Twelve Ordinary Men, Week 11
Balancing Ambition and Humility
Balancing Ambition and Humility
John was ambitious, especially early in his life. But it is wrong to have selfish motives, and it’s especially wrong to be ambitious without also being humble. Another important balance must be struck, or else a virtue turns into a vice. Ambition without humility becomes egotism or an elevated sense of self worth. In Mark 10, one chapter after the incident where John rebuked a man who was ministering in Jesus’ name, we find Mark’s description of how James and John approached Jesus with their request to be seated on His right and left in the kingdom. Ironically, Jesus had just reiterated the importance of humility.
31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
But only a few verses later we find James and John requesting a position in glory.
35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
In our study of the apostle James, we looked at Matthew’s account of this incident, and we learned that James and John actually enlisted their mother to intercede for them. Here we discover that they were seeking this favor secretly, because the other disciples learned of it afterward.
Mark 10:41 (ESV)
41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant (angry/annoyed) at James and John.
Coming as it did on the heels of so many admonitions from Jesus about humility, the brothers’ request shows amazing audacity. It reveals how utterly devoid of true humility they were.
Again, there is nothing wrong with ambition. In fact, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with James and John’s desire to sit next to Jesus in the kingdom. Who would not desire that? The other disciples certainly desired it, and that is why they were displeased with James and John. Jesus did not rebuke them for that desire per se.
Their error was in desiring to obtain the position more than they desired to be worthy of such a position. Their ambition was untempered by humility. And Jesus had repeatedly made clear that the highest positions in the kingdom are reserved for the most humble saints on earth. Notice His response in verses 42–45:
42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Those who want to be great must first learn to be humble. Christ Himself was the perfection of true humility. Furthermore, His kingdom is advanced by humble service, not by politics, status, power, or dominion. This was Jesus’ whole point when He set the child in the midst of the disciples and talked to them about the childlikeness of the true believer. Elsewhere, He had also told them, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Luke 18:14 (ESV)
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Even before that, He had said,
8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Again and again, Christ had emphasized this truth: If you want to be great in the kingdom, you must become the servant of all.
It is astonishing how little this truth penetrated the disciples’ consciousness, even after three years with Jesus. But on the final night of His earthly ministry, not one of them had the humility to pick up the towel and washbasin and perform the task of a servant (John 13:1–17). So Jesus did it Himself.
John did eventually learn the balance between ambition and humility. In fact, humility is one of the great virtues that comes through in his writings.
Throughout John’s Gospel, for instance, he never once mentions his own name. (The only “John” who is mentioned by name in the Gospel of John is John the Baptist.) The apostle John refuses to speak of himself in reference to himself. Instead, he speaks of himself in reference to Jesus. He never paints himself in the foreground as a hero, but uses every reference to himself to honor Christ. Rather than write his name, which might focus attention on him, he refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20), giving glory to Jesus for having loved such a man. In fact, he seems utterly in awe of the marvel that Christ loved him. Of course, according to John 13:1–2, Jesus loved all His apostles to perfection. But it seems there was a unique way in which John gripped this reality, and he was humbled by it.
In fact, it is John’s Gospel alone that records in detail Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet. It is clear that Jesus’ own humility on the night of His betrayal made a lasting impression on John.
John’s humility also comes through in the gentle way he appeals to his readers in every one of his epistles. He calls them “little children,” “beloved”—and he includes himself as a brother and fellow child of God (cf. 1 John 3:2). There’s a tenderness and compassion in those expressions that shows his humility. His last contribution to the canon was the book of Revelation, where he describes himself as “your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9). Even though he was the last remaining apostle and the patriarch of the church, we never find him lording it over anyone.
Somewhere along the line, John’s ambition found balance in humility. John himself was mellowed—although he remained courageous, confident, bold, and passionate.
Balancing Suffering and Glory
Balancing Suffering and Glory
the apostle John had a thirst for glory and an aversion to suffering. His thirst for glory is seen in his desire for the chief throne. His aversion to suffering is seen in the fact that he and the other apostles forsook Jesus and fled on the night of His arrest (Mark 14:20).
20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.
Both desires are perfectly understandable. After all, John had seen Jesus’ glory firsthand on the Mount of Transfiguration, and he treasured Jesus’ promise that he would share that glory (Matthew 19:28–29).
There was nothing inherently sinful about John’s desire to participate in the glory of Jesus’ eternal kingdom. Christ had promised him a throne and an inheritance in glory. Moreover, it is my conviction that when we see Christ’s glory fully unveiled we will finally understand why the glory of Christ is the greatest reward of all in heaven. One glimpse of Jesus in the fullness of His glory will be worth all the pain and sorrow and suffering we have endured here on earth. Participation in Christ’s glory is therefore a fitting desire for every child of God.
But if we desire to participate in heavenly glory, we must also be willing to partake of earthly sufferings. This was the apostle Paul’s desire: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10).
10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
Paul wasn’t saying he had a masochistic lust for pain; he was simply recognizing that glory and suffering are inseparable. Those who desire the reward of glory must be willing to endure the suffering.
