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Descending Into Greatness

• David Clark

Using Matthew 20:20-28 as his text, David discussed how to be a “safe” leader by following Jesus’ example of leading by serving and how this upside-down principle truly reflects the kingdom of God.

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“Descending into Greatness” was the title of Dr. David Clark’s sermon this weekend. Using Matthew 20:20-28 as his text, he discussed how to be a “safe” leader by following Jesus’ example of leading by serving and how this upside-down principle truly reflects the kingdom of God. Verse 21 shows a mother and her two sons (James and John, both disciples of Jesus) looking for the perks of volunteering for the kingdom of God. She asks Jesus if both of them can sit by him in heaven – one on either side. This was not a small request! Unwittingly, this family had confused service with status and missed out on the principle of what true greatness amounts to (something Christ had been reflecting all along).

He had taught that greatness equals suffering and reminds them of this in the next verse when he asks if they are willing to “drink the cup that I am about to drink” (verse 22). Immediately, James and John respond, “We are able.” Dr. Clark reminded us that we are probably more familiar with the meaning of the phrase “drink from the cup” than Christ’s disciples were; when we hear that phrase, we immediately realize the consequence of taking that drink: pain, suffering, and ultimately death. It’s clear, however, that his disciples were not as familiar due to their instant, positive response. In fact, shortly after this conversation when Jesus was taken to be crucified, many of the disciples ran and hid (so as not to be associated with him). At this point, they were not willing to “drink from the cup,” but Dr. Clark pointed out that in the long run, they were able to follow Jesus, to drink from the cup, until their deaths.

Returning to Matthew 20, Dr. Clark pointed out the division caused by James and John’s inquiry. The other disciples overheard both the brothers’ question and Jesus’ answer and were, according to verse 24, “indignant.” The Greek language suggests that they “pulled out their claws” and went after the other two. Serious friction resulted. Status-seeking always creates friction within a group of people.

Surely Jesus knew what was going on and, in verses 25-28, he pulls all of his disciples together to, once again, talk about what true greatness is. Perhaps his listeners were having such a hard time digesting this information because it was so backwards: Jesus reverses the pattern of greatness followed in the kingdom of the world with an alternate pattern used to further the kingdom of God. Dr. Clark focused on the “not so with you” line in verse 26. Because the disciples (and contemporary followers of Christ) reflect the kingdom of God, the ways of the world are “not so with us.” We attain greatness not by requiring others to serve us but by serving others. We don’t rise to greatness, we descend into it. Like the disciples, we are called to reject status and choose service instead.

To flesh this out, Dr. Clark used a generic church organizational chart to visually show the difference between a kingdom-of-the-world type of leadership and a kingdom-of-God type where the people in need are at the top of the organizational chart, followed by the congregation. At the bottom of the chart he showed the head pastor. Remember, it’s all turned around! He was quick to explain that leaders still lead, but they lead out of fullness (because they know who they are in Christ) and are therefore the safest kind of leaders.

He also explained that he wasn’t advocating that we all become pathetic losers who choose weakness over strength. Christ wasn’t saying that greatness is bad, but that he has another way to be great – a greater way! When leaders are inwardly weak and needy, then they will use their followers for selfish purposes (to define their worth); when leaders are inwardly strong and satisfied, on the other hand, they don’t use their followers in this way and are much safer leaders because of it.

Dr. Clark concluded by sharing his dream of a “not-so-with-you” church, where safe leadership is the norm, not the exception. Jesus brings this point home with his own life (Matt 20:28). He is the ultimate safe leader. If we follow his example, give up scheming and looking for the perks of service, experience the freedom of letting go, then we too will descend into greatness…and love it!

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Topics: Leadership, Sacrifice


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Focus Scripture:

  • Matthew 20: 20-28

    Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

    “What is it you want?” he asked.
    She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

    “You don't know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
    “We can,” they answered.

    Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

    When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 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.”

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