give her freewill offering to God. But the others had given “out of their abundance” (Luke 21:4 ESV). It had cost them nothing. Their gifts, while impressive in size, had required no sacrifice on their part. They had actually profited from their efforts, having garnered the praise and admiration of others for their obviously generous contributions.

By pointing out this widow to His disciples, Jesus had been trying to continue His lesson on greatness in the Kingdom of God. But it seems that His disciples remained stubbornly oblivious to all that He was trying to teach them. In fact, as they made their way out of the temple courtyard, none of the disciples mention the widow and her sacrificial gift. But one of them takes note of the grandeur and opulence of the temple.

“Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” – Mark 13:1 ESV

The temple was a magnificent complex that made an impressive sight from its prominent location atop Mount Zion. The Jews took great pride in this grand structure and the disciples were rightfully proud of and impressed by its sheer size and beauty. After all, it was the dwelling place of God.

The image of the poor widow had faded from their collective memories. Now, as they made their way out of the temple and back to the Mount of Olives, their attention was fixated on the structure that Herod the Great had helped expand and improve. The original temple, built by King Solomon, had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Seventy years later, God had allowed a remnant of the people who had been exiled to Babylon to return and rebuild the temple. But, when completed, the new temple was just a shadow of its former glory. Herod the Great, in an attempt to win over the people, had decreed a massive rebuilding program that resulted in the grand structure that now dominated the landscape and captivated the attention of the disciples.

But Jesus, always ready to turn every moment into a teaching opportunity, told His disciples, “The time is coming when all these things will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” (Luke 21:6 ESV). This news will shock the disciples. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. How could God allow His beautiful house to be destroyed? But as hard as it was to fathom, everything Jesus said eventually came true. In A.D. 70, the Roman army, under the leadership of Titus, besieged Jerusalem in an effort to put an end to a long-standing Jewish revolt against Roman rule. After a three-month standoff, the Romans invaded the city, destroying and eventually burning the temple to the ground. They left no stone upon another.

The disciples had been unimpressed with the generous widow, but they couldn’t help but notice the grandeur of the temple. But Jesus ended up commending the woman and condemning the temple. She was elevated as an icon of righteousness and virtue, while the temple was declared to be the symbol of all that was wrong with Israel. As Jesus had declared earlier, the temple of God had become a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17 ESV). The dwelling place of God had been desecrated by the very ones who were responsible for its care and protection.

Jesus was reminding His disciples of the words of God, spoken centuries earlier through Isaiah the prophet and directed at the rebellious people of Israel.

“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again? Don’t you yourselves admit that this Temple, which bears my name, has become a den of thieves? Surely I see all the evil going on there. I, the LORD, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 7;8-11 NLT

Nothing had changed. Just as the original temple had been destroyed by God, so would this remarkable structure come under His judgment. Because the people of God failed to live in obedience to the will of God.

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

What Price Are You Willing to Pay?

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Mark 10:17-23 ESV

What happens next provides a perfect juxtaposition to all that Jesus has been trying to teach His disciples. He has been addressing their pride and the unhealthy competitive spirit that had caused them to argue over who among them was spiritually superior. It is likely that Peter, James, and John had bragged about their adventure with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, leaving the other disciples envious of the special treatment these three had received from Jesus. Each of the 12 disciples was trying to earn his way into Jesus’ good graces, hoping to secure a position of prominence in His coming Kingdom. And John had revealed their disdain for anybody outside of their circle who might hone in on their territory and rob them of glory. When he and his fellow disciples had discovered someone casting out demons in the name of Jesus, they had rebuked him, demanding that he cease and desist. But Jesus had surprised John by commending the stranger for His actions, saying, “the one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40 ESV).

And in an effort to convict the disciples of their unhealthy obsession with greatness, Jesus had repeatedly used children as a way to illustrate the kind of attitude He was looking for in His followers. When the disciples had tried to send away the parents who were bringing their children to Jesus so that He might bless them, Jesus had declared, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15 NLT).

