We sometimes hear discussions, or even debates, about who is the greatest President, or the greatest football player, or the greatest American novelist. It’s in our DNA to try to rank one another. Some such discussions, though pointless, are relatively harmless, but others are more pernicious. Even the disciples of the Lord were not immune to such carnal displays. We’ll take note of one egregious example.
Luke describes the behavior of the disciples in one terse sentence: “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest” (Lk. 22:24). Luke does not tell us if all the disciples participated, how they attempted to justify their claims of being “the greatest,” how heated the argument became, or how long the dispute lasted. The Spirit of God deemed it sufficient to reveal the simple fact that grown men, called to be unique servants of the Lord, trained at His side, hearing His marvelous words, and beholding the awe of His miracles and the absolute perfection of His character, could plummet so quickly to the immature level of young children scrapping in the schoolyard. Their strife has none of the higher tones of a debate over the meaning of some doctrine Jesus had taught nor of the proper way to carry out some command He had given. No, the dispute is altogether carnal: “I’m more important than you are!” “No, I’m better than you are.” “No, I’m the greatest!” By whose standard and in whose eyes? Has the Lord given them any cause to think in these terms? Of course not. The dispute foments entirely from their own proud, jealous, and self-righteous hearts. At this moment, they have been overcome by self-serving, self-aggrandizing self-interest. All they have been taught has, for the moment, been thrown out the window. And they showcase what they are apart from the grace of God.
But the context in which their dispute arises exacerbates the grievousness of the sin. They have been sitting in an upper room, partaking of the holy feast of Passover, and fellowshipping with Jesus Christ, God-in-flesh. He has explained to them how “earnestly” He has “desired” to eat this final Passover with them. He has once again assured them that His passion is at hand. He has made the earnest pronouncement that He will “never” eat this meal again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Lk. 22:16). He had given the solemn explanation that the bread symbolizes His body, “which is given for you” (v. 19), and that the wine symbolizes a “new covenant” (v. 20) in His blood. He made the shocking revelation that He would be betrayed by one of His own disciples sitting with them at that moment and pronounced woe on that one. That final statement provoked a natural and understandable questioning among the disciples about which one of them the Lord might have in mind. Then more quickly than the time required to catch a breath, the earnest inquiry descended into the argument mentioned above. The sober and exalted experience of taking the Passover, the profound revelation of truth, and the joy of unity and fellowship with the Lord—all are instantly forgotten and forsaken in a moment of selfish “me-first-ism.”
We stand amazed at such rank carnality. But are we really very much (if at all) different? How often do we enjoy the fellowship of the Lord and other believers and revel in the mysteries of the preached Word, only to turn our thoughts to natural things before the final amen escapes the pastor’s lips? Oh, we may not break into an open dispute with the person in the pew behind us, but we take up the resentment or bitterness that we had set aside a moment earlier. We envy him, are jealous of her. Or our minds rush straight to other carnal interests. We are not so much different from the disciples, are we?
The Lord having gently rebuked His disciples, we read that He proceeded to exemplify the right attitude of heart by kneeling in meek humility and washing their feet (John 13:1ff.). He has done the same, and much more, for us: He became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8b). The disciples were transformed by Christ’s death and resurrection. We read no more of such disputes in the Book of Acts. Will we mirror them, growing in grace to become more and more like Him?
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