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The Quest For Greatness

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | July 22, 2012

Selected highlights from this sermon

All of us desire to be great. Some of us even desire to do great things for God, but is unholy ambition lurking beneath the surface? Are our motives pure? In this message, Pastor Lutzer shows us the difference between selfishness and greatness. 

We are born wanting to be great, aren’t we? I think, for example, we see it on the playground where kids run and say, “I want to be first! I want to be first!” We see it in high school where you want to be the center of attention, where you want to look good, where everybody thinks well of you. We see it in college, don’t we?

I was in Bible college and I remember a friend of mine in the first year was elected president of the class, and I resented it. I thought, “Why him and not me?” A couple of years later when I was elected president of the student body, that really felt good.

We all want to be great. And then you get into your vocation and you want to climb the ladder of success, and you want to do it even if you step on some people, and greatness is something that you desire. And if somebody is ahead of you, and if somebody gets paid more than you do, and you do more work than he or she, you become very resentful because of his or her greatness which you can’t have. We all want to be great.

Well, I have a question for you today. What about this business of ambition? Is ambition sin? Is it something good? Can it be redeemed? What does it look like because what I’m interested in, and I hope that you are interested in it as well, is someday when we stand before the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ, and our works are torched, we’d all like to have some gold, silver and precious stones amid all the hay, wood and stubble. We’d love to have something that endures. What does that look like?

Well, today I’m going to ask you to turn to a passage of Scripture that is indeed remarkable. It is compelling. It is bristling with lessons for us today, and it’s Matthew 20, and actually verse 20 is where we begin. Now Jesus, in verse 17, foretold His death. And then in the middle of this we read (and I’m picking it up now in verse 20): “Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ Jesus answered (and now He is speaking to the sons directly), ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to him, ‘Oh yeah, we are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’” Just that far for a moment!

Here you have disciples who were, of course, interested in the promotion of Jesus Christ, and the mother of James and John, who we know to be Salome, who very probably was a sister to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Salome comes with a request to her nephew, Jesus, and says to Him, “Now what about your two cousins, James and John? Would it be okay for them to be on your right hand and your left in your kingdom?”

Now we may think that this is a very brash request, and it is, but after all, if you look back at chapter 19, and you pick it up at verse 28, Jesus did say to the disciples that in the new world when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed Me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel, so what’s wrong with a little bit of fraternalism? A little bit of nepotism I think is the word we use. “And why wouldn’t you grant the request that I have that James and John be on your right hand and on your left?”

Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.” I have often thought that that’s true when we pray to God. Oftentimes the Lord says, “You know, you don’t have any idea what you are asking.” But let’s give these disciples some credit, because after all they did drink of the cup, didn’t they?

Now when Jesus was crucified they fled most assuredly. They were scared along with all of the other disciples, but then at least John came back. And it ended up in Acts 12 that James is killed by Herod with the sword. James is the first Apostle to die. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, but James is the first Apostle to be martyred. And so his head was cut off by Herod. He did follow Jesus in the cup of suffering. And as for John, he was exiled at the Island of Patmos, and he was there and he suffered there too a great deal, and we’re not sure exactly how he died. Some think he died a martyr’s death, though historically we cannot prove that. So the disciples here are willing to be with Christ, and so forth, and they come and they ask this request. And you’ll notice that when they said, “We are able,” Jesus said in verse 23, “You will drink my cup but to sit on my right hand and left is not mine to grant.”

But now notice verse 24: “And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.” What they are angry about is, here are two of the disciples – two of the twelve – who are doing an end run on them. They are going to the boss for special favors, and they have no right to, and if James and John are at the right hand of Jesus, why not Peter and Andrew? They deserved it just as much. And the ten are indignant because they would like to sit there, and here they are trying to get a special favor of Jesus. And Jesus makes the remarkable statement to them and says to them, “You don’t understand the issue. It is not mine to give,” He says, “but it is given by My Father who is in heaven.”

We have to just take a breath here and back up and look at this story and ponder it for a moment. Let me ask you a question. Did these disciples love Jesus? Of course they loved Jesus. Were they willing to suffer for Jesus? Yes, they were willing to suffer for Jesus. That’s very obvious. Did they want to see Jesus Christ glorified? Yes, most assuredly they wanted to see Jesus glorified. And yet underneath all that there was self-will and unholy ambition to have a part of the action and prominence.

