When I was a young boy I was constantly trying to assert my superiority over my siblings. I had to be the best at everything, and it was easy to believe I was the best. I was the oldest of seven brothers and a sister. Naturally, I was faster, stronger, and more coordinated than the rest of them. I had more experience and more practice for the simple reason that I had at least a 1 1/2-year head start on all of them. Being the best was quite literally like taking candy from a baby... for awhile.
As we grew older it became harder to be the best at everything. My brothers’ and sister’s natural talents and gifts began to emerge and develop as they grew. They became better at those things they were naturally talented at, and competition began to grow stiffer. But we never lost our competitive spirit. Rarely were we not trying to do something better, faster, more efficiently, or more creatively than the others. And of course, we had to give each other a hard time about it. We were constantly bragging, boasting, and gloating. Every once in awhile someone got punched or hit in the head with a flying toy. So it is, from my experience with my brothers, that I imagine something similar was taking place amongst the 12 disciples whom Jesus called to follow Him.
While only a couple of them might have been related by blood, they seem to be a lot like how my brothers and I were. And just like my brothers and I, they were always jabbing each other in the ribs and talking about who was better.
Luke records the account of the very first time the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and immediately afterward, wouldn’t you know it, the disciples are at it again. Like many times before, they are worried about who among them was the greatest. Luke writes: “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” (Luke 22:24, ESV)
Jesus gives them a lesson in the kingdom economics of greatness. It’s not what you think. It doesn’t look anything like what greatness is made out to be in this world. Something that I’ve always wondered was why didn’t Jesus just shut them all down by saying, “Guys, why are you even questioning who amongst you is the greatest? Clearly, it’s me. I’m the greatest”
Many other times Jesus hints at His greatness. He points out the temple and says, “Something greater than the temple is here.” (Matt 12:6) He speaks of the men of Nineveh who repented at Jonah’s preaching, and says, “Something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matt 12:41) He speaks of Solomon’s wisdom for which a queen traveled just to glean insight from, and says, “Something greater than Solomon is here.” (Matt 12:42)
Are you a great architect? Or at least skilled in the Legos department? Jesus is greater. Are you a skilled speaker or preacher? Can you bring your influence to bear on others through your words? Jesus literally is the Word. He’s greater. Are you wise? Do all your family and friends come to you for advice? Jesus is wiser. He’s greater than you and I and everyone. Ain’t no one got anything on Jesus. That’s the truth. He’s better than Jonah, the temple, Solomon… yeah, basically everyone. It also doesn’t hurt that He’s God.
Contemplate what it would be like to be greater and better than anyone and everyone else at everything. What would you do with that power? My mind begins to drool with the tantalizing prospect of wielding such power. Why, I could do anything, have anything, be anything. Greatest brother of all time? Check. President of the United States? No one would even run against me that election year. Check. Ruler of the whole world? Why not? Check. I could have it all. All the riches, all the prestige, all the accolades, all the glory. Because that’s what the one with all the power does, right? And of course, everyone would serve me then. I guess it’s kind of like being a god.
Often times, when we fantasize about what it’s like to be God, we project our own nature and ways onto God. We get so caught up in the way things are in our world that we forget that God’s kingdom, and who God actually is, is nothing like what we could compare it to throughout all of history and a million different examples that we would call “great.” In our thinking, greatness is something to assert over other people. But not so with God.
Jesus takes the disciples out to the woodshed after this final dispute of theirs over which one of them was the greatest (it wasn't the first time they had argued about who was the greatest). He slaps down their earthly notions of greatness. He says to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:25–27)
See this one who is called Jesus? This one who claimed to be greater than all others, and who claims to be God Himself? He is greater. And though that greatness is above you, over you, and out of your reach, it is not exercised over you, but is exercised for you. He exercises His authority to assume flesh and bone and blood to Himself. He is so great that He becomes one of us, our brother. He is so great that He gives up His place in heaven, leaving His kingdom behind, to be with us, to live with us. He asserts His greatness over, not His creation, but the enemies of His creation: sin, death, and the devil. He exercises His authority to save those who don’t even know they need to be saved. He is greater than you to save you for not being great.
Paul writes of this Jesus who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7–8)
Something greater than everything else has come. Jesus is better than you. He’s like the ultimate better big brother who always wins every competition. But instead of being the kind of older brother I was, instead of winning for Himself, instead of being great for the sake of being greater than you, He is great for you. Jesus takes what is high above you, out of reach, and brings it to you. He gives you Himself. All of Jesus is for you.
He lives for you. He dies for you. He is buried for you. He is resurrected for you.
For your forgiveness. For your sanctification. For life eternal. For your Justification.
He is something greater than you, for you.