The disciples had viewed these children as a distraction. From their perspective, children were non-contributors, who required far too much attention, and could provide no real assistance when it came to the work that needed to be done. They had no rights, no money, no skills, and no way of helping Jesus usher in His Kingdom. So, why waste time with them?

And it was at this point that a young man approached Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17 ESV). Matthew adds that the man’s request was focused on what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. From the conversation that followed, it seems clear that the men believed he had already done enough. He was young and rich, and from the perspective of most Jews, he was already blessed by God because of his wealth. He was also a religious man because when Jesus lists six of the Ten Commandments and tells the man to keep them, the man proudly announces, “all these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20 ESV).

This man was looking for confirmation, not a list of things to do. As a faithful Jew, he believed he was a child of Abraham and, therefore, a rightful heir to eternal life. As a descendant of Abraham, he was guaranteed a place in God’s eternal Kingdom. Now, he was asking Jesus to place His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on his life.

The wording of the man’s question is very specific. He uses the word klēronomeō, which means “to obtain by inheritance.” This reveals that he believed eternal life was already rightfully his, but he wants to know how to he can get his hands on it now. He was not wanting to wait. His attitude is similar to that of the young man in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In this story, Jesus described another young man from a wealthy family who was destined to inherit his father’s vast riches. But unwilling to wait for his father to die, he demanded that he be given his inheritance right way.

“I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. – Luke 15:12 NLT

Finding himself suddenly wealthy beyond belief, that young man ended up spending everything he had on a life of excess and immorality. He had gotten what he wanted but had misused and abused it.

And, in a similar way, the rich young man who kneeled before Jesus was demanding that he be given what was rightfully his: His guaranteed inheritance of eternal life. This man had it all but he wanted more. He coveted the one thing that was missing from his portfolio: Eternal life.

Because of his wealth, social standing, and success at religious rule-keeping, this young man believed himself to be blessed by God. He views himself as a good man who deserved everything that was due to him. And if Jesus could help him get eternal life, he would have it all. But Jesus emphasized that “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19 ESV). As David wrote in his Psalm, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3 ESV).

And while this man could brag about keeping six of the Ten Commandments, Jesus knew the truth about his heart. It is interesting that Jesus only lists five of the commandments and they all had to do with the horizontal relationships between individuals.

“Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” – Mark 10: 19 ESV

And these five commandments bring to mind Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In that message, Jesus stated, ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV).

And Jesus had gone on to explain what it looked like to “relax” one of God’s laws. He put hatred on the same par as murder (Matthew 5:22). He compared lust to adultery.

“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 ESV

Lust, like adultery, is essentially taking what does not belong to you. It is a form of stealing. And Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29 ESV).

All throughout His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a radically different picture of what it means to keep God’s law. It wasn’t just about rule-keeping. It was about a change of the heart. Those who hoped to inherit God’s kingdom would have to live sacrificially and selflessly. Their adherence to God’s laws would have to manifest itself in their relationships with others. That’s why Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 ESV).

Which brings us back to the rich young man. Jesus turned to him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21 ESV). This proved to be the deal-breaker. This one “good deed” was more than the man could handle. He was unwilling to part with his wealth. All his law-keeping had cost him nothing. But now Jesus was demanding that he do one thing that would cost him everything. And think about what this man was giving up. He was turning his back on eternal life so that he could keep living the “good life.” Mark sadly reports that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22 ESV).

He was possessed by his possessions. He was held captive by the things of this world. His love of material goods and temporal pleasures proved too great. And years later, the apostle John would probably recall this sad scene when he wrote the following words.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

This man had been young and full of life. He was wealthy and blessed by every imaginable earthly pleasure. He was a ruler who wielded tremendous power and responsibility. In other words, He was great. He was all that the disciples hoped to become. When they looked at the rich young ruler, they saw the image of what they aspired to be. And as the disciples stood in stunned silence watching the young man walk away, Jesus further exploded their misconception of greatness.

“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:23 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.

