Summary: This article was written and published June ’17. The Christian disciple does not promote himself, nor look for status or promotion. If we truly follow Christ, we are content to take the last place and the lowest position, becoming a servant of all. Jesus perfectly did this in obedience to God’s will; if we follow Him, we follow His example. Christ’s love in us and humility allow us to be content with the role of a servant in a world which has, in general, completely opposite motives and passions. However, the Christian disciple is not of this world (John 15:17-19).
Luke 9:46-48 (NKJV)
“Then a dispute arose among them as to which of them would be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving their thought of their heart, took a little child and set him by Him, and said to them, “Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great.”
Self-exaltation in this world will lead to humiliation and abasement. We see this at the beginning of man’s history in the example of Adam, the first man. He desired to be like God, and his lust led to his disobedience to the one command given to him by his Creator. The results were catastrophic – sin entered the world (Rom. 5:12), the entire human race was sold under the dominion of sin (Rom. 7:14), and there was immediate judgment of man from God (Gen. 3:16-19). Adam became like God in that he now had the knowledge of good and evil, but unfortunately, this knowledge was under the dominion of his new, fallen, sinful nature (Gen. 3:22). He was driven out of paradise (Gen. 3:24), and in his new-found independence from God, man built a world of misery, suffering, and death. We can definitely say mankind was humbled and brought low by his original desire of self-exaltation.
Of course, Jesus, the second Adam, in so many ways is the perfect example of purposely taking the least place in this world, which eventually leads to exaltation and glory from God. This principle is beautifully outlined in this passage in Philippians (Phil. 2:5-11). In every way it seems, He was the opposite of the first man and his failure. Where Adam desired to become like God, Jesus was and is God already. But to accomplish the will of God concerning the redemption of man, He had to, in perfect obedience to God, take on a change of state and become a man. In theological circles, this is properly known as the humiliation of Christ – it was quite humbling for God to become a man. But we see in the passage His obedience and service to God’s will did not stop at His birth – He makes Himself of no reputation, takes the form of a servant, and humbles Himself in obedience to death on the cross. This was the lowest and least place in this world, especially so for this God-Man. Even though He was perfectly sinless, in obedience to God, He was made to be sin on the cross and submits to death. And further, His obedience was not done in the comfort of a paradise where everything was good, but in a miserable world rife with pain and suffering. (The full comparison of the two Adams, their differing character and circumstances, is discussed in a previous article; here is the link: WHEN GOD BECAME A MAN – THE IMPORTANCE IN THE CHANGE OF STATE )
For the Christian, self-humiliation – taking the lowest place according to what we are “in Christ”, on the one side, and on the other, to act in love as Christ has loved us – leads to exaltation from God who judges morally (Luke 14:11). Christian disciples have set before them responsibility and duty (how they should think and live in a practical manner) which flows out from our position in Christ, given to us by the grace of God. This responsibility entails an extreme commitment and a heavy cost (Luke 14:25-35). In a word, because sin exists in the world and in our flesh (Rom. 7:5, 8, 17, 18), to exalt oneself as a believer is ministering to the flesh; it is selfishness, and we become guilty of the love of the world (I John 2:15-16), the place where the flesh shows itself and seeks its comfort and rest. One sinks morally to a place far from God. But when love truly acts in the believer, he is representing God to the people of this world. Love always takes the lowest and least place. It is at the cost of everything, even our own lives, that we become His disciple.
God wants to bring the Christian close to Himself, and make this world, more and more, a mere passageway for us to Him. He wants this world to be a wilderness that we only have a pilgrimage in. Our place is in our Father’s house, not anywhere in this world. We are not to put down roots on this earth – at one time we did, but now we don’t belong here anymore; our citizenship and real home is in heaven. The affections of our heart belong there; the eye of faith must be looking there, if we are to have a walk pleasing to God (II Cor. 4:17-18, 5:7, Heb. 11:6).
God has sanctified us to Himself (I Cor. 1:2, 6:11, Heb. 2:11, 10:10), and cannot have us rest in a place where He cannot rest (in a sinful world). Our flesh seeks rest in this world – but the Son of Man, our example, had nowhere to rest (Luke 9:58, Matt. 8:20). This must be true as well of the Christian disciple. If we are to follow Him, it is a lifestyle which does not belong to this world and seeks no place to rest here. If we look for comfort and rest in this world, Satan will make sure the Christian finds it. But seeking worldly comfort down here is a great distraction to following Christ and having a walk pleasing to God. The promise has been left to the true believer of entering into His rest (Heb. 4:1- 10); but we need to be weaned from this world. Our hearts must be there, in His rest in glory and heaven, even though physically we are still down here.
