I want to start with talking about a sports figure back in the 60s and 70s. I think most of you remember boxing champion Muhammad Ali. He caught the attention of the world by declaring, "I am the greatest." Of course throughout history there has been other great boxers before him like the great Joe Lewis or Rocky Marciano. These boxers had better records and they fought more fearsome opponents, but nobody, especially a public sports figure, had ever had the audacity to brag about their talent and success like Muhammad Ali. The public loved it. They either loved him or they love to hate him, either way he made news.
Muhammad Ali spawned a new generation of athletes: cocky boxers or ballplayers who flashed their skills and they were eager to tell the world how wonderful or confident they were in themselves and in their abilities.
Today, we're kind of used to that, that's pretty much the norm, but before Ali, you didn't have athletes boasting about themselves, that just didn't happen. They usually were the other way around, say, "Well, you know, "I've been lucky or whatever, you know, I give grace to God "or something," but they rarely talked about how wonderful they were, that kind of began with him.
This mindset has so permeated our society, that we no longer think anything of it when athletes or anyone else for that matter, publicly gloat over their success, their personal talent or their wealth. You get athletes throwing thousand dollar bills around just, publicity sake. Now, my point with all of this is to demonstrate that our society has a very definite view of what it takes to be great, that has evolved in the last 50 to 75 years.
According to our president criteria, greatness seems to require a mixture of several elements in today's society. The first of which is fame. Everybody wants to be famous. People do stupid things, dumb things, dangerous things, just so they can be famous.
And so people tend to consider great, people who for some reason or other are famous. We have, for example, Kim Kardashian, who receives a lot of attention, deference, adulation because she is famous. And she is famous for being famous. That's only in our society. That's all, she's famous because she's famous. Not because she has a skill, she won a prize, she has some sort of achievement. We tend to magnify the importance or the greatness of people, simply because they've achieved some kind of celebrity status, irregardless of why they have become famous. We have actors whose opinion is sought for political matters or theological matters, why? All because they're famous, and somehow their fame is their ticket to ride and give their opinion to the entire world.
So that's one element that we consider great, people who happen to be famous. Another element in our society is wealth. we equate greatness with how much money some people have. Again, it doesn't matter at times that wealthy people never did anything to earn their money.
I'm not saying all wealthy people are like that, I'm saying some. The royal family, for example. Those little babies that were born recently into the royal family, they're famous for what? Nothing, they're just born, born into a family. Because society finds them fascinating. The ordinary things that people or wealthy people do, ordinary people find that fascinating, why? Because they're famous or because they're very, very rich. Of course skill, people who have an ability to run or sing or dance or eat six dozen hot dogs, in maybe 20 minutes, we raise these people up to a level higher than other people.
Now, sometimes the skill is born of hard work, sometimes it's totally genetic. But it doesn't matter so long as it stands out, we honor that person. We confer greatness on people with a special skill, even if their only use of that skill, is to receive honor and money for its display. And then, of course, this is absolutely American. Horseshoe throwing, women's soccer, scoring on a lottery, it doesn't matter. We love winners don't we? The guy on Jeopardy, he's won how many? 30 games in a row or something like that. He's famous, we love him.
Now 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. Because winners are forgiven everything, and they're conferred with greatness, so long as they keep winning. In America, at the beginning of the 21st century, anyone or any combination of these elements, will lead us to greatness. As I said, fame, this is how poor people become great, they become famous. Or wealth, this is how some nasty people become great.
They're just rich. Skill, this is how most people achieve greatness. And winning, this is how to achieve fame and wealth along with greatness. If you're a winner, it doesn't matter what you win at. Now, against this backdrop, it is no wonder that the Christian ideal of greatness is lost. And there are few that seek it, couldn't even give you the elements of what Christian greatness is all about. What it means to be great in God's eyes, is so very different from 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 positions that are completely opposite to today's standards. This is why it's so hard to recognize. So in five different passages, Jesus describes what it requires to be great in the kingdom of God, which here on earth is represented by his church.
I've very briefly sketched out a few things, are required to be great in the world. What does it mean, and what do we need to be great in the eyes of Jesus? So I'll give you a list of those. The first criteria is obedience to God's word.
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
So Jesus talks about greatness in the kingdom. The very first criteria for spiritual greatness, is one's obedience to God's word. Now, in other passages, Jesus confirms this basic principle. For example, in John 14 verse 15, he says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." And then in John 12:48 he says, "He who rejects me, and does not receive my sayings, has one of the judges in the word I spoke, is what will judge him at the last day." I read those two passages to confirm the idea that greatness in the kingdom, first begins with obedience to Jesus.
He says it, explicitly, in the previous passage in Matthew 5:19. He says it explicitly, "If you obey my command, "you'll be great in the kingdom." And then he says it kind of negatively, in these other two passages. "But if you disobey, you'll be least." It's very hard for great people in this world, to be at the same time 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.
