Abased Exaltation: True Significance in the Church

Recently, I have found myself in a couple different conversations initiated by separate Christian friends that centered on the topic of “significance” in the church.  In the first of these conversations, a ministry leader and I discussed how to approach a couple who were deciding to withdraw from a fellowship of believers because they did not feel that they were “significant” or important.  In some ways that is a legitimate concern.  After all, who wants to feel insignificant or unimportant?  The second conversation was with a new believer.  He was astounded to realize that, even within the church, prideful self-promotion exists and people grasp for a reputation that comes from using the correct jargon, being in the elite circles or dropping the right names.  He was baffled by how Christians could still lust for “significance.”  My friend confessed his desire for just the opposite – insignificance.  Again, there is truth here.  How can we, whose sinfulness before God is only able to be measured by the slaughter of God’s Son, how can we of all people try to exalt ourselves even in the eyes of men?  The irony is that both of these desires are right – if we define and pursue “significance” the way Jesus instructs and models for us.

Defining “Significance”

Significance comes through making oneself insignificant.  Better, as Christ says in his scathing indictment of the Pharisees who enjoyed the reputation of piety, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).  Here we have significance defined, or rather re-defined as exaltation through abasement.  Jesus tells us plainly in the previous verse what the memorable quip means.  “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).  Significance in Christ’s kingdom is predicated upon service.  His is a kingdom where the slave is supreme and the lords are last.  Significance as defined by Christ could not be more contrary to our natural inclination.  “We don’t want a towel for washing feet, we want a scepter for ruling our world.”[1]  Jesus not only defines significance in the kingdom by service, but he also models it.

Modelling “Significance”

Mark 10:35-45 is the quintessential text for demonstrating that the cross of Christ is the model for greatness through service.  Famously, James and John request from Jesus their ivory and gold thrones, “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  They do not yet know what they are requesting.  Jesus has to enlighten them that greatness in the kingdom is not like the world where “rulers/great ones” use their position to impose their will.  Not so among Christ’s people – the one who would be great, must be the servant/slave.  “For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).  Later in Mark’s gospel we see the King of the kingdom on his throne, crucified with two brigands “one on his right and one on his left” (15:27).  Thrones not of ivory and gold, but wood and nails.  This is greatness – serving and giving oneself sacrificially for others.  This is significance.  We often want to be elevated to positions of honor, but Jesus beckons us to a cross-shaped exaltation, even as he himself was “lifted up/exalted”[2] upon his cross-throne as “King of the Jews.”  Jesus is the greatest in the kingdom, precisely because he was the premier servant who endured the humiliation of the cross to ransom sinners (Phil. 2:5-11).  Ruminating on Calvary should encourage humility and motivate service in emulation of our Lord.

Becoming “Significant”

Now obviously, Jesus death is unique in its accomplishment of salvation.  Yet this does not undermine the cross as the paradigmatic exemplar for our service of others.  Our quest for significance must be guided by the map the cross provides.  Being significant is calculated by how many people we serve with gospel motivation – not titles, reputation, wealth, position or even giftedness.  Significance is measured by sacrifice.  So I come back to the two conversations that I began with, highlighting the desire for significance and insignificance.  Perhaps better than saying that significance comes through making oneself insignificant, would be to say positively that significance comes through “counting others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3, where Paul then uses the example of Christ).  The Son of Man came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the vilest of men.  Cross-shaped service can be uncomfortable.  But we should expect no less, for insistence on the way of security/comfort is incompatible with the way of the cross.  What comfort was there when the Eternal Son renounced his privileges to take on human flesh to bear human sin?[3]  May we have the mind of Christ Jesus, humbly counting others more significant than ourselves, looking to the interests of others, and serving the body of Christ in a way that puts to death selfish ambition and elevates our brothers and sisters in Christ.  May we be truly great, truly significant.

[1] Scotty Smith, “A Prayer About Greatness and First-ness,” August 2, 2011

[2] New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ Pg. 282-283.

[3] The Cross of Christ pg. 281.

 

Article by Andrew Ellis

 

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