True Greatness

I thought I might need crutches or a wheel chair this morning.  My toes took a real stomping this weekend as I was studying for this lesson.  I needed this one.  I just want you to know that I am not preaching this morning how I am all the time, but how I ought to be.

In Matthew 18:1 Jesus’ disciples came to Him and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  The parallel accounts in Mark and Luke tell us that they’d been arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest (Mk 9:34; Lk 9:46), and thus which of them would have the top spots in Jesus’ kingdom; which of them Jesus would appoint as prime minister and chief of staff.  Their very argument about which of them was the greatest and their desire to be elevated over each other revealed that they didn’t have a clue about what “true greatness” really is.  Jesus tried to explain it to them on that occasion.  But they failed to get it.  On several occasions Jesus tried to help them understand what it really means to be a great human being, to be great in the eyes of God.  And they struggled to understand it.

The world we live in doesn’t have a clue what greatness is.  You know, there are some people who think if they commit a huge crime and everybody sees the crime on TV then they have achieved greatness.  Some people equate greatness with fame or stardom, or maybe genius.  Einstein is seen as great and the same with people who invent things, like Thomas Edison.  Many associate greatness with having superior abilities that elevate them over their peers; Michael Phelps, Elvis Presley, Beethoven, Picasso, etc.  You know when Muhammad Ali was at his prime and he’d be interviewed, he’d say, “I’m the greatest.”  Does greatness mean you can beat up everybody else in the world?  Is it measured in giftedness, ability, talent, how much you impress others, in brilliance, in societal impact, in achievements, in awards and honors, in status and power, in wealth?

As Christians we probably have a better inclination toward what true greatness is, but we probably still struggle to realize it sometimes when we see it and we struggle even more to be it.

Let’s first consider,

What is true greatness just in broad terms? 

Matthew 18, on one occasion when Jesus was trying to help His disciples with this, He called a little child over to Himself and He had that little kid stand next to Him in front of the disciples and He said, “He who humbles himself as this child, He’s the greatest in the kingdom.”  When I’ve looked at this before, I thought Jesus meant we need to be humble like children are humble.  And I thought, how are children humble?  Well, they realize that they don’t know everything.  So they ask a lot of questions.  “Why’s the sky blue?  Where does milk come from?”  They’re teachable.  They’re also dependent and they know it.  They’re scared if they’re left alone because they know they need someone to take care of them.  They’re submissive (generally), there are kids who are exceptions.  But generally they will do what they’re told.  But as I’ve restudied this, looking at what Jesus said on this occasion in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s account of it and looking at similar passages where Jesus was teaching on greatness, I think the idea is not so much that you have a humble attitude like a child has a humble attitude, but rather humble yourself to the low status level of a child where everybody else is more important than you and that’s how you act and treat people as above you in importance.  In that day and culture, little kids were viewed as less important than older kids and adults.  One time when parents began bringing their little kids to Jesus that he might lay His hands on them and pray for them, the disciples tried to stop people, saying, “Get out of here with those kids!  The teacher doesn’t have time for kids!  He’s got more important people to give His time to.”  Jesus was saying greatness has to do with humbling yourself to the status level of a child where everybody else is more important than you.

In Mark’s account of the same occasion where Jesus set a child before His disciples, Mark 9:35, Jesus explained it this way, “If anyone wants to be first [if you want to be #1, you want to be the greatest], he shall be last of all and servant of all.”  So like a child; last of all, servant of all, low status, below everybody else on importance.  In a similar passage, Luke 22:26, Jesus said, “the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.”  All of those images (a child, the last of all, the servant of all, the youngest) have one thing in common, they describe the person at the bottom of the pecking order, the low man on the totem pole, the person whose will and whose interests don’t matter as much as everybody else’s, the person who doesn’t matter as much.  Jesus could have used other images.  He could have said, the greatest on the team will be like the rookie or the water boy, the greatest in the crew will be like the newbie, the greatest in the army will be like the private.  Jesus is talking about viewing everybody else as above you in importance; being concerned about the welfare of others over your own, and seeking good for their welfare over your own, being a servant of everyone.

