The Lord's Day Morning
March 14, 2010
“Who Is the Greatest?”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
O come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care.
Let us worship Him.
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 9. We’ll begin in verse 46 as we continue our way through the gospel of Luke. If you look at this passage there are three parts to it. Luke 9:46-48 contains a story explaining what the disciples were discussing amongst themselves as they went along the way in ministry in the northern part of Palestine on their way eventually to Jerusalem. They were having a conversation amongst them about which one of them was the greatest.
Immediately on the heels of that, the second part of the passage you’ll see in verses 49 and 50, they see a man exorcizing demons, casting out demons, in Jesus' name, that is acknowledging Jesus’ authority and divinity and casting out the demon in His name. And yet this is not one who is following Jesus in their circle and they attempt to stop him, and there's an interaction between the disciples and Jesus about that.
And then if you look in verses 51 to 55 the third part of the passage has to do with Jesus’ instruction especially to James and John to go into a Samarian city and to prepare for Him to come and preach there. And the Samarians reject Jesus and James and John offer to bring upon that village some divine retribution in response to the offense that Jesus has received from those Samarians.
And so these three stories may seem to be unrelated to one another, but just as we saw last time there's actually a flow in Luke's thought. There's a reason why he's grouping these things together. If I could just give you a hint — if you’ll look all the way back to verse 37 in the chapter Luke begins showing you things about the disciples in this passage. And beginning in verse 37 and following is the story of the boy with the unclean spirit. Remember they weren't able to cast the demon out of the boy and in that passage Jesus laments their unbelief. And so what Luke is showing you is the lack of faith that even Jesus’ disciples had. Later in that passage, especially in verses 44 and 45 we're told, specifically in verse 45, that the disciples didn't understand what Jesus was telling them, what He was teaching the, what He was doing. In this passage again the disciples are going to be in a bad light. Now there's a reason why Luke is telling you this. It's not to trash these disciples you understand. Luke himself would number himself as amongst this circle of disciples after the resurrection as he served with the apostle Paul, gladly alongside of the rest of the disciples. But it's very important for us to see this about the disciples because it tells us something about ourselves that we need to know. So let's pray and then hear God's holy Word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. We ask that You would open our eyes to understand it and especially by the Holy Spirit that You would apply it to us that we might see the wonder of Your Word, the reality of our sin, and the glory of our Savior. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the Word of the living God:
“An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 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 names 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.’
John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.’
When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem. And He sent messengers ahead of Him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for Him. But the people did not receive Him, because His face was set toward Jerusalem. And when His disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But He turned and rebuked them.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
It was the twenty-fifth of February, 1964, a twenty-two year old boxer had just defeated the world heavyweight champion and a microphone was thrust into his face as he left the ring. And he declared, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest thing that ever lived! I've just turned twenty-two years old and I've upset the heavyweight champion of the world! I must be the greatest! I've showed the world! I've shook up the world! I'm the king of the world! Listen to me, I'm the greatest! I can't be beat!” His name then was Cassius Clay. He later became Muhammad Ali and I think that the whole of the United States was shaken up by his braggadocio. He became the paragon of sports braggadocio. I understand that there were all sorts of things going on around him and about that. There was societal change and there was racial unrest and there were social tensions and there were disagreements about the war and he became a focal point. And I also understand that this was very much a shtick on his own part, not only to get attention but to get into the heads of his opponents, but I'm not sure he understood what he was opening up and what we've witnessed the last fifty years.
Have you noticed this? This kind of braggadocio is everywhere in the sports culture. I see somebody make a sack at a football game or hit a basket and you would think that they've either just won the World Championship or just won the National Championship of Basketball when somebody's just made a basket or someone has sacked someone in the backfield – all of the celebration that goes on, all of the braggadocio, all of the pride, all of the self congratulation.
Well, Christopher Lasch, a very famous social critic and historian, in looking at the 1960's and 70's wrote a book at the end of the decade of the 1970's called The Culture of Narcissism, in which he observed the self preoccupation and pride that had come to characterize much of American public life and to give you an example of that from our own decade I want to quote to you from Jerry Adler's article in Newsweek from a number of years ago describing the phenomenon of a new book that had just been published at that time.
