Jesus' Parables for Disciples
40. Confronting the Disciples' Pride (Luke 9:46-56)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'Jesus and the Little Child' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 5.7 x 9.3 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all -- he is the greatest.'
49 'Master,' said John, 'we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.' 50 'Do not stop him,' Jesus said, 'for whoever is not against you is for you.'
51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, 'Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?' 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them, 56 and they went to another village." (Luke 9:46-56, NIV)
So many leaders are followers of their egos and their need for affirmation from others. Jesus' disciples were no different than you or I in this regard.
If you were scouring the Twelve disciples for candidates for the biggest ego, whom would you nominate?
Peter comes to mind first. He is bold and brash, and sometimes resists what Jesus wanted to teach or do (see Matthew 16:22 and John 13:6-9). He boasts, for example, that though the other disciples may fall away, that he never will (Matthew 26:33).
But the brothers Jesus nicknamed "the sons of thunder" -- James and John, the sons of Zebedee -- come in a close second. Through their mother, they seek to be granted the right to sit at his right and left hand in the kingdom (Matthew 20:20-22; Mark 10:35-38). What chutzpah!
Why is it that the Three whom Jesus took aside -- Peter, James, and John -- had such a problem with pride? Did Jesus' special attention inflate their egos? Perhaps. But they were the natural leaders who needed special instruction. What makes a leader believe that others will follow or want to follow him or her? What makes a leader desire to lead, come out on top in a group of people, and naturally extend influence over the others? Leaders have their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Pride can be one of these. Only when self-centeredness and self-confidence are surrendered to Jesus, can leaders really be servants. And so Jesus works with his leader-disciples and the rest of them about their pride.
Who Is the Greatest? (Luke 9:46)
"An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest." (Luke 9:46)
The disciples have been arguing. The Greek word is used here is dialogismos, "doubt, dispute, argument."348 Three times, and maybe more, the disciples argue about which of them would be the greatest -- here in 9:46-48, just before Jesus' final ministry in Jerusalem (Matthew 20:20-28), and, amazingly, at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24), which probably prompted Jesus to wash the disciples' feet and so teach them true humility (John 13:4-17). This was an ongoing problem, one that wasn't learned the first time Jesus taught his disciples.
The question the disciples are arguing about is not who is the greatest, but who will be the greatest.349 The Greek word is meizōn, the comparative form of megas, "large, great."350 They were seeking greatness of rank and dignity, of importance and status. This is not the pursuit of excellence as a disciple or as a minister of Christ -- a good thing. Some, at least, of what we see every four years in the Olympics is the pursuit of the goal of doing the best you can do. Unfortunately, some athletes, along with Jesus' disciples today, are caught up in the pursuit of status, the acclaim of others, always with the idea of comparison with others -- greater than, better than, more recognized than, better known than. Fortunately, I guess, this sort of pride isn't very subtle, and can be easily recognized -- especially by others.
When I was in college, one of my aspirations was to be a truly effective worship leader -- and I thought I was pretty good at it, too, and hoped that others were noticing. One Easter break, I attended a conference on an old camp meeting grounds outside of Waco, Texas. The worship leader at the conference was a missionary named Doyle Brymer. He had a gentle spirit and a great love for Jesus. As he led the songs during one evening service, I observed him carefully. He was an "okay" song leader, but not "excellent," I surmised. But I began to realize that he had no consciousness of who might be looking at him or might be thinking about him; he was lost in love with Jesus. Pride had no place in him. But it did have a considerable place in me who coveted his position. I remember coming forward at the conclusion of that service broken and weeping -- all I could see was Doyle Brymer's transparent love for Jesus contrasted with my ugly acclaim-seeking pride. This was by no means the only time God has dealt with me over my pride, but it was one of the early and clarifying experiences as he has been seeking to form me in Jesus' image.
A Little Child at Jesus' Side (Luke 9:47)
"Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him." (Luke 9:47)
On this occasion, Jesus uses a child to make a point. Children in Jesus' day were regarded with little importance or esteem. Yes, their parents had sentimental thoughts about them, but they weren't looked on as innocent; rather filled with foolishness that the rod might drive away (Proverbs 22:15). Children were part of the covenant, but not considered responsible members of the community until the age of 12 or 13. Children had no status.351
Jesus used children for examples a number of times, so it is important that we don't conflate in our minds these various incidents.
