What is 'greatness'? Great preacher, great church, great worship, etc? More importantly, how does the Lord measure greatness? Jesus gives us five different characteristics of the man or woman who is "great in the Kingdom of Heaven".
Part 1: The Younger.
Part 2: A Child.
Part 3: The Least.
Part 4: The Last.
Part 5: A Servant.
Part 6: Jesus - the Greatest!
Part 1. “The Younger”
"And there was strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And He said unto them, ‘The kings of the earth exercise Lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But you shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger.." Luke 22: 24-26
In the Jewish culture the ‘younger’ held no position of honour or power. The eldest brother was the one upon whom the honour of the family was laid; the youngest brother was the last of the hand-me-down line with little claim on any family honours or inheritance. However, it is seen that some found favor in the heart of God for, on two occasions, we read that both Isaac and Jacob pronounced blessings on younger sons. Isaac blessed Jacob above Esau; Jacob blessed the sons of Joseph, Ephraim above Manasseh. (Heb.11:20,21; Gen.48:14). In Hebrews 11:20,21 these actions are attributed to ‘faith’ - the directive prompting of God. Indeed God said “Jacob I have loved; Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1: 2 and Rom 9:13). Why? Paul teaches that it was to show God’s mercy. God not treating us as we deserve! BUT I think there is something more significant we need to learn. Jacob was a rebel, it is true, but Esau lived for the “NOW” , despising his birthright - and that is what the Lord hates.
The lives of Jacob and Esau have many parallels in the story Jesus told about the prodigal son of Luke 15:11. Both Jacob and the prodigal were rebels; both left home only to return in remorse, having come to their senses. What can I learn from this younger son? There seems to be nothing to commend him - until I contrast him with the elder brother.
The Father loved both sons equally but it was the younger who brought him greatest joy - after repentance and return. In the younger son there was acknowledgment of his sin and unworthiness. He did not come home expecting the father’s welcome but, rather, humbly as a servant. Again, it was the Father’s mercy that caused the fatted calf to be killed.
Further, all that the Father owned belonged to the elder son; that was to be his inheritance. He would get the farm with all its fatted calves. The younger son had no such inheritance - he could carry all his ‘worldly possessions’ on his shoulders as he walked away. BUT I suggest that might give us the clue as to why the younger more readily expresses ‘greatness’ before the Lord.
He had no interest in the “status quo”! He had nothing to tie him to this world! He did not own the farm and the farm did not own him!! Of the younger it could truly be said “he loved not this world” (1 Jn 2:15-17). It is true that, before his conversion, he sought pleasures in its indulgences but he found they did not satisfy. His elder brother never learned that truth and, though his was not a lusting after the flesh, he was still a lover of this world, being tied in to its system with its promised inheritances and riches.
Where is my inheritance today ? Do I see it in this world or in another? In the kingdoms of men or the kingdom of God ?
Many believers still have their eyes on this world and its treasures. Like the elder brother, they are more concerned about the state of the farm and their position and possessions; Like the descendants of Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, they would rather stay “this side of Jordan” in a land fit for cattle, than risk stepping out into the uncertainties of the promised land of God with its milk and honey, grapes of Eshcol - and giants to be overcome. (with Gad - Numbers 32)
They keep building castles and empires here instead of being like Abraham of whom it is recorded that he lived as an alien in this world seeking for a city whose architect and builder is God. (Heb.11:10)
The song of the younger brother is
“This world is not my home; I’m just a’passing through”.
“I am a stranger here, within a foreign land; my home is far away, upon a distant strand,
Ambassador am I for realms beyond the sky, I’m here on business for my King.”
The most prominent ‘youngster’ in the Bible was the shepherd boy, David. He was the youngest of 8 sons of Jesse. (1 Sam 16). Who could have foreseen such a future for him when the prophet Samuel had anointed him to be king over Israel ? The only experience he had had was tending sheep. But he had not been wasting his time! He had practiced with the sling doing his work faithfully., defending his father’s sheep against a lion and a bear.
