The question has plagued humanity almost from the very beginning: “Who is the greatest?” That is really the conflict that arose between Cain and his brother Abel, is it not?
Cain and Abel both brought offerings to the Lord. Cain brought the fruits of the ground: vegetables, fruits, any kind of edible plant. Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and the fattest of his flock, nothing but the best. And whose offering was better? Why that of Abel, the younger brother.
It was not better because of the value of the offering, no. The author of Hebrews tells us that it is faith which makes Abel’s offering acceptable in the sight of God. Faith makes one great before heaven’s court. But Cain cannot understand this.
So what is there to do? Eliminate the competition, of course. Cain invites his brother out into the fields and there murders him. The firstborn son of the world asserts his authority, his personal greatness, over his brother. And he becomes lost to God.
Cain wanted to be the greatest man, to give the greatest offering. And in the eyes of the world he was great. He was powerful. He slew his brother. He dominated the competition. But he also refused to repent of his sin. And, so far as we know, he dies confident in his own strength, great in the world, but nothing in God’s kingdom.
That problem is not resolved by any human effort throughout the history of the world. In every time and in every place mankind is constantly attempting to dominate his brother, to subdue what he sees as the competition. Every man wants to be the greatest. Every woman wants to be the best.
Whether they realize it or not, what they really want, what you and I really want, is to make ourselves great before God, to be His favorite. We want to stand on our own accomplishments and show off to God: “Look what I have done! I am the greatest!” And we bite, scrape, and devour one another to get there.
So God levels the playing field. He sends Jesus Christ to be the best, to show us what real greatness looks like. Jesus lives in humble perfection, never trying to dominate His brothers, although He was their king, but rather helping and serving them in every way.
With His death Jesus shows the greatest act of mercy this world will ever know. With His resurrection Jesus shows the greatest act of power. And then He gives His greatness to all who believe. Jesus bestows greatness on all by faith.
You see, with everything that He does, Jesus turns this question on its head. “Who is the greatest?” It is not who you think. Those who look impressive in the eyes of the world are nothing in the eyes of God. Those who are nothing are of great importance to Jesus. And anyone worried about being the greatest will never achieve it, no matter how many awards and accolades they get.
In essence Jesus tells His disciples to stop worrying about whether or not they are great in the kingdom of God. Just be thankful that they are in at all. “Unless you become like children, you won’t even enter the kingdom.”
By faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by trusting in His greatness, we have been brought into God’s kingdom, and we have been promised an eternal inheritance. So we can stop worrying about our own position. We can stop trying to prove ourselves to God, stop trying to dominate the competition. And we can focus on what Jesus wants us to: not the great ones, but the little ones.
Jesus uses a child as the supreme example of who is the greatest in the kingdom, although this title is certainly not limited to them. The idea is not that we should strive to be like little kids so that we can be great in God’s eyes. Rather, forget about being great and serve those who are not great.
Jesus gives a few examples of those who we should consider of great importance. First, and most obviously, are the little children that Jesus uses as an example.
I have spoken before about the difference between the way we see children today, and the attitude of people in Jesus’ day. While they did love and care for their children, they did not see them as particularly useful or helpful. They certainly would not be considered great.
Yet children are vulnerable, particularly in spiritual matters. We should worry more about protecting them from the spiritual evil and falsehood that is out there. Jesus admonishes that we should wish for death before leading a child into temptation. Instead, we should lead them to Jesus, teach them the faith, and give them every spiritual gift.
The Lost are also to be numbered among those of great importance. Look around on a Sunday morning and think about who you do not see in worship. Brothers and sisters from your school days? Neighbors who have not moved, but perhaps moved on from regular church attendance? Relatives or friends who have simply fallen out of the habit?
Those people matter to Jesus. He loves the 99, but He goes after the 1 who is lost. And our concern should be the same. Yet this is not simply the pastor’s job. It belongs to all of us. They are the lost of our congregation, not mine.
Jesus came to save sinners. And we are here to forgive sins. So it should come as no surprise that the brother who has sinned against you is to be considered of great importance. It is of great importance that you win them back, lead them to repentance so that they may have their transgressions removed by the blood of Christ.
It does no good to hold a grudge or ignore the sin. That will only lead one or both of you to hell. Seek out your brother or sister. Go after them, not once or twice, but 70 times 7 so that they may be restored to you and to Christ.
People matter to Jesus, all people, even the ones we don’t really want to care about. In fact, the lower they are in the world, the weaker and more vulnerable they are to the devil’s schemes, the more we should strive to serve them.
I want to close by quoting a section from Philippians 2:
“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 made himself nothing, 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.”
Everyone will bow before Jesus. Everyone. He is truly the greatest.