Luke 22:24–38 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
Really, Who's the Greatest?
Former world heavyweight boxing champ, Muhammad Ali, was known for often bragging, "I'm the greatest!" Just before take-off on an airline flight, the stewardess reminded Ali to fasten his seatbelt. Superman don't need no seatbelt, Ali told her. The stewardess retorted, Superman don't need no airplane, either. Ali fastened his seatbelt. (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. by Clifton Fadimon [Little, Brown] p. 14.)
No one would mistake Muhammad Ali's braggadocio as a Christian virtue. Humility and selflessness are to mark the believer in Jesus Christ. Since we all know this, it seems incredible that the apostles would get into this silly debate over which of them was the greatest, especially when you consider the setting: the Last Supper, the night before Jesus would go to the cross. The Lord had just announced that one of the Twelve would betray him. The disciples had responded by discussing who'd do such a thing, with each one asking, "Surely, not I?" (Mark 14:19). Perhaps this led someone to say, I know that I'm not a likely candidate. Another said, Well, it couldn't be me? which was followed up with, Why not? Do you think you're better than the rest of us? From there, things probably heated up quickly.
This wasn't the first time that the Twelve had gotten into this sort of silly debate. They'd argued about the same matter while they walked at some distance from Jesus, thinking that he couldn't hear what they were discussing (Mark 9:33–37). But he could hear, and he used the occasion to teach them about childlike humility. Jesus taught them that the greatest should become the servant and the one who wished to be first should be the slave of all, adding, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Here they were again, right on the eve of the Lord's death, arguing over which of them was the greatest! This shows us that although we can have this lesson in our heads, it takes a hearty effort to put it into practice. So we all have to keep coming back to this fundamental lesson: The greatest in God's sight are those who serve humbly. Now let's find out how to mindfully bring humility into our God-honoring lives.
The Dispute Among the Twelve (v. 24)
It's impossible to determine from Luke's account whether this dispute arose before or after the washing of the disciples' feet (John 13). It would seem likely that it arose before, perhaps in connection with the disciples' eager rush to find the best seats at the table. Where one sat at a meal table in that part of the world indicated how important he was (cf. Luke 14:7–11; Matthew 23:6).
It would seem that as the disciples entered the upper room where they were to partake of the Passover Lamb, they rushed past the basin where a slave would normally have washed guests' feet (and where no slave was present), in order to gain the best seats. Perhaps the disciples argued because those who thought themselves to be the greatest lost out in the race for the prestigious seats. Peter, who may have been the oldest, and thus a likely candidate for "first chair," seems to have been more removed from Jesus than John, who was reclining on Jesus' breast and who also may have been the youngest (cf. John 13:23–25). If this were the case, then Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet was indeed a timely lesson. His act would certainly exemplify our Lord's claim to be among them as "one who serves" (v. 27).
Ironically, but probably not accidentally, Luke places his account of this dispute among the disciples, concerning who was regarded as the greatest, immediately after the verse in which we're told that the disciples were discussing who it was among them who might be the betrayer of whom Jesus had just spoken. It's as though the disciples were more interested in their own greatness than in identifying who among them was the traitor. There is little time to look for traitors when one is disputing one's apparent greatness.
Jesus Corrects His Disciples (vv. 25–30)
Jesus contrasted what we might call "Christian greatness" with "Gentile greatness." In vv. 25 and 26, he contrasted the conduct of "great Gentiles" with "great disciples." The Gentile kings "use" their greatness, letting others know they have it and flaunting it; they don't simply lead, they dictate and dominate and "lord it over" others. This dictatorial rule seems to be justified, in their minds at least, by their claim to be "Benefactors." Having given themselves the title "a doer of good," thus their being a "public servant," a doer of good for the people, seems to have justified their abuse of power.
How different the disciple of Jesus must have been and must be today. Here, Jesus doesn't argue against greatness; he accepts the fact that some men are greater than others; all are not equal. The issue here isn't whether some saints should be greater than others, but rather how they use their greatness.
Jesus said that the first characteristic marking great Christians is that they don't use and abuse their position. While they may be gifted greatly, they're not to act like it or to demand they be treated as such. They're to be like the youngest who regard themselves and act like one with the least power. Thus, they'd speak gently although they could get away with being harsh and severe. They wouldn't try to force others to serve them; instead, they'd be characterized by servanthood, using their position and power as a platform of service. The benefits they could claim for themselves would and should be passed along to others. In short, Jesus taught his disciples that they should manifest greatness in exactly the opposite way the Gentiles had been doing. That is, they should live in an "upside-down" kingdom.
If vv. 25 and 26 contrast the conduct of great Gentiles with great Christians, vv. 27–30 give reasons why this should be so. If vv. 25 and 26 contrast the manifestations of greatness (between the disciples and the heathen), then verses 27–30 contain the motivation and means of true greatness, which characterizes Christ, his disciples, and the nature of the kingdom of God.
