One of my favorite Christian comedians was coming to a concert hall near me. As I combed through ticket information and seating options, the words VIP tickets caught my eye. VIP tickets would give me front and center seating, discounts on merchandise, and best of all, access to a pre-concert meet-and-greet with the star of the evening. One look at the cost, however, convinced me I didn’t want to rub shoulders with the famous comedian that badly.
James and John wanted the good seats too. Matthew 20:20-28 tells about the time when their mother asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand when he came into his kingdom. Matthew doesn’t reveal their motive, but I wonder if VIP tickets weren’t enough for them. I wonder if they wanted center stage and intimate contact with the most powerful and well-known man in eternity, a limelight position where everyone could see them, including their proud mama. A simple request should get them what they wanted.
The other disciples were indignant with the impudent brothers. I can imagine them muttering, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The world has created a Fortune 500 list of shortcuts to greatness. For centuries, the greats and not-so-greats have charmed and weaseled their way into power by trading favors, paying bribes, and being at the right place at the right time. Others bide their time, filling moments with hard work and waiting for their 15 minutes of fame. Once there, they keep their position through intimidation, exerting authority over those beneath them.
Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 20:26 that God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way. The best way to attain greatness is to avoid it. It’s a side benefit, not an end result. We shine brightest when we reflect the glory and majesty of God. Greatness flows out of our obedience and allegiance to the One who is truly great.
There is something deep within the human heart that still craves to leave our mark on this earth. Like the disciples, we crave to find the red carpet to true greatness. Throughout his teaching ministry, Jesus described four signposts that direct us to the destination of his brand of greatness.
Disciples achieve greatness by practicing what they preach and preaching what they practice. Jesus explained it like this: “Whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). Obeying and teaching God’s commands go hand in hand. God will count you among the greats of glory if you demonstrate more than cursory obedience.
It’s all about consistency. The Pharisees taught the commands but often failed to model obedience. Jesus countered that great leaders expect their followers to do no more than they are willing to do themselves. The opposite is true as well. Your teaching makes you accountable to your students and a target for those who want to debunk your commitment to God. You can make your faith a private affair, but teaching God’s commands puts you at a higher level, for it unfurls your faith for all to see.
Any hiker knows that some parts of the trail are rockier than others. The pursuer of greatness makes a commitment to endure the hard moments, risk opposition, and stand out as different from the rest. Like a Revolutionary War general galloping his white steed in front of soldiers lined up for battle, the greats among us intentionally put themselves in danger in order to encourage the rest of us.
“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Jesus asked James and John. The brothers quickly answered, “We can” (Matthew 20:22).
Jesus described the contents of that cup. Those who want to be great in God’s kingdom must step out from the security of the crowd and take the same path Jesus took to Heaven’s throne room, a path of self-denial, servitude, and sacrifice.
Only a select few received Jesus’ commendation for great faith. The centurion who came to ask Jesus to heal his sick servant showed a keen understanding of rank and file, for he acknowledged that someone with more authority stood before him (Matthew 8:5-13). As a Roman officer, the centurion could have ordered the healer to his house; instead, he showed respect to Jesus as one higher than himself.
No matter how high we climb, someone will always stand higher. Even the top-ranking general answers to one commander in chief. Cultivating a humble attitude might appear as the slow path to greatness, but in the end, it is the only way.
Like an interstate cloverleaf entrance ramp, the path to greatness is counterintuitive. Instead of walking directly toward greatness, followers of Jesus need to turn in the opposite direction toward insignificance. Scripture uses several images to convey Jesus’ intended meaning for this unexpected position: youngest, child, and servant (Luke 9:48, 22:26). Today, these images convey the same truth as in Jesus’ day; we must be willing to take the least important jobs in order to accomplish kingdom work.
Each congregation my husband has served as a minister has had at least one behind-the-scenes couple who pursue greatness in the opposite direction. These saints show up early to set the thermostat, distribute bulletins, and start the coffee pot. They are the last to leave as they clean communion trays, turn out lights, and lock doors. Few people know of their service until there’s a funeral and the work doesn’t get done. When we’ve tried to recognize them, they scurry for cover. Their intent is to promote the work of the church, not themselves. They serve in the lowest of jobs so the church can look its best.
We reach the destination of true greatness when we give up our own agenda for the sake of the kingdom and its constituents. God’s plan and people’s need for Christ must come above everything else—our convenience, our security, and even our earthly lives.
How do we serve as Jesus served? We take the jobs no one else wants to do whether or not we feel gifted to do them. We forfeit visiting with our friends at church gatherings in order to welcome the stranger. We give generously with no thought of ourselves because we are confident God will provide what we need.
Jim Elliot, known as one of the greatest missionaries of the 20th century, knew the meaning of self-sacrifice. He famously wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” For Jim and the other missionaries who accompanied him to Ecuador, the path to greatness led into a remote jungle and a line of deadly spears. The missionaries attained greatness in Heaven and on earth through their willingness to die to self for the greater good of proclaiming God’s message of love and forgiveness to an unreached people.
Do you want to be great in God’s kingdom? Let go of your personal desires, follow his commands, resolve to stick out as different when needed, and be willing to take on the unpopular positions. By the time you achieve greatness, it won’t matter anymore. What will matter is that you have had a part in acquiring greatness for your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Karen Wingate is a Bible study leader in Roseville, Illinois. Her blog appears at www.graceonparade.com.