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By Bruce Atkinson PhD
Special to Virtueonline.
May 26, 2023

Although obviously associated with the human ego, this is a 'normal' human question, one debated even by the Apostles prior to the physical departure of their Master, Jesus Christ (Luke 22:24). Ambitious Christians want to know... who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? What constitutes greatness and how can we achieve it?

Of course, the Lord Jesus Christ (who is both man and God) will always be the greatest among human beings, and even He submits to the Father God who is and has always been the sovereign Spirit.

But who did Jesus say would be the greatest among His people in His eternal heavenly Kingdom? Did Jesus say that the greatest in the Kingdom would be those who were powerful leaders down here? Successful and wealthy entrepreneurs? Prolific and popular writers? Presidents and Prime Ministers? Those born to royalty? Wonderful actors or sports heroes? No, no, and no.

What about successful evangelists and church leaders? Still no, at least not as measured by the standards of fame and honor in this world.

Note that the disciples were straightforward in questioning Jesus (Matthew 18:1):
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

Jesus did not rebuke his disciples for asking this question and His initial answer was this:
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:2-4, NIV)

This paradoxical answer had to come as a great surprise to the disciples. The greatest in the Kingdom are those who have the humility, simplicity, and powerlessness of a child! And we hear in the synoptic gospels that Jesus answered this question a number of other times in a similar fashion. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5). What could this mean?

Here is how these words of Jesus are generally interpreted. Being great in God's kingdom involves simple trust in God, humble obedience, and selfless responsibility in serving others. Jesus told His disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." (Matt 16:24-25).

To be great is to serve sacrificially. It is what Jesus did as the Son of God-- humbling Himself to serve and to die for us (see Phil 2:6-11). True greatness is about committing oneself to God's glory (not our own) and giving one's life for the benefit of others. Recall that in Jesus' picturesque example, He performed the service of the lowest of servants by washing His disciples' feet.

So how do we shift cognitive gears from our previous reliance on externals? In Galatians 3:23-29, we hear the Apostle Paul revealing that the boundaries have been erased by God regarding race, socioeconomic status, and even gender with regard to worth and the prerequisites of salvation. These things, which seem to matter a great deal in the secular human world, will matter very little (if at all) in the Kingdom. In our own Christian perception of reality, we too must erase these unspiritual boundaries.

What Jesus prophetically revealed was that there will be a bit of an inversion, an upside down flip between what humans value now and what will be valued in the heavenly situation. Instead of the proud and powerful, it will be the humble and meek who will be regarded as great (Matthew 5:5). As we have heard, it also will be those who have simply and naively trusted in God like little children (Matt 18:3-4); it will be those who have chosen to take on roles of serving instead of ruling (Mark 9:35, Matt 23:11-12; cf. Matt 18:14: Luke 9:46-50, 22:25-27; Mark 9:33-50 & 10:42-44). According to Jesus, this is no small issue. Jesus warned that using earthly criteria will never give us accurate information about one's status in God's heavenly Kingdom. Jesus: "But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then." (Matt 19:30, NLT)

Cultural Bias

However, there is a prevalent disingenuous ideology that is pushed hard in western culture these days, mostly due to leftwing cultural Marxist propaganda. This involves the obsession with political and social power (witness the current popularity of Critical Theory, especially CRT).

Spiritually, the human focus on power reminds me of this statement in Zechariah: "Not by [human] might nor power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). God exhibited His power not just in the Creation and the miracles but also (and perhaps especially) at the Cross... when He paradoxically defeated the "powers and principalities" of evil through self-sacrifice, through trusting the Father instead of physically overpowering His enemies.

But God's sovereign method of bringing about His divine will does not compute with fallen human beings. We have been duped by the materialists and Darwin, who have believed that external physical (and now technical) "might makes right."

In the human world, the idea that "only the strong survive" seems to have some validity. But we must see again Zechariah 4:6; God says no -- He has a much better way for right to conquer wrong.

In today's cultural Zeitgeist in the west, we have an "in your face" example for us to analyze, and that is the issue of gender and roles of women in the Church. Since the scriptures and thus the Church has historically not allowed women to have positions of power and authority equal to men, then by definition these churches are now considered misogynist by our liberal culture. Therefore, God, as revealed in the scriptures, is a misogynist.

We see from the beginning in Genesis that God did not create males and females to be exactly the same, nor suitable for the same roles. However, this obsession with equality of social and political power in this world is so prevalent in the general media that it influences Christian leaders and has led to recent revisionist changes in the traditional doctrines which have existed since at least the time of Jesus.

Of course the truth we know from Galatians 3:28 is that God loves, redeems, and sanctifies men and women equality-- and perhaps women more, since in the New Testament the Church is regarded as "the Bride of Christ" (Eph 5:25-33, Rev 19:7-9; 21:1-2). And so we must underline what Jesus revealed; in the final Kingdom situation, the disciples who would be greatest would be those who had taken on roles of humble servants rather than those of privileged and powerful leaders.

Therefore I must ask, which gender has been placed more often in the role of a servant? When women seek to take on roles of authority and power in the Church, it would seem that they are abandoning their spiritually higher status for a lesser one. We need to remember that the higher status of a servant's heart is an eternal position!

These are mysteries which should no longer be hidden. Christian women have been given the greater spiritual opportunity by God. They are foolish, however, if they try to be like men. And Christian men would be wise to serve, even in leadership, without all of the vainglory, prestigious pomp, and special privileges which have been egotistically amassed by clergy in most of the Christian denominations. Some study regarding the phenomena of narcissism would be appropriate for most of us who seek to lead. https://virtueonline.org/narcissism-christian-psychologists-perspective

In conclusion, I remind readers of what Jesus said repeatedly through John the Revelator, "Those with [spiritual] ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17 and 3:6, 11, 22)

Bruce Atkinson earned a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He also received an MS in research psychology from Illinois State University and a BA from Beloit College. He is a USAF Veteran who served a term in Vietnam as a medic. He is also a member of the Anglican Church in North America and is Moderator and frequent contributor for VirtueOnline.org. He continues to practice clinical psychology and Christian counseling in the Atlanta area

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