The twelve disciples seemed to have figured out the formula. At some point in their discipleship, they began quibbling about who was the greatest disciple. It seems odd to read about their argument, but that’s exactly what happened. Why were they arguing? Their foolish argument stemmed from several misconceptions about their own importance.
Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a little child and set him by Him, and said to them, “Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great.”
The disciples were privileged to know, travel with, and receive exclusive training from the Lord Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. But one day that great privilege went to their heads. They began arguing about which one of them deserved the title “greatest disciple.” This foolish argument revealed the fact that they really didn’t understand what following Christ is all about.
Misconception #1: God can only use those who have had a great spiritual experience.
Peter, James, and John had just experienced the transfiguration of the Lord on top of a mountain (Luke 9:27-36). During their stay on the mountain, they saw the Lord Jesus shining as he currently does in heaven. His glorified brilliance caused them to fall on their faces in complete astonishment. And there is no doubt in my mind that they never forgot about that incredible experience (see 1 Peter 2:16-18). But is such an experience necessary for one to become great in the eyes of our Lord? I can imagine that they were thinking so at the time. As the argument heated up, one of the sons of thunder was thinking, “I can’t tell them now, but when I do, they’ll know who’s the greater of the disciples—and that’s me!”
Misconception #2: God is currently filling leadership positions for his future kingdom.
The other thought that continually flitted through the minds of these men was the coming kingdom. At least one of the disciples had been a zealot (Luke 6:15). Zealots were members of a guerilla force which was organizing a plot to overthrow the Roman government. You can understand the desire they had to be free as you consider the way they had been treated by Roman soldiers. Beyond this, they had a decent understanding of the prophecies of a coming kingdom which would be ruled by the Messiah. Now that they had found him and had been chosen by him, surely they were destined for greatness in the kingdom … right? Actually, no. As you think through the teaching messages of our Lord, do you recall him ever looking for rulers, nobles, or executive assistants to oversee the coming kingdom. Not at all. Instead, he was looking for people with right hearts not big egos. The disciples had it wrong. The Lord is not looking for future leaders but current servants.
Misconception #3: God doesn’t know what I’m thinking.
As the argument continued, our Lord perceived what was happening. The word “perceived” may cause you to think that he overheard enough of the conversation to finally surmise what was going on. But the rest of the phrase shows that he knew exactly what they were thinking. As the divine Son of God, he was able to know their thoughts without hearing them speak (Psalm 139:1-4). And yet, in Mark’s account, he still asked them what they had been disputing (9:33). How typical that is of our Lord. He did the same thing with Job (38:1-40:1), Elijah (1 Kings 19:9), and Jonah (4:4). And his questions caused each one to reconsider his bad attitude. The point here is that the Lord knows our thoughts. He does not overlook our selfish ambitions, but as seen in the following verses, seeks to correct them.
Misconception #4: God can only use people like me (Luke 9:49-50).
Before we consider the answer the Lord gave to his disciples, we need to see one more misconception the disciples had about greatness. Even after the Lord’s careful explanation, they still misunderstood things. John quickly noted that they had stopped a non-disciple from casting out a demon in Jesus’ name. The idea seems to be that they considered themselves to be the exclusive representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ. It may have also been that they were jealous of the other man’s success (see Luke 9:40). This erroneous thinking led them to stop a stranger from doing something good in the name of the Lord. Jesus quickly corrected their thinking by pointing out the fact that this unknown man was actually on their side. As seen in another portion of Scripture (Acts 19:13-17), only true believers could accomplish such a miracle in Jesus’ name. The point is that God is not limited to using you and those you approve of.
I believe that it was this type of thinking that led the disciples to think so highly of themselves. But as we will see in Part Two, true greatness is something altogether different.