96. The Greatest among You Serves (Luke 22:21-30)

Audio (17:44)
Gospel Parallels §237

Ford Madox Brown (British Pre-Raphaelite painter, (1821-93), 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet' (1852-56)
Ford Madox Brown (British Pre-Raphaelite painter, (1821-93), 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet' (1852-56), oil on canvas, 1167 x 133 mm, Tate Gallery, London.

"21  'But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22  The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.' 23  They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this. 24  Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.

25  Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28  You are those who have stood by me in my trials. 29  And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, 30  so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.'" (Luke 22:21-30, NIV)

Betrayer (Luke 22:21-23)

As they're gathered at the table, Jesus utters shocking words!

"'But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.' They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this." (Luke 22:21-23)

It must have been a shock when Jesus declared that he would be betrayed by one of the Twelve who shared with him in this most sacred of meals -- Passover, and the occasion that we call The Last Supper. The Greek verb is paradidōmi, "hand over, turn over, give up" a person, as a technical term of police and courts, "hand over into [the] custody [of]."999 Unlike our word "betray," paradidōmi can have either a positive or negative connotation depending upon the context. But Jesus' disciples were under no illusion; they knew this was betrayal to Jesus' enemies.

Jesus speaks of his betrayer's hand (Greek cheir) being with his on the same table. The use of "hand" to indicate a person is an Hebraic idiom, especially when a friendly or hostile action is in mind. An enemy would "raise a hand to strike."1000

But Jesus' words are deeply ironic. One's hand at the table should indicate close fellowship and an obligation to be faithful to one's host. Eating with another person was a Near Eastern way of making an informal non-aggression pact with someone. The host had a solemn obligation to provide for and serve his guests (Genesis 18:18), but the guests now had an obligation not to harm their host (Genesis 31:44-54; 2 Samuel 3:20-21). Jesus quoted the following passage at the Last Supper, according to John's Gospel (John 13:18):

"Even my close friend, whom I trusted,
he who shared my bread,
has lifted up his heel against me." (Psalm 41:9)

If you have ever been betrayed by one who claimed to be your friend, then you know the peculiar variety of woundedness and bewilderment that Jesus felt.

I wonder what it felt like to be a disciple at the table that night? Jesus' words must have created a tension in the air and cast a pall over the Passover meal. "They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this."

"I could never do that."
"Oh, I'm not so sure..."
"Who could it be?"
"Will it be me?"

You can imagine the kind of shock and denial and self-doubt that was going on around the table, as Judas sat smugly next to Jesus knowing that he was the betrayer (John 13:25-30).

Who Is the Greatest? (Luke 22:24)

"Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest." (Luke 22:24)

The word translated "greatest" is meizōn, the comparative form of Greek megas, "pertaining to being relatively superior in importance, great."1001 They weren't arguing about actual superiority, but perceived superiority -- who was "considered" by the crowds to be the greatest. The Greek verb is dokeō, "to consider as probable, think, believe, suppose, consider," of subjective opinion.1002 And so they argued at the table as they prepared to partake of the Last Supper. The noun is Greek philoneikia, "dispute, argument."1003

You'd think the disciples would be ashamed to discuss in Jesus' presence such pettiness about public opinion, but apparently they weren't. It was fairly open. How much they had to learn!

How foolish, we say. But how many times have we fretted or complained about what people at church thought of us? How many times have church leaders jockeyed for influence and power? How many churches go through one pastor after another because a powerful lay leader is unwilling to allow a pastor to lead? How many pastors keep such tight control of their churches that they are more like petty despots than men of God? How many bishops and district superintendents are feared for their power to make or break a minister's career? Lord John Acton (1834-1902) said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Something tells me that we disciples must learn the lesson Jesus is about to teach his disciples, and work to unlearn the false power dynamics that belong to this age, but are contradictory to the power dynamics of the Kingdom of God!

