Every Christian has been guilty of misunderstanding greatness in God’s kingdom, therefore we all need Jesus to teach us what godly greatness and its reward look like, and to hear his warning that hell is the reward for pursuing sinful greatness.
Introduction – This passage is about practicing the delicate art of spiritual self-mutilation to pursue true greatness and reward. It is about avoiding sin at all costs and putting the interests of others before our own. This is godly greatness. The Son of Man is great, but often disciples misunderstand greatness. Everyone wants to be great in the eyes of God, and most people have a high view of their own importance, but God is not impressed when we seek greatness in high status or accomplishment. Every Christian has been guilty of misunderstanding greatness in God’s kingdom, therefore we all need Jesus to teach us what godly greatness and its reward look like, and to hear his warning that hell is the reward for pursuing sinful greatness.
Background – Not much time has passed since Jesus taught his followers the first principle of Christian discipleship (self-denial, cross-bearing, and Jesus-following; cf. Lk 9:23). Eight days later the disciples Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus transfigured on the mountain. They glimpsed his radiant, heavenly glory, then came down to discover the other disciples failing to cast a demon from a boy. Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith and prayer, healed the boy, and continued toward Jerusalem with his disciples. Much has happened since their first discipleship lesson. So what are they talking about now?
I. Who is the Greatest? (Disciples vs. Jesus)
A. Disciples: I am the greatest, because… (vv. 30-34)
1. Jesus is again speaking quite literally about his future. He is not so much emphasizing the necessity of his destiny (cf. Lk 9:22), but the certainty of it. It is ironic that the disciples may have thought Jesus was preoccupied with his death, when the disciples were preoccupied with the sense of their own greatness in the kingdom of God. If Jesus died, then the kingdom they envisioned could not come. Consequently they preferred not to ask Jesus about his death.
2. Who is the greatest? Peter, who confessed Jesus as the Christ? James or John, brothers who were invited to the Mount of Transfiguration? The most recent historical liberation of the Jews during the Maccabean revolt (166-160 BC) possibly served as their reference point. “Maybe we’ll be the next dynasty to rule Israel! Who gets to be king after Jesus?” Unfortunately, the disciples still had not learned the first principle of discipleship (self-denial, cross-bearing, and following Jesus; cf. Mk 8:34-38). They were arguing about who was the greatest.
What does this tell us about ambition? Is ambition a sin? Or is there a kind of ambition that is expressed selfishly and therefore sinfully? There is nothing wrong with being industrious or ambitious per se. The sin is in the motive and the goal. When ambition causes us to forego obedience and service, then it becomes sin. When ambition is motivated by gaining personal glory rather than Christ’s glory, then it becomes sin. How do you know that your ambition is sinful or godly? The only safe ambition is not modest ambition (size isn’t the issue), but ambition directed toward furthering God’s kingdom, not our own. If your ambition is about pursuing your own advancement for your own personal gain, and not about using that gain to serve Christ, then it is sin. Beware of this kind of thinking: “Lord, I will serve you greatly and give you great amounts of time and money and service, but first let me achieve greatness so I’ll be able to give greatly.” God says he who is trustworthy with little will be trustworthy with much, and he who is unfaithful with little will also be unfaithful with much (Lk 16:10; cf. Mt 13:12; Lk 19:11-27). God expects you to glorify him in your ambition now and later.
B. Jesus: The greatest is the last of all and servant of all (vv. 35-37)
Jesus taught his disciples that greatness in God’s eyes is exactly the opposite of what they normally think is great. If anyone wants to be great, to be first of all, then he must make himself last of all, even servant of all (cf. Lk 22:24-27)! This sounds pious, but it is quite shocking. The God of the universe, the greatest of all, the one who is worthy of all praise and worship, says this is true. But does anyone actually live this way? Does Jesus? Is this reversal of greatness true for God as well? Yes, God meets his own paradoxical standard of greatness. Jesus was servant of all and made himself last (Jn 13:13-17). Here he taught his disciples by example, bringing a nearby small child into the discussion, loving and embracing him. Jesus loves the little children, the “least great” people of all his disciples! He gave the child personal attention, worth, and status. By doing so Jesus gently chastised his disciples for wanting to be great. The lesson is clear: if you want to be great, then serve the children.
