Thursday’s Column: Captain’s Blog
Traditionally, people have pursued greatness by achieving prominence in politics, athletics, entertainment, business, and the like. The names of such stand outs live on through the records the world keeps–halls of fame, history books, registers, even buildings and monuments that “immortalize” them after they’ve gone. Every community has its men and women who are held up as paragons of greatness.
How often do we stop and how much do we focus on what God considers greatness? Interestingly, He has quite a bit to say on the subject. The word is found 49 times in the New Testament and is a word from which we get our English word “mega.” As it is used in the Bible, it refers to a state of greatness and preeminence in quantity, quality, intensity, importance, and excellence (BDAG 623-625). You have God through His inspired writers trying to get our attention, saying, “Here is how you grab My attention and stand out in My eyes.” It is important to know what makes God’s list because “that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Surely, the opposite is true, too (1 Cor. 1:26-28).
God lists the ingredients that, when incorporated into one’s life, renders her or him truly great. Do you want to be great?
While Jesus is speaking of the Old Law in context, the application lives on. Jesus ties greatness to having a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (20). Without that, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. He goes on to demonstrate the difference between their righteousness and true righteousness. How do I handle what God’s Word tells me to do? By submitting to His authority in my life, I will become great.
Ironically, the point of discussion in this context is, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (1). Surely, Jesus blows their mind by placing a little child in their midst and saying, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (4). They were “little ones,” dependent upon others for their care, looking to others for guidance and instruction, and not concerned with status. Do I see my utter dependence upon God? If so, will I be arrogant and haughty in my dealings with those around me?
Those frivolous disciples were frequently looking for prominence and recognition. It’s a good thing we don’t fall prey to that today, huh? These very men who walked with Jesus every day, seeing His power and greatness, succumbed to the temptation to want others to esteem them as great. In Matthew 20, James’ and John’s mother comes asking for places of distinct greatness (20-23). The other ten “became indignant” (24; was it because they struggled with the same tendency, Luke 22:24?). Jesus explodes their idea of greatness by saying that “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” About this time, Jesus models this principle by washing their feet. He does so to give them an example, then says, “A slave is not greater than his master, nor is he who is sent greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:15-16).
Let’s make that practical, especially in the church context. Who’s the greatest in the Lord’s church today? You’ll find them steadfastly, conscientiously striving to follow Scripture. It’s what brings them “through the doors” to assemble, but it’s also what drives them out into the community and into the lives of others leading righteous, godly lives against the tide of the culture. You’ll find them respectfully listening to others ideas and concerns, not having to be the center of attention or constantly propped up and petted. You’ll find them doing for others, looking for ways to encourage, help, and support them. Obedient, humble, unselfish servants make great elders, deacons, preachers, teachers, soul-winners, parents, children, and disciples! Fill a church with great people and it will turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Let’s be great, God’s way!
Two Prayers In The Temple
Up high and proud my boasts I declare
I brag and I crow with my head in the air
Til I look in the corner and see him down there
Why is that poor sinner locked up in despair?
I abstain from eating two days every week
I give money too freely, Thy thanks I now seek.
Why is that man crying, the tears stain his cheek
He’s beating his chest, must be some kind of trick.
Lord, I’m not like the swindler, the philanderer, the cheat,
Or even like that tax collector with whose prayer I compete,
I’m walking out now, Lord, my preening’s complete,
But I’ll see You here next time my boasts to repeat
While scarcely detected a man whispered his plea
His face to the floor, if not on one knee
All the sinner could say was, “Be merciful to me!”
And he left more justified than the proud Pharisee.
