Sermon preached on Luke 9:46-56 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/13/2022 in Novato, CA.
Ambition. Trying to get ahead. We can be so full of ambition, and in so many areas of our life. Ambition in many ways can be a good thing. Ambition can also be sinfully expressed and we must be on guard against such temptations. Our differing ambitions also compete for our time and attention. But in so far as ambition is good, we should realize that our highest and ultimate ambition should be in terms of the kingdom of God and his glory. How can we, get ahead so to speak, in the kingdom of God? That is a question raised throughout today’s passage and a surprisingly wonderful if not radical answer is given. We find that the way to become great in the kingdom is by being least. Let us work through and unpack this idea in today’s message. Ultimately, we will be pointed again to our Lord Jesus Christ who for our sakes became least so that we could be lifted up high into his kingdom of which we speak.
We begin by looking at verses 46-48. Here we find that the disciples were having an argument about who was the greatest. This was not something that they just came out and told Jesus. Mark’s account (Mark 9:34ff) shows that Jesus had to confront them about it. That’s surely what is referenced in verse 47 when it says that Jesus knew the reasoning of their hearts. In other words, they were privately arguing about this and Jesus ended up confronting them on it. Jesus’ knowledge of such things was surely something that came supernaturally.
Let’s begin then by critiquing this ambition by the disciples. It is one thing to want to be the best disciple of Christ that you can be. But what they are doing appears to be more than that. They have some competitive attitude here where they are trying to pridefully exalt themselves over each other. There can be a fine line between godly ambition and sinful pride where you just trying to exalt yourself over others. It’s one thing to strive for excellence and want to please your master in your service to them. It is another thing to think you are better than others and look to make sure everyone knows that and recognizes you as the better person. The pride of man is not in line with the righteousness of God.
So then, Jesus confronts them on their ambition by teaching them what ambition in the kingdom of God looks like. In other words, Jesus explains to them that if they want to get ahead in his kingdom, here’s how to get ahead. So, he calls for a child to stand beside him. And he speaks of how someone should receive a child in his name. You can imagine that if someone thinks themselves important, they probably don’t imagine themselves spending time with children. They probably imagine their time too valuable for committing their precious time to the least among them. They probably think that the more important you are means the more you need to be spending time with other important people. As an aside, I can’t help but be frustrated when I see too often church ministries hire inexperienced and poorly trained youth ministers to do much if not all of the ministry to the youth and children in a church. Often it is a seminary student in training, and I guess the logic is let’s put them with the youth so they can get some experience, but us adults will get the attention of the senior pastor. I can’t help when I see that to take it as them saying the youth just aren’t as important as the adults, when if anything I think the youth should be the recipients of our best resources, as they are in such a critical foundation forming time of their live. But I digress. The point is that Jesus says to his disciples who want to be great in his kingdom, that if you want to be great you should be someone who receives and loves the least in his kingdom.
And how and why do you go about doing that, receiving the lowly? Jesus says that you do it in his name. That’s the key here. You receive the lowly because Jesus has told you to receive the lowly. And you receive the lowly as if it were Jesus himself you were receiving. We are to receive the lowly in the name of Christ. Jesus shows that this is what he means when he goes on to say that to receive a child like this in his name, is to receive Jesus himself, verse 48. Jesus then takes it a step further. To receive Jesus then means to receive him who sent Jesus, in other words, God the Father. Remember that Jesus comes in the name of God. So, to receive Jesus is to receive God himself. This is how we are great in the kingdom of God.
That’s what verse 48 finishes up with. He who is least among you all is the one who is great. Ambition in the kingdom of God means that you need to empty yourself and pour out yourself and become less and least. It is in such sacrifice and service that you will find your greatest place in the kingdom of God. Realize that when Jesus says this, he’s not just being theoretical. He had just in the previous passage told them another time about his impending suffering and death on the cross. He, who was rich beyond all splendor came down to us lowly and poor people. He became like on of us, to save us, to atone for our sins, that he could receive in love sinners whom he has made righteous. Jesus himself is not just being theoretical. He has led the way before them in becoming least among them all, and in so doing has actually shown himself to the be the one who is truly great among them.
