All of us have desires and ambitions. For the Christian, the challenge is to discern between the desires that are rooted in and feed our fallen flesh and the desires that have God as their source and His glory as their aim. Our conformity to Christ is tied to conforming our desires to His agenda in our lives. And that is precisely the process the apostle John went through as he was personally discipled by His Lord.
John had ambitious plans for himself in his youth. It’s not inherently wrong to aspire to have influence or to desire success. But it is wrong to have selfish motives, as John apparently did. And it is especially wrong to be ambitious without also being humble.
That is an important balance to strike, or else a virtue turns into vice. Ambition without humility becomes egotism, or even megalomania.
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. In Mark 10:31, He told them, “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” Jesus was simply reiterating the same lesson He had taught them over and over about humility (cf. Mark 9:35).
Nonetheless, just a few verses later (Mark 10:35–37), Mark records that James and John came to Jesus with their infamous request for the chief thrones. In Matthew’s account of this incident, they actually enlisted their mother to intercede for them (Matthew 20:20–21). Here we discover that they were seeking this favor secretly, because the other disciples learned of it afterward (Mark 10:41).
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. 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:
Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your servant. And whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45).
Those who want to be great must first learn to be humble. Christ Himself was humility personified. 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 (Mark 10:13–16). Elsewhere, He had also told them, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14; cf. Luke 14:8–11).
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 fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus” (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.