Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Quest for True Greatness > Mark 9:33-37

(Audio will not be available for download this week. For a copy of the tape, contact Immanuel Baptist Church at ibc@ibcgso.org).


As an avid sports fan, I was very interested in ESPN’s recent series of features on the greatest sports highlight of all time. As a hockey fan, I was glad to see that the Team USA Gold Medal in Hockey in 1980 was finally named the greatest highlight. Sports is an arena where there is always an ongoing discussion of greatness. We debate with other fans about the greatest quarterback, the greatest team, the greatest victory, the greatest play. In the sport of boxing, Muhammad Ali is known as the Greatest of All Time, or G.O.A.T. for short. If you don’t believe that, just ask Muhammad Ali, and he will tell you that he is the greatest. In 2002, Karl Evanzz published a collection of quotations and anecdotes from Ali’s life entitled, I Am the Greatest, a personal and frequently stated motto of Muhammad Ali. In that collection, a humorous story of uncertain authenticity is told about an incident that allegedly occurred on an airplane. As the plane prepared for takeoff, a flight attendant asked Ali to fasten his seatbelt, to which Ali replied, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” Not to be outdone by the boxer, the flight attendant retorted, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.” In that episode, it appears that Ali’s self-proclaimed greatness was momentarily eclipsed by the greatness of the of the one who job it was to serve him on that journey.

The quest for greatness is a universal phenomenon. It is not necessarily a bad thing for a person to aspire to greatness. After all, we should always seek to be the best and do the best we possibly can in any task. Greatness is applauded and awarded on many levels in human life everywhere people are found. When I was in Kenya on a mission trip, my partner broke out a paddle-ball toy for the children to play with. It wasn’t long before the adults became enamored with the thing and began taking turns paddling the ball, and soon enough a contest ensued to see who was the greatest paddle-baller of Kibabamuche. When one of the men outdid the rest, all the others began to applaud and one said, “We should give you a certificate!”

Because we have all experienced this desire to achieve greatness and gain recognition for our accomplishments, we are not surprised to find that the disciples of Jesus also had this desire to be great. A survey of the context will help us see how the discussion of greatness came about. Jesus had chosen Peter, James, and John to accompany Him up the mountain where they would witness His glorious transfiguration. The rest of the disciples had remained at the foot of the mountain where they were requested to perform an exorcism and healing miracle—a request they were unable to fulfill. This may have sparked a sense of “one-up-man-ship” among those who had been to the mountain peak. Add to this the statements of Jesus concerning His impending death, and we can see the makings of a controversy over who will be the leadership heir of the movement. And so a conversation had taken place as they traveled through Galilee toward Capernaum. I say “a conversation,” but in fact the Greek word used by Jesus in verse 33 means literally, “to discuss, dispute, or engage in a detailed discussion.” The word Mark uses in verse 34 carries the notion of a contention. We would not be out of bounds to say they were having an argument about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus asks the disciples in v33, “What were you discussing on the way?” They had supposed that Jesus was unaware of their dispute, but they, and we, must come to learn that NOTHING takes place in our lives of which Jesus is unaware. He hears every word we say and sees everything we do. Moreover, He is even aware of the motives and intentions of our hearts. His question is not an attempt to gain new information from them. Rather, it is an invitation for them to come clean in confession before Him. It is similar to the question God asked Adam in Genesis 3:9 – “Where are you.” God knew exactly where Adam was, but He was inviting Adam to confess his sin. So here, the question challenges the disciples to bring into the open this debate which they thought had taken place unbeknownst to Jesus.[1] I repeat, nothing in our lives takes place unbeknownst to Jesus. We must remember that. And what does Jesus’ question evoke from the disciples? Silence. But their silence was a wordless confession their sin and their shame.