And it goes like this —
“You’d think that the last thing that Americans need is more excuses for self absorption and acquisitiveness, but our inexhaustible appetite for affirmation, inspiration, and motivation has finally outstripped the combined efforts of Wayne Dyer, Anthony Robbins, Dr. Phil, and Mitch Albom. We have actually begun importing self help from Australia of all places, that citadel of tough minded individualism where just a couple of years ago Rhonda Burn, a divorced mother in her fifties who had hit a rocky patch in her business and personal life, in a moment of despair wept and wept and wept and discovered a long neglected book dating from 1910 called, The Science of Getting Rich. And in it she found how to let your thoughts and feelings get you everything you want and determine to share it with the world. And she called it The Secret.”
Some of you have read that book.
Adler goes on to say this,
“And it was a stroke of marketing genius that turned what might have been a blip on the Times’ Advice How-To Miscellaneous Best Seller List into a publishing phenomenon that Sarah Nelson, the editor of Publisher's Weekly, says is this decades Tuesdays With Morrie. ‘Nobody,’ Mrs. Nelson says, ‘Nobody ever went broke overestimating the desperate unhappiness of the American public.’ Self help books roll off the presses with the regularity of politicians biographies and sell much better. Wayne Dyer has all by himself written twenty nine of them with sales estimates over 50 million books. But Rhonda Burn has something else going for her. ‘It was an incredibly savvy move to call this book The Secret’ says Donavin Beenes, a buyer who specializes in metaphysics for Borders Books.’”
I had no idea that Borders had someone who specialized in metaphysics, but they do!
And he says this, “We all want to be in on a secret, but to present it as The Secret that was brilliant!”
Now, what's the secret? If you haven't read the book and you don't know what the secret is I'm going to spoil it for you. Here's the secret. Are you ready for it? Here's the secret. I'm quoting Mrs. Burn — “The earth turns on its orbit for you. The oceans ebb and flow for you. The birds sing for you. The sun rises and sets for you. The stars come out for you. Every beautiful thing you see, every wondrous thing you experience, is all there for you. Take a look around. None of it can exist without you. No matter who you thought you were, now you know the truth of who you really are. You are the master of the universe. You are the heir to the kingdom. You are the perfection of life.” And now you know the secret.
Well my friends, I think that maybe even Muhammad Ali would blush at that. And yet tens of millions of our fellow citizens have bought that book and presumably some of them believe it. And you know we could “tisk, tisk,” and shake our finger and them and shake our heads at their pride and conceit and self preoccupation and frankly delusion, and then we come to this passage which indicates that even men who had been walking with Jesus struggled with pride and self preoccupation. And I trust you see yourself there because the problem with pride and self preoccupation is not one that the culture hoisted upon us, it's something that emanates from every sinful human heart. We are by nature turned in on ourselves. We are by nature self preoccupied. We are by nature selfish. We are by nature prideful. And even these disciples manifest this in this passage. And I want you to see a common thread here.
First of all there's the story that we're told in verses 46 to 48. The disciples are having a conversation amongst themselves about get this, which of them is the greatest. Now you've read the gospels, you know this is not the only time that this happens. You know for instance that if you've read recently the latter part of the gospel of Luke that as the disciples were on their way to the Upper Room in Jerusalem they were having a conversation about what? About which one was the greatest. And on the way out of the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane they were talking about what? Which one of them was the greatest. And you’re going, “What is wrong with you? You’re with Jesus and you’re thinking about which one of you is greatest!” And yet my friends, does that not warn you that no one is immune from the temptation of pride and self preoccupation. If these men could walk with Jesus and still succumb to self preoccupation and pride, don't think that you can't. Don't think that you don't. They were probably arguing about which one of them was closest to Jesus, which one of them was in the position of spiritual prominence in the group, which one of them was going to have certain authority when Jesus’ kingdom was brought in in its fullness. We know that those kinds of conversations went on several places in the gospels, don't we? But it reveals to you pride, doesn't it? What does it reveal to you about them? It reveals to you that the disciples themselves had an overestimation of self and an underestimation of God. They took themselves very seriously. They were very ambitious. They may have been religiously ambitious, they may have been spiritually ambitious, they may have been ecclesiastically ambitious, but it was a sinful ambition. It was about advancing self. They had a high view of self and they had a low view of the greatness of God and consequently their pride got the best of them. That's always entailed in pride, isn't it? An overestimation of self and an underestimation of God.
