“Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”
In God’s sight, greatness is marked by a humble, servant’s heart.
Bible commentator R.C.H. Lenski once wrote that God’s “great men are not sitting on top of lesser men, but bearing lesser men on their backs.” Jesus would have agreed with Lenski’s observation, but He did not see it as wrong to desire greater usefulness to God. Those standards of usefulness, however, are much more demanding than any worldly ideals for self–serving, domineering leadership. For example, Paul lists for us the high standards God has for church overseers (1 Tim. 3:1–7). God considers men great who are among those willing to be servants.
In Matthew 20:26–27, Jesus was speaking of genuine servanthood, not the “public servant” who merely uses his position to gain power and personal prestige. The original Greek word for “servant” referred to a person who did menial labor and was the lowest level of hired help. Jesus could have used a more noble word to denote obedient discipleship, but He picked this one (from which we get deacon) because it best described the selfless humility of one who served.
But in verse 27, Jesus intensifies His description of God’s way to greatness. He tells us if we want to be great in His kingdom, we must be willing to be slaves. Whereas servants had some personal freedom, slaves were owned by their masters and could go only where their masters allowed and do only what their masters wanted. The application for us as believers is that “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8).
If you desire real spiritual greatness, you will be willing to work in the hard place, the lonely place, the place where you’re not appreciated. You’ll be willing to strive for excellence without becoming proud, and to endure suffering without getting into self–pity. It is to these godly attitudes and more that Christ will say, “Well done, good and faithful slave … enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask the Lord to help you cultivate a servant’s heart.
For Further Study: Read 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and make a list of the qualifications for an overseer (elder). ✧ Meditate on the implications of each trait, and write down ways in which humility relates to these leadership qualities.
The Precept of True Greatness
It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; (20:26–27)
Jesus turned the world’s greatness upside down. The self-serving, self-promoting, self-glorying ways of the world are the antithesis of spiritual greatness. They have no place in God’s kingdom and are not to be so among you, Jesus told the Twelve. In many different ways He had taught them what He told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
The world’s way of greatness is like a pyramid. The prestige and power of the great person is built on the many subordinate persons beneath him. But in the kingdom, the pyramid is inverted. As the great commentator R. C. H. Lenski has observed, God’s “great men are not sitting on top of lesser men, but bearing lesser men on their backs.”
Unfortunately, however, there are still many people in the church who, like James and John, continually seek recognition, prestige, and power by manipulating and controlling others to their own selfish advantage. A tragic number of Christian leaders and celebrities have gained great followings by appealing to people’s emotions and worldly appetites. But that is not to be so among Christ’s disciples today any more than among the Twelve.
Jesus went on to explain that it is not wrong to desire great usefulness to God, only wrong to seek the world’s kind of greatness. Paul assures us that “it is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1). As the apostle goes on to point out (vv. 2–7), the standards for an overseer in Christ’s church are high. But the man who is willing to meet those standards for the Lord’s sake and in the Lord’s power will have the Lord’s blessing.
Therefore, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you, that is, great by God’s standards rather than men’s, shall be your servant.” He was not, as some have suggested, contradicting what He had just taught. He was speaking of an entirely different kind of greatness than the sort James and John were seeking and that the world promotes. This kind of greatness is pleasing to God, because it is humble and self-giving rather than proud and self-serving. The way to the world’s greatness is through pleasing and being served by men; the way to God’s greatness is through pleasing Him and serving others in His name. In God’s eyes, the one who is great is the one who is a willing servant.
It is not only not wrong but very much right to seek eternal glory, because that glory is God-given. PauI declared, “Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority” (1 Thess. 2:6). But he also declared to those same believers in Thessalonica that “it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14). The way to that divine and eternal glory, which comes from God, is the way of renouncing the worldly and temporal glory that comes from men. The way to God’s glory is the way of the servant. Man’s focus must be on rendering spiritual service with consummate excellence and leaving the success of that service to the Lord.
Jesus was speaking of being a true servant, not a sham. He did not have in mind the “public servant” who uses his office for personal, gain and power, Godly greatness comes from genuine humility Only God knows a persons heart, and Paul assures us that the Lord “will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of metes hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Cor. 4:5).
Servant is from diakonos, from which the term deacon is derived. The original Greek word was purely secular, referring to a person who did menial labor, such as house cleaning or serving tables. It was not necessarily a term of dishonor but simply described the lowest level of hired help, who needed little training or skill.
But Christ elevated diakonos to a place of great significance, using it to describe His most faithful and favored disciples. He could have chosen any number of more noble words to characterize obedient discipleship, but He chose this one because it best reflects the selfless, humble life that He honors. It is also the life that He Himself exemplified, as He would go on to say (v. 28).
The surest mark of the true servant is willing sacrifice for the sake of others in the name of Christ. The sham servant avoids suffering, while the true servant accepts it.