In verse 35 we read that Jesus sat down and called the disciples to Himself. In the ancient world, to sit and teach was to assume the position of an authoritative teacher, as we see elsewhere in the teaching narratives of the New Testament. And as He begins to instruct them, He doesn’t rub their noses in the shame of their self-centered and silly strife, but rather takes the opportunity to teach them a much more valuable lesson about what it means to be great in the Kingdom of God.

Following Christ is the ultimate counter-cultural movement. The world is marching in one direction to the beat of one drum, and the followers of Christ are marching to a very different beat, in a very different direction. And perhaps nowhere “does the way of Jesus diverge more sharply from the way of the world than on the question of greatness.”[2] And so if we desire to be great (and who among us doesn’t have this desire?), we must learn what it means to be great in the eyes of God, for His standard of greatness is far different from that of the world. With this in mind, let’s dive into the text and see how Jesus defines and demonstrates true greatness.

I. Jesus Defines True Greatness For Us (v35)

I find the word “greatness” in my Webster’s College Dictionary sandwiched between the entries for “greasy spoon” and “Great Abaco.” There it is listed as the noun form of the adjective “great,” which has twenty numbered definitions, including: unusually or comparatively large in size or dimensions; big; unusual or considerable in degree, power or intensity; first-rate, excellent; notable, remarkable; important; highly significant; distinguished, famous; of noble or lofty character; chief or principle; of high rank or social standing; etc. These, among others, are given as the world’s understanding of the meaning of greatness. But Jesus presents us with a different definition than this.

A. Jesus acknowledges the desire for greatness.

You will notice that nowhere in the passage does Jesus condemn the desire for greatness. He does not rebuke the disciples for wanting to be great. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be great. The problem comes when one pursues the world’s standard of greatness with no regard for God’s standard of greatness. So Jesus issues a corrective here as he says, “If anyone wants to be first …,” as if to say, “It isn’t wrong to want to be great. But you must know what true greatness in the eyes of God entails. And then …

B. Jesus declares the way to greatness.

One becomes great in the eyes of God as one becomes last of all and servant of all. These phrases “last of all” and “servant of all,” are not just two ways of saying the same thing. One is passive. Becoming “last of all” means that one is willing to step back and allow others to take precedence over themselves. The other is active. To be “servant of all” is to engage in a duty, it is to take action to meet the needs of others, no matter how lowly the task. This was as radically different from the prevailing secular mindset of Jesus’ day as it is from that in our own day.

Plato said, “How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”[3] That pretty much sums up the prevailing mindset about this notion of servanthood. It was considered a demeaning and undignified existence. But Jesus turns this on its head and indicates that servanthood is not merely a path to happiness, but the pathway to true greatness. Whereas the world’s notion of greatness involves a man climbing to the top of a pyramid to stand alone at its peak being served by all those under him, Jesus turns the pyramid upside down and says that true greatness involves standing alone on the bottom, serving all those above you. Others become more important than self, and not just those others who are considered important in the eyes of the world, but Jesus says, ALL. We must become last of all, and servant of all. We are not to evaluate with worldly standards who is worthy of being served by us. We are to treat all men the same, becoming a servant to them all.

The Greek word for servant used here is a word with which you are familiar. It is the word diakonos, which becomes the basis for our English word deacon. However, we must not understand this passage through the lens of our common conception, or misconception as it may be, of the church office of deacon. That has become in many churches a label of status and prestige. That is not what Jesus had in mind. Rather, we need to define deacon ministry in terms of this passage and others like it that clearly specify what this kind of servanthood involves. The word was commonly used in the ancient world to speak of waiting on tables. It is the humble task of meeting the needs of those around us, no matter who they are. And this is not reserved for a special group within the church – it is the responsibility of every follower of Christ to serve others.

Recently a ministry colleague asked me if I knew the difference between serving and being a servant. I confessed to him that I thought they were the same. But he corrected me gently by saying, “No, if I say I am here to serve, then it means I get to decide who I serve, how I serve, and when I serve. But if I am a servant, then I don’t get to make that choice. I must serve every person, in any way necessary, whenever the task requires it.” I stood humbly corrected, and convicted upon looking at it in that way. I think my friend has truly understood greatness the way God views it.