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

The Lowly Life of a Leader

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” Mark 9:38-41 ESV

Jesus has just finished addressing the disciples’ predilection for power and prominence, yet they seem to have missed the point. Their internal squabble over who was the greatest among them led Jesus to declare, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV). In His Kingdom, greatness was not measured by the significance of one’s role but the humility of the heart. Jesus, as the Son of God, was the second member of the trinity, yet “though he was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7 ESV). And, as Jesus later told His disciples, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 28:20 ESV).

But as Jesus wrapped up his object lesson on leadership in the Kingdom, the disciples once again displayed their inability to grasp the vital lesson He was trying to teach them. This time, it was John who spoke up and not the ever-impulsive and quick-tongued Peter. And the topic John chose to raise at this particular moment in time reveals that he and his companions had failed to understand what Jesus was telling them.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – Mark 9:38 ESV

There’s an air of exclusivity and arrogance in John’s words. He was irritated that someone outside of their circle was performing miracles in the name of Jesus. In fact, this imposter was casting out demons. And from John’s point of view, this was unacceptable because Jesus had only given that kind of power and authority to His 12 disciples (Mark 3:15).

And it is important to recall that all this talk about greatness in the Kingdom had begun immediately after the disciples had failed to cast a demon out of a young boy. The boy’s father had come seeking the help of Jesus, but when He discovered that Jesus was not there, he had turned to the B-Team.

“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” – Mark 9:17-18 ESV

The disciples had failed. Despite the power and authority that was given to them by Jesus, they had not been able to cast out the demon. But that little setback hadn’t stopped them from arguing over who was greatest among them.

And John shares with Jesus their concern about outside competition. Whoever this individual was, he was operating without a license. From John’s perspective, this exorcist was infringing on their trademark rights. He had no business performing signs that were meant to be the purview of the disciples alone.

Mark does not give us the name of the individual who was casting out demons on an “unofficial” basis. And, in leaving out the man’s identity, it is almost as if Mark places him in the same category as the young child whom Jesus held in His arms. The unknown man was one of the least. In casting out demons in Jesus’ name, he was doing the will of the Father and yet, not for personal gain or glory.

And Jesus gently rebuked John and the others for their prideful attempt to stop the man from casting out demons.

“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” – Mark 9:39-40 ESV

In a sense, Jesus was telling the disciples that they were all on the same team. This man was doing good and he was doing it in the name of Jesus. He was not in it for fame or personal gain. And by casting out demons, he was demonstrating the power inherent in the name of Jesus. He was displaying the superiority of the Son of God.

This entire scene is reminiscent of another encounter that is recorded in the book of Acts. Philip had traveled to the city of Samaria in order to preach the Good News concerning Jesus. While there, Philip also performed many signs and wonders.

Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. – Acts 8:7-8 NLT

But in the city, there was a well-known and revered magician who saw the actions of Philip as unwanted competition.

A man named Simon had been a sorcerer there for many years, amazing the people of Samaria and claiming to be someone great. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, often spoke of him as “the Great One—the Power of God.” They listened closely to him because for a long time he had astounded them with his magic. – Acts 8:9-11 NLT

Simon began to follow Philip, watching his every move, most likely in an attempt to learn and steal the secrets of his power. But in time, Simon came to faith in Jesus.

Simon himself believed and was baptized. He began following Philip wherever he went, and he was amazed by the signs and great miracles Philip performed. – Acts 8:13 NLT

And when Simon observed Philip and the other apostles laying their hands on people so that they might receive the Holy Spirit, he wanted in on the action.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given when the apostles laid their hands on people, he offered them money to buy this power. “Let me have this power, too,” he exclaimed, “so that when I lay my hands on people, they will receive the Holy Spirit!” – Acts 8:18-19 NLT

But Philip, aware of the motivation behind Simon’s offer, rebuked him.

“May your money be destroyed with you for thinking God’s gift can be bought! 21 You can have no part in this, for your heart is not right with God. Repent of your wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive your evil thoughts, for I can see that you are full of bitter jealousy and are held captive by sin.” – Acts 8:20-23 NLT

Simon, who at one time had been called “the Great One – the Power of God,” was anxious to regain some of his lost prestige and he was willing to pay for it. He was jealous of the apostles’ power and longed to be restored to the position of prominence he had once enjoyed.

