What is the meaning of greatness in the Bible?
Let’s say you’re in a classroom and it’s the beginning of class. The teacher asks, “If you desire to be great, please raise your hand.” Would you raise your hand? I’m sure you would. And I’d follow your lead. The problem is, though, many of us have the wrong definition of greatness because worldly influences have plagued our minds. So the real question becomes: What does it mean to be great?
The World’s Definition
Dictionary dot-com has several definitions for greatness:
- “Unusual or considerable in degree, power, or intensity.”
- “Wonderful; first-rate; very good.”
- “Notable; remarkable; exceptionally good.”
It seems popular to define greatness as perceived success. If you have power, money, and status, then the world calls you great. Sometimes it’s chance; sometimes it’s not. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” says William Shakespeare. Greatness, in the world’s eyes, is about material possessions and accomplishments. Nothing wrong with these things. But is this the correct definition?
Many of today’s celebrities advocate this notion of greatness. Take LeBron James, for example. With well over 70,000,000 social media followers, his influence on our culture is massive. And, curiously, most of his social media posts end with this hashtag: #Striveforgreatness.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 26, 2016
Zero Dark Thirty- 23 activated. #StriveForGreatness
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 17, 2016
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 27, 2016
Now, I’m a huge sports fan and LeBron is my favorite athlete. This is not my attempt to lash out in jealousy because I never made it to the NBA. Like LeBron, I’d like to strive for greatness. I just think his definition and mine are different.
The Meaning of Greatness in the Bible
Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, desired greatness. More than that, they craved fame and status. This is evident by a bold question proposed to Jesus in Mark: “Teacher,” they said to him. “We want for you to do whatever we ask from you. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35-37).
The arrogant desires of their hearts are obvious. They could’ve asked Jesus for anything. They don’t ask for more joy or more favor or faith or holiness or whatever. No, James and John want something else: they want glory.
It’s easy to beat up on the disciples. But picture yourself in the story. Do you struggle with selfish-ambition? Are you sometimes motivated by selfish reasons? If you’re like me, this is a battle. You compare yourself with others, and sometimes desire good things for the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, Jesus is patient with the request of James and John. And he’s patient with us. What’s interesting is that Jesus never rebukes James and John’s desire for greatness. Instead, he gives them a new definition:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-43).
So what’s true greatness?
Here’s C.J Mahaney’s definition from his excellent book Humility: True Greatness:
“As sinfully and culturally defined, pursuing greatness looks like this: Individuals motivated by self-interest, self-indulgence, and a false sense of self-sufficiency to pursue selfish ambition for the purpose of self-glorification. Contrast that with the pursuit of true greatness as biblically defined: Serving others for the glory of God. This is the genuine expression of humility; this is true greatness as the Savior defined it.”
So it’s not the desire that’s bad, per se, but the definition. And Jesus completely redefines what greatness is, which is serving others to the glory of God.
In a word, true greatness is about humility.
Now, go back to the classroom. You’re still there, but now it’s the end of class, and the bell is about to ring. You just heard a lecture on greatness. Your understanding of greatness is as Jesus defined it. Again, the teacher asks, “If you desire to be great, please raise your hand.”
Would you still raise your hand?
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