It is John Calvin who said, “This is a bright mirror of human vanity.” He said, “Holy zeal is often accompanied by unholy ambition.” It is Luther who said that the sinful nature seeks to be glorified before it is crucified. This idea of motive of wanting prominence, of wanting to be recognized, of wanting to be first, of wanting to receive all the thanks that we have coming to us, and resenting those who do less than we do and they get the praise, all of that lies within our hearts.

And so Jesus gathers the twelve together and says, “I have something to say to you. It is not just that James and John are wrong. The ten of you are wrong.” This is not a James and John problem. This is a disciple problem.” And I say to you today that this is your problem and it is my problem too. Holy zeal oftentimes is a mask for some very unholy ambition. Calvin got it right.

And my, how it dies so hard. Oh, we fight it all of our lives. Here are these disciples who hear these words of Jesus, and yet before the Last Supper there they are. They are having an argument as to who is the greatest. You think, “Disciples, get over it,” but no, it is embedded in human nature, our sinful nature. It is there all the time, willing to crop up, and that’s where we are today certainly in modern evangelicalism.

Who is the greatest pastor? Who is the greatest singer? Who has the greatest church? Who has the greatest audience? Who is the greatest? And the idea that other people can be used more than we are, that they can be blessed more than we are, and we have resentment in our hearts towards them, all that is sin that God sees, and lies in my heart and yours. It dies hard. But I need to share with you today that once it dies, can you imagine how liberating it is? Imagine being so free from envy that you can rejoice in other people’s successes. Somebody who does less work than you do, but gets more pay, you rejoice in the fact that God has blessed them that way, and you begin to serve others because the values of the Kingdom are very different than the values of the world.

And now Jesus goes on to show them that. Jesus says that greatness in the Kingdom is very different. And there have been some who have been appointed to sit at the right-hand of Jesus and the left, but only the Father knows who they are. What Jesus is saying is that the Father ordained before the foundation of the world who will sit to the right of Jesus and who will sit to His left, and it’s not a matter of favoritism. It’s a matter of the Father’s sovereign choice. And before this message is over we will speculate on the kind of person that might be at the right of Jesus and His left.

What I’d like to do now is to give you three truths that will help us to understand true greatness. And at the end of this message I want us to deal with the sin nature of resentment, the unholy ambition.

Well, first of all, let me put it this way. Jesus now teaches that greatness is not a matter of ruling but of serving. Listen to what Jesus says to the twelve in verse 25: “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great….’” Oh, I urge you today, my dear friend, even as I urge myself, let us will and desire to be great. Well, here’s the formula. “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus says, “Greatness is not ruling. Greatness is serving.” When He talks about service He uses the word diákonos. We’re familiar with it because it’s the word from which we get the word deacon or deaconess. And historically it meant a person who did menial tasks. That’s what a deacon or a deaconess was. But what Jesus does is He elevates this, and He says, “This is greatness in the Kingdom.” If you want to be great, fine, but this is the route to greatness.

If you want to be great in the kingdom, you become a volunteer in our children’s ministry and fill up the need that we have for volunteers. That’ll get you some greatness in the Kingdom to be sure. You serve others. If you want to be great in the Kingdom you can sign up for By the Hand Club for Kids. They need volunteers to minister to children one hour per week that you can work into your schedule to make a life-transforming impact in the life of a child. Now that’s the route to greatness. You begin to serve others. Jesus here gives us an example. And if you really want to be great in the Kingdom, I’ll throw this in. If you really want to be great in the Kingdom why don’t you sign up with our parking committee? And why don’t you be willing to skip church every once in a while so that you can greet all the people that come and park their cars with a wonderful smile, and welcome them to Moody Church? Now that’s the path to greatness.

And of course it’s not only serving within the church. It’s serving within our community. One of the passages of Scripture I’ve often read with tears in my eyes (and this is very convicting to me because my wife and children would tell me that I would much rather be served than to serve). But listen to Jesus now. He says, “Be ready. Truly I say to you, be ready when the Lord comes. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when He comes. Truly I say to you, he (I’m reading God’s Word here. I would never make this up.), that is the Master, will gird Himself, dress Himself for service, and have them recline at table, and He will come and serve them.”

