Should We Strive to Be First? + How Should We Handle it When The Lord Disappoints us? #347

Hello friends and happy Tuesday to you! I apologize for the nebulous title today, but I think it will make a little more sense once we finish our readings. Today’s passages are 2nd Chronicles 8, Habakkuk 3, Luke 22, and 3rd John. I suppose you could say that our focus will be split across all of our passages, with the exception of 2nd Chronicles.

Let’s begin with our 3rd John passage, as it is the shortest. This short letter contains one of my favorite verses – I even have a t-shirt with this verse on it!

I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in truth.

3rd john 4

As a father and a pastor, I can relate to this on both levels – it thrills my heart to see my own kids pursuing the Lord and seeking Him and it also brings joy to see younger people in the faith among our church family doing the same thing.

Today we are talking about the danger of trying to be first – maybe we could call it the danger of ambition, though I want to be careful, because the Bible doesn’t use that particular word here. Let’s read 3rd John, and listen out for John’s rebuke of a person who always wanted to be first.

I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive our authority. 10 This is why, if I come, I will remind him of the works he is doing, slandering us with malicious words. And he is not satisfied with that! He not only refuses to welcome fellow believers, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church.

3rd John 9-11

I have served in several churches over the years, and feel blessed to have very rarely encountered people like Diotrephes – people who want to be held in high esteem and lead using bullying tactics. I do hear, however, from other pastors and church friends that the Diotrephes spirit is alive and well in the modern church. It would seem, that ‘wanting to be first’ is quite a dangerous thing in the Kingdom of God. The word John uses here is interesting, φιλοπρωτεύω philoprōteúō, and it literally means something like, “first-friend” or first-place friend – something along those lines. It’s only used here in the Bible, and seems to carry connotations of being admired and being liked, and being the alpha – calling the shots, etc. Wanting to be great is not a sin, but striving to be great and dominant in a worldly way is most dangerous. 

Indeed, in Matthew 19-20, Jesus teaches three times about being first, noting twice, 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” and then concluding: 

On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave;28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:26-28

That is a good transition into our Luke passage, which is long and details many important teachings of Jesus and events in His life, but we will narrow our focus to one of them, after reading the whole chapter.

24 Then a dispute also arose among them about who should be considered the greatest. 25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who have authority over them have themselves called ‘Benefactors.’26 It is not to be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever is greatest among you should become like the youngest, and whoever leads, like the one serving.27 For who is greater, the one at the table or the one serving? Isn’t it the one at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Luke 22:24-27

Jesus points to the tendency, outside of the Kingdom of God, for leaders, kings and rulers to abuse their authority and boss people around, and He also seems to point out how people of authority want to be called nice things and thought of as good…and then comes the warning and teaching:  If you want to be great, you should act like the least/youngest and if you want to lead, you must lead like a servant. This is the way of Jesus – He washed His disciples feet, He loved them well, travelled with them, didn’t have a home or servants taking care of His needs, and He gave His life for them at the last. If you want to be a great leader – the #1 – the greatest, says Jesus – don’t be like Diotrephes or those in the world – don’t strive for people to look up to you, and praise you and call you great names. Don’t try to boss people around and be the big chief…instead, be a servant and lead by taking care of other people. The people of the world may not call you great, and they may not build a statue in your honor, but you will secure eternal greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven.

One more passage to discuss – Habakkuk 3. If you will recall from yesterday, Habakkuk has asked God why evil seems to thrive and why there is so much injustice and oppression in the world, and God has told Him that judgment is coming swiftly onto God’s people, and they will be punished, but the justified/righteous – those who love God and pursue Him – will live by their faith, and they will be vindicated in the end. In Habakkuk 3, we see the prophet’s response to this message from God and it is absolutely wonderful and genuine. Let’s read it and see his response.

So – Habakkuk absolutely nails it. He knows trouble is coming on his people, and he is terrified and sick to the core of his being. He knows that the discipline will be rough, food will be scarce, and times will be incredibly hard…and it makes him tremble and be undone. And yet….ultimately, he rejoices in the goodness of God.

I heard, and I trembled within;
my lips quivered at the sound.
Rottenness entered my bones;
I trembled where I stood.
Now I must quietly wait for the day of distress
to come against the people invading us.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there is no fruit on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though the flocks disappear from the pen
and there are no herds in the stalls,
18 yet I will celebrate in the Lord;
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!
19 The Lord my Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like those of a deer
and enables me to walk on mountain heights!

Habakkuk 3:16-19

HOW can he rejoice and WHY does he rejoice? Because, as we learned yesterday in Habakkuk 2 – the “just shall live by faith.” Habakkuk knows the short term will be miserable and hard and may possibly be the end of him and many that he loves…but he also knows and trusts that God will ultimately take care of him and the others who have trusted in the Lord. I suspect that Habakkuk’s knowledge of Heaven and eternal life is quite limited, because it was Jesus, who was to come much later, who taught much more about eternity (and who opened the door into eternal life by His sacrifice on the cross and resurrection.) But it nonetheless appears that Habakkuk trusts that ‘the Judge of all the earth will do right.’ (Genesis 18:25) and thus Habakkuk places his trust and his joy firmly in God’s hands by faith. And so must we as we move through these dark and dangerous times. Will we be unscathed? Probably not – but we see the hope of the Gospel even more clearly than Habakkuk did, and thus let us rejoice even more mightily then he did – even when things aren’t going the way we’d like!


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