Who Is the Greatest?
[This chapter is based on Matt. 17:22-27; 18:1-20;
Mark 9:30-50; Luke 9:46-48.]
On returning to Capernaum, Jesus did not repair to the well-known
resorts where He had taught the people, but with His disciples quietly
sought the house that was to be His temporary home. During the remainder
of His stay in Galilee it was His object to instruct the disciples
rather than to labor for the multitudes.
On the journey through Galilee, Christ had again tried to prepare the
minds of His disciples for the scenes before Him. He told them that He
was to go up to Jerusalem to be put to death and to rise again. And He
added the strange and solemn announcement that He was to be betrayed
into the hands of His enemies. The disciples did not even now comprehend
His words. Although the shadow of a great sorrow fell upon them, a
spirit of rivalry found a place in their hearts. They disputed among
themselves which should be accounted greatest in the kingdom. This
strife they thought to conceal from Jesus, and they did not, as usual,
press close to His side, but loitered behind, so that He was in advance
of them as they entered Capernaum. Jesus read their thoughts, and He
longed to counsel and instruct them. But for this He awaited a quiet
hour, when their hearts should be open to receive His words.
Soon after they reached the town, the collector of the temple revenue
came to Peter with the question, "Doth not your Master pay
This tribute was not a civil tax, but a religious contribution, which
every Jew was required to pay annually for the support of the temple. A
refusal to pay the tribute would be regarded as disloyalty to the
temple,--in the estimation of the rabbis a most grievous sin. The
Saviour's attitude toward the rabbinical laws, and His plain reproofs to
the defenders of tradition, afforded a pretext for the charge that He
was seeking to overthrow the temple service. Now His enemies saw an
opportunity of casting discredit upon Him. In the collector of the
tribute they found a ready ally.
Peter saw in the collector's question an insinuation touching
Christ's loyalty to the temple. Zealous for his Master's honor, he
hastily answered, without consulting Him, that Jesus would pay the
But Peter only partially comprehended the purpose of his questioner.
There were some classes who were held to be exempt from the payment of
the tribute. In the time of Moses, when the Levites were set apart for
the service of the sanctuary, they were given no inheritance among the
people. The Lord said, "Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his
brethren; the Lord is his inheritance." Deut. 10:9. In the days of
Christ the priests and Levites were still regarded as especially devoted
to the temple, and were not required to make the annual contribution for
its support. Prophets also were exempted from this payment. In requiring
the tribute from Jesus, the rabbis were setting aside His claim as a
prophet or teacher, and were dealing with Him as with any commonplace
person. A refusal on His part to pay the tribute would be represented as
disloyalty to the temple; while, on the other hand, the payment of it
would be taken as justifying their rejection of Him as a prophet.
Only a little before, Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God;
but he now missed an opportunity of setting forth the character of his
Master. By his answer to the collector, that Jesus would pay the
tribute, he had virtually sanctioned the false conception of Him to
which the priests and rulers were trying to give currency.
When Peter entered the house, the Saviour made no reference to what
had taken place, but inquired, "What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom
do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children,
or of strangers?" Peter answered, "Of strangers." And
Jesus said, "Then are the children free." While the people of
a country are taxed for the maintenance of their king, the monarch's own
children are exempt. So Israel, the professed people of God, were
required to maintain His service; but Jesus, the Son of God, was under
no such obligation. If priests and Levites were exempt because of their
connection with the temple, how much more He to whom the temple was His
If Jesus had paid the tribute without a protest, He would virtually
have acknowledged the justice of the claim, and would thus have denied
His divinity. But while He saw good to meet the demand, He denied the
claim upon which it was based. In providing for the payment of the
tribute He gave evidence of His divine character. It was made manifest
that He was one with God, and therefore was not under tribute as a mere
subject of the kingdom.
"Go thou to the sea," He directed Peter, "and cast an
hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast
opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give
unto them for Me and thee."
Though He had clothed His divinity with humanity, in this miracle He
revealed His glory. It was evident that this was He who through David
had declared, "Every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle
upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains; and the
wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell
thee: for the world is Mine, and the fullness thereof." Ps.