Secular Model: Lording It Over Subjects (Luke 22:25)

"Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.'" (Luke 22:25)

The verse contains two verbs that describe authority. The first is Greek kyrieuō, which generally means "to be lord/master of ... to exercise authority or have control, rule."1004 The second is exousiazō, "to have the right of control, have the right/power" for something or over something.1005

Jesus isn't against ruling, but the way in which it is done. We're used to top-down authority, where the top leader has authority to direct everyone under him or her. It existed as well in Jesus' day. Top leaders sought to be referred to by the populace as Benefactors. The Greek word is euergetēs, "benefactor," as a title of princes and other honored persons, especially those recognized for their civic contributions.1006 There's probably a good bit of irony in Jesus' use of the title "Benefactor," probably similar to his comments on another occasion to those who covet titles:

"... They love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.' But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matthew 23:7-12)

Yes, Jesus has in mind something different.

Kingdom Model: Servant Leaders (Luke 22:26)

"But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest (meizōn) among you should be (ginomai) like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (Luke 22:26)

Jesus teaches that the one who is greater -- or who wishes to be greater -- should become like the youngest, that is, the least powerful and least assuming member of the community. The NIV word "be" in this sentence is Greek ginomai, but "be" doesn't bring out the particular sense of the verb: "to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition, become something."1007 The word "rules" here is Greek hēgeomai, "to be in a supervisory capacity, lead, guide."1008

The particular characteristic of Christian leaders or rulers is to be serving, Greek diakoneō (from which we get our English word "deacon"), "generally, to render service in a variety of ways at someone's behest or voluntarily."1009

It's not that a spiritual leader does not have authority, but that he exercises it in a different way. The authority is not established by virtue of office, but by virtue of service. The difference is profound. One can exercise authority in such a way as to advance himself and his own agenda, rather than to serve and to benefit those whom he is serving.

This morning in my devotions I read Paul's short Letter to Philemon. Certainly Paul is seeking to influence Philemon to set free his slave Onesimus, but Paul appeals not to apostolic authority, but the authority of his chains (verses 10, 13) and his service as a spiritual midwife to Philemon himself (verse 20). Service, not office, is what Christian leaders should seek.

I Am One Who Serves (Luke 22:27)

"For who is greater (meizōn), the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:27)

This is the third time in our passage that we see the word meizōn, "greater," the comparative of megas. The disciples had been arguing about who was considered "greater." So Jesus' response makes it doubly clear that in his Kingdom "greatness" consists in humility and in service. In contrast to "greater," Jesus uses the word diakoneō, "to serve," three times.

The Apostle John tells the rest of the story. In response to the disciples' bickering Jesus takes off his outer garment, takes a towel and a basin, kneels behind each of them, and begins to wash their feet. He not only talks about being a servant on this occasion, he acts it out before them as a living parable they will never forget (John 13:4-17).

Jesus is the great Servant.

"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45; Matthew 20:28)

The Prophet Isaiah sees him from afar and describes him as a Suffering Servant.

"See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him....

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed....

After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities." (Isaiah 52:13-14; 53:4-5, 11)

Jesus does not use the word "servant" lightly or merely figuratively. He means it literally and to the fullest extent of one's life. He lives his life and breathes his last as the Father's servant though he is by nature God himself (Philippians 2:6).

As I write this lesson, I am listening to the song, "Seek Righteousness":

"Seek righteousness, seek humility,
That you may be sheltered on that Day."1010

So often in the history of Christianity, church leaders have sought anything but humility. If history teaches us anything, it is that human depravity can infect Christian leaders in the most foul way. We must not just be aware, but actively take steps to humble ourselves -- as Jesus did. Only in this way will we be sheltered on the Day of the Lord when every deed is examined in relation to the absolute holy standard of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

Standing by Him in His Trials (Luke 22:28)

In this awesome time of teaching at the Last Supper, Jesus warns his disciples solemnly about leadership wrongly used, and then extends a wonderful promise of leadership to those who are faithful.

"You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Luke 22:28-30)

First, he identifies his disciples as those who have stood by him in his trials. There is a sense in which the persecutions we face as his servants are not ours but his. Certainly, Paul viewed them in precisely this manner:

"Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (Colossians 1:24)

Conferring upon His Disciples a Kingdom (Luke 22:29)

Second, Jesus makes an amazing proclamation:

"And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me." (Luke 22:29)

The verb translated "confer" (NIV) or "appoint" (KJV) is Greek diatithēmi, "to make formal arrangements for something to be done or brought about, decree, ordain" ... "to make disposition of something, arrange something." The word is also used to arrange for disposition of property after one's death, "dispose of property by a will, make a will."1011 The Greek word for "covenant" or "will," diathēke, is formed from this verb. The specific meaning here is "to determine, to appoint."1012

Jesus' words, "And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me" (Luke 22:29) given before the crucifixion are similar to his words after the resurrection, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (John 20:22). In both statements it is unmistakable that he is now involving his disciples in the actual operation of and administration of his Kingdom. They had been observers; now they are officers, participants with Christ in the Kingdom.