- Unless we humble ourselves and become like children, we won't enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3-4)
- Don't prevent children from coming to Jesus, for "of such is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:14)
- Unless we receive the kingdom of God like a child we shall not enter it. (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17)
So detach your mind from those incidents and look closely at this one. Here, Jesus takes a little child and stands the child next to him -- Jesus, tall, on one side, the child, short in comparison, on the other. Jesus is now one of the most famous men in all Galilee, while the little child is an unknown outside his village, and in his village has no status whatsoever. Jesus is making a stark contrast. But first he must get the disciples' attention.
Welcoming a Little Child in My Name (Luke 9:48a)
"Then he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.'" (9:48a)
Jesus' teaching has two parts. First he talks about welcoming (NIV) or receiving (KJV). The Greek word is dechomai, "take, receive someone," used especially of hospitality. Generally, "receive" as a guest, "welcome."352
The Gospel of John illustrates what this means. While different Greek words are used, the idea is the same:
"He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." (John 1:11-12)
To receive someone is to believe in him, to accept his credentials as valid and true, to welcome and honor as a guest. To receive Jesus in the Father's name is to believe that the Father sent him. To receive a disciple in Jesus' name is to believe in and accept the one he represents, "in whose name" he comes.353
"He who receives (dechomai) you receives (dechomai) me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." (Matthew 10:40-42)
But it takes humility to see Christ in a little child. The disciples are so eager to protect Jesus, that they exclude little children because they consider them a bother.
"But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (18:16)
To self-important disciples arguing about their own greatness, Jesus shows a young child, and asks him to stand in a place of honor next to him -- perhaps on his right hand, perhaps on his left, we do not know (see Mark 10:37). Do you have enough humility to take a child seriously for my sake? Jesus asks. Would you welcome and honor him as you would me? If so, then you will be able to recognize and receive me and my Father.
The Least Among You Is the Greatest (Luke 9:48b)
"For he who is least among you all -- he is the greatest.'" (9:48)
The child is the illustration of a truth that Jesus only hints at here -- that in his Kingdom, humility and servanthood are signs of greatness. Jesus washes the disciples' feet, taking a place lower than a servant (John 13:1-17). Jesus is equal with the Father so far as divinity is concerned, but he humbles himself to become man, and then again to die on a shameful cross for our sins (Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus the Son of God is delivered into the hands of men as a common criminal. Things are not as they seem, Jesus is saying. In my Kingdom, humility is honored rather than self-aggrandizing pride.
Exorcism in the First Century
"'Master,' said John, 'we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.'" (9:49)
While we may imagine that exorcism (casting out of demons) began with Jesus, it was not so. There were many Jewish exorcists. Even Jesus' enemies sought to perform exorcisms (Luke 11:19). Exorcists in the first century used various names by which to seek to cast out demons. Here is an incantation with Jewish affiliations from Egypt about the third century AD that illustrates the use of Jesus' name -- and many others:
"Standing opposite, adjure him. The adjuration is this: 'I adjure thee by the God of the Hebrews Jesu, Jaba, Jae, Abraoth, Aia, Thoth, Ele, Elo, Aeo, Eu, Jiibaech, Abarmas, Jabarau, Abelbel, Lona, Abra, Maroia, arm, thou that appearest in fire, though that art in the midst of earth and snow and vapour, Tannetis: let thy angel descend, the implacable one, and let him draw into captivity the daemon as he flieth around this creature which God formed in his holy paradise..."354
Jewish exorcists were also operating in Ephesus in Paul's day, as this rather humorous story illustrates:
"Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, 'In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.' Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, 'Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?' Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding." (Acts 19:13-16)
John Tries to Stop the Unauthorized Exorcist (Luke 9:49)
While the sons of Sceva weren't finding much success, a man in Galilee not associated with the disciples, was experiencing success in using Jesus' name to cast out demons -- otherwise the disciples wouldn't have been so upset.
"'Master,' said John, 'we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.'" (9:49)
What is the cause of the disciples' anger? Pride in what they imagined was their exclusive commission to cast out demons (9:1). Their wrangling among themselves about who was the greatest was just a symptom of an inner insecurity that required them to put down or stop anyone who seemed to be their equal. Anyone who threatens their sense of superiority is considered an enemy.
