Close to Greatness

The Bible is filled with stories of heroes and their feats of great faith and perseverance. In this lesson those who only come close to greatness are discussed and what their near misses can teach us today.
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They say that "close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. There is nothing more painful than coming close to winning; coming close to a goal and missing it. Like athletes who are on the losing end of a world championship put on a brave front, say it's only a game, and compliment the winner - but on the inside their hearts are melted, and in private often weep at the bitter thought of having come within one point, one run, one second of greatness.

The Bible has its share of heroes and heroines, those who showed great courage and faith. It also provides us with examples of people who only came close to greatness - those who were a heartbeat away from being forever praised, but didn't quite make it.

In this Mini Book, I'd like to share some of their stories with you and draw lessons from their experiences.

Cain - Genesis 4:1-8

Cain's story is a familiar one:

  • He was the firstborn to Adam and Eve.
  • He chose to work the land, like his father Adam.
  • From this land he offered a sacrifice to the Lord, which was rejected because of its content and the condition of his heart.
  • He became jealous of his brother's sacrifice, which was accepted, and this jealous rage led him to kill his brother Abel.
  • After this he left to be a wanderer and was responsible for the establishment of cities.

We know Cain's story but do we ever realize what he could have been and what greatness escaped his grasp? He was the firstborn and thus could have inherited the dominion and rulership responsibility of his father Adam. He could have been the one through whom the Messiah would have come, but that privilege went to his younger brother Seth.

But greatness eluded him because he couldn't deal with his emotions, couldn't control his temper, and wouldn't repent of his envy and jealousy.

Rehoboam - 1 Kings 12:1-ff

Solomon reigned for 40 years and during that time amassed a fortune as well as respect from all neighboring countries. He built a magnificent temple and during his reign the people enjoyed peace and prosperity. At his death, his son, Rehoboam ascended to the throne and had a marvelous opportunity:

  • To consolidate Solomon's political gains.
  • To spread the light of the Jewish religion to other nations who were primed to listen with respect.
  • To gain the love and loyalty of the people for his lifetime by treating them fairly and honestly.

Soon after his crowning, a delegation of the people came to him to request a well-deserved break from crushing taxation. His senior advisors told him that in doing so he would win over the people and gain their support. His younger advisors and friends convinced him to treat the people with contempt and not listen to their demands. He chose to go with the younger men and threatened the people in order to keep them in line. This caused a revolt that led to civil war and ultimately divided the kingdom into two.

Rehoboam was left with about 15% of his territory and wealth. He now had a constant enemy to his north. This division weakened the Jews in the face of other nations. Ultimately the Northern and Southern kingdoms fell into idolatry and were both destroyed. In the very end only the southern kingdom remained, and then only at a fraction of what it was at the time of separation.

Rehoboam could have corrected the mistakes of his father and been a great king in the eyes of man and God - but instead he goes down in history as the one who caused the separation and ultimate destruction of the Jewish nation.

The Rich Young Ruler - Mark 10:17-31

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" And he said to Him, "Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up." Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." They were even more astonished and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?" Looking at them, Jesus said, "With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."

Peter began to say to Him, "Behold, we have left everything and followed You." Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first."
- Mark 10:17-31

Mark reveals a man who truly had potential for greatness. He was young and wealthy in a society that saw this as a blessing or favor from God. He was a sincere believer who acted upon his beliefs. He didn't simply hear the word but he tried to obey it.

Most importantly, he found Jesus and came personally to the Lord for teaching. He was a man who could have been great:

  • He could have been a disciple of Jesus and consequently a leader in the church.
  • He could have received gifts from the Holy Spirit and done miracles like Philip and others.
  • He could be with Jesus today in heaven as one of the early martyrs.
  • His name could have been in the Scriptures as one Jesus not only loved, but sent to do His work.

He was this close, speaking face to face with the Son of God -- but he failed. He was so close to immortality and joy but when Jesus asked him to trade his earthly treasure for heavenly treasure -- he wouldn't do it. The Bible says he went away sad - perhaps he sensed how close he had come to greatness.

