This article is linked to the TLW Bible study post for September 19 and draws together a teaching found in these Bible passages:
Proverbs 31:10-31 — Greatness comes through character, diligence and wisdom like this picture of compassionate and spiritual wife
Mark 9:30-37 — An argument about status leads to the profound teaching, that greatness is about being willing to submit
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a — True greatness comes from humility, not pride, when we put godly dependence above selfish ambition
THE PATH to greatness might be to play as a world-class footballer and goal-scorer. The earnings can be eye-watering, but it’s a short career of just a few years at that level. True greatness is a more enduring quality that we generally acclaim in those who demonstrate wisdom in challenging circumstances — ruling or governing well, or simply living lives of balance, selflessness and unwavering good judgment and direction.
What God has in mind attracts that more humble kind of glory, and builds up over a lifetime. And that’s only a preparation for the greatness of being in God’s family and enjoying that for eternity.
Let’s look at God’s kind of greatness and compare how this lesson came to people of Solomon’s time, then to followers of Jesus who were learning to do what He did, and lastly to those in the Early Church. These converts, originally from Judaism but increasingly from Gentile idolatry, had taken an unpopular and risky step of faith by asking Jesus into their hearts as Lord, and were learning to live as new, spiritually re-created people guided and enabled by the Holy Spirit. Their first-century experience has parallels with the unbelieving 21st century and speaks clearly to our situation.
People in every age have experienced God, heard God speak to them, and been moved by the wisdom of God; but there are differences in how they experience it. In the OT reading from Proverbs 31:10-31, wisdom is personified as a “wife of noble character” and extraordinary capability.
She knows how to spin wool and make linen from flax, make clothes and furnishings, provide food for her family, make investments, plan and plant a vineyard and turn a profit in business. She also knows how to relate with compassion to those who are poor and needy, while behaving with dignity and enhancing her husband’s reputation.
This tells us that if knowledge is about knowing things, wisdom is about knowing how to deploy that knowledge. So at this point in salvation history, God revealed Himself by showing His will and purpose through the law, the prophets and the wisdom writings — like the book of Proverbs where the OT reading this week is found.
Later, as we know, God revealed Himself in a much close and more personal way through His Son, Jesus, who took on humanity. This is all set out clearly in the first 18 verses of John’s gospel which begins:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.John 1:1 NIV
John then explains this statement, with reference to the announcement of Jesus by John the Baptist, and v. 14 continues:
The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:14 NIV
So now God reveals Himself in flesh and blood and, literally, camping out with the rest of us — as the saying goes, “up close and personal”.
Receiving Jesus as Lord in our hearts is how we come into the spiritual rebirth experience of new life, with its peace and joy and assurance of salvation. But there remains the “how to” wisdom of how to live this new life God’s way. Jesus gives us this wisdom by His demonstration of being God and at the same time being the Servant who is courageously willing to submit and suffer at the hands of wicked men.
He was teaching His disciples… “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after three days He will rise.” But they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it. ”Mark 9:31-32
While they were travelling along he road, an argument had broken out among some of the disciples. Jews were very engaged with issues of social order and relative righteousness — and a false sense of entitlement. It’s a warning for us when we veer off into having titles and positions and keeping a hierarchy in the church, especially because of what Jesus said next:
What were you arguing about on the road?”…Mark 9: 33, 35
… Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
And picking up a small child, Jesus taught them that being great was being able to warmly welcome and give preference to, a small child. A small child? In Jewish society there was none of our sentimental attachment to children, who for them had no status to acknowledge, let alone respect.
What Jesus is showing them is a radical confrontation of all human pride and entitlement. The people who matter most, are the last, the least and the lost. It shakes and upends our cherished values of status and earned privilege.
God’s wisdom is revealed in Jesus and how He was — how He lived His life. And the first Christians has to get this, but not now from watching the Lord’s example (although the stories of His life and death were beginning to circulate not long after the Resurrection). They came into the experience of the Lord through spiritual rebirth as part of a conscious decision which embraced the empowered life of the Holy Spirit.
The empowered life was essential in a world which mixed the judgment and and persecution of narrow-minded religiosity, on the one hand, and idolatrous false beliefs, on the other. In our liberal and inclusive contemporary culture, judgment is often handed out to those who are confident in a clear faith in Jesus and His word. Peter’s declaration that “there is no other Name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” is seen as dogmatic and exclusive — and there is a cynical unbelief bound up in distrust of church as an institution, in the post-Christian First World.
New life in Jesus with the empowering of the Holy Spirit brings a much-needed confidence in the good news of the Lord and His kingdom. But like all such traits which keep the witness bright, where the enemy is not able to cancel the initiative, a less evident, deceptive tactic is to cause it to grow misshapen into something selfish — and divisive.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.James 3:13-16
But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
Godly wisdom goes hand in hand with true greatness in having a humility about it that gives glory to Him, and for that reason is not liable to grow ugly as selfish ambition, or a competitive jealousy, that results in quarrels. The measure of a good prayer request is whether it asks God for what He wants to do, rather than asking for what I want it to be seen that God has done.
…The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.James 3:17
The wisdom that we saw in Proverbs being submitted, gracious and generous-spirited, is the wisdom that Jesus supremely demonstrated in all His ministry, doing only what he prayerfully sawe the Father doing. And the good news is, by receiving Jesus as Saviour and as ord, we receive a measure of this same heavenly wisdom. And as we invite His Holy Spirit to have space in our lives, our activities and our church worship gatherings, so we are in effect submitting to God, resisting the devil, and being filled with His pure, peace-loving mercy with the promise of the good fruit and good works He will bring through us.