A Different Kind of Greatness

But it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. (Matthew 20:26)

Many years ago while in my first post-seminary pastorate, I pulled up to my church office one day to see a car in the parking lot with an intriguing name on its door. “Dare to be Great.”

I wondered if that were a company or if someone wanted to say that line to the world so much they had magnetic signs printed up for their car doors.

The car pulled off and I was left wondering.

Then, a few weeks later, I began to hear of a sales movement that had that as its name and mantra:”Dare to be great.” People were aggressively signing up their friends to sell some kind of “greatness programs” for thousands of dollars. Those who signed up were entitled to sign up others.

It did not require a Ph.D. to figure out someone was running a Ponzi scheme here, and that’s what it was. Eventually, the Florida team that put it together had their mansions and planes and bank accounts confiscated by the feds and were carted off to prison.

I confess to being disappointed that the idea of greatness these people were promoting was strictly financial. Furthermore, their definition of greatness involved manipulating and using more and more people beneath them. Eventually, as happens with all such pyramid schemes, all the “little people”–that is, those late to the ball–were left holding the bag.

Jesus said, “He who would be great among you should be your servant.”

Here are three fascinating things about that statement….


1. Jesus wants us to desire greatness. There is nothing wrong with the ambition to rise from the pack and do something significant in this world.

A few verses before our text, the mother of two of our Lord’s primary disciples, James and John, approached him with a request. When He set up His kingdom, would He grant that one of her boys occupy the seat of honor to His right and the other the seat to His left?

In responding to her, the Lord pointed out that this was not His to give and then gave a teaching on the way of true greatness as opposed to the usual ideas. (Incidentally, Mark 10:35 says James and John themselves asked the Lord for the favor. My own conclusion is they all came.)

God wants us to be great, so long as we properly understand greatness. He wants us to be everything he planned us to be from Creation. The Lord made us higher than the rest of creation, no matter what the so-called humanists say.

The Heavens are the Heavens of God, but the earth He has given to the children of men.(Psalm 115:16)

And there is this line from another Psalm–

You have made him (man) a little lower than the angels and you have crowned him with glory and honor.(Psalm 8:5)

God made us for Himself, to be His children, to reign with Him. The desire for greatness is innate, installed by the Father Himself.

In the Old Testament, God promise His people that if they obeyed His Word, they would be on top and not the bottom; they would be the head and not the tail(Deuteronomy 28:13). God made His people to be the leaders, salt and light, the trend-setters in this world, not its followers.

2. Sin corrupts that desire and turns the greatness on its head.

The problem, however, is what sin does to that holy ambition. Under its influence, we find ourselves with a misshapen concept of greatness and an ugly hunger to get all of it we can. Then, finding it unsatisfying, we double our pursuit of the stuff.

Fallen man in a sin-crazed world sees greatness as a matter of dominating as many lesser mortals as possible, becoming the envy of millions, piling up power in the form of gold and silver, receiving awards and honors to assure us we are better than anyone else.

Ask a typical teenager what he wants to be when he grows up and he will not have a clue except for one thing: he knows he wants to be famous. To achieve celebrityhood, to be well-known for something, to be admired and envied.

Even ministers of the gospel are not immune to this disease. We do love our degrees, display our awards and honors, and make sure that the editor of our paper is aware of the latest recognition we have received. Let someone’s edition of “Who’s Who” run a thing on us and we add that to our resume.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It’s sad because it’s all so pointless, so fruitless, so needless.

As many as received Him to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.(John 1:12) There is greatness–to be a child of God.

3. The way to genuine greatness is down and not up; by service and not domination.

Jesus is the prime example of this. He said, The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many(Matthew 20:28).

On another occasion, Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). The foot-washing event of John 13 dramatized the lesson He sought to convey by His life and His teaching.

That’s all well and good, someone says. But He was the Lord. He had nothing to prove. Which is correct, of course. In fact, the opening verses of John 13 make this very point:

Now, before the Feast of the Passover when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end; and supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. (John 13:1-4)

That, believe it or not, is all one sentence in the Greek. It was intended, clearly, as a single unit to make the point that all this is happening with the certain knowledge of the Lord Jesus and that His act of service is of one piece with the rest.

Nothing proves the Lord’s statement that true greatness resides in serving like an example of someone who pulls it off.

From time to time, you and I encounter one of those humans who seem to have no other ambition in life but to find more ways to help more people. They shun recognition, dislike the spotlight, live simply, and baffle critics. All they do is bless others and the world beats a path to their door, looking for their secret.

Margaret Covell is one who did far more than she probably ever knew in her lifetime.

Recently on this blog, I told the story of “God’s Samurai,” Mitsuo Fuchida who, during World War II, had been the lead bomber pilot as the Japanese Imperial Fleet wrought such devastation at Pearl Harbor. After the war, the Lord used a number of separate strains of witness to bring him to Christ. Then, for another quarter century, Fuchida covered the globe bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ. (I heard him in New Orleans sometime in the mid-1960s.)

No one was more used of the Lord to capture the heart of this warrior than 18-year-old Margaret “Peggy” Covell.

