The word "great" is bandied about these days for just about everything. If you question this statement, try writing a personal letter to one of your friends without using the word "great"! In fact, the term "great" has become so over-used that we generally have to use the term "really great" to distinguish special events or things or people from the normal and ordinary! Probably our use of the word "great" most frequently reflects the world's concept of what constitutes greatness. Needless to say, the world's concept of what is "really great" is a far cry from what God considers "really great."
In no uncertain terms, the Lord Jesus distinguished between the world's concept of greatness and God's concept of greatness (Luke 22:24-27). The world's idea of greatness consists mainly of having power and authority, so that the one who is "great" can "lord it over" those with less power. And, in the world's eyes, the "really great" rulers give token benefits to their subjects. However, any "benefits" given by worldly "benefactors" are never conferred at the expense of the rulers' power, and will rarely involve any sacrifice on their part. But God's concept of true greatness is not measured in power and prestige! In God's "book of greatness," the really great person is one who serves others voluntarily and sacrificially. Let's look at a few examples of "great" people from secular history who are mentioned in the Bible, and observe the contrast between the world's concept of "really great" and God's concept of "really great."
Nebuchadnezzar the Great
As the sovereign head of the neo-Babylonian world empire, Nebuchadnezzar the Great was one of the most powerful rulers this world has ever seen. Even Daniel acknowledged that, from the world's viewpoint, Nebuchadnezzar was great. "You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth" (Daniel 4:22). His role as "benefactor" of mankind is seen in his vision of himself as a fruit tree, serving the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky (Daniel 4:21). But the focal point of Nebuchadnezzar's concept of greatness was his own grandeur. "Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of mymajesty?" (Daniel 4:30). Notice that Nebuchadnezzar's concept of greatness was self-centered--his power,his majesty, what he had accomplished. Because God hates human pride, Nebuchadnezzar was cut down to size. For a predetermined length of time, he lost his mind and was reduced to animal behavior (a psychiatric condition known as bo-anthropy).
Nebuchadnezzar's story has a wonderful ending. In His mercy, God returned Nebuchadnezzar's reason to him, and the king caught God's concept of true greatness. Nebuchadnezzar's focus on greatness shifted from self to God. "At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified Him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; His kingdom endures from generation to generation" (Daniel 4:34). "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything He does is right and all His ways are just. And those who walk in pride He is able to humble" (Daniel 4:37). As a result of Nebuchadnezzar's confession of the surpassing greatness of God, God added greatness to him. From the divine perspective, only then did Nebuchadnezzar begin to approach true greatness.
There are "mini-Nebuchadnezzars" today--even in the church!--who need to be cut down to size and learn what it means to be really great. Their focal point must shift from "who I am" and "what I have done" to "who God is" and "what God has done." Their lifestyle focus must change from "making a name for myself" to serving God by serving others, and from taking credit for "my acts of service" to giving credit to the Lord because of what He has done. God has included the history of Nebuchadnezzar in Holy Scripture to teach us an important lesson about what it means to be really great.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great is another well-known figure of ancient history. With unbelievable swiftness, Alexander of Greece conquered much of the world of his time. His accomplishments earned him the title of "the Great" in human history, and his concept of himself as "benefactor" was acknowledged by many of the peoples he had conquered. But God never recognized or declared Alexander as "Great," and the prophetic scriptures make clear that when the "Grecian goat" of Daniel 8 magnified himself, he was broken by God. (See Daniel 8:5-8, 21-22.) When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he deified himself by declaring himself to be the offspring of the supreme god of Egypt, and built shrines to himself in the most sacred inner sanctums of pagan temples. In the last year of his life, he asked the Greek states to treat him as divine. But his self-proclamation of deity spelled his doom. God will not share His supremacy and glory with another! (See Isaiah 42:8.) God removed this mortal "god" from the scene of his earthly triumphs when he was only 32 years old. Alexander may have conquered the world of his time, but he never conquered himself. To the day of his death--in the "sin-city" of Babylon--Alexander remained proud, self-centered, violent and dissolute. Throughout eternity the existence of this "great" world ruler will be anything but "great."
Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, the prophet Zechariah contrasted Alexander the Great with the King (Messiah) who was to come. The victories of Alexander the Great are mentioned in the first 8 verses of Zechariah 9. These verses trace his conquering march through Syria (v1-2a), Phoenicia (v2b-4) and Philistia (v5-8). But Alexander did not conquer and destroy Jerusalem. God said, "I will camp around my House" (v8), and even the great Alexander could not overstep the boundaries that God had established! Notice throughout these verses how Alexander was used by God to accomplish God's purposes. The proud conqueror was unaware that he was merely a tool in the hands of God and that his great victories would fit into God's long range program. In fact, Alexander's main contribution to the world, from God's perspective, was the spread of the Greek language and culture, which would facilitate the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Alexander may be "the Great" from man's perspective of human history, but from the divine perspective he was only a pawn under God's sovereign control.
What a contrast we see in verses 9 and 10 of Zechariah 9--the prediction of a truly great king, God's Anointed One! His coming would be marked by humility. He would not arrive on a galloping war-horse, but on a lowly young donkey. He would not come as a proud conqueror, but as a humble and righteous peasant, proclaiming spiritual salvation to all who would listen. Unlike Alexander and his armies, this King would bringpeace to the nations. Alexander's empire was limited, but this King's dominion would be "from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth." This One is truly great, because He would come to serve others, not Himself. "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" (Mark 10:45). What a contrast to the self-consumed Alexander, the man the world still calls "Great"!
If you were given the option of being "great" like the successful and powerful Alexander, or being great by living an "insignificant" life of service to others, which would you choose? There should be no question which option we should choose, but let's be honest--many of us are not choosing the right option! Our thinking is so saturated by the values and attitudes of our society that we automatically gravitate towards the positions and lifestyles that are labelled "successful" and "powerful" in the eyes of the world. Because we are so easily brainwashed by our culture, frequent reality checks are essential. For example, "Among my friends and social contacts, is it important for me to be recognized as successful? In my business (and even in my church), do I deliberately aim for positions that will give me the greatest recognition and authority? Do I secretly enjoy having power ("lording it") over others? Am I "serving" others in ways that cost me little? Am I encouraging my children to choose career paths that will bring worldly recognition but not spiritual greatness?" We must often remind ourselves that true greatness in the eyes of God is only achieved by a lifestyle of humble service!
Herod the Great
Herod the Great is known in history as one of the greatest builders of all time. To this day many of his structures remain standing, and you cannot travel far in Israel without being confronted with one of his massive construction projects. Herod the Great built the magnificent Jewish Temple which was in use during the life of Jesus. But Herod is never called "Great" by God. In fact, in Scripture he is not known for his building projects, but for ordering the terrible massacre of the babies of Bethlehem. Herod had no concern for people or for God. His only concern was for his own security and the preservation of his position of power. In his paranoia, he murdered many people, including even a brother, a wife and children. In fact, it was said that it was safer to be Herod's pig than his son! Why does the world still consider this egotistical maniac "Great"? Because the world's concept of greatness is a far cry from God's concept of greatness.
God's concept of greatness will always place care and concern for people over the accumulation of worldly power and accomplishments or the attainment of financial and personal security. The earthly life of Jesus is not remembered for great building projects, but for service to mankind; not for self-preservation, but for self-sacrifice. Philippians 2 traces His path of sacrifice for others: Jesus Christ, God Himself, "made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant"; He "humbled Himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross." In the world's eyes, Jesus Christ wasn't "Great." At best, He was a good man, but self-deceived as to His deity. The world is willing to say "Jesus, the Good, but not Jesus, the Great." But Jesus Christ personified God's concept of true greatness. "Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place, and gave Him the name which is above every name" (Philippians 2:7-9).
What is our concept of greatness? Does it closely resemble the world's concept--or is it more like God's concept? Are we spending our lives to "make a name for ourselves" and build earthly success, or to honor the Name of God and build up His kingdom? Will we be remembered, like Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander and Herod, for a life of worldly achievements, or will we be remembered, like Jesus, for a life of loving service for others? How we live shows what we really believe about what it means to be really great.
Remember, the Lord Jesus told it like it is: "Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all" (Mark 10:44). When our lifestyles follow the pattern of the life of Christ, we will be really great in the eyes of God.