How to Be Great
It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (20:26–28)
This simple, clear passage is one of the most beautiful in the gospels. The principle it teaches needs little explanation, but it is in great need of emulation by those who call Jesus Lord.
First Jesus presents the precept and then the pattern.
the precept of true greatness
It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; (20:26–27)
Jesus turned the world’s greatness upside down. The self-serving, self-promoting, self-glorying ways of the world are the antithesis of spiritual greatness. They have no place in God’s kingdom and are not to be so among you, Jesus told the Twelve. In many different ways He had taught them what He told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
The world’s way of greatness is like a pyramid. The prestige and power of the great person is built on the many subordinate persons beneath him. But in the kingdom, the pyramid is inverted. As the great commentator R. C. H. Lenski has observed, God’s “great men are not sitting on top of lesser men, but bearing lesser men on their backs.”
Unfortunately, however, there are still many people in the church who, like James and John, continually seek recognition, prestige, and power by manipulating and controlling others to their own selfish advantage. A tragic number of Christian leaders and celebrities have gained great followings by appealing to people’s emotions and worldly appetites. But that is not to be so among Christ’s disciples today any more than among the Twelve.
Jesus went on to explain that it is not wrong to desire great usefulness to God, only wrong to seek the world’s kind of greatness. Paul assures us that “it is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1). As the apostle goes on to point out (vv. 2–7), the standards for an overseer in Christ’s church are high. But the man who is willing to meet those standards for the Lord’s sake and in the Lord’s power will have the Lord’s blessing.
Therefore, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you, that is, great by God’s standards rather than men’s, shall be your servant.” He was not, as some have suggested, contradicting what He had just taught. He was speaking of an entirely different kind of greatness than the sort James and John were seeking and that the world promotes. This kind of greatness is pleasing to God, because it is humble and self-giving rather than proud and self-serving. The way to the world’s greatness is through pleasing and being served by men; the way to God’s greatness is through pleasing Him and serving others in His name. In God’s eyes, the one who is great is the one who is a willing servant.
It is not only not wrong but very much right to seek eternal glory, because that glory is God-given. Paul declared, “Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority” (1 Thess. 2:6). But he also declared to those same believers in Thessalonica that “it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14). The way to that divine and eternal glory, which comes from God, is the way of renouncing the worldly and temporal glory that comes from men. The way to God’s glory is the way of the servant. Man’s focus must be on rendering spiritual service with consummate excellence and leaving the success of that service to the Lord.
Jesus was speaking of being a true servant, not a sham. He did not have in mind the “public servant” who uses his office for personal gain and power. Godly greatness comes from genuine humility. Only God knows a person’s heart, and Paul assures us that the Lord “will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Cor. 4:5).
Servant is from diakonos, from which the term deacon is derived. The original Greek word was purely secular, referring to a person who did menial labor, such as house cleaning or serving tables. It was not necessarily a term of dishonor but simply described the lowest level of hired help, who needed little training or skill.
But Christ elevated diakonos to a place of great significance, using it to describe His most faithful and favored disciples. He could have chosen any number of more noble words to characterize obedient discipleship, but He chose this one because it best reflects the selfless, humble life that He honors. It is also the life that He Himself exemplified, as He would go on to say (v. 28).
The surest mark of the true servant is willing sacrifice for the sake of others in the name of Christ. The sham servant avoids suffering, while the true servant accepts it.
Paul had the pure, genuine heart of a servant. He readily acknowledged his apostleship and the divine authority that came with that unique, high office. But he even more readily acknowledged that his office and authority belonged to God and were only entrusted to him as a steward (1 Cor. 4:1). To the proud, self-centered, factious, and worldly Corinthians he said, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (1 Cor. 3:5). Later in that letter he says sarcastically,
You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us.… For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now” (4:8–13)
In his book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law writes,
Let every day be a day of humility; condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of your fellow-creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellencies, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowliest offices of the lowest of mankind.
Another great saint of past years, Samuel Brengle, wrote,
If I appear great in their eyes, the Lord is most graciously helping me to see how absolutely nothing I am without Him, and helping me to keep little in my own eyes. He does use me. But I am so concerned that He uses me and that it is not of me the work is done. The axe cannot boast of the trees it has cut down. It could do nothing but for the woodsman. He made it, he sharpened it, and he used it. The moment he throws it aside, it becomes only old iron. O That I may never lose sight of this. (Quoted in Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership [Chicago: Moody, 1967], p. 58.)
Jesus reiterated and intensified His description of God’s way to greatness: “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” The position and work of a slave were much lower and demeaning even than those of a servant. A servant was to some degree his own person. He often owned little more than the clothes on his back, but he was free to go where he wanted and to work or not work as he pleased. But a slave (doulos) did not belong to himself but to his master and could go only where the master wanted him to go and do only what the master wanted him to do. He did not belong to himself but was the personal property of someone else.