Greatness in the Kingdom of God is not reserved for those who are particularly gifted or especially privileged. Rather, each of us has the potential for greatness as we take up the common and ordinary task of serving other people. The more common and humble the task, the greater the deed in God’s eyes.

Do you want to be truly great? Then you and I must put aside the world’s measures of greatness and seek greatness in the things that matter most to God. And nothing is greater in God’s eyes than that we serve on another. In this way we emulate Jesus, who will say later in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many,” and in Luke 22:27, “I am among you as the one who serves.” We must begin to view opportunities to serve others not as interruptions, distractions, or inconveniences. We must view those opportunities as divine invitations to true greatness, wherein we will demonstrate our faithfulness to God and our willingness to be seen as unimportant in the eyes of man, but great in the eyes of God. If others will see Jesus in us, they will see Him as we serve them selflessly, making them more important than ourselves, as it were laying down our lives for theirs.

“If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”

Not only does Jesus define true greatness for us, but also we see here that …

II. Jesus Demonstrates True Greatness for Us (vv36-37)

Christianity has many outspoken opponents in the world today. Yet those who belittle the Christian faith need to stop and consider how the Christian worldview has changed society as a whole for the better. One example of this is the way children are viewed. Today, for the most part, children are treasured and considered precious in the eyes of all mankind. But it has not always been this way. In Jesus’ day, children represented the lowest order of the social scale. They were thought of as “not having arrived” yet, and in many ways were considered to be unimportant in the eyes of the society. They were thought to have nothing to contribute; they were receivers, dependent on others for everything. This cultural context sheds light on that familiar passage we will come to in Mark 10:13, where people were bringing their children to Jesus, and the disciples began to rebuke them. They thought of children like everyone else did. They assumed that Jesus was far too important to be bothered with a bunch of children. But how did Jesus respond to the attitude of His disciples? It’s just there a few verses down from our text today in Mark 10:14 – “He became indignant,” or as we say here in the south, He was madder than a hornet’s nest. And He said, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them.” This was a revolutionary way of thinking about children.

Here in our text we read that Jesus took a child up in His arms and said, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.” With these words, but more importantly with this action, Jesus demonstrates our great task and our great testimony.

A. Serving Others Is Our Great Task

In taking this child into His arms, Jesus indicates the greatness of our task of serving. His words indicate to us …

1. The Objects of Our Service (one child like this)

The words like this are very important here. With these words, Jesus indicates that the kind of greatness He is calling us to is not just demonstrated in our service to children, but in our service to those who are like them. We really don’t mind serving those who are considered important in the eyes of the world. If we were to bring a professional athlete up front here and say, “Is there anyone in the sanctuary who would be willing to take this man to lunch today,” we’d have a fight break out over who would get to do it. But what would our response be if we were to place a homeless person in that same place and ask the same? Do we really have to answer that question? We don’t mind helping someone who we think might be able to help us in return. Maybe if I take the athlete to lunch, he might give me some tickets to the game, or an autograph or something. At the very least, I will be able to brag to my friends that I shared a meal with someone really important. And I will look like a big-shot in front of all those people at the restaurant. But are we willing to help those who can offer us nothing in return? That is the question implied by the words like this. Those who are unimportant in the eyes of the world, those can offer us nothing in return, those who will be receivers only, these are the ones we must serve. Who is great in the eyes of God? The one who serves God by serving others, particularly when there’s nothing in it for me. It isn’t easy to do. It is entirely unnatural and goes against every inclination in our fabric of being. And that is why God thinks it so great. We have moved from the natural into the supernatural when we these become the objects of our service. And this brings us to …

2. The Manner of Our Service (In My Name)

When we do something “in the name of Jesus,” it is as if we are standing in His place, doing as He would do, doing it all for our love for Him, and for His glory. So the question is not, “What’s in it for me?” The question is, “What’s in it for Jesus?” He is glorified and honored through our serving, and others are brought to know Him as they see Him in us. We wear His name – we are Christians, and that name means “like Christ.” And if we are like Him then we will do what He does, as we do it in His name. It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always convenient, it isn’t always fun. But we must be honest with ourselves and with God and with those we are serving by saying, “I am doing this for Jesus. I’m doing it because I love Him, and I know He loves you; and because you are important to Him, then you’re important to Me. So I am doing it in His name.”

