This passage begins a teaching time that Jesus had with his disciples, one of those intimate group chats that you would enjoy with a group of friends at your house or at a coffee shop.
Jesus had revealed himself to be the Christ, the meaning of Messiah in Greek, and now the implications of this were being worked out both by Jesus and by his disciples…is it any wonder that they came to two different conclusions?
On the trip back to the home base in Capernaum, Jesus once again tells his disciples that he will be arrested, killed, and rise again in three days. Jesus wants this understanding of his role as Messiah to dominate his disciples’ thoughts; they were after all his followers and soon-to-be imitators. It simply cannot be overlooked that Jesus knew he was going to die and that he did not try to change this…it was what the Father, Son, and Spirit had ordained to be a long, long time ago.
Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, would have to die.
But he would not stay dead; he would rise again…in three days.
Three long days.
The shadow of the cross looms on the horizon and Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for its reality.
They of course, had no idea what he meant or how to handle his statements; the text says, they “were afraid to ask him about it.” The disciples were so intimidated by Jesus that they were not seeing the loving care and concern he had for them. They could not listen because they still did not completely trust Jesus.
So they ignored him.
Jesus said that following him would mean trusting him when the dark day of his death was coming…to see the resurrection when there really was only has words to give any hope. Jesus was up to something far greater than national restoration and pride; Jesus was going to save the world.
But the disciples still thought they were going to be important.
You see shortly after Jesus’ statement, that they ignored, they started arguing over who would be the greatest. Jesus is telling them about his greatest hour of trial and his disciples are acting like they are going to be participating in some magnificent revolution with Jesus being given the throne of David. While they were going to participate in a revolution and Jesus was going to take the throne of David, it would not be in the way they thought.
Jesus would die and then he would rise.
And then the whole world would change.
“So, what were you talking about back on the road?”
Jesus, ever aware of what his disciples were thinking and discussing, had overheard his disciples’ jockeying for some position in an earthly Jewish state; he saw their desire for glory without suffering and he would have none of it.
The disciples were rightly ashamed; they did not think Jesus had heard what they were saying. How many times do we think that we can have whatever ambitions we want as long as we attach Jesus’ name to it? I have been caught by the Holy Spirit in some really selfishly ambitious, man-centered dreams and goals…and like the disciples I have wanted glory without suffering; I too am ashamed.
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last and the servant of all.”
Jesus did not berate them, he simply called them over and grabbed one of his primary object lessons: a child.
Some people see Jesus’ statement as him telling his disciples how to be the greatest, but that is not what Jesus was saying at all! Jesus was pointing out that being the greatest is not what matters at all. He grabs a child, whom society of time would consider at best a cherished, but risky investment because of the high infant mortality rate; children who made it to adulthood were then highly valued because they would carry on the family name and legacy.
But a small child was sadly not that valuable in Jewish culture.
“Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
Does Jesus have in mind just treating children well? Not if one takes the surrounding context seriously. Jesus has been emphasizing the need for the disciples to trust and believe him through the coming dark hours that they are about to find themselves in. Welcoming a child is welcoming everything that comes with a child: laughter, joy, and most of all dependence that simply trusts their parents for everything…whether they deserve to be trusted or not.
Jesus is saying, “If you want to follow me, welcome being like this child; embrace a life that simply believes and does what I say without wanting more than you need.” The disciples wanted a worldly national kingdom where they would be Jesus’ administrators, but what they needed to do was embrace their places as children of the Father, who desired to use them to turn the world upside down.
So, many times we read statements like these as if Jesus is saying, “You want too much, settle for less,” when what Jesus really is saying is, “You want too little, let my Father give you so much more than you can ask or think!” It is not our responsibility to demand how the Father does this, any more than a child can demand things from their parents! It is simply our place to embrace the Father’s will in Christ through the Holy Spirit, whatever that means and however it is that the Father wants to remake us into the image of his dear Son.
That may mean, no, will mean suffering before glory.
But oh, oh! What glory there will be when the suffering has been endured and God in Christ has triumphed in us!