Encouraged and Encouraging (2)
Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. Mark 9.33, 34
The gospels offer four accounts of the dispute that arose among the disciples as they followed Jesus into Capernaum, and which then dragged on after that. Each one adds a little more color to the situation, and what it can teach us about the need for encouragement.
I’m sure this dispute began much earlier, perhaps as early as the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus mentioned the possibility of being great in the Kingdom of God (Matt. 5.17-19). Then, a bit later, when He was commending John the Baptist, the idea of “least” in the Kingdom came up (Matt. 11.11). Perhaps the disciples were already beginning to eye one another regarding that possibility, together with the notion of greatness as well.
Mark tells us that the dispute broke to the surface on their way to Capernaum. Peter, James, and John had just come down from the mount of transfiguration, where they had been privileged to see Jesus in His glory (Mk.9.2-8). Coming down from that experience, they must have been feeling pretty good about themselves. After all, Jesus didn’t take all the disciples up there.
Then, when they returned to the crowd of people below, the three and Jesus saw the other disciples trying unsuccessfully to cast out a demon from a young boy. They were failing utterly, and don’t think Peter, James, and John didn’t notice that.
So on the road to Capernaum after that, with Jesus in the lead, the disciples fell into a dispute around the question of greatness. It’s not hard to imagine Peter (open mouth, insert foot) suggesting his own primacy, what with his walking on the water and Jesus’ “upon this rock” statement just a couple of chapters back. Perhaps James or John then reminded Peter of Jesus’ “Satan” comment, and that, after all, he had begun to sink in the sea – at which the others might have smirked a bit, only to be turned on by the Sons of Thunder, chiding them about their inability to help that small boy. That left James and John, brothers, to duke it out verbally with one another – as they no doubt had done all their lives.
Apparently, the conversation became a little heated “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” asked Jesus – as if He didn’t know. Now, all boasting and puffery ceased, and the disciples were shamed into silence (Mk. 9.34).
But the dispute simmered, and the argument returned, as Matthew and Luke explain. It seems that a bit later, after they had arrived in Capernaum, the disciples came to Jesus, with the same issue in mind. Apparently, they were still quibbling in the background (Lk. 9.46). They decided to put the matter before Jesus, but indirectly; so they asked Him to render a judgment: “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18.1). All they wanted was a name.
All they got was more shame, when Jesus set a child down in front of them, and challenged them to consider themselves in the light of this example. Being “last of all and servant of all” had not found its way into their job description of “greatest in the Kingdom” (Mk. 9.36).
At that point, John, trying to deflect the argument sought to demonstrate his bona fides by reporting that he and someone else (“we”, Mk. 9.38) had nobly stepped forward to stop some guy who was casting out demons, but not in Jesus’ Name. Was John seeing a hole here, where he could run the ball through and prove himself to be Mr. Touchdown-Greatest-in-the-Kingdom?
If he was, he would be disappointed. Jesus pricked his bubble and let the air out of John’s balloon (Mk. 9.39).
After that, we don’t hear any more about this greatness dispute.
Of all times and places
Until the upper room and the night that Jesus would be betrayed, arrested, abandoned, tried, and, on the next day, murdered (Lk. 22.24-28).
Supper was over. Jesus had instituted the Lord’s Supper. He explained that His blood would be shed, and one of them would betray Him to His enemies (vv. 20-22). Right away the disciples began trying to figure out who would do such a thing! Which one of them was the least and surliest of this group, who would do such a thing to Jesus!
And this caused the old simmering dispute to break out again: Which of us is the greatest?
Leave it to Jesus to refocus the question and restate the answer in a way that silenced the discussion and probably left them all feeling a little embarrassed (vv. 24-26).
All this self-serving, boasting, putting others down, maneuvering for pride of place, and casting doubts on one another left this “band of brothers” a shattered, scattered wreck of every-man-for-himself, probably pointing fingers as they fled and wondering how everything had gone so wrong so quickly.
Don’t we see something of a mirror of ourselves in the disciples? Self-interested, always ready to talk about ourselves, rarely considering the thoughts, feelings, interests, or needs of others? It’s probably too much to expect of the disciples that they would have been more thoughtful, affirming, and encouraging to one another. After all, they did not yet have the Spirit of God, the supreme Encourager.
But what about us? If we can agree that the disciples’ behavior in this instance looks more like the narcissistic, self-centered world of our day, than of the Kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, then perhaps we can look to the greatest Encourager of all to learn how we might avoid the mistakes of the disciples and be more like the One Who is at work within us, transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ.
1. What do you understand to be the key components of genuine encouragement?
2. Why do we see so little genuine encouragement among the members of the Christian community?
3.Can you think of one situation in which Jesus encouraged someone? How did He do that?
Next steps – Preparation: Would you consider yourself an encouraging person? Would others say that you are an encourager? Talk with the Lord in prayer about these questions.
T. M. Moore
We can encourage people in even small and seemingly insignificant ways. Our book Small Stuff helps you be more aware of the opportunities for encouraging others that God brings to you each day. Order your copy by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.