While Jesus made it plain that He was under no obligation to pay the
tribute, He entered into no controversy with the Jews in regard to the
matter; for they would have misinterpreted His words, and turned them
against Him. Lest He should give offense by withholding the tribute, He
did that which He could not justly be required to do. This lesson would
be of great value to His disciples. Marked changes were soon to take
place in their relation to the temple service, and Christ taught them
not to place themselves needlessly in antagonism to established order.
So far as possible, they were to avoid giving occasion for
misinterpretation of their faith. While Christians are not to sacrifice
one principle of truth, they should avoid controversy whenever it is
possible to do so.
When Christ and the disciples were alone in the house, while Peter
was gone to the sea, Jesus called the others to Him, and asked,
"What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?"
The presence of Jesus, and His question, put the matter in an entirely
different light from that in which it had appeared to them while they
were contending by the way. Shame and self-condemnation kept them
silent. Jesus had told them that He was to die for their sake, and their
selfish ambition was in painful contrast to His unselfish love.
When Jesus told them that He was to be put to death and to rise
again, He was trying to draw them into conversation in regard to the
great test of their faith. Had they been ready to receive what He
desired to make known to them, they would have been saved bitter anguish
and despair. His words would have brought consolation in the hour of
bereavement and disappointment. But although He had spoken so plainly of
what awaited Him, His mention of the fact that He was soon to go to
Jerusalem again kindled their hope that the kingdom was about to be set
up. This had led to questioning as to who should fill the highest
offices. On Peter's return from the sea, the disciples told him of the
Saviour's question, and at last one ventured to ask Jesus, "Who is
the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
The Saviour gathered His disciples about Him, and said to them,
"If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and
servant of all." There was in these words a solemnity and
impressiveness which the disciples were far from comprehending. That
which Christ discerned they could not see. They did not understand the
nature of Christ's kingdom, and this ignorance was the apparent cause of
their contention. But the real cause lay deeper. By explaining the
nature of the kingdom, Christ might for the time have quelled their
strife; but this would not have touched the underlying cause. Even after
they had received the fullest knowledge, any question of precedence
might have renewed the trouble. Thus disaster would have been brought to
the church after Christ's departure. The strife for the highest place
was the outworking of that same spirit which was the beginning of the
great controversy in the worlds above, and which had brought Christ from
heaven to die. There rose up before Him a vision of Lucifer, the
"son of the morning," in glory surpassing all the angels that
surround the throne, and united in closest ties to the Son of God.
Lucifer had said, "I will be like the Most High" (Isa. 14:12,
14); and the desire for self-exaltation had brought strife into the
heavenly courts, and had banished a multitude of the hosts of God. Had
Lucifer really desired to be like the Most High, he would never have
deserted his appointed place in heaven; for the spirit of the Most High
is manifested in unselfish ministry. Lucifer desired God's power, but
not His character. He sought for himself the highest place, and every
being who is actuated by his spirit will do the same. Thus alienation,
discord, and strife will be inevitable. Dominion becomes the prize of
the strongest. The kingdom of Satan is a kingdom of force; every
individual regards every other as an obstacle in the way of his own
advancement, or a steppingstone on which he himself may climb to a
While Lucifer counted it a thing to be grasped to be equal with God,
Christ, the Exalted One, "made Himself of no reputation, and took
upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and
being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient
unto death, even the death of the cross." Phil. 2:7, 8. Now the
cross was just before Him; and His own disciples were so filled with
self-seeking--the very principle of Satan's kingdom--that they could not
enter into sympathy with their Lord, or even understand Him as He spoke
of His humiliation for them.
Very tenderly, yet with solemn emphasis, Jesus tried to correct the
evil. He showed what is the principle that bears sway in the kingdom of
heaven, and in what true greatness consists, as estimated by the
standard of the courts above. Those who were actuated by pride and love
of distinction were thinking of themselves, and of the rewards they were
to have, rather than how they were to render back to God the gifts they
had received. They would have no place in the kingdom of heaven, for
they were identified with the ranks of Satan.
