Muhammad Ali may well have been the most famous boxer of all time. Through his boxing career he won 56 of his 61 fights, 37 of them by knockouts. Yet the dimensions of his fame relate much more to what he said than to what he did in boxing rings. His oft-repeated declaration, “I am the greatest,” may be his most memorable proclamation. Much of it was clearly tongue-in-cheek: “If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.”
Ali may also be the biggest braggart of all, though he would say, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” His bragging may also have served for more than tongue-in-cheek, attention-getting, or intimidating opponents. Maybe he was also psyching himself: “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.” And again: “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” And here is another of his quotations about convincing the world that apply very well to convincing oneself: “I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
Ali’s bold claim, “I am the greatest,” sets him apart from those of us who tend to speak more softly. The difference in volume may well be more a function of our inferior giftedness, hubris, or lung capacity, than abhorrence of Mr. Ali’s riveting capers. More than a few venerate rather than abhor Ali for his ability to make outrageous predictions that he then fulfilled at least a half dozen times. Not his ruckus, perhaps, but maybe we could find his grand self-centeredness uncomfortably close to the calculations that settle our choice of career, circle of friends, or life companion; or the data that define our decisions on saving and owning instead of donating and sacrificing.
The disciples of Jesus were not immune to this way of thinking, as the Gospels show them, on more than one occasion, bickering over who was the greatest. In Matthew 18 they come around to asking Jesus to settle the argument: naive perhaps, but proof that they were serious about it.
Jesus gives them an answer that sets the standard for them and for all time. Combining all that the Gospels record on this question, I find three ways in which Jesus would have us practice greatness.
The crucifixion Paul shared with Christ we also share: it is the daily opportunity to make a choice based upon love and duty instead of inclination and self.
The first of these illustrates the unity of simplicity and profundity that characterize God’s requirement for heaven: “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).1 But what does that mean? Aren’t these grown disciples already acting like little children as they bicker among themselves? Yet this is clearly not what Jesus means, since He insists that to achieve that state they need to be converted.
The English word “converted” bears a Latin root, vert, that means “turn.” And physical import of the Greek word Matthew uses for “converted” requires the same action—turning away or turning around, as when Mary, on Resurrection morning, is stooping to peer into Jesus’ tomb. Two angels in there engage her in conversation, and Jesus is standing behind her, but she cannot see Him until something makes her turn around (John 20:14).
Spiritually speaking, the more grown-up we become, we and the disciples of Matthew 18, the less prepared we are to enter God’s kingdom and the more we need something to make us turn around. The more responsible we are, the less we need to depend on anyone else to take care of us. Jesus knows, because He knows everything. He knows, because He shared and observed Nazarene and Galilean growing up, that the processes of our acculturation make people less and less ready to enter God’s kingdom. So that we cannot be ready for heaven except something makes us turn around, except we are changed, converted, and remade as little children.
And Jesus is ready to help. According to Ellen White: “When, in the place of leaning upon human understanding or conforming to worldly maxims, we sit at the feet of Jesus, eagerly drinking in His words, learning of Him, and saying, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ our natural independence, our self-confidence, our strong self-will, will be exchanged for a childlike, submissive, teachable spirit.”2
Second, Jesus’ prescriptive answer also involves the combined questions of respect and the value of a soul: children in their meek unpretentiousness deserve equal respect, and as high an evaluation as He. Greatness in His kingdom is childlike humility (Matt. 18:4).
“And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me” (verse 5). Whereas in your world greatness is lordship and authority exercised over others, in Mine, greatness is service: “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matt. 20:27). Horrifying and offensive it may be to the unconverted world, but in the kingdom of Jesus the post of servitude is the highest, noblest choice. Ministry to others, a life surrendered for the sake of others, is the incomparably noble option.
The third and best application of Jesus’ prescriptions is His own person and life: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (verse 28). Even “while His disciples were contending as to who should be greatest in the promised kingdom, He girded Himself as a servant and washed the feet of those who called Him Lord and Master.”3 They would never forget the lesson of that act of humility on the part of the one whose powerfully efficacious sacrifice liberated them from sin’s slavery.
Paul did not always follow the Jesus model. But considering the faces and manner of those he persecuted, seeing Stephen die, and, finally, meeting Jesus on the Damascus road, taught him the difference that self-abnegation makes. After that encounter Paul could no longer find anything in his heritage or accomplishments to extol. Being like Jesus became his goal and his message (Phil. 2:5-11). “I have been crucified with Christ,” he says (Gal. 2:20). Which may cause someone to wonder: What does he mean? Crucifixion was nothing to brag about: the cross stood as a symbol of ultimate cruelty. As a means of eliminating criminals it stood as a testimony of shame. But one weekend would change everything.
It was the weekend that Rome’s procurator, Pilate, authorized the killing of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s perfect Innocent (1 Peter 1:18, 19), as Judea’s ultimate criminal, impaled between two guilty scoundrels (John 19:19; Matt. 27:38). Followers of the Nazarene witnessed His abuse and murder; observed and assisted in His burial; and retreated to places of concealment in case the murderous authorities were planning to come after them too.
But before the weekend was out, those same followers who saw Him die were walking and talking and feasting with Him; embracing His feet and exclaiming upon His deity (Luke 24:13-49; John 20:19, 28). Everything changed for follower and nonfollower, for believer and unbeliever. Devotees and skeptics all now possessed evidence never before available: God the Father had declared Jesus of Nazareth to be “the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).
Being like Jesus mattered: the humility of His incarnation and the humiliation of His execution, as He sacrificed Himself to save the sinners who murdered Him, had brought Him the highest exaltation. Now He possessed a name above every name, the name at which earth and heaven shall bow, and before which all would confess His Lordship (see Phil. 2:5-11).
The crucifixion Paul shared with Christ we also share: it is the daily opportunity to make a choice based upon love and duty instead of human inclination and self. Ellen White observed, “The mind must be trained through daily tests to habits of fidelity, to a sense of the claims of right and duty above inclination and pleasure.”4 Those daily tests, successfully negotiated, prepare us for the kingdom of God, where no position is gained through favoritism. “The crown and the throne are the tokens of a condition attained; they are the tokens of self-conquest through our Lord Jesus Christ.”5
Unrelenting fighting that brings you out on top in the corporate world may define greatness for some. Awkward contention within the church for some post or other, deemed significant, may define greatness for others. “You win some, you lose some,” we say. Ali’s greatness is of that sort: winning some, and also losing some.
But Jesus has never lost either a skirmish or a round or a battle. In fact, He has already won the war of all the ages by His triumphant emergence from Joseph’s tomb. In His life on earth He faced every temptation of the flesh and never yielded. Unlike Ali, His winning streak against Satan and sin goes on to infinity. He is the great one who has shown us, and who can teach us how to attain our own victories through every round against sin (Heb. 4:14-16). Through Him and through His love we can be “more than conquerors” through every day and every challenge of our lives (Rom. 8:37).
Bryan Choi, a pastor in the Michigan Conference, lives with his wife, Miae, and children, Chloe and Josiah, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.