Episode 20: What is the startling (and offensive!) Key to Greatness According to Jesus?

Today we are reading Genesis 21, Nehemiah 10, Matthew 20 and Acts 20. Way before my time, there was a TV show called, “I Love Lucy,” which I occasionally watched in my childhood on syndication. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it followed the crazy antics of Lucy Ricardo. Lucy was an extremely impulsive and creative woman, to put it mildly, and she was always getting into trouble in one way or the other. Lucy’s husband Ricky, the far more sensible one in the marriage, would often ask her for an explanation of her disasters, saying things like, “Lucy, ‘Splain!” (Interestingly, he never said the catchphrase often contributed to him, “Lucy, you have some ‘splaining to do!” Nor was ‘Beam me up, Scotty” every heard on Star Trek nor “Just the facts, ma’am, on Dragnet, and Mr. T. Never actually said, “I pity the fool” on the A-Team.” but I digress.)

Sometimes as our family reads through Genesis, I feel like our kids come to me with the equivalent of, “Dad – you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!” about this or that happening in Genesis. Why did Lot try to give his daughters to a band of bloodthirsty rapers? Why did Abram try to pass off his wife as his sister – so much so that another man married her?! Why did Lot’s daughters…ok, you get the point. The fact of the matter is that Genesis is not the story of God’s best saints, nor the story of upright and mighty heroes, but rather the story of weak-willed, foolish and sinful people who do not deserve sainthood and who are not moral exemplars. In fact, I was thinking about Genesis in the shower last week, and especially thinking about what a jerk Lot was, and how strange it was that God chose to save him. In the midst of those thoughts, another voice broke into my mind and said, “Lot didn’t deserve to be saved!” And, as I considered those words, my first thought was, “He sure didn’t – it’s ridiculous! Lot didn’t deserve to be….oh….yeah…I get it.” That’s really the whole point of Lot and the other sinners in the Bible. They don’t deserve to be saved. WE don’t deserve to be saved – that’s what grace is! Grace is UNEARNED, UNMERITED, UNDESERVED favor. We are Lot.

For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.


Today’s focus passage is found in the teachings of Jesus from Matthew 20. It is one of the shorter, and more offensive teachings of Jesus; it is also one of His most profound teachings, and a truth we MUST grasp!

25 Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. 26 It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28

The fact of the matter is that we consider servants and slaves to be a position that is so low that it is actually offensive. Yes, there is slavery in the Bible. The kind of slavery in the Bible is more akin to what we would call indentured servitude than what most Western people think when they hear the word, ‘slavery.’ The kind of slavery practiced by America and other Western countries up until the 20th century is an abomination, a horror, and an indefensible moral outrage. The kind of slavery practiced in the Bible is different, in many ways, but still not good. It needs to be said that the people of God in Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians for 400 years, and there were many other instances of slavery in the Bible, and, quite clearly, nobody particularly enjoyed being a slave, or aspired to continue being in slavery. And yet here we have Jesus saying this horribly offense (and beautifully profound) statement: If anybody wants to be great in MY Kingdom – they must be a servant and a slave to all!

And here is the sobering truth: The thing we consider to be one of the lowest practices of humanity – ‘serving’ somebody, is in the eyes of Jesus, one of the highest practices of humanity. Servant Greatness is one of the key themes of the Bible. I have said it before – when I see a gifted person serving, I always think to myself, “Ah-hah – That person understands the key to greatness.” When I see a gifted person operating in his or her gifts and intentionally NOT serving, or even seeking to BE served themselves – I wonder if they’ve understood the call of Jesus rightly. The greatest pastors, leaders, apostles among us must always serve.

Thinking about Karl Marx’s charge against religion: First, I don’t grant that Christianity is religion. Religion is all about working to please God and earn salvation. Christianity is about the work that has been done on your behalf by God in order to please God. But, I’ll humor Marx just this once: If religion is indeed the opiate of the masses, why follow the Jesus Way? Why go lower? Why sacrifice? Why submit? Why be humble? Why seek to serve others more than yourself? Why give radically? Understand that Jesus says the way to greatness is to SERVE. This is not an opiate – this is like smelling salts. Religion puts you to sleep like opium. The teachings of Jesus stir you to life with their power. I can see how somebody might say that about sunshine-pumping prosperity preachers who promise you wealth, and health and the blessing of God and that all God wants for you is your best life now, but that is not biblical Christianity, that is something else entirely, a twisted shell of biblical Christianity. The Jesus way is the way of serving. Tribulation is promised in this life, but the rewards of following Jesus and living life as a servant are eternal greatness, life everlasting, and blessing literally beyond our ability to comprehend! Consider this encouraging word from Charles Spurgeon on Serving:

“I have spoken of meekness towards God; but those who are truly meek are also gentle towards their fellow-men. I wish that all Christians had this character, and that they might not be rough, over-bearing, proud, and hectoring, as some are. There are some who seem to think that nobody would esteem them if they did not kick everybody as they went along. They seem to fancy that all other people as well as themselves are made of iron, and that their power will not be known unless they dash themselves against all who come near them; but it should not be so among the children of God. Oh, that we might learn that holy courtesy which is one of the true marks of a Christian! Oh, that we might have a tender regard for other people’s feelings, because we have a fellow-feeling with them, and that we might pass through the world, not anxious to be noticed, but rather to be unnoticed, not desirous to be great, but willing to be little, eager rather to wash the saints’ feet than to have them crown our heads, desirous not so much to be ministered unto as to minister, for true greatness lies in the sacrifice of self for the good of others! Remember how our Lord said to his disciples, “Whosoever will be chief among you let him be your servant.” This is always the rule in the Church of Christ, God makes it to be so, though it seems not according to the usual bent of human nature. The Lord takes great delight in those who are of such a meek, and quiet, and humble, and lowly disposition.”

C. H. Spurgeon, “‘Beautiful for Ever,’” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 43 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1897), 124–125.

Four keys to being a Great Servant: 

1. Romans 14: Be wary of Judging: 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

2.  Serve people, put them above yourself, but you are not to be a people pleaser.  Galatians 1:10 – 10 Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.

3. Don’t argue, but be gentle! 2nd Timothy 2: 23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,

4. Watch out for titles!  Matthew 23: 8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Finally, we would do well to remember Philippians 2:5-8  5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature[of a servant, being made in human likeness.  8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself 

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