Before honor is humility. To fill a high place before men, Heaven
chooses the worker who, like John the Baptist, takes a lowly place
before God. The most childlike disciple is the most efficient in labor
for God. The heavenly intelligences can co-operate with him who is
seeking, not to exalt self, but to save souls. He who feels most deeply
his need of divine aid will plead for it; and the Holy Spirit will give
unto him glimpses of Jesus that will strengthen and uplift the soul.
From communion with Christ he will go forth to work for those who are
perishing in their sins. He is anointed for his mission; and he succeeds
where many of the learned and intellectually wise would fail.
But when men exalt themselves, feeling that they are a necessity for
the success of God's great plan, the Lord causes them to be set aside.
It is made evident that the Lord is not dependent upon them. The work
does not stop because of their removal from it, but goes forward with
It was not enough for the disciples of Jesus to be instructed as to
the nature of His kingdom. What they needed was a change of heart that
would bring them into harmony with its principles. Calling a little
child to Him, Jesus set him in the midst of them; then tenderly folding
the little one in His arms He said, "Except ye be converted, and
become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of
heaven." The simplicity, the self-forgetfulness, and the confiding
love of a little child are the attributes that Heaven values. These are
the characteristics of real greatness.
Again Jesus explained to the disciples that His kingdom is not
characterized by earthly dignity and display. At the feet of Jesus all
these distinctions are forgotten. The rich and the poor, the learned and
the ignorant, meet together, with no thought of caste or worldly
preeminence. All meet as blood-bought souls, alike dependent upon One
who has redeemed them to God.
The sincere, contrite soul is precious in the sight of God. He places
His own signet upon men, not by their rank, not by their wealth, not by
their intellectual greatness, but by their oneness with Christ. The Lord
of glory is satisfied with those who are meek and lowly in heart.
"Thou hast also given me," said David, "the shield of Thy
salvation: . . . and Thy gentleness"--as an element in the human
character--"hath made me great." Ps. 18:35.
"Whosoever shall receive one of such children in My name,"
said Jesus, "receiveth Me: and whosoever shall receive Me,
receiveth not Me, but Him that sent Me." "Thus saith the Lord,
The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool: . . . but to
this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit,
and trembleth at My word." Isa. 66:1, 2.
The Saviour's words awakened in the disciples a feeling of
self-distrust. No one had been specially pointed out in the reply; but
John was led to question whether in one case his action had been right.
With the spirit of a child he laid the matter before Jesus.
"Master," he said, "we saw one casting out devils in Thy
name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him, because he followeth
James and John had thought that in checking this man they had had in
view their Lord's honor; they began to see that they were jealous for
their own. They acknowledged their error, and accepted the reproof of
Jesus, "Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a
miracle in My name, that can lightly speak evil of Me." None who
showed themselves in any way friendly to Christ were to be repulsed.
There were many who had been deeply moved by the character and the work
of Christ, and whose hearts were opening to Him in faith; and the
disciples, who could not read motives, must be careful not to discourage
these souls. When Jesus was no longer personally among them, and the
work was left in their hands, they must not indulge a narrow, exclusive
spirit, but manifest the same far-reaching sympathy which they had seen
in their Master.
The fact that one does not in all things conform to our personal
ideas or opinions will not justify us in forbidding him to labor for
God. Christ is the Great Teacher; we are not to judge or to command, but
in humility each is to sit at the feet of Jesus, and learn of Him. Every
soul whom God has made willing is a channel through which Christ will
reveal His pardoning love. How careful we should be lest we discourage
one of God's light bearers, and thus intercept the rays that He would
have shine to the world!
