Jesus teaches us to be radically humble. If we follow his example, we will be unconcerned with our own honor.
Mat 20:25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.
Mat 20:26It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
Mat 20:27and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,
Mat 20:28even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Chapter 20 of Matthew records that two of the twelve apostles, led by their mother, came to Jesus requesting to be given the highest positions of privilege and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. This audacious request for honor leads to some fascinating comments from Jesus.
Mat 20:21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
Mat 20:22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”
Mat 20:23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
First, let’s be clear on what the Zebedee family was seeking. There were asking for the two highest positions after Jesus himself. They want to be put in authority over the other apostles. They want to be given privilege and honor above that of that of every other follower of Christ, and every Old Testament saint. Apparently they figure that Moses and Elijah can be #3, and #4. Apparently Abraham and David should be happy as #5 and #6. The boldness is staggering!
Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the brothers that everyone will be equals in the kingdom. He never says that. In fact, his response implies that everyone will not be equal in eternity. Which makes sense, given the beauty of rightly ordered inequality. Jesus reveals that God’s plan has already assigned the highest positions of honor and authority in the coming kingdom. He doesn’t tell us who will occupy those positions. But those positions exist, and in a sense are already filled.
This bold request provokes indignation in the other apostles. That’s understandable. Obviously, James and John think they are better than the rest of the twelve. Do you know how the others must have felt? “Who do they think they are anyway?” It provokes your pride when someone you consider an equal sees themselves as your superior in some way. We tend to be very jealous for the respect we feel we are due. We’re not willing to let any of the respect we deserve get away from us. Why not?
Jesus was never motivated by the respect he deserved. For example of how little he cared, see the Samaritan’s who wouldn’t even give him a room for the night. (Lk 9:51ff) See how he passed over his host’s disrespect with silence in Luke 7. See how he responded to those who accused him of working for the devil in Mt 12:32. He said, in effect, “say whatever you want about me.” Jesus was not concerned for his own honor.
Jesus’ teaching and example shows us that we should not be motivated by concern for ourselves. Instead we should be motivated by our devotion to God and love for those around us. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of honor. Trying to honor yourself is like trying to pick yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. Self-honor is shame. To jealously guard one’s own honor is to embarrass one’s self.
Joh 8:54 Jesus answered, If I honour myself, my honour is nothing…
When the sons of Zebedee came seeking positions of honor, this provoked jealousy in the other apostles. Jesus addressed the issues of seeking one’s own honor by commanding them all to seek the honor of others.
“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.”
Slave. A slave! The lowest of the low. Nothing. Zero. A nobody.
The appropriate amount of self-honor is 0.00% Only that attitude is Jesus-like. Only zero regard for one’s own honor is worthy of a follower of Christ. By this teaching Jesus subverts the desire for honor turning it into radical devotion to God and concern for others. He explicitly tells us that the person who desires greatness, honor, respect, privilege, power, must show zero concern for receiving any of it.
This isn’t just Jesus saying “don’t do that.” Sure, he is saying “don’t honor yourself.” But he’s teaching us the way life really works. He is teaching us how to receive true honor. Jesus himself received honor because of his willingness to assume the lowest possible position. (Phi 2:8-9)
In the corrupt systems of the world, where there is no knowledge of God and everything is ordered by the power of Satan, people who honor themselves are held in high esteem. But wherever there remains yet a little knowledge of truth, a little willingness to be humble before God, self-honor is known to be shameful.
You will note that this corrective teaching is not only a reproof to James and John, but to the other apostles also. Someone will sit on the right hand and the left. If you are jealous for your own honor, it won’t be you. If you are indignant at someone else being exalted, if you get upset at being disrespected, then you are motivated by self-regard. Self-regard leads only to humiliation.
Rather, we should spend our efforts glorifying God and serving one another. The one who excels most in that will be the greatest in the kingdom of God.