The Character of the Near Great

The men I have talked about lived thousands of years apart and yet had common characteristics that denied them the greatness so close at hand:

1. They Didn't Recognize Their Opportunity

In the case of Cain and the rich young ruler, these men were dealing with God face to face, yet they were unaware of the majesty before them and the opportunity that this presented. Rehoboam had the chance to be greater than his father who had been the greatest up to that time, but he saw only the threat to his position, not the opportunity it presented. These men's visions were clouded so that when their moment came, they could not recognize it.

2. They Aspired to the Wrong Kind of Greatness.

It is not that these men did not want to be great, did not want to achieve - they were simply aspiring for the wrong goal.

  • Cain wanted to dominate his brother instead of pleasing God. Winning over his brother gained him one position; pleasing God would have given him a primary position in history.
  • Rehoboam wanted the people to fear him as king instead of loving and respecting him as a benevolent ruler. A small portion feared him, the rest abandoned him and instead of building upon the legacy of his father, he remains a legendary failure.
  • The rich young ruler wanted his good life on earth to remain forever instead of finding a new and better life in heaven. Keeping his temporary riches caused him to forfeit his eternal treasure.

Each gained something in one way or another, but it cost them the greatness they could have had.

3. Each One Defeated Themselves

A management expert gave a speech at a meeting I attended. He spoke about human development and motivation. He said that we are 100% responsible for what happens to us: i.e. We are hit by a car coming behind us at a stop sign. The accident is the other person's fault, but we chose to drive that day and we chose the route to use.

His point was that our big problem is that we try to blame circumstances or other people for our problems but rarely see that we are usually responsible to some degree for it, if not all. These men were responsible for destroying their chances at greatness:

  • Cain refused to deal with his anger and let it boil over into resentment and ultimately a murderous rage. He refused God's warning and ruined his brother's life as well as his own.
  • Rehoboam chose to listen to the advice of those who told him what he wanted to hear, instead of the advice of wisdom. His own foolishness led him to destroy his own throne and divided his nation.
  • The Rich Young ruler refused to give up the comfort of this world for the promise of the next.

Each one came so close to true greatness - not just the temporary applause of fame and fortune on this earth - but the true greatness that goes on forever. Unfortunately, they sabotaged their place in history by the choices they made.

Because of this, they and others like them (Lot's wife who almost escaped; Esau who sold his heritage for a meal; Saul who forfeited his crown; Demas who left the company of Paul) came close to a greatness they didn't achieve on earth and will never see in heaven.


Do you realize that each of us is just a heartbeat away from greatness? I'm not talking about winning a gold medal at the Olympics or being President. These things are great, but temporary. I'm talking about the greatest honor that exists in all creation, in all of history. In II Timothy 2:11-12 Paul describes it: If we died with (Jesus), we shall also live with Him; if we endure, we shall also reign with Him.

The death Paul refers to is our death with Jesus in the waters of baptism (Romans 6:3). The position or honor he talks about is the right hand of God in heaven. Essentially what he is saying is this - Christians who remain faithful until the end will reign with Christ at the right hand of God forever. There is no higher honor, there is no greater privilege, there is no "greatness" one can aspire to that is greater.

To be part of the Godhead and rule over the spiritual world (which may be more vast and varied than the physical world - certainly it is more glorious), this is the greatest, and each one of us can achieve this.

My question is this, "Who will be great, and who will merely come close to being great?"

The reason for making it or coming close are the same as they've always been:

  • Those who will become great are those who have been baptized with Christ and remain faithful until the end.
  • Those who will only come close will be those who put off obeying Christ in baptism until it's too late or those who fall away before He comes. Don't spend an eternity in regret because you were so close but didn't close the gap in time. Obey the gospel, be restored, start being faithful, confess your sins, start serving --- Be great today!
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