Mark 9:33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, What were you discussing on the way?
Mark 9:34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
Mark 9:35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.
The apostles of Christ at one time disputed fervently among themselves as to which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. Each of them desired and wanted to be the second-in-command to Jesus in the Kingdom Age. They all loved and desired the honour and adulation that would come from being venerated by others as they sit closest to King Jesus on his throne. The tussle for positions of power and glory among God’s people hasn’t diminished over the centuries. If anything, the desire of men of God to be revered and held in high esteem has only grown by leaps and bounds over the years.
Jesus’ response to his apostles’ hassle for power revealed God’s perspective on greatness. Jesus wasn’t averse to their desire to be great. He didn’t rebuke them for wanting to be great. However, he set out the conditions for greatness before them. To be great required great service, not scheming. The one aspiring to be the greatest of all should be the servant of all! The measure of one’s service to God and to his people will determine the level of one’s greatness in God’s kingdom. How radically different that must be from the apostles’ perception of greatness!
Once upon a time, Jesus was invited by a Pharisee to dinner. While reclining at table, he observed intently the way the invited guests scrambled for positions of honour at the high table. The Lord was inspired by what he observed to give one of his greatest sermons on honour.
Luke 14:7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them,
Luke 14:8 When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him,
Luke 14:9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, Give your place to this person, and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.
Luke 14:10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, Friend, move up higher. Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.
Luke 14:11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
The lesson the Lord Jesus taught here was not only for the men of his day, it was for all people of all times: we should abase ourselves if we want to be exalted. You don’t get honour by seeking for it. It is more praise-worthy to be promoted to honour from obscurity, to rise from grass to grace, than to be demoted and disgraced while fighting to occupy positions of honour. Truly, we learn a great lesson here: the way up is down! To be exalted, you must humble yourself.
Even in the Church, people go to great lengths to lobby for leadership positions. They can manipulate, scheme and bribe their way to positions of power and authority.The same thing happened at a point in Jesus’ ministry, when the apostles James and John used their mother to lobby Jesus in their bid to secure juicy positions of power for themselves in God’s kingdom.
Matthew 20:20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something.
Matthew 20:21 And he said to her, What do you want? She said to him, Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.
Matthew 20:22 Jesus answered, You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink? They said to him, We are able.
Matthew 20:23 He said to them, You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.
Matthew 20:24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.
This was the height of sleight cunningness! It was a devious backhand move by the two brothers to outsmart the other apostles. James and John, like most of us today, believed in the manipulative power game. They were trying to use devilish worldly wisdom to outwit the other apostles and secure for themselves wonderful cabinet positions in God’s kingdom! How so much like some of us today in the Church, who will lie, and bribe and manipulate our way to positions of authority, without giving any qualms about what it takes or who we trample upon to get to our destination. That’s why we see ministers of the Gospel fighting openly for overseership of the church, or for juicy parishes. That’s why we see litigations among God’s servants in the courts of the world, as brothers set upon brothers in the quest to dominate and rule with inordinate ambition. The world has entered the Church and infused her with its ideology and philosophy, as believers freely and unashamedly copy from the world’s dirty politicking. But, how did Jesus respond to this brazen and blatant display of naked quest for power by the sons of Zebedee?
Matthew 20:25 But Jesus called them to him and said, You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.
Matthew 20:26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
Matthew 20:27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,
Matthew 20:28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus used the opportunity to teach the disciples a great power lesson. He set a sharp contrast between the power structure/dynamics in the world and that in God’s kingdom. In the world, those who lead do so by exercising authority and lordship. A leader in the world is marked out by the number of servants he has, by the number of people that attend and wait on him. A leader in the world is a lord exercising authority over others. However, in God’s kingdom, things are different. A leader in the spiritual realm is judged by how many people he serves, not by how many people serving him. To aspire to be the greatest in God’s Kingdom means to aspire to be the greatest servant of men! Now, I’m sure the positions James and John were scheming for didn’t look quite as attractive again, after hearing the requirements for occupying those offices. Serving others and humbling ourselves before all is not really attractive. It’s mean and lowly and devoid of fanfare and acclaim, but, it’s the way to greatness in God’s kingdom. Jesus set the example of greatness for us by coming down from heaven to serve all, to the point of giving his life as a ransom for the redemption of lost humanity. That’s the epitome of leadership which all his disciples are enjoined to emulate.