The disciples were not to pattern their lives after the heathen, but rather after their Master. The greatest, Jesus pointed out, was the one who sat at the table — who was being served — while the one who stood — the servant — was the least. There was no argument that Jesus was the greatest. Yet he told them that he's the one who serves (v. 27). When he told his Twelve that the greatest must be the servant of all, he was simply reminding them that they must be like him. He wasn't asking them to do anything that he wasn't doing himself.
Jesus says in vv. 28–30 that his disciples are "giving up position and power in this life because they're to obtain it in the next," in the kingdom of God. Jesus never commands men to give up life, money, family, and power for nothing. He calls upon his disciples to give up the temporary and imperfect riches of this life in order to lay them up for the next. These riches are temporary; they're subject to decay and theft. The true riches of heaven will never perish. So too with position and power. Today we're to give up "first place" and its prerogatives, in order to eventually be given a place of honor in his kingdom where all of us disciples are promised that we'll sit at the table — his table — and that we'll be given thrones on which we'll sit, and from which we'll rule.
The disciples' preoccupation and debate over their own position, prestige, and power was inappropriate for several reasons. Those that Jesus mentioned thus far are: (1) This is the way heathens behave; (2) it's the opposite way that Jesus has manifested himself, even though he's the greatest of all; and, (3) the preoccupation with greatness is untimely, for that which the disciples were seeking won't come in this life, but in the next.
Jesus' Words of Prophecy to Peter (vv. 31–34)
Peter was one of the main characters in this debate over the Twelves' perception of greatness. James and John were likely involved in this argument. Jesus' words to Peter must have smarted as the elder statesman of the group, who thought he was the greatest, heard from Jesus that he wouldn't even survive the next few hours without denying his Lord, three times no less! If Peter felt he was considered the greatest, surely he must also have looked at himself as one of the most loyal, committed members of our Lord's band. It must have been inconceivable for him to think of himself as so much a weakling that he'd deny knowing his Lord when the going got tough.
Peter's failure was for his own benefit and that of all disciples. While the Master wouldn't prevent Satan's attack, he'd pray for Peter's faith not to fail. Thus, while Peter was destined to fail, his faith wouldn't. Jesus therefore predicted not only Peter's failure but also his restoration. And when he'd turned back, as Jesus instructed, Peter was then to strengthen his brethren. Peter couldn't be used when he was too great, too self-confident, too self-seeking. But after he failed, after he experienced the grace of God, only then could Peter lead others. It wasn't "greatness" that Peter needed to experience; it was "grace," which would come soon.
Peter protested, insisting that Jesus' words would never come true, and that he'd remain faithful, even unto prison and death. There's a sense in which this was true, for it was Peter who drew his sword, seeking to prevent Jesus' arrest, cutting off the ear of the high priest's servant. But in the final analysis, Peter was calling our Lord a liar. Peter felt that he could trust his own feelings of love and self-confidence rather than Jesus' words of prophecy. Jesus therefore must, once again, reiterate the fact that Peter would deny him, not once but three times.
Jesus' Speaks about Satchels and Swords (vv. 35–38)
Jesus' words in today's four closing verses can be puzzling. Read them now, please. . . The difficulties are obvious:
(1) When Jesus sent out the Twelve (chapter 9) and the seventy-two (chapter 10), he appeared to give them guidelines and principles to govern their future missionary journeys, even (perhaps especially) after his death, burial, and resurrection. Now, it seems that he's discarding all that he'd told them.
(2) In the previous sending of the disciples, Jesus gave them assurance of his presence and protection (cf. 10:3, 18–19). But now it appears as though Jesus was telling these men that they're on their own and that they'll have to handle their protection themselves.
(3) Later texts seem to indicate that Jesus didn't want his disciples to do what he seems to be commanding here. When Peter attempted to resist the arrest of Jesus by drawing his sword, Jesus rebuked him with words that clearly forbade the use of force.
This is a difficult text; these words are hard to understand. But if we believe that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, then we must also assume there's a solution in them that we can expect to find.
The application of this prophecy to the circumstances of today's text is important. Jesus wasn't only speaking of the necessity of his fulfillment of prophecy, but of the broader implications of it. Men would reject the Messiah because he wouldn't conform to their expectations of him and of his kingdom. While God would look upon Messiah as the sinless Son of God, men would view him as a sinner, condemned by God, wanting a kingdom in which they'd have riches, freedom, power, and pleasure. Instead, Messiah would bring, at least initially, rejection and suffering. As a result, men would reject him.
Were Jesus' closing words intended to be taken literally? Not likely. Jesus rebuked his disciples for expecting to use the sword to prevent his arrest. Nowhere in the Book of Acts, the gospels, or the epistles do we find the use of force advocated in proclaiming or defending our faith.
- Q. 1 How can it be that the greatest — Jesus Christ — is the servant?
New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 22.]
† Watch this passage-specific video clip from Jesus Film Project titled "Upper-Room Teaching."
24 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26But 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. 27For 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. 28You are those who have stood by me in my trials. 29And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, 30so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
31"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."
33But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death."
34Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me."
35Then Jesus asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?"
"Nothing," they answered.
36He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."
38The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords."
"That's enough!" he replied.