If one is able to see that Jesus had divided the Twelve into three groups of four each in an effort to teach them the value of ministering to one another, consider what is recorded in Luke 9:46-50. On the way back to Galilee from Jerusalem, the Twelve disputed among themselves concerning who was the greatest. Instead of which individual was the greatest, this may have had to do with which of the subgroups’ ministries was most important. Since there is nothing in the Gospel narratives that show any of the disciples acting alone on any project, it’s probably not prudent to take Luke 9:46 to mean which individual was the greatest among them.
Judas might have claimed the subgroup to which he belonged collected the funds to finance all their ministries and bought all their provisions. Philip and his subgroup may have argued that they bought provisions for the Twelve and kept the records for all that happened. He may have reasoned that his subgroup’s work would end up in the Scriptures like Baruch’s records of Jeremiah’s ministry (Jeremiah 36:4). Finally, Peter and his subgroup might have claimed they made all the arrangements for the Twelve’s journeys, plus the fact that Peter’s boat was available for the Twelve’s use, and that they often met in Peter and Andrew’s home was proof enough that their group should be considered the greatest.
Considering the fact the disciples had undergone a stinging defeat in that none of them were able to cast out the demon from the young boy in Jerusalem (Luke 9:40), they probably did not hesitate to point out one another’s shortcomings as well. Each began to build up his own subgroup at the expense of the other two (cf. Galatians 5:15). Moreover, it seems the scribes (rabbis) of Jerusalem questioned and disputed with the Twelve. Perhaps these scribes had been sowing seeds of unbelief by belittling the Apostles’ method of exorcism, while Jesus wasn’t with them (cf. Mark 9:14, 16). The scribes favored their own method of exorcism, which included using the authority of evil to cast out evil (cf. Matthew 12:24, 27). Perhaps one of the disciples or several of them in his own turn took the lead in the attempt to exorcise the demon and public defeat and embarrassment fell upon all. Thus, this event may have precipitated their dispute over who should take the lead in the future (Luke 9:46).
Nevertheless, when they arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what their dispute concerned, as they traveled back to Galilee from Judea (Mark 9:33; cf. Luke 9:46). The Apostles were, no doubt, ashamed, because they knew they had been doing wrong. However, Jesus was able to perceive what went on (cf. Luke 9:47; Mark 9:34). Soon afterwards, he called them together and set a little child before them all. They had a grandiose opinion of their ministries, so Jesus took a child and placed him beside himself. In doing this Jesus place the child in the position that was later coveted by both James and John (Mark 10:37). Therefore, Jesus’ intention was to place the child in a position of honor on either his right or his left.
Keeping in mind that a child had no authority whatsoever in that culture, and that even a servant had authority over a child, though he was heir of all (cf. Galatians 4:1-2), Jesus used that little one to show how authority works in the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:47-48). By placing the child at his side, Jesus implied the child had authority and receiving him as such meant that one received Jesus, and in receiving Jesus, that meant he also received the Father. Therefore, he who humbles himself to receive a child is great in the eyes of God, and that’s what is important
Some scholars believe John tried to change the subject by mentioning other people not among the Twelve who used Jesus’ name to do good works. However, I see John wondering if the Twelve, as a body, was greater than the other disciples of Jesus. In other words, how does Jesus’ words at Luke 9:48 apply to the Twelve, as a subgroup among all who followed Jesus (Luke 9:49)? Jesus replied that we must receive one another (Luke 9:50). Even a cup of water given in his name would not go unnoticed by our heavenly Father (Mark 9:41). We are to be as little children trusting in the Lord, giving no offense to one another (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42).
Similarly, Paul compares the hand, foot, and eye to different functions of the Body of Christ (1Corinthians 12:14-27). The point is we all fulfill a valuable function within the Body and should have equal care one for another. Christ says that it would be better for us to completely eliminate a function of the Body of Christ (Mark 9:43, 45, 47), if we value it to the point of offending the other parts of the Body. If we believe what we do is more important than what others do, then it would be better for us to stop doing what we love to do for Christ and do something else. It would be better for us to cease our ministry and help others serve the Lord in their ministry. Imagine what the world would think, if Christian denominations eliminated their own ministries to Christ and became one with other brethren rather than criticize the other denominations.
We often use our doctrines and methods of ministry in an effort to be identified with Christ rather than how Jesus said we would be known (cf. John 13:35). Indeed, doctrines do give us our identity and value among our brethren, but by them we exclude others and magnify our own position within the Body. Although there should be no schism within the Body of Christ, there are many, and we love to have it so. We don’t seem to be all that different from the disputing disciples of Luke 9:46.