(prayJune 8, 1997)
Hans Kaltenborn was an ardent admirer and defender of Adolf Hitler and the “new Germany” ushered in with the Nazi regime. Despite diplomatic warnings of assaults upon Americans, Kaltenborn, an influential American commentator for CBS and NBC and of German descent, dismissed it as flawed and skewed information gathering by biased personnel. About to return home to the states to speak against such reports and warnings, his family went to downtown Berlin to do some last minute shopping. While out, the family found themselves in the middle of one of the endless S.A. parades. When his family refused to offer the Nazi salute, his son was physically assaulted and injured. Finally, someone intervened and the incident ended with no further harm. However, the transformed Kaltenborn was apoplectic. He made a report with the American Consulate in Berlin, but no charges were filed. As Eric Larsen writes, “the senior Kaltenborn ‘could remember neither the name nor the number of the Party identification card of the culprit, and as no other clues which might be useful in the investigation could be found’” (In The Garden of Beasts, 164). Despite this, Kaltenborn was now of a different mind!
There are many ways in which life can do the same thing to us. We may be dead certain about marriage when we are single, about childrearing “pre-kids,” about our career when still in the classroom, about home ownership when in our parents’ home, dorm room, or apartment, and so on. But, life so often has a way of rudely awakening us from some well-meaning beliefs.
Sometimes, this can happen to us in the all-important area of religion. As we stay in our Bibles and gain wisdom and experience life, we may reaffirm but also clarify and even change certain positions we have long held. This can certainly be a dangerous affair, and some have allowed life to change their positions from what is true to what is false (what Jesus says about marriage, divorce, and remarriage because of a family situation, unscriptural changes in worship because of children attending church who have adopted such, etc.). But few of us will go all the way through life without reconsidering especially some conscience or judgment matters.
There are also a great many of our friends who have been taught religious error on God’s plan of salvation, the singular, undenominational nature of the church, what God wants in worship, women’s role in church and worship leadership, and the list goes on. This can be such a difficult challenge for anyone, to revisit long-held and deeply-believed positions in light of what the Bible says.
For all of us, there must be an abiding humility that approaches scripture without the blinders of prejudices, preconceived notions, and influences like family, friends, church, and so on. That is uncomfortable, but essential—for all of us! We may come to find that something we’ve clung to so tenaciously must be rejected or that something we rejected must be embraced. If we ever get to that place, may we have the kind of heart that puts the will of God above our own will. Without such, we cannot hope to make heaven our home.
It could be one of these individuals, but despite and not because of the specifics just mentioned. But, we so easily fall into the trap that causes us to think that those criteria are what make one greatest. Such can cause us to vest blind trust in them or put them in a higher place than is right. Worse, we can try to be motivated to define and promote ourselves as greatest through these means.
The tendency is so fundamental. Jesus warned against it in places like Matthew 20:25-28 and 23:12. His disciples, like James (4:6-10), Peter (1 Pet. 3:8; 5:5-6), Paul (2 Cor. 10:12-18), Jude (16), and the rest, at least implicitly, address the same trap. We all fight the desire to be seen so as to be admired. We may do so through our marriages, our children’s accomplishments, our economic status, our apparent importance, our having it all together, our professional prowess, or any other asset we feel responsible for having. If we use these things to place ourselves above and/or push others below, we are disqualifying ourselves for greatness in the only way that matters—God’s way. False modesty isn’t the answer, either.
We must look at ourselves as dependent creatures. It’s all His and without Him we’d have nothing!
We must look at ourselves as devoted stewards. It’s all His and He expects us to use it wisely, on His behalf!
We must look at ourselves as divine instruments. It’s all His and He works through us to do His will!
We must look at ourselves as dutiful slaves. It’s all His and so are we, living and serving at and for His pleasure!
The warning and disclaimer is that this transformation must happen at heart-level, rooting out thoughts and attitudes that, while fleshly, are so easy to embrace. If the weeds of pride aren’t dislodged from deep within, this effort will prove impossible. But, if it could not be done, God would not have spent so much time instructing us to live and walk by the Spirit rather than by the desires of the flesh and mind. It is the old song, “None of self and all of Thee.” To the degree we adorn that mindset and make that transformation, to that degree we will achieve greatness God’s way!
