Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
If you have a Bible, please turn with me to Luke 22. We’ll be picking up right where Pastor Jason left off last week. As you’re turning there, let me mention the context. Jesus is in an upper room of a home with his disciples. He’s washed the feet of his disciples, and they’ve just shared the Passover meal together. Jesus indicated the Passover meal was now to be understood as a pointer to his own death as the ultimate Passover Lamb. Just as God rescued his people in Egypt from the oppression of Pharaoh, so now Jesus, through his costly death, rescues God’s people from the oppression of sin. After the meal, Jesus mentions that one of the disciples would betray him. And it’s this statement about who is the worst disciple that sparks an argument about who is the greatest disciple.
Luke 22: 24-34
Follow along with me as I read from Luke 22:24–34, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
28 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 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, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”33 Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
Most weeks the pastor who is preaching checks in with the person leading worship to discuss the Sunday service. The worship leader and the preaching pastor often talk about the passage, themes that might come up in the sermon, songs that might be sung throughout the service, and additional passages that might be read.
This week, I did something I’ve never before done during that quick check-in. We talked about all that other stuff, but I also mentioned two songs that we probably shouldn’t sing this morning. I don’t think in five years here I’ve ever said let’s not sing a certain song on a certain Sunday, especially when the two songs I was thinking of are good songs that we already sing here from time to time. Both songs are about following Jesus, which is a good thing, right?
The chorus from one song goes like this: “Where you go, I’ll go / where you stay, I’ll stay / where you move, I’ll move / I will follow.” Two of the verses in the other song go like this: “When the sea is calm and all is right / When I feel Your favor flood my life / Even in the good, I’ll follow You… / When the boat is tossed upon the waves / When I wonder if You’ll keep me safe / Even in the storms, I’ll follow You…”
These are good songs with good lyrics that call us onward and upward as we follow Jesus. Where Jesus says go, let’s go. But it didn’t feel right to sing those this morning. In the passage, Peter says he’ll follow Jesus through the storm of imprisonment and death. And Jesus says, “No you won’t.”
So this isn’t a passage we should use to preach a new mission-vision statement. It’s not a Sunday to say, “We’re going to take this hill and storm that castle.” But it is a passage to delight in all that Jesus is for us in the gospel.
1. The bad news of our depravity
The first thing we’re confronted with in the passage is the bad news of human depravity. Look again at v. 24.
24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
Notice the words “to be regard as the greatest.” The New International Version of the Bible translates it as “be considered the greatest.” Both translations get at the idea of perception. That’s the thing about depravity, isn’t it? We tend to be less concerned with being great and more concerned with being regarded as great. We don’t want to be rich; we want to be more rich than the next guy. We don’t want to be handsome or beautiful, just more handsome or beautiful than others. Into this context, Jesus puts forward his vision of servant leadership.
Servant leadership means that there shouldn’t be any act of service that you are above. You might generally do one thing or another in church or at work or at home, but having a general role or job description shouldn’t be taken to mean that doing some tasks is beneath you. You might not ordinarily be the one who picks up trash, but that’s not because the job is beneath you.
This vision of servant leadership is certainly “countercultural.” But to just call servant leadership countercultural is misleading. Jesus’s vision of servant leadership isn’t merely countercultural, as though the problem is only out there somewhere in culture. The reality is that wanting to appear great is counter to our heart.
Though in this passage wanting to be considered great isn’t necessarily the deepest problem. The deeper problem with our depravity is that we don’t know what makes for true greatness. The disciples are in the presence of Jesus, and they want to argue about which of them is the most awesome. When the contrast is so significant between the greatness of Jesus and the greatness of the disciples, they really ought not to be having this dispute.
When I was in high school, I did the triple jump on our school’s track and field team. I was okay at it. I even made it to the state track and field meet in the event. But I also remember my greatest triple jump, was not all that great. During one meet our coach had filmed some of our jumps, and a few days later he gave us the tapes to take home and watch. This process was a little more involved in the days before smartphones. So I took the VHS tape home, put it in the VCR, and watched. I even called my mom over to look at the film. Also on the tape, Coach had included some footage of Jonathan Edwards, the greatest triple jumper ever. Look at this video.
After we watched Edward’s world record jumps, my mom and I watched my triple jump. Just for comparison, where Edwards landed after two jumps is about the length of my three jumps. I distinctively remember my own mother not being so impressed with her son’s jumping abilities when compared to true greatness.