Paul explained it this way, Philippians 2:3, he said, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.  5 Have this mind in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

But the disciples weren’t getting it.  Mark 10:35, maybe just weeks later, we read, “James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.’”  It’s already an indication that they’re still not getting this “greatness” thing.  They’re only concerned about what Jesus can do for them and not what they can do for Jesus.  Do you have their mindset?  What can the church do for me, rather than what can I do for the church?  What can my spouse do for me rather than what can I do for my spouse?  What could I get out of becoming a friend to that person rather than how could I bless that person by becoming a friend to them?

Now, James and John I think felt they were especially close to Jesus.  They and Peter were the only ones that Jesus took up the mountain when He transfigured.  It was only they and Peter that got to see that awesome vision.  They and only Peter were the ones that went into a room with Jesus when he raised a particular girl from the dead.  John is called, in the gospel of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.  I think these two brothers felt they were in the inner, inner circle with Jesus.  And they came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we know that we’re close and You like us and we have a favor to ask of you.”  In verse 36, “And He said to them, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ They said to Him, ‘Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.‘“  They expected, that when Jesus takes the throne as king He’s going to need some top officials in His government.  He’s going to need a right hand man and left hand man.  They wanted to secure those positions for themselves before anybody else came and asked for those positions.  They had ambition to be at the top.  Doesn’t our world praise that kind of ambition?  Aren’t people who have ambition to be better than everybody else, to be the best, to make more, to climb the latter, to be at the top… aren’t they the greatest and most successful?  “But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking [the idea I think, “You don’t realize what it takes to receive those top spots in My kingdom.”].  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’“  Now, Jesus means the cup of His suffering and the baptism of His suffering.  Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus knew that the hour of His suffering had come and He was sweating great drops as if blood.  And prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”  And in Luke 12:50 Jesus was looking at coming to Jerusalem and facing His death and He said, “I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!”  So the cup He drinks and the baptism with which He is baptized refers to His suffering.  And He asked James and John, who wanted the top spots in the kingdom, “Are you able to drink my cup, undergo my baptism?”  They didn’t know what He was talking about.  Like young men who think they can do anything, they said confidently, “Yeah!  We’re able!”  And Jesus said to them [predicting what would happen to them later in their lives], ‘The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.  40 But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’ 41 Hearing this, the ten began to feel indignant with James and John.”  It’s not hard to picture the scene.  Here’s 10 of the disciples over here, maybe still sitting around a campfire, and here’s these 2 brothers that have approached Jesus over here and they’re trying to get the edge on these other 10 and they’re whispering to Jesus, “Look Lord, we know that we’re close, that you like us, so would You please, when you come into Your government, we just want one of us to sit on your right hand and one of us to sit on your left hand.”  And the 10 overhear some of it, and they look over and say, “Hey, what’s going on over there?  What do you two think you’re doing?  How dare you try to get the inside track and try to go ask Jesus for those positions when we have just as much right to have those positions as you do.”  They were mad and they were jealous because they all wanted those top positions and all the privileges and power and glory and perks that came with them.  Jesus said, “Hey everybody, be quiet!  Come here!  Listen to me!”  Verse 42, “Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, [trying to explain greatness to them again]‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.”  To illustrate it Jesus could have said, “Judas, you keep the money box.  Toss Me a coin.”  Jesus could have taken a coin and said, “Look at this.”  On the heads side would be a picture of the head of either Tiberius or Augustus, one of the Roman rulers.  And then He could flip it over to the tails side and it would say on it, “He who deserves adoration.”  And He could say, “You see those who are great in the eyes of the world promote themselves.  They seek to convince everybody else that they are better than them.  They seek respect and praise and to have people fawning all over them, bowing and saying “Oh you’re so wonderful!  What can I do for you?”  And they demand their way.  They assert their will over others; they treat everybody else as less important than them.  And they’re the great ones in the eyes of the world.”  43 “But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant;  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.  45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  Greatness is found in quiet, humble, selfless service.  Great are not the ones getting attention like I am this morning.  They’re not the ones getting paid or getting noticed or applauded for their service.

