What does it mean to be great? How do you measure greatness? It would seem obvious that greatness is measured by: achievement, advancement, and recognition. Therefore, a corporate type defines greatness as promotion and a corner office. Craftsmen are considered great when their work is highly valued, appreciated, and coveted (not to mention expensive). Lawyers measure greatness by favorable court decisions. Artists measure greatest by being displayed in the finest and most fashionable galleries. Athletes are considered great if they break records, and especially by winning championships. If you’re a pastor, greatness is often measured by numbers, a packed preaching schedule, and peer recognition. We often define greatness in these terms: achievement, advancement, and recognition.
In Mark 9:30-37 Jesus describes the measure of true greatness in a fashion most unfamiliar to our normal assumptions.
In Mark 9:34 the disciples were discussing who of them was the greatest. Jesus began His instruction on true greatness in Mark 9:35. What Jesus does here is very profound. He recognized in His disciples' quest for greatness a good thing that had, because of sin, become ugly and distorted. Therefore, instead of destroying the whole distorted thing, He described a pathway on which the distorted and ugly pursuit of greatness would be radically transformed into something beautiful.
I find it significant that nowhere does Jesus criticize one for pursuing true greatness or true significance. I think this is because He created us to be great and to be significant. What then has happened to this God-given longing for greatness is that it has been corrupted by sin in two ways:
- it has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be known as great
- it has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be greater than someone else.
In other words, the joy of true greatness has been perverted by sin into the carnal pleasure we sinners get when others praise us and when we think we are greater than others are. Jesus saw this in His disciples and instead of destroying the whole distorted thing, He described a pathway on which it will be radically and rightly transformed.
He says true greatness is not wanting to be first while others are second and third and fourth, but true greatness is the willingness to be last. True greatness is not positioning yourself so that others praise you, but true greatness is putting yourself in a position to serve everyone; to be a blessing to as many as you possibly can. Go ahead and pursue greatness, but understand that the path is down not up!
Take pastors, for example: the measure of true greatness is not how many people come to his church, or how many other pastors emulate his methodology, or how many conferences at which he speaks. The measure of true greatness is his heartfelt desire to serve others; his readiness and willingness to decrease while others increase. Beware how you measure greatness in the servants of the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 2:29).
Jesus saisd: "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." Then He took a child and pplaced him in the circle of apostles (Mark 9:36). Why? What does this action have to do with teaching about the measure of true greatness?
The point is so clear that Jesus doesn't have to say it. The point is that children are among the "all" of Mark 9:35. The child illustrated that if one would be great, if one would be first, one must be the servant of children, take time for children, not look down on or despise children, and not say, "Children are women's work."
In a church setting, if you would be great, you will not rule out nursery duty; you will pray earnestly about teaching Sunday school classes for children; you will think hard about leading a boys' club or girls' club; you will spend yourself in the fight to overcome child-killing; namely abortion.
Why does Jesus illustrate His point about serving with a child? The discussion wasn't about children. Why does Jesus bring them in? The answer is that there is no political payback in serving children: they can't vote. They don't give speeches about how great is your helpfulness. In fact they pretty much take for granted that you will take care of them. They don't make a big deal out of the fact that you pour your life out for them. So children prove, more clearly than any other kind of people, whether you are truly great or not; whether you live to serve or live to be praised. (See Luke 14:13–14 for how the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind also prove this.)
Now comes the second thing Jesus said (Mark 9:37), and it is utterly unexpected. We might have expected Him to pick up on His previous point (Mark 9:35) and apply it to children. Something like: "Now here's a child. The person in our society that men don't serve. The person you don't think is worth your time. Well I am showing you that children are worth your time. They are significant."
That is not what Jesus says. Jesus turns the whole discussion away from the value of the child and to the value of God. Jesus says: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."
What about the children? Aren't we supposed to serve the children (or anyone) because of the children?
Surely the answer of Jesus here is this: you serve a child best when you receive a child and care for a child and spend time with a child and hold a child NOT in the name of the child, or in the name of mankind or in the name of mercy or in the name of America's future, but in the name of Jesus, the Son of the living God. And you serve children best when you receive a child not merely because your joy is first in the child, but first and finally in God.
Now put the two statements of Jesus together. In Mark 9:35 He said if you would be first, you must be last of all and servant of all. In Mark 9:37 He said if you receive a child in my name, you receive God. In other words, when Jesus calls you to be the servant of all, including children, He is not calling you to some heroic self-sacrifice. He is calling you to stop chasing the tiny bubbles of man's praise and start pursuing God. Stop trying to receive praise in the service of men and starting receiving God in the service of others.
What do you want? Do you want the fleeting praise of mortal men? Or do you want God?