Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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How to be Great, Day 1

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: In case you haven’t noticed, we have a fascination in our culture with the subject of greatness. In fact, you can look at some of our major news weeklies and the different lists that come out, such as:

  • The 400 Richest Americans
  • The Hundred Most Powerful People in Sports
  • 50 Most Powerful Women in Business (Fortune magazine has that list.)
  • The 25 Most Important People in Entertainment
  • 25 Most Influential Evangelicals (TIME magazine) And all the evangelical leaders open that quickly to see if their name made the list. 
  • And then we have Time Man of the Year—narrowing the list down to one.
  • TIME magazine also ran, “The 100 Most Important People in the 20th Century.”
  • And then also TIME magazine had designated a person of the century. Do you know who that was in the 20th century? They designated that as Albert Einstein.

We have a preoccupation with greatness, with success, with winning. And if you asked most people to name the greatest people they could think of—it depends what field you would ask—but most people would rank their answers based on people’s achievements, on their public profile, on their influence, on awards they’ve received, on their natural giftedness in their field, whether it’s sports or music or business.

We have a ladder-climbing culture, one where people want to be great. They want to be known. They want to be listed. And when we come to the Scripture, we have talk about greatness and success, but we have a whole different concept and picture of what it means to be great.

Leslie Basham: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Holiness: The Heart God Purifies, is about to give you a new definition of greatness here on Revive Our Hearts for Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

Nancy: I’ve been struck as I’ve been in the gospels about three instances that took place with the disciples in the latter weeks of Jesus’ life, right toward the end of His earthly life, where there’s a recurring issue and theme that comes up about this whole issue of greatness.

And in all three of these instances which we’re going to look at over the next three sessions, they all took place in the shadow of the cross. Now, we need to keep that in mind because the cross casts its shadow on these encounters that Jesus had with His disciples, and the cross informs how we should view greatness.

And in each of these instances, you’ll see a stark contrast between the disciples and their view of greatness and Jesus and His view of greatness. Not only their view of greatness, but how they lived out their lives in light of that view. You’ll see the disciples’ lives are very different than Jesus’ life. Jesus models for us true greatness as we will see it defined.

Now, I want to ask you to turn in your Bible, if you are able to follow along with us, to Mark chapter 9, the gospel of Mark, chapter 9, where we come to the first instance. And as you’re turning there, let me just read to you a verse from Mark chapter 8 which gives us some context for what we’re going to look at in Mark chapter 9.

In Mark 8:31, Jesus gives to His disciples the first direct prediction that He, as the Savior, would be rejected, crucified, and would come back to life again. Mark 8:31,

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Now, for those of us who have the full New Testament sitting in front of us, it seems clear what Jesus is talking about. We’ll discover that the disciples who were living this out at the moment were clueless as to what Jesus was talking about.

It seems. . . how many things can this mean? “The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and be killed and then after three days rise again.” That sounds like pretty plain English. Well, it was gobbledygook to the disciples.

But what Jesus was trying to do was to teach them not only what the plan of salvation would involve, but also to instill in them the principles of His kingdom, which they were going to need to understand after He was gone. And one of the basic principles of the kingdom of God is that humiliation precedes exaltation.

Before Jesus could rise again to be the majestic, reigning Lord, seated in heaven at the right hand of the throne of God, first He must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests, by the religious leaders, and be killed. Humiliation precedes exaltation. That’s going to be important in this little study on greatness because what we tend to want is the exaltation without what precedes it.

So Jesus makes in Mark 8 this prediction, the first of several, a direct prediction of His rejection, His crucifixion, and His resurrection. And now we come to Mark chapter 9. And beginning in verse 2, we won’t read through this passage, but verses 2 through 13, this is six days later that Jesus takes Peter and James and John, the inner circle of His disciples, with Him up to a high mountain. This is where the Transfiguration takes place.

