Later in the chapter, Mark says they came to Capernaum. “And when He was in the house He asked them, ‘What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?’ ” (Mark 9:33). Jesus did not ask because He needed the information; He was looking for a confession. He knew exactly what they were talking about. But they were embarrassed. So “they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest” (v. 34). It’s not hard to understand how the argument began. Peter, James, and John, brimming with confidence after their mountaintop experience, surely felt that now they had the inside track. They had seen things so wonderful that they were not permitted even to speak of them. And each one now was probably looking for some sign that he was the greatest of the three—possibly arguing among themselves about things like which one was standing closer to Jesus when He was trans-figured, reminding Peter that he was rebuked by a voice from heaven, and so on.
But when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about, they instantly grew silent. They realized they were wrong to debate these things. Their own consciences obviously were smiting them. That is why they couldn’t bear to admit what all the fuss was about.
Of course, Jesus knew. And He seized the opportunity to teach them once again. “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, ‘Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me’ ” (vv. 35–37).
They had it backward. If they wanted to be first in the kingdom, they needed to be servants. If they wanted to be truly great, they needed to be more childlike. Instead of arguing and fighting with each other, instead of putting each other down, instead of rejecting each other and exalting themselves, they needed to take the role of a servant.
It was a lesson about love. “Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5). Love is manifested in service to one another, not by lording it over each other.
This apparently cut John to the heart. It was a serious rebuke, and John obviously got the message. This is where we find the only time John speaks in the synoptic Gospels: “Now John answered Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us’” (v. 38). This was sectarianism—rebuking a man for ministering in Jesus’ name just because he didn’t belong to the group. This shows the intolerance of John, a Son of Thunder.This was the narrowness, the ambition, the desire to have the status all for himself and not share it with anybody else—all of which too often characterized John in his younger years.
Here we see clearly that John was not a passive personality. He was aggressive. He was competitive. He condemned a man who was ministering in the name of Jesus, just because the man wasn’t part of the group. John had actually stepped in and tried to shut down this man’s ministry for no other reason than that.
I am inclined to think John confessed this to Jesus because he was convicted. I believe he was feeling the sting of Jesus’ rebuke, and he spoke these words as a penitent. Something in John was beginning to change, and he was beginning to see his own lack of love as undesirable.The fact that John made this confession was indicative of the transformation that was taking place in him. His conscience was bothering him. He was being tenderized. He had always been zealous and passionate for the truth, but now the Lord was teaching him to love. This is a major turning point in his life and thinking. He was beginning to understand the necessary equilibrium between love and truth.
The kingdom needs men who have courage, ambition, drive, passion, boldness, and a zeal for the truth. John certainly had all of those things. But to reach his full potential, he needed to balance those things with love. I think this episode was a critical rebuke that started to move him toward becoming the apostle of love he ultimately became.
John was always committed to truth, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it is not enough. Zeal for the truth must be balanced by love for people. Truth without love has no decency; it’s just brutality. On the other hand, love without truth has no character; it’s just hypocrisy.
Many people are just as imbalanced as John was, only in the other direction. They place too much emphasis on the love side of the fulcrum. Some are merely ignorant; others are deceived; still others simply do not care about what is true. In each case, truth is missing, and all they are left with is error, clothed in a shallow, tolerant sentimentality. It is a poor substitute for genuine love. They talk a lot about love and tolerance, but they utterly lack any concern for the truth. Therefore even the “love” they speak of is a tainted love. Real love “does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).
On the other hand, there are many who have all their theological ducks in a row and know their doctrine but are unloving and self-exalting. They are left with truth as cold facts, stifling and unattractive. Their lack of love cripples the power of the truth they profess to revere.
The truly godly person must cultivate both virtues in equal proportions. If you could wish for anything in your sanctification, wish for that. If you pursue anything in the spiritual realm, pursue a perfect balance of truth and love. Know the truth, and uphold it in love.
Twelve Ordinary Men. John MacArthur, pages 104-106