In the Kingdom Jesus is going to say to His beloved ones, “You folks sit down, and what I’m going to do is I’m going to don the dress of a servant, and I’ll come and serve you.” You want to do something great in the Kingdome, do you? You volunteer for kitchen service when we are having a dinner. You work in those areas and Jesus said that that’s the path to greatness. It is not ruling. It is serving.

I’ve thought about this because you are thinking about it right now too. You should be. You should be a little bit ahead of me all the time – not all the time but sometimes. Your question, of course, is, “Can a Christian ever run for political office?” because you know in politics you’re at the top of this pyramid and everybody has to serve you. People love to be served. The answer is yes, but it is a very careful yes. Every politician, every leader will say that he’s running for the good of the people, for the good of the country. I mean that’s just standard fare. The fact is that oftentimes that masks some very, very deceptive motives of power and authority, and whatever I have I hang onto until my knuckles turn white.

I was in Canada recently and heard of a politician there who needed three precincts (We’ll call them that.) in order to be elected because everybody else was for him but not these three. So he went and he made them a promise, and I won’t tell you what it is because that’s irrelevant. But as a result of that promise he wasted 125 million dollars of the taxpayers’ money just to get elected. No doubt he says, “Well, I’m doing it for the good of the people.” Yeah sure!

But if a person wants to run as a Christian, what he needs to do is to say, “I’m running as a servant of righteousness. I’m running in order to glorify God and to help this country bring glory to God.” (applause) Those motives have to be clear.

I like what the commentator, Lenski, said. I want you to visualize the world as a pyramid. Okay? And at the top is the president or the king or the leader of a country. And most of the time in the case of the world, of course, he’s on top there. Everybody is beneath him doing him service. Lenski said, “Great men are not sitting on top of lesser men, but bearing lesser men on their backs.” The pyramid is inverted. If you want to be a Christian leader, a Christian politician, fine, but you be at the lower end of the pyramid, and you be committed to righteousness, and you don’t give in to all the whims of your party and all the things you have to do to get elected for (quote) the good of the people. But you run for the glory of God, on God’s standards, as you know them, carrying the needs and the concerns and the burden of the people on your back. That’s greatest in the kingdom of God. (applause)

So first of all Jesus said that what we must do is what He said. “Greatness is not a matter of ruling. It is a matter of serving.”

Secondly, true greatness is not a matter of convenience. It’s a matter of being willing to sacrifice. You are willing to sacrifice. Jesus said to them, “Do you want to be great in the Kingdom? Hey, are you able to drink the cup that I’m going to drink?” They said, “Yeah, we are able.” And history proved that they were essentially correct. They were able to drink that cup. But we think to ourselves that true greatness in the Kingdom is coasting along, volunteering whenever it just happens to be convenient, and doesn’t upset anything that we are planning to do, as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, as long as there is no real time commitment. I’d rather even throw a few dollars in the offering basket, but one thing is sure. I will not be involved.

And so there are people in our churches today who say, “Preach to me, sing to me, and by the way, the music had better be the kind that I like because I like the same kind of music as God (laughter).” So what you are saying is, “Preach to me, teach me and you’d better bless me, because if not, I’ll be out of here, but I’m not going to get involved in any way that costs me anything.”

My friend, do you honestly think that at the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ, God is going to say to you, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant for thou has listened to 3,461 messages? Enter thou into the joy of the kingdom.” I don’t think so.

Many of us are admirers of Bonheoffer who, of course, stood against Hitler, and you know that whole story, and if you don’t you really ought to because he is a great model for us. Bonheoffer judged the church. He excoriated it. I hope that’s the right word. And he said that they were interested in cheap grace. Cheap grace meant that you come to church, you enjoy the service and you leave unaffected, uninvolved and being unwilling to pay any significant price for what you believe. That’s cheap grace, and some of Bonheoffer’s sermons, and of course his book on discipleship, are powerful expressions of that whole idea.

And then Bonheoffer asked this question. He said, “Who is Jesus Christ for you?” He said, “In our day it is the Jew.” Now you remember Jesus said in Matthew 25, “If you visit somebody in prison you’ve visited me. If you clothe somebody you’ve clothed me.” And people are going to say, “Wait a moment, Jesus, You weren’t in prison. I didn’t clothe You. I didn’t bring you meals.” And He will say, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you’ve done it to Me.”

