Greatest

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”[1]

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” If someone were to come to you and ask this question, how would you reply? Forget for a moment the words of Jesus on the subject. What I am looking for here is not the “correct” theological answer, but rather your own instinctive response. Not, who does Jesus say that it is, but who do you say that it is? Who do you, in all honesty, consider to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Or if not the greatest, who do you think of as being among the greatest? Who are the “best” Christians, those whom you look up to and admire, who encourage and inspire you, whose lives you aspire to?

Now it may be that one or two names spring readily to mind. But, on the other hand, you might reply that you really don’t think in such terms; that you don’t judge your fellow believers in this way; that there are no first-class and second-class Christians; that we are all equally loved by God. You might even quote Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, where he speaks of the church as a body in which every part is equally necessary and equally honoured.[2] And it may well be that this is indeed what you believe. But I’d tentatively suggest that this is probably not the whole story, because none of us can quite help ourselves from making such assessments of others. It is something that we do automatically, instinctively, unconsciously, whether we intend to or not.

It might be a church leader or a preacher or a teacher; a worship leader or an evangelist or an intercessor; someone of international renown or of national fame or of local standing or even a relative unknown; someone from the distant past or someone from the present; someone known to you personally or simply through their work and reputation.

Whoever the person might be, my guess is that for many of us it is likely to be someone whom we feel has “made a difference for God” in the world, in the church and in our lives. Perhaps this might be one of the Saints or “heroes” from Church history; or in today’s celebrity culture, it might well be one of the “names” on the Christian celebrity circuit – those whose books we read, whose songs we sing, whose teachings we seek to follow.

Now it is not wrong to have other Christians as role-models. Indeed, Paul urged the Corinthian church to imitate him and his “way of life in Christ Jesus,”[3] whilst the writer of the book of Hebrews counselled his readers to remember their leaders, to consider the outcome of their way of life, and to imitate their faith.[4] It all depends, however, on whom those role-models are, and what it is about their lives that inspires us.

We need to ask ourselves whether our measure of greatness within the kingdom of heaven is really very different from the measure of greatness used in the world at large, concerned so often, as it is, with fame and fortune, accolades and achievements, position and prestige and power. Do we see greatness where God sees it, or are our heads turned by these worldly attractions?

This is why the question of who we consider to be “the greatest in the kingdom” is such a significant one: because our answer to it will reveal much about our values and the things that we think of as important and worthwhile. This, in turn, will affect the way in which we spend our time and our energy, our money and our resources – both as individual Christians and as a body of believers.

But just because this is how we measure greatness today, does it necessarily mean that the same was true in Biblical times? Is this what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they asked him, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”?

Certainly it seems not unreasonable to assume that the understanding of greatness in Biblical times was – to some extent, at least – not a million miles from our own. They even had a version of our celebrity culture. Just think of the rivalry between the first groups of Christians: between those who claimed to be followers of Paul, or of Apollos, or of Cephas, or of Christ.[5] Or think of the crowds that flocked to see John the Baptist and Jesus. Without doubt many came with a genuine hunger and desire to hear from God’s messengers and to respond to his word spoken through them. Many others, however, will have come simply to see these men that the whole world seemed to be talking about, to be part of the “event”, to be able to say, “I was there.”

But the disciples’ question went beyond such subjective assessments of greatness. In Matthew’s account their enquiry appears to be of purely academic interest, born out of a desire to learn something more from Jesus about the workings of the kingdom. But read Luke’s account and a very different picture emerges. For it turns out that the disciples have been arguing – and it will probably come as little surprise to discover that their argument concerned which of them was the greatest. It went without saying, of course, that it had to be one of them: they were, after all, Jesus’ closest disciples, the chosen Twelve, so they must be pretty special. But which of them was number one, the “first among equals”, the greatest of them all?

This was not simply a question of them wanting Jesus to massage their egos, and make them feel good about themselves. It must be remembered that the disciples were still anticipating that Jesus would soon be ushering in his earthly kingdom. Indeed, even after he was raised from the dead, this expectation had not entirely disappeared – hence their asking the risen Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”[6]

The disciples understood the nature of kingdoms far better than most of us do today. The lands in which they lived, worked and travelled were all provinces of the mighty Roman Empire, with the Emperor as supreme ruler and commander. They knew full well that the Emperor was unquestionably the greatest in the Empire, and that the greatness of others was largely determined by him. He could bestow greatness on any that he chose by awarding them positions of influence, authority and power; and he could cause them to fall from grace by withdrawing his favour. The greatest in the Empire were those closest to the Emperor, those with whom he chose to surround himself, his most trusted friends and advisers.

The disciples were confident that they were in Jesus’ inner circle, and now they were asking which of them would be given the position of greatest honour in his coming kingdom. You can almost sense their expectancy as they await Jesus’ answer. But his answer, when it came, could not have been further from what they hoped and expected to hear.

[1] Matthew 18:1
[2] 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, esp. vv 22–23
[3] 1 Corinthians 4:16–17
[4] Hebrews 13:7
[5] 1 Corinthians 1:12
[6] Acts 1:6

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