Who is Greatest in the Church?
Jesus Turned Greatness Upside Down
This one teaching of Jesus the Anointed One is probably the most ignored, and most foundational, of his teachings. It shaped the church in apostolic times, and if embraced and taught by the church, would have a profoundly positive impact on the church and the world today. This teaching is, the answer to church unity, church authority, and a substantial defence against false teachers.
Jesus Teaching on Greatness
On three separate occasions the followers of Jesus, having not yet received the Holy Spirit, engaged in rivalry as to who among them was the greatest. Jesus used these occasions to teach his followers what greatness in the church looks like.
1st - The Dispute
After the followers of Jesus had argued with each other about which one of them was the greatest, Jesus began to teach them regarding greatness in the church. This teaching is found recorded in the parallel accounts of (Mat. 18:1-5), (Mar. 9:33-37), and (Luk. 9:46-48). I have placed the following together, best as I can, to give a full account as to what transpired.
And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 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.” (Mark 9:33–35 ESV)
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. (Matt 18:1–6 ESV)
But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 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.” (Luke 9:47–48 ESV)
Jesus says to be great you must be:
- last of all
- servant of all
- least among you all
Note: Jesus equates a little child with humility, as understanding this will be helpful later.
Note: If you don't change and become as little children (humble) then you will not even enter into the heavenly kingdom.
2nd - The Power Play
On the second occasion John and James (and apparently their mother as indicated in the parallel account in Mat. 20:20-21) make a political move to establish their greatness above the others.
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mark 10:35–37 ESV)
And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:41–45 ESV)
This time Jesus calls them to himself and contrasts, how the great of this world operate as opposed to how the great in his church operate.
The worlds rulers:
- lord it over them
The worlds great:
- exercise authority over them
Jesus says: "it shall not be so among you"
Whoever would be great among you must be:
- your servant
Whoever would be first among you must be:
- slave of all
3rd - Another Dispute
The final incident occurred during the Passover meal (commonly called Lords Supper). Jesus announces that one of those at the table will betray him. In the middle of a discussion, as to who that betrayer might be, there broke out an argument as to who was the greatest.
But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 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 22:21–27 ESV)
Kings of Gentiles:
- exercise lordship over them
Those in authority:
- are called benefactors (a title of honour)
Jesus says: "But not so with you"
Let the greatest among you:
- become as the youngest (Remember Jesus equates a little child with humility, so a call to be as the youngest is a call for humility)
And the leader:
- as one who serves
Brothers and Sisters, can you see here what a marvellous thing that Jesus has done for us. He has defined greatness in the Church, and it is very different from worldly greatness. In the world, the great lord it over them (dominate), they exercise authority over them (command), and insist on being addressed with titles of honour (glorified). The worlds great are the masters and those who are not great are the servants.
The Church it is not like the world. The great in the Church are humble servants, not seeking titles of honour, but directing all forms of worship toward God. We all need to strive toward this greatness, and by the grace of God He will make us all great.
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:11 ESV)
This is a work in progress. Please come back soon.If you have any questions or comments.