Who is the greatest of all time? Jordan or LeBron? Friends or Seinfeld? Adam West or Christian Bale? Twizzlers or Red Vines? Pepsi or Coke? Tennant or Smith? Mariah or Whitney? Johnny Cash or … let’s be honest, there is no debate on this one. From ballers to Batmans, sitcoms to science fiction, candies to colas, and Doctors to divas — in every category imaginable, we find the same debate (and hashtag): Who’s the GOAT?
If we’re honest, we recognize that GOAT-picking is also an intramural discussion in the church. It’s not uncommon to find articles, conferences, or books lauding a theologian, preacher, or evangelist as the “greatest.” This shouldn’t surprise us. Even the 12 apostles could be found squabbling over who would be the greatest in the kingdom of Christ (see Luke 22:24–30).
In Matthew 20:20–27, a bold mother drags her adult sons before Jesus to make a request. She knew her boys could not be the greatest — that spot on the podium belonged to the Messiah. But, perhaps, her sons could wear silver and bronze as GOATs second and third. “‘Promise,’ she said to him, ‘that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right and the other on your left, in your kingdom” (Matt 20:20).
This helicopter parenting didn’t sit well with Jesus, who told her she had no idea what she was talking about. When Jesus asked the brothers if they could down the cup he was to drink, they naively responded in the affirmative. Jesus responded, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right and left is not mine to give; instead, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” Two things stand out in this response: First, one must drink the cup to be with Christ in his kingdom. Second, the Lord alone is the final arbiter of kingdom glory.
What is this cup? Immediately before this conversation, Jesus told his disciples, “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death. They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked, flogged, and crucified, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matt 20:18–19). That’s the cup: to be abused by the world and tortured to death so that his friends might flourish. The call to faith is a call to be crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, the promise of Jesus is that the world will hate his followers as they hated him. Bottoms up, boys and girls!
The Lord is the final arbiter of kingdom glory. Not us. Plus, we only see the externals of one another; God weighs the heart. We’re reminded of this when Jesus pointed his disciples to a widow who dropped two small coins into the offertory:
Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For all these people have put in gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on. (Luke 21:3-4)
By external appearances, she’d given the least. But in the Lord’s metric, she gave the most.
Jesus’ words to these glory-seeking brothers are a good reminder to us: We are utterly unable to judge who are the GOATs among the sheep in the kingdom of God. That did not then and has not now stopped the church from trying, of course. The Corinthians’ obsession with their own proximity to greatness perplexed Paul:
For it has been reported to me about you . . . that there is rivalry among you. What I am saying is this: One of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ” Is Christ divided? (1 Cor 1:11–12)
Sadly, his second letter to the Corinthians indicates their addiction to earthly greatness raged on, only now in a fascination with “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5).
This raises the question: How do we know greatness when we see it? The New Testament gives us no precedent or reason for determining who the greatest Christian preacher, philosopher, theologian, or evangelist was. And when we try, aren’t we a bit like the Corinthians in that our picks tend to be “on our team?” We think if the GOAT is in our camp, we will share a bit of his success, don’t we? Sound familiar?
The scale for greatness
Seeking greatness in the eyes of others has a long and deadly history. Its power is what motivated Cain to bludgeon Able to death. It roused Jacob’s sons to sell Joseph into slavery (as an alternative to killing him outright). And it bred bitterness among the 12. When the other 10 disciples heard what the two brothers were up to, they were indignant. The scene is as sad as it is comical: 12 adult men brawling over which of them is the best — and that right after the Lord of Glory described how he would soon be tortured and hung on a beam of wood. So he, the Alpha and Omega, (once the men debated who might be the beta or the gamma) sat them down. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” he said. “And those in high positions act as tyrants over them. It must not be like that among you.”
Our world’s definition of greatness comes with influence, power, and privilege, which can be (and is often) exploited at the expense of others. As Jesus insists, that sort of greatness has no place among his disciples because, in his kingdom, that is no greatness at all:
On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt 20:25–28)
True greatness is measured by service to others without regard for personal benefit. Jesus himself is the prime example: He did not come to be served by his people; he came to serve his people. By taking on God’s wrath to spare his people. There’s the cup again: Jesus drank the cup of service itself.
See the King, Scripture says, “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead, he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross” (Phil 2:6–8). That voluntary humiliation — gladly sacrificing oneself for the good of another — is what God declares “greatness.”
The posture of the greatest is love
The Bible also calls this “love,” when someone gladly gives of themselves to see another flourish. The Father loves us, so he gave his only Son for us. The Son loves us, so he gave his life for us. The Spirit loves us and gives us himself — his presence, wisdom, and power. Incarnate love reigns at the center of God’s purposes, and love is what we are called to as the Messiah’s New Covenant people: “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13). God is love. Therefore, God is the greatest. And only by love will God’s greatness be reflected: “And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3).
Again, our best attempts to identify the greatest here on earth are futile. We have no scale by which to weigh the heart. But, because we know Christ, we have enough information to know toward whom we should proceed with caution. Because we know God’s love and what he deems to be great, we cannot rightly anoint greatness to those who, like the Corinthians with a penchant for proximity to power, who live according to self-interest, who exploit others to benefit themselves. Can we call those who purchased, owned, and bequeathed human beings as property the “greatest” theologians or preachers? Not in any sense by which Jesus defined greatness — and by what standard are we judging, if not by his? If anything, the ownership of others is the epitome of how Jesus says the world thinks of greatness. Likewise, the pastor who turns a blind eye to his friend’s abusive behavior to gain influence is not “great,” no matter how many conferences he headlines. The seminary professor who mocks and berates his students is not “great,” no matter how many books he sells.
Onward, with care
But we should not think this caution ends with the church. Jesus is the King of all, so his definition of greatness covers all of creation. Quarterbacks, movie stars, and presidents don’t get a pass. We teach our neighbors about the kingdom by whom we call “great.” Is an athlete with a championship ring on every finger the GOAT if he abandons his house and home for a Hall of Fame? Is a nation “great” if it receives and defends the poor and the weak only when it benefits national interests? If we’re answering “yes” to those questions, Jesus would like to have a word.
Instead of fawning over theological treatises, championships, and awards shows, we would do well to take the advice of Paul, the self-labeled “least of the apostles”:
So don’t judge anything prematurely, before the Lord comes, who will both bring to light what is hidden in darkness and reveal the intentions of the hearts. And then praise will come to each one from God. (1 Cor 4:3–5)
God’s judgment has already been declared: By grace through faith we are righteous, with the righteousness of the one who served to the point of death because we, in our sin, refused to do so. We have no business ranking our lives against one another, and certainly not in the shadow of that service we have received through Christ.