But Jesus called them unto him, and said, “Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
It was the same old argument with a new and bold twist.
Jesus’ disciples had been jockeying amongst themselves for a long time for power and prestige. They had argued about it before (Mark 9:34/Luke 9:46) and would argue about it again (Luke 22:24). But none of them had ever been so bold as to actually bring the matter up before Jesus Himself.
Yet this time James and John get Salome their mother to ask Jesus for the left and right hand positions in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 20:20-21, Mark 10:35-37). Jesus wonders whether they would be able to drink His cup of bitterness or to experience His baptism of suffering, and on the basis of their confident faith (in what they likely do not understand), declares that they will do so (Matthew 20:22-23, Mark 10:38-39). Yet, in the end, it is not for Jesus to give; it is for those to whom it has been prepared (Matthew 20:23, Mark 10:40).
The other ten are indignant with James and John (cf. Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41). We should not imagine that their indignation was for spiritual or pious reasons. It perhaps was motivated by envy– they had asked for what they had all wanted, and the others did not have the confidence to do so! Or, perhaps, their indignation was based in feelings of shame– something that had been discussed in “secret” for so long the brothers had now made wide open. Ultimately, however, James and John actually asked for the thing they all really wanted– prominence in the Kingdom.
This is one of those moments where it is evident that the disciples and Jesus have entirely different understandings about the nature of the Kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. Since the matter had clearly come to a head, and was now causing friction among the disciples, Jesus is compelled to address this misunderstanding in some small way.
The disciples seem to be imagining a Kingdom of the Jewish expectation– the Branch of David back on the throne in Jerusalem, triumphantly defeating Israel’s foes. Since the disciples believed in Jesus more steadfastly it was natural to expect that they would have the positions of prominence normally far beyond the reach of Galilean fishermen. Jesus, they imagined, was their ticket to greatness– the opportunity to get on the “ground floor” of the greatest Kingdom the world would ever know. In short, they expected Jesus to use the standard way the world works in order to surpass all who came before Him.
Yet Jesus’ response devastates such a view. Granted, many of the disciples’ expectations will come true, but not through the means they imagined. Jesus did not come to earth to just surpass the world at its own game. He came to earth to overthrow the world and its standards, and this is prominently featured in His response to His disciples (Matthew 20:25-28).
The disciples were all too familiar with Gentile power. They saw how the Roman Empire flexed its might. They saw the system of patronage and client that re-inforced class divisions. It was a system where might was right and humility was worthless. Courage, strength, and the ability to display power were what really mattered. The more masterful of a game player you were, the higher you could advance.
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that such is not the way the Kingdom of God works. Instead, He says, to be great in the Kingdom you must be a servant to others. If you want to be first in the Kingdom, you must be a slave to the rest. And Jesus sets Himself forth as the example: the One who deserved service did not receive it but instead served others (cf. Romans 15:3, Philippians 2:5-11).
It has been almost two thousand years since Jesus uttered these words, but they are no less earth-shaking. The “Gentile world” still operates pretty much like it did in the Roman world. There is a mad dash to power and those who play the game the best win. It is quite tempting for people to do the same thing in Jesus’ Kingdom, but it is good to remember what Jesus says. No matter how much the world values such attributes, they have no place in the Kingdom. Advancement in the Kingdom can only happen through weakness, suffering, humility, and service. Ironically, advancement can only take place when one has renounced such a view of existence– humility can only develop when pride is removed, and where there is no pride, there is no self-seeking, no impulse to self-advancement in a worldly sense. If one sets off on the road to greater humility and service, one can only find the destination through renouncing self and clinging to Jesus (Galatians 2:20).
The day would come when the disciples understood what Jesus meant. They had to go through the trials of experience and suffering. James would lose his life for Jesus’ cause (Acts 12:1-2); John would suffer with the other Apostles at times and would eventually find himself exiled for the Name in Patmos (cf. Acts 5:40-41, Revelation 1:9). Peter and the others would endure similar trials, and they all did so willingly, calling themselves the slaves of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1, etc.). They knew that the Kingdom, while in the world, was not of the world, but of Jesus Christ their Lord (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Thus their place of authority was reserved for them because they went through the trials, experiences, and travails that taught them the way of Jesus: the way of service (cf. Revelation 4:4).
There remains the way of the world and the way of Jesus. We all, at some point in our lives, look at things as the disciples did, and seek out that glory, fame, and power in some form or another. But are we willing to follow the way of Jesus, the way of humility and service, bitterness and suffering, in order to receive the true commendation and exaltation (cf. Philippians 2:5-11)? We cannot imagine that we will receive it through worldly means and by looking at power as the world understands it. Instead, we must develop servant power, and give up everything for Jesus so that He can be manifest in us (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). Let us be humble so that we may be exalted on that great and glorious day!
Ethan R. Longhenry