The world has its own spirit – its own influence and course of action, its own character which it puts its seal of approval on. Christian discipleship is the opposite of this influence and course. When the world values reputation and status, the disciple’s course of action is to take the lowest and least place – to be the servant of all (Mark 10:35-45, 9:30-35). God’s principle in Christianity is the last will be first – that He will exalt the humble and lowly servant of His in this way (Phil. 2). The cross is on the pathway to glory, and God will exalt the lowly; the last will be first. (see also Matt. 19:16 – 20:16)
Matt. 20:24-28 (NKJV)
And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to be great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
For the most part, Matthew eighteen through twenty is Jesus giving instruction about the true character of the Christian disciple – he cherishes the lowly (Matt. 18:1-14, 19:14); he freely forgives those who have wronged him (Matt. 18:15-35); he doesn’t seek worldly riches for he knows what a hindrance they are to following Christ (Matt. 19:16-24); he willingly takes the last place and the role of servant (Matt. 19:30 – 20:28). This passage above ends the flow of this discipleship teaching in these chapters.
It is important and exciting to see the big general picture of the presentation taking place in these chapters as it relates to the purpose of this gospel. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven” refers to Christendom and the Christian dispensation, and is a phrase unique to Matthew. This phrase is used multiple times in these chapters (Matt. 18:3-4, 23, Matt. 19:12, 14, 23, Matt. 20:1); the divine purpose of the Holy Spirit for Matthew’s gospel is to show the coming dispensational transition – the change from Judaism to Christianity; the change from Israel being the people of God to that of professing Christians; the ending of the Jewish dispensation to the beginning of the Christian one. This transition can easily be seen in the passage at the beginning of chapter nineteen (Matt. 19:1-9) – the teachings and commandments of Moses belong to Judaism, while the commandments and teachings of Jesus belong to Christianity. The Pharisees were the leaders of the old system passing away, while Jesus is the author of the new wine which the old system could not contain or tolerate (Matt. 19:3, 9:16-17, Luke 5:36-39). Judaism could not be the vessel of the sovereign grace the cross of Christ brings in. And further, the sovereign gift of making oneself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven (Christendom) forms no part of Judaism and its dependence on natural descent (Matt. 19:10-12).
But the spirit of the kingdom of heaven is not one of outward power, outward riches, and outward comfort and ease. It isn’t like the ways of the world (Matt. 20:25), nor is it like Judaism (Matt. 19:22, Luke 12:13-21, 14:7-11). The genuine spirit of Christianity is lowliness, and this characteristic brings one in a walk near to God our Father – it then is easier to be meek and humble in this world. One who has tasted the favor of God will not seek greatness on earth; he is equipped with a spirit of grace and resembles God in his ways (Matt. 5:43-48). The lowly spirit alone represents Christ on the earth – “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life…” (also see Phil. 2:5)
Why does Jesus use the example of little children so much? (Matt. 18:2, 19:13-15) Because the world and the Jews generally viewed children as insignificant and unimportant. Children were barely recognized as part of community. They were not given a say, nor listened to. According to the glory of the world, a child did not have much value. Yet Jesus has great affection for them and declares their great value to His Father (Matt. 18:14). The Christian disciple is instructed to become like the little children – lowly and insignificant in this world.
