Summary: Jesus said many counter-intuitive, counter-cultural and against-common sense statements which emphasize the difference between worldly values and Kingdom priorities. This series examines how these very challenging statements applies to our lives
The Paradoxical Sayings of Jesus
To Be Great, Be the Least
To be truly great in life, seek to be the least!
This has to be one of the most incredible, unbelievable, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural statements of all time. Essentially it is a statement that the way up in life is the way down, if we want to ascend, we must choose to descend.
And yet this kind of statement was made, not once, but repeatedly, by the person that most of us here regard to be the greatest person in all of history, the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, it has some considerable weight to it. It was the philosophy of life of the very person that has risen head and shoulders above every other personality in the history of mankind.
And so this morning, we continue our series on the Paradoxical Sayings of Jesus. We have so far covered these counter-intuitive, counter-cultural and against common-sense statements of Jesus: Give to receive; to be first, be last; to save your life, you must lose it. And now this: To be great, you must be least.
What Jesus essentially repeatedly told His disciples, and they were very slow to learn, is this: If you want to be great in life, & especially in God’s Kingdom, be the servant of all—especially the least and the youngest.
Now as I mentioned, Jesus made this kind of statement repeatedly. It is found most succinctly in Luke 9:48 where he said, “For the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.” But it is actually found in one form or another in seven different places in the Gospels. On six of the occasions He said it on one of the three occasions His disciples disputed among themselves as to who among them was the greatest. And on one occasion, in Matthew 23, it’s found among the woes pronounced against the prideful Scribes and Pharisees who in their selfish ambition led Israel to crucify its Messiah.
This morning we’re going to focus primarily on the first occasion in which Jesus corrected his disciples on this issue, and we’ll spend a little time on the last occasion. The first occasion is actually recorded in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and each of the three provides some different details that are important to an over-all understanding of what actually happened on that occasion. Turn with me, if you haven’t already, to Matthew’s version of the events in Matthew 18.
Let’s read Matthew 18:1-3: “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.”
Now as we’ve already read in Mark’s account, and as is clear in Luke 9 also, the occasion of the question was a dispute among the disciples as to who among them was the greatest. The dispute occurred while Jesus and the disciples were on their way back to Jesus’ headquarters during His Galilean ministry, the home of Peter and Andrew in Capernaum next to the Sea of Galilee. Apparently, the disagreement had taken place out of the earshot of Jesus. But Luke tells us Jesus knew what they were thinking, no doubt supernaturally, and Mark adds that as a result, once they had all come back together in Peter’s house in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been discussing on the way. But as we have seen from Mark 9, what followed was a pregnant silence. Somehow the disciples knew that their topic of dispute was entirely inappropriate in the presence of Jesus Christ. So, they kept silent like children whose hands had been in the cookie jar. I imagine that the tension was palpable, and finally, one of the disciples, speaking for all of them, decided to frame their discussion in a way that they thought would be acceptable to Jesus. So this was the story behind the question as we find it posed in Matthew 18:1: “Who, then (in light of our dispute about who among us is the greatest) is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And Jesus, the master teacher, decides to provide them with a live, object lesson of the kind of person who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Verse 2 tells us he called a child to Himself; Mark tells us that at some point he took the child tenderly in his arms and all the accounts indicate that somehow he set the child before them. Then He made this telling statement: verse 3: “Truly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”