2023-03-05 “Who Is the Greatest?”

Cornerstone EPC                                                                                       Sunday morning
Franklin, NC 28734                                                                                    March 5, 2023

Who Is the Greatest?”
Mark 9:33-37

Recently LeBron James, lately of the Los Angeles Lakers professional basketball team, established a new record for most points scored in a career—and he’s creating a new record with every basket he sinks. This fact gives rise, once again, to the question “Who is the greatest basketball player of all time—or GOAT?”. Some now wish to confer this award to Mr. James. Others continue to opt for others such as Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, and Wilt Chamberlain—among perhaps a few others.

This question bleeds over into professional gridiron football—occasioned most recently by the retirement of Tom Brady. Is Mr. Brady the greatest, or is Peyton Manning, or is Joe Montana, or is some other National Football League luminary the greatest of all time? At least in one mind, in one sport, there was no debate. In the mind of Cassius Marcellus Clay VII, of Louisville, Kentucky (better known since 1964 as Muhammad Ali) he, and he alone, was the greatest of all time—and he would declare the fact to anyone who would listen.

This debate occurs concerning other people in other fields. Is the greatest scientist of all time Johannes Kepler (for his three laws of planetary motion), or Isaac Newton (for his three laws of motion, generally considered), or James Clerk Maxwell (for his electricity equations), or Albert Einstein (for his work in theoretical physics, especially his general theory of relativity), or someone else? Is the greatest statesman of all time Abraham Lincoln, or Winston Churchill, or someone else? Debate ensues, and the partisan are passionate about their choices.

It seems we must know, or debate, who is the GOAT. For at least some, it is important to be, or to strive to be, the GOAT—no matter the sphere of notice. This desire is as old as fallen mankind. A similar debate arises even among Jesus’ twelve disciples. Jesus uses this debate to teach us a vital lesson about a life that resembles His and pleases Him greatly. Let us learn who is the greatest as we hear the Word of God read and proclaimed once again in this place.


Jesus, upon arrival in the house at Capernaum, asks His disciples, “What were y’all discussing on the way?” Mark, led by the Spirit, tells us that the disciples did not answer Jesus’ question, but remained silent—and this likely from shame, because they argued in the way about who was the greatest. Perhaps they argued this question—apart from lingering, clinging sin—in view of Jesus’ soon departure after victory, now declared a second time (9:31, cf. 8:31). Perhaps they wonder who will hold the chief spot in the new order of things once Jesus returns to Heaven? Will it be Peter, or James, or John, who saw Jesus glorified on the mount of transfiguration? Will it be Judas, who pilfers money and, apparently, wants a kind of deliverer different that the kind Jesus is? Will it be another? In any case, the Twelve—each and all—need correction, and Jesus presently provides it.

Jesus sits down, in the usual posture of a rabbinic teacher in those days, and calls the Twelve—in order that they may assume the posture of students. Then He delivers the lesson—a lesson unforgettable both then and ever since. If anyone would be first, according to Jesus, he must be last of all and servant of all. This is the true answer to the question, “Who is the greatest?” If anyone would rise to the highest importance, rank, and value in the Lord’s eyes (and these eyes, ultimately, are the only ones that matter), he would assume for himself the lowest status of all people, and he would discharge humble, even menial, duties for others—especially for those the world esteems of lowest status.

Jesus, right after uttering his lesson, brings an object lesson—namely, a child—to reinforce and enlarge His teaching. This child, at least in the prevailing ethos of the day, has little to no importance, rank, or value. Yet Jesus embraces this child. Thus He teaches by example, and He follows this teaching by example with reinforcing words, to wit, “Whoever receives one such child in My Name receives Me, and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him Who sent Me.” Hence, whoever receives such a child in Jesus’ Name—or any who appear to have low status in this world’s eyes—receives Jesus Himself. Of course, whoever receives Jesus receives the Father as well. The application comes now in two parts. Let us first assume the lowest place, not arrogating higher places for ourselves, and let us second serve all humbly—especially those esteemed low by others.

Jesus Himself sets the example (cf. Philippians 2:5-8). He, though in very nature God, made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. He humbled Himself to utter emptiness and excruciating suffering, becoming obedient unto death on a cross. Then, after the humility and suffering, comes the glory—God highly exalted Him and gave Him the Name that is above every name: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow—in Heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Jesus, consistent with His example, tells us, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). This flies in the face of everything the world values. The world, alienated from God and hostile toward Him, tells us, “Do whatever it takes to be number one.” Do this no matter who it hurts, and do this what ethical corners you must cut to get there. Then it tells us, “Do all within your power to publish your opinion that you are number one.” Proclaim your perceived greatness from the housetops, over the airwaves, and through the cyber-cloud—and squelch any other rival in the process.

This, as we see clearly from God’s Word today, is not the posture of true greatness. Nor is it the posture of the truly great one. Rather, let us obey Jesus—and, in the obedience, we shall pursue greatness and grow in greatness in His eyes. Let us, then, resist every temptation to arrogate importance, rank, and value to ourselves. Let us assume the lowest status, and let us serve all humbly—especially those esteemed low by others.