Summary: This is a message in a series based on questions that Jesus asked and that were asked of Him.
There seems to be a fundamental human urge in all of us that causes us to want to be the greatest at doing or being something James and John are really a good representation of the human race when they ask Jesus to let them sit on each side of Him in His kingdom. . If left to go unchecked this can allow an unhealthy pride to develop. This drive can lead people to say some of the most idiotic things. “I’m richer than you; therefore I am your superior.” “I am more eloquent than you; therefore I am your superior.” “I have more education than you; therefore I am your superior.” During the second century the Greek philosopher Epictetus pointed out the absence of logic in these connections. The true connection he said is this, “I am richer than you therefore my possessions must exceed yours.” “I am more eloquent than you therefore my style must surpass yours.” But persons, Epictetus correctly argued, consist neither in property nor in style. What they do seem to consist of, unfortunately, is the urge to be the greatest. Paul in his second letter to Timothy points out that conceit will be a common trait in the last days. A wise person once said that pride is the only disease that makes everyone sick except the one who has it. And of all who get sick over it, God is the one that gets the most nauseated. Solomon wisely states in Proverbs 6, of all the things that nauseate God pride is at the top of the list. It is quite unfortunate that this type of pride has crept into the church. There are those in the church who believe that if they were not there the doors would close. As we discover in our text God defines greatness in an entirely different way than the world. Let’s take some time to discover, “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom?”
I. Greatness as defined by the world.
A. The New Testament writers deal quite a bit with the subject of conceit.
1. Webster defines conceit as an excessive appreciation of one’s own worth or virtue.
2. The word conceit appears twelve times in the New Testament and each time seems to be the result of excessive pride.
3. When you carefully look at each place the word is mentioned you will soon discover that it implies that greatness is determined by holding a high rank or position.
4. This leads us to see that James and John’s question assumes a hierarchal pecking order in which status and clout are determined by one’s rank.
5. They are “thinking the things of men,” and view their life in the kingdom in terms of status and privilege, not self-denial and sacrifice.
B. When we define Kingdom things according to earthly definitions we really miss the point.
1. Any human society is concerned to establish a proper ‘pecking order’ and the gospels record several disputes among the disciples on this subject.
2. James and John’s interest in prestige and power demonstrates that they did not fully grasp Jesus’ recent prediction of his passion and sacrificial death.
3. It does not take long to discover that the according to the world’s definition greatness is determined by having rank, knowledge or riches.
4. The problem is not having a high rank, money or owning lots of possessions. It is when we are driven by the desire to get more and more that it is wrong.
5. Greatness in God’s economy is measured very differently.
II. Greatness as defined by God.
A. Our text clearly spells out exactly how God defines greatness.
1. Jesus responds to the disciples by radically challenging and undermining their worldly values by using an illustration of a little child to teach a fundamental kingdom principle.
2. Jesus’ actions were not calculated to call attention to some innate quality within children, such as innocence, humility, or being teachable. Rather, it is the status of children as the “weakest, most vulnerable members of society” that is the focal point of Jesus’ illustration.
3. Children had no social clout or independent rights in the ancient world. They were utterly dependent on others for their livelihood and protection.
4. Children had no illusion of greatness or power according to worldly standards.
5. Jesus’ use of a child was to remind the disciples that in the kingdom greatness is measured by one’s own sense of vulnerability and helplessness, and ultimate dependency upon God.
B. Instead of embracing the world’s standards of greatness, Jesus challenges his disciples to change and become like little children.
1. This type of attitude is not at all natural; it involves a very radical change.
2. If we are to experience fully God’s reign, to exhibit a childlike indifference to worldly power and prestige is essential.