Harshness or coldness shown by a disciple toward one whom Christ was
drawing--such an act as that of John in forbidding one to work miracles
in Christ's name--might result in turning the feet into the path of the
enemy, and causing the loss of a soul. Rather than for one to do this,
said Jesus, "it is better for him that a millstone were hanged
about his neck, and he were cast into the sea." And He added,
"If thy hand cause thee to stumble, cut it off: it is good for thee
to enter into life maimed, rather than having thy two hands to go into
hell, into the unquenchable fire. And if thy foot cause thee to stumble,
cut it off: it is good for thee to enter into life halt, rather than
having thy two feet to be cast into hell." Mark 9:43-45, R. V.
Why this earnest language, than which none can be stronger? Because
"the Son of man is come to save that which was lost." Shall
His disciples show less regard for the souls of their fellow men than
the Majesty of heaven has shown? Every soul has cost an infinite price,
and how terrible is the sin of turning one soul away from Christ, so
that for him the Saviour's love and humiliation and agony shall have
been in vain.
"Woe unto the world because of occasions of stumbling! for it
must needs be that the occasions come." Matt. 18:7, R. V. The
world, inspired by Satan, will surely oppose the followers of Christ,
and seek to destroy their faith; but woe to him who has taken Christ's
name, and yet is found doing this work. Our Lord is put to shame by
those who claim to serve Him, but who misrepresent His character; and
multitudes are deceived, and led into false paths.
Any habit or practice that would lead into sin, and bring dishonor
upon Christ, would better be put away, whatever the sacrifice. That
which dishonors God cannot benefit the soul. The blessing of heaven
cannot attend any man in violating the eternal principles of right. And
one sin cherished is sufficient to work the degradation of the
character, and to mislead others. If the foot or the hand would be cut
off, or even the eye would be plucked out, to save the body from death,
how much more earnest should we be to put away sin, that brings death to
In the ritual service, salt was added to every sacrifice. This, like
the offering of incense, signified that only the righteousness of Christ
could make the service acceptable to God. Referring to this practice,
Jesus said, "Every sacrifice shall be salted with salt."
"Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another."
All who would present themselves "a living sacrifice, holy,
acceptable unto God" (Rom. 12:1), must receive the saving salt, the
righteousness of our Saviour. Then they become "the salt of the
earth," restraining evil among men, as salt preserves from
corruption. Matt. 5:13. But if the salt has lost its savor; if there is
only a profession of godliness, without the love of Christ, there is no
power for good. The life can exert no saving influence upon the world.
Your energy and efficiency in the upbuilding of My kingdom, Jesus says,
depend upon your receiving of My Spirit. You must be partakers of My
grace, in order to be a savor of life unto life. Then there will be no
rivalry, no self-seeking, no desire for the highest place. You will have
that love which seeks not her own, but another's wealth.
Let the repenting sinner fix his eyes upon "the Lamb of God,
which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29); and by
beholding, he becomes changed. His fear is turned to joy, his doubts to
hope. Gratitude springs up. The stony heart is broken. A tide of love
sweeps into the soul. Christ is in him a well of water springing up unto
everlasting life. When we see Jesus, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted
with grief, working to save the lost, slighted, scorned, derided, driven
from city to city till His mission was accomplished; when we behold Him
in Gethsemane, sweating great drops of blood, and on the cross dying in
agony,--when we see this, self will no longer clamor to be recognized.
Looking unto Jesus, we shall be ashamed of our coldness, our lethargy,
We shall be willing to be anything or nothing, so that we may do
heart service for the Master. We shall rejoice to bear the cross after
Jesus, to endure trial, shame, or persecution for His dear sake.
"We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the
weak, and not to please ourselves." Rom. 15:1. No soul who believes
in Christ, though his faith may be weak, and his steps wavering as those
of a little child, is to be lightly esteemed. By all that has given us
advantage over another,--be it education and refinement, nobility of
character, Christian training, religious experience,--we are in debt to
those less favored; and, so far as lies in our power, we are to minister
unto them. If we are strong, we are to stay up the hands of the weak.