This does not seem to be the case with the man who was casting out demons. He remains anonymous and unknown throughout Mark’s account. And Jesus holds up his actions as being positive, not negative. The ones who were displaying jealousy and an unhealthy dose of envy were the 12 disciples.

They viewed this man as their competition. But Jesus insists that he is on their side. He was actually doing what they had failed to do, and he was doing it for the glory of Jesus. And Jesus points out that this man’s actions were actually a form of kindness aimed at the disciples themselves.

“If anyone gives you even a cup of water because you belong to the Messiah, I tell you the truth, that person will surely be rewarded.” – Mark 9:41 NLT

Jesus compares the casting out of a demon to the sharing of a cup of water. One act was spectacular and supernatural, while the other was simple and seemingly unimportant. But each was an act of service. When done in humility and with a servant’s heart, the action brings glory to God and a reward to the servant. But when pride and prominence become the motivation behind what we do, we exhibit the heart of Simon the magician. And Jesus provides a stern warning to all those who would do great works in the name  of Jesus but for self-glorification.

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’” – Matthew 7:21-23 NLT

The disciples were struggling with a need to be recognized as great. They were obsessed with the desire for significance. And they resented anyone robbing them of potential glory. But Jesus was trying to get them to understand that their true calling was to mirror His own. They were servants who would be called to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Kingdom. And Jesus would later tell the disciples a parable to illustrate the life of service and sacrifice that is to mark the life of a Christ-follower.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:34-40 NLT

Slowly, but steadily, the disciples were learning the invaluable lesson of true greatness. As Paul described it to the believers in Philippi, true greatness is best seen in the life of Jesus, and we are to follow His example.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. –Philippians 2:3-5 NLT

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

A Lesson in Least-ness

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Mark 9:30-37 ESV

For a brief period of time, Jesus tried to maintain some sense of secrecy concerning His whereabouts so that He might spend more time instructing His disciples. This would not have been easy because Jesus attracted large crowds wherever He went. But Jesus did what He could to remain incognito as He passed through the region of Galilee. It was essential that He prepare His disciples for what was to come, and the information He was going to share with them was for their ears only. It was not intended for mass distribution.

These men, who had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, needed to come to grips with the reality of His earthly mission. Jesus was fully aware that they had drawn wrong conclusions about His role as the Messiah and were still expecting Him to set up His earthly Kingdom. To them, all the miracles and messages were simply the opening acts of what was supposed to be the main event: Jesus establishing Himself as the next king of Israel. And because they were His faithful followers, they believed they were destined to play significant roles in His royal administration.

So, for the second time, Jesus attempted to realign their expectations by revealing the facts concerning His coming death in Jerusalem. The first time Jesus had broached this uncomfortable subject, it had earned Him a stern rebuke from Peter. This outspoken and overly impulsive member of Jesus’ inner circle had found the news disconcerting and unacceptable and had told Jesus so. And a closer look at what Jesus told them makes Peter’s reaction somewhat understandable.

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and after three days rise again. – Mark 8:31 NLT

For Peter and his companions, this information seemed outside the realm of possibility. If Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah for whom they had long been waiting, how could His life end in death? What possible good could come from a dead Messiah? How was He supposed to rescue His people from their enslavement to Rome if He was dead?

Jesus had spoken plainly and quite bluntly. He had not sugarcoated the news or presented it in terms the disciples might find more palatable. But at the same time, He did not provide much in the way of further explanation. Yes, He mentioned His resurrection, but in such a cursory way that the disciples failed to grasp what He was talking about.

So, Jesus revisits the topic one more time. Bit it’s important to recall the event that is sandwiched in between these two disclosures. The transfiguration of Jesus was intended to give the three disciples who witnessed it a glimpse into the future. They were given the privilege of seeing Jesus in His glorified state, discussing His coming departure from this earth with Elijah and Moses.

That remarkable experience must have sealed the deal for Peter, James, and John. The vision of Jesus in His glory, the presence of the two prophets of Israel, and the audible voice of God declaring Jesus to be His Son, all provided incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was the Messiah.  And yet, as they came down the mountain, they could only think about one thing: What Jesus had meant by “rising from the dead” (Mark 9:10).

