Waiting for the Grand Finale
If Jesus’ greatness wasn’t revealed in a big way at His birth, surely it would come during His adult life. Yet the friends Jesus made and the people He touched showed no signs of this. Throughout His ministry, He became known as a friend of lowlife Jews who collected taxes for the oppressive Roman government. He spent time with drunks and prostitutes in His effort to call Israel back to holiness. He didn’t wine and dine at fancy Roman parties or get chummy with the priests who controlled the Temple and ran the Jewish law courts. His compatriots were anything but great, and He did more to make the famous and powerful leaders of Roman Palestine angry with Him than He did to win their respect and honor. He certainly didn’t teach us how to be great by working His way up the ancient corporate or religious food chain into a place of authority and prominence.
So if not at His birth and not throughout His life, shouldn’t Jesus have displayed His greatness during His final entrance into Jerusalem? That would’ve been a great time to show us. I imagine a Jewish army of 500,000 soldiers and an angelic army of 1 million, with other followers dressed in fancy robes and carrying banners. All of these could have descended on the city in full battle array with 1,000 chariots and great stallions leading the charge. Now that would have been great!
But no such rise to greatness occurred during the Triumphal Entry. Instead of a parade of chariots, stallions and soldiers proclaiming His kingship, Jesus came waddling down the Mount of Olives on a young donkey. Instead of a band with music echoing through the valley, a crowd of ordinary people came out, shouting His praise and throwing branches and clothes on the ground in front of Him.
Jesus did not show us how to unleash greatness and ascend to status and prestige at just the right time in one’s career. He came to a city where influential people plotted His death.
In our search to find where Jesus teaches us how to become great, we seem to be running out of options. He certainly had a ministry full of great acts, yet He spent most of His time with the poor and rejected elements of the Jewish population instead of working His way up to the top. In fact, it was among those down-and-outers, with only days left until His death, that He gave us the most obvious clue. Do you remember? He broke up a conversation among His disciples about who was the greatest, and He dropped a huge bombshell: The last will be first. The humble person is the greatest.
Jesus had actually been showing us the entire time! From His birth all the way to this point. He had saved a special final lesson for the night before His death—yet for those who had missed it being displayed throughout His life, Jesus would plainly show us how we could also become great.
Getting Down and Dirty
In John 13 we find Jesus around a table with His disciples for the Last Supper. They have all just come in from a day of ministry in the dusty streets of Jerusalem. Their feet are dirty, and there is no servant to wash the filth from them. So Jesus picks up a towel, gets some water and decides to be the humble servant among His disciples.
The men in that room knew how inappropriate it would be for any of them to touch one another’s feet, much less the one who had angels created to praise Him. The job of foot washing was saved for the lowest of the low, the servants of the servants. Only the least important, most underprivileged people—in other words, those who had been born poor, among a bunch of farm animals—got stuck with that duty. In fact, rabbinic documents show that rabbis and Pharisees in the time after Christ would force their disciples to serve them in every way that slaves would serve their masters except for one thing: They were never, ever to touch anyone’s feet. That was simply too demeaning for any “respectable” human being to endure.
The statement Jesus made by washing His disciples’ feet was profound. He had said before that greatness came from humbling oneself (see Matt. 18:4). He had said, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16, NIV)—but now He was showing it. He was getting down and dirty.
While others worked their way up through the political or religious ranks, or schmoozed powerful people into giving large amounts in the offering, or gathered the masses to rise up against the establishment ... all the while Jesus was declaring His greatness as He went out of His way to serve the everyday people around Him.