Tonight we explore another important piece of God’s “backward” wisdom—greatness. What is greatness? What does it mean to be great?
Synonyms include glory, honor, recognition, etc. To be great is to be recognized and honored for accomplishing something truly significant (HALL OF FAME; NOBEL PRIZE).
We will use Mk. 10:35-45 as our base text for exploring this subject. Read 10:35-37. James and John want to be great—they ask Jesus to grant them the key positions of honor in his kingdom. Jesus’ response introduces us to several pieces of God’s “backward” wisdom.
Read 10:43,44. Many think Jesus is rebuking James and John for wanting to be great: “Shame on you! Your punishment for wanting to be first is that you will be last in my kingdom. Because you want to be great, you will be consigned to slavery in my kingdom.”
Actually, Jesus is assuming and affirming their desire to be great. His critique is with the way they are pursuing it—something very important that we’ll get to soon. But the Bible is clear that aspiring to greatness (as long as it’s the proper kind) is not only permissible, but important! Jesus gave them this idea in Matt. 19:28—and this prospect is a key part of eternal reward for all of us (e.g., “CROWN”).
True, desire for greatness is easily corrupted. But it may be better to get sanctified from aspiring to unworthy greatness to true greatness than to have no aspiration for greatness at all.
I think that one of the symptoms of the decline of our culture is that aspiration to greatness is on the wane—and frequently mocked. Instead, there is a cynical debunking of such aspirations. This is also true of the Christian community. I find that even among young people (the group which most readily rises to aspirations of greatness) there is an increasing reluctance to be great in God’s kingdom. Christians commonly rationalize/spiritualize their laziness or lack of spiritual ambition as humility! But nothing is more ennobling than deep aspiration to true greatness.
Having said this, there is a real danger of aspiring to the wrong kind of greatness. If we get this wrong, the entire course of our lives will be wrong. So what is true greatness?
Authentic vs. Counterfeit Greatness
Authentic greatness is receiving honor from God for advancing his reputation among people God is the only valid King in the universe, and his kingdom is the only one that will last forever. Therefore, God honors whose who honor him and advance his kingdom (1 Sam. 2:30). See Jesus’ prayer in Jn. 17:4,5. He could ask the Father to glorify him because he had glorified the Father and accomplished the work he gave Jesus to do.
The world-system corrupts authentic greatness into a counterfeit greatness—glorifying yourself and seeking praise from other people. John calls this the “boastful pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16)—and we see examples of this all around us (CELEBRITY CULTURE: “known for their well-knownness;” POLITICIANS; TYRANTS; TYCOONS; etc.).
“In essence, any ambition (for greatness) which centers around and terminates upon oneself is unworthy, while an ambition (for greatness) which has the glory of God as its center is not only legitimate but positively praiseworthy.”1
The aspiration to become great for God begins only after you meet God personally by receiving Christ. Before I met Christ, I was addicted to worldly greatness and extremely cynical about other Christians claiming that they lived to glorify God. It was only after I received Christ and experienced the amazing love that God had for that he gradually won my heart. He can do the same for you . . .
Authentic greatness requires voluntary suffering for Christ.
Once you receive God’s gift of salvation and decide to live your life for true greatness (as James and John had done), it is imperative that you understand how to pursue it properly. They had the right goal, but they were pursuing it in the wrong way. This is what Jesus corrects in Mark 10:38-45 . . .
James and John assume that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to defeat his enemies and set up his kingdom immediately. So they are jockeying for positions of imminent privilege (read 10:35-37).
Read 10:38. “Cup” and “baptism” refer to intense suffering. Jesus had to drink the cup of identification with human sin and God’s wrath (Matt. 26:39). He had to undergo an immersion into the agony of the Cross (Lk. 12:50). Only after he endured the agony of the Cross—and only because he was willing to do this—would he receive the Crown of greatness (Phil. 2:6-11). And his question implies that they must be prepared to walk the same path if they want to share his greatness.
Read 10:39. They glibly affirm their willingness—and Jesus says, “Good—because that’s what’s coming your way.” And sure enough, they did drink Jesus’ cup and they did undergo his baptism. James was beheaded by Herod (Acts 12:2). John was exiled by Domitian (Rev. 1:9) and later dragged behind a chariot through the streets of Ephesus.
And so it will be with you if you and me if we aspire to true greatness. If you want the seat of honor, you have to drink the cup. Entry into God’s kingdom is free—but greatness in God’s kingdom comes with a price. Authentic greatness requires voluntary suffering for Christ. It is inseparably tied to suffering because the suffering we endure to advance Christ’s kingdom demonstrates the genuineness of our love and commitment to him.
Why do we give Medals of Honor only to those who go beyond the call of duty to risk (or give) their lives for their country? Because their willingness to voluntarily do this demonstrates the genuineness of their love of their country and their commitment to the values our country holds dear. In the same way, true greatness in Christ’s kingdom is inseparably related to the suffering we endure to advance it (see 2 Cor. 5:17; Jas. 1:12).
So, pursuing true greatness will lead you into many opportunities to suffer. You don’t have to seek them out (not that any of us are tempted to do this!)—they will come to you as you simply follow Christ and seek to advance his reputation. And they will be greater than you thought. There is the suffering of unpopularity with friends and family members, the suffering of a busy schedule with many interruptions, the suffering of relational disruption in the line of duty, and the suffering of many forms of spiritual attack.
But it is well worth it! God will bear you up in the midst of them with his encouragement and power. He will use these sufferings to deepen and purify your commitment to him. And he will more than make up for every one of them when you enter his kingdom.
Authentic greatness requires serving others in love.
There is another requirement for true greatness. Some are willing to endure great suffering if the reward is great enough—but are still self-seeking and unloving toward other people (1 Cor. 13:3b). But authentic greatness also requires serving others in love.
Read 10:42. Nothing has changed here. People who are great in a worldly sense usually view their position as exempting them from serving people. In fact, they frequently use their authority to use and exploit those under their charge. This is true not only in politics and business—it is also tragically true in the church (MEDIEVAL PAPAL ABUSE; PASTORS NETWORKING FOR BEST SALARIES & PERKS AT CONFERENCES).
Read 10:43,44. Greatness in God’s kingdom is measured by a totally different standard. It’s not how many people serve you—but how many people you serve. It’s not how much you’re able to get others to do for you—it’s how much you’re willing to do for others. It’s not the extent of sacrifice you extract from others to enrich your life—it’s how much you’re willing to sacrifice to enrich others’ lives. It’s not how many people you can get to dance to your tune because they’re afraid of what you’ll do if they don’t—it’s how many people give themselves away in love to others because you gave yourself away in love to them.
This is no pious platitude that Jesus cynically mouthed but refused to follow. He called us to follow this kind of greatness, and he lived it out as an example (read 10:45). He was the Son of Man—the Messiah, God’s anointed King. If anyone had the right to lord it over others, it was him. But he never used his authority to exploit others or exempt himself from service. Because he loved lost people, he used all of his resources to give and never to take—even to the point of laying down his life as a payment for our sins. And he won the hearts of others to live this same life of loving service because he expended himself for them.
Is it worth it?
Jesus says it will be more than worth it in the next life (Matt. 25:21,23).
But this is not only the path to future greatness—it is also the path to present fulfillment. Read Acts 20:35. This is yet another piece of God’s “backward” wisdom: The more self-centered and self-absorbed we are, the more miserable we’ll be—but the more other-centered we are, the more we give ourselves away in love to others, the more fulfilled we’ll be.
1 Oswald Sanders, A Spiritual Clinic (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), pp. 115,116.
Copyright 2003 Gary DeLashmutt