“I am the greatest!” When Muhammed Ali declared these words to the world, he gave voice not only to the boast of his heart, but to the sentiment that lies deep within all our hearts. We may not actually be the greatest at anything (at least Ali was the best boxer in the world!), but the pride and self-centered bent of our hearts lead us to put ourselves before others. No matter whom we’re with, we naturally assume we’re the most important person in the crowd. And so we seek our own interests ahead of the concerns of others. We are loathe to serve and take the second place behind another.
The disciples of Jesus Christ were no different than us in this regard. Thinking that Jesus was about to establish his reign as King over Israel, they fell into an argument over which of them would be the greatest in that kingdom (Luke 9:46). The astounding thing about their jockeying for the highest honor is that Jesus had just finished telling them that he was about to suffer and die in Jerusalem (9:44; compare with v. 22). Those words failed to penetrate the disciples’ hearts; all they could think about was the glory that was about to be theirs.
But this desire for personal glory has no place in Christ’s Kingdom. Jesus taught them this lesson by placing a child in the midst of them and saying, “Whoever receives this child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (v.48). In that culture, a child enjoyed no social status or honor. And therefore any man ambitious for personal prestige would waste no time with a child. Yet Jesus identified not only himself, but his Heavenly Father, with the humble child. The lesson is clear: whoever is too proud to associate with the lowliest among us rejects Jesus himself, and so cannot have Christ as his Savior or God as his Father.
Jesus then laid down this principle that defines greatness in the Kingdom of God: “For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (v.48). Christ turns the world upon its head! Contrary to everything the world and our hearts tell us, our “ambition” ought to be to seek for ourselves the lowest place, to live in the servant’s quarters. The one who is great in heaven and in God’s sight is the one who humbly takes the second place, who serves others, and who seeks to advance the honor and glory of Christ rather than his own.
Jesus himself shows us the way – though all glory and honor was his throughout eternity as the Second Person of the Trinity, he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). He did this for our salvation, that through his humble obedience that took him to the cross and the grave we might find redemption from sin. But Jesus did this also as an example for us to follow. How can we seek glory for ourselves when we have been loved and saved by a Redeemer who came to suffer and die in our place? “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).
Soli Deo Gloria!