Who Is the Greatest?

Selfish ambition is a sin that always seems to be “crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7). It contaminates our motives for doing just about anything. It shows up even in the most holy moments, like it did for Jesus’ disciples in Luke’s account1 of the Last Supper. But Jesus aims to set us all free2 from the suicidal slavery of self-worship.

Jesus’ final meal before the cross was perhaps the most ironic time for the Twelve to debate over which of them was the greatest.

The greatest human being who would ever walk the earth, the Founder and Perfecter of their faith3, was reclining at the table with them. He was the only one in the room without sin.4 He was the only one there who always did what was pleasing to the Father.5

This Person had just led the Twelve through the last Passover meal before his death—the death that would be the propitiating sacrifice for their sins.6 And he had just instituted the new Passover meal, which they and all future disciples were to observe regularly until he returned so that they would always remember that their sins were forgiven only through the substitutionary, atoning death of the true Passover Lamb.7

This was no time for any disciple to assert his own greatness—except maybe the greatness of his sin.

Even more ironic is what ignited the debate.

Jesus had just revealed that one of them that very night would willingly participate in the most spectacular sin8 in history: the slaughter of the Son of God. And yet somehow the introspection9 and inquiry that followed ended up in a competition over who was greatest.

It was a moment that displayed the terrifying blinding power of pride in sinful people. How quickly the Sun of Righteousness10 can be eclipsed by the moon of selfish ambition.

Jesus was about to die for their sins. And he was about to be betrayed to that death by one of them. Their response to such horror and glory should have been mourning, repentance, and worship. But instead each disciple was suddenly and absurdly preoccupied with his own place of prominence in God’s plan of salvation.

But what grace Jesus displayed in this moment. This sin too would be paid in full. Therefore, he did not condemn his disciples for thinking far too highly of themselves11 at the worst possible time.

Instead, he mercifully drew their gaze off of themselves and back to him:

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 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. (Luke 22:25-26)

The secret to freedom from slavery to selfish ambition was to keep looking to Jesus. Looking at, comparing, and competing with one another would only lead to a black hole of demonic evil.12 But to look to Jesus would remind them of the grace they had received and that loving each other as he had loved them13 would fill them full of joy.14

Aren’t you thankful that the Lord moved Luke to include this account of the disciples’ sin? Because isn’t the same sin frequently exposed in our hearts too, even in the most sacred moments?

We will wage war against selfish ambition as long as we live in this fallen state, because it’s right at the core of our fallen nature—our sinful desire to be like God.15 We shouldn’t be shocked when we see it in ourselves, and like Jesus we should be patient when we see it in others. The key to walking in freedom is helping each other get our eyes off ourselves and back on to Jesus.

Because our souls are designed to be satisfied with his glory, not our own.

1 Luke 22:14-30

2 John 8:36

3 Hebrews 12:2

4 Hebrews 4:15

5 John 8:29

6 Romans 3:25

7 Acts 10:43

8 See John Piper’s book, Spectacular Sins, p.98.

9 Matthew 26:22

10 Malachi 4:2

11 Romans 12:3

12 James 3:14-15

13 John 15:12

14 John 15:11

15 Genesis 3:5

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org