The Bible has a lot to say about what it means to be great in God’s kingdom. At the heart of this issue is the contrast between worldly notions of greatness versus the upside-down value system of God’s kingdom. Throughout Scripture we see that status, power, and privilege count for little with God. Instead, qualities like humility, service, and sacrifice mark true greatness in His eyes.
Jesus repeatedly emphasized this principle during His earthly ministry. When His disciples argued about which of them was the greatest, Jesus responded, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He pointed to a child as an example for the disciples, saying “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). Children in that culture had no status or rights, yet Jesus held them up as models of kingdom greatness.
Jesus also maintained that distinction and rank provide no advantage with God. He told the disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). Leadership in God’s kingdom is marked by humility and service, not top-down control and demanding honor as the world’s leaders do.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus exemplified this upside-down notion of greatness through His own example as a servant leader who gave His life for others. Though He was God incarnate, He stooped to take on human flesh and dwelt among us as a humble teacher. His mission was to serve by laying down His life as a ransom for lost sinners like us (Mark 10:45). The One who made everything took on the role of a lowly servant at the cross. His road to glory led through condescension, suffering, and ultimately death. This is the example of greatness Jesus calls His followers to emulate.
The apostles echo Jesus’ teachings in their own writings. James and John once asked Jesus if they could sit on His right and left in glory, prompting the other disciples’ resentment (Mark 10:37-41). Later, James wrote that true wisdom from above is “full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere,” and results in peaceable living (James 3:17-18). John emphasized that “by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). True greatness expresses itself through sacrificial love and service, not haughtiness and self-promotion.
The apostle Peter emphasized humility as the path to exaltation from God. “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another…Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6). Paul described Jesus’ amazing condescension in taking on human flesh and dying on the cross, then urged the believers to mirror Christ’s example: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
These examples and teachings point to a central truth: In God’s kingdom greatness looks radically different than the world’s definition. Worldly notions focus on power, prestige, wealth, and position. But Jesus flipped these status markers upside-down, teaching that childlike humility, selfless service, and sacrificial love define true greatness in God’s eyes. His own life modeled this powerful principle. So kingdom greatness begins with embracing Jesus’ supreme example of humble obedience even unto death. From that starting point, we walk the road of servanthood and sacrifice where true honor is found.
The disciples themselves struggled to abandon worldly notions of greatness and embrace Jesus’ upside-down value system. At times they argued over who was the greatest among them, and even sent their mother to request the best seats for them in Jesus’ kingdom (Matthew 20:20-21). But gradually they adopted Jesus’ perspective. After Pentecost they embraced servanthood and suffered persecution for preaching Christ. Tradition holds that nearly all the apostles endured martyrdom, following in Jesus’ footsteps as the ultimate example of greatness through sacrificial love.
What does this teach us today about our own aspirations for greatness? Our culture tends to celebrate and reward self-promotion, status-seeking, privilege and power. But the kingdom’s values remain radically countercultural. Jesus’ call to Kingdom greatness through servanthood still stands. As His followers, we find true greatness in humbly serving others with sacrificial love. The path to distinction in God’s eyes travels down, not up. It leads through meekness, not pride and gets its hands dirty serving human needs. We store up eternal rewards by investing in unseen work that advances Christ’s Kingdom.
Some practical ways we can embrace Jesus’ model of greatness include:
- Looking for lowly, overlooked needs around us that we can simply meet without fanfare.
- Esteeming others more highly than ourselves and finding ways to honor them.
- Laying down our rights and privileges for the good of those God sends across our path.
- Seeing mundane acts of service in our homes, churches, and communities as greatness in God’s eyes.
- Receiving criticism, slights, and offenses with grace, forgiveness, and patience.
- Going low by humbling ourselves in anonymous acts of service that may never be recognized on earth.
At the end of the day, those embraced as great in God’s kingdom may look very different than the world’s definition. They will be those who followed Jesus’ example and quietly walked the path of servanthood, humility, and sacrifice. Their lives modeled the upside-down values of God’s kingdom, storing up eternal rewards as they served others with love. May we embrace true greatness as we follow in the footsteps of the One who modeled it best – not lording power over others, but humbling ourselves to serve their needs.