How sad! But I daresay that this sickness extends to our own day. I can remember when a church I pastored was blessed by two solo-quality tenor voices. But the rivalry between these men showed that their egos motivated them more than their desire to glorify God. Pride is ugly, but it is difficult to see in ourselves.
Is there any rival you resent? Why? I can understand a resentment of those who desire to take what is legitimately yours -- a husband or wife, for example. But when we are dealing in the area of free trade, we must deal with our own pride and seek to love even our rivals, much more our enemies, if we are to be Jesus-like.
Whoever Is Not Against You Is for You (Luke 9:50)
"'Do not stop him,' Jesus said, 'for whoever is not against you is for you.'" (Luke 9:50)
Jesus doesn't seem to be worried. "Whoever is not against you is for you," he says. But this sounds very similar to a statement Jesus made a little later in the context of binding the "strong man" who has kept the demonized in bondage: "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters" (Luke 11:23). What's the difference between these two statements?
The distinction seems slight, but this seems to be it: First, one deals with those "not against" while the other deals with those "not with." Second, and more important, one deals with not being against the disciples in their work, and the other not being with Christ himself.
We come up against this kind of dispute all the time in our denominationalist nonsense. (I say this from my own position as being a member of a denomination.) We sometimes resent others -- especially their successes -- because they are "not with us," they are of a slightly different doctrinal persuasion than we. I think this has lessened in the US in the last half century, and that is for the good. But too often we set up petty rivalries and resentments between Protestants and Catholics, or Liberals and Conservatives, or New Lights and Old Lights, or Traditionalists and Charismatics, or whatever. How we need to obey the Apostle Paul's command to us!
"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit -- just as you were called to one hope when you were called -- one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Ephesians 4:3-6)
This doesn't mean we can agree to disagree about some matters. We are not to give up integrity for unity. But we are to reject the petty rivalry and fierce fighting that has blackened the name of Christ throughout history. We must look with love upon each other and heed Jesus' saying, "Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you."
Dealing with Heresy
So we must not resent others who aren't with us, and not seek to hinder them. But what about those who are not with Christ himself? How are we to deal with them? First, it's not really for us to judge who is without Christ. The Church hasn't done an especially credible job at that over the centuries. It is really Christ who is to determine his own.
I firmly believe that Mormon and Jehovah's Witness doctrine is wrong at key points, and detracts from the glory of Christ. But what about the relationship to Christ of some adherents to those sects? I've decided that I am not to judge that, any more than I am to judge the spiritual relationship of people in my own congregation. I can be concerned. I must pray. I must seek to draw them closer and point them in the right direction. But it is Jesus who decides who are his own, not I. He is the judge, I am the disciple -- and I must not be a judgmental disciple.
The Efficacy of Non-Christian Miracles
This raises the question of how a person could be effective in casting out demons if he were not one of the Twelve, or a "true believer." It's a difficult question, and one with a troubling answer. But I've come to much the same conclusion as the Roman Catholic Church which determines that the efficacy of the sacrament doesn't lie in the worthiness of the celebrant but in the power of Christ.355
Though I'm not a Pentecostal, I have great sympathy for Pentecostals who have used powerful spiritual gifts to point people to Christ's salvation by ministries of healing. As I have studied their lives, some come up pretty clean (if a bit eccentric), while others have been deeply flawed.
I think, for example, of a powerful Pentecostal healer and exorcist of the 1950s and 1960s. Though his wasn't my style, I listened to him occasionally on the radio, and later talked to people who had been saved under his ministry. Sadly, he died an alcoholic alone in a hotel room in San Francisco. He had battled alcoholism for years. Does that mean that his ministry was not real? Not necessarily, though I believe there were some excesses. His sins and weaknesses don't invalidate his powerful faith. When he spoke the name of Jesus, it was with faith in the one who healed. When he commanded demons to come out and bodies to be made whole, he did so with faith in the name of Jesus.
