Aspiring to Greatness in the Kingdom of God

Intro: Has God ever disappointed you? It would difficult to answer no to that question. As a good father often disappoints his immature children, so God has not always done things that way we have expected or wanted. AS we have noticed, the OT prophets created a universal anticipation among God’s people. They expected God to send a King, and establish His kingdom. But as often happens, the people’s expectations were not fulfilled in the way they anticipated. God said through Isaiah… For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.

  • This can be viewed rather clearly in the expectations of the people concerning the Kingdom of God.

1) Many of the Jews expected the Messiah to free them from Roman oppression and rule on a physical throne over the nation.

2) They anticipated a Messiah who would come from the religious elite, who would honor the traditions of the fathers.

3) They expected a Messiah who would bring wealth and prosperity to the land of Israel. When Jesus’ displayed to the masses His ability to feed the hungry and heal the sick, they tried to take Him by force and make Him their king. But Jesus disappointed them and many walked with Him no more.

  • But this disappointment was not restricted to the general public. Even Jesus’ apostles had anticipations concerning the coming kingdom.

 I. Concurrent Conversations – Opposing Paths: As Jesus and the disciples were traveling from Galilee to Capernaum there were concurrent, yet opposing conversations going on. (parallel lines never intersect, they do not come together at any point.)

A. Before leaving Galilee (possibly the same day), Jesus openly told them that He was going to be betrayed into the hands of men, killed, and resurrected on the third day. Mark 9:30-32Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. 31 For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” 32 But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him. Jesus was telling them He was going to suffer and die – this was His path.

B. At the same time a parallel conversation was taking place among the disciples. They were having an argument. Mark 9:33-37 “Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?” 34But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. It was not the fact that they were arguing that concerned Jesus, it was WHAT they were arguing about.While Jesus was speaking about suffering and death, they were talking about being honored and exalted by men, being in a position of human greatness. This was their path.

1. These two paths never meet. Jesus’ teaching could not be reconciled with their expectations, nor their expectations be fulfilled by following Jesus down His path.

2. It would seem that they recognized the inconsistency of their discussion with what Jesus had been teaching, as they were too ashamed to answer Him.

3. The disciples often seem imperceptive to Jesus’ words concerning the path He was taking. Maybe they were unconsciously ignoring what was disappointing to them. Their preconceived ideas hid the truth from them. Isaiah spoke of those who reject God’s message because they “keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” (Isa. 6:9)

C. What brought all the quarreling about who was the greatest?

        • Peter had taken the lead among the disciples with his confession of Jesus, and was blessed by Jesus as a result.Matt 16:17-18
        • Six days later Jesus took 3 of the disciples, Peter, James, & John, on the mountain and was transfigured before them, asking them to keep what they had seen to themselves. Were they feeling a little special or enlightened above others?
        • When Jesus came down from the mountain, the remaining nine had been unable to cast out a demon, and were put on the spot by the enemies of Jesus.
        • Peter was once again put in the spotlight when he found the shekel in the fish’s mouth, and Jesus paid his temple tax for him. Who would Jesus proclaim as the greatest, the one who would sit beside him?

II. Who Then is Greatest in the Kingdom? They finally brought this quarrel to a head by asking Jesus the question, no doubt attempting to hide their private discussions. In Matthew’s account….Matt 18:1-5 “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

A. Can you imagine how they anticipated Jesus’ answer? Peter had already rehearsed his acceptance speech. Maybe James or John were convinced he would name them. But Jesus did the unexpected. Maybe He disappointed them again. Matt 18:2-5 – Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.

1. The word for child here (Paidion) identifies a very young child, sometimes even an infant. In the society of Jesus’ day this child had not rights or prerogatives. Can you imagine how shocked they were when Jesus brought that little child among all those important adults?! Jesus recognized the enemy among them. It was their pride. The child made an ideal object lesson. Jesus called a child to demonstrate the mutual exclusiveness of their path and His. His Kingdom was not based on human ambition or pride. John MacArthur saysA little child makes no claims of worthiness or greatness. He simply submits to the care of his parents and others who love him, relying on them for all that he needs. He knows he cannot meet his own needs and has no resources to stay alive. That is the kind of humble submissiveness that results in greatness in God’s eyes and in His kingdom. (from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary) Pride is antithetical to Jesus’ kingdom. We can make no claims, insist on any rights, or come with any demands.

            • Adam Clarke writes… “Be as truly without worldly ambition, and the lust of power, as little children are, who act among themselves as if all were equal.”

2. The verb behind humbles himself in v. 4 has the literal meaning of making low. It is a self lowering through a desire to put others above yourself. In God’s eyes, the one who lowers himself is the one who is elevated. The one who genuinely considers himself to be the least is the one God considers to be the greatest. James 4:6-10Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” 7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.

