Caught in the Act

By Mark D. Roberts

November 7, 2016

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Mark 9:33-34


The photo shows the ruins of the octagonal church in Capernaum. A modern church has been built over the ancient site.

Photo courtesy of Mark D. Roberts. All rights reserved.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land. My trip included exploration of Capernaum, a small town along the Sea of Galilee in which Jesus was active during his early preaching ministry. Among the ruins of ancient Capernaum is a fifth-century A.D. octagonal church that was built on the site of the house of Peter, who lived in Capernaum before he departed to follow Jesus. Though Mark 9:33 does not specify which house Jesus visited in Capernaum, it could quite possibly have been Peter’s house. (The photo shows the ruins of the octagonal church in Capernaum. A modern church has been built over the ancient site.)

In this house, or some other in Capernaum, Jesus asked his disciples an apparently simple question: “What were you arguing about on the road?” (9:33). But the disciples did not answer Jesus’s question because they were embarrassed about the subject of their argument. They “had argued about who was the greatest” (9:34). Jesus caught them in the act of egotistical pride and divisive self-promotion.

The disciples knew that Jesus would not approve of what they had done. They had been with him long enough to know that he did not want them jockeying for the position of greatest among his followers. Sure enough, when the disciples failed to answer Jesus’s question, he used this occasion to advocate humility and servanthood.

Tomorrow, we’ll look more closely at what Jesus said about servanthood. For now, I want to reflect with you on the disciples’ argument. Though I cannot remember ever arguing with someone about which of us was greater, I can relate to what motivated the disciples in this dispute. I know what it’s like to yearn to be important and powerful, to be a person of influence and honor. If Jesus spoke to me at times in my life, saying, “What are you thinking about?”, I’d be caught in the act just like the disciples. There have been many times in my life when I have had to confess to the Lord my unholy pride and desire for personal greatness.

You may have had a similar experience. Perhaps you have wanted to be the greatest at work, or on a team, or in your family, or even in your church. There’s nothing wrong with excelling, with doing great work. But when the desire for our own greatness overwhelms our hearts, then we are at risk of failing to be the servants Christ calls us to be.


Have you ever wanted to be the greatest? When? Why? What lies beneath your longing to be great?

Is it wrong to be great? Is it wrong to want to be great? Why or why not?

What helps you to be zealous for God’s greatness rather than your own greatness?


Lord Jesus, as I read this story, I’m reminded of how much I can be like your disciples. I don’t think I’ve ever argued that I am the greatest. But I surely know the feelings beneath this argument. Forgive me when my desire for my own greatness flows from my pride. Forgive me when it keeps me from seeking first your greatness and glory.

Lord, I do want to use my gifts well in your service. I want to do a great job with all you have given me. Help me to be a faithful steward of your gifts without focusing on my own accomplishments in a way that draws my heart away from you.

May you be great, Lord, in and through me. To you be all the glory! Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online Bible commentary: Discipleship in Process (Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52; 8:14-21)

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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