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. Paul 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 person’s heart, and Paul assures us that the Lord “will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s 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 unkindness, 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.”
26–27 In contrast with the world’s social conventions Jesus lays down an alternative agenda. For the imperatival future tenses see p. 755, nn. 4, 5. The “you” who must operate by a different standard are initially, of course, the Twelve, but the principle applies to all who belong to the kingdom of heaven. The demand that such people should “become like children” and accept the lowest position in order to be great (18:3–4) is now rephrased in terms which more directly echo the social realities of the day, “servant” and “slave.” The former term, diakonos, occurs here for the first time in Matthew, but its verb, diakoneō, has appeared in 4:11 and 8:15 for the practical “taking care” which focuses on household duties, especially the provision of food; it is about doing things for other people rather than for oneself. Doulos, “slave,” has been more prominent, denoting someone who is not free to do what they wish, but is bound to obey a master (8:9; 10:24); note especially the verb douleuō in 6:24 for a person’s being under the control of either God or wealth. The doulos, even more than the diakonos, is at the bottom of the pecking order; they are the last, who under God’s rule are the first. If there is to be ambition in the service of God (note the repeated “whoever wants”), it must be the ambition to serve others (cf. Paul’s similar challenge in a different context, 1 Cor 14:12).
The benevolent use of power (20:26–27)
‘It will not be so with you. On the contrary [the strong adversative alla], whoever wants to become great among you must be [the imperatival future estai] your servant [diakonos], and whoever wants to be first among you must be [estai] your slave [doulos].’ God and Messiah will greatly empower these apostles and their successors for the global mission (Matt. 28:18–20). In using these powers, they will be sorely tempted to emulate those pagan rulers. ‘A minister who seeks to control people is acting both out of and into pride. Pride moves him to wield the power, and wielding the power bolsters his pride; pride is both the root and the fruit of power. The minister may more easily dominate others when he wields power under a pretext of humility—a deception assured of some success, given the perception of this profession as one of service to others.’
The way to greatness is categorically different (Matt. 20:26a). All disciples are slaves of Jesus (10:24–25) [with two instances of doulos] and 24:45–50 [with four]; so all of them, leaders included, are answerable to him (23:8–10). They show their allegiance to him by becoming slaves (douloi) and servants (diakonoi) to his people (20:26–27; 23:11). By thus loving their Christian neighbors, they show that they love God (22:37–39), both God the Father and God the Son.
Let leaders in the church beware lest they domineer persons who belong to God, and whom God has entrusted to them (18:1–14). Apostles echo Jesus’ language in 2 Corinthians 1:24, ‘not that we lord it over you’ (the verb kyrieuō, as in Luke 22:25, parallel to Matt. 20:25), and in 1 Peter 5:3, ‘not lording it over those in your care’ (the verb katakyrieuō, as in Matt. 20:25). Persons truly secure in who they are as servants of Jesus have no need to domineer others; embraced by the love of God’s own Son, their self-worth does not depend on esteeming themselves superior to others (on the contrary, Phil. 2:1–4). Moreover, as those who emulate Jesus, they discover that sacrificial service is the very place where God releases his stupendous power (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7–12; 12:9–10). Accordingly, disciples’ greatness lies not merely beyond present service (Matt. 23:12), but in the service as well (23:11). When all believers heed the instructions of 20:26–27, ‘the equality of the workers’ (cf. comments on 20:1–16) will be visibly evident to both church and watching world (cf. John 13:34–35). As Jesus says in Luke 22:26 (parallel to Matt. 20:26–27), ‘let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.’
20:26 whoever wants to become great … must be your servant. Jesus has already responded to the disciples’ query about greatness, clearly a status question (18:1). Here he defines greatness in such a way as to derail all attempts to assume or claim status prerogatives. As Ulrich Luz suggests, “The issue … is not to present a new way to greatness—a more noble way than that of authority and power; it is rather that the desire to be great is itself to be eliminated, since even the most subtle desire for greatness for oneself corrupts genuine service.”
