The Way of Greatness

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 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.” 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.” 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.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 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.It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:20–28



The Gospel is not just a message we believe. The Gospel is also a way that we must live. When we say that we’re Gospel people, we’re not just saying we trust the message. We’re also saying we live the message. The Bible will never allow us to sever the two. The message and the life go together. “If you love me, you will keep my. commandments,” Jesus said (Jn. 14:15). Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:17).

Let me be more specific. In this account, Jesus teaches that his disciples to some degree recapitulate his own life: his life is a pattern for how they — how we — should live (vv. 22-23). Jesus lived and suffered and died and was resurrected and glorified and honored and rewarded, and so will we. Jesus was God’s Gospel Man, and we are called to be Gospel men and women, too.

Today I want to highlight one way of Christian living that’s at the heart of the Gospel. If we miss this way, we’ve missed the Gospel.


Jesus makes this very plain in answering James and John, his disciples, and their mother. Their mother had asked if in the kingdom, her sons could rule with Jesus on this left and and right hand. Jesus said, that’s our Father’s choice, not mine. And anyway, Jesus, asked, can you be baptized with my baptism? The other ten disciples were indignant at how James and John boasted they could be baptized the way that Jesus was — he was no doubt talking about his death, not about baptism in water (see vv. 17-25). “No problem: we’ll die like you, Lord, so that we can sit right next to you on the throne in a place of authority and power.”

Jesus replied, “You don’t you what you’re asking. You will be baptized as I will be (that is, they’d be martyred), but only the Father can decide who sits next to me in the kingdom.”

That’s when the other disciples got so indignant. We can’t blame James and John’s mother. All mothers want the best for their children. We don’t blame her for that, and neither did Jesus. But the disciples did blame James and John for their proud presumption. Interestingly, that’s not what Jesus did. He didn’t blame them for being proud and presumptuous. He blamed them for going about greatness in the wrong way.

That leads to my first truth.

God’s Way of Greatness

The pagan way of greatness

Jesus talked about the way the gentiles define greatness. By gentiles, Jesus wasn’t using a racial term. He didn’t mean non-Jews. Gentiles was shorthand for pagans and unbelievers — those outside the covenant people of God. He meant specifically the Romans, who were ruling the Jewish nation at the time.

Jesus was saying, “The pagans have their way of greatness, but that’s not the way of God’s people. We have a different conception of the path to greatness. Quit mimicking the unbelievers’ way. It’s totally off base. In fact, it’s just the opposite of the right way.”

Now, since we’re surrounded by a depraved and apostate culture, we need constantly to be asking ourselves this question: what is the gentile way, and what is God’s way? In everything: “dating,” clothing styles, body modification, “family planning,” movies, child-rearing practices, politics, voting, music, our monthly budget and debt, our approach to work, and on and on. We may not as God’s covenant people just default to the popular cultural way and assume it’s OK, because that way is likely to be the gentile way, the pagan way, the unbelieving way, and not God’s way.

What’s the pagan, unbelieving way to greatness? They lord it over their followers; they lust to exercise their authority (v. 25). They demand that everybody serve them. They are quintessential “takers.” They are the classic entitlement class. Other people are there to be used for their own depraved ambition. Other people are a means to an end. They’re always interested in “vertical mobility”: “whom can I step on to get a little higher in the great human dog pile?”

This pagan way of greatness is rife in human history. It’s as old as Genesis and as recent at 2014 America. It pervades all institutions: family, church, state, business, education, economy, art, all the way down.

The husband who uses his wife as a sex object and doormat and could care less about meeting her deep needs and desires is acting like a pagan. The husband who wields his authority over his wife like an ax isn’t a strong man; he’s a weak man.

The pastor or elders who expect the members to serve them and who want to be treated as celebrities are going the way of the pagans. We have too many celebrities in the pulpit today. They don’t even know their members’ names. How can they pray for their sheep by name they don’t even know their names? They seem to care more about their book tour or jet-setting or adulation than they do the deep needs and hardships and failures off their flock. They may be seeking greatness, but they’re seeking it in precisely the wrong way.

Years ago a pastor told me me that a 28-year-old young man approached him in the aisle after church one Sunday and said, “Pastor, I want to offer myself as an elder.” The pastor was old and wise but was quite taken aback and responded, “Well, eldership is a godly aspiration. Why do you want to be an elder?”

