Something or someone that is larger in size, quality, or quantity may be called "great." It is a term used for something beyond the ordinary. In the Bible, God, humans, and Christ receive this designation with theological significance.
God. The Bible describes God as the greatest of gods ( Deut 10:17 ); his greatness is unsearchable ( Psalm 145:3 ). In discussing this theological characteristic of God, how do we understand an attribute that is not understandable? Its very abundance makes our task difficult ( Psalm 150:2 ).
God by nature is great. The Bible affirms the greatness of his power ( Job 23:6 ; Psalm 66:3 ; Eph 1:19 ). Strength and might describe him ( Isa 40:26 ; 63:1 ). The "greatness of majesty" becomes the worshiper's cry for who God is ( Exod 15:7 ; Deut 5:24 ).
Of course, the clearest view of God's greatness comes from his actions toward creation, especially toward his people. Creation records his greatness and leads to our praise ( Psalm 145:6 ). God's care of the children of Israel in the wilderness demonstrated his greatness ( Deut 3:24 ; 11:2 ). When Jesus healed a boy suffering from demon possession, the people affirmed the greatness of God in the act ( Luke 9:43 ).
God also exhibits greatness in love toward humanity by forgiving ( Num 14:19 ) and by redeeming ( Deut 9:26 ). Nehemiah asks God to remember him for his attempt to preserve the holiness of Israel. The basis for his request revolves around the greatness of God's lovingkindness ( Neh 13:22 ).
As an attribute, the greatness of God describes the extent and magnitude of his qualities.
Humans. Humans also may be considered "great." After the plagues of Egypt, Moses was "great" in importance both in Egypt and among the people of Israel. The queen of Sheba attested to the great wisdom of Solomon ( 2 Chron 9:6 ). Nebuchadnezzar's greatness returned to him after he humbled himself before the Lord ( Dan 4:36 ). Mordecai achieved greatness in his position in the Persian government ( Esther 10:2 ).
Human greatness depends on the quality of a person's life. It is something that may be taken away, as in the case of Nebuchadnezzar, or may be lost, as in the case of the greatness of the nation of Egypt ( Eze 31 ). "Great folly" takes away any semblance of greatness ( Prov 5:23 ).
Psalm 71 explains that the actions of some enemies, perhaps due to old age, may lead to lost prestige. The psalmist's prayer attests to a trust in God to restore the former "greatness" (v. 21). Right standing in the community will be restored in the same way that God worked before the difficulties that took them away.
Christ. Christ turned the definition of human greatness in a profound direction. Jesus modeled greatness by humbling himself in coming to earth and dying on the cross ( Php 2:5-11 ). Jesus made this perspective clear in his teachings. When the disciples asked who is the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus answered by bringing a child into their midst and declaring that even admission into the kingdom depended on a similar attitude of humility ( Matt 18:1-4 ).
The mother of James and John asked if her boys could sit on the right and left hands of Jesus in the kingdom. The other disciples became upset with the brothers. Jesus used the occasion to say that the one who wanted to be great among them had to be their servant ( Matt 20:26 ; 23:11 ). Jesus noted that his life would exemplify this attitude by his service, including the gift of his life ( Matt 20:28 ).
The greatness of a person is measured by service to others. Christ set the example.
G. Michael Hagan
See also God
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Greatness'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".