Angels of glory, that do always behold the face of the Father in heaven,
joy in ministering to His little ones. Trembling souls, who have many
objectionable traits of character, are their special charge. Angels are
ever present where they are most needed, with those who have the hardest
battle with self to fight, and whose surroundings are the most
discouraging. And in this ministry Christ's true followers will
If one of these little ones shall be overcome, and commit a wrong
against you, then it is your work to seek his restoration. Do not wait
for him to make the first effort for reconciliation. "How think
ye?" said Jesus; "if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of
them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth
into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be
that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep,
than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the
will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones
In the spirit of meekness, "considering thyself, lest thou also
be tempted," (Gal. 6:1), go to the erring one, and "tell him
his fault between thee and him alone." Do not put him to shame by
exposing his fault to others, nor bring dishonor upon Christ by making
public the sin or error of one who bears His name. Often the truth must
be plainly spoken to the erring; he must be led to see his error, that
he may reform. But you are not to judge or to condemn. Make no attempt
at self-justification. Let all your effort be for his recovery. In
treating the wounds of the soul, there is need of the most delicate
touch, the finest sensibility. Only the love that flows from the
Suffering One of Calvary can avail here. With pitying tenderness, let
brother deal with brother, knowing that if you succeed, you will
"save a soul from death," and "hide a multitude of
sins." James 5:20.
But even this effort may be unavailing. Then, said Jesus, "take
with thee one or two more." It may be that their united influence
will prevail where that of the first was unsuccessful. Not being parties
to the trouble, they will be more likely to act impartially, and this
fact will give their counsel greater weight with the erring one.
If he will not hear them, then, and not till then, the matter is to
be brought before the whole body of believers. Let the members of the
church, as the representatives of Christ, unite in prayer and loving
entreaty that the offender may be restored. The Holy Spirit will speak
through His servants, pleading with the wanderer to return to God. Paul
the apostle, speaking by inspiration, says, "As though God did
beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to
God." 2 Cor. 5:20. He who rejects this united overture has broken
the tie that binds him to Christ, and thus has severed himself from the
fellowship of the church. Henceforth, said Jesus, "let him be unto
thee as an heathen man and a publican." But he is not to be
regarded as cut off from the mercy of God. Let him not be despised or
neglected by his former brethren, but be treated with tenderness and
compassion, as one of the lost sheep that Christ is still seeking to
bring to His fold.
Christ's instruction as to the treatment of the erring repeats in
more specific form the teaching given to Israel through Moses:
"Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in
anywise rebuke thy neighbor, that thou bear not sin for him." Lev.
19:17, margin. That is, if one neglects the duty Christ has enjoined, of
trying to restore those who are in error and sin, he becomes a partaker
in the sin. For evils that we might have checked, we are just as
responsible as if we were guilty of the acts ourselves.
But it is to the wrongdoer himself that we are to present the wrong.
We are not to make it a matter of comment and criticism among ourselves;
nor even after it is told to the church, are we at liberty to repeat it
to others. A knowledge of the faults of Christians will be only a cause
of stumbling to the unbelieving world; and by dwelling upon these
things, we ourselves can receive only harm; for it is by beholding that
we become changed. While we seek to correct the errors of a brother, the
Spirit of Christ will lead us to shield him, as far as possible, from
the criticism of even his own brethren, and how much more from the
censure of the unbelieving world. We ourselves are erring, and need
Christ's pity and forgiveness, and just as we wish Him to deal with us,
He bids us deal with one another.
"Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and
whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." You
are acting as the ambassadors of heaven, and the issues of your work are
But we are not to bear this great responsibility alone. Wherever His
word is obeyed with a sincere heart, there Christ abides. Not only is He
present in the assemblies of the church, but wherever disciples, however
few, meet in His name, there also He will be. And He says, "If two
of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it
shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven."
Jesus says, " My Father which is in heaven," as
reminding His disciples that while by His humanity He is linked with
them, a sharer in their trials, and sympathizing with them in their
sufferings, by His divinity He is connected with the throne of the
Infinite. Wonderful assurance! The heavenly intelligences unite with men
in sympathy and labor for the saving of that which was lost. And all the
power of heaven is brought to combine with human ability in drawing
souls to Christ.
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