But miracles are not the point. In a passage we'll study in a few weeks, we read:
"The seventy-two returned with joy and said, 'Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.' He replied, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.'" (Luke 10:17-20)
Miracles are wonderful, but even the ability to work miracles does not guarantee one's salvation, that most precious of gifts.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:21-23)
But what about non-Christians? What about the new-agers and Hindus who claim miracles? Jesus warned his disciples:
"For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect -- if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time." (Matthew 24:24-25)
Miracles can be performed by the power of Satan and by the power of God. The Christian gift of "discerning of spirits" can help us determine which (1 Corinthians 12:10).
Setting His Face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51)
"As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem." (Luke 9:51)
This verse represents a watershed in the Gospel of Luke. Prior to this, Jesus' primary ministry has been in Galilee. Now the focus is on Jerusalem, the place where he must suffer and die, be raised, and "taken up to heaven."
This is the first reference in Luke to Jesus' ascension (24:50-51). The word translated "taken up to heaven" (NIV) or "received up" (KJV) is the Greek noun analēmpsis, "a taking up, ascension."356 The corresponding verb analambanō is also used to refer to Jesus' ascension (Acts 1:2, 11, 22; Mark 16:19; 1 Timothy 3:16).
But for now, Jesus makes a deliberate decision to go to Jerusalem and all the angst that he will find there. The word describing this is stērizō, "to fix firmly in a place," then figuratively, "to cause to be inwardly firm or committed, confirm, establish, strengthen."357 The phrase "set his face" is a Hebrew idiom that we see in the Old Testament: "Therefore, I have set my face like flint?" (Isaiah 50:7; see Ezekiel 3:8-9). It means to deliberately and resolutely make a decision from which there is no turning back.
It is likely that the various events that follow in Luke's Gospel can't be strung together as a single journey, though they may appear that way. But the focus of Jesus' ministry has now moved clearly from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Jewish - Samaritan Relations
Location of Samaria (larger map)
Now that the decision has been made, Jesus' route to Jerusalem is direct. Many Jews making a pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem took the long route, crossing the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee and travelling through Perea on the east side of the Jordan River, and then crossing the Jordan again near Jericho, and then up to Jerusalem. They did this to avoid travelling through the less-than-friendly territory of Samaria, just south of Galilee. But Galileans commonly traveled to Jerusalem through Samaria,358 though the Samaritans had been known to murder pilgrims bound for Jerusalem.359
This feud, like many in the Middle East, was centuries old. In 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom (Samaria), which had embraced idolatry, was largely exiled to Assyria, and repopulated by the Assyrians with other conquered peoples. The resulting mixture of both peoples and religions brought enmity between Jews and Samaritans. While the Samaritans now adopted the Pentateuch as their Bible, they rejected the rest of the Old Testament. Mount Gerizim was the center of their worship. They had built their own temple there, probably in the fourth century BC, but that temple was destroyed in 129-128 BC by John Hyrcanus, Judean king and son of Jewish zealot Simon Maccabeus. No wonder the Samaritans hated the Jews, and especially Jews making a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. But their hatred was matched by that of the Jews who viewed them as heretics and half-breeds.
Rejection by the Samaritan Village (Luke 9:52-53)
"And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem." (9:52-53)
Because Jesus is travelling with a party of at least twelve and probably more, he sends ahead to find food and accommodations for his group that might otherwise overwhelm a small village's resources. While on another occasion, Jesus is received in Samaria (John 4:1-42), rejection of a party headed toward Jerusalem was almost predictable.
Calling Down Fire from Heaven (Luke 9:54)
"When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, 'Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?'" (9:54)
The disciples are ready to wreak destruction on their enemies. The enmity of centuries boils over. They ask their Captain for permission to call in an "air strike" on the village.
A Short Lesson in Textual Criticism
If you were to compare newer translations to the KJV here you'd find that the KJV adds more information. The reason is that the KJV follows fairly closely the Byzantine family of Greek New Testament manuscripts from which the Textus Receptus (Received Text) came. Since the KJV was translated in the early fifteenth century, we have discovered and studied literally thousands of Greek manuscripts. It appears that the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts omit some information here.360 (For more on this, see Introduction to Textual Criticism in the Appendix.)
In this case, compare the NIV text with the KJV text:
|"When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, 'Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?'"
|adds: "even as Elias did?"
|"But Jesus turned and rebuked them."
|adds "and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of ."
|"and they went to another village."
|Before this clause, adds: "For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."