Let us turn now in our second point to consider verses 49-50. There we learn about the disciples trying to stop someone who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. We note that it is John who asks Jesus about this question after the fact. It is often wondered how this brief question and answer fits into the rest of the context of this passage. But if we think about it in this idea of ambition and being the greatest, it doesn’t really seem out of place. Remember in last week’s passage the problem Jesus’ disciples had in verses 37-43 when they couldn’t cast out a demon. Jesus ended up rebuking them for their lacking faith in their attempt by trying to cast out the demon in their own strength. If you are trying to be best and greatest in the kingdom, and Jesus has endowed you with demon casting out authority, then you want to be able to do that well. Well, then what happens? Not only had they failed themselves to cast out the demon, but then they come across someone who’s not even been with them, who in the name of Jesus has been successfully casting out not one but a number of demons. And this man wasn’t even part of the main group of regular Jesus’ followers who went around with Jesus everywhere.
So this man apparently knew of Jesus and was in some way or another a disciple of Jesus, but not one that had been following Jesus regularly with the twelve disciples and the other regular disciples who accompanied them. We don’t know his backstory. It would be easy to speculate. All we are given is that this man was in someway a proponent of Jesus who wasn’t known by the main group who followed Jesus.
And so the disciples had tried to stop this man. They say it was because he didn’t follow with us. But I think we absolutely should consider this statement in the greater context of this chapter. That context shows their ambition to be the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. And it shows them falling short of doing what this unknown man had been able to do in the name of Christ. And so, that is the context in which they try to stop them. Think about it even from who is greatest in the kingdom perspective. The disciples were essentially ordering this man around, as if they had the authority themselves to tell the man to stop. But if you think yourself too high and think yourself so great in Jesus kingdom, then you probably do start ordering others around. It may be that Jesus’ teaching he just did about being least and receiving others made them rethink what they had done with this man and maybe why John asked Jesus this question here. But Jesus is very clear in his response. Don’t do that. Do not stop this man.
What may be the most telling of the circumstances here about their concerns of ambition is that Jesus says “for the one who is not against you is for you. Jesus doesn’t say “me”. He says “you all,” referring to the disciples. I could have imagined the disciples might have expressed their concern to the man that he was doing something against Jesus. But Jesus tells the disciples that this man was not against them. That shows that however the disciples may have thought they were being protective of Jesus and Jesus’ ministry, Jesus saw that ultimately they themselves felt threatened by this other man. But Jesus assures them that they need not feel threatened, but instead should rejoice that this man is doing something that will complement their ministry and mission. The one who is not against you is for you.
When we hear this statement that “the one who is not against you is for you,” I would also add that another time later in Luke, in 11:23, Jesus will say “Whoever is not with me is against me”. When you put those side by side they come together beautifully as two proverbs in tension, and wisdom will know when one applies and when the other applies. Too often a sinful ambition full of pride can feel threatened when others are having successes in ministry that you don’t seem to be having. But in the case here, this man really was to be recognized as an ally even though he wasn’t part of their specific group. Surely there are applications today of various allies we will have outside of our specific congregation and denomination. And as good, reformed folks, we even recognize a place for the out-of-the-ordinary, meaning that we ordinarily expect ministry in certain ways with a certain order and a certain office, but there are extraordinary circumstances that will at times break the normal ways we do things. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still strive to do things the normal and ordinary ways in the church. But it also doesn’t make the occasional extraordinary circumstance your enemy.
Let us now turn in our third point to consider verses 51-56. There we consider how Jesus was not received in hospitality by a Samaritan village on his way through from Galilee to Jerusalem. There we find his disciples asking if they should call down judgment fire from heaven upon them. There, Jesus again says not to do that.
Notice the context here. It is important for multiple related reasons. It’s in verse 51. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. In other words, he had his sights to make the trip from Galilee down to Jerusalem in Judea. That would have been a trip of some 80 to 100 miles. It’s why you’d need a place to stop in over night as you pass through, and the villages of Samaria would have been the most direct place to stay. So, understanding that Jesus has his face set on Jerusalem explains the reason why he is passing through Samaria and looking for hospitality. But it also and especially is intimately connected with what he will do in Jerusalem. You see in verse 51 it mentions that the days drew near for him to be taken up. Literally, the words “taken up” is the word for “ascension”. And to mention his ascension, is for us to think about both his death and resurrection. So, Jesus knows he has to go to Jerusalem before his ascension, because he knows he has to go there to be put to death on the cross. Jesus has his eyes fixed on Jerusalem and is actively heading there, because he is committed to his mission of going to die on the cross to save us from our sins.