And this brings us to our final thought.

B. Serving Others Is Our Great Testimony

You are aware, no doubt, that the culture around us finds it very offensive that Christians say that we have exclusive access to God because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. You see, we say that we have received God because we have received Christ. Christ says that if we have received God by receiving Him, it will be evident to all in the way we receive and serve those who are unimportant in the eyes of the world. And I suggest to you that the reason why the exclusive claims of Christianity are so offensive to the world around us is because they have not seen the outworking of our faith in the way Jesus describes here.

Celsus was a Greek writer in the second century who criticized Christianity as a threat to society. While we do not have most of what he wrote originally, much of it has been preserved in the writings of the third century Christian leader Origen, who sought to answer Celsus' criticisms. From reading Celsus’ criticisms of the Christian faith, we are able to see what outsiders thought about Christianity in its earliest years. Celsus writes, “The following are the rules laid down by them. Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence. By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.” He goes on to speak of the class of people welcomed in by the Christian church as, “workers in wool and leather, and fullers, and persons of the most uninstructed and rustic character,” “foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children.” While Celsus’ words are intended to bring shame to the Christian church, instead they show plainly how the Church reached out with open arms to those who were despised and rejected by the world.

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, so named because he had rejected the Christian faith he had been raised to embrace, wrote of the Christians in his day, marveling at their “benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.” In spite of his rejection of the faith, he saw something in Christianity that was lacking in his paganism. He writes, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, the impious Galileans [a term of derision used against Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” He says, “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

These quotations from the enemies of the Christian faith show that the early followers of Christ were seen by the world around them as people who indiscriminately and sacrificially served others, just as Jesus had commanded and demonstrated through His life and teaching. But I wonder if those outside the Christian faith today would say the same thing of us as Celsus and Julian said of the ancient church? If we want to demonstrate to the world the validity of our exclusive claim to know God through faith in Christ, we must demonstrate it through the posture of servanthood, just as Christ indicates here.

Who among us has not desired to be considered great in the eyes of others? In our text today, Jesus reminds us that what matters most is to be found great in the eyes of God, and the path to that true greatness is the path of servanthood. The need today is greater than ever for the Church of Jesus Christ and every individual member of it to humble ourselves in repentance for our self-centeredness and misguided ambitions and consecrate ourselves to demonstrating Christ’s love, His grace, and His mercy in our service to others. It means taking up the thankless tasks that may never be acknowledged on earth, but which will certainly not go unrewarded in heaven.

Christ has taught us, and Christ has modeled this for us, both in this episode with the little child, and ultimately in His death on the cross. The apostle Paul says in Philippians 2 that we should have this attitude in us which was also in Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow … and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

Christ became a servant of humanity, ultimately giving His life for ours—dying the death we deserved for our sins on Calvary’s cross so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be reconciled to God. Some today within the sound of my voice may need to accept Him into their lives as Lord and Savior, and we would urge you to do just that. And many more of you perhaps already have done that, and committed your life to following Jesus. If you would follow Him, you would follow Him on the path of servanthood. And so in our closing moments, and in the days to come, will you make it a matter of prayer, asking God to help you become last of all and servant of all by meeting the needs of those you come into contact with as the Holy Spirit empowers and guides you. In so doing, you will be seen as great in the eyes of God, and because of you, Jesus Christ will be seen as great in the eyes of men.



[1] R. T. France, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 373.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 287.

[3] Plato, Gorgias, 491e. Cited in Edwards, 282.

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