Jesus' Rebuke (Luke 9:55-56)
"But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village." (9:55-56)
While the KJV probably interprets the disciples' rationale correctly -- Elijah had called down fire on his enemies (2 Kings 1:10-14) -- Luke probably didn't include it in his original Gospel. And while the KJV is probably correct about Jesus' response to the disciples -- rebuking their hateful spirit, and reinforcing his mission to save, not destroy -- Luke probably didn't include it in his original Gospel.
The disciples' hatred stemmed from their own pride, a racial, religious pride in this case. History has revealed that there is nothing more deadly than a sense of righteousness without a sense of mercy, a sense of God's call without God's love.
Prejudice makes it difficult -- impossible -- for us to minister effectively. People can feel our disapproval and enmity. Do you have any of this righteous indignation that makes it difficult to minister? As I've asked God about me, I am aware that I do. I have difficulty loving certain cult members and those pushing for my endorsement of their alternative lifestyle. I can be just as worthy of Jesus' rebuke as the disciples.
What spirit motivates me? Love, or the desire to prove that I am right? Jesus wants to strip me of my self-centered pride and fill me instead with his love and passion to save those who are manifestly lost.
This week's lesson has been all about Jesus' confronting the disciples' pride, my pride, your pride:
- Pride of prominence, pushing for others' recognition of our being better than they (9:46-48),
- Pride of exclusiveness, wanting to squelch others who are ministering without belonging to my group or my denomination, and
- Pride of righteousness, seeking to punish our enemies rather than love them.
Dear friends, these are disciple lessons that we must learn if we would follow Jesus further on his road. After all, his face is set towards Jerusalem and the cross, far beyond petty pride. So too, we must be on our face to humble ourselves before him and then follow him.
Father, when I study this lesson of the disciples' obvious pride and self-exaltation, I see myself. Please forgive me for my pride that exalts me instead of you. Humble me and keep me humble as your servant, so that I can serve you in a way that doesn't embarrass you. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"For he who is least among you all -- he is the greatest." (Luke 9:48b)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- What real human need did the disciples distort when they vied for who would be the greatest? Why does a legitimate need get distorted? How should this need be met?
- Why did Jesus ask a little child to stand beside him on this occasion? Strictly from these verses in Luke and nowhere else in the Bible, how does receiving a child in Jesus' name require humility? How does this sort of humility relate to the disciples' sin?
- What, do you think, was the disciples' real motive in stopping the exorcist? Why did Jesus rebuke them?
- Jesus' rejection by a Samaritan village is only recounted by Luke. What were Jesus' disciples to learn when Jesus rebuked their plan to call down fire upon the village? What are we disciples today to learn from it?
- What group or groups of people do you have the most trouble loving? How can the Lord help you love them?
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 Dialogismos, BAGD 186.
 This is a rare example of the "oblique" optative mood that Luke occasionally employs in indirect discourse. In this case, the optative mood with the particle an corresponds to the "potential" optative. See Blass, Debrunner, Funk §§385-386.
 Megas, BAGD 497-498.
 Albrecht Oepke, pais, ktl, TDNT 5:639-652.
 Dechomai, BAGD 177.
 Walter Grundmann, dechomai, ktl., TDNT 2:50-54.
 "Paris Magical Papyrus (lines 3,007-3,085). Published by C. Wessely, Griechische Zauberpapyri von Paris und London, in Denkeschrift der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Wein, Phil.-Hist. Klasse, xxxvi (1888), quoted in C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (Harper Torchbooks, 1961), pp. 31-32.
 "Unworthy ministers, validly conferring the sacraments, cannot impede the efficacy of signs ordained by Christ to produce grace ex opere operato" (cf. St. Thomas, III:64:5, III:64:9). "Sacraments (sec. 6, 4)," Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).
 Analēmpsis, Thayer, p. 39.
 Stērizō, BDAG 945, 2.
 Josephus, Antiquities, xx, 118.
 Josephus, Wars, ii, 232.
 To learn more about why, read my essay in Appendix 2 entitled "Introduction to Textual Criticism, or Why Newer Translations Sometimes Differ Slightly from the KJV."
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