There are several times mentioned in the gospels where the disciples argued amongst themselves about which of them would be the greatest. The fact they they argued over that is not surprising as it seems to be part of human nature. Churches, as well as, any group have had people lobbying for power and position through out history. What is really surprising is when these arguments broke out.
One happens after the Transfiguration takes place. In this place Jesus is revealed in His glory in front for several of His disciples. It is just shortly after that they begin to discuss which of them is the greatest. In Mark 9:33-34 is states, ‘After they arrived at Capernaum and settled in a house, Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you discussing out on the road?” But they didn’t answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.’
It was in these times Jesus challenged them to rethink the way that His Kingdom really worked. In verse 35 it says, ‘He sat down, called the twelve disciples over to him, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” ‘(NLT) He began to call them into a new way of thinking. He was telling them to change. He was calling them out of one kingdom and into His, which looks radically different.
Another instance when the disciples argued about who was the greatest was at the last supper. It was here Jesus talked about laying His life down, about what real love was, and thought many lessons. It seems this argument is so out of place in this setting, yet perhaps it is also to show this will be one of our biggest struggles.
In Luke 22:24-27 we start to get a picture of the contrast between the Kingdom Jesus was proclaiming and the kingdoms of this world. ‘Then they began to argue among themselves about who would be the greatest among them. Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves.’ (NLT)
Jesus strikes at the concept of power over others and calls this into something new. He says, ‘Among you it will be different’. He is calling them and us to walk in a different kingdom where success is not about being in charge, the master, or to have power. In His kingdom a leader must serve. In most places a leader takes the place of honor but Jesus is clear, ‘But not here’. In His upside down kingdom even the King who was among them served.
Jesus seems to leave no doubt as to what kind of leadership He did not want. In John 13 we see one of the most intriguing stories that take place in the Bible. Again, it is one of the conversations that takes place during last supper between Jesus and His disciples before His crucification.
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
John 13:1 – 9, 12 – 17 (NLT)
What has to be noted is that this happens within the same time frame Jesus mentions that one would betray Him and also that Peter would also deny Him. In that setting Jesus washes their feet. The feet of doubters, deniers, betrayers, the faithful, and the questioning. This is also the time when Jesus gives one of His strongest rebukes He ever gave anyone.
Even when Jesus was telling Peter that he would deny Him Jesus never said what He did in this situation. Jesus when washing the feet of the disciples gets to Peter and Peter says, ‘No, you shall never wash my feet.’ The response Jesus gives is, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ Peter when challenged gives one of the best responses anyone could ever give, ‘Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’, and he jumps into this kingdom thinking with all he was.
Peter was not trying to be disrespectful to Jesus in refusing Jesus’ first attempt to wash his feet. His whole life he had been taught that this job was not for a teacher, rabbi, or a leader. Peter likely thought if someone was going to be washing feet than he should be washing Jesus’ feet. Yet Jesus’ strong message to him was that now that, ‘among you it will be different.’ In fact if Peter didn’t let Him do this he could have any part of Him.
For Peter, and us today, we are left with a message. Just as Jesus, who is the Lord, washed their feet we must to the same for each other. In this upside down kingdom discipling means serving. It is where the one who leads give the places of honor to those around him. If we refuse to live in this different kingdom it means we are still walking in our own.