God wants you to be great.
What would make your life feel great? Would it be a spouse or children or more children? Would it be a better job — more pay, better boss, more responsibility? Maybe it would be more time buried in your reading list or watching football on Sundays or shopping without a budget. All great, but are they great enough?
God refuses to define the greatness of your life in dollars or cents, family or friends or kids, promotions or raises, accomplishments or recognition or fun. He loves you too much, and there’s too much at stake. When Jesus said he came that you might have a full and abundant life (John 10:10), he wasn’t promising less debt, longer vacations, or more power in the company. His promise is real, and following him will satisfy us beyond our wildest imaginations, but it won’t look like so much other so-called greatness around us.
The greatest people in our little world — George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Tim Cook, Beyoncé, Lebron James, etc. — are beloved by millions and yet most of them are missing the real meaning of their talent, their influence, their life. Even the greatest only taste the cheap hors d’oeuvres of life and greatness. Stars are insanely enjoyed, celebrated, even worshipped, sometimes for 10, 25, even 100 years. But the most famous and successful are settling for the potato skins of greatness, rather than the real thing.
The Greatest Among You
“Ambition in this life for greatness in this life will end up stealing your life.”
Jesus walked with his disciples for months, even years, ministering with them in town after town, spreading the news of the greatness of the kingdom of God. Over and over again, he said that the kingdom had come with him (Mark 1:15). His kingdom was to expand and overwhelm every other kingdom (Mark 4:30–32). It was a kingdom of power, and exclusivity (Mark 4:10–12), and it was coming soon (Mark 9:1).
In Jesus, the disciples had found a king that promised them more than they’d ever known filling their boats with fish. He was their ticket to true greatness. This was their time to win, their time to reign. All of the sudden, with the Christ, they had their chance to be known, respected, and obeyed. “Kingdom” sounded like power and authority, freedom and fame.
When Jesus finally explained just what kind of king he was — just what it meant to be truly, deeply, lastingly great — they totally missed it. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). Sobering, confusing, even offensive. How do they respond? They walked away arguing over which one of them was the greatest — the chief among the otherwise forgettable fishermen (Mark 9:34).
Instead of hearing Jesus talk about his death and redefining greatness in terms of sacrifice — in terms of coming in last for the sake of love — they fought to be first. Jesus said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Ambition in this life for greatness in this life will end up stealing your life. According to Jesus, the greatest among you won’t look very great after all. In fact, true greatness will often look like weakness, surrender, defeat, and even death.
Slaves Will Be Kings
A little later, Jesus explains his greatness to them again in greater detail, “They will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him” (Mark 10:34). In the very next verse, James and John ask Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. . . . Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35, 37).
Jesus had barely finished describing the humiliating and excruciating death he would die for them — betrayal and mockery and spitting and flogging and murder — and they’re already conspiring to grab some glory of their own. When he’s about to be brutally slaughtered in front of everyone for their sin, they’re scheming behind the scenes, looking for ways to use him to exalt themselves.
We healed people in your name. We hung with you when others rejected you. We handed out the bread and fish to the 5,000. Don’t we deserve a little more than everyone else? It’s ironic and foolish, but it’s also outrageous and tragic.
“Servants in this life will rule the next. Slaves in this life will be kings forever.”
And it’s the sinful disposition of many of us who love and follow Jesus. Somehow we think we’ve earned something from him for our commitment and sacrifice. We expect him to make life a little more comfortable or relationships a little easier or ministry a little more fruitful or affirmation a little more regular.
But Jesus confronts this ignorance with another primer on greatness. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44). Servants in this life will rule the next. Slaves in this life will be kings forever.
Greatness and the Grave
“. . . For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
When the greatest Greatness came into our world, he was born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough. He walked from town to town without a home, without a place to stay. He made some headlines with his message and miracles, but he made many more enemies. When the Son of God came, calling lowly fishermen to be his disciples, he kneeled and washed their filthy, undeserving feet. The King of kings — the greatest of all time — humbled himself to the point of death, even the most shameful, painful kind of death. True Greatness lost his life in love for us.
And true Greatness was revealed and glorified, not defeated at that grave.
Where We See Greatness
A third time (two chapters earlier), Jesus unfolded the gravity and beauty of his greatness, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). And then Jesus called the disciples — and us all — to follow him, to follow that counter-cultural, humble, sacrificial, servant-hearted greatness. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). The call to live and be great is a call to serve and even die.
“The call to live and be great is a call to serve and even die.”
True greatness isn’t the kind that appears in bold letters on your favorite website. No, it shows up in the details of other people’s lives. If you aspire to be great, give yourself to the small, mundane, easily over-looked needs around you. God died that you might live. And that life — your new, blood-bought, forgiven, grace-filled life — was meant to be great. It was meant to be laid down in love for others.