Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

Greatness Redefined

  • C.J. Mahaney Sovereign Grace Ministries
  • Published Apr 18, 2006
Greatness Redefined

Charles Spurgeon once preached on the foolish¬ness of pride, calling it “a groundless thing” and “a brainless thing” as well as “the maddest thing that can exist.” But despite the sheer folly and unreasonableness of pride, it manifests its stubborn presence in countless ways within all of us. Even the disciples of Jesus weren’t immune; in fact, they were prime offenders.

Who’s the Greatest?
Pride was especially evident in the disciples’ documented pursuit of personal greatness and recognition. This pursuit wasn’t subtle, and it doesn’t appear to be occasional. By their own accounts, it was pronounced and apparently continuous.

Notice, for example, what we learn in Mark 9 when the disciples and Jesus were traveling together. “They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’” (Mark 9:33, NIV).

But the disciples “kept silent”—no doubt from embar¬rassment and shame, “for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest” (v. 34). Men who were receiving intensive training from Jesus Christ, the ultimate example of humility and servanthood, were embroiled in a full-scale dispute about their relative supe¬riority to each other.

Jesus knew their hearts, just as He knows ours. So He immediately and insightfully addressed their selfish ambi¬tion: “And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:35).

Jesus was radically redefining greatness. But His point apparently didn’t sink in.

A Bold Question
In Mark 10 we find the brothers James and John approach¬ing the Savior apart from their fellow disciples. In apparent agreement with each other about their own greatness, these two brothers bring to Jesus a special request.

Apparently John and James think the Savior shares their lofty assessment of themselves, because there’s absolutely no lack of confidence evident in what they ask. “Teacher,” they say to Him, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus asks them what they desire. They answer, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35–37).

Mark has already informed us that Jesus and His dis¬ciples are going up to Jerusalem, where James and John and the others expect the Savior to immediately establish His kingdom, militarily and politically. He will thus enter His “glory” and the two brothers want a prominent place in it. They undoubtedly assumed such a prominent place for them is appropriate in light of their obvious superi¬ority. “Let’s settle this greatness issue now,” they seem to be saying. “Who’s the greatest? We are the greatest! And Master, we want You to acknowledge this fact by letting us sit on Your right and on Your left.”

The prideful desires of their hearts are on full display. There’s nothing subtle about their request. They’re not ask¬ing for faith to endure His suffering. They’re not asking for the privilege of supporting Him in and through His suffer¬ing. They want to be famous, pure and simple. James and John have defined greatness as position and power, and they want the title. They want the respect, the acclaim, and the importance. In their pride-dominated hearts, Jesus is just a means to their end of personal exaltation.

This passage by no means exonerates the other dis¬ciples, because sadly, the ten are no different. They somehow learn of James and John’s request and become “indignant at James and John” (v. 41), revealing the pres¬ence in their own hearts not only of selfish ambition but also of self-righteousness.

Can you see yourself in this story? It’s easy for us at times to disdain the disciples and fail to recognize our face in their portrait. They argued on the road about who was the greatest; we may not openly argue about this, but don’t we engage in the same debate every day in our private thoughts? If you’re like me, you compare yourself to oth¬ers and look for opportunities to claim greater importance than them, just as the disciples did.


Thankfully, Jesus is merciful and gentle with our pride-¬drenched hearts, just as He was with His errant apostles. We read in Mark 10:42, “And Jesus called them to him.” Can you sense the Savior’s patience with them, as well as His loving commitment to teach them what they so des¬perately need to learn?

He reminds them first of what they’ve all observed during the long years of Roman occupation: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” Then the Savior sets down a contrast: “But it shall not be so among you.”

What I find especially fascinating and instructive in His next words is that Jesus does not categorically criticize or forbid the desire and ambition to be great. Instead, He clearly redirects that ambition, redefines it, and purifies it: “But whoever would be great among you must be your ser¬vant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (vv. 43–44).

We always want to pay careful attention when that word must appears in Scripture. “Must” points us to something that’s required, something that’s indispensable. “You want to be great?” Jesus is saying. “Well, here’s what has to happen. What’s required is that you become a servant to others; it means nothing less than becoming the slave of everyone.”

Remember that the Person standing there and making this statement is the ultimate example of true greatness Himself. And this is exactly what Jesus goes on to make clear: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).

In his excellent commentary, The Gospel of Mark, William Lane notes that Jesus is referring to “the reversal of all human ideas of greatness and rank.” A profound and his¬toric reversal is taking place here—one that has to occur in each of our lives if we’re to have any possibility of becoming truly great in God’s eyes. It means turning upside down our entrenched, worldly ideas on the defini¬tion of greatness.

All Around Us
The difference couldn’t be more stark.

As sinfully and culturally defined, pursuing greatness looks like this: Individuals motivated by self-interest, self-¬indulgence, and a false sense of self-sufficiency pursue selfish ambition for the purpose of self-glorification.

Contrast that with the pursuit of true greatness as bib¬lically defined: Serving others for the glory of God. This is the genuine expression of humility; this is true greatness as the Savior defined it.

Have you seen any examples of true greatness recently? The following are just a sampling from my observation and experience.

It’s Bryce, the godly teenage son, who honors his parents and cares for his younger siblings—including his brother Eric, who suffers from autism.

It’s Theresa, a single woman with an infectious laugh who cheerfully serves numerous families in our church.

It’s Trey, a pastor-friend of mine who serves as an assis¬tant pastor to his son Rich.

It’s Eric, the successful businessman who volunteers each Sunday at our church, parking cars.

It’s my daughter Kristin, who works tirelessly in her home to care for her husband, Brian, and her three small boys.

It’s Dick, the single man and postal worker who lived a simple life so he could give generously to families who wanted to adopt children.

It’s Ken, the father who left his job and all that was familiar to move his family across the country to a stronger local church.

And it’s Bernie and Pearl, the couple in their eighties who, despite severe health issues, poured their hearts and lives into the small group that Bernie led. They are rejoic¬ing with our Savior now.

True greatness is all around us. The question is, do we see it? Or more importantly, are we pursuing it? These examples and a thousand others are what it means to be great in the eyes of God—humbly serving others for His glory.

Excerpt from Humility by C.J. Mahaney. Used with permission.

C.J. Mahaney leads Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church-planting ministry with a growing international family of churches. He also is the author of several books and a contributor to the Together for the Gospel blog. This column is adapted with permission from his book, Humility: True Greatness (Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, OR).