And Jesus, who's not party to the conversation, we're told by Luke nevertheless knows that they’re thinking in their hearts and so He brings a child to His side and He says, “Look at the child. If you receive him you receive Me. If you receive Me you receive My Father.” And then He says to them, look at these words — “He who is least among you all is the one who is great.” Now they had been arguing about which one of them was going to have the position of prominence with Jesus and who does Jesus pull next to His side but a child. Now next to Jesus’ side was a position of prominence. If you were invited to a dinner and you were invited to recline next to the host you were in the position of prominence. And so this little child who they would not have looked upon with great regard and respect is invited to Jesus’ side and He essentially says to them, “If you want to be great you need to understand that it is, in My kingdom, the least who is great. You’d think this little child is the least. In My kingdom it is the least who get the prominence. In My kingdom it is not those who are self preoccupied and have delusions of grandeur who are great. In My kingdom it is those who humble themselves who serve and who consider themselves least.”
Now another event occurs. The disciples are out and they see — look at verse 49 — they see someone casting out demons in Jesus' name and they try to stop him. They try to stop him because he's not part of the party of disciples that is following Jesus around in His ministry and Jesus tells them, “Don't stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” Now this passage has been used and twisted for all sorts of bad reasons. It's been used sometimes to appeal to the fact that we shouldn't care about theological differences at all. Who cares if one group doesn't believe such and such about the Gospel and one group does believe about the Gospel. We all ought to work together. And that's a misuse of the passage. But the passage is talking about a party spirit that exists in the disciples.
I need to tell you that ministers by nature are suspicious, insecure, and jealous people. And when we see other ministers doing better than we're doing we get jealous and we get insecure and we get suspicious. And all of those things are another way of saying that our pride gets the best of us. Now if this were a congregation full of ministers I would spend the next thirty minutes hammering you about that, but you’re not a congregation full of ministers. That's my sin. So here's what we need to do at First Presbyterian Church about this truth. We take learning the Bible pretty seriously here. We take doctrine pretty seriously here. And we need to take care that that does not lead us to have a party spirit in regard to other faithful, Gospel believing, Christ exalting, Bible preaching Christians who may differ from us on certain points of doctrine, even points of doctrine that are very important and precious to us because we believe the Bible teaches them. That is, where we see Christ exalted and the Gospel preached, perhaps with theological distinctives different from our own we ought to praise God when we see the kingdom truly being advanced. There should be no spirit of party in us which causes us to frown upon or be suspicious of others when they are faithfully ministering the Word of God.
You heard Billy pray for the preaching of the Gospel. We deliberately do this not only for our fellow PCA congregations but all Bible believing congregations in this state, in this city. We do this deliberately. I have observed over the years that this congregation by and large has such a generous spirit towards other Christians. Your view is not that we're the only one who understand. Presbyterians are sometimes described that way, you know. We think we're the only ones who are going to be in heaven, people say to us. Well it's sad that we've given them that impression, but this passage reminds us not to be of that kind of a party spirit but to rejoice whenever the true Gospel is being proclaimed, wherever it's being proclaimed, and by whomever it's being proclaimed. But the party spirit here has its root in pride.
And then there's a third story in the passage and this passage is remarkable. The Samarians are going to receive a visit from Jesus and the disciples are sent to prepare the way but the Samarians reject Jesus because He sets His face to go to Jerusalem. Now you remember the Samarians did not believe that Jerusalem was the right place to worship. They believed that Mount Ebal and Gerizim up in the north were the places where you were supposed to worship. The Samarians had worshipped in a different place from Jerusalem ever since the time of King Jeroboam. You remember after Solomon's death the kingdom split between northern and southern kingdoms? Well King Jeroboam didn't want his citizens to go south to Jerusalem to worship because he thought it would lead them to be politically aligned with and loyal to the southern kingdom and so he set up worship in the northern kingdom and so the Samarians didn't like Jerusalem and they didn't think that Jerusalem was the place that you were supposed to worship. And when they found out that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, they didn't want to hear anything else about it. They didn't want to hear any more of His message. They didn't want to have anything to do with him.
And John and James are understandably incensed. I mean they’re loyal to Jesus and they’re offended for Jesus that the Samarians would treat Him like this and so they remember back to a time in the Old Testament when a prophet of the Lord went into Samaria, the northern kingdom, and preached the Gospel and God was rejected and Baal was being worshipped and that prophet whose name was Elijah called down fire and consumed the prophets of Baal. You remember? And so they just applied the Scripture to their present circumstance. And so they said, “Lord, would you like us to call down fire and we’ll consume the Samaritans?” And Jesus essentially says to them, “You just don't get it do you? You do not understand why I am here. The very fact that you would think that that is the right Biblical application to this circumstance lets me know that you do not get why I'm here.” Now, pride is a part of that too. There's loyalty mixed in I understand, there's reading their Bible in the Old Testament and making an application that's not very helpful that's mixed in, but there's pride mixed in here too.