One of the ways human depravity shows up is that when humility is most required, we boast of our self-sufficiency and our own greatness. We want to walk a Smithsonian gallery of sculptures while also showing off what we made with Play-doh. We want to help Einstein out with some long division. We worry about our own greatness in the presence of Jesus.
This dispute the disciples had about who was the greatest, actually shows up several times in the gospels. In Mark’s gospel we read,
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (Mark 9:33–34)
Given the context, this argument by the disciples is quite possibly the dumbest argument ever. If we had been living Mark 9 in context, we’d have seen these things: Jesus revealed his glory on the mountain, showing he’s not weak and feeble but strong and glorious. We call this passage his transfiguration. And Jesus then received the stamp of approval from God the Father and was highlighted as far greater than Moses and Elijah, two great Old Testament prophets. Then we come down the mountain, and Jesus battled a demon victoriously, a demon who had previously defeated us when we tried to cast it out. Then we heard Jesus promised to rise from the dead, invoking imagery of himself as the exalted “Son of Man” figure prophesied about in Daniel 7:9–14.
And that’s just the near context of Mark 9, which does not consider prior miracles like calming the storm, feeding of the five thousand, and many others. In the moments when humility and trust in the Lord are most appropriate, disciples often drift toward pride and self-sufficiency.
In the next chapter in Mark’s gospel we read of two disciples asking to sit on thrones to the right and left of Jesus when he comes in his glory. Just before their request, Jesus told them that he was going to Jerusalem to serve us by suffering and dying. And then they ask to sit on his left and right. They are so caught up in visions of glory it’s like they don’t even hear the suffering part. And my impression of their request to sit at the Messiah’s right and left had little to do with being close to Jesus and more to do with being seen or regarded as being close to Jesus.
Let’s come back to our passage in Luke. At the beginning of the passage we see them arguing in pride. We see this same pride show up at the end of the passage. Jesus mentions to Peter that Satan has desired to sift them as wheat. I’ll talk more about that later. Jesus mentions to Peter that everything will be okay, not because Peter is a rock, but because Jesus, who is the rock that Peter is standing on, has prayed for him. To this Peter says, “No, no, no. Don’t worry about me. I’ll go the distance. I’ll be there with you through thick and thin, even through imprisonment and death. . . Where you go, I’ll go. Even in the storm I’ll follow you.” To which Jesus says, before the alarm clock rings, three times you’ll deny even knowing me.
It’s one thing for Peter to assert his self-sufficiency among friends over a meal. It’s another thing, Jesus says, to stay loyal to him when it might mean making enemies with trained Roman soldiers. And it’s the relative soon-ness of Peter’s denials after his confident assertion that is so crushing. It’s a terrible thing in a marriage when one spouse has an affair, but if a groom starts flirting with bridesmaids at the wedding reception, it feels doubly wrong.
This is the bad news of our depravity. When humility and trust are most required, we often boast of our self-sufficiency and argue about our own greatness.
2. The good news of Christianity
But this passage isn’t all bad news. In fact, I’d say is there is far more good news here than bad. Let’s consider Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
The good news of Christianity is that Jesus is not above the lowest act of service. This is amazing to me. Look at vv. 26b–27.
Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
Think about that. Walking on water; turning water to wine; giving living water to those who thirst; healing the blind; healing the deaf; healing the paralyzed; battling the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms; speaking truth that penetrates to the souls of the most hardened of sinners; turning over the tables of the money changers unswayed by the supposed greatness of the religious leaders, this one—the greatest one, the Messiah, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, the one who was and is and is to come—this one not only endures with great patience the arrogance of his followers, but the second person of the Trinity puts on a servants towel to wash the dirt between their toes. Church, behold your savior among us as one who serves. Our savior is not above the lowest of tasks, including taking our sins to himself like a sponge to absorb the wrath of God against us. And that’s not all…
The good news of Christianity is that Jesus shares his leadership with those who do not deserve it. Look again at v. 29.
I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom.
Think about it. That Jesus even has disciples and co-rulers should be amazing. There’s only one thing Jesus can do something better with us. Don’t get prideful about that. Let me tell you what. Through his disciples, Jesus shows the world that one of the reasons he’s so great is because he allows people to take part in his kingdom when they don’t deserve it.