Jesus is transfigured before them. His clothes are bright, shining white, and Moses and Elijah appear, and they talk with Jesus. A cloud comes and overshadows the scene, and a voice comes out of the cloud. It’s God’s voice, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him” (v. 7).

This is a moment of exaltation in Jesus’ life. He is transfigured before their eyes, and the disciples see this with their own eyes. But then they come down off that mountain, and as they’re on their way down, Jesus says to the disciples, “Don’t tell anyone what you just saw until after I have been risen from the dead.” Now, here again we have another reference, although a little less direct one, to the fact that He’s going to die, and He’s going to rise again.

And then we come to verse 31 of Mark chapter 9, and this is where I want us to pick up. Once again, Jesus directly, clearly, plainly predicts His death and His resurrection. Verse 31:

He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise."

Now, Jesus is clearly talking about Himself. He is the Son of Man—the Son of God, of course, but also the Son of Man—both fully God and fully man. He is saying, “You need to realize that I am going to be turned over to evil men, and they’re going to kill Me. But after I am killed, I will come back to life again.”

Now, right in the shadow of this revelation—the second time Jesus has stated it very, very clearly—we come to the passage I really want us to examine today, which is Mark 9, beginning in verse 33. We see an issue that surfaces among the disciples, and then we’re going to see Jesus’ insights and His instruction to the disciples in relation to this issue.

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about [what?] who was the greatest.

Now, keep in mind what has just taken place. Jesus has just told them, for the second time, clearly, “I am going to die. The one you love and respect. You believe Me to be God and the Messiah, you’ve come to know that I’m going to die. I’m going to be crucified. I’m going to be rejected. I’m going to die.” And now, right on the heels of that, they’re having this argument about who is the greatest.

The word for "greatest" is a word that is related to another Greek word. It's the word megus. Mega, great . . . who is the mega? Who is the greatest? Who is the one who outshines the others?

Now, Jesus in asking them what they had been discussing, of course He knows what they have been discussing . . . In fact, in the parellel account in Luke chapter 9, it says that "Jesus knew the reasoning of their hearts." But He wanted them to admit their thinking and arguing and discussing.

When He asks them, they kept silent. Why? Because they were embarrassed. They were ashamed. They didn't want Him to know what they had just been talking about.

By the way, what were talking about last night? Think back to some of your recent discussions with your mate or with your roommate or with your children or on the phone or at work. Has there been any debating going on? Any arguing going on? You are all looking at me like this never happens at your house. (laughter) I know it does—maybe not last night.

The fact is—Jesus knows what they were talking about even when they thought He couldn't hear. He knows what we talk about. The fact is, conversations we have in secret that we think no one knows about or will hear, they will all come out into the light sooner or later. We will have to give account for disputes that were done behind the scenes in secret.

The disciples, its says, had argued with on another for who was the greatest. The word for argued or disputed there, depending on your translation, is a long Greek word that I won’t try and pronounce, but it essentially means "words that separate, words that contradict each other."

Some people had this position and other people had this position. One said what he thought, and another said what he thought, and those two ways banged up against each other. Ever have that happen in your house? That’s what arguing is. That’s what disputing is.

It reminds me, as does this whole passage, of that verse in Proverbs 13, Proverbs 13:10, that says, "Only by pride comes contention." Whenever you see disputing, arguing, debating about a subject where people have two different viewpoints, and they’re clanging up against each other, you can know there’s pride involved.

You say, “Yes! My husband. He’s really a proud man.” No, it’s not just your husband. It’s you. And it’s not just your kids. It’s you. It’s us. Wherever there’s contention, we can be sure there is the presence of pride.

In the parallel account in Matthew chapter 18, we’re told that the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (v. 1). So this wasn’t just a dispute about who’s the strongest person, who’s Muhammad Ali, or whatever? Who has the biggest muscles? or Who’s the smartest person? This had to do with who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. So this was a spiritual argument, if you will, arguing about spiritual things. They wanted to be spiritually superior.