Ver. 26.—It shall not be so among you. There is good authority for reading “is” instead of “shall be.” The new order of things was already prepared. In Messiah’s kingdom a contrary rule holds good. There the governors rule solely for the good of the flock, with no self-seeking, and serving no private interests. Whosoever will be (ὃς ἐὰν θέλῃ … γενέσθαι: whosoever would fain become) great among you … minister (διάκονος). Taking for granted that there will be ranks and gradations of office in the Church, Christ lays down the rule that men become governors therein in order that they may serve their brethren, be the ministers of those who are subject to them. So the pope, in his official documents, with a verbally proper humility, terms himself, “Servus servorum Dei.”
26. It shall not be so among you. There can be no doubt that Christ refers to the foolish imagination by which he saw that the apostles were deceived. “It is foolish and improper in you,” he says, “to imagine a kingdom, which is unsuitable to me; and therefore, if you desire to serve me faithfully, you must resort to a different method, which is, that each of you may strive to serve others.” But whoever wishes to be great among you, let him be your servant. These words are employed in an unusual sense; for ambition does not allow a man to be devoted, or, rather, to be subject to his brethren. Abject flattery, I do acknowledge, is practised by those who aspire to honours, but nothing is farther from their intention than to serve. But Christ’s meaning is not difficult to be perceived. As every man is carried away by a love of himself, he declares that this passion ought to be directed to a different object. Let the only greatness, eminence, and rank, which you desire, be, to submit to your brethren; and let this be your primacy, to be the servants of all.
20:26 “whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” Jesus did not condemn their ambition for greatness, but defined its true parameters in light of one’s commitment to Him. In Jesus’ kingdom leadership is servanthood (cf. 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43)!
26, 27. Not like that shall it be among you; rather, whoever wishes to become great among you let him be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you let him be your humble attendant. Essentially this is the teaching of 18:1 ff. See also 10:39; 16:24, 25; Luke 9:23, 24. The form given to it is new and refreshing. It is an unforgettable paradox. Jesus is saying that in the kingdom over which he reigns greatness is obtained by pursuing a course of action which is the exact opposite of that which is followed in the unbelieving world. Greatness consists in self-giving, in the outpouring of the self in service to others, for the glory of God. To be great means to love. See John 13:34; 1 Cor. 13; Col. 3:14; 1 John 3:14; 4:8; 1 Peter 4:8. Were not the following—the list is incomplete—truly great? Was not childlike faith in God coupled with loving service to men (according to the rule of Gal. 6:10), characteristic of them all?
Abraham (Gen. 13:8, 9; 14:14–16; 15:6; 18:22–33; 22:15–18)
Moses (Exod. 32:32)
Joshua (Josh. 24:14, 15)
Samuel (1 Sam. 7:5)
David (Ps. 23; 103)
Jonathan (1 Sam. 23:16)
Nehemiah (Neh. 1:4 ff.)
The commended centurion (Matt. 8:5–13)
Barnabas (Acts 4:36; 11:22–26)
Stephen (Acts 6:8)
Paul, Silas, and Timothy (1 Thess. 1:1, 9; 2:1–12)
Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25–30; 4:18)
Epaphras (Col. 1:7, 8; 4:12, 13)
Luke (Col. 4:14)
Ruth (Ruth 1:16–18)
Hannah (1 Sam. 1:27, 28)
Abigail (1 Sam. 25:18–42)
The “great woman” of Shunem (2 Kings 4:8–10)
Naaman’s servant-girl (2 Kings 5:1 ff.)
Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:38, 46–55; Acts 1:14)
Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–45)
The “generous” widow (Luke 21:1–4)
Mary and Martha (John 11:1, 2; 12:1–8)
Dorcas (Acts 9:36–42)
Lydia (Acts 16:14, 15, 40)
Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26)
It is the inverted pyramid, the believer being at the bottom—being the servant, the humble attendant of all others—that symbolizes the position of the Christian as, with simple trust in God and love for all men, he continues on his way to the mansions of glory. In doing this is he not following in the footsteps of his Lord and Savior? See Luke 22:27; John 13:34, 35.
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