It’s likely that the transfiguration had only made Jesus’ comments about His death and rising again all the more confusing to the disciples. They were having a difficult time reconciling what they had seen on the mountain top with what Jesus had described as His future fate. And Jesus, fully aware of their lingering inability to process His words, simply repeated them.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” – Mark 9:31 ESV

And Mark indicates that they remained just as confused as before.

…they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. – Mark 9:32 ESV

These men weren’t afraid to ask 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.

When they arrived back in Capernaum, their unofficial headquarters, Jesus asked the disciples what they had been discussing along the way. But, once again, they chose to remain silent. And rightfully so, because to admit the topic of their conversation would have been embarrassing. But Mark spills the beans, revealing that “they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

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. This jockeying for position will continue on into the next chapter, where Mark reveals that James and John 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.

“Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” – Mark 9:35 NLT

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 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.

So, to drive home His point, Jesus gave them an object lesson. Picking up a small child in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37 ESV).

In their culture, children were considered the least of the least. They had no rights or privileges. They were powerless and helpless. And yet, Jesus stood before the disciples, holding one of these seemingly insignificant and unimportant children in His arms. 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 by holding this child in His arms, 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.

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

Like a Little Child

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. –  Matthew 18:1-6 ESV

This exchange between Jesus and His disciples provides a stark contrast between their two diametrically opposing visions concerning the kingdom. While Jesus has gone out of His way to inform them about His coming death in Jerusalem, they are obviously having a difficult time comprehending and accepting this radical alteration to their kingdom narrative.

At first glance, it appears that the disciples are asking a question about the hierarchical structure of heaven. It is doubtful that they were questioning the prominence of God in the celestial realm. Their question seems to be focused on the status of those who had already died and were now living as residents of heaven, such as Moses, Elijah, and David? Their obsession with status and recognition within the kingdom is well documented. And a quick look at the other gospel accounts of this very same scene sheds some light on what was actually going on. Both Mark and Luke reveal that, prior to this question being asked, the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest.

…on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. – Mark 9:36 ESV

An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. – Luke 9:46 ESV

Matthew’s version of the account presents the disciples a bit more favorably as if they were the ones who brought the matter to Jesus to settle. But Mark indicates that Jesus was the one who exposed the content of their squabble by asking them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:34 ESV). But they refused to answer His question. So Luke tells us that, “Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side” (Luke 9:47 ESV).

So, why the discrepancy? What would have caused Matthew to portray the scene differently? It is most likely a case of perspective. Matthew was revealing things as he had seen them. Perhaps he had not been part of the group that had been having the argument. He could have walked in on the scene as Jesus was addressing the issue and simply assumed one of the other disciples had asked Jesus the question. We are not told why his recollection of the event is different, but it is important to remember that each of the gospel authors was writing from their own particular viewpoint. It is not a case of contradiction as much as it is a matter of context.

But the fact that the disciples had been arguing over this point is revealing. We are not told what prompted their discussion, but it could have been the fact that Peter, James, and John had been selected by Jesus to view His transfiguration. While they had been sworn to secrecy by Jesus, that doesn’t mean they didn’t gloat in front of the other disciples, bragging over their membership in Jesus’ inner circle. Remember, it was James and John who had asked Jesus if they could sit on His right and left when He established His kingdom (Mark 10:37). Position and prominence were important to the disciples. These blue-collar members of the lower rung of Jewish society were constantly thinking about rank and privilege. They even argued amongst themselves as to who was the greatest.

While they had originally thought that Jesus was going to establish His kingdom on earth, they were slowly realizing that there was going to be something radically different about the Messiah’s rule and reign. It seems that they were now moving their focus from earth to heaven. If Jesus was not going to set up an earthly kingdom, then they wanted to know what roles they would play in His heavenly one. Yet, Jesus was about to burst their bubble and expose a feature of His kingdom that would contradict their expectations.