In several of his letters Paul identified himself as Christ’s slave (doulos) even before identifying himself as His apostle. He greeted the Romans with the words, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle” (Rom. 1:1; cf. Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1). That is why he could say, “If we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). Slaves were the property of their owners and could therefore be bought and sold. Like such a slave, Christians “have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; cf. 7:23) and are the property of the Lord who bought them with His own precious blood (1 Pet. 1:18–19).
Paul greatly desired to be exalted and to receive glory, but the exaltation and glory he sought were God’s and he sought them in God’s way, through the suffering of servanthood and the bondage of slavery. It was said of one leader in the early church that “He belonged to that class of early martyrs whose passionate soul made an early holocaust of the physical man.”
In one of her most beautiful poems Amy Carmichael wrote,
Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star;
Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound?
Yet, I was wounded by the archers, spent.
Leaned me against the tree to die, and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yes, as the master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole. Can he have followed far
Who has no wound? No scar?
The cost of true greatness is humble, selfless, sacrificial service. The Christian who desires to be great and first in the kingdom is the one who is willing to serve in the hard place, the uncomfortable place, the lonely place, the demanding place, the place where he is not appreciated and may even be persecuted. Knowing that time is short and eternity long, he is willing to spend and be spent. He is willing to work for excellence without becoming proud, to withstand criticism without becoming bitter, to be misjudged without becoming defensive, and to withstand suffering without succumbing to self-pity.
When faithful believers have done everything they can for the Lord to the limit of their abilities and energy, they say to Him, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10). It is to such disciples that the Lord will say in return, “Well done, good and faithful slave; … enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
William Barclay has succinctly commented, “The world may assess a man’s greatness by the number of people whom he controls and who are at his beck and call; or by his intellectual standing and his academic eminence; or by the number of committees of which he is a member; or by the size of his bank balance and the material possessions which he has amassed; but in the assessment of Jesus Christ these things are irrelevant.”
the pattern for true greatness
just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (20:28)
The emphasis of this verse is in the words just as the Son of Man. What Jesus says about Himself should also characterize His followers. “I am your perfect Pattern,” He was saying, “your supreme Example. My attitude should be Your attitude, and My kind of living should be your kind of living. If you want to be great as God wants you to be great, be like Me.”
To discover what it means to become a godly servant and slave, the disciples had only to look at the Son of Man Himself. Many years after John presumptuously asked to be seated at Jesus’ side in the kingdom, the now humble apostle wrote, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6). As once his life had centered in himself and his great desire had been to lord it over others, now it was centered in Jesus Christ and was abandoned to the selfless service of others in His name. He no longer sought to manipulate Jesus but only to emulate Him.
In His incarnate role as the Son of Man, Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve. “Although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:6–9).
Jesus is the supreme example of humility and servanthood, because, as the sovereign of the universe and of all eternity, He subjected Himself to humiliation and even to death. He is the most exalted because He faithfully endured the most humiliation. Although He was the King of kings and had the right to be served by others, He ministered as a Servant of servants and gave His life to serve others.
During the Last Supper, after the disciples had again been arguing about which of them was the greatest, Jesus asked, “Who is greater, the one who reclines at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27). It was probably at this time that Jesus gave them the beautiful object lesson of servanthood recorded by John.
[Jesus] laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.… And so when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments, and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:4–5, 12–17)
Jesus’ ultimate act of servanthood, however, was to give His life. “Greater love has no one than this,” He said, “that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Some years ago, Joe Delaney, a star football player for the Kansas City Chiefs, saw three young boys out in a lake, crying out for help and struggling to stay above the water. Although he was himself a poor swimmer, Joe dived into the water and tried to save them. One of the boys was rescued, but Joe and the other two boys drowned. He willingly laid down his life in an effort to save those boys, making the ultimate sacrifice in their behalf.
Although such heroes are lauded, the world understands little of that kind of selflessness, which runs counter to man’s natural inclination to self-preservation. But self-giving is to be the normal pattern for Christians, just as it was the normal pattern for Christ.
In His next statement, Jesus presents the first explicit New Testament teaching about the redemptive work of the Messiah. He would vicariously suffer for the sins of mankind as a ransom for those who trust in Him. He did not simply give His life an example for others. He was no mere martyr for a godly cause, as some claim. Nor was He merely an example of life-giving selflessness, although He was indeed the supreme example of that. Jesus not only lived and died for others but died as a ransom for others.
In that redemptive aspect, of course, His followers cannot follow His example. Nothing that a believer can do will have any direct spiritual benefit for himself or others. If he could not merit his own salvation, he surely cannot merit the salvation of someone else.
Lutron (ransom) was the term commonly used for the redemption price of a slave, the amount required to buy his freedom. It is used only twice in the New Testament (see also Mark 10:45), both times in reference to Christ’s giving of Himself to redeem others. Here it is followed by the preposition anti (“instead of”), expressing an exchange. In 1 Timothy 2:6, the word used for “ransom” is antilutron, which simply combines the two words used here. In both cases the idea is that of a price paid for a life.