So Jesus comes to us today. Who is Jesus for you? Is Jesus perhaps the single mother who would give anything if only some father would come along and take her boy along with his boy to a baseball game? Is that who Jesus is to you perhaps? Is Jesus the bi-racial child who is struggling with identity? Is it the person who is struggling with his or her sexuality? Is that the person that Jesus is to you? Is it the person across the street that has had a tragedy in their home that you can bless by bringing meals or whatever? Who is Jesus for you today to serve?

You see, the reason that so many of you have not committed to things such as our children’s ministry or By the Hand is because you want something that is convenient, something that is easy, something that doesn’t disrupt your time, something that doesn’t require that you go to a debatable neighborhood, but that you stay in a comfort zone, and that you and I stay there absolutely committed to ourselves and to our own comforts with Christianity thrown in – ungiving, largely uncaring, but enjoying. Jesus said, “You want to be great in the Kingdom? You’d better be willing to sacrifice for the Kingdom because everything else (much of what we do) is all going to go up in smoke, but the gold, silver and precious stones are involvement that costs us something.

Do you remember David? Araunah, the Jebusite, said to him, “Oh King, if you want to build a temple here or offer a sacrifice here on this rock, I’ll give it to you.” And David said, “Uh uh, I’m going to pay you a fair price because I will not offer unto God that which costs me nothing.” Wow! Jesus is saying, “You want to be great in the Kingdom, don’t you? Be great. Be willing to sacrifice for the Kingdom.”

And then third, and this gets to the heart of it. This is the where the conviction comes. If you are already convicted, fasten your seatbelt. And that is that true greatness is not “me-centered.” True greatness is “cross centered.”

Now your Bibles are open. You’ll notice it says this of Jesus. We read it a moment ago. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant. Whoever would be first among you would be your slave.”

By the way, are you a slave to your employer? You say, “Yeah, I sure am.” What are you complaining about? Jesus said that if you want to be great you have to be a slave. But now notice. “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom.” Literally the Greek says “in the stead of many.” People would understand that in Jesus Christ’s day because a ransom was what was paid if you wanted to buy a slave out of his slavery. You paid a ransom. You paid money to free him.

What Jesus is saying in this text is, “I’m the one that gave myself as a ransom. I offered myself up to buy you out of the kingdom of darkness, to bring you into the kingdom of light, and I paid the price of a slave and more (paying it all to the Father, of course, because of the horrendousness of our sin) and therefore, I bought you. And I did that not because I had to but because I loved you and I am a servant.” Isn’t it wonderful to know that we have been redeemed by Jesus? The ransom has been paid. (applause)

Friday evening I was flying to Chicago. I was speaking somewhere else for a couple of days this past week. Aside me was a wonderful woman who I got to know, and I knew that she was religious because of a talk we had. Maybe she’s even here today. I invited her to Moody Church if she could come. But I smiled as I often do (try to) and said to her, “Now, do you think that you have done enough so that when you die you get to heaven?” I just asked her that question, and she looked at me with a smile and she said, “Well, how can we know how much we have to do to get to heaven?” Don’t you love it? Isn’t that the question that everybody should have to grapple with? How much do you have to do to get to heaven? How wonderful it was for me to remind her that Jesus Christ’s ransom was complete and He paid it all for those who believe on him. (applause)

Augustus Toplady had it right:

Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and Thou alone!

And if you are listening to this and you think that you are going to get to heaven because you have done enough good works, you are very deceived. You must come to Christ, receive Him as Savior and accept what He did and the payment that He made on behalf of sinners. He gave Himself as a ransom instead of the many who believe on Him.

But there’s more to being ransomed than just forgiveness, beautiful though that is. When you study the rest of the New Testament you discover that entailed in that is also freedom. It’s coming to the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s laying down the unholy ambition because we come to the place of the cross and we die to self-will.

It was George Mueller who had many orphanages in England, ministering to the poor, who said, “The day came when I died to George Mueller.” What he meant was, “I died to all of my ambitions. I died to all the things that I think I want to do, and I submit myself ultimately to God, and He can do through me whatever He desires. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit. It doesn’t matter if people get more pay than I do. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is my service to God. It is called cross-centered servanthood that comes right to the heart of our own selfish motivation, and it is there that God puts the ax right to the root of the tree.”

