The cross nullifies greatness, but it also exemplifies it.
How can that statement be true? It sounds contradictory. It sounds paradoxical. And it is paradoxical, so how can that be true? It requires us to reconceptualize our ideas of greatness. We often think about greatness in terms of sports. And those greatest athletes and greatest teams are sometimes pretty obvious. We can think about greatness in a military sense. These armies that have great victories. These generals that lead armies in great victories. It's easy to see greatness.
But the cross says that's not real greatness.
And yet we so easily forget that because we're still thinking about greatness in very human terms. But that's exactly what the disciples did. Think about what they asked Jesus toward the end of His life in Matthew 18. What do they do? They go up to Jesus and they say, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18.1b) Now if you go back to chapter 17, Jesus had just reminded them of His death on the cross. And they're still thinking about, “Well which one of us is going to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” How can they be thinking this at this moment? But that's not the only time they ask that… in this part of the gospel… in this part of Jesus’ life. You go to chapter 20, and this is even more shocking because Jesus has told them for the third time He's going to die on the cross. But beginning in verse 20 of Matthew 20, the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus and she said, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20.21b) Shocking! That this question is being asked at this point in Jesus’ ministry, toward the end, right after He just told them, “I'm going to die on the cross.” They’re still thinking about greatness in human terms.
The cross nullifies this concept of greatness.
It's not great. In any sort of ultimate, eternal sense.
Maybe nearer to our situation is 1 Corinthians 1-4, where in that first major section of 1 Corinthians, you have different groups vying for different positions. And what did they think? They thought that because they were in one particular group, they were better than everybody else. And that also is how we typically see greatness. Think about it. And I think again we can look at this from sports: What's the greatest team? Probably the one you like. Right? I mean it probably is. Now it's only objective in certain situations. Like if you happen to be a fan of Alabama football, that's always gonna be the greatest. But no, see… I even did it. You know why I said that? Because I like Alabama. But that doesn't automatically make them the greatest. We do this in more serious situations: What's the greatest country in the world? The one I live in. Who has the greatest kids in the world? Mine. Because they're mine. That's not greatness.
So, in 1 Corinthians 4 (I think sometimes this is so easy to overlook because there's a lot going on in 1 Corinthians, right?) as Paul is concluding this discussion about these groups that the Corinthians have aligned themselves in, he says:
For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
1 Corinthians 4.7
Why does he say that here? What do you have that you did not receive? What's the answer to that question? Nothing. We have nothing that we have not received through Jesus. Nothing. That's why I asked that question. And he says if you did receive it, why do you act like you're not? Why do you act like you're great when by every metric of greatness that you could imagine it's been given to you by God?
If we go back to Matthew 18.3, what I find very interesting is Jesus doesn't say you can't be great in the kingdom of heaven does He? He doesn't say that. What does He say? If you want to become great, what do you become like?
Why does He say that? The oft given answer to that question is, “Well, because children are innocent.” And I can understand that from a certain perspective. But do children always act innocently? Well no. Children are often demanding, selfish. So maybe that's not what Jesus is getting at here. I think probably what He's getting at is children are utterly dependent upon their parents.
To be great we need to recognize our utter dependence upon God. Who showed us greatness in the form of a man dying on the cross. You want to talk about a paradoxical understanding of greatness? That is a paradox. Messiahs weren't supposed to be crucified. Righteous people weren't supposed to be crucified. Kings certainly weren't supposed to be crucified. And yet Jesus is all those things exemplified. He is the greatest when it comes to that.
So, are you great? Am I great? Yes and no. But we are great. Everybody here is great, and I don't mean that in some toxic, positivity concept that we sometimes have in our society. We're great solely based upon our relationship with Christ. Who showed Himself to be great.
And this paradox that we have of the cross.