And what's Luke showing us? Now think back for a minute back to Luke 9:37. The disciples are struggling with unbelief. They’re struggling with understanding. In this passage they’re struggling with pride, a party spirit, and very frankly they do not understand Jesus’ mission. What is Luke showing you with that? Luke is showing you that the disciples are not the heroes of this story. He's not denigrating the work of the disciples, these disciples will eventually in their faith in Christ be the foundation of the Christian church. They’ll write gospels and they’ll preach the Gospel and they’ll die for the Lord Jesus Christ, but they are not sinlessly perfected individuals. They are men with feet of clay. They’re not the heroes of this story. And Luke is showing you here that they all eventually understood that by just describing them to you. “Yes, we struggled with unbelief and we didn't understand what Jesus was saying and we were prideful and we had a party spirit and frankly we didn't understand the mission of Jesus very well.”
And you understand that's actually the first step to fighting your pride, is recognizing who you are, recognizing who you really are because pride always has with it delusion, self delusion. Pride so often is a response to our unhappiness and so we put ourselves forward and we aggrandize ourselves, we put ourselves first, and we put ourselves over other people in order, we think, we're going to get happiness. But you have to see yourself before you can begin to deal with pride.
Yesterday, just for interest, I wanted to see what other religions did with pride and how to fight it. And so I did a Google search on it. And one of the most interesting articles I came across was a Hindu talking about pride and how to deal with it. It was fascinating. He wrote an article called How to Kill Pride. And it was fascinating first of all because he did acknowledge that pride was a problem and he talked about the origin of that problem. But when he got to the end of the article as to how to fight pride he says, “I really don't know how to fight pride.” That was the conclusion of his article — “I have no idea.” And I thought, “You know, there's something to be learned in that” and that is this — only the Gospel gives you the tool that you need to fight pride and there are two things in this passage that speak to us about fighting pride.
The first is recognizing who we are and Luke has described the disciples are struggling with unbelief, they’re struggling with not understanding, they’re struggling with self preoccupation and personal ambition. They’re struggling with a party spirit and frankly not getting the mission of Jesus Christ. Well there we are. If in that kind of spiritual condition we have an overestimation of ourselves, we're in trouble. We really are. We need to see ourselves as we are or we’ll never begin to fight pride. And you need to understand by friends that there is pride in every sin that we commit. There is pride in every sin. Pride may not be the only sin that we commit, but in every sin we commit there is pride. Why? Because in every sin that we commit we are saying, “Lord, I think I'm going to do it my way instead of Your way” and that's prideful. And in every sin we're saying, “Lord, I'm going to be the master of my fate and the captain of my soul. Thank You, Your sovereignty is not needed here.” And that's prideful. So in every sin that we commit there is pride.
So how do you fight it? The first thing you do is you recognize who you are and when you recognize who you are you recognize, “I really don't have a reason to be proud.” You remember the man in parliament that Winston Churchill once observed? He said, “He was a humble man and he had every reason to be.” Well my friends, we may not be humble but we have every reason to be. And if you’ll just stop and look at your own heart you’ll see why you have reason to be humble. The first part of killing pride is recognizing who we are, owning up to our sin, owning up to our rebellion.
But the second part is in seeing God's greatness and there are two ways in which God's greatness are manifest in this passage that just take my breath away. The first is this — from Luke 37 down to Luke 56 has shown us disciples who are struggling with unbelief, understanding, pride, and self preoccupation, a party spirit, and totally missing Jesus’ purpose of ministry. Now these disciples have been with Jesus for over a year now. If this had been my small group I would have fired them! It's in this context where Luke has described failing after failing after failing. Look at what he says about Jesus, verse 51 — “When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, Jesus looks around at these fumbling, bumbling, stumbling nincompoops of disciples and He says, “They’re why I'm here. I'm going to Jerusalem, I'm going to the cross to die for them because it's the only way. They’re not going to save themselves. They’re not going to be the solution to the problem, theirs or anybody else's. That's why I'm here. I'm going to go die for them.” Is that not glorious? It's not in the disciples finest hour that Jesus sets His face like flint to go to Jerusalem, it's in one of their many worst hours that He says, “That's why I'm here. I'm here to die for people like this.” My friends, if that doesn't show the greatness of your Savior, I don't know what does.