That's the difficulty. Remember the rich young ruler in Luke chapter 18, verse 18? He was great in his own Jewish society, wasn't he? when he was intelligent, he had position, the public respected him, he had wealth.
So in that society, he had all the things that an individual needed to be considered great. And then he went to Jesus, with the request for greatness in a spiritual sense. He said he wanted to turn a life. That's reaching out for something great spiritually, and he comes to Jesus. So what does Jesus tell him? He tells him to let go his wealth and follow him. And we know the familiar passage, right? That was just too much for the young men to do.
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. What did Jesus say? Another passage, Matthew five verse six. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Throughout the Bible, we see many men and women who become great, because of their obedience to God's word.
Think back for a second, Abraham. Wasn't he a great man of God? To what point did he obey? To the point where he was ready to sacrifice his only son. What about Moses? Moses who ran away from Pharaoh and stayed in the desert for 40 years, was told to go back to Pharaoh, and demand the release of the people. And he obeyed that command. How about Mary the mother of Jesus? She obeyed and accepted her pregnancy. Her pregnancy engineered in a spectacular way, in a spiritual way. But just think now about Mary for a moment.
It wasn't just about, you're going to have a baby, that's pretty natural for a woman, desirable probably, she was engaged to be married. Probably looked forward to having a baby. But you're going to have a baby in circumstances where you will be thought of in a negative way? You're going to have a baby but not through, intimacy with your husband. Are you ready to accept that baby? Go through that ordeal if you wish? But she accepted it. She accepted God's word to her. And of course, Jesus obeyed. He went to the cross. His human side needed some prayer.
People say, "Well, why didn't he pray? "You know, he's the Son of God." Well, yes, it wasn't the divine side that needed the prayer. It wasn't the divine side that was struggling, it was the human side that was. And you know what? I would have trouble believing the gospel, If Jesus had not gone to the garden to pray. If he had just said, "Okay, good. "The cross, you want me to go to the cross? "Fine, good, I'm good.
"When do you want to do that. "You want to do that next Passover? "Let's get that ready shall we?" No, no, that would not be normal. How would not be a normal human being's reaction to that requirement. Exactly what he did is exactly what a human being would do. Pray and cry out to God and say, "Please, not anything but this." They focused all of their energy and talent, Abraham and Moses and Marian Jesus, and so many others in the Bible.
They focused all of their energy and talent, and acted according to God's word. It requires effort to obey the word of God. It requires skill, to obey the word of God. It requires all of the things that it requires to get good at something, is required to obey God's word as well.
Now, it's okay 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 interactions given to us in the Word of God, but being great in God's eyes, is not about being big or dynamic, but rather about being obedient even in small matters. Whether it will be great matters, like acting out of mercy or justice, or whether it's about small matters, like how we worship. The basic criteria for judging our individual and collective greatness in the kingdom of God, will be how well we've obeyed God's word.
Number one criteria for being great in the kingdom. I think sometimes we don't even think about that. It's like it's not even on our radar, that I want to be great in the kingdom of God. We don't even think that that should be a thing.
But that is a thing, why? Because Jesus says, "Those who do this will be great in the kingdom." Oh, okay. Another requirement mentioned by Jesus concerning greatness in the kingdom, and that is accurately teaching God's word. Matthew 5:19. We go back again and he says, "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.
" there's the second one, "whoever keeps and teaches them, he should be called "great in the kingdom of heaven." If one learns to obey the word consistently, then they will be in a position to teach the word consistently.
You can't teach God's word unless you obey God's word. One goes with the other. You're teaching is ineffective if your obedience is ineffective. Even if you've got the right doctrine, even if you say the right words to explain the doctrinal part, if your life is wrong, then you have no power in teaching. The Pharisees are a good example of that. We know who they were Jewish lawyers, right? Who arbitrated the word of God and interpreted it for the people. Remember the Jewish people, they were a theocracy.
They didn't have like, a civil law over here that had nothing to do with religion, and then they had a theological law. No, no, the law was God, God's laws, is what they followed. And the scribes, the Pharisees, they were a type of a scribe, they were a party, if you wish. The separate ones. They interpreted God's word, in practical, everyday terms to help people obey it. They were the chief example of teachers who didn't do. They taught what you had to do, but they themselves didn't do it.
And Jesus saved his harshest criticism for these men who fancy themselves as teachers of God's word, but who knowingly avoided the doing of the word for themselves. What did Jesus say to them? "Woe to you lawyers, as well." For you way men down with burdens hard to bear "while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens "with one of your fingers?" 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. I mean, after all, he created everything from what we do not see. So he's not impressed with what we do, how fast we run or how smart we are or how much stuff we can memorize or how good we are at math. That's not how we impress God. The great men and women of God are those who in some way or another, labor to teach the world and the church his word. Jesus's final command to the apostles, and by extension to all the disciples that would come after them was to do what? He said, "All authority has been given to me "in heaven and on earth.