John 13:4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.
John 13:5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
John 13:13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.
John 13:14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
John 13:15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.
John 13:16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
John 13:17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Feet-washing was the basest of tasks in a Jewish household during Jesus’ time, a task reserved for the lowliest slaves. They would meet guests at the door of the house, stoop to remove their footwear and take time to wash and dry their dirt-coated feet. That was a menial job meant for lowly servants. Yet, our Lord stooped to do that dirty, lowly task for his disciples. Their Lord and Master became their servant in washing their dirty feet! Here was the perfect example of the servant-leader, showing leadership through service. And he left us a command to do as he had done: to stoop as low as he had done to serve one another. That’s God’s prescription for greatness in his kingdom.
Leaders in God’s Church are not to be lords over the people that God has placed under them. Rather, they are to be worthy examples to the flock. As true shepherds, pastors are to feed the flock, not fleece them. The needs of the sheep should come first, not the pastors’. True shepherds should be ready to lay down their lives for their flocks.
1 Peter 5:1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:
1 Peter 5:2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;
1 Peter 5:3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
John 10:12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
John 10:13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
It is selfless service to the flocks that makes pastors great, not service by the flocks. A great pastor is not one who is served by all, who has many servants attending to him, who flies in a private jet or drives fleets of exotic cars accompanied by police escorts. A great pastor is not one who dresses the most dandily, not one who changes his wardrobe every week or who has a special seat that resembles a throne in the church. The greatness of a pastor is measured by his meekness, his humility and his lowliness in service. The greatest pastor is the greatest servant in the church, not a lord over the church. Unfortunately, many church leaders think of their greatness in ministry only in terms of the material prosperity acquired, the number of those under them that serve them and the privileges accruing to them. They have become worldly-minded in their concept of leadership and greatness .
Greatness in kingdom terms has to do with how much we can empty ourselves for others, not how much we fill ourselves with our egos and pride and the inordinate ambition to conquer and subdue others. Greatness is not measured by how much people sow into our lives, but by how much we sow into people’s lives. True greatness is in living for others and in serving others with humility. To be promoted to the highest heavens, we must first abase ourselves to the lowest earth. That was the example Jesus set for us on earth. He came from the highest heaven to lowly earth, leaving his glory behind in the process. While on earth, he let go of his Godhead, assumed the form of a servant and served faithfully unto death. That’s why he has the name above all names today!
Philippians 2:3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Philippians 2:4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
Philippians 2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
Philippians 2:7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
Philippians 2:8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
Philippians 2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
Philippians 2:11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Humility is the key to greatness in God’s kingdom. God will always elevate the humble, as surely as he will bring down the proud. To be lifted up by God, we must resist Satan’s temptation to promote and flaunt self in arrogance, and submit to God and others. Pride was at the heart of Lucifer’s catastrophic fall from a covering cherub in heaven to a Satan who will be destroyed in the lake of fire! And it was man’s prideful desire to be like God that led to his downfall.
Isaiah 14:12 How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!
Isaiah 14:13 You said in your heart, I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;
Isaiah 14:14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.
Isaiah 14:15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.
Proverbs 16:18 Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Proverbs 16:19 It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.
1 Peter 5:5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
1 Peter 5:6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.
Let us then learn from Jesus, not from the world, as we seek greatness. Let’s learn to follow the Master on the path to true greatness. Let’s learn to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily and follow him faithfully. Let us learn from his meek and lowly heart that we may find rest unto our souls.
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Matthew 16:25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 16:26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
It is the meek and the lowly (not proud, arrogant and ambitious schemers) that will inherit the earth in the Kingdom Age:
Psalms 37:11 But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.
Matthew 5:5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
In conclusion, true greatness comes from humble and selfless service to others, and not from arrogant scheming propelled by inordinate ambition. To be the greatest in God’s Kingdom, we must abase ourselves and be the servant of all. The truly great do not seek greatness for themselves. They just seek to serve God and God’s people as humbly and as selflessly as they can. And then greatness finds them!
Jeremiah 45:5 (a) And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.
Romans 12:16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.