Did you ever think about your role in ministry like that? We want to be great, and we want to do all sorts of things to show the world how awesome Jesus is, when it’s very much the case that Peter and the other disciples—and you and I—do make Jesus look great, but the way we make him look great is by not being all that great ourselves and yet he continues to love us. Jesus is a patient and gracious savior. Jesus shares his leadership with those who do not deserve it. And that’s not all…
The good news of Christianity is that Jesus not only makes us workers and disciples, but he makes us his friends. In v. 30 we read that we sit with him at his table and in his kingdom. We have a Sunday school class right now about hospitality, and one of the things that jumped out to me is how often we see God welcoming us into a relationship with him. The gospel is about divine hospitality. God is holy and powerful and sovereign and just. But he’s also tender and a friend of sinners. He really cares about you. He wants you at his table. He wants to share with you his best food. He wants to share with you his best drink. And that’s not all…
The good news of Christianity is that Jesus is stronger than our worst enemy, Satan. Look again at vv. 31–32,
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Think about that. We’ll slow down on this one for a minute. Jesus says that Satan demanded. That’s a forceful request. Satan wants to sift Peter and the disciples in the same way he wanted to sift Job in the Old Testament.
Let me explain the phrase sifted as wheat. To sift wheat is to break up wheat to separate the edible parts of the wheat from the non-edible parts. It’s like Satan has this square, wooden frame. And stretched between the edges of the frame are strands of wire that make a wire mesh. What falls through the mesh are unbelievers. Satan wants to take the disciples and sift them. He wants to toss us about, rough us up, and see if he can shake our faith lose from us. Some of you have been through seasons where you have felt these kinds of trials, this kind of shaking. It seemed like everything conspired against you. Some of you are in that kind of season right now. Be encouraged, church: Jesus prays for your faith. He intercedes for your faith. And the prayers of Jesus are stronger than then the demands of Satan.
One pastor pointed out that while Satan wants to sift Peter, in the end, he only sifts his pride.
Church, if you have placed your trust in Jesus, then the world, the flesh, and the devil, will conspire against you and your faith. But take heart, Jesus has overcome them all. In one of the letters to a church in the New Testament, Paul writes that not only did Jesus cancel the debt of our sin, but through his death and resurrection Jesus has also disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities putting them to open shame (Colossians 2:13–15). As well, in John 10, we read that Jesus is the great shepherd who protects all his sheep, and no one can ever snatch us out of his hands (John 10:28). Be encouraged that if you are in Jesus’s hands, you are unsiftable. But that’s not all. Let me close with one more…
The good news of Christianity is that Jesus calls us to a greatness that is not exhausting. This one might not be as obvious at first, but I think it’s certainly there.Think about the beginning of the passage. We read that a “dispute also arose among them.” Do you wonder exactly how that dispute begin? Here’s what I think. I think they fell into this dispute here at the first Lord’s Supper (and right after the Transfiguration, and a few other times in the Gospels) because longing to be regarded as great was never too far from their minds. They were constantly busy with the exhausting task of their own image management.
You’ve probably all heard of the game musical chairs, and likely most of us have played it. Let’s say there are 12 of us playing. Well, then there are only 11 chairs. The music begins and so does our march around the chairs. As we march, we have one eye on the chairs and another eye on our competition. We’re looking to see who is the weakest, who is the slowest, who could we most easily push out of the way to get a chair. Then the music stops. We throw our bottoms in the direction of the closest chair. And someone was too slow. Now there are 11 people with 10 chairs. And on it goes until you find out who is the greatest.
It’s a fine game, I suppose. It’s fun. People laugh and play. Maybe if you played with all high school boys it’s possible one person will get pushed too hard and a scuffle will break out. But it’s a game. It has a beginning and an ending.
But when you live life like one giant game of musical chairs, it’s not a game. And it never ends. And it’s exhausting. At work you keep one eye on your project, and you keep one eye on your co-workers to see who will get the promotion. At school you keep one eye on your studies, and you keep one eye on your classmates. At the gym you keep one eye on the weights, and you keep another on everyone else. You look at your bathroom scale, but you also look at the other ladies you hang out with. You come to church, but you also have to gossip. You have children, but you also need them to be perfect children. The apostle Paul says in one of his letters that when we measure ourselves by ourselves, we are not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12, NIV). And not only is it not wise, but it’s also exhausting. And it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
The good news of Christianity is that Jesus has the solution to our heart problem, the solution for our depravity, the solution for our exhausting lust to be regarded as great. Luke 22 might not have been a passage to preach about how great we are at following Jesus. But it is a passage to delight in all that Jesus is for us in the gospel. And now, may we, the followers of Jesus, be like him in our service. May he free us from the exhausting task of image management. And may he free us to be servants.
 I was helped to see this in John Piper’s sermon, “The Sifting of Simon Peter,” Desiring God, April 26, 1981, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-sifting-of-simon-peter.