It’s fun to laugh at the disciples sometimes, isn’t it? Read the gospels and you’ll find them providing us plenty of opportunity. Like in Mark 9 when they have arrived in Capernaum and have settled into a home for a meal and a rest. Jesus asks a simple question: “What were you discussing on the way?” They had obviously been in deep debate during that long walk and Jesus is interested to know what it was all about. But there is no response. “They kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Ouch.
This argument sounds absurd to Western ears. Who would actually debate their own status? Who would actually have the chutzpah to say, “I’m greater than you and here’s why”? But in that culture, this kind of ranking was important, a means of ensuring social hierarchy. Literature from the time was full of explanations of who should enter rooms first, second, third, and last. Other literature predicted who would be be closest to God in Paradise. Status was conferred according to tribe, status, station, and, of course, action.
The disciples must have been debating something like this. Each had brought his case, each had argued his own merits, each had been his own hype man. It is unlikely they had settled the matter, for no one who argues such things could ever be content to be twelfth (or even second, for that matter). In all likelihood, they brought rancor to the table with them. Jesus silenced them with a question. He shamed them with a demonstration. He shocked them with an explanation.
What the disciples failed to understand is that it is good to pursue greatness when we pursue the right kind. Piper says it like this: “What Jesus does here is very profound. He recognizes in his disciples’ quest for greatness a good thing that has become ugly and distorted by sin. And instead of destroying the whole distorted thing, he describes a pathway on which the distorted and ugly pursuit of greatness will be radically transformed into something beautiful.”
Pursuing a twisted definition of greatness leads only to pride and discord. Jesus warned the Pharisees of their love of “the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces” (Luke 11:43). They pursued their own greatness to their own benefit. They wanted the perks that come with greatness—the honor, the respect, the deference, the idols of that culture. They would do what it took to gain such greatness and then fight tooth and nail to secure it. This is exactly what Jesus saw in his disciples.
Piper says that in a sinful world, the quest for greatness “has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be known as great; and it has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be greater than someone else.” There is keen insight here. The pursuit of greatness is now proud, designed primarily to be seen by others for the good of self; the pursuit of greatness is now competitive, no longer a matter of being great according to an objective standard but of being greater than others according to a subjective standard. This is the very opposite of true greatness, for as Jesus says, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” True greatness is found in humility, in putting others first, in not caring a wit for witnesses, in comparing oneself only to Christ.
And, of course, Jesus provided the perfect example of such greatness. He longed to be great in the eyes of his Father, so he first became little. He who went the lowest was elevated to the highest.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 4:5-11)
“Jesus doesn’t condemn the quest for greatness,” warns Piper. “He radically transforms it. Go ahead and pursue it, he says. But the path is down, not up.” Where is God calling you to go low?