(outline adapted from Mark 9:30-41)
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be great. Everything is wrong, however, with pursuing greatness outside of the parameters set by Christ. Just as the mistakes of the first-born child can serve to instruct his younger siblings and protect them from repeating his errors, the mistaken concept of greatness that had Christ’s disciples helps us evaluate whether or not we are achieving true greatness. The following principles emerge from Christ’s interaction with his disciples in Mark 9:30-41.
The great are not afraid to identify with Christ’s sufferings (verses 30-32)
The disciples did not understand the nature of Christ’s coming kingdom. Only through the sufferings of the cross could Jesus solve our greatest problem, the problem of evil. In the cross of Christ, God both punishes for sin and justifies the sinner who trusts in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Of all the disciples, Peter seems the slowest to recognize the need to be willing to suffer for righteousness sake. After all, he is the one who rebuked Jesus for being committed to the cross (Matthew 16:23) and who drew his sword to help establish the kingdom (John 18:10). Later, as Christ had revealed to him (John 21:19), he fully accepted the implications of suffering for righteousness sake (1 Peter 5:10).
The great seek to serve others (verses 33-35)
Great people don’t think that they’re great. They recognize that even at their very best, they are just servants of a greater Lord (Luke 17:10). Worldly greatness is based on competition, and unfortunately sometimes creeps into the church. Though competition may be used to “puff” ministry results like attendance, number of baptisms, size of buildings, etc., it is a plague to Christ-centered ministry. Long-term, it can result in pride, divisions, scandal, and the belittling of other servants of God. So, to be great, we must think like a servant: “What can I do to help by brother be successful?” “How can I accommodate my brother and his ministry?”
The great recognize that Jesus is the author and finisher of greatness (verses 36-37)
Why would Jesus have chosen a child to illustrate how to achieve greatness? Precisely because (normally) a child cannot claim any great accomplishments. Greatness is inherent to Jesus but not to ourselves. If we will be great we must reject the competition that comes to us naturally and depend on and submit to Jesus. This kind of child-likeness frees us to reflect God’s divine nature, resulting in a divine message and testimony which yields divine results.
The great are not interested in starting their own movement (verses 38-41)
Jesus prohibits all prohibitions that are based on competition. It is possible to prohibit a brother outside of our immediate theological circle from doing or saying something that actually helps advance the gospel in the world. If there is real evidence that the person knows Christ, and that he is contributing to the work of Christ, we should neither directly nor indirectly prohibit them from doing their work. The great respect even the “little ones” in Christ, those who theologically may be uncultured, uncouth, or uneducated, simply because they belong to Christ. None of this is to say we should not take sound doctrine seriously – we should! But we should also flee pride and competition like the plague.