Following the war, Fuchida made a point of meeting as many ships as he could which were bringing returning POWs back to Japan. Seeking out some he knew, he asked how they had been treated in America. After sitting in on a number of war crime trials, Fuchida was convinced that the USA had treated their prisoners just as harshly as had the Japanese. Once in a while, the returning POWs did testify to mistreatment, but again and again, they told of being treated with kindness. In the reports, one name kept recurring.

In one of the prison hospitals in America, a young nurse named Margaret Covell had given sacrificial service to wait on her patients. She would say, “If you need anything, just let me know.”

One day, a Japanese prisoner asked Miss Covell why she went out of her way to be so kind. He was not prepared for her answer.

“Because the Japanese murdered my parents,” she said.

Her folks had been missionaries at a Christian school in Yokohama. When war threatened, the missionaries all relocated to Manila. Eventually, the Japanese came there, too, and they were arrested. The military confiscated their portable radio and, thinking it to be a secretive communications device, questioned and tortured the Covells. Then, they beheaded them.

Margaret had been attending school in the States and had not learned of her parents’ death until the war ended. She became bitter and filled with hatred.

Soon, as she reflected on her parents’ lives, she realized that they would have forgiven their executioners and that she must, also. Then, she did as she thought they would have, and devoted herself to waiting on them.

Fuchida was stunned by such reports. This was contrary to the Japanese custom of revenge, the word for which in his tongue literally meant “attack enemy.” But to forgive an enemy? The concept was foreign to him.

Fuchida set out to find out what the missionary couple, the Covells, had said before they were beheaded. That should tell him something. But no one seemed to know.

Then one day, Fuchida received a Bible. A friend challenged him to read 30 pages before dismissing it. By the time he had read that many, Mitsuo Fuchida was enthralled by its message. And that’s where he found what he had been searching for. In the 23rd chapter of Luke’s Gospel, this Japanese Samurai came upon the prayer of Jesus from the cross on behalf of His executioners:

Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.(Luke 23:34)

That was it, he felt. That is what the Covells did as they died. They forgave their executioners.

Later, Mitsuo Fuchida testified that this was the moment he was converted to Christ. Until that time, he still had not had a conversation with any Christian on how to be saved. The Lord used the Holy Scriptures and the loving example of three faithful servants, Margaret Covell and her parents.

I daresay that the Missionary Covells led far more people to Christ by dying for Him at the hands of the Japanese than they ever had in their lifetimes. Likewise, their daughter Margaret, bore witness to the whole world of Jesus Christ through the preaching of a man she never met, Mitsuo Fuchida, world evangelist.

Jesus put it this way: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. (John 12:24)

So, who is the greatest? The disciples seemed to be bugged by that issue. (Matthew 18:1 and Mark 9:34)

Someone once asked Billy Graham who he thought might be the greatest Christian ever. As I recall, He answered that only God knew, but “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not some unknown person working in some remote place no one ever heard of, and seen only by the Lord Himself.”

Could I add one more point to this issue, someone not suggested by the text but so true it almost goes without saying?

Greatness-by-service is also God’s plan for His churches, not just for individual believers.

I wonder if anyone has counted all the clinics and conferences designed to show church leaders how to put their institution, their ministry, their congregation, on the map. How to be great in their community, or at least greater than the competition.

Why don’t we just take the Lord at His word and begin to serve our communities? It seems so clear, so plain.

Does this mean car washes and gasoline giveaways? A food pantry for the needy? A clothes closet? It might.

It might also mean an employment service, a ministry to the homeless, a partnership with Habitat to build homes, and a thousand other things.

It could mean mission trips overseas, but only if the church has established itself as a servant in their own community. Otherwise, the mission trip becomes a substitute for reaching their own Jerusalem.

One thing it must mean, however, without which all the other service is meaningless: the people who serve must share the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. Evangelism.

The best service we can ever render to another is to introduce them to the Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation will achieve more in 5 minutes in that person’s life than years of other kinds of labor from us.

It is no credit to our churches that the conservative churches have often wanted to present the gospel without serving the people, whereas liberal churches want to serve the people without presenting the gospel.

I sat across the table from Buck and Dottie and Reba Rambo. This marvelous singing group had been in our town the night before, doing a concert. At intermission time, I introduced myself as the pastor of the First Baptist Church up the street. Dottie asked if I had a doctor in the church, saying she was having throat problems. A half-hour after the concert, our own version of Marcus Welby–Dr. S. B. Platt–met us at his office and treated her.

The next morning, at their invitation, I joined this legendary singing group for breakfast. I wish I had recorded the conversation.

Buck Rambo was talking. “I had this guy call me from another singing group. Said he wanted to come and spend a few days with us in order to ‘find out how to make it big.’ I told him, ‘Friend, keep your eyes on Jesus and let Him take care of the big.'”

That was 35 years ago and I’ve not forgotten the lesson.

Let the Lord take care of the greatness part. After all, no one does it better.

1 thought on “A Different Kind of Greatness

  1. Thanks for another great blog. I have observed for years the truth in you statement, “…the conservative churches have often wanted to present the gospel without serving the people, whereas liberal churches want to serve the people without presenting the gospel. There seems to be much more love in the liberal churches, but alas, as you say, not much mention of the gospel.

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