The Road To Greatness?
Jesus takes up the topic of greatness after discovering that some of His disciples had completely misunderstood the meaning of discipleship. It is apparent from the conversation that transpires that some of Jesus’ followers saw discipleship as a means to acquiring status within the promised kingdom. For some of them, discipleship was about getting ahead and securing a position next to Jesus.
As often is the case, Jesus enters in on their dialogue with a question, asking His disciples, “What were you discussing on the way?” (9:33).
Mark tells us that “(the disciples) kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest” (9:34).
Quite a bold topic of conversation—wouldn’t you say?! And, not surprisingly, the audacity of the disciples precipitated corrective instruction from Jesus.
We should be careful not to gloss over Mark’s mentioning that Jesus “sat down” and “called the twelve” to Himself (9:35). For Jesus to sit down, and to call His disciples to join Him, was a gesture meant to initiate formal teaching.
I don’t know what high school was like for all of you, but for me, high school seemed like an endless quest to evade discipline and correction. And, speaking as one who was often disciplined and corrected, I can say that there are two types of contexts for correction. The first type of correction, is preferable, and takes but an instant—the teacher taps you on the shoulder while standing in the hallway and points you towards the thing you should be doing.
The second type of correction, is the type to be feared—the teacher, seeing you in the hallway, summons you into his or her office . . . and asks you to sit down. When serious correction is required it is important for the student to be seated. So, for Jesus to sit, and for Him to ask His disciples to join Him, is to indicate the seriousness of their error.
After having them sit down, Jesus says to His disciples, “If anyone wants to be first, let him be last of all, and servant of all” (9:35).
Notice that Jesus doesn’t attack the disciples’ desire to be great; Jesus does not say, ‘Never mind being great; never mind being first; those things don’t matter.’ What Jesus does here is that He corrects their presumptions of how greatness is acquired. He says, ‘If greatness is what you want, then you must become a servant of all.’
Jesus was calling for a complete paradigm shift in the worldview held by His disciples. And in order to demonstrate what He has just said, Jesus brought forward a child, “and taking (the child) in His arms, (Jesus) said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not (only) receive Me, but (also) Him who sent Me’” (9:36, 37).
Now why did He do this? How did bringing a child forward demonstrate what Jesus was trying to teach? Clearly, Jesus was demonstrating that He intended no limits when He exhorted His disciples to be “last of all, and servant(s) of all.” In the Graeco-Roman world, children had a very low and unimportant position within society. The principle then, being taught by Jesus was to serve others regardless of status—‘Serve the unimportant; serve the weak; serve the helpless; if you have any hope of becoming great, you must become a servant of children.’.
Beloved, it is not much of a stretch to see how this principle is to be applied, quite literally, in the local church. Jesus is calling you and I to take time for children. We are not simply to tolerate their presence for the first twenty minutes of our worship service, we are being called to seek them out, and to serve them. Engage them in conversation, or, at the very least, smile at them and say ‘Hello’.
Too often, the local church is a place that perpetuates the archaic proverb that says, ‘Children are to be seen, and not heard.’ My guess is that the disciples would have liked that proverb quite a bit (perhaps they invented it!), but then Jesus sits them down and tells them that in order to be great they must be “servants of all”; He tells them to be servants of children.
You hardly need me to spell out the application for this exhortation, but lest some of us miss what is manifest, permit me to make some suggestions. Given this principle, set before us by our Lord, there is no reason to ever justify a shortage of church school teachers; there is no excuse good enough to ever justify a shortage of nursery volunteers.
If you desire greatness, if you desire to be regarded by God as great, then you must be willing to serve anyone and everyone; you must be willing to serve children. Thankfully, St. Giles Kingsway has a great many children, and so I implore you to begin your application of this text immediately.
Some of you may still be wondering about the reasoning of Jesus in using a child to illustrate His point. Of all the ways Jesus could have demonstrated His point, why did He choose a child?
I do not pretend to know precisely what our Lord was thinking, but may I suggest that it could have something to do with the different motives that people have for service. By using a child as an example, Jesus challenges those who might engage in service for the benefit of reward or praise. You see, there is very little advancement gained by serving children—they can’t vote, they don’t hold positions of authority, they don’t possess money, nor do they give speeches about how helpful your assistance was. In fact, one of the first lessons a new parent learns is how their care for their child is taken for granted. Children generally don’t make a big deal out of the fact that you bend over backwards in your efforts to love them and to provide for their needs.
As a result, those who serve in order to be noticed, praised, or promoted, usually don’t have much interest in helping children.
Now, I have said a great deal about children because Jesus says a great deal about children to make His point. And what you might expect me to say next is for me to tell you to serve children because they are so precious; you might expect me to tell you to serve children because they are so significant and so deserving of our service. But Jesus does not say that here. What follows is quite unexpected. Rather than speak about the value of the child, Jesus turns the whole discussion away from the value of the child to the value of God.
Jesus does not say, ‘Whoever receives a child like this honours the child.’ No, in exhorting us to serve children, Jesus makes an important point about our connection to Him: “Whoever receives a child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, (not only) receives Me, but (also receives) Him who sent Me” (9:37).
Two things should be observed from this statement. First of all, we see that caring for a child for the child’s sake is not sufficient in honouring God. Jesus doesn’t simply say, ‘serve the children’, He says ‘receive the child, serve the child, in My name.’ That is to say that our motivation for serving children must be connected to our desire to serve Christ.
And, secondly, our motivation for serving children must be connected to a desire to be in fellowship with Christ. Jesus says, that when we receive a child in His name we also receive Him, and we also receive the Heavenly Father (and presumably, the Holy Ghost).
So, you see, we don’t serve for the sake of serving. And we don’t serve primarily for the sake of the one whom we are serving. And we don’t even serve because serving makes us great. We serve because our service connects us with Jesus Christ. And when we are connected in a relationship with Jesus Christ, it is then that we have become truly great.
If I am to make one other observation, it would be this: Jesus leaves no room for a passive Christianity.
Now that may sound strange coming from a minister who is prone to stressing the sovereignty of God. We do indeed confess that our salvation is completely, and totally, a work of grace, and that we contribute nothing in gaining God’s favour. Yet, once we have been quickened, once the Spirit of God has taken up residence in us, there is no room for inactivity.
We may not have had to ‘do’ anything to gain salvation, but once salvation is gained, there is much to be done. The Son of God was the greatest man to ever walk this earth, and He bids you and I, “follow Me”. The Son of God was the greatest man to ever walk this earth, and now, He calls us to go and serve “in His name.” Greatness is not an option for the Christian, because if we are desiring to be like Christ, we are desiring to be great.
Jesus does not ask His disciples to apologize for wanting to be great. Rather, He seeks to transform their understanding of greatness. And so we must be careful to aspire to the kind of greatness that Jesus commends.
In other words, greatness cannot be measured by the nameplate on your office door; greatness cannot be measured by the size of your pay cheque, or by what kind of car you drive. Greatness cannot even be measured by how often you attend church or read your Bible.
Greatness is relative to your proximity to Jesus Christ. If you are to be considered great, not in the eyes of this world, but if you are to be great it the eyes of the One who rules this universe, it is necessary for you to be in communion with His only begotten Son. The horrifying alternative to this is explained, in detail, in the verses that follow.
You don’t need to apologize for your aspirations for greatness, so long as you understand that acquiring greatness ultimately depends on your proximity to Christ, and as long as you understand that what is required of you is to be “last of all, and (a) servant of all.” Amen.