B. Jesus’ words were a call to repentance. “Unless you are converted” – The phrase are converted translates elsewhere in the New as “turning” or “turning around.” It means to make an about face and go in the opposite direction. Peter used a form of the term twice in his message shortly after Pentecost, as he called his hearers to “repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away” and declared of Jesus that “God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways(Acts 3:19,26). The term is used repeatedly in the book of Acts to speak of conversion (11:21; 15:19; 26:18, 20). Paul used the word when speaking of the Thessalonian believers, who had turned “to God from idols to serve a living and true God(1 Thess 1:9). The disciples were traveling a different path. They must turn around their thinking and repent of their selfish ambition because it is incompatible with the nature of Jesus’ Kingdom.

III. “Let Him be Your Slave” – Several months later their selfish ambition was still very much evident. Matt 20:20-23 – 0 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. 21 And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”They said to Him, “We are able.” 23 So He said to them, “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.” The text goes on to tell us that the other disciples were indignant at the two brothers, but their indignation was really envy (v 24).

A. We notice that just as in Matthew 18, this self-seeking request came immediately after Jesus spoke to them about His coming suffering and death, (Coffman suggests they were contemplating who would be His successor in the kingdom) This must have been especially painful to Jesus . Even on the night before He died, as He ate the Passover with them, they were still arguing about their own greatness (Luke 22:24).

B. Jesus refuses to allow the apostles (James and John here) to contemplate the acquisition of greatness and honor in His kingdom without the reality of personal suffering.

1. “You do not know what you ask” – Jesus’ response (directed at James and John) is rebuke of their immature faith and knowledge of what He had taught them to this point. (Children that think they know what they want for themselves – When I asked my dad if I could buy my first car)

2. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink? – To drink the cup meant to drink the full measure, leaving nothing. It was a common expression that meant to stay with something to the end, to endure to the limits, whatever the cost. Were they willing to go down the same path – all the way? It is difficult to know if their answer pleased Jesus or distressed Him. Jesus’ answer indicates that He fully understood His own path of suffering. He recognized that the citizens could not be expect to live differently than the King, and that there was not an alternate path. How could a Savior that did not have a place to rest His head promote personal success and riches among His disciples?

3. In our Bible class on Friday morning we studied Acts 12 – the cruel Herod killed James, the apostle with the sword. Interestingly, He did drink the cup all the way.

C. Matthew 20:26-28but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave– 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” These words formulate the severe paradox that exposes the irreconcilable paths of Jesus and His disciples. If a person desires to be great in the kingdom of God he must become a slave. Jesus makes this call to greatness equally to all disciples – “let him be your slave” – He has to serve you – but you must serve him also. There is no human hierarchy of greatness by power or position. Each citizen serves the other.

1. Jesus points out that this path is different. In human systems (among the Gentiles) some people (those who are considered “great”) lord it over others and exercise authority. Some are masters, others are slaves. “But it shall not be so among you” – You will all be servants. That is the pathway to greatness.

2. Lest they think that Jesus was just putting them in their place, with a desire to Lord it over them, He tells them why this is the only path to greatness in the kingdom of God – “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” These words are God’s answer to me anytime I balk at serving another person, or think there is a job I am too good to do.

            • How many people in the church rely upon you to do something to them? How many do you serve?
            • How many people do you rely upon to do something for you? How many serve you? That is a barometer of how great you are in His kingdom.

3. Greatness is acquired by serving others. Now that something we can be ambitious about! If we serve others it means Jesus is on the throne in our hearts. It signals the arrival of His kingdom among men when we see them serve each other in humility, as they submit to the King.

            • John MacArthur makes this connection: The popular “gospels” that propagate self-fulfillment and personal success are the antithesis of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are a mockery of New Testament Christianity and strike at the heart of salvation and of Christian living. The Lord made no provision for the elevation of self, but rather declared unequivocally that the person who, on his own terms, “has found his life shall lose it” (Matt 10:39). The way of self is the way of disqualification from the kingdom. Those who glorify self not only will not be great in the kingdom but will never enter it.

Conclusion: Matt 19:13-22 Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. 14But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” 15And He laid His hands on them and departed from there. Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” 17So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, ” ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19’Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” 21Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

1. Couldn’t Jesus have used such an energetic, wealthy, and morally good young man in His camp? Jesus allowed him to leave (many of us would not have) because he was unwilling to surrender all of himself to God. That commitment would have been evidence of a childlike commitment that is the essence of Kingdom greatness. He was not on the same path as Jesus.

2. How do we measure up here? Would we be willing to make that single sacrifice that would define our greatness in the kingdom? Moses made it – gave up the treasures of Egypt. Abraham made it – he offered his son, the widow made it – she tossed in all that she had.