It’s noble to desire for your life to have significance. But to pursue greatness at the expense of others—that’s another matter. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke to consider what it really takes to be the greatest in the kingdom of God.
This morning, we will continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are still in the ninth chapter, and today we will look at Luke 9:37–48:
Now it happened on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, that a great multitude met Him. Suddenly a man from the multitude cried out, saying, “Teacher, I implore You, look on my son, for he is my only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out; it convulses him so that he foams at the mouth; and it departs from him with great difficulty, bruising him. So I implored Your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” And as he was still coming, the demon threw him down and convulsed him. Then Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the child, and gave him back to his father.
And they were all amazed at the majesty of God.
But while everyone marveled at all the things which Jesus did, He said to His disciples, “Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.
Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their hearts, took a little child and set him by Him, and said to them, “Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great.”
You have just heard, as our unspeakable privilege, the veritable Word of God Himself. It comes to us this morning bearing the full weight and grandeur of the truth inherent to Him, and I urge you to receive it as from the Lord. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, as we look at these incidents in the earthly ministry of our Lord, we pray that You would grant us understanding of their meaning and significance for our lives, that You would give us ears to hear, and hearts that are open to Your truth. Visit us in this hour, in the power and presence of Your Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen
Empowered but Failing
What a difference a day makes. As we saw in the previous portion of chapter nine, the event that occurred the day before what we have just read was the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain, where He was transformed before the eyes of Peter, James, and John. This was one of the most glorious moments in the history of the world, a moment that John, Peter, and James would never forget. Yet, a day later, Jesus met with the rest of the disciples who had remained at the base of the mountain while He, Peter, James, and John had withdrawn for prayer. He walked, as it were, into a maelstrom of controversy and trouble.
If you recall, when we started our study of chapter nine, we read these words in verse one: “Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” In that moment, the disciples became Apostles. Jesus transferred to them the authority and power to preach, to heal, and to cast out demons. Now, when Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, He found nine of the men who had received that commission, who had been granted power and given authority by Christ Himself, cowering in weakness amidst their abject failure to exercise the power and authority Jesus had given to them.
The New Testament tells us that every person in Christ has been visited by the Spirit of God and empowered for ministry. Paul tells us that we do not all have the same gift. Our gifts differ from one another, but we all are gifted to participate in the ministry of the kingdom of God. As the Apostle says, “Let him who has the gift of teaching, let him teach. Let him who has the gift of preaching, let him preach. The one who has the gift of administration, let him administer. The one who has the gift of singing, let him sing.”
The idea is that every believer has been empowered to serve in some capacity. I know that many of us do not even know what gifts we possess. I also know that many of us who do know what gifts we possess do not regularly exercise those gifts. So, if there is any consolation for you, keep in mind that this is nothing new, as the disciples themselves had been thus gifted and failed to exercise their gifts in a meaningful way.
Subject to the Gaze of God
Luke tells us that the day after the transfiguration, when they came down from the mountain, “a great multitude met Him.” But suddenly, an individual among the crowd rushed forward and cried out, saying, “Teacher, I implore You, I beg You, look on my son.”
I remember reading the writings of the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most famous atheists of the twentieth century. When he gave his critique of the existence of God, he said: “If God exists at all, and if He is omniscient, that means that we would all live our lives beneath His gaze. To be subject to the gaze of God is to be reduced to an object, like a monkey in the zoo; and we would lose our very humanity.” Sartre could not stand the thought of God being a cosmic voyeur looking through the keyhole of heaven down at us and, like the federal government of the United States, monitoring our every move. He thought that was the ultimate loss of freedom and dignity.
Within the heart of the atheist is a profound desire not that God would look at him, but that God would overlook him, that God would ignore him. This is our most base response to the existence of God. As we saw in the Garden of Eden, the first impulse of Adam and Eve, after their initial transgression of the law of God, was that they ran. They hid and did not want God to see them: “Don’t look at me. I’m ashamed.”
The tragedy is that Sartre and, at that point in their experience, Adam and Eve, had not yet experienced the benevolent gaze of God, the healing gaze of God, the compassionate look of God.
David, when he had known forgiveness, said to God: “O Lord, search me and know me. I know I can’t hide from You. I can hide from men, but there’s nowhere I can flee from Your Spirit. If I ascend into heaven, You’re there. If I make my bed in Sheol, Thou art there. And before a word is formed on my lips, You know it altogether.” David said, “Please look at me.”
The man from the crowd was saying: “Jesus, look at my son. Don’t pass by and fail to notice him in his pain and in his misery.” He asked Jesus to look at his son, not with the look of judgment or scorn, but with the gaze of mercy and healing: “Please look on my son. He’s my only child.”
The man went on to describe his son’s condition: “A spirit seizes him, and he cries out. It convulses him. He foams at the mouth.” This sounds like a description of epilepsy, but remember that Luke was a physician. He knew the difference between normal epilepsy and a demonically-induced epileptic convulsion.
The Perverse and the Faithless
Jesus understood that what ailed the man’s son was no mere disease, but an invasion from hell into the boy’s life. The man said, “I begged Your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” They failed. They had the authority. They had the power. But, this time, it did not work. If we ever find a time in sacred Scripture where our Lord displayed annoyance and frustration, here it is, where He answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and bear with you?”
There is a dispute amongst scholars as to whom Jesus was addressing in this text. Was He addressing the crowd, the scribes who were there, the unconverted mobs, and the disciples? Or was He particularly addressing the disciples? I think the latter more than the former. I think His annoyance was with His own men whom He had commissioned and given power and authority. When push came to shove, they acted without faith, and they participated in the perversity of that generation.
