Spiritual Ambition (Matthew 20:20-28)
There is a real possibility of misunderstanding our Master at the point of spiritual greatness. In the context of our passage, Jesus had just predicted His own crucifixion for the third time (Matt. 20:17-19). James, John, and the twelve misunderstood Jesus and His intention. While He was predicting His passion, they were plotting their position. Jesus took this occasion to explain true spiritual greatness. Greatness in Christ's kingdom depends on sharing His suffering and His servanthood.
Jesus Does Not Reject Spiritual Ambition
We may approach Christ with our spiritual ambition. Nowhere in this passage does He reject the idea of spiritual ambition. James and John came on the wrong grounds of ambition. They had been among the first four to follow Jesus. They had been on the mountain of transfiguration. Their mother, Salome, was probably a sister to Mary, the mother of Jesus. They advanced these grounds for greatness.
We may misunderstand spiritual ambition. James and John did not grasp the nature of greatness or the norm for greatness in Christ's kingdom. They did not understand the nature of greatness. They envisioned an earthly kingdom in an elaborate throne room, with prime ministers seated around Christ. Actually, He would come into His kingdom on a cross, surrounded by two thieves. They did not understand the norm for greatness. Christ does not give greatness in His kingdom as an arbitrary favor, as if He were an Eastern king making sovereign decisions. Greatness in Christ's kingdom is not donated, but earned by suffering and service.
Jesus, however, does not reject this request. He does redirect their spiritual ambition.
Jesus Does Correct Spiritual Ambition
Jesus corrects spiritual ambition with gentleness. This is the kind of mistake that comes only from those who believe. James and John did believe that Jesus was the Christ, and that He would have a worldwide kingdom. Because of that, He treated their misunderstanding with gentleness.
Jesus corrects spiritual ambition with thoroughness. He gives a thorough definition, prediction, and clarification to the disciples. To be great in His kingdom is to share His "cup." The word "cup" refers to His ordeal or His destiny in suffering servanthood.
Jesus makes a prediction about greatness in His kingdom. James and John would drink His "cup." James was martyred in A.D. 44, by Herod Agrippa, the first to drink Jesus' "cup."
John would outlive all of the original apostles and be the last to drink the cup of suffering on Patmos.
Jesus gives a thorough clarification of greatness. Greatness in His kingdom is not based on favoritism, but fitness. God has already prepared a place for those fit to be greatest in the kingdom.
Jesus Does Direct Spiritual Ambition
How we react to the ambitions of others reveals more about us than it does about them. Boiling indignation characterized the twelve when they heard the request of James and John (v. 24). They were, in reality, no better than James and John in their ambitions. Christ's disciples rejected the secular model of greatness. Secular greatness depends on those "who lord over it" and "play the tyrant." Power and pressure exerted from above characterize the world's greatness.
Christ's disciples embraced the servant model of greatness. The world must be transformed not by power from above, but by service from beneath.
For Christ, the great man does not sit atop lesser men, but he carries lesser men on his back. For Christ, the higher the dignity, the lower the servitude. He is His own best example (v. 28).
There are seats close to Christ in the kingdom. We should have ambition to sit in those seats, but we must drink His "cup" and employ His model for greatness in order to fulfill spiritual ambition.