Well, who do you think is going to be on the right hand of Jesus and on His left? Maybe Peter and John are candidates. I don’t know, but let’s suppose for fun (and this has to be a fun proposal) it’s you, of all things. Use your imagination a little bit here. How would you feel if Jesus said, “You sit at the right hand,” or “You sit at the left?” How would you feel? You would be so amazed at grace. You would be so filled with praise, knowing that this is beyond all belief, and you’d be giving thanks to God.

Did you know that someday when we are there at the Kingdom, and there is somebody on the right hand of Jesus and somebody on the left, that that’s the way you are going to feel about him or her? Jonathan Edwards was right when he said that when we get to heaven we are going to be so delivered from self that when we see other people glorified and honored above us, we will rejoice as if their exaltation were our own. Can you imagine that? (applause) Imagine being done with all image building. Imagine being done with all sense of unholy competition. Imagine being done with envy to people who have more than you do, or who are more blessed, or who got paid more though they did less. Imagine being so filled with the glory of God that you rejoice in the success of others more than you could even your own.

You know if James and John were fully sanctified way back when they were here on earth, and if the disciples were fully sanctified, and let’s suppose that James and John did go to Jesus and make their request, if those ten had been fully sanctified, do you know what they would have said? “James and John, we just heard that you went to Jesus to get the top spot in the Kingdom, and we are excited for you. We hope that He says yes.” Now that didn’t happen, did it? And it doesn’t happen where you work tomorrow either, does it? But those are the values of the Kingdom.

So you want to do something great. We want everyone in this church, and I realize that some of you because of infirmities of various kinds, and limitations that may not apply (I don’t want to put unholy guilt on you), but for the rest of us, to be involved in something, something that costs you something, something that serves other people without getting anything back. As Jesus even said, “When you are going to throw a feast, bring the people – the infirm, the lame, the blind, people who can never repay you.” And then He says, “I will repay you at the resurrection of the just.” Now that’s true greatness. That’s what Jesus is saying the values of the Kingdom are all about. And that’s why when this service is over hundreds of you should go into the lobby and you should find out more information and commit yourself to something that has eternal value because only that is going to survive the fire.

“Well,” you say, “Pastor Lutzer, okay, how do I know when I am a servant?” Thank you for asking that question. I’m always a step ahead of you now, aren’t I? How do you know when you are a servant? Lorne Sanny, who was the founder of the Navigators, said on one occasion, “If you are a servant you can tell by the way in which you respond when you are treated like one.” I kind of like that and I think you should like that too.

How do you respond when you are treated like a servant? “Well, that’s beneath me. Why did she ask me to do that? Why doesn’t somebody else do that?” Now you are not a servant if you respond that way, and I’m not a servant if I respond that way. What Jesus is saying is, “Follow in my footsteps because even the Son of Man didn’t come to be served. He came to serve and to give His life at great personal cost on behalf of many, and He is the example that we follow today so that all of our slots here at The Moody Church of volunteerism are filled, and we have more people than we need because we have a heart to follow Jesus who turned the values of the world upside down.

Have you died to self? Have you come to the cross and said, “Okay, I give up my ambition and I choose Your holy ambition?” And when you do that, God may lead you to earn a lot of money especially so that you can give it away. God may enable you to become president of your company. God may give you a great ministry, but let God be first. And the only question you ask in the midst of it all is how is He glorified and how does the cross look through my life and ministry? So what do you think?

Let’s bow in prayer.

Father, we are so, so self-centered, so sensitive to the way in which we look and the way others perceive us, and whether we are getting a fair shake or whether we aren’t, and whether we are getting the credit we think we deserve, and whether somebody is upstaging us. We’re all just bound up in those kinds of sins. Bring deliverance to Your people today. Bring them, Lord, to the foot of the cross - even, Father, as You have worked in my heart this week in preparation for this message. We all needed to hear it. Oh Father, bring us to be servants of Jesus. May we follow Him.

And now before I close this prayer I want you to pray because God has talked to you, and He has talked to you about your life. He has talked to you about your motivation. He wants to give you holy ambition instead of unholy ambition. And you need to deal with God right now. Would you go ahead and do that in silence right now as you call on God?

Father, I pray that this may be a beginning where we come to the cross every morning and once again yield all of the rationalizations. Holy ambition is what we desire. We pray, Father, that holy zeal may not mask unholy ambition. And make this a church, Father God, that is on fire to serve this community, to serve our neighbors, to serve one another, to serve those whom You bring with us and You bring to us. Make us a serving church in Jesus’ name we ask, Amen.

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