Now, we don’t know what caused this argument. It may have been occasioned by the Mount of Transfiguration experience which had taken place just previous to this discussion. Only three of the disciples had been there, and Jesus had told them not to say anything about what they had seen. So you can imagine, when they came down, “Hmm, I have a secret, but I can’t tell you what it is.”

“What happened up there? What’d you guys do?”

“Oh, it was really wonderful, but I can’t tell you about it.”

I mean, there’s like this little secret club, these ones who were closest to Jesus. I don’t know. I may be making all this up. The Scripture doesn’t tell us what they talked about, but somehow we know that for whatever reason there was this drive, this debate between the disciples about who was going to be greatest in God’s kingdom.

And it’s a picture of a drive that we have naturally built in to us. It’s a drive to be honored, to be esteemed, to be elevated, to be recognized. And so strong was that drive in the hearts of these disciples that they argued over it. They disputed over it. We have that drive for control, a drive to win the argument, a drive to get the last word. There are variations on this argument.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in recent weeks. Most women don’t sit around having discussions about who’s the greatest—not quite that way. But there are variations on that conversation, the my-way-is-right way of thinking and talking.

While I was studying on this very session, I got almost at the same moment two emails from two friends, both telling me their version of a conversation they had just had with each other. Both of them were upset about the conversation, and both wanted me to kind of weigh in and be the umpire in this conversation. Both were pressing to have their own way. Both were convinced that they were right and that the other one was wrong. And neither was really seeking to see it from the other person’s point of view.

And it was just such an illustration of what I’d been sitting here studying, reading about what the disciples were saying, “Who’s the greatest?”

There’s that verse in Proverbs 21 that tells us "every man’s way is right in his own eyes," and isn’t that true? But the end of that verse says, "but the LORD weighs the hearts" (v. 2 NASB). The Lord knows what’s behind what we are saying.

You could have an argument, and both of you be very wrong. You may be right about your point, but when the Lord weighs the heart or the spirit, as some of your translations may say, He evaluates based on what is inside and what is producing us to defend our position the way we are.

Self-centeredness and pride and selfish ambition are invariably behind these kinds of disputes. When we have those things in our hearts, that selfish ambition, that self-centeredness, that pride, it invariably comes out in arguments, contention, strife, strained or broken relationships.

James chapter 3 tells us "if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above." This is not God’s way of thinking if you have these things in your heart. These things are "earthly, unspiritual, and [get this] demonic" (vv. 14–15). This stuff comes from the pit of hell. That’s what James is saying—this debating, this contention.

He says, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (v. 16).

And he goes on. He doesn’t drop this subject. In James chapter 4, beginning in verse 1, he says, "What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?" What causes it among your children? What causes it in a marriage, in the work place, in your church? "Is it not this, that your passions [your desires] are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder."

Now, you may not murder literally or physically, but you will murder in your heart, with your thoughts, or with your words. You may murder somebody’s character, assassinate their reputation because you want it your way, and you didn’t get it, and so you murder to get.

Any time there if fighting and quarreling, it's usually because we wanted something that we didn't get. We wanted respect. We wanted appreciation. We wanted to be valued. We wanted to be right. We didn't get it, so we kept pressing with this quarrel.

Now, that’s the issue between the disciples. They’re arguing about themselves: Who is the greatest in the kingdom? Who is the greatest from God’s perspective? They wanted to be spiritually great in God’s kingdom.

And then we come to the insight and the instruction that our Lord gives to the disciples about this issue. Mark chapter 9, verse 35:

He sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all."

Now, notice that Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that it was wrong for them to want to be great. The problem was they had a twisted, distorted concept of what made somebody great. And so Jesus answers their question: “Who is the greatest?” That’s what they’d been arguing about.

Jesus says, “You want to know who’s the greatest? I’ll tell you who’s the greatest. The person is the greatest who puts himself last and who serves everyone else.”

