On his last trip to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples joined the vast crowds of pilgrims slowly making their way to the holy city for Passover. This took them through Perea,* a largely Jewish territory east of the Jordan River. Here the old pilgrim route took them through one Jewish village after another below the steep eastern slopes of the canyon of the Jordan River.
* Also known as "Beyond the Jordan." This is the "East Bank" of the Jordan River, located in the modern-day nation of Jordan.
There was excitement in the air. The festival of Passover breathed the hope of freedom and deliverance from enemies. Many had already become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the ruler that would bring deliverance from Rome. Some had tried to crown him king in Galilee (John 6:15). Now, in Perea, others joined them in that belief ("Many believed in him there", John 10:42). Every time Jesus stopped to speak, so many tens of thousands crowded around to hear that Luke says they were trampling on one another (Luke 12:1). They were hoping to see a mighty act of God that would restore their independence from Rome, and set a Messianic king on the throne in Jerusalem ("They supposed the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately"; Luke 19:11).
It was in this atmosphere of excitement and expectation that the mother of James and John came to Jesus with her sons (Matt. 20:20). The original Greek says she prostrated herself (proskeneutha) on the ground before him, the traditional Middle Eastern gesture of submission, as if Jesus were already on the throne. Her request was straightforward: that her sons would sit at his right and his left (Matt. 20:21). This was not just a request for good seats at state functions. Those sitting at the ruler's right and left had the highest positions of authority in the kingdom.
Jesus' reply exposed the vast gap between their hopes and his destiny. "You don't know what you're asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" (Matt. 20:22). They probably thought he was talking about an impending battle against the Romans. So they replied with confidence, "We are able" (Matt. 20:22). But Jesus was in fact speaking of the suffering he would experience on the cross.
When the other disciples heard about their request for favor, they were upset (20:24). They, too, were hoping for positions of honor. One of their favorite topics of conversation was debating which of them was the greatest, as they did in Galilee (Mark 9:34, Luke 9:46), on the road to Jerusalem (Mark 10:35-41), and even at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24).
This topic was a common one among the disciples of the rabbis at the time. Jonathan ben Uzziel was considered to be the greatest disciple of the famous Rabbi Hillel. Johanan ben Zakkai was considered the least.* Years later, when Johanan ben Zakkai became a rabbi in his own right, his son was healed by Hanina, one of his own disciples. This led the rabbi's wife to ask him, "Is then Hanina greater than you?" With undimmed pride the rabbi answered: "No, but in the presence of God he is like a servant before the king, while I am like a prince before the king."**
* Sukkah 28a; Judah Nadich, The Legends of the Rabbis, vol. 1, Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1994, p. 209. Rabbi Hillel was the most famous rabbi of the generation before Jesus.
** Genesis Rabbah 34; Nadich, p. 258.
The desire to attribute greatness to the disciples of the famous Rabbi Hillel was sometimes taken to wild extremes: "Thirty were worthy enough that the Divine Presence should rest upon them as it did upon Moses; thirty were worthy enough that the sun should stand still for their sake as it did for Joshua ben Nun."* This is the same spirit of religious pride that Jesus criticized when he said of the Pharisees, "They do all their deeds to be noticed by men...and they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places" (Matt. 23:5-7).
* Sukkah 28a; Nadich, p. 209.
With such dramatic expectations of glory, it's no wonder that when Jesus prophesied about his coming crucifixion, it fell on deaf ears: "They didn't understand this saying...and they were afraid to ask him about this saying" (Luke 9:45). One of these prophecies had been given just before the mother of James and John made her request for favor (Matt. 20:17-19). But they had all missed the point. Their minds were set on glory and power.
The same is true today. Most want to make a name for themselves in the ministry. They want to be rich and famous. Pastors evaluate one another by the size of their congregations and their level of income. "Serious" ministries are those with big budgets and television exposure. Others argue about who is an evangelist and who is an apostle. We're supposed to be impressed when we hear grandiose titles like "Apostle to Asia" or "Apostle to the Nations." The traditional churches play the same game. The pope has long called himself "his apostolic holiness." Even the secular media debates which pope was the greatest pope of the century.