Paul had the pure, genuine heart of a servant. He readily acknowledged his apostleship and the divine authority that came with that unique, high office. But he even more readily acknowledged that his office and authority belonged to God and were only entrusted to him as a steward (1 Cor. 4:1). To the proud, self-centered, factious, and worldly Corinthians he said, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (1 Cor. 3:5). Later in that letter he says sarcastically,
You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us. … For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now” (4:8–13)
In his book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law writes,
Let every day be a day of humility; condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of your fellow-creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellencies, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkind-ness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowliest offices of the lowest of mankind.
Another great saint of past years, Samuel Brengle, wrote,
If I appear great in their eyes, the Lord is most graciously helping me to see how absolutely nothing I am without Him, and helping me to keep little in my own eyes. He does use me. But I am so concerned that He uses me and that it is not of me the work is done. The axe cannot boast of the trees it has cut down. It could do nothing but for the woodsman. He made it, he sharpened it, and he used it. The moment he throws it aside, it becomes only old iron. O That I may never lose sight of this. (Quoted in Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership [Chicago: Moody, 1967], p. 58.)
Jesus reiterated and intensified His description of God’s way to greatness: “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” The position and work of a slave were much lower and demeaning even than those of a servant. A servant was to some degree his own person. He often owned little more than the clothes on his back, but he was free to go where he wanted and to work or not work as he pleased. But a slave (doulos) did not belong to himself but to his master and could go only where the master wanted him to go and do only what the master wanted him to do. He did not belong to himself but was the personal property of someone else.
In several of his letters Paul identified himself as Christ’s slave (doulos) even before identifying himself as His apostle. He greeted the Romans with the words, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle” (Rom. 1:1; cf. Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1). That is why he could say, “If we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). Slaves were the property of their owners and could therefore be bought and sold. Like such a slave, Christians “have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; cf. 7:23) and are the property of the Lord who bought them with His own precious blood (1 Pet. 1:18–19).
Paul greatly desired to be exalted and to receive glory, but the exaltation and glory he sought were God’s and he sought them in God’s way, through the suffering of servanthood and the bondage of slavery. It was said of one leader in the early church that “He belonged to that class of early martyrs whose passionate soul made an early holocaust of the physical man.”
In one of her most beautiful poems Amy Carmichael wrote,
Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star;
Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound?
Yet, I was wounded by the archers, spent.
Leaned me against the tree to die, and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yes, as the master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole. Can he have followed far
Who has no wound? No scar?
The cost of true greatness is humble, selfless, sacrificial service. The Christian who desires to be great and first in the kingdom is the one who is willing to serve in the hard place, the uncomfortable place, the lonely place, the demanding place, the place where he is not appreciated and may even be persecuted. Knowing that time is short and eternity long, he is willing to spend and be spent. He is willing to work for excellence without becoming proud, to withstand criticism without becoming bitter, to be misjudged without becoming defensive, and to withstand suffering without succumbing to self-pity.
When faithful believers have done everything they can for the Lord to the limit of their abilities and energy, they say to Him, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10). It is to such disciples that the Lord will say in return, “Well done, good and faithful slave; … enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
William Barclay has succinctly commented, “The world may assess a man’s greatness by the number of people whom he controls and who are at his beck and call; or by his intellectual standing and his academic eminence; or by the number of committees of which he is a member; or by the size of his bank balance and the material possessions which he has amassed; but in the assessment of Jesus Christ these things are irrelevant.”
24–27 The indignation of the ten doubtless sprang less from humility than jealousy plus the fear that they might lose out. If these verses scarcely support egalitarianism—choice positions, after all, will be allotted—they demonstrate that interest in egalitarianism may mask a jealousy whose deepest wellsprings are not concern for justice but “enlightened self-interest.” The disciples revert to the squabbling of an earlier period (Mk 9:33–37; cf. Mt 18:1). Jesus calls them together and draws a contrast between greatness among ta ethnē (“pagans” or “Gentiles,” v. 25) and greatness among heirs of the kingdom. The “pagans” or “Gentiles” who would spring to mind were Romans; power and authority characterized their empire. The NIV’s “lord it over” gives a false impression. Jesus is not criticizing abuse of power in political structures—the verb never has that meaning (cf. K. W. Clark, “The Meaning of [κατα] κυριεύειν,” in Studies in New Testament Language [ed. Elliott], 100–105) and should be translated “exercise lordship over,” parallel to “exercise authority over” in the next line—but insists that the very structures themselves cannot be transferred to relationships among his followers.
Greatness among Jesus’ disciples is based on service. Anyone who wants to be great must become the diakonos (“servant,” v. 26, GK 1356) of all. Here diakonos does not mean “deacon” or “minister” (KJV) in the modern church use. One of the ironies of language is that a word like “minister,” which in its roots refers to a helper, one who “ministers,” has become a badge of honor and power in religion and politics. But lest the full force of his teaching be lost, Jesus repeats it in v. 27 with the stronger word doulos (“slave,” GK 1528; cf. 1 Co 9:19; 2 Co 4:5). In the pagan world, humility was regarded not so much as a virtue but as a vice. Imagine a slave being given leadership! Jesus’ ethics of the leadership and power in his community of disciples are revolutionary.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 20:26). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 488). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.