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, "baptizing them in the name of the Father, "Son of the Holy Spirit, teaching them," there it is, "to observe all that I commanded you and lo, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Missionaries, Bible school teachers, elders, preachers, moms and dads, grandparents, who teach their families and their grandchildren, and great grandchildren. 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 whether they through their service or support, assist the teaching the work of the church.
These 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." I talked about Muhammad Ali at the beginning, great athlete, champion boxer. This is not what impressed God about him. After all, God is the one who gave him those talents, who gave him his athletic prowess. Now, what God is seeking, are those who will hear and obey his Word. He's looking for those who also want to share his word with other people.
I could list a lot of things here, but I've just selected a few that Jesus himself talks about. Greatness in the kingdom. Those who practice humility. Jesus, discipled the apostles for three years. And during that time, he taught them by word and example.
He trained them, and he sent them out to practice their ministry. Near the end of this time, he often selected certain ones, for example, Peter and James and John, for special moments, like being witnesses of his transfiguration, or for special tasks, like obtaining the animal for him to ride on when he entered Jerusalem. But it was after one of the special tasks, that Peter was sent to obtain a coin from the mouth of a fish to pay the Roman tax in Matthew 17. It was after Peter was sent to do this, that a discussion arose among the apostles concerning who would be considered great in the kingdom.
This business of being considered great, it's a human thing. Apparently, the special closeness and opportunities for service afforded to Peter for example, and certain others, caused the other apostles to begin debating, well, who would be considered great. They anticipated being great in the Lord's earthly kingdom, but who would be the greatest among the 12. Their attitude was, "Yeah, times are coming "when we're going to be on top, the 12 of us, "where we're going to be calling the shots, "when the kingdom comes. "But who among the 12 of us will be the greatest, "who's going to rise up." And that didn't happen just once that kept on happening over and over again, among them. So in Luke 9:46, to 48, Jesus explains not only the actions required by those who are great in the kingdom, some of the things I've talked to you about this morning, obedience to the word, teaching accurately God's word.
He also describes the attitude necessary for greatness in the kingdom. Let's read that passage shall we? It says, "An argument started among them," being the the apostles, "an argument started "among them as to which of them might be the greatest.
"But Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, "took a child and stood him by his side, "and 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." So the sense of this idea, "Receives this child in my name," is that a person would take care of a child, because I say, he should do this, okay? In other words, this person is ministering directly to me, by extension, to me and the Heavenly Father.
Now caring for children, especially in that era, and especially by males, of that era, was not the norm. Today, of course, we encourage, and rightly so we encourage dad to get involved. Dad cooks it's a team effort, right? Especially when you've got a household where both parents are working, and they're raising children, this is not a place, where the guy says, "Oh, I don't ever touch diapers, "oh, I never, you know, uh uh." It's a team effort, if you want to get. I remember when we were raising our kids, four little kids. Well, if I wanted to have any time whatsoever, with Lise, at the end of the evening, I had to get in there and pitch in and help, give the baths and get the clothes ready for school, and, whatever, read the stories, so that maybe, hopefully, by 9:30, or 10, everybody be done and we'd have maybe a precious hour, to catch up on our day and be together before mama, she was gone.
So of course, today, we encourage husbands and wives to share that, household chores, it's important. But in the first century, that was not a thing. You couldn't even suggest that to males in that time.
So you need to understand what Jesus is saying to them. He says to them that if he would ask them to receive or in other words, to care for a child, all right, if I asked you to take care of a little child, something that has no glory, a task that will not make one, "great" in this world, but you humbly submit to it, because I asked you to do it, then this humble act is raised to the level of serving Jesus and the father directly, which is a great thing indeed.
This was the way he explained the attitude of humility, that he wanted from them if they truly desire to be great. Because Jesus, notice he doesn't say, "Stop doing that. "Stop thinking you want to be great.
"You shouldn't even be thinking "about that being great." He didn't say that. It's normal for human beings to aspire. You see what I'm saying? It's normal for human beings to aspire. Jesus is saying, but disciples do not aspire to the same thing that non believers aspire to. Non believers, they aspire to be great in this world. I want to be famous, I want to be rich, I want to get my way I want this, I want that. He's saying in the kingdom, that's not what we aspire to. We aspire to spiritual greatness.
And spiritual greatness can be heard, it's a thing, it has its rewards. But it is obtained in a very different way. It's obtained through obedience, it's obtained through service. It's obtained through humility. A parallel idea is found in Matthew 25, where Jesus tells the apostles that in feeding the hungry, and visiting the sick, let's read that one. He says, "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 unto me." Feeding the poor, visiting those in prison and so on and so forth. Jesus doesn't mention the word humble here, or meek, but this is what he's describing by using a child as an example. If I asked you do a task that is humbling, and in their case, taking care of a little baby, and you do it out of faith, then you are aspiring to spiritual greatness.
