I have said previously that Jesus has entered into a transitionary stage in His ministry, in which His focus is more on teaching His disciples rather than ministering to the multitudes. And that reveals a principle that should be paramount in the church, which is that once a person is saved it is essential for them to be discipled, for them to grow in maturity, to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It is essential for the person who is saved to grow in sanctification. Hebrews 12:14 tells us that without sanctification no one will see the Lord.
So Jesus is focusing for the remainder of His time before the cross in teaching His disciples the principles that will produce sanctification in their lives. And probably the most fundamental of those principles is humility. If we are to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, then the most fundamental character trait that we must learn is that of humility. And not just to mimic humility, or pretend humbleness, but to actually become humble.
These apostles are going to be God’s specially appointed ministers to the church. They will be the spiritual leaders in the new church at Jerusalem after Pentecost, and they will establish churches throughout the world. And Jesus knows that the supreme character trait of the kind of pastor or apostle that He desires is that such a one be humble.
That’s quite the contrary to what we might actually see manifested in most churches today though, I’m afraid. I think that most pastor search committees when seeking out pastor candidates, do not see humbleness as being of paramount importance. And by the way, I will go on record as saying that I think pastor search committees are an abomination for the most part. There is no Biblical precedent for them. They are not the way the apostles were chosen, nor the way the pastors of the early church were chosen. And I don’t think that they are the method that the Lord chooses pastors. I’m sure that statement doesn’t sit well with some of you, but that’s my opinion.
However, I will emphasize that humility should be the characteristic of a leader in the church and yet it is sorely missing in most pulpits today. But it is also the fundamental characteristic of any mature Christian. And yet it is not something that we seem to put any value upon in either the church, or in our society in general.
I will say that in my own personal experience, as I was being matured as a Christian, as the Lord was preparing me to accept a call to be a preacher, I went through a trial by fire that lasted for well over three years which God used to teach me humility. In fact, it’s still an ongoing lesson. I guess I’m a slow learner, because God seems to see fit to humble me again and again. But I’ve learned through it that humility is important to God. Paul experienced something similar, saying in 2Cor. 12:7-9 “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me–to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Now the opposite of humility is pride. And pride is a sin. Pride is a sin but no one really considers it as sinful. In fact, pride is encouraged. Pride is actually a virtue in our society. But it’s rarely identified as just plain old stuck up pride. It’s often repackaged as a feeling of self worth. As loving yourself. As having goals. As having a positive self image. As taking pride in your accomplishments or being proud of your work. Those are the positive spins that we like to use to characterize pride.
But Jesus doesn’t teach pride. Jesus condemns pride. Instead, Jesus teaches the virtue of humility. In fact, Jesus is a living example of humility. Jesus came the first time, not to be served, but to serve. And we should follow His example.
Paul says of Jesus in Phl 2:5-11 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, [and] being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Now you will remember that last week we looked at the previous passage in which the disciples were taught a lesson in humility. The disciples who had been waiting behind when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain encountered a situation that they were not able to handle. A man had brought his son who was demon possessed to them, and they had been unable to deliver the boy from the power of the demon. Earlier they had raved about how the demons had been subject to them when the Lord had sent them out two by two. But this time they couldn’t do it, and there was a crowd watching them and the scribes began to deride them and jeer at their incompetence. And even Jesus, when He came in to rescue the situation, rebuked them for their lack of faith. Whether they had learned humility in that situation is open for debate, but they were certainly humbled by it.
Now according to Mark, in vs 30, we read that they left that town, and began to travel through Galilee towards Capernaum. And Jesus uses this time with them alone to continue to disciple them. Vs 30, From there they went out and [began] to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know [about it.] For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” But they did not understand [this] statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.
Jesus wanted some time alone with just the disciples as they traveled in order that He might teach them. This is the transitionary phase of His ministry, where He prepares them to be able to continue His ministry when He is no longer with them in person. And so Jesus doesn’t want to broadcast where He is going, or the way that He is traveling so that He might be able to spend time with just the disciples.
