What Does it Mean to be Great?

On Good Friday, we had an assembly, and I (Jonathan) had opportunity to address the students.  I’ve decided to post here my notes from that message, and I hope you enjoy them.

Risus est bellum!

I want to start by reading Matthew 20:20-28 from the ESV.

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 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.” 22 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.” 23 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.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 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. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Every year it seems like Easter sneaks up on us. Spring rolls around and surprise! it’s Easter time.

For most Protestants like us, there is not the buildup for Easter that there is for Christmas, and often before we know it, it’s Good Friday (like today).

But it is Good Friday now, and this presents us with a great opportunity to examine what it means to be not just good, but great.

The passage we just read takes place as Jesus and His disciples are on their way up to Jerusalem for what would be their last time together. So it even has almost a holy week setting itself. And in it, Christ juxtaposes (that is, He compares side by side) what the world calls greatness with real greatness.

I’d like to consider Jesus’ words along with a character from literature who is familiar to many of you as we try to wrap our minds around this concept of greatness.

In my Omnibus class the last couple of weeks we’ve been reading a story called The Great Gatsby. And in it,the title character, Jay Gatsby, finds his identity and very reason for living in a relationship he had with a woman named Daisy five years before the story takes place. He has now built his whole life around the possibility of returning to this ideal. He’s made a name for himself and collected mountains of money in an effort to repeat the past. He has become what the world would call a “great” man.

He has money, friends, influence (to some degree), and people talk about him a lot with admiration and curiosity. And it’s all pathetically empty and sad.

“Sad?” you say? Yes. His happiness castle is built on a Jell-o foundation. There is no mention of God or God’s honor in all of Gatsby’s plans. And all of his “greatness” doesn’t bring home the happiness he desires. He’s shopping for groceries at Home Depot, and he’s surprised at the checkout to find his cart is still empty. Looking for happiness in self-fulfillment apart from the One who can actually give it is, indeed, a very sad experience.

He grasps desperately for happiness in a place where there is neither happiness or hope. But he gives it a good try. And I think that’s why unbelieving English critics love this book: they can relate! The world does the same thing as Gatsby. The book is tragic, and it reflects a godless life as it actually is: sad and hopeless, however many smiles you might see.

And although this book is an accurate portrayal of the hopelessness of life without Christ (which was not necessarily the author’s intent), it also demonstrates a lesson in futility. No matter how hard Gatsby tries to be happy, he’s using the wrong methods…and he’s using people.

Gatsby is using others for his happiness and trying to recreate the past. Obedient Christians serve others for their joy and learn from the past.

You’ll pardon my spending so much time talking about The Great Gatsby, but it presents a powerful illustration of what it’s like to be great as the world sees greatness, and how it really isn’t that great after all. Money and fame can’t buy you happiness and joy, and in then end, even the world is not impressed by these things if there’s no real substance behind them. We see that in this book.

Now, unlike the worldview of Jay Gatsby, Christians exist for others. Others don’t exist for us. And nobody has made this more clear than Jesus did on Good Friday.

Now let’s return to our passage from Matthew 20. As Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, just before the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, he had a teachable moment with His disciples. Let me read the passage for you again.

25 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. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

As He does in a lot of places, Jesus has once again taken the teaching of the world and turned it on its head. The world says that greatness is power, influence and authority over other people. Jesus taught that greatness is found in service to others, and in death to bring life to others.

And Jesus said this as He was walking to Jerusalem to demonstrate precisely what He meant.

Let’s look together at a few examples of true greatness as demonstrated by Jesus.

On the heels of asking for a drink, He offers to give water that truly satisfies. Let’s read John 4:7-14.

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

So Jesus gives when most men would be inclined to receive. He does the same thing when performing miracles. He was probably hungry when He fed the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-21.

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

As Lord, He would have been right in demanding that someone fetch Him a meal, but rather he multiplies the loves and fishes of the boy and the leftovers alone fill a dozen baskets!

So note, rather than demanding the honor and service of men, the Lord who kept their hearts beating was always giving of Himself. Let’s look at one more, and it’s a good one. It’s found in John 13:1-20, and it’s the account of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

People flocked to Gatsby to be filled with amusement and champagne. People flee to Jesus to be filled with living water that truly satisfies.

Gatsby received men’s esteem and admiration; as for Jesus, we esteemed Him not (Isaiah 53:3).

Gatsby’s life was taken from him as a consequence of his sins; Christ laid down His life willingly to pay for the sins of others (John 10:11-18).

Gatsby had no interest in anyone’s will but his own and that of his idolatrous love. Jesus only said or did what the Father commanded.

The great Jay Gatsby’s influence lasted as long as the influence of the alcohol he served (during Prohibition, I might add). Jesus influence is still increasing and is eternal.

Now tell me, which of these men was great?

Of course I get that that Gatsby is a fictional character, but in a lot of ways he represents what our world wants to be! And I want for you all to see the folly of this desire.

This all proves even further that the Gospel is not the product of the mind of God; men don’t think like this! Men don’t dream up religions where the deity figure comes in humility to serve, where He comes to redeem us. Men dream up religions where we conquer by strength and capitalize on people as servants to us, resources to be used up. This is a hallmark of most world religions today, but it’s antithetical to Christianity.

Students, if you wish to be great, you must start with what Jesus has said. Only by obedience to what He has said can you ever achieve real happiness, let alone greatness in His kingdom.