In this opening lesson, Mike compares the criteria for achieving greatness both in the world and in the Spirit.
38m

Back in the 1960s and 1970s boxing champion Muhammad Ali caught the attention of the world by declaring, "I am the greatest!" Of course throughout history there have been other talented boxers before him like the great Joe Lewis or Rocky Marciano. These boxers had better records and they fought more fearsome opponents, but no one, especially a public sports figure, had ever had the audacity to brag about their talent and success like Muhammad Ali. The public either loved him or they loved to hate him, either way he made news.

Muhammad Ali spawned a new generation of athletes: cocky boxers and ballplayers who flashed their skills and were eager to tell the world how wonderful or confident they were in themselves and in their abilities. These days this attitude is pretty much the norm, but before Ali, it was rare to have athletes boasting about themselves.

This mindset has so permeated our society that we no longer think anything of it when athletes or anyone else for that matter, publicly gloats over their success, their personal talent or wealth.

My point with all of this is to demonstrate that in the last 50 to 75 years our society has experienced a very definite change in determining what it takes to be great.

According to our present criteria, greatness seems to require a mixture of several elements:

1. Fame

The public tends to consider as great those who, for some reason or other, are famous. We have Kim Kardashian, for example, who receives a lot of attention and deference because she is famous. And she is famous for being famous! This is a feature of today's society. A person can become and remain famous not because they have a skill or won a prize or claim some sort of achievement, we tend to magnify the importance or the greatness of people, simply because they've arrived at some kind of celebrity status, regardless of the reason.

2. Skill

People who have the ability to run or sing or dance or eat six dozen hot dogs in 20 minutes, receive an inordinate amount of public attention or even adulation.

The skill or achievement can be the result of hard work or genetics but it doesn't matter so long as it stands out, we honor that person. We confer greatness on people with a special ability, even if their only use of that skill is to generate self-serving publicity and wealth for its display.

3. Winning

This is absolutely an American phenomena. It can be horseshoe throwing, women's soccer, even scoring on a lottery, no matter the game, we love winners. You can be mean and selfish, you can even be sexually immoral, but if you win and win often, you will become great in America and be forgiven everything so long as you keep winning.

In America, at the beginning of the 21st century, any one or combination of these elements will lead one to greatness. Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that the Christian ideal of greatness is lost and there are few that seek it. What it means to be great in God's eyes is so very different than what it means to be great in the eyes of our present society.

When Jesus explains what it means to be great in the kingdom, He describes attitudes and behavior that are completely opposite to today's standards.

Greatness in the Kingdom

In 5 different passages, Jesus describes the requirements for greatness in the kingdom of God, which on earth is represented by His church.

1. Obedience to the Word - Matthew 5:19

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 5:19

The very first criteria for spiritual greatness is one's obedience to God's word. In other passages, Jesus confirms this basic principle. For example,

  • In John 14:15 - he says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."
  • In John 12:48 - he says, "He who rejects Me, and does not receive my sayings, has one who judges him: The word which I spoke. That will judge him on the last day."

It is very hard for "great" people in this world to be "great" in the kingdom of God, because so much of what they must do to be great in this world, is contrary to what Jesus teaches in his word. The rich young ruler in Luke 18:18 was great in his own Jewish society. He was intelligent, he had position, the public respected him and he had wealth. He also wanted to be great in a spiritual sense (posses eternal life) so Jesus told him to let go his wealth and follow Him - this, we learn, was too much for the rich young man to do. His wealth was his security, and trusting Jesus rather than wealth was beyond him.

The desire to excel, to improve, to rise above is natural to mankind but in order to be great in a spiritual sense, one must harness that natural desire and focus it on the task of understanding and obeying God's word.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
- Matthew 5:5

Throughout the Bible, we see many men and women who became great because of their obedience to God's word. For example,

  • Abraham obeyed and was willing to sacrifice his son
  • Moses obeyed and went to the Pharaoh demanding freedom for his people
  • Mary obeyed and accepted her Spirit induced pregnancy
  • Jesus obeyed and went to the cross to die for sinners

They focused all their energy and talent on carrying out God's word.

It is wise to be prudent about what we do in church as far as worship is concerned, or how we organize a congregation and other matters that are done according to the instructions given to us in the word of God. However, being great in God's eyes, is not about being successful or dynamic, but rather about being obedient in both great and small matters. Whether our actions involve important matters, like dispensing mercy and justice, or small matters, like how we conduct a worship service, the basic criteria for judging our individual and collective greatness in the kingdom of God will be measured by how well we've obeyed God's word.

2. Accurately Teaching the Word - Matthew 5:19

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 5:19

If one learns to obey the word consistently, then they will be in a position to teach it - one goes with the other.