Jesus did something unusual. He placed a small child in their midst and then used this unnamed and seemingly insignificant child to drive home an important lesson on leadership in the kingdom of God. In that day and age, children were considered as inferior to adults. They had little or no rights. And for Jesus to use a child as an example for adults to follow would have been shocking. It should have been the other way around. And yet, He placed the child in front of His disciples and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). 

But children had no power. They were helpless and in constant need of someone else’s care. Children could be ignored or abused. They had no authority. They could not demand their rights because they had none. So, while the disciples were asking questions about greatness, Jesus was emphasizing those who represent “the least of these.”

Notice what Jesus says. He tells His disciples that they must “turn.” The Greek word He used in strephō, and it means to change your course of conduct or to change your mind. At that point, the disciples were arguing and obsessing over the issue of greatness in the kingdom. But Jesus demands that they rethink their position and become like children. What did He mean? It seems clear from the context that Jesus is stressing the need for humility. He placed this young child in the midst of 12 adult men and told them to follow the child’s example. Mark indicates that Jesus took the child in His arms. This child’s innocence and trust of Jesus is clearly on display. There is no pride exhibited. The child does not demand his own way or fight to escape the arms of Jesus. And Jesus, carefully cradling the child in His arms, drives home a powerful message to His status-obsessed disciples:

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:4 ESV

And to the shock and surprise of His disciples, Jesus then reveals that anyone who does not become humble like a child will never enter the kingdom of heaven. These men would have believed that their hand-picked status as followers of Jesus and their unique position as descendants of Abraham would have been more than enough to secure their place in the kingdom. The thought of not entering the kingdom of heaven had never crossed their minds. To them, it was all about status within that kingdom, not a question of whether they would be there. But Jesus wanted them to know that entrance into the kingdom would be based on humility and trust.

Jesus was not telling His disciples that heaven was off-limits to them. He was driving home their need for humility. There was no place for pride in the lives of His followers. They had brought nothing to the table. There had been nothing about them that had caused Jesus to choose them. The only reason they were HIs followers was that He had called them and they had humbly obeyed that call. And there would be other followers of Christ – those who humbled themselves and willingly placed their trust in Jesus as their Savior. And Jesus warned the disciples not to look down on those kinds of people.

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” – Matthew 18:6 NLT

The very fact that the disciples had been debating over which of them was the greatest is an indication that they believed in a hierarchy within the kingdom. They were convinced that there were degrees of superiority and inferiority associated with Jesus’ kingdom, just like any other royal administration. But Jesus pointed out that His kingdom was to come and when it did come, it would be marked by humility, not pride. And if the disciples, through their pride, kept anyone from entering the kingdom, their fate would be marked by judgment, not greatness.

Mark added the following words from Jesus: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV). Luke puts it this way: “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48 ESV). That day, the child Jesus held in His arms would have been considered “least” by the disciples. He had done nothing to earn favor with God or man. He had performed no miracles, healed no one, and had not even reached adulthood. He had no rights. He had no privileges. But Jesus said he was greater than any of the disciples. 

These men were going to learn that greatness in Christ’s kingdom was based on an attitude of humility and servanthood, not pride and position. And Jesus was going to be their greatest example of what it meant to be great.

“Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 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.” – Matthew 20:26-28 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.

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

True Greatness.

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. –  Matthew 18:1-6 ESV

What would have prompted this question from the disciples? And were they asking about those who were already in heaven, such as Moses, Elijah or possibly David? Well, a quick look at the other gospel accounts of this very same scene sheds some light on what was going on. Both Mark and Luke reveal that the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest.

…on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. – Mark 9:36 ESV

An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. – Luke 9:46 ESV

Matthew’s version of the account presents the disciples a bit more favorably, as if they were the ones who brought the matter to Jesus to settle. But Mark indicates that Jesus was the one who exposed the content of their squabble by asking them, “What were you discussing on the way?” (Mark 9:34 ESV). But they refused to answer His question. So Luke tells us that, “Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side” (Luke 9:47 ESV).