I can imagine when I get to heaven, I’m going to see Jesus sitting on His throne and then I’m going to be ready to see, sitting at His right hand and His left hand, in the top spots, some great famous preachers or some well known Christian author or some big name person, and then I’m probably going to say, “What?!  What is Kathy Scott doing sitting there?  And Joan Lundy doing sitting there?  Or Jerry Miller? Or Paula or Peggy or others like them here.”  Jesus said often in the gospels that the first, the greatest, the #1s in the eyes of God, are the last ones.  The ones who humble themselves to the position where everybody else (even little kids and the poor and the socially challenged and handicap, even the lowest of people) is more important than themselves and they give their lives in service to others for no recognition and no pay, just to please God and help souls.

Now, sometimes we don’t really get it when we just talk in broad general terms.  So let’s get more specific.  Jesus pointed out a number of…

Specific ways in which true greatness is exhibited.

Let’s notice a few.  Turn to Luke 14 and we’ll start at 14:7.  Jesus is at a dinner in the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, “And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table [At banquets, all the guests would recline around the table in a U shape.  At the center of the U, the head of the table, would be the host, and the spots nearest to him were the places of highest honor.  Then the further away you were from the head of the table, the less honorable the place.  Well, Jesus noticed that guests were putting themselves in the places of honor.  So He told them this parable.]…  “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him,  9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place.  10 But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you.  11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Now, Luke calls this a parable.  In other words, it’s not just a story about what happens on earth around banquet tables.  It’s a story illustrating a spiritual truth, it’s a story about what God will do with those who exalt themselves and those who humble themselves.  But you can see in the story, a specific detail about what it means to exalt yourself and to humble yourself, what it means to be not so great and to be great.  Greatness involves letting others have the more desirable seat.  Greatness is not calling “Shotgun!” when you’re headed out to a car with a group of friends.  It’s taking the back seat in the middle with your feet on the hump…  unless your old, or that’s physically difficult for you, no that anybody here is old or physically challenged.  Greatness is taking the seat of watching kids so that parents can go take a seat at the movies.  Greatness is taking the seat of driving someone who needs a ride so they don’t have to sit in an expensive taxi.  Greatness is taking the less desirable seat so that others may have the more desirable seat.

If we keep going here in Luke 14, there’s another specific element of greatness.  14:12 And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment.  13 But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  Now, of course He’s not saying don’t ever invite your friends and family over for dinner.  But he’s saying that’s not really of any credit to you, because they’ll just return the favor.  Greatness is giving to and serving people who are probably not going to return the favor.  It’s investing time and money and effort in folks at the Samaritan House, in kids, in visitors at church, in people that are kind of on the fringes, struggling spiritually, in our poor neighbors, that’s a bit of greatness.

Another element, Matthew 6:1-6, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.  2 So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men.  Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  3 But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  5 When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men.  Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”  In other words, do good things when nobody else will know about it and don’t tell anybody about it.  This week pray, give to somebody who needs help, visit someone, put your arm around someone and tell them you appreciate them, give someone whose hurting, your time to listen to them, try to befriend a lonely person, bring somebody a coffee, put yourself out there with someone and say a word to them about the Lord…  and don’t tell anybody about it.

Another component, Hebrews 13:15, “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.”  When you pray, don’t just fill prayers with “help me’s”, “Lord, would you help me with this and help me with that, do this for me and do that.”  Now, we can have lots of those, Jesus taught us to ask God for things, but don’t neglect to also have lots of “Thank you’s” and praises to God for His goodness and greatness.  Don’t just pray to get things, but also to just honor and thank God.

Some more specifics Jesus demonstrated at the last supper before His death, John 13.  Jesus did something at that table for His disciples and then afterward He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  13 You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.  14 If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, did this for you, you also ought to do  this for one another.  15 For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.”  And what He did was this.  Verse 2ff, “During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, 4 got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself.  5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”  And He, the Son of God, proceeded to wash every one of those disciples’ dirty stinkin’ feet.  I learn from this occasion, four expressions of true greatness.