Humility, and 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's also the ability to restrain our will and person in order to sustain and nourish other people. When we realize that, it's not all about me all the time, we're getting close to the kingdom. Being the least in the sense that one can deny one's own self will, in order to support someone else. In the sense that we can suppress our our own ambition in order to realize the good for someone else.
In the sense that we can die to ourselves so that the welfare and the growth of others can take place. Isn't that the thing, young people, they want to get married, they want to have families and so on and so forth.
Many times don't understand that, that comes at a cost. There's a cost to that. If you have children, if you make a decision to have children, then you have decided that you're going to pay the price for that.
And there's a cost for that. A lot of times the cost is how great you become in your career, why? Because kids need time. They need effort, they need involvement. They need for you to be able to say, "Mom is busy now, Mama's you know Mama's busy, "Mama's got to do this." And it needs mama to say, "I'm going to put aside my thing," which is going to achieve my objective for me, "And I'm going to pay attention "to you and help you at your young age go forward." This isn't the class obviously on parenting.
But if you want to learn about humility, have children. You will very quickly learn about humility. I'm not saying you'll become humble, but you will have the opportunity to be humbled.
I remember Lise and I, when I first became a minister I was performing I think one of my very first weddings. It was a big deal, it was a couple that we knew, Stephen Paula Basar. And we lived in the church house about a block away from the building.
And this was going to be like a big affair, 'cause they were having a big wedding and all the church was going to be there. And so Lise has bought a new dress and she's getting ready and everything is great and, and we're having a babysitter come to watch the kiddos while me and Lise and I go to the wedding.
And that morning, Paul wakes up, he's got a fever. He's got 103 fever. And he's he's all down in his room. He's coughing, his lungs, he's just not good. And, and she's getting ready, and I'm still getting ready.
And we're looking at him, we say "Boy you don't look good." And she says, "Yeah, well, let's give him a little aspirin." And the time is getting, the wedding's at 10:30 is she says, "And now it's ten o'clock." And his temperature is like 103.5. I'll never forget it. Lise looks at me, she's dressed. She's got her dress on, her high heels, her makeup, everything's ready to go. And she looks at me and she says, "I'm not going to that wedding am I?" I said, "Well, unless you want to do the wedding yourself, "and I'll stay home with Paul." I was trying to be gently reminding her that I couldn't stay. All the people were expecting me to do my job. And she said, "So this is motherhood." "So this is motherhood?" Yeah, now, that's not all there is to motherhood, obviously.
But that difficult lesson that I'm going to have to give up something that I have look forward to that is going to be pure joy for me, because my mother job needs me. Now it could have been the reverse, many times it's death.
I got to do this, I got to do that. And Junior says, "But that Don't you remember? "That's my big game, you said you would come?" Oh, yeah, humility. Humility requires a rare form of courage and strength and patience and faith and love.
Of course, 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, and what does he do? He submits to a humiliating life and death in order to secure the salvation and well being of those who hated him, and who put him on the cross.
That's humility. He became the least to save us from sin and death. He is now the greatest in the kingdom, because of this. So the die 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 or power or strength. For example, God answered Samson's prayer, when? Only after the strong man recognized that his true strength did not come from his body, it came from the Lord.
So is when we we are weak, that we can see God's strength. It's only when we humble ourselves that God will make us great. We can't make ourselves great in his eyes, no matter how hard we try. Well, let's not forget that this series, this short series, four lessons is about Nehemiah. I mentioned his name at the beginning. I didn't mention it all the way through. Well, I mentioned Nehemiah because he is a great Old Testament servant of God. And I want to use him as an example in the following lessons.
But in this first lesson, I've wanted to establish the nature of biblical greatness and what is required to achieve it. I mentioned three things. Obedience to the word, ministry of the word, and humility before God and others.
Next week, we're going to look at the history and the background of Nehemiah's his life, and then we're going to hit into the book itself, which will profile the life of a great servant of God. And the reason I picked him is that he was an ordinary guy.
In other words, he didn't do miracles. Nehemiah didn't do any miracles, Nehemiah didn't prophesied he didn't do any of those things. He built a wall. That's all he did, he built a wall. That's not like some huge task.
He didn't write a book of prophecy. He didn't walk on water or do any of those things. He did a very simple task for the Lord. But when we look at his life, we see how great this man was, and how greatly he served the Lord.
Okay, so we'll dive into that next week. If you're going to be in my class, next week, or next couple of weeks, I encourage you to read the book of Nehemiah. because we're not going to have time to read all of it here.
But read it for yourself and you'll be familiar with the story when we get to it. Okay, that's our class for this morning. Thank you for your attention.