The True Standard of Greatness Among Christians (20:24–28)
These verses are few in number, but they contain lessons of great importance to all professing Christians. Let us see what they are.
1. Pride Among True Disciples
First, we learn that there may be pride, jealousy and love of preeminence even among true disciples of Christ. What does the Scripture say? When the ten heard what James and John had asked, “they were indignant with the two brothers” (verse 24).
Pride is one of the oldest and most mischievous of sins: by it the angels fell, for they “did not keep their positions of authority” (Jude 6). Through pride Adam and Eve were seduced into eating the forbidden fruit: they were not content with their lot, and thought they would be “like God” (Genesis 3:5). From pride the saints of God receive their greatest injuries after their conversion. As Hooker so well says, “Pride is a vice which cleaveth so fast unto the hearts of men that if we were to strip ourselves of all faults one by one, we should undoubtedly find it the very last and hardest to put off.” It is a quaint but true saying of Bishop Hall, that “pride is the inmost coat, which we put off last, and which we put on first.”
2. Self-Denying Kindness the Secret of Greatness in the Kingdom
Second, we learn that a life of self-denying kindness to others is the true secret of greatness in the kingdom of Christ. What does the Scripture say? “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (verses 26–27).
The standard of the world and the standard of the Lord Jesus are completely different. They are more than different: they are totally contradictory to each other. Among the children of this world a person is thought the greatest if he has the most land, most money, most servants, most rank and most earthly power; among the children of God a person is reckoned the greatest who does most to promote the spiritual and temporal happiness of his fellow-creatures. True greatness consists not in receiving but in giving; not in selfish absorption of good things but in imparting good to others; not in being served but in serving; not in sitting still and being served but in going about and serving others. The angels of God see far more beauty in the work of the missionary than in the work of the Australian gold-digger. They take far more interest in the labors of men like Howard and Judson than in the victories of generals, the political speeches of statesmen, or the council-chambers of kings. Let us remember these things. Let us beware of seeking false greatness; let us aim at that greatness which alone is true. There is a mine of profound wisdom in that saying of our Lord’s, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
3. Christ the Example
Third, we learn that the Lord Jesus Christ is meant to be the example for all true Christians. What does the Scripture say? We ought to serve one another “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (verse 28).
The Lord God has mercifully provided his people with everything necessary for their sanctification. He has given those who follow after holiness the clearest of teaching, the best of motives, and the most encouraging of promises. But this is not all. He has furthermore supplied them with the most perfect pattern and example, the life of his own Son. By that life he calls us to frame our own; he tells us to walk in the steps of that life (1 Peter 2:21). It is the model to which we must strive to mold our tempers, our words and our works in this evil world. “Would my Master have spoken in this manner? Would my Master have behaved in this way?” These are the questions against which we should test ourselves each day.
How humbling this truth is! What searchings of heart it ought to raise within us! What a loud call it is to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). What kind of people should they be who claim to copy Christ! What poor unprofitable religion is that which makes people content with talk and empty claims, while their life is unholy and unclean! Alas, those who know nothing of Christ as an example will find at last that he knows nothing of them as his saved people. “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).
4. Christ’s Death an Atonement for Sin
Fourth, let us learn from these verses that Christ’s death was an atonement for sin. What does the Scripture say? “The Son of Man” came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (verse 28).
This is the mightiest truth in the Bible. Let us take care that we grasp it firmly, and never let it go. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not die merely as a martyr, or as a splendid example of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Those who can see no more than that in his death fall infinitely short of the truth; they lose sight of the very foundation-stone of Christianity, and miss the whole comfort of the Gospel. Christ died as a sacrifice for human sin; he died to make reconciliation for human iniquity; he died to redeem us from the curse which we all deserved, and to satisfy the justice of God, which would have otherwise condemned us. Never let us forget this!
We are all by nature debtors. We owe to our holy Maker ten thousand talents, and are not able to pay. We cannot atone for our own transgressions, for we are weak and frail, and only adding to our debts every day. But, blessed be God, what we could not do, Christ came into the world to do for us; what we could not pay, he undertook to pay for us. To pay it, he died for us upon the cross. He “offered himself unblemished to God” (Hebrews 9:14). He “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Once more, never let us forget this!
Let us not leave these verses without asking ourselves, where is our humility? What is our idea of true greatness? What is our example? What is our hope? Life, eternal life, depends on the answer we give to these questions. Happy is the person who is truly humble, strives to do good, walks in the steps of Jesus, and sets all his hopes on the ransom paid for him by Christ’s blood. Such a person is a true Christian!