Children should be taught about Jesus. Children’s ministry is great ministry. It is doing a great work! And those who serve faithfully, quietly, and lovingly are some of the greatest people in the kingdom of God. They usually get the least attention and are thought of the least, but Jesus says serving those who are last makes one great in the kingdom of God. By the way, this truth also challenges our culture’s low value of motherhood and fatherhood. From early age our culture tells us that children are precious, but achieving career success, actualizing your personal potential, and chasing your dreams always trump the needs of children. Jesus says this is a lie. Serving children as a steward of Christ is greater because Jesus values those who make themselves last and servant of all.
C. Jesus: The greatest rejoices when “outsiders” glorify Jesus (vv. 38-41)
Note these verses contrast the success of the outsider exorcist with the failure of the Twelve to heal a demon-possessed boy (Mk 9:14-29). These verses anticipate congregational and even denominational competition, especially between evangelical groups of Christians. Jesus points out the obvious: the man doing mighty works in Jesus’ name is a friend, not a foe. Therefore he should be encouraged, not merely tolerated, and certainly not hindered. Jesus told John not to stop the man. He is working under the authority of Jesus. Paul makes this same point (Rom 14:4). While following Jesus, we should focus on our assignment (what God has called us to do), and not be quick to criticize other believers not in our group, congregation, denomination, theological persuasion, etc.
I remember reading a story about one of my seminary professors (John Frame) who was once pressured to modify a statement he made about other Christian faith traditions. He wrote that, in his life and work, he had “learned much from non-reformed Christians.” Frame’s critics had a hard time stomaching the word “much” in his statement, and pressed him publicly to modify his statement by removing the word. They were afraid the word “much” could be construed as an admission that Reformed doctrines and confessions are not the greatest compared to other denominations. In my judgment it was pride or fear that motivated their concerns. Frame, not wanting to fight this particular battle, acquiesced. How sad that there are some in our circles that cannot admit they can learn “much” doctrine and life from Christians of other denominations.
Does God in his providence have everyone serving in the kingdom as Presbyterians? As Reformed? As Baptists? As Lutherans? As Pentecostals? As Nondenominationals? You could even fill in the blank with those denominations that we wouldn’t consider “evangelical” in their doctrinal confession, but that have evangelical Christians serving God within those churches. Jesus is telling us that Christians are to follow him, and that their first allegiance is to him. Do you get upset when other Christians are not following God according to your faith tradition? Why? Is it because they are always bringing scandal on Christ’s reputation, or they are mishandling God’s Word in such a way that crosses into heresy? These are good reasons to be upset. Or is it more often because others are having more success than our group, or more attention, or more converts, or a bigger building, or their ministry seems to be blessed by God more? These are evil reasons to be upset. We’re now arguing about who is the greatest! Jesus’ words are for us too. Conservative Presbyterians (not just “them”, but “us” too) need to learn this lesson Jesus taught his disciples in verse 40: “For the one who is not against us is for us.”
Why are we as a church family involved in Hispanic ministry in Warrenton, Fauquier County, and more broadly in Northern Virginia? Because in our community, the Spanish speakers from Latin American countries who live in our midst tend to have the least status. They are the foreigners and sojourners that live in our neighborhood. They are some of the “little ones” in our midst. God is very clear to Israel that they must remember their oppression in Egypt and therefore not treat their foreigner neighbor with contempt or neglect (Dt 5:12-15; 10:17-20). We are to love them and minister to those whom the world would prefer to forget about. It’s not always the American way, but it is Jesus’ way.