So, why the discrepancy? What would have caused Matthew to portray the scene differently? It is most likely a case of perspective. Matthew was revealing things as he had seen them. Perhaps he had not been part of the group that had been having the argument. He could have walked in on the scene as Jesus was addressing the issue and simply assumed one of the other disciples had asked Jesus the question. We are not told why his recollection of the event is different, but it is important to remember that each of the gospel authors was writing from their own particular viewpoint. It is not a case of contradiction as much as it is context.

But the fact that the disciples had been arguing over this point is revealing. We are not told what prompted their discussion, but it could have been the fact that Peter, James and John had been selected by Jesus to view His transfiguration. While they had been sworn to secrecy by Jesus, that doesn’t mean they didn’t gloat in front of the other disciples, bragging over their membership in Jesus’ inner circle. Remember, it was James and John who had asked Jesus if they could sit on His right and left when He established His kingdom (Mark 10:37). Position and prominence were important to the disciples. These blue-collar members of the lower rung of the Jewish culture were constantly thinking about rank and privilege. They even argued amongst themselves as to who was the greatest.

Yet, Jesus was about to burst their bubble and expose a feature of His kingdom that would contradict their expectations. Jesus did something unusual. He placed a small child in their midst and then used this unnamed and seemingly insignificant child to drive home an important lesson on leadership in the kingdom of God. In that day and age, children were considered as inferior to adults. They had little or no rights. And for Jesus to use a child as an example for adults would have been shocking. It should have been the other way around. And yet, He placed the child in front of His disciples and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). 

Notice what Jesus says. He tells His disciples that they must “turn.” The Greek word He used in strephō, and it means to change your course of conduct or to change your mind. At that point, the disciples were arguing and obsessing over the issue of greatness in the kingdom. But Jesus demands that they rethink their position and become like children. What did Jesus mean? It seems clear from the context that He is speaking of humility. He had placed this young child in the midst of 12 adult men and told them to follow the child’s example. Mark indicates that Jesus took the child in His arms. This child’s innocence and trust of Jesus is clearly on display. There is no pride exhibited. The child does not demand his own way or refuse to do what Jesus asked. And Jesus makes His point perfectly clear: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4 ESV).

But to the shock and surprise of His disciples, Jesus indicates that anyone who does not become humble like a child will never enter the kingdom of heaven. They would have believed that their hand-picked status as followers of Jesus and as descendants of Abraham would have been more than enough to secure their place in the kingdom. Now, it was just a matter of status within that kingdom. But Jesus wanted them to know that entrance into the kingdom would be based on humility and trust.

Jesus was not telling His disciples that they were unsaved. His point was the need for humility. There was no place for pride in the lives of His followers. They had brought nothing to the table. There had been nothing about them that had caused Jesus to choose them. The only reason they were HIs followers was because He had called them and they had humbly obeyed that call. And there would be other followers of Christ. Those who humbled themselves and willingly placed their trust in Jesus as their Savior. And Jesus warned the disciples not to look down on those kinds of people.

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” – Matthew 18:6 NLT

The very fact that the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest is an indication that they believed in a hierarchy within the kingdom. They were convinced that there was a degree of superiority and inferiority associated with Jesus’ kingdom, just like any other royal administration. But Jesus pointed out that His kingdom was to come and when it did come it would be marked by humility, not pride. And if the disciples, through their pride, kept anyone from entering the kingdom, their fate would be marked by judgment, not greatness.

Mark added the following words from Jesus: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV). Luke records it this way: “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48 ESV). That day, the child Jesus held in His arms would have been considered “least” by the disciples. He had done nothing. He had performed no miracles, healed no one, and had not even reached adulthood. He had no rights. He had no privileges. But Jesus said he was greater than any of the disciples. 

They were going to learn that greatness in Christ’s kingdom was based on an attitude of humility and servanthood, not pride and position. And Jesus was going to be their greatest example of what it meant to be great.

“Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 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.” – Matthew 20:26-28 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.

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

Day 70 – Matthew 17:24-18:35; Mark 9:33-50

No Place For Pride.