You know I think all of us wish that if the Lord would to ever visit us that He would visit us at the very moment of our finest hour, when we've been the most faithful, the most zealous for Him, the most caring for others, the most committed to the Bible and to the Gospel, but the fact of the matter is, there are things all of us have done that we would not want a soul in this room to know that we've ever done and Jesus knows those things and He still set His face like flint to go to Jerusalem. And it's a measure of something of His greatness that He would do that for the likes of us.
But then there's this greatness. You remember when the disciples say, “Do you want us to call down fire on the Samaritans from heaven to consume them because they've rejected You?” And Jesus simply turns and rebukes them. You understand why — because Jesus’ mission in the incarnation was not to call down fire upon sinners to consume them, His mission in the incarnation was to be consumed by God's fire in the place of sinners. And it must have broken His heart that the disciples could have been with Him that long and they’re ready to rain down hell and damnation on these poor ignorant Samaritans when His purpose it to receive the judgment and the condemnation and the consuming fire of God's wrath upon His own person so that hell deserving sinners could be ushered into their Father's family and household forever. And His disciples didn't get that. No wonder He turned and rebuked them, but isn't that something of the measure of His greatness? He was the least expendable person there. He was the most valuable person there. We could have done it without James, we could have done it without John, we could have done it without Peter — without Him we couldn't have done it, and yet it was He who was going to be consumed by the fire of God's wrath in Jerusalem, not them.
So if you love Him and you put your trust in Him, you put your faith in Him, how in the world can you ever think of act like you are the greatest? He's the greatest! If He's the greatest, and He humbled Himself to the consuming fire of God's wrath and death on your behalf, what then will that say about how you’ll relate to one another and towards all people? A proud Christian ought to be an oxymoron. It ought to be. Sadly it's not. But I’ll tell you this, a proud Christian is an inconsistent and an immature one. The greatest One who ever lived said, “You want to be great? Be the least. You want to be great? See what you are? You’re worse than you think you are, but I'm greater and My grace is greater and My love is greater and My forgiveness is greater than you could ever imagine.” So renounce yourself, have a realistic view of yourself — if you really understand who you are you understand you deserve God's wrath. You deserve to be there with the Samaritans and with the members of the northern kingdom that were worshipping Baal when the fire falls. You deserve God's wrath, but He's taken God's wrath for you so that you could be with Him forever. That's true greatness and that's why in His kingdom the least among you all is the one who is great. It's my prayer that we as a congregation will be known by our humility and service of others.
Just take your hymnals out. Anna Waring talks about that so beautifully in the hymn that she writes. 559 is the number. I want to direct you to just a few lines that she says. First of all, notice what she says in the last sentence of the first stanza — “I ask Thee for a present mind intent on” what? “Intent on pleasing Thee” If your intent in life is to please God, it is very difficult to live in pride because Isaiah 60 says that the Lord doesn't dwell with the haughty. He dwells with the lowly of heart. So if you want to please the Lord you’re not going to cultivate pride, you’re going to kill it.
Look at the second stanza. She says that she “doesn't hurry to and fro seeking some great thing to do or know.” Last line — she “would be treated as a child and guided where I go.” It's a great prayer for all of us.
Then the third stanza. She asks that God would “grant her daily strength” to do what? Look at the last line of the last stanza again — “that she would be content to fill a little space if Thou be glorified.” Lord, it doesn't matter how small the role that I play, it's fine as long as You’re glorified. That's a pride killer right there. That's a pride killer.
And then look at the last stanza. “In service that Your will appoints there are no bonds, there are no bounds.” And then look at her last line — “A life of self renouncing love is one of liberty.” This hymn is a battle cry against pride. Let's pray and then let's sing it together.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the Lord Jesus Christ and we praise You for His greatness and His greatness shows us how foolish it is for us to be puffed up in ourselves and about ourselves. We thank You for the Gospel wherein He saved us from what we deserved and we ask that by the Gospel You would make self small but Yourself great and our agenda peripheral but Your plans central to our lives. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now let's sing, “Father I Know That All My Life.”
The Greatest who was and is or ever will be gives you this blessing: Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.