We read in the Old Testament about God's original desire for his people: "You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Imagine that! An entire nation of those ministering to God himself -- and acting as intermediaries to others to bring God to them and them to God. In the New Testament, Peter writes, "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9).

In the last book of the Bible, we see more about this role as administrators in the Kingdom:

"... And has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father." (Revelation 1:6)

"You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth." (Revelation 5:10)

"Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years." (Revelation 20:6)

To confer on his Twelve Disciples a kingdom means that they will serve as agents of this kingdom, as officers, as leaders. They will reign "on the earth," as well as in God's heavenly kingdom. When, how, and where we do not fully know. I believe that the Scriptures cited above indicate that this conferring a kingdom does not apply just to the Twelve but to you and to me, who seek to serve Jesus daily as his disciples, in troubles and trials and in great joy.

Eating and Drinking at my Table (Luke 22:30a)

"... So that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Luke 22:30)

Third, Jesus offers his disciples the privilege of sharing his own table. Both verbs "eat" and "drink" are in the present tense, indicating continuing action. This isn't just a single meal, but an ongoing provision. We see this privilege afforded to special honored individuals in David's time. David's dear, dear friend Jonathan had one surviving son Mephibosheth. (Say that five times fast!) When David found him, he said,

"Don't be afraid for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table." (2 Samuel 9:7)

Sitting at the King's own table meant that the King took on the responsibility of providing for your food -- free of any charge to you!

But more than an eternal ticket that entitles one to sit at the King's own table, the disciples are offered a seat at the most important Feast of all the ages: the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. This is the occasion when Jesus will be joined by the patriarchs of ancient times and will celebrate figuratively his marriage to his Bride, the church. We are now his Betrothed, but when he returns the marriage will be completed. See the New Testament glimpses of this great Meal:

"I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 8:11; also Luke 13:28)

"When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, 'Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.'" (Luke 14:15)

"For I tell you, I will not eat [this Passover meal] again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.' After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, 'Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.'" (Luke 22:16-18)

"Then the angel said to me, 'Write: 'Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!' And he added, 'These are the true words of God.'" (Revelation 19:9)

Judging the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30b)

"... So that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Luke 22:30)

Fourth, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples about their specific authority in his Kingdom -- to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (also Matthew 19:28b). They will sit on "thrones," Greek thronos, "chair, throne." In Classical Greek, "this word, related to seat and footstool, denotes a high stool with back, arms, and footstool. It is a seat for elders, teachers, etc., and is later reserved for kings and gods."1013 The throne is a symbol for the high office they hold.

Their role is judging. The present tense Greek verb is krinō, a common word that can have a wide range of meaning, from "judge" to "decide" to "engage in a judicial process." In this passage the word may have the broader sense of "rule."1014 Our Western mind turns to a courtroom where criminals are tried and convicted or acquitted. But I think the concept may go much farther back into Israel's history where men (Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, etc.) and a woman (Deborah) acted as judges or leaders under the kingship of Yahweh. Samuel made a circuit of cities where he would hear the cases of people in that town and render decisions.

Their subjects are the "twelve tribes of Israel." We see the twelve tribes mentioned also in James and Revelation:

"James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings." (James 1:1)

"Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000...." (Revelation 7:4-8)

"It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel." (Revelation 21:12)

The Literal Twelve Tribes

But is Jesus speaking of the twelve literal tribes? Many scholars think so. The twelve tribes, of course, were the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel). When they settled in Canaan, Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin took southerly territories, while the other tribes settled either east of the Jordan or in the northern areas. After Solomon, the kingdom was divided into the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, and in 722 BC the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom, took many into exile, and resettled the area with deportees from another conquered territory. As a result, you hear of the "Ten Lost Tribes." I have little doubt that many people in Iraq are descended from these "lost tribes," but they have long since lost their distinct identity as Israelites. Certainly the Apostle Paul expected literal Israel to be saved (Romans 11).