The Pharisees (Jewish lawyers who arbitrated the word of God and interpreted it for the people) were the chief example of teachers who did not do this.

Jesus saved his harshest criticism for these men who fancied themselves as expert teachers of God's word, but who knowingly avoided obeying the word themselves.

But Jesus said, "Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers.
- Luke 11:46

Climbing a mountain or throwing a ball or getting from point A to point B in record time, these are not activities that impress God, or make us great in His sight. After all, He created what is seen from that which is not seen (Hebrews 11:3). The great men and women of God are those who, in some way or another, labor to accurately teach the world and the church God's word. Jesus' final command to the Apostles, and by extension all the disciples that would come after them was the following:

18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
- Matthew 28:18-20

This command includes and extends to missionaries, Bible school teachers, elders, preachers, moms and dads as well as grandparents who teach their families and their grandchildren, and great-grandchildren God's word in every generation. Those who, in some way or another, communicate God's word to a lost world, or to a growing church, whether they be the ones directly teaching or instructing through their service or supporting those who do are the heroes, the great ones that the angels in heaven rejoice over and applaud. These are the ones that God will bless with the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

3. Humility - Luke 9:46-48

Jesus discipled the Apostles for three years. During that time He taught them by word and example, personally discipled and sent them out to practice their ministry. During this time He often selected certain ones (Peter, James and John) for special experiences (witnessing His transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-9) or for special tasks (obtaining the animal He would ride for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem - Luke 19:28-40). It was after one of these special tasks (Peter sent to obtain a coin from the mouth of a fish to pay the Roman tax - Matthew 17:27) that a discussion arose among the Apostles concerning who among them would be considered great in the kingdom.

Apparently, the special closeness and opportunities for service afforded to Peter and certain ones caused the other Apostles to begin debating who would be considered great. They each anticipated being great in the Lord's earthly kingdom, but who would be the greatest among the twelve?

In Luke 9:46-48 Jesus explains not only the actions required by those who are great in the kingdom (obedience to the word, teaching accurately God's word) He also describes the attitude necessary for greatness in His kingdom as well.

46An argument started among them as to which of them might be the greatest. 47But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by His side, 48and said to them, "Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great."
- Luke 9:46-48

The meaning of "receives this child in my name" is that a person would take care of a certain child because Jesus said that he should do this. In other words, the person doing this is ministering directly to Me and by extension to the Heavenly Father as well. Caring for children, especially by males in that era was not the norm and so would be seen as an unusual request.

Jesus says to them that if He would ask them to receive or care for a child (something that had no glory; a task that would not make one, "great" in this world) but they humbly submitted to it by faith, then this humble act would be raised to the level of serving Jesus and the Father directly, which would be a great thing indeed!

A parallel idea is found in Matthew 25:

The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'
- Matthew 25:40

Jesus doesn't mention the word "humble" or "meek" but this is what He is describing by using a child as His example. Humility or meekness is not the absence of character or willpower. On the contrary, it is the ability to not only submit our will and person to the authority of Christ and His word, it is also the ability to restrain our will and person in order to sustain and nourish other people.

Being the least in the sense that one

  • can deny one's own self-will in order to support another
  • can suppress one's own ambition to realize the good for another
  • can die to self so that the welfare and the growth of others can take place

This requires a rare form of courage, strength, patience, faith and love.

We see it in its perfect form, as the Son of God empties Himself of any human glory that would naturally occur because of His divine nature. He then submits to a humiliating life and death in order to secure the salvation and well-being of those who hated Him, and savagely nailed Him to a cross.

He became the least to save us from sin and death. He is now the greatest in the kingdom, because of this.

The dye is cast in Christ for all who wish to follow Him.

  • He is impressed only by our willingness to deny ourselves, not promote ourselves.
  • He considers as great only those who have given up the world, not those who try to conquer it or own a piece of it.
  • He loves those who are eager to do His will, regardless of the task.
  • He lifts up those who recognize that without Him, they are helpless and useless and He puts down those who are filled with their own importance, power or strength. For example, God answered Samson's prayer only after the strong man recognized that his true strength did not come from his body, it came from the Lord.

It is when we are weak that we can see God's strength. It is only when we humble ourselves that God will make us great. We cannot make ourselves great in His eyes, no matter how hard we try.

Summary

Let us remember that this series is about Nehemiah, a great Old Testament servant of God. In this first lesson, I wanted to establish the nature of biblical greatness and what is required to achieve it.

  • Obedience to the word
  • Ministry of the word
  • Humility before God and others

In the next chapter, we will look at the history and the background of Nehemiah's life and then profile the life of this great servant of God.