The Mark of Humility

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:20-23)

“For as long as a man is not emptied of himself and of his own righteousness and goodness, he will have a legal spirit. A spirit of pride in one’s own righteousness, morality, holiness, affection, experience, faith, humiliation or any other goodness, is a legal spirit … It is even possible to have a self-righteous spirit about one’s own humility and to be self-confident about one’s own abasement … But he whose heart is subject to Christian humility has a very different attitude … Christians who are real saints and the greatest in the Kingdom … humble themselves as a little child … They look upon themselves as children in grace.”
-Jonathan Edwards
Ignorance fueled by presumptuous selfish ambition caused John and James to have their mother approach the Master with a request for their honor. Granted, these two were part of our Lord’s inner circle and–along with Peter–were His favorites, yet they were continually missing the mark. In our verses for today, it was the mark of humility.

Jesus had recently spoken to them about this very subject when His disciples were found arguing over whom would be the greatest in the coming kingdom.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4 )

Jesus was trying to instill in his followers the understanding that humility before God and man is a virtue every child of God needs to embrace at their very core. It is an essential attitude of our hearts. Humility is a correct estimation of self. To be overly preoccupied with self will eventually cause our downfall.

Paul’s exhortation to us in Philippians comes to mind:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

Without question, “selfish ambition” is not of the Spirit. “Vain conceit” is often its root cause. Paul gives us a list of some of the obvious acts of the sinful nature in Galatians of which selfish ambition is included:

“Humility is nothing else but a true knowledge and awareness of oneself as one really is.”
-The Cloud of Unknowing

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

John and James desired to be men of rank in Jesus’ coming kingdom–those possessing pomp and power. Simply put, they were seeking honor. They had no idea what they were asking. They spoke of the kingdom as blind men who speak of vibrant colors: ignorant to reality. They imagined their worldly warfare was ending rather than scarcely beginning. Perhaps they assumed if they had their mother approach Jesus He would acquiesce to their wishes; she becoming the tool of their ambition.

We do not know what we are asking for when we seek the glory of the crown. That kind of glory always requires the pain of the cross. Jesus patiently reminds James and John of the cup of suffering He is to drink from and graciously asks them if they are willing to drink from this cup as well. Jesus came as the Suffering Servant because of us, because our need. In all four Gospels we are given the same message of a servant’s heart:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
(1 Peter 5:6-7)

Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
(Luke 9:23-24)

Take It to Heart

“The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time.” (Tim Keller)

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