When the Messiah comes he will "gather" back to the Land all those who were dispersed in the Exile. There are many promises to this effect, especially in Jeremiah and Ezekiel:

"Say, 'O Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.'
See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame,
expectant mothers and women in labor;
a great throng will return.
They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.
I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel's father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son." (Jeremiah 31:7-9)

This theme carries over into the New Testament, as well. Jesus told his disciples that when he returned, he would gather God's chosen ones:

"And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." (Matthew 24:31)

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34)

The Twelve Apostles represent the leaders of the new Twelve Tribes of Israel under the New Covenant, ruling and reigning with Christ.

Spiritual Israel

But I believe that the promise extends beyond literal Israel. Paul reckons the children of Abraham not as just natural children, but those who share Abraham's faith (Romans 9:6-8; Galatians 3:29; Ephesians 3:6). So it may be that when James writes "to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations," he is writing to this larger group of believers that now includes Gentiles. Paul, too, calls believers "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16).

So the fourth promise Jesus makes to his disciples in our passage is that they will have the great honor of ruling over the people of the Kingdom of God. What an awesome responsibility! What a tremendous privilege!

When will they begin to exercise this reign? I believe that they began on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon them. The Apostles, and the leaders they raised up, swept the world with the gospel and created communities of believers everywhere. The leaders of these communities served as rulers and judges for God's people. You today, if you are a leader in your church and are faithful to Christ are fulfilling this. But the Scriptures hint that we will continue to exercise rule on behalf of Christ after his return. What a joy! What a privilege!

My dear Christian brother and sister, as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends you to continue his work. Receive the Kingdom and the Kingdom responsibilities that Jesus would confer upon you. Amen.


Father, I am awed as I meditate on this concept of conferring a kingdom. Help me and my brothers and sisters to accept what you confer upon us. Help us to be willing to lead -- not as selfish, domineering leaders -- but as humble servants who are given responsibilities under Christ the Messiah. Help us to be worthy of your kingdom. I pray in Jesus' august name. Amen.

Key Verses

"The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves." (Luke 22:26)

"I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me." (Luke 22:29)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. (Luke 22:24) Why does pride so easily dominate the life of leaders? Why do proud men and women seek out leadership roles? Why are we tempted to "lord it over" others -- at work? in our families? in our churches?
  2. (Luke 22:25) Why are we eager for titles? Reverend, Doctor, Chairperson, President, Director, Minister. What do titles do for us? What do titles do to us?
  3. (Luke 22:26-27) How does a servant leader contrast with a self-absorbed leader? Whom should leaders serve? Their followers? or Christ? Can you cite any examples when who we should serve isn't clear?
  4. (Luke 22:28-30) What are the four promises Jesus offers his disciples in verses 29-30?
  5. (Luke 22:30) What is the significance of eating and drinking at the King's table?
  6. (Luke 22:29-30) What does it mean to rule and reign with Christ? Is this ruling present? or future?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[999] Paradidōmi, BDAG 762.

[1000] Marshall, Luke, p. 808. 1 Samuel 22:17; also 18:21; 24:13-14; 2 Samuel 14:19.

[1001] Megas, BDAG 624.

[1002] Dokeō, BDAG 254-255.

[1003] Philoneikia, BDAG 1058.

[1004] Kyrieuō, BDAG 576. A parallel passage in Mark 10:42 uses the verb katakyrieuō, a compound word that includes the preposition kata, "against," that conveys the sense of "rule to one's own advantage" (Werner Foerster, kurios, ktl., TDNT 3:1081-1098). Marshall (Luke, p. 812) suggests that the sense of katakyrieuo in Mark is perhaps "tyrannize."

[1005] Exousiazō, BDAG 353-354.

[1006] Euergetēs, BDAG 405.

[1007] Ginomai, BDAG 198.

[1008] Hēgeomai, BDAG 434.

[1009] Diakoneō, BDAG 229.

[1010] "Seek Righteousness," by John Williams (copyright © 1992 Mercy/Vineyard Publishing).

[1011] Diatithēmi, BDAG 238.

[1012] Johannes Behm, TDNT 2:104-106.

[1013] Otto Schmitz, thronos, TDNT 3:160-167.

[1014] Krinō, BDAG 569.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text