Bob Russell tells the story of Dwight Day, a UPS pilot who had come back to church after many years away. Russell walked into the auditorium one day to catch Day scrubbing grape juice stains off the pews. This pilot was an important man with sufficient money to hire someone to do the job, but there he was scrubbing. He “wasn’t too important to clean the pews” (When God Builds A Church, 178).
Who visits the elderly members in the nursing home? Who participates in the workday? Who takes the poor, ill member to a doctor’s appointment? Who prepares the communion? Who teaches the cradle roll class? Who grades the correspondence courses? Who gives a lift to someone who needs a ride to church? Who does the many “invisible,” thankless tasks that must be done for the church to grow and meet its many responsibilities? The servant!
The serving Christian is not necessarily the one-talent, lower-class, uneducated person ill-equipped to do something more “sophisticated” and “important.” These are the kinds of things anyone can do, but only the servant does them. Lest we consider such tasks too menial and such people meaningless, we reflect on John 13. That chapter records the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the universe (you can’t one-up that) pouring water into a basin, washing the disciples’ feet and drying them with a towel he had put around Himself (v. 5). They had to have been baffled, this group who had been jockeying for a seat on His left and right hand in the vision of Kingdom greatness they had imagined (cf. Mat. 20:21). What were they thinking as Jesus tells them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (12b-17).
This was a gut-punch to them and to so many of us. We can be more interested in getting the good seat than stooping to wash the dirty foot (or scrub the grape juice-stained pew). But we will miss the heavenly definition of spiritual greatness unless we lower ourselves. Jesus told the Sons of Thunder and their mother to remove the worldly gauging of greatness out of their thinking (Mat. 20:25-28). Perhaps He’d have that conversation with you and me, too. May God grant us the humility to see the opportunities and serve as stain scrubbers and every other, similar task that allows Him to use us for His glory. If that spirit permeates a congregation, it will turn the whole world upside down (cf. Acts 17:6)!
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly all the top 1o most common U.S. occupations are in the service industry—retail salespersons, cashiers, fast food workers, office clerks, waiters and waitresses, and customer service representatives, just to name a few (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ocwage.pdf). But one of the most common complaints you hear is about poor customer service, rude or unhelpful customer service staff, being overcharged or neglected, or a bad attitude. There may be a great many reasons behind this, but one may well be that our culture is not conditioned to serve, but to be served. Those in positions of service may just be reflecting the culture.
This is not a new problem. Jesus addressed that mentality with His followers in Matthew 20:25-28. In a world insistent upon being the chief and asserting their own rights, Jesus’ message does not play well today. Yet, it did not play well even when He taught it on earth. Jesus was very clearly the suffering servant (Isa. 53:11), and how did the masses ultimately react to Him? They shouted, “Crucify Him” (Mark 15:13-14).
The concept of serving others turned out to be a struggle for the church at Philippi. To that end, Paul urged them to adopt a better mindset, a proper attitude (Phil. 2:1-4). Paul reminded these Christians that they were in the spiritual service industry. It was their job to serve one another. We can understand why this teaching is a bitter pill to swallow. We all know those members of the spiritual family who are difficult to deal with, the ones who can be like fingernails on the chalkboard to us or who set our teeth on edge. We might enjoy doing for the benign brother, the sweet sister, or the friendly family. The real test comes in serving someone who does not make serving a pleasant, happy task. A servant heart was lacking among some at Philippi (cf. 4:2), and an unwillingness to put others first will have a dangerous, negative impact on a church if such a spirit is allowed to grow unchecked.
Gordon MacDonald said, “You can tell whether you are becoming a servant by how you act when people treat you like one.” Paul is urging a united, humble, and serving attitude on Philippi and on us. Our task is not to gauge how others are growing in service, but to examine self. May we live what we sometimes sing to God, “Make me a servant, Lord, make me like You, for you are a servant, make me one, too!”