Though he was in the lowest of the “hand-me-down” line he never showed resentment but learned to accept his position and to wait his turn. The Lord choose him to become king because God knew his heart. To Samuel, God had said, “Man looketh on the outward appearance but I look at the heart”. Where again is your heart focused? This world or the next ? “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Pure = unalloyed with the things of this world)
David had learned to trust in God - even when the circumstances seemed like giants before him. He never fastened his attention on the problems but kept his eyes on the Lord. His confidence was in the Lord, and in the sling he had proved, not in the untried armor which he had not proved. What have you proved? God’s Word ? His name ?
Though David entered Saul’s palace, he would not force God’s timetable. He had learned to wait! Do not rush ahead of God; you will only walk in your own shadow! Though there were opportunities when it seemed that God was presenting the throne before him, David still would wait, saying “I will not lay my hand against the Lord’s elect. There was to be no politicking with him! That is the way of this world, it is not the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. And God knew David’s heart!
Let me summarize what we have learned about being the younger:
THE YOUNGER is not interested in the status quo - his eyes and heart are focused elsewhere. He is a stranger in this world, not tied to its systems and goals. He can wait his turn, not playing the politics of church, trusting in God who is faithful, not in the unproved confidences of others. He lives for the future, not for the self-centredness of Now.
Part 2. “A Child”
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 18:4
What are the characteristics of CHILDLIKENESS?
1. Firstly Jesus said that they are humble. We have a wrong notion of what this means. It is not to be equated with weakness. Jesus was humble yet He was never weak. Humility is knowing oneself as one truly is - neither more nor less. It is walking in TRUTH - not lies, either + or - .
(The most humble statement in the Bible was uttered by God to Moses - “I am that I am”.) A child may play games of pretense, but when the games are over, he will reveal again that he is but a child. It is grown-ups that continue to play games long after others have seen through their charade.
Who am I? What is the truth? I am a sinner but one saved by His grace. Paul with all his education, etc, would only claim to be the chief of sinners.
2. They cannot deceive! They will try but are not very successful. They are transparent. There is no politicking in them. Of Jesus, it was said, “There was no guile found in His mouth.”
3. They cannot bear malice for a time. They do not easily hold on to an offense.
John Wesley wrote to George Whitfield when they were reconciled.
“How sad it is we must confess, our love was greater when our light was less!”
4. They are totally dependant on their parents.
They are born in weakness and need their parents more than any other animal.
A good Biblical example of a child is SAMUEL - we know more of his childhood than any other Biblical character. Hannah and Elkanah were his parents. His name means ‘asked of God’ (1 Sam 1:20). His mother Hannah gave him back to God to serve in the temple. God had become his ‘alpha & omega’.
What can we learn from him ?
His situation was not very good - he was surrounded by bad examples and temptations to exploit his office. But we read about him that ‘he ministered unto the Lord’. He was faithful to his master - a man under authority! (Ch.2: vv11, 18 -BUT (KJV)) When Scripture reports on the evil lifestyle of the priests, sons of Eli, it goes on to add, in contrast, that Samuel continued to grow in favour with the Lord and with man. (v26). This is the characteristic of a child - his ‘dad’ is everything to him!
When a prophet comes to Eli to speak God’s word to him concerning his sins and those of his sons, the prophet makes a judgment statement, (v30)."They that honour Me I will honour”. Even in the midst of a house of sin, Samuel is honouring God, though a young child, and God is committing Himself to honour Samuel.
I am reminded of that verse recorded in James 4:10, “humble thyself in the eyes of the Lord and He will lift you up”
Again in 1 Sam 3:1 we see that the child ministered. v5 - he was quick to obey what he perceived as the voice of Eli.
Here are the childlike characteristics of faithful trust, innocence, humility.
Further we see that the ears of his heart are not yet dulled by hearing the loud clamour of the voices of the world.
In 1 Sam 3:4 Samuel heard God’s voice. When was the last time I heard the voice of the Lord? Maybe I’m too busy talking to hear His voice!
The Lord spoke to Samuel concerning judgment upon the house of Eli. Samuel would rather keep this bad news to himself, but when asked by Eli he told him every whit - no half truth, deceit. (v18)
v19 He knew divine favour
v21 “saw” the Lord.
“Blessed are the pure in Heart for they shall see God” Matt. 5:8.
Next reference is 20 years later.