  • First, greatness is serving when the task may be humiliating. You know washing feet was the task for the lowest of slaves.  Normally the youngest slave or the newest slave would be one who would have to do that job.  It was menial and a somewhat humiliating task.  Do we let opportunities to serve, pass on by because of the nature of the work?  Are there jobs that are just too menial, too low, and degrading for us?  Tasks that are somewhat humiliating?  Scrubbing floors and bathrooms or dishes or babysitting kids?  If in junior high or high school, eating with, visiting with, being a friend to the not so cool kids?  Are we above certain tasks?  The Son of God was not.
  • Secondly, I see in Jesus that greatness is serving when your circumstances make it very difficult. Do you realize this was Jesus’ last meal before He went to the cross and He knew it?  He was in mental and emotional agony.  It would have been real easy for Jesus on that occasion to think, “I’m about to do the greatest service for mankind that will ever be done, death on a cross for the sins of the world.  I’m in agony as I wait for it.  I don’t feel like serving right now.  I deserve to just take it easy right now, and just be served.”  How often are we faced with opportunities to serve, and instead of serving, we make excuses?   “I’m tired.  I’m a little stressed right now.  I’ve done my fair share already.  It’s not my turn.  I need a little time for myself.  I deserve a break.”  Greatness is serving when the task may be humiliating and when your own circumstances make it tough.
  • Thirdly, greatness is taking initiative to serve. Washing everybody’s feet should have been somebody else’s job.  In that day it was expected for the owner of the house or one of his servants to wash the guests’ feet.  It wasn’t Jesus’ job.  And nobody asked Him to do this.  But Jesus didn’t wait around for the person whose job it was to do it.  Nor did He sit there thinking, “Well, I’m willing, if somebody will just assign me the task.  If someone will just tell me what to do, then I’ll do it.”  He just saw something that He could for them and of His initiative He did it.  So you see a mess.  But it’s not your mess.  Somebody else made it and left it.  It’s not your job to clean up around here.  You’re not the one paid to do that.  No one asked you to do it.  Or you see something broken.  You see something that needs replaced.  You see something that needs painted.  You see where your neighbor could use a hand with his fence, with his car, with his kids.  But it’s not your stuff, it’s not your fence, it’s not your car, they’re not your kids.  It’s not your responsibility.  No one has asked or suggested that you do it.  You see some new folks at church.  But nobody has asked you to be a greeter.  Nobody has assigned you the task of greeter.  So it’s not your wife’s birthday, it’s not Valentine’s day, it’s not your anniversary, it’s not mother’s day, she’s not expecting anything.  Or younger people, your parents haven’t asked you to do the dishes or clean up the dog poop.  Greatness is taking initiative to serve.  Seeing what you could do and doing it though nobody is expecting you to.
  • And number four, I see from what Jesus did here that greatness is serving even those who mistreat you. As Jesus was going from disciple to disciple, washing their feet, He came to the feet of Judas Iscariot, who for 30 shekels of silver was about to lead a mob of people, who hated Jesus, to Him when He was away from the crowds and arrest Him, and have their way with Him without starting a riot.  What would you do if you came to the feet of someone who intended on hurting you badly, just for some money?  I might skip over him and serve the others.  I might have dumped the basin of dirty feet water on him.  But when Jesus came to Judas, He knelt before him, He removed his sandals and washed the dirt off his feet and dried them with the towel, just like he did for all the other disciples.  What do we do to people who have insulted us, to people who have gossiped about us, to people of the world involved in sins we find repulsive, to people who would never lift a finger to help us?

Greatness is serving when the task may be humbling, when our circumstances make it difficult, when we haven’t even been asked, and especially when it’s for those who mistreat us.

Let’s end here with John 13:12-17, “So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?  13 You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.  14 If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,  15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.  16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.  17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’”  Did you hear that last part?  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.  Well, we all know these things, unless you managed to tune me out.  Now, if we add to the knowing, the doing of these things, Jesus says, then we are blessed.  The Father is looking down from heaven.  He’s looking for humble, quiet, selfless servants, always thinking about the people around them and treating them as more important than themselves, giving their lives to the service of others.  And those people are the greatest of people in the eyes of God and He will highly exalt them in due time.  I don’t know about you, but this is challenging to me.  This gives me something to pray about, and to strive to be more like in my heart and life.

-James Williams

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