Suffering is the price of glory. We are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Romans 8:17).
17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Jesus taught this principle again and again. “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24–25).
24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Suffering is the prelude to glory.
Our suffering as believers is the assurance of the glory that is yet to come. And “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Glory must be balanced with a willingness to suffer.
All the disciples needed to learn this. Remember, they all wanted the chief seats in glory. But Jesus said there is a price for those seats. Not only are those seats reserved for the humble, but those who sit in those seats will first be prepared for the place of honor by enduring the humility of suffering. That is why Jesus told James and John that before they would receive any throne at all, they would be required to “drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” (Mark 10:38).
38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
How is it they responded?
39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,
Thankfully, Christ does not regard such failures as final. All eleven of the disciples fled on the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. But every one of them was recovered, and every one of them ultimately learned to suffer willingly for Christ’s sake.
In fact, all of them except John suffered and ultimately died for the faith. They were martyred one by one in the prime of life. John was the only disciple who lived to old age. But he suffered, too, in ways the others did not. He was still enduring earthly anguish and persecution long after the others were already in glory.
On the night of Jesus’ arrest, John probably began to understand the bitterness of the cup he would have to drink. We know from his account of Jesus’ trial that he and Peter followed Jesus to the house of the high priest (John 18:15). There he watched as Jesus was bound and beaten. As far as we know, John was the only disciple who was an actual eyewitness to Jesus’ crucifixion. He was standing close enough to the cross for Jesus to see him (John 19:26). He probably watched as the Roman soldiers drove in the nails. He was there when a soldier finally pierced his Lord’s side with a spear. And perhaps as he watched he remembered that he had agreed to partake of this same baptism.
When John’s brother James became the church’s first martyr, John bore the loss in a more personal way than the others. As each of the other disciples was martyred one by one, John suffered the grief and pain of additional loss. These were his friends and companions. Soon he alone was left. In some ways, that may have been the most painful suffering of all.
John would be banished to a prison community on Patmos, off the west coast of modern Turkey. It was while there that he received and recorded the apocalyptic visions described in the book of Revelation. It was a harsh environment for an aged man. He was cut off from those whom he loved, treated with cruelty and reproach, and made to sleep on a stone slab with a rock for a pillow as the years passed slowly.
But John learned to bear suffering willingly. There is no complaint about his sufferings anywhere in his epistles or the book of Revelation. It is certain that he wrote Revelation under the most extreme kind of hardship and deprivation. But he makes scant mention of his difficulties, referring to himself as “both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9). Notice that in the same breath he mentioned “tribulation,” he speaks of the patience that enabled him to bear his sufferings willingly. He was looking forward calmly to the day when he would partake in the promised glory of the kingdom. That is the right balance and a healthy perspective. He had learned to look beyond his earthly sufferings in anticipation of the heavenly glory.
John got the message. He learned the lessons. He grasped the character of Christ in a powerful way. And he became a choice human model of what righteous, Christlike character ought to be.
Remember, John is the only one of the apostles whom the biblical record places as an eyewitness to the crucifixion. John himself describes the scene as Jesus looked down from the cross and saw His mother, Mary, along with her sister, another Mary (wife of Clopas), Mary Magdalene, and John (John 19:25). John writes, “When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (vv. 26–27).
Obviously, John had learned the lessons he needed to learn. He had learned to be a humble, loving servant—or else Jesus would not have given him the care of His own mother. He told Peter, “Feed My sheep” (John 21:17). He told John, “Care for My mother.” Several witnesses in early church history record that John never left Jerusalem and never left the care of Mary until she died.
In fact, John’s theology is best described as a theology of love. He taught that God is a God of love, that God loved His own Son, that God loved the world, that God is loved by Christ, that Christ loved His disciples, that Christ’s disciples loved Him, that all men should love Christ, that we should love one another, and that love fulfills the law. Love was a critical part of every element of John’s teaching. It was the dominant theme of his theology.
And yet his love never slid into indulgent sentimentality. To the very end of his life John was still a thunderous defender of the truth. He lost none of his intolerance for lies. In his epistles, written near the end of his life, he was still thundering out against errant Christologies, against anti-Christian deceptions, against sin, and against immorality. He was in that sense a Son of Thunder to the end. I think the Lord knew that the most powerful advocate of love needed to be a man who never compromised the truth.
John died, by most accounts, around A.D. 98. Jerome says in his commentary on Galatians that the aged apostle John was so frail in his final days at Ephesus that he had to be carried into the church. One phrase was constantly on his lips: “My little children, love one another.” Asked why he always said this, he replied, “It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone be done, it is enough.”
Thus the fishermen of Galilee—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—became fishers of men on a tremendous scale, gathering souls into the church. In a sense, they are still casting their nets into the sea of the world by their testimony in the Gospels and their epistles. They are still bringing multitudes of people to Christ. Although they were common men, theirs was an uncommon calling.
MacArthur, John F., Jr. 2002. Twelve Ordinary Men: How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness, and What He Wants to Do with You. Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.