What does Christian ambition look like? Is there such a thing? Although Christians sometimes chastise each other for expressing a desire for greatness, Jesus doesn’t rebuke this impulse, He redirects it.
A Mother’s Request: Matthew 20:20-28
Last week I heard a sermon preached on Matthew 20:20-28. It tells the story of the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who makes a request of Jesus. She says to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (v. 21). Jesus goes on to respond, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” When James and John respond in the affirmative Jesus confirms that they will drink the cup that He is going to drink, but He cannot grant them the places of honor they request.
Jesus ends the episode by turning their ambition upside down.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (vv 25-27).
What does godly ambition look like? Here are three characteristics.
1. Godly Ambition Has a Heavenward Orientation
Even though their motives are wrong, James, John, and their mother ask not for temporal honor but for eternal honor. They want to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom of God. The brothers do not ask for gold and silver. They do not ask for power to make all their dreams come true. They want to be esteemed in Heaven and that is a good thing. Earlier Jesus tells His followers to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Mt. 6:20). And Christ many times promises rewards to those who serve out of faith in this life (Mt. 5:12; 6:4; 6:6; 10:42). All Christians should strive for God’s favor.
2. Godly Ambition Cannot Be Gained Through Favoritism or Maneuvering
You can desire the right things but try to get them the wrong way. James and John want to be in Heaven with Jesus, but they seek to gain heavenly rewards in a worldly manner. They think they can schmooze their way into Jesus’ good graces and gain special favor. But you cannot circumvent servitude in the Kingdom of God. You can’t play politics in God’s government. The Lord honors those who serve Him out of a pure and humble heart. Even then, it is only for the Father to grant positions of highest honor (Mt. 20:23).
3. Godly Ambition is Achieved through Suffering
In contrast to their attempts at manipulation, Jesus tells James and John, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (v. 22). The “cup” Jesus refers to is the cup of wrath about to be poured out on Him as He endures the ignominy of the cross (Mk. 14:36; Lk. 22:42; Is. 51:22). While Christ bears a singular type of agony that ransoms believers from the penalty of their sins, anyone who calls on the name of Christ will also suffer just as Jesus did.
Ambition Upside Down
This is ambition upside down. Christians don’t seek earthly power so they can influence others to serve them. Instead the great ones in God’s kingdom are the servants. And the ones considered first are the slaves. The ones who aspire to be most like their Savior must submit their lives, even their ambition, to the lordship of Christ.
Do you aspire to serve? Are your goals in life filtered through these biblical principles? And are you willing to turn your ambition upside down so that the name of the Lord Jesus may be glorified in you? (2 Thess. 1:12).