Imagine telling a group of people that you had a month to live. Instead of comforting you, some of them ask for your most valuable possessions, angering the others because they didn’t ask first. Or, imagine that after your death, everyone started looking for your wallet or figuring out who would take your television. As a police chaplain, I’ve seen some interesting responses to the news of someone’s death.
Jesus experienced something like this once upon a time. For a third time in Matthew, he plainly told his disciples that he would be murdered and raised from the dead (Matt 20:17–19; cf. 16:21; 17:22–23). In response, James and John asked through their mother for special places in his kingdom, and Jesus promised them suffering instead (Matt 20:20–24). The ten were angry with the two brothers, prompting Jesus to teach them all that greatness to God is achieved through humble service, prizing the needs of others over self (Matt 20:25–27). The superlative example of such humility is the Son of Man. He gave his life as a ransom for many and now sits exalted with the Father on high (Matt 20:28; Phil 2:9).
In this story, the disciples show us how deeply sinful ambition roots itself in our souls. Jesus had recently taught the disciples to humble themselves like children (Matt 18:3–4) and to turn no one away from himself (Matt 19:13–14). Twice, Jesus taught that many who are first would be last and the last first when he sits on his throne (Matt 19:30; 20:16). He even promised the twelve prominent places in his kingdom (Matt 19:28). Yet still, James and John excluded the ten to ask for the first place next to Jesus on his throne.
Lest we proudly look at the disciples and say, “Ah, but that’s not me,” one author reminds us, “One of the problems with pride is that we can see it in others but not in ourselves” (e.g., Luke 18:9–14).1Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins (Carol Stream, IL: NavPress, 2010), 105. We can repeatedly hear God’s words on pride and still fail to see our sin. Instead of asking God for his kingdom to come, we ask in advance for nice seats when it does (cf. Matt 6:10). Maybe we even want his kingdom to wait so we can build our own little kingdom right now. And, like James and John, maybe we even ask God to help us along the way. How desperately wicked our hearts can be (cf. Jer 17:9–10).
Remember this—God hates pride and opposes the proud (Prov 8:13; Jer 50:31; Jas 4:6). He prizes humility and rewards it in time to come (cf. Jas 4:10). Jesus said as much to James and John.
So how can we be humble?2All of the thoughts to follow are spurred from “Chapter 6: Humility,” in Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs, CO. NavPress, 2008), 67–80.
First, live for God’s will and not your own. His will for us is to know Christ and his salvation and to continue a life of obedience to him (Col 1:9–10). Not only do we humble ourselves in repentance when we initially come to Christ, but we continue to put on humility as we walk in him (Col 3:12; cf. 2 Kgs 22:19).
Second, prize God’s glory and not your own. When we see ourselves for who we really are and God for who he is, we are undone by our sin and the glorious holiness of our God (e.g., Isa 6:5; Ezek 1:28; Rev 1:17).
Third, even in what you have and do, boast in the Lord and not yourself. Acknowledge his mercy in salvation and thank him for every good gift (1 Tim 1:15; James 1:17). Your circumstances, skills, and salvation—all things are from him, through him, and to him, so to Him be the glory, not you (Rom 11:36; cf. Deut 8:17–18; Isa 26:12; 1 Cor 3:7; 4:7; 15:10).
Fourth, serve others and not yourself. We saw this in the words and example of Jesus, and the letters remind us to honor others more than ourselves (Rom 12:10; Phil 2:3). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:14–15) and died for us all on the cross (Matt 20:28). He serves as our High Priest (Heb 8:1) and will serve us in time to come (Luke 12:37). What an example we have in him.
Humbles yourselves before God, and he will exalt you in time. Think on these things over and over and let them have their way. As we saw with the disciples, we can hear from God repeatedly on this matter, only to sin again. We must come to Christ and clothe ourselves with him, humility and all. As we do, may he put our sinful ambition to death and help us to humbly serve like him.
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