Part 3. “The Least”
"And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest …. ; “for he who is least among you all is the one who is the greatest” Luke 9: 46-48
No prizes go to the least. There is no competition where the goal is to be the least. Those who are the least are not there for the glory it offers.
It is only possible to be willing to be the least if you are comfortable with yourself and who you are. If it is injurious to ‘lose face’ you will never be willing to be the least. If we have an unhealthy need for recognition and applause, we will not easily go in the direction of ‘least’.
Many pastors have found rewards and honours a good way to manipulate people to do what they want. Even Bible Colleges offer honorary degrees to get man ‘on board’ in order to give the college some better standing. We have often compromised ourselves for the sake of temporary honours and acclaim. - How unlike Jesus who made Himself, “of no reputation”. (Phil.2:7)
How we can ignore the warnings of Scripture and continue to use honours for manipulation is a dangerously unanswered question.
Jesus speaks very clearly to us about those who seek and need honours: Matt 6:1 - 2. They have their reward but no commendation in the Kingdom of God. Greatness in His kingdom is measured in terms of being willing to be the least. There is only one prize that we should seek, “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, (Phil 3: 14) and only one thing that we can boast in. Paul writes in 2 Cor 10: 17-18, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord. For it is not the man who commends himself who is approved, but the man whom the Lord commends.”
We struggle to be at the top; in the inn called fame and fortune, but we find the place is filled. There are so many others vying for the same honours and position. No one wants to be left out. However, many go through life, feeling inadequate and unimportant as the world passes them by. They never make it to the inn - but there is always plenty of room in the stable, not many people are willing to be there, the place of being the least.
Being the least is not the same as being the lowest of the indolent, lazy, useless people. Instead, it is a willingness to let others have the honours and acclaim even though you have done the work and made the effort. It is a willingness to lift others up and to be unnoticed in the effort.
Such people are “great in the kingdom of Heaven”.
As I look for Bible examples of ‘the least’ I think of the apostle Paul who wrote, “I am the least of the apostles and not worthy to be called one because I persecuted the church” ( 1 Cor 15:9).
Also, “I am the least of the saints” (Eph 3:8) and the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15). Even his name is significant. King Saul of the OT was chosen to be king because he stood ‘head and shoulders’ above his fellows in the eyes of men. Maybe the apostle Paul was named after king Saul but when he became an apostle, his name was changed from Saul to Paul - meaning ‘little one’. He would acknowledge his weakness in speech and the thorn in the flesh. (1 Cor 2:3 and 2 Cor 12:7). However, he was quick to recognise the grace of the Lord that lifted him up and gave him such a ministry.
Throughout his (second) letter to the Corinthians he sets himself before his readers as one who in himself is utterly weak and worthless, but through whose weakness the grace and power of Almighty God are magnified.
God’s toolchest is made up of weak and foolish things, low and despised things, things that are the least, but He choose them to shame the wise and the strong. (1 Cor 1:28)
Part 4. “The Last”
"By the way they had disputed among themselves who should be the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. …. “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all” Mark 9:34-35
No one ever boasts “I’m last! I’m last!” We are not like that. We all clamour to be the first in case we lose out - on honours, success, fame and prizes! This opens up the whole question of competition. Is competition wrong or bad? Can competition be ‘redeemed’? One problem is that there can only be one winner but many losers!! Am I willing to celebrate when another wins? Consider the ‘handicaps olympics’. Prizes are given for competing, not for coming in first, because competing is victory!
I once watched an olympic marathon. It was getting rather late in the evening as the last runner came into the stadium - walking with a distinct limp and covered with blood. When asked why he hadn’t dropped out he said, “My country did not send me all this way to enter the marathon, they sent me here to finish it!” The attitude of being willing to be last means that we are committed to finish the race, even when beaten down and covered with blood. We will not give up when defeat stares us in the face.
Bringing up the rear: I am reminded of an army marching into enemy territory. Their eyes are peeled searching out the enemy and they are alert looking for any movement. The most vulnerable position is that at the rear of the line. He has to be on the lookout, behind him as well as in front, as the enemy could weaken the unit one by one by sniping at the one bringing up the rear. All the others have to trust that the man at the rear is alert and watching out for their safety. He has to be others-centred, watchful and trustworthy. These are the kind of soldiers the Lord is seeking for His army. Consider Gideon in Judges 7: 6f. Only the 300 soldiers with eyes on possible danger were good enough.