The unbeliever is a slave to sin, the flesh, Satan, and death, and it was to redeem men from those slaveries that Jesus gave His life a ransom in exchange for sinners. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul explained to believers in Rome. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:1–3). “Having been freed from sin,” the apostle had told them earlier, “you became slaves of righteousness” (6:18). Christ’s sacrifice bought us back from the slavery of sin.
And although the noun lutron is used only twice in the New Testament, other forms of the root word are used frequently, as are numerous synonyms. “For you have been bought with a price,” Paul reminded the worldly Corinthian believers; “therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). To the Galatians he wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13; cf. 4:5); to the Ephesians he wrote, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7; cf. v. 14; 4:30); and to Titus he wrote, “[Christ] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Peter reminds believers that they “were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold, … but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). In John’s magnificent vision on Patmos he heard the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders proclaim of Christ, “Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
Jesus’ ransom was paid to God to satisfy His holy justice, and it was more than sufficient to cover the sins of everyone who has ever lived and ever will live. His death was sufficient for “the whole world,” says John (1 John 2:2). It is not the Lord’s will “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). And because He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), He has therefore provided atonement for every person. “For this is the will of My Father,” Jesus said, “that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).
Although His ransom is sufficient for every person, it is valid only for those who believe in Him. It is in that sense that His redemption is for many, rather than for all. The Lord was not teaching limited atonement, the idea that He died only for the sins of a select few. Paul makes it clear that Christ died for the whole world: “The man Christ Jesus … gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5–6).
The basic idea behind anti (for) is that of being set over against something else, and the word was often used to denote an exchange or substitution. In becoming a ransom for many, Jesus exchanged His life for the lives of the many who would believe in Him. It became His death for the deaths of those many, His undeserved punishment for the punishment they deserved. As Isaiah had predicted 700 years earlier, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; … He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:4–5).
Christ, then, is the pattern for all to follow in being servant leaders. By giving His life He gained the eternal glory and esteem of God and men. That is the path to greatness.
26. It shall not be so among you. There can be no doubt that Christ refers to the foolish imagination by which he saw that the apostles were deceived. “It is foolish and improper in you,” he says, “to imagine a kingdom, which is unsuitable to me; and therefore, if you desire to serve me faithfully, you must resort to a different method, which is, that each of you may strive to serve others.” But whoever wishes to be great among you, let him be your servant. These words are employed in an unusual sense; for ambition does not allow a man to be devoted, or, rather, to be subject to his brethren. Abject flattery, I do acknowledge, is practised by those who aspire to honours, but nothing is farther from their intention than to serve. But Christ’s meaning is not difficult to be perceived. As every man is carried away by a love of himself, he declares that this passion ought to be directed to a different object. Let the only greatness, eminence, and rank, which you desire, be, to submit to your brethren; and let this be your primacy, to be the servants of all.
24–27 The indignation of the ten doubtless sprang less from humility than jealousy plus the fear that they might lose out. If these verses scarcely support egalitarianism—choice positions, after all, will be allotted—they demonstrate that interest in egalitarianism may mask a jealousy whose deepest wellsprings are not concern for justice but “enlightened self-interest.” The disciples revert to the squabbling of an earlier period (Mk 9:33–37; cf. Mt 18:1). Jesus calls them together and draws a contrast between greatness among ta ethnē (“pagans” or “Gentiles,” v. 25) and greatness among heirs of the kingdom. The “pagans” or “Gentiles” who would spring to mind were Romans; power and authority characterized their empire. The NIV’s “lord it over” gives a false impression. Jesus is not criticizing abuse of power in political structures—the verb never has that meaning (cf. K. W. Clark, “The Meaning of [κατα] κυριεύειν,” in Studies in New Testament Language [ed. Elliott], 100–105) and should be translated “exercise lordship over,” parallel to “exercise authority over” in the next line—but insists that the very structures themselves cannot be transferred to relationships among his followers.
Greatness among Jesus’ disciples is based on service. Anyone who wants to be great must become the diakonos (“servant,” v. 26, GK 1356) of all. Here diakonos does not mean “deacon” or “minister” (KJV) in the modern church use. One of the ironies of language is that a word like “minister,” which in its roots refers to a helper, one who “ministers,” has become a badge of honor and power in religion and politics. But lest the full force of his teaching be lost, Jesus repeats it in v. 27 with the stronger word doulos (“slave,” GK 1528; cf. 1 Co 9:19; 2 Co 4:5). In the pagan world, humility was regarded not so much as a virtue but as a vice. Imagine a slave being given leadership! Jesus’ ethics of the leadership and power in his community of disciples are revolutionary.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 2, p. 426). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.