Matthew 17:24-18:35; Mark 9:33-50

He sat down, called the twelve disciples over to him, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” – Mark 9:22-35 NLT

This is a fascinating section of Scripture. It is filled with powerful words from the lips of Jesus which are directed at His disciples. As they were journeying back to Capernaum, the disciples had gotten into an argument among themselves about who was the greatest. What makes this so mind-blowing is that Jesus had just told them that He was going to be betrayed into the hands of His enemies, be killed and raised from the dead. And yet, all they could think to discuss along the way was which one of them was the greatest. I would have loved to have heard that discussion. I’m sure Peter, James and John argued that they were because they alone got to witness the transfiguration of Jesus. Peter probably make a point of referencing the episode where he walked on the water (at least for a while). Each of them probably had ample reasons to vote themselves into the prime spot and just as many reasons for discounting the greatness of one another. Embarrassed at Jesus’ questioning about what they had been arguing about, they refused to answer. But Jesus knew. So He sat them down and gave them a lengthy lesson on the reality of life in His Kingdom. First, He rocked their world by telling them,  “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (Mark 9:35 NLT). So all their talk about greatness was misplaced and a waste of time. In His Kingdom, humility was the key to greatness, not pride. Servanthood was of greater value in God’s economy than leadership. True greatness began with an attitude marked by humility, dependence and need. To further illustrate His point, Jesus invited a little child to sit down among them. In that day, children were of little value. Other than male children who could carry on the family name, children were a burden. They had no rights. They were obligated to obey and honor their parents. They were worked hard and often taken for granted. But Jesus took this little child, placed him in their midst and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4 NLT). This child was weak, defenseless, unimportant, completely dependent, and had not Jesus called him over, would have gone totally unnoticed by the disciples. Jesus’ point? That’s the attitude required of every citizen of His Kingdom. When Jesus called this little child over, he came. He obeyed. He did as he was told, no questions asked. The disciples were constantly questioning Jesus and doubting His methods. They were self-consumed and prideful. They truly believed that because they were followers of Jesus, they would play a prominent role in His coming Kingdom.

Even after hearing Jesus’ words, John seems to still be promoting his own greatness when He informs Jesus that they had stopped some arrogant outsider from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. I’m sure John was expecting a commendation, but instead he got a rebuke. Jesus responded, “Don’t stop him!” (Mark 9:39 NLT). Jesus seemed to be saying, “This is about the Kingdom, not getting credit for what you’ve accomplished.” John saw this man as competition. But Jesus said, “Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40 NLT). Rather than worry about getting recognition for what you’ve done, willingly serve any and all who are helping the cause of Christ. Interestingly enough, this outsider was doing what the other disciples were unable to do while Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration – cast out a demon. Whoever this individual was, he had enough faith in Jesus to use His name to cast out demons. But the disciples had commanded him to stop what he was doing. Jesus made it clear. In doing so, they were causing this man to sin. “But if you cause one of these little ones who trust in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck” (Mark 9:42 NLT). This man was waging war against the enemy in Jesus’ name, but the disciples, due to their own pride, had told him to stop. Their own pride had done harm to the Kingdom of Christ and caused this man to sin. That was a dangerous thing to do. The key issue here is pride. Jesus wanted the disciples to examine their hearts and get to the root of the problem, then cut it off. “If one is characterized by pride rather than humility, and if one consistently acts in pride so as to offend those who believe in Christ, he is demonstrating that he does not belong to Christ and such a one would consequently ‘be thrown into hell’” (J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words & Works of Jesus Christ). Pride is a powerful force in the life of the believer – for bad, not good. We must watch for it and do everything in our power to remove it. We must be as little children – humble, dependent, recognizing our own weakness and turning to God for all our needs. Our lives should be marked by compliance and complete submission to the will of the Father. There is no place for competition in the Kingdom of Christ. We all serve the King.

Father, pride is a constant reality in my life. It raises its ugly head on a regular basis, and sometimes it becomes to familiar that I fail to see it for what it is. Open my eyes and examine my heart. Show me the pervasive presence of pride in my life and help me remove it. Replace it with an attitude of humility and service. Give me the heart of a child. Amen.

Ken Miller

Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org