So during their journey, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach the disciples further about His ministry, that He came to serve and not be served. He will say that explicitly later on, in chapter 10 vs 45, saying “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
But for now, He states His servanthood by describing His betrayal, His crucifixion, and His resurrection. The Son of Man is to be delivered (or betrayed) into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” But the disciples did not understand this, and they were afraid to ask Him what it meant.
See, the disciples were convinced in their minds, as were the rest of the Jews, that the Messiah was going to rule and reign over the world on the throne of David in Jerusalem. He would destroy their enemies, and make Israel once again a place of preeminence in the world. They were looking for Jesus to be that King who would overthrow the yoke of Roman oppression, and usher in a kingdom of peace and prosperity in which Israel would enjoy all the privileges of the royal family. So this statement that Jesus makes just doesn’t make sense.
Jesus had made a similar statement about this just a short time previously, as you will remember, and Peter had the audacity to take Jesus aside and say, “Not so Lord. I will never let this happen to you.” And Jesus had rebuked Peter saying “Get behind Me Satan. For you are not setting your mind of God’s interests but on man’s.” So no wonder the disciples are afraid to ask Him about it.
You know, there is a humiliation of the cross that I think we have a hard time comprehending. First of all, Deut. 21:23 says that “cursed is he that hangs on a tree.” The disciples as well as all Jews would have known that. So there is an incomprehension of how the Messiah who is the Holy One of God could be accursed of God. How the Messiah who they expected to be exalted could be humiliated by such a death. But there is also the humiliation that being stripped naked and beaten with a whip and having a crown of thorns pressed into your head, and being hung there for all the world to see, for your family and loved ones to see, to be hung as a criminal, as One worthy of death. What a humiliation that Jesus embraced for our sakes.
Isaiah 53:10 says, But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting [Him] to grief; If He would render Himself [as] a guilt offering, He will see [His] offspring, He will prolong [His] days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. Vs 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being [fell] upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.
The Lord Jesus knew that this humiliation was the way to glory, not only for Himself, but also for us. Only by His stripes are we healed. Only through His death on the cross is our sin taken away. God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to become sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
But for now, the disciples hear what Jesus is saying but they cannot comprehend it, and they are afraid to ask Him any questions about it.
So Jesus continues to teach them as they travel. But as they were traveling, the disciples were undoubtedly trying to understand among themselves what it all meant, how the kingdom of God was going to be manifested in the reign of the Messiah, and how they would fit into that kingdom. But their lack of understanding about the kingdom revealed their lack of humility.
Vs 33 They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He [began] to question them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which [of them was] the greatest.
What the disciples were guilty of, is just the way everyone thinks, isn’t it? I mean, we have goals in life, and that’s considered a good thing. We admire people who climb the corporate ladder, or if we don’t admire them, we envy them. Everyone is looking out for number one. And that’s considered appropriate. That’s considered healthy. You know, the famous question that everyone is asked in a job interview. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” The answer they want to hear is I want to advance my career, advance my responsibilities.
The disciples aren’t being particularly nefarious. They are just being human. No body wants to be last. Everyone wants to be first. It’s natural. And if Jesus is the King, then they will obviously take the choice positions in His court. Isn’t that the way politics work? Doesn’t the key supporters of the President get the choice positions in his administration? Why shouldn’t the same apply in the spiritual realm?
But there is another element in their discussions. They aren’t just looking out for number one, which is their own position in the kingdom, but there is a discussion about who is the greatest. Maybe they thought that Peter was on the black list now that he had been called Satan by Jesus. Maybe they thought that left the door open for another de facto leader of the 12. Maybe that was another element of what was gong on.
