“What makes a person great?”
Question put to John MacArthur at a conference
Do you remember the guy known for claiming, “I’m the greatest!”?
Whether you follow sports, particularly boxing, or not, you will likely match those words with Muhammad Ali. He was a great boxer who either had a very inflated opinion of himself, or he invented a braggadocios persona to better intimidate opponents and endear himself to fans. Whatever the reason, he was somewhat off target with his famous claim.
Greatness is somewhat subjective; meaning the individual claiming greatness for themselves, or for someone else, has some individualistic criteria on which they base that belief. Ali thought himself the greatest due ti his prowess in the ring; some may say that a particular leader is the greatest based on policy decisions; a business leader may claim to be the greatest since her company is growing and increasing revenue. But, for the purposes of this blog, we’ll set a particular foundation for this discussion. Namely:
Who did God say was the greatest?
With that in mind, let’s look at a few people.
- Adam: he was the first and could be called the greatest man. He was the perfect creation, thus the only one of us not touched by some degree of entropy. But he was also far from the greatest as his actions demonstrated.
- Enoch: a few years post-Adam and pre-Noah, we find Enoch. He walked with God. How could this not be described as great. Especially given the fact that not only did he walk with God, but he was translated and did not see death. Pretty great.
- Noah: when all the world could “only think of evil continually“, Noah was found to be righteous. He was allowed to enter the ark and was alone saved with his family. Again, pretty great.
- Abraham: what are his credentials? Well, he was chosen to be the father of God’s chosen people, he followed God by faith not sight and trusted even to the life of his only son. But his trust had limits.
- Ruth: she was a pagan, but she had such love for her mother-in-law that she forsook the home of her youth and followed the Jewess. She was faithful to Naomi and God was faithful to her. Her reward? Ruth is mentioned in the ancestral line of Jesus.
- David: the first thing that comes to mind is that David was a man after God’s own heart. What does that mean? Likely, that though he made some critical judgment errors, he always repented and returned to the Great Shepherd.
- Daniel: interpreted dreams, remained true despite promised (and delivered) slavering lions, prophesied truly and without guile. He was a faithful servant both to God and to human authority. He could justly be called great.
There are many others who have earned the same distinction: Joseph, Elijah, Elisha, many other faithful prophets, eleven of the original twelve apostles, Paul, the woman at the well who led her entire town to Christ. Many people in the Bible, saints who have been martyred or taken up the call of Christ since He was translated. Many people deserve the epithet ‘great’.
But only one person was called the greatest. Luke 1:15a says, “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord,”. Who was this man? Who could earn from God such a title? Of whom did Jesus say “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater…” (Matthew 11:11)? You probably know based on the title of this post.
His name was John the Baptist.
Why would Jesus call one who wore a weird camel’s hair garment and ate locusts great? How could you look at this wild man from the desert and see anything but dirt, crazy eyes and a compulsion to dunk people in a dirty little river?
Praise God! He sees beyond mere appearance.
John was the product of an old couple past the point of childbirth. Unless, that is, there was divine intervention. Thankfully, there was.
John moved early to the wilderness where he received an education from his Father. He lived simply (ate locusts and honey, never touched a drop of alcohol) and learned his purpose until it was time for him to assume his destiny. He went to the Jordan and began to baptize. He also began to proclaim the One who was to come after Him “Whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose” (Mark 1:7).
Jesus called Him great because John recognized his:
- Purpose: he was not the Messiah or a prophet and he made sure to tell people this. He was simply, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).
- Place: John, in answering a “dispute” among his disciples and some Jews regarding Jesus, said “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John accepted the role of herald and the place of a servant.
- Power: there was nothing in John’s baptism but a symbol. He said “I indeed baptize you with water…He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11) John’s power was limited to a baptism for “repentance”, but Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit.
So what does all of this mean to us?
We all use words like great or greatest, awesome and others as descriptive of objects, events and situations that are actually pretty mundane. John demonstrated what was true personal greatness.
Be a servant who follows God’s purpose for your life and who relies on God’s power.