Here’s the formula: Humility plus servanthood equals true greatness. The one who puts himself last of all, and the one who serves everyone else. Humility plus servanthood equals true greatness.

And this is a theme you see all the way through the Scripture.

Luke 14:11: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Proverbs 29:23: “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.”

Now, to further illustrate His point, Jesus goes on to make an object lesson, as He often did. So He states the principle: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”

And then, verses 36–37,

He took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."

Jesus is saying if you want to be great, you must be the servant of all. And then He expands on what all means. Here is an example of all, and He picks a child—a child who can’t do anything for you. He’s not in a position to repay you. Children are needy. They’re dependent. They’re not generally considered great. And Jesus says if you want to be great, you must receive the least of these.

The sign of true greatness is to have a heart for those that others consider lowly or weak or helpless. Now, this is so contrary to our culture which receives children reluctantly, if at all, a culture that receives children as long as they don’t interfere with our plans, our goals, our objectives. And Jesus says a truly great person, a truly great culture will be a person or culture that receives children.

Now, it’s not only receiving children, welcoming them as Jesus did, but Jesus goes on to say you have to become like children. In fact, in the parallel account in Matthew chapter 18, it says, “Calling to him a child, he put him in the midst and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (vv. 3–4).

Now, why does Jesus use children, receiving them, being like them? Why does He use that as a picture of humility and servanthood?

One commentator said it this way:

A child has no influence at all. A child cannot advance a man’s career, nor enhance a man’s prestige. A child cannot give us things; it’s the other way around. A child needs things. A child must have things done for him. And so Jesus is saying, "If a man welcomes the poor, ordinary people, the people who have no influence, no wealth, and no power, the people who need things done for them, then he’s welcoming me. And more than that, he’s welcoming God." (William Barclay)

Now, what keeps us from becoming like little children in their humility and their neediness and their dependence, and what keeps us from receiving children or others who are the least of these? Well, it’s the opposite of humility, which is pride.

Let me read to you what an old-time commentator says about pride. It’s so good. He says,

Pride is one of the commonest sins which beset human nature. . . . We all naturally think far better of ourselves than we ought. We all naturally imagine that we deserve something far better than we have. It’s an old sin. It began in the garden of Eden when Adam and Eve thought that they had not gotten everything that their merits deserved.

It is a subtle sin. It rules and reigns in many a heart without being detected, and can even wear the garb of humility. It is a most soul-ruining sin. . . . Let us watch against it [that is against pride] and be on our guard. Of all garments, none is so graceful, none wears so well, and none is so rare as true humility. (J. C. Ryle)

You see, the world’s idea of greatness is to be in charge, to be at the top, to be looked up to, to be respected, to be honored, to have others notice you, to have others wait on you. The world measures greatness by rank, position, and wealth. To be applauded by men, that’s considered to be great in the world’s eyes. Greatness is measured by how many people work for you and how much influence you have.

But Jesus says, “No. That’s not greatness at all. True greatness is taking the lowest place, pouring yourself out on behalf of others, giving when you feel like receiving, being applauded by God even if no one ever sees or recognizes what you do. True greatness is measured not by how many people wait on you, but by how many people you serve, and how much of yourself you give away.”

Now, in the wake of this revelation, this conversation Jesus has with the disciples, the issue was who is the greatest, and Jesus says, “Let me tell you how to be truly great is to humble yourself and to be a servant.” And the child is the object lesson.

Would you believe that very shortly thereafter, Mark chapter 10, verse 13, to be exact, the disciples blow it right after Jesus has taught them that if you want to be great, you have to become like a child. Look at verse 13 of Mark 10:

And they were bringing children to him [people were, parents were, the crowd was] so that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. [Now, is that unthinkable in light of what Jesus had just said?]

But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." And he took [the children] in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them (vv. 13–16).

So the disciples rebuked those who brought the children, and Jesus rebuked the disciples and received the children because Jesus was truly great. He was humble, and He received the least of these.