So Jesus took them aside to explain that God has a different plan for leadership in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 20:25-27). First, he identified the usual politics of power: that rulers "lord it" over their subjects, and great men "tyrannize" those around them (20:25). But in God's kingdom, he said, "whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave" (20:26,27). The system of government in the kingdom of Messiah is to be the reverse of the way of the world. Those who are great in the kingdom of God are not those who amass the most power or are the most puffed up with pride. True greatness is found in the most humble, who lay aside their own interests to actually serve those around them.
This is exactly the opposite of the world's way of doing things. Those who serve and care for others are looked at as fools by the world, to be taken advantage of and despised. Even in the Christian community, people are always running after ministries that are abusive and worldly, boasting of riches and power. But instead, Jesus says, we should look for leaders that have a servant's heart: humble ministers of the gospel that are looking for no earthly reward.
When Messiah returns, many of those who seem great now will be forgotten, and many who seem unimportant will be shown to be great. As Jesus put it, "Many of the first will be last; and the last first" (Matt. 19:30). Jesus didn't just ask us to call ourselves servants, but to actually be servants, to put our lives on the line, as he did, for the sake of others (Matt. 20:28).
Earlier, in Galilee, when the disciples asked, "Who then is greater in the kingdom of the heavens?" (Matt. 18:1), Jesus placed an infant (paidion) before them and said, "Unless you are changed and become like infants, you will certainly not enter into the kingdom of the heavens" (Matt. 18:3). What is there about babies that is so important for us to imitate? "Whoever humbles himself like this infant, this one is greater in the kingdom of the heavens" (18:4). True greatness in God's sight comes from humility. And when we receive a humble believer, we receive the presence of Jesus himself. "And whoever receives one such infant in my name receives me" (Matt. 18:5).
This is also the context of Jesus' love commandment, which he addresses to his "little children" (teknia, John 13:33). We are to "love one another just as I have loved you" (John 13:34). We are to love freely, the way children love. We are even to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44)! How is that possible? Only if we humble ourselves. We must give up our fleshly pursuit of greatness, and instead rely on the love of God to accomplish God's purpose in the world.
Jesus warns us not to share the world's disdain for his humble servants: "See that you don't despise [disregard, or slight] one of these little ones..." (Matt. 18:10a). And why not? "For I say to you that their angelic messengers in the heavens always see the face of my Father in the heavens" (18:10b; to "see the face" means they are received with favor).* Even the least of God's children has a representative that is welcome before the Father. Would you like God to receive your prayers with favor? Then we must change and become like infants.
* As in Gen. 33:10: "I see your face as one sees the face of God, and you have received me favorably." By contrast, when God hides his face, it means that he does not receive a request ("Do not hide your face from me...do not abandon me or forsake me"; Psa. 27:9).
Do you have this kind of childlike trust in your life? Or has it been tarnished over the years? Sometimes we're hurt by someone in the body of Messiah and it becomes harder to trust. Sometimes we become weary in serving God, or are disappointed by events in life. Perhaps God didn't answer a prayer the way we thought he should have. But Jesus says that a childlike trust and openness is necessary to enter into eternal life (Matt. 18:3).
How do we get that childlike humility back again? First we need to want it. Then we can ask God to show us what we've allowed into our lives to steal it away. Then we must release those hurts or worries and concerns. We must ask Jesus to heal us, to restore the childlike wonder to our lives. If we do, it's a request we can be sure he will receive with favor.
For the disciples, all their vain hopes of glory came crashing down at the cross. In that moment of crushing humility, they found the true meaning and purpose of life. And as they continued to live in that humility, they experienced heights of glory they could never have achieved through any earthly power.