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§ 189. Return to Capernaum.—Dispute among the Disciples for Precedence.—The Child a Pattern.—Acting in the Name of Christ. (Luke, ix., 46; Mark, ix., 33; Matt., xviii.)

We have seen that on a certain occasion521521   Cf. p. 203. Christ replied to those who asked, “why his disciples did not fast,” &c., that “the time had not yet come.” But a new epoch was now approaching; and he himself gave his disciples another rule, and taught them what they lacked to fit them, by further abstraction from the world and earnest collectedness of heart, for their high calling.

Although Christ had directly discountenanced, in his conversations after the return of the Apostles from their trial mission, the sensuous expectations which they entertained from his Messiahship, still the ideas on which their hopes were founded were too deeply rooted it their hearts and minds to be readily eradicated. With these was connected, partly as cause and partly as effect, the self-seeking which tinged their relations to the kingdom of God. This same feeling was manifest in 287their conversation on the way back to Capernaum from their northern tour; they disputed among themselves on the journey about their relative activity in the service of their Master, and who among them should hold the first place in the kingdom of God.522522   This is not to be confounded with a later dispute of the same character; in the instance before us the question referred to the present, not to the future, who is the greatest in his personal qualities and performances? Christ’s reply was directed to this question; not, as in the subsequent case (Luke, xxii., 24, &c.), to one concerning precedence in the Messianic kingdom. Matthew’s account, therefore (xviii., 1.), seems to be less original than those of Luke, ix., 46; Mark, ix., 33. The former is less homogeneous; and, besides, in it the disciples propose the question; in the others Christ anticipates them; which seems the more likely, as they might readily feel that their dispute was foreign to Christ’s spirit, and, therefore, be ashamed to put the question. It is also easier to explain the origin of Matthew’s statement from this, as the original form, than that of the latter from the former. It must always be a debatable question, so far as Luke, ix., 46, is concerned, whether the disciples only thought this, or expressed their thoughts to each other.

After their arrival at Capernaum, Christ asked them the subject on which they had disputed by the way, intending that the very shame of answering his question might make them conscious how unworthy of disciples such a dispute had been. This end being answered, he did not directly reprove them further; but in a few words, made impressive by a vivid illustration, he set before them the worthlessness of their contention, and its utter antagonism to the spirit which must rule in the kingdom of God. Taking a little child, he placed him in their midst, and said, “Let this child, in its unassuming ingenuousness, be your model; he among you that is most child-like and unassuming, that thinks least of himself and his own worth, he shall be greatest (shall be of most importance to the kingdom of God).”523523   Luke’s report of the sayings of Christ upon this occasion, although more simple and homogeneous than those of Matthew and Mark, does not seem to retain the order of the two expressions so well. This is evident, both from the γὰρ in the last clause of v. 48, and from John’s question in v. 49, which was evidently occasioned by the words immediately before spoken by Christ, but not by those in the last clause referred to. Then, embracing the child, he added, “Whosoever shall receive one such little child in my name, receiveth me; and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me.”524524   In Matt., x., 42, we find another saying to the same effect as that which has been placed here in its connexion. “Even a drink of water given to the most insignificant person as a disciple of Christ, and in his name, will not lose its reward.” It is the disposition to act in Christ’s name which gives value to the most unimportant act. The form in which the disposition shall reveal itself is conditioned by circumstances which are not under the control of man; but the disposition itself, which is stamped as Christian from its reference to the name of Christ, is independently rooted in the heart.

The truth herein expressed, though different from the other, is yet akin to it; and both rebuke the strife for precedence, the disposition to dwell upon one’s own merits, and set a false value upon actions as great or small. It is not merely what a man does that makes his action worthy, but the spirit in which he does it. The deed in itself may be great or small; its worth depends upon its being done in the name 288of Christ and for his sake. And this spirit is pleasing to God, for our actions can only be referred to Him by means of our relation to Christ.

The principle thus announced by Christ struck at the root of the contention among the disciples. Their false emulation could have no place, if their actions, whether great or small, were alike in value, if alike done in the name of Christ; and to magnify themselves, or their claims, would have been absurd in view of such a rule of action.

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