I would also note that this section becomes a turning point in the gospel of Luke. Each gospel chooses to focus on different parts of Jesus’ earthly ministry. So far, Luke’s gospel has focused on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. But starting here until that passion week when he goes to the cross, Luke’s focus changes. Largely speaking, Luke will now focus on Jesus’ ministry on the way to Jerusalem. A lot of this will happen in the area known as Perea. That is the region east of Samaria on the other side of the Jordan River. If we remember that Galilee is in the north and Judea in the south, both especially on the west side of the Jordan River, then Perea is in between but on the east side of the Jordan River. But the point is that at this point in Luke’s gospel, largely speaking, he has in mind Jesus working his way toward Jerusalem where he will go to the cross to die for us. And this “on the way” period of Jesus’ ministry is very important for us, for what we find in this long-extended section in Luke really reaching through chapter 19 as some very powerful and memorable teachings that only Luke records for us. I have in mind things like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Persistent Widow, of the story of Zacchaeus, or of Mary and Martha having Jesus over for dinner where Martha gets too distracted with hospitality. Many wonderful gems of Jesus’ ministry are recorded only in this upcoming section of Luke.
SO then, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, and the people in a certain Samaritan village won’t receive him. Realize that theme of receiving Jesus is how our passage started out today. Jesus said we need to receive a child in his name and in so doing you are receiving Jesus. That reminded us of the tremendous important of receiving Jesus. It tells us that it is really bad for them to not receive Jesus. Of course, their refusal reminds of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. And we can understand why they wouldn’t want to host Jesus if he was on his way to Jerusalem. Remember the history. When the Jews returned from Babylon to Judea and began to rebuild the temple, the Samaritans offered their help and said they wanted to worship the LORD there with them too. But the Jews rejected their help. So, then the Samaritans eventually built their own temple to the LORD in Samaria, and the Jewish leaders then destroyed it. So now, years later, it was very common for Jews in Galilee to make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. But the quickest route went through Samaria. Given the history, you can imagine why they weren’t usually too willing to host such Jews who were heading to Jerusalem. Yet, the Samaritans were also waiting for the Messiah and the coming of the kingdom. If they had correct “ambition” themselves, they would have in humility opened up their home to host Jesus the Christ. Surely, they were ignorant in their rejection of Jesus on that evening, but ignorant or not it was the wrong decision. We thank God for later how in the book of Acts we see many Samaritans do eventually become Christians.
So then, that’s the context for James and John suggesting to Jesus that they could call fire down from heaven on them. Now, when we hear that question, we should remember back to how the prophet Elijah had done that to some people in 2 Kings 1. So, from the mind of James and John there was some precedence for such. But I again think of the ambition idea here and how they are still struggling to get this. I think it is especially telling that it was James and John who were asking them. Mark’s gospel sheds more light here for us. It’s Mark 9 that is the parallel account of the earlier question about which disciple was the greatest. But despite Jesus’s answer, the next chapter in Mark shows James and John coming to Jesus and asking for him to set them as the two highest people of authority in Jesus’ kingdom. So, I’m not surprised to see that earlier it was John who asked the question in verse 49 and now its James and John both who ask this question here in verse 54. They both are seen in the Gospels as having some wrong kind of ambition at this point. Notice how their question here didn’t suggest Jesus to call down fire, but they asked Jesus if they could call down fire. See, they want to be able to wield such authority in Jesus’ kingdom and that is the wrong ambition here for them to have. They still have much to learn about what ambition in Christ’s kingdom would look like.
Now, surely Jesus is still discipling them. That’s why Jesus doesn’t call down fire on James and John for such a foolish suggestion. But Jesus does rebuke them, verse 55. You see, Jesus has been teaching in this chapter that he has a ministry of suffering first and then glory. This isn’t the time for calling down fire from heaven. This is a day of seeing broken lost people who need to be saved from their spiritual blindness and hard heartedness. True, one day, Jesus will come in his wrath to bring a judgment on all those who have not received him. But that day is not yet. James and John’s ambitions here for the authority to even call down fire from heaven missed that this was a time to be looking to seek and save that which was lost. This was a time to proclaim grace not to deliver judgment. They will yet learn this and they will yet be about such a ministry. I think of how James would later in the book of Acts be the first martyred among the twelve disciples. I think of how John would endure imprisonment and exile and other suffering for Christ. But there is no further record of them every looking to call down fire from heaven upon their oppressors. But instead, they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s name, Acts 5:41. Because surely they’ve learned by then that to be least and last in Christ’s kingdom is the way to get ahead!
Brothers and sisters, the idea of becoming great by becoming least is not the world’s logic. But it is the way of Christ. Jesus is the one who is truly greatest and it’s his giving up his life on the cross for us that makes this all make sense. Let us see God’s wisdom in this. So then, let us put off all sinful ambitions and replace them with humility that looks to lift up others as we serve Christ together as Christians. Let us put on godly ambition that looks to have the mind of Christ in loving others. For, in God’s good timing, the first will be last and the last will be first. Amen.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.