Not that long ago, a friend of mine who is planting a church in a major city in the U.S. told me that one of the ministers in the church planting network to which he belongs told him, “You have to position yourself around guys who are excelling and who are well connected in order to get ahead in the church.” The minister was not saying this with any degree of criticism. I remember the deep sorrow I felt when I heard what this man had said to my friend. However, much to our shame, our actions reveal the sad reality that–in differing degrees and at differing seasons–we all think the same way. We all want to get to the top.
When our first parents stretched out their hands to take of the tree of which God commanded them not to eat they were seeking after a greatness that belongs to God alone. Ever since the fall, men have given the greater part of the time and energy to seeking to supplant others–and to propel themselves forward–in every area of life. There is a seemingly insatiable quest for greatness lodged deep within the sinful hearts of all men and women. We are often blind to the reality of it in our own lives. We might think that once we are redeemed by Christ this quest would be immediately eliminated, but sadly this is not the case. In order to help us examine ourselves, the Holy Spirit saw fit to include in the Gospel narratives a picture of it for us drawn out of the lives of the disciples. Consider the following ways in which Scripture teaches us how this insidious reality manifests itself in the lives of God’s people:
1. Seeking to Use Jesus to Get to the Top. There are three accounts that reveal this seemingly insatiable quest for greatness in the lives of the disciples. The first of these is found in the account of James and John putting their mother up to the task of asking Jesus to let them sit one on His right and one on His left in glory (Matt. 20:21; Mark 10:37). James and John not only wanted personal greatness, they sought to use the greatness of the Savior to get it. They were so subtle in their sinful desire that they put their mother up to asking Jesus for them, rather than going to him themselves. This reveals the sinister nature of the sinful quest for greatness that often lies in the hearts of believers.
The second is the seen in Peter’s statement to Jesus, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have” (Matt. 19:27)? Peter was seeking greatness as a reward for what he viewed as personal sacrifice. Peter had convinced himself that he deserved a little piece of the greatness pie for having given things up to follow Jesus. Instead he should have said what Jacob said to the Lord: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant” (Gen. 32:10).
Finally, it is seen in Peter’s statement to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. After seeing the inexpressible glory of Jesus on the mount, Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three Tabernacles–one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matt. 17:4). The Holy Spirit moved Luke to add the words “not knowing what he said” to help us see the great problem with Peter’s statement. Peter was essentially saying, “Forget about the other disciples; forget about Your need to go to the cross for the redemption of the world; forget about the mission for which you have chosen us to be messengers to take the message of Your substitutionary death to the world (interestingly the very thing of which Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about on the Mount – Luke 9:31); we should just bask in our own greatness and personal privileges here with You, Jesus–together with Moses and Elijah.” While the worst part of Peters’ statement was His functional denial of the exclusivity of Jesus, the problem of the quest for personal greatness surfaced once again.
2. Asserting Ourselves and Our Gifts. There is another important account in the Gospel records that captures this quest for greatness. Just after coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus taught His disciples about His forthcoming sufferings (Mark 9:30-31). Immediately after telling them of His saving work the disciples are said to have argued with each other on the road (Mark 9:33). It was Jesus who drew out of the disciples what it was that they had been arguing about. Mark tells us that He asked them what they were discussing as they travelled. Matthew Henry helpfully observed that “Christ will be sure to reckon with his disciples for their disputes about precedency and superiority.” Instead of telling Jesus, “they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest” (Mark 9:34). The disciples were not interested in the Savior’s greatness, they were interested in arguing about which of them had more gifts and who would be rewarded the most for their labors. The quest for greatness flies in the face of Jesus’ sacrificial death.
Then there is the account of the disciples sinful desire for self-promotion juxtaposed against the background of the symbolism of the Savior’s selfless sacrifice in the Upper Room. No sooner did Jesus institute the Supper (Luke 22:14-20) and predict that one of the disciples would betray Him (22:21-22) that they began to argue with each other again about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24). The sin of self-aggrandizing is exacerbated by the initial response of the disciples to Jesus’ revelation that one of them would betray Him. With no interruption, the disciples go from “questioning among themselves, which of them it was who would do this thing” (22:23) to debating “which of them should be considered the greatest” (22:24). Instead of being humbled to the dust by the fact that Jesus had just acted out before their eyes what He would soon suffer for them, and, instead of being distrusting of themselves on account of Jesus’ warning, the disciples argued with each other about which of them was greater.
3. Teaming Up with Others to Get Ahead. There is also the subtle danger of latching on–with a party spirit–to others who are excelling in order to get to the top. This is perhaps the most common and subtle danger in our own day. It can fly imperceptibly under the name of “biblical fidelity” or “concern for good.” Often it manifests itself in men saying things like, “No one else is doing what we are doing,” or “We just want to be faithful to this aspect of minister as over against everybody else.” It can also manifest itself in someone pointing out flaws in others in order to exalt their own ministerial camp in the name of “excellence.” Such was the error of the Corinthians. They weighed the gifts and emphases of the various well known apostles and ministers and began to form factions in the name of one or another. Some said, “I am of Paul,” others, “I am of Apollos,” still others, “I am of Cephas,” and then the “Über pious” said, “I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4). The Apostle uncovers the root of this problem in 1 Corinthians 4:7 when he says, “Who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” It was not simply a liking of one style of preaching over another that was the issue–it was a quest to be superior to others, riding on the coattails of ministers who excelled in giftedness. The real problem was a sinful desire to get ahead of others.
There is one thing–and one only–that can quench this seemingly insatiable quest, namely, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has always convicted and humbled me to think that all the accounts above are set against the background of the saving work of Christ. The greatest failings in the hearts of the disciples were, in each case, set in direct proximity to the remedy. Whether it was in their arguing about who was greatest immediately after Jesus predicted His death and resurrection in word and sacrament or in Peter’s statement on the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus revealed who He was and what He came to do or in their seeking to team up with those who excelled in preaching Christ, the same insatiable desire for greatness clouded their seeing the One who excels all others and whose work is the most excellent of all works.
Nevertheless, the message of the cross is the only thing that can root out the desire for self-aggrandizing greatness. We must labor to return to Calvary every second of every day. When our hearts are gripped by the grace of God in the Gospel we will seek to serve others rather than supplant them–to exalt Christ rather than exalt ourselves. Instead of using Jesus, asserting ourselves and our gifts or teaming up with others to get to the top, the cross teaches us to go low. Jesus teaches us the following principle: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The way up is the way down. May God remove from our hearts the seemingly insatiable quest for greatness and grant that we learn of our Savior and from our Savior this supremely important lesson.