II. What Will Destroy Godly Greatness?
A. Causing “little ones” to sin (v. 42)
In this passage, who are the “little ones” we must receive? Primarily: children (v. 36). Secondarily: seemingly insignificant believers who lack status (v. 39). The term “little ones” is one of endearment for children of God—young or old (1 Jn 2:1, 28; 3:7, 18; 5:21). Receiving a little one is contrasted with causing him to sin. Jesus warns that whoever causes a lowly person to sin, to lead him astray, or to seek to destroy his faith, is actually sinning against Christ and in danger of God’s severe judgment. The image Jesus uses is a large millstone (a donkey-drawn primitive tool used to crush grain) collared around a person’s neck and then thrown into the sea.
B. Committing sin in what you do, where you go, and what you look at (vv. 43-48)
1. A Hard Saying: this is the art of spiritual self-mutilation. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, then you will have to deal drastically with your sin. Jesus gives three similar examples to highlight the completeness, totality, and seriousness of the matter. Remember, hyperbole is figurative language that conveys literal truth; it is not an exaggeration you are free to dismiss. Cutting off a body part will not root out the sin in the heart (cf. Mt 15:19). Nevertheless, Jesus means we must make drastic life choices to eradicate sin in our lives. No sin is worth going to hell for. It is better to repent, as painful as it may be. Remember that Satan promises a fleeting kind of glory now, but the pain comes later. Jesus calls us to suffer now by dealing painfully with our sin, and then we will share in his glory (1 Pet 5:10).
2. Sins of the hand (what you do). Examples of sins committed by the hand include murder, adultery, and theft, but also include any sin of omission or commission. Jesus says that it would be better to enter into eternal life as a crippled person without one hand than to enter into hell with two hands. If your hand causes you to sin, and is therefore the flashpoint of your eternal destination, better to cut it off!
3. Sins of the foot (where you go). Examples include going (alone or with company) somewhere (real or online) to commit sin and setting your life path toward disobedience (Prov 4:14-19). It would be better to enter into eternal life lame than to enter hell with two feet. Therefore cut off that which causes you to sin in order to save your life.
4. Sins of the eye (what you look at or think about). These include coveting, lust, and by derivation all other sins, since the eye is the lamp of the body (Mt 6:22-23). It would be better to enter into eternal life blind in one eye than to be thrown into hell with two eyes. Therefore cut off that which causes you to sin in order to save your life!
What is it that Jesus is calling you to “cut off”? A sin you’ve tolerated for so long it’s become a part of your lifestyle? A hidden sin? An out-in-the-open “respectable” sin (something you’re engaged in that most Christians wink at, but you wouldn’t do if Jesus were with you)? A relationship, a habit, even a job that is against God’s will? A retirement dream lifestyle you’ve been working toward for years? Unrealistic expectations for your spouse or children? Are you causing a weaker brother or sister to sin as you flaunt your freedom in Christ (1 Cor 8:9-13)? Is the lowest status you’ve descended to only second or third place? Are there any people whom you have refused to serve? These are sins. Jesus says cut them off before it’s too late. Keep your eyes on eternity. Christ is worth any possible loss.
III. What are the “Rewards” for Greatness?
A. Rewards for godly greatness (vv. 37, 41, 49-50)
1. Fellowship with God (v. 37). Jesus equates receiving the small child for the sake of serving Christ as receiving Jesus and the Father. Jesus teaches his disciples by example that if they humbly care for those of lowly status, in the name of Christ, then their reward will be personal fellowship with the Son and the Father. Amazing!
2. Secure blessings from God (v. 41). Giving a cup of water to drink to a fellow believer because he “belongs to Christ” seems to be a small thing (Mt 25:40). How many of us would notice such a deed? But God notices even small deeds of kindness believers do for fellow believers, and God himself rewards these deeds of mercy. Giving even a cup of water to a thirsty person for the sake of Christ is actually a sacrifice, a love offering to God. God accepts it as an offering. This truth should absolutely transform our idea of how we serve God. To serve those in need by meeting their needs, done for love of Christ, is counted as sacrifice offered to God, and which God has promised to reward.