So Jesus sits down, which was the position of the rabbi, the teacher, and He gives them the lesson that they need to learn. Vs 35 Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
The obvious answer to their discussions over who was the greatest was that Jesus was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He was the One given all authority in heaven and earth. He is the One to whose name EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. But that is not what Jesus says to them. He simply says the way to glorification is by way of subordination.
Putting the needs of others before your own is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus isn’t suggesting here that the way to heaven is to go work for Greenpeace for a couple of years, or to serve lunch at the soup kitchen twice a week. He is speaking of having a heart for others, to see them brought into the kingdom of God, to see them discipled and grow in their faith, to serve others by your support, both in serving their spiritual needs and their physical needs. Of being more concerned about other’s spiritual well being than your own physical well being. Serving the Lord’s interests, rather than serving man’s interests. And that requires humility. Not thinking of yourself more highly than you ought.
You know, humility is not weakness. I’m afraid a lot of people see it that way. We’re afraid that if you serve others, they might take advantage of you. They might use you. We’re afraid that if you really love others the way Christ loved us, they might enrich themselves, and make you the poorer for it. But humility isn’t weakness. It’s not being a doormat for others to wipe their feet on. But it’s deliberately putting yourself in second place. Actually, Jesus says we should take last place. It’s subordinating your priorities to the Lord’s priorities. And by extension, subordinating your needs to another’s needs. Having the heart of a servant is the way humility is expressed.
Jesus liked to use living illustrations in His teaching. And so He turns the attention of these disciples, who were jockeying to see who was the greatest, He turns their attention to someone in the room who was the least among them. Vs36 Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.”
This child, who is small enough that Jesus can pick him up in His arms, is an object lesson, an illustration of this principle of humility. A child has no power, no achievement, no accomplishment, no greatness, a child is weak, dependent, ignored, vulnerable, has nothing to offer in exchange. This is a perfect illustration for a believer. “Whoever receives one child like this in my name” – He’s not talking about an actual child, but metaphorically talking about a spiritual child of God, a child like this – “in my name, receives me.” What is He saying? When a believer comes to you, Christ comes to you. How you treat another believer is how you treat Christ. As believers are the church, and the church is the body of Christ, so how you love one another is a measure of how you love Christ, how you serve the body of Christ is how you serve Christ.
So not only is the child a picture of humility, but Jesus says the one who receives such a one as this child is receiving Him. You can substitute the word serves for receives. So whoever serves a child of God is serving the Lord. The Greek word translated as receive is dechomai, which has a broad definition to include to receive or grant access to, a visitor, not to refuse friendship, to receive hospitality, to receive into one’s family to bring up or educate of the thing offered in speaking, teaching, instructing, to receive favourably, give ear to, embrace, make one’s own, approve, not to reject, to receive. i.e. to take upon one’s self, sustain, bear, endure. So all those ideas are included in the word receive.
Paul says in Galatians 6: 2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. … vs 10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”
Matthew has this same incident recorded in his gospel. And I want to just read it for you, as he gives us some additional insight into all that Jesus was teaching. Matthew 18:1-6 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
I need to wrap this up, but I want to make sure that you see that Jesus has more to say about salvation than was apparent in Mark’s account. Unless you are converted and become like children…. In other words, you must be born again. Born of the Spirit, changed, given new life, that’s what converted means. God has to remake you, change you. And as a child is wholly dependent upon his parents to feed him and nurture him, to train him and raise him, in fact his DNA is established from his parents, his nature is from his parents, even so when we are born of God, converted, changed, we are given a new spiritual nature, a new spiritual DNA, that enables us to be like Jesus, to be conformed to His image as we walk with Him and serve Him and grow with Him in our faith.
And Jesus said, unless you are converted, you will not enter the kingdom of God. I hope and trust that you have received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, that you have been converted, born again by the Spirit of God into a child of God. And then growing up unto the Lord, that you serve the Lord by serving your brothers and sisters in the faith. Putting God first, denying yourself, for the sake of the ultimate good of others.