The young man replied, “Because I want to tell people what to do.” He was about as qualified to be an elder as a pizza shop delivery boy is qualified to be CEO of General Electric.

This is the pagan way in family and church. It’s also the pagan way in society. We must face squarely and not bat an eyelash that what we today term state socialism is the pagan way, and free markets are God’s way. How can we be so bold? Because state socialism is about demanding of other people, and free markets are about serving other people. The multibillionaire CEO might live in a mansion and drive a fleet of Rolls Royce’s, but along the way he had to get there by serving somebody. Somebody had a need, and he met that need.

Somebody said that America is the only country in the world where the multibillionaire calls his waiter, “Sir” Why? Because the multibillionaire respects the lowliest person who serves him. He knows that serving other people is the way to greatness.

Years ago I knew a man who was smart. He somehow had the idea that people should support him because he was smart. For some strange reason, they didn’t fall at his feet to support him. I finally told him to start serving other people, and then they’d support him. Smart people are a dime a dozen. There’s nothing special about being smart. But there’s plenty special about serving other people.

For Jesus, the summit of human greatness is serving other people. Please note that Jesus isn’t saying just that God loves humility. Of course, that’s true. He’s saying that of you want to be truly great, start serving people.

The quest for greatness is not misplaced. It’s laudable to to try to be great. But we must go about it in God’s way, not the gentile way.

Greatness comes through service. Have you ever noticed that our greatest influence comes with those that we serve, not those whom we command? Why does a faithful mother have such influence over the lives of her children? Because they see her work hard and sacrifice for them to meet their needs— to serve them. And that makes a profound, lifelong impression on them.

Pagans (including Christians acting like pagans) have the twisted idea that influence and power comes through authority. They’re wrong. Influence and power come through service.

Reach put and meet people’s needs. Sacrifice for them. You’ll be amazed at the authority you gain in their lives. And it’s not authority that’s commanded. It’s authority that earned through service.

The Gospel Way of Greatness

Jesus exemplified this truth, and he said so plainly (see v. 28). He’s offering his life and death as an example of the truth he was teaching the disciples. If you’d like to know why Jesus was the greatest Man who ever lived, it wasn’t just because he was the Son of God (true enough), but also because he served other people better than anybody in history.

He gave hope to the poor. He healed the diseased. He exalted women. He opened up his arms to the weak and discouraged and humble and repentant. He befriended tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners. He called twelve simple Jews and poured his life into them.

Most of all he gave his life on the Cross — not just as an example of love, but as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. Isaiah (53:4-5) prophesied:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.

In other words, Jesus was always looking out for other people; he wasn’t looking our for himself. His entire calling was enveloped in other people. He lived to please his Father, and he lived to serve his fellow humans, created in God’s image.

This is the Gospel. Listen to Matthew’s account (4:23-25):

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him ….

Please note: this doesn’t mean that Jesus had a “healing ministry.” He had a servant ministry. He didn’t blow into town as some faith-healer celebrity. He just wanted to help people. The gospel of the kingdom is the gospel of serving other people.

Living as God’s people means living a different way from the pagans. Living God’s way means living in the Gospel, and living in the Gospel means serving other people.

This is why Paul writes in Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Application and conclusion

I’d like to conclude by putting some flesh on the bones. What does it look like in our culture to be great by serving other people?

Husbands, it means asking your wife what you can do to make her life easier and committing yourself to doing it. Single adults, since marriage is all about service, finding a spouse is about finding someone you can serve.

The church is filled with people who have needs. God places people right in our path in the church so that we can serve them. Older ladies, this means giving your time to young mothers to give them counsel when they don’t know where to turn. It might mean babysitting. It might mean seeking out single ladies to pour your life into.

Older men, some of these younger men are navigating for the first time the choppy waves of family life. My job, your job, is to come beside them and advise them and encourage them on steering through those waters. It means giving financial and business advice. It means taking time to listen to them.

Serving other people sometimes means putting money into pressing needs that they have. It means encouraging even the smallest of our children, telling them how great Jesus is and how important they are to him. It means committing to pray for your sisters and brothers who are enduring great trials — and then doing that until God answers.

Gospel greatness requires living for other people. That’s Jesus’ way. That’s the Gospel way. And it’s God’s way for us.

The church is not just about telling God how great he is. It’s not just about sound teaching. It’s about treating people as he wants them treated. And Jesus Christ wants us to serve other people.

That’s God’s way to greatness.


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