Humility and Servanthood – True Greatness

Every church, in fact every organisation has its own particular culture or flavour. The question is whether the culture develops by default or on purpose.

We want to be a great church and that desire shapes the culture we want to cultivate as a church.  Jesus is very clear on the subject of what true greatness looks like, but his definition is at odds with the understanding of many.

Jesus says that the truly great person is someone who serves, a servant. To serve you have to be humble, proud people don’t serve. We defeat our pride by serving. This is at odds with way of the world. Great people have servants, they don’t serve.

The great church that we desire to be is therefore humble and puts a very high value on serving.

This understanding on greatness comes through very clearly in Marks gospel, as well as so many other places in our Bibles.

Jesus Predicts His Death a Second Time Mark 9

Jesus and disciples are purposefully on their final journey towards Jerusalem where he was going to die. A series of events are recorded that happened on the way. We will look at two of them.

30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Jesus Predicts His Death a Third Time Mark 10

32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

The Request of James and John

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

39 “We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 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.”

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In both incidents Jesus predicts his death, an extreme example of his humility and serving others, immediately followed by the disciple’s example of pride and arrogance. Jesus lovingly corrects them, helping them see a new way of living and thinking.

Things we are meant to see.

  1. We are meant to see ourselves in the disciples.

For the disciples’ greatness was linked with selfish ambition, they want positions of power, they are even willing to use Jesus to achieve it. So easy to want greatness at the expense of any or everyone.

These are men receiving intensive training from Jesus, yet they knew no better.

If you’re like me, you find it easy to compare yourself to others and look for opportunities to claim greater importance than them, just as the disciples did. C.S. we don’t want to be rich – we want to be richer than others, don’t want power, want more power than others. We want to be great, really means we want to be greater than others.

We see ourselves in the disciples, we are meant to.

  1. Jesus does not categorically criticize or forbid the desire and ambition to be great. Instead, He clearly redirects that ambition, redefines it, and purifies it:

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (vv. 43–44).

‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:35).

Serving others for the glory of God. This is the genuine expression of humility; this is true greatness as the Savior defined it.

So important for us as individuals and as a church. A great church is therefore a serving church. A great person is therefore one who serves.

  1. How we obtain true greatness.

We cannot free ourselves from pride and selfish ambition; a divine rescue is absolutely necessary. It is not a coincidence that these episodes are in the context of Jesus talking about his death.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

James and John were ransomed by the Savior’s death and forgiven of their pride and all their sins. And they would be transformed as well, from self-confident men into humble servants who would live to serve others with the gospel for the glory of God. And they would suffer.

And the explanation for this transformation wasn’t just our Lord’s example but our Lord’s sacrifice. His life for us. What a powerful death! The cross ransoms, the cross liberates, the cross transforms!

Trying to be humble doesn’t work we need to be transformed. Since humility is an obvious virtue and admired by most people, many try to feign humility. Jesus death enables us to follow his example.

Jesus not only chose to empty Himself, but He also never told anybody He had done this. Neither did Jesus have a need to get anybody’s approval. Can you imagine Jesus saying to the disciples after the Sermon on the Mount, “How did I do? Was that not a pretty good sermon, Peter?” Jesus got His approval from the Father. Not only that, but after Jesus was raised from the dead, He did not show up at Pilate’s house and say, “Surprise!”

And in true humility, our own service to others is always both an effect of His unique sacrifice and the evidence of it.


In every step of our Christian growth and maturity, and throughout every aspect of our Christian obedience and service, our greatest foe is pride and our greatest ally is humility.

Let us desire as individuals to be great. Let us as a church want to be great – to be a great church.

Let us do that by serving, by considering others as better than ourselves. Who are you serving?

In some circles people talk about resource churches – no serving churches! Who can we serve?

Revolutionary – even in church circles. But at the heart of the gospel. Only possible by the sacrifice of Christ.


Written by Tony Thompson

Tony Thompson

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