3. Your life accepted as a sacrifice to God (v. 49). Jesus is probably saying that the salt and fire which come into a believer’s life are evidence of sacrifice (Lev 2:13; Ezek 43:24). The believer’s life is his living sacrifice to God (Rom 12:1). Believers must be willing to give up anything and suffer for Christ’s sake. Something painful will come into every believer’s life. But a sacrifice of salt and fire is pleasing to God and will have a purifying and preserving effect on the believer (Col 4:6; cf. 1 Cor 3:13; 2 Cor 4:17; 1 Pet 4:12-13).
4. Worldly usefulness to God (v. 50). Salt in Israel was not naturally pure. It contained impurities, particularly gypsum, which looks like salt but is useless (Ezek 47:11). If not purified, the impure salt would taste bad and therefore be useless for preserving food. By analogy, if disciples won’t cut off their sin, then they will become useless (Mt 5:13; cf. Heb 6:4-6; Rev 3:15-17). Jesus is asking his disciples to be “salty”—to stand out in the world to both preserve it and bring the “flavor of the kingdom of God” to a fallen world (Job 42:5, 8; Mt 5:13). In the second part of the saying Jesus encourages his disciples to be at peace with one another (cf. Jn 16:33; Rom 14:19; 2 Cor 13:11; 1 Thess 5:13). How else can we expect to be salt in the world and win others to Christ? There is no better way to be at peace with others than to love and serve them. God’s people must reflect his values as disciples, avoiding rivalry and self-assertion.
B. Rewards for sinful greatness (vv. 43, 45, 47-48)
Eternal torment and destruction in hell (vv. 43, 45, 47-48). Hell should make us cringe. Jesus’ description of hell is a powerful warning for sinners to repent and escape eternal judgment. The whole Bible teaches, and Jesus frequently confirms, that hell is real and is a place where the wicked will be tormented forever. Is it literally a place of fire and flesh-eating maggots? I don’t know for sure whether all the imagery is literal or figurative, but I do know that it is a place of non-stop torment under the judgment of God. The love of God is totally absent in hell. Those in hell experience everlasting shame (Dan 12:2). Their prison shackles remain locked and secured tight forever (Jude 6-7). Their souls will never have rest, day or night (Rev 14:9-11; 20:10), and will be destroyed everlastingly (2 Thess 1:9).
Conclusion – Some of you are saying to yourselves, “If that’s what it takes to be great, then I’m not sure it’s worth it! Why can’t I just settle for average in God’s kingdom to avoid hell?” I sympathize with that thought, but it’s not an option for a Christian because it denies your identity in Christ. Jesus has made you great in him. Even if up to this point you’ve tolerated sin and haven’t made many painful breaks with the sin you value, Jesus went all the way—for you. He had no sin, but he became sin for you. He is that which is ultimately valuable, but he was cut off from his family, friends, people, and his Heavenly Father and cast away like he was some ugly sin. He knows the pain of sacrifice because his whole life was a sacrifice pleasing to God. And the Father rewarded him for his sacrifice, for making himself last of all and servant of all, and for this he declared Jesus the greatest! If Jesus is great, then all those in him are great in God’s eyes. So he is calling you to act great, to fulfill your greatness, to make yourself last, to serve all, and to deal drastically with sin. When you learn to look at Jesus, who became sin in your place and was cut off for you, you’ll be moved to never settle for average, but instead to hate your sin, to cut it out of your life because you love Jesus, and to pursue godly servant greatness in faith, hope, and love. Children of God, put your trust in Christ, live in his power to cut off sin, and make yourselves last of all and servant of all. For only then will be you great as you magnify the greatness of Christ.