Impressive achievements and reputation, these things are not required to get into the kingdom of God or to be great in the kingdom of God. What is required is humility and a servant’s heart. And so we see in the Lord Jesus a model of what He’d just been talking about.

Oh Lord, how convicting it is as we think about our striving and strutting and trying to be on the top of the pile, and everything in our culture pulls us in that direction.

Thank You for Your counter-culture, the kingdom of God, which is based on a whole different way of thinking. For your idea of greatness is the one who is great must be the last of all and the servant of all. So, Lord, give us the heart of Jesus who loved children, who loved the least of these, who welcomed sinners, who went to places where good, religious people would never think of going because of love and grace and mercy and humility and a servant’s heart.

Lord, give us that heart, and may we not strive about who’s the greatest but strive to be the least and the last and a servant of all as we emulate our Master, the Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray, amen.

Leslie: In a world possessed with popularity and success, the gospel invites us to redefine what it means to be great.

Revive Our Hearts heard from a listener not long ago grappling with this very question. She’s doing something great for God’s kingdom—investing in her own children. But not everyone around her sees this as something great. Here’s what she wrote. 

I live in Northern Ireland. I just want to thank Nancy for the series on Titus 2. I missed several program last week and binge-listened to the podcast today.

Having just finished listening to Friday's episode, I had tears in my eyes and felt I must write to say how much of an encouragement these programs have been to me.

I’m the mother of three kids age five and under. I’m that woman Nancy spoke about—the one who desires more than anything to be a godly wife and mother, to pour my best efforts into my home and family. Yet people treat me like I am stupid. Despite having a college degree, people frequently treat me like I have no brain or imply that I have chosen the easy option by staying at home with my kids.

THANK YOU Nancy for affirming that what I do day in day out matters and that it will have eternal consequences. Thank you for reminding me that it doesn't matter what others think as long as I’m walking in the Spirit and following His lead. Thank you for you words of encouragement which lifted my heart today when I was weary of walking this counter-cultural path. May God bless you and your ministry.

Nancy: Thank you, Lord, for this precious woman's heart. I'm so thankful for the way that Deborah is being used in a significant way right there in her own home as she's investing in the lives of her children—the next generation. This mom is showing what it means to live out the beauty of the gospel.

I’m so grateful for every listener who helps Revive Our Hearts get to Deborah there in Northern Ireland. Your prayer support and financial support help make it possible for us to encourage not only this woman, but thousands and thousands of others like her.

All though May we’ve told you that donations to this ministry have been less than we have budgeted for over the last several months. As a result, our ability to reach women like Deborah is challenged. The month of May is the end of our fiscal year. As we set budgets for the twelve months ahead, our team is in the process of considering some serious cuts to core ministry outreaches because of this lack of resources. So before the end of this fiscal year—tomorrow, May 31—we’ve been asking the Lord to provide $830,000.

To get the latest update on where we are toward meeting that need, visit That’s also where you can give online to help meet this need—, or call 1–800–569–5959.

There are so many women like Deborah around the world who need biblical encouragement and we pray that the Lord will help Revive Our Hearts continue to be effective in meeting those needs. Thank you for helping to make that possible.

Now, it seems like everyone wants to measure their influence today by counting their social media friends or blog traffic, etc., but Jesus invites you to embrace a different kind of influence. Learn more about it tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the ESV.

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About the Teacher

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love for Christ and His Word is infectious, and permeates her online outreaches, conference messages, books, and two daily nationally syndicated radio programs—Revive Our Hearts and Seeking Him.

She has authored twenty-two books, including Lies Women Believe and the Truth That Sets Them Free, Seeking Him (coauthored), Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together, and You Can Trust God to Write Your Story (coauthored with her husband). Her books have sold more than five million copies and are reaching the hearts of women around the world. Nancy and her husband, Robert, live in Michigan.