Consider Abraham as our Biblical example: Though he had been mightily favoured by God, he did not cling to his understanding of those promises but was willing to lay them aside and become as the last.
1. God had promised him that he would have a son to carry on his name. Like any other father, Abraham wanted to know that his name would continue. “Oh that Ishmael might live in your sight!” he pleaded with God, but God said that would not be but that, instead, Sarah would bear Abraham a son for posterity. Isaac was born - the son of promise.
However, when God asked Abraham to give up that son on the altar, he obeyed, even knowing that, should Isaac die, he, Abraham would be the last of his lineage and God’s promised would never be fulfilled. He did not understand this, but he obeyed, being willing to be the last.
2. When Abraham and his nephew, Lot, decided to part as their herdsmen were constantly fighting over the land, Abraham could have claimed the better part based on God’s promises to him. However, he gave the first choice to his nephew and was willing to take the last choice.
He was willing to believe God’s promises, so did not compete to receive them them. There was to be no pushing to the front, no ‘jumping the queue’! There was a willingness to wait until all others had been dealt with.
3. He sought no prizes! When the king of Sodom would reward Abraham for delivering his people from the four kings, Abraham refused to be rewarded. He was not interested in prizes! They are for the winners but he was willing to be as the losers or the last.
Part 5. “A Servant”
"Whoever shall be great among you, shall be your servant And whoever shall be the chiefest, shall be servant of all." Mark 10:43-44
It is not part of man’s nature to desire to be a servant. One might choose to take up employment with a nice family as their servant, but we are not even given the choice of those we might serve. Jesus says we should be ‘servants to all’.
A servant’s job is to make life better for others - to release them to be what they can be. He has to be others-centred. Jesus does not call to a coerced slavery but He invites us to make a loving choice to serve others. This servanthood is birthed out of love - and you can only love by choice.
I am interested when I read about the fullness of the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18
The following three verses are the three evidences of a Spirit-filled life. Note particularly, verse 21: ‘be submitted to one another in the fear of Christ’.
Paul then goes on to show how such submission, such servant heart, is demonstrated in the home and work. “Wives, submit to your own husband”. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved you”. “Fathers, do not provoke your children” but set them the example, mentor them, serve them!
When we talk about servanthood, we must be very careful not to be manipulated. People love to use (more correctly, abuse) those who would serve them. They love to ‘take advantage’. Serving is not ‘grovelling’ before another. When we allow someone to manipulate us, we are not doing them any favours! We are not truly serving them in love. eg; “I thought you said you are a Christian......” “Aren’t Christians supposed to do that?”
Notice they tried the same thing on Jesus. (Mark 12: 13-15). One of the chief ways of manipulation is flattery. One of the best defences is humility.
Another manipulation that Satan can use is to make us feel guilty when we see the tremendous needs of the world. We can get so overworked trying to serve everyone. We are not God and cannot do more than He asks of us day by day.
There is an interesting verse in Mark 10:42. I am amazed as I see how far we are from this injunction. “You are not to be like that!” But we are as we imitate the ruling structures of the world with its power pyramid. The principle of being servant to all is devastating to chains of command and systems where submission is upwards. In the kingdom of God, the power pyramid is reversed, upended so that authority rests at the bottom, not the top. When Jesus talks about submission, it is always directed downwards. eg; in Matt 20:17 He expressly says, “whoeverwill be chief among you, let him be your servant.” Instead, we ‘lord’ it over others because we do not recognise their worth.
Isn’t it time we identified heresy of practice!!?
Of course, I did not have far to look when seeking a Biblical example of a servant. Jesus said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many”. He is the supreme example. But then, of course, He is the greatest!
At the Last Supper - He washed the disciples’ feet – including those of Judas! He sets the example, and that is what all servant leaders should do.
Part 6: JESUS – THE GREATEST!
"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Philippians 2: 5-8
Did not use Force to have His own way
Was not driven by worldly ambition
Made Himself of no reputation
Gave His life
"Therefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Philippians 2: 9-11