Our culture has an ugly word in our vocabulary: the word pervert. We usually associate a pervert with sexual deviation. When the Bible speaks of perversion, however, it speaks of something far beyond the arena of sexual behavior. Jesus linked together faithlessness and perversion. What perversion means in this text is “that which is twisted,” “that which is crooked,” “that which is distorted.” Jesus was addressing not only His disciples, who were the primary people in view, but the generation to which they belonged.
The whole culture Jesus came into was twisted. It was distorted. The values they held dear were noxious to the Lord God, and what was precious in the sight of God was despised in their own culture. Theirs was a twisted culture because it was a faithless culture. Whenever human beings fail to trust God, they twist their lives into all kinds of crazy shapes.
Consider the age in which you live. The sanctity of life has been twisted. The sanctity of marriage has been distorted. In all probability, there are people hearing this who are right now living together without being married, thinking nothing of it, not realizing that they are acting in abject defiance of the holiness of God. You cannot do that and get away with it, because we are twisted. We are distorted and, therefore, faithless.
A Majestic Healing
After Jesus expressed His annoyance and exasperation with that generation, saying, “How long do I have to abide with you?” He stopped His own complaint and addressed the father of the boy: “Bring your son here. I didn’t come down from the mountain just to complain about the perversity of this generation. Let me see your son. I’ll look at him, and I won’t just look at him—I’ll heal him.”
Luke continues, “And while he was still coming, the demon threw him down and convulsed him.” This was this boy’s last convulsion. This was the demon’s last victory over the young boy, for “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the child, and gave him back to his father.”
There is a lot in those words. The demonic spirit had snatched the boy from his father. When Jesus healed him and rebuked the enemy, that was not enough—He gave him back to his father. That is what Jesus does.
“And they were all amazed.” The Greek word exeplēssonto, “to astonish,” or “to amaze,” is one we hear again and again in the New Testament in response to the miraculous works of Jesus. Regularly and characteristically, when people beheld His works, they were utterly amazed. But notice the locus of their amazement in this text. We read, “And they were all amazed at the majesty of God.”
Is it not interesting that, twenty-four hours earlier, Peter, James, and John had been terrified at the majesty of God as it exploded among them on the Mount of Transfiguration? Now, at the bottom of the mountain, the rest of the crowd did not see a transformed Christ or the radiance of His face as bright as the noonday sun, but rather His power over hell. They caught a glimpse of the majesty of God.
The crowd realized, at least for the moment, that they were not simply in the presence of an extraordinary man, but that what they had just witnessed was the work of God. The healing of the boy displayed His majesty, His glory, His splendor, His grandeur.
They Did Not Understand
While everyone was marveling at what Jesus did, He spoke aside to His disciples, telling them what was at hand: “Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men.”
This was not the first time Jesus told the disciples what was coming, but their response this time was no different than it was the other times. They did not get it. They did not understand. It was not because they were stupid. Rather, it was because the Jews’ in expectation of the Messiah only looked at the royal pomp of the coming Son of David, and they did not tie it together with the Suffering Servant of God, as was found in the prophet Isaiah. That combination of understanding the messianic office did not become clear until after the cross. We are told, “It was hidden from them.” Who hid it from them, the Devil? I do not think so. I think God hid it from them for His own purposes. Luke continues, “They did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.”
A Twisted Desire for Greatness
In the same context, Luke tells us that after all these things came an argument, a debate, a dispute among the disciples. We are told that they were having a theological debate about infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism—no, it was not anything so grand as that. It was much more practical. The dispute was about which one of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God.
We do not know who was saying what, but maybe Andrew was saying: “I think I’m the one who will be the greatest. Look at the church they built in my honor in Sanford, Florida!” Then Thaddeus said: “You’re out of your mind. I’m going to be the greatest.” So, they were arguing among themselves as to who was to be the greatest.
Let me pause for a moment. What is wrong with wanting to be great? Nothing and everything. One theologian said that most sins really are nothing more and nothing less than a distortion or a twisting of some virtue. When God creates human beings, makes them in His own image, He gives to them as part of their humanity an aspiration for significance. Who wants his life to be insignificant, meaningless, useless, a waste, an exercise in vanity? I hope no one wants that for themselves. As creatures of the living God, made in His image, we are given aspirations for significance.
I know I want my life to count, but I do not always want it to count for the right reasons. We become competitive, we become vicious towards rivals who would find a higher station than we achieve, who would receive the promotion that we want, or win the championship that we covet. We begin secretly to despise them, to be envious and jealous. How many of the Ten Commandments address our twisted desires for greatness? To want to be great in faith and in service is a noble thing, but to want to be the greatest in the kingdom of God at the expense of other people is perversity.
“And Jesus, perceiving the thoughts of their hearts, took a little child and set him by Him.” I could not help but think of this part of the text when I was watching the baptisms this morning. They were beautiful, were they not? I thought to myself, “I’m seeing the greatest in the kingdom of God, little children that Jesus brings to Himself.” He said: “Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great.”
Christ tells us to become as little children. Sometimes we use that as an excuse for infantile Christianity. He calls us to be childlike, but never childish. We are called to be “babes” in evil, but in our understanding, we are called to be adults and mature, knowledgeable of the things that God reveals to us in sacred Scripture.
In what sense are we to be like children? In the sense of trusting our heavenly Father. Anybody can believe in God, but to believe God is what is involved in the Christian life. It is about trusting Him. When He says, “Do this and live,” we know that is how we are to behave. When He tells us the things He loves, we trust that they are good. When He tells us the things that He abhors, we trust that they are abhorrent.
Children do not get into deep theological disputes with their parents, at least while they are still little. They have a fides implicita, an implicit trust or faith in their parents. That is what Jesus is saying: “Trust Me. You can’t believe in Me and then not trust Me.” Trust is what faith is. So, Jesus says, “He who is least among you,” which is really the most trusting among them, “will be great.”
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.