God will reward all who suffer and sacrifice for the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:27-29); whatever was renounced for Jesus’ sake, that disciple will receive a hundredfold and eternal life (in this passage, life is viewed in its final redemptive form – the future glorifying of the body and the believer’s entrance into glory. Therefore, everything here is future, and our faith becomes the substance of such hopes. In this world and during the Christian dispensation, we walk by faith, and this is pleasing to God). However, these things would not be decided as they were in the old Jewish system: not by outward appearance or by the place and reputation men held – some that were first would be last, and the last first (Matt. 19:30). In truth, as for God’s ways in the kingdom of heaven, they would always be the outcomes of His grace and sovereignty (Matt. 20:1-16). As to rewards, the carnal heart of man would not be allowed to personify a mercenary spirit, and seek to make God his debtor (Rom. 11:33-36). Reward is never a debt owed to the disciple by God, but rather an encouraging promise given in the midst of suffering and trial. It is meant to encourage our hearts and strengthen our resolve as we walk by faith in this wilderness. It is not ever meant to be so much pay for so much labor, but rather God’s choice in sovereign grace which always governs His giving to those He calls – this is distinctly shown as a truth in the kingdom of heaven (in Christianity) by this parable. And we should remark that Christ Himself is always to be our motive rather than gain – the disciple leaves all to follow Jesus, and he suffers loss for His name’s sake (Matt. 19:27).
This beautifully transitions into the event which concludes the discipleship teaching in these chapters (Matt. 18, 19, 20) – the mother of James and John comes to ask a favor of Jesus (Matt. 20:20-28). Again, it helps our understanding if we step back and see the big picture – not losing sight of the forest for the trees, so to speak. Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem for the last time. As the true King and Messiah of Israel, He should be received and crowned. But He knows He will be rejected and put to death. On the way, He takes the disciples aside and tells them what to expect and what would actually happen (Matt. 20:17-19). He knows they are excited because they are expecting an entirely different result – they assume His entrance into Jerusalem this time will result in the prophetically-promised Messianic kingdom, and that they will have the chief places of honor and authority in it (please see Matt. 19:28-29, 20:20-21, Luke 19:11, even immediately after His resurrection in Acts 1:6). The mother of Zebedee’s sons is endeavoring to secure a place of honor for her two sons above the other disciples – how awkward and inappropriate this request is, given what is about to take place. Still, even though Jesus is fully cognizant of the Jews rejecting Him and His impending crucifixion, He takes the opportunity to teach His disciples about the humility of discipleship (Matt. 20:24-28).
What is remarkable is to fully comprehend the example He sets for them. He is the rightful King and Messiah of Israel, yet instead, He humbly takes the last place of a servant. Further, His service will not be complete unless He gives His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). The key in all this is His perfect obedience to the will of His Father (John 12:27, Heb. 10:5-10, Matt. 16:20-21, 20:17-19). A servant has no will of his own, but obeys the will of another. In wondrous self-renunciation, Jesus only does the will of His Father. It was God’s will for Him to be the sacrifice for our sins, to redeem us out of the hands of Satan. He willingly does this work in perfect obedience, without a will of His own. His reply to the mother’s request was that it was the Father’s decision, not His (Matt. 20:23). All He had to offer them was to lead them into suffering (Matt. 20:22) – He could bestow a share of His sufferings; everything else was in the Father’s counsels.
But what perfection in Him this shows and real glory for Christ; and what a privilege for us to have this same motive, and to partake in the Lord’s sufferings! And what purification of our carnal hearts is here proposed to us that we, in duty, should only act for a suffering Christ, sharing His cross, and committing ourselves to God for any reward. Jesus always points us to Himself as our example – “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”
Observe the way in which the sons of Zebedee and their mother seek the highest place at the moment when the Lord was preparing, unreservedly, to take the lowest place. How often we see this same thing today. The effect was to bring out, for the reader to see, how absolutely He had stripped Himself of everything. These are the principles of the kingdom of heaven: perfect self-renunciation and to be content in thorough devotedness. This is the fruit of a love which seeks not her own – a yielding that flows from the absence of self-seeking; submission when despised; meekness and lowliness of heart. The spirit of service to others in that which love produces, while at the same time, displaying humility which is satisfied with this place. The Lord Jesus fulfilled this even unto death, giving His life a ransom for many.
Jesus takes this occasion, where His disciples are heading in the wrong direction by arguing about their own self-exaltation, to explain the proper character and sentiments of His followers. It is always based on the perfection they see in Himself. In the world, authority is sought after; but the spirit of the Christian disciple was a spirit of service, leading to choosing the lowest place, and devoting oneself entirely to others (Matt. 20:24-28). Beautiful and perfect principles if we are following Christ. The renunciation of all things so we may depend confidently in the grace of the one we serve. Consequently, we are ready to take the lowest place, and thus to be the servant of all – this should be the spirit and character of those who have part in the kingdom of heaven as now established by our rejected Lord.