The Upside-Down Kingdom

John Vermilya

September 20, 2023

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'” – Matthew 18:1, ESV

Who is the greatest? This was a common debate among Jesus’ disciples as they jockeyed for position. This is the same question historians, sports fans, and people debate anywhere power games, politics, and competition exist.

The gospels tell of two disciples, James and John, who went so far as to ask Jesus for the greatest positions in His Kingdom. Apparently even their mom appealed for them. Can you imagine that scene? The most humble and greatest Man to ever walk the planet, and a family of His followers trying for the highest positions in His coming kingdom. It’s no wonder the other disciples got angry—perhaps they even wanted the same thing.

It seems no different to our world today. Political leaders battle for preeminence. Athletes secure agents in high school. Self-serving comments are dropped in offices. Helicopter parents use subtle and not-so-subtle manipulations to get their kids the best spots in school and sports. Our dog-eat-dog world exalts those who are the smartest, strongest, most beautiful, and most talented. We strain and strive for exaltation in every area, even in church, ministry, and so-called spiritual things.

Not So Among You

Jesus' response acknowledged that this is the way of the world, “but it shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:26). This is not the way of Jesus followers because this was not the way of Jesus. He was the greatest, God and King of Kings in the flesh, but Jesus came as a lowly servant. Jesus served the lost, hurting, poor, sick, lowly and overlooked. His ultimate service was in sacrificing His life on the cross for our sin. Jesus even served the rich, powerful, arrogant and strong. No one is deserving of Christ’s salvation, and yet the “Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus' humility is also why God the Father exalted Him to the highest place (Philippians 2:9).

Jesus taught that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Matthew 20:26-27). In Jesus' upside-down kingdom there is a new measure of greatness, and that is the way of humility and service. And this doesn’t mean we turn those attributes into a competition either, like Christians can be quick to do. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” This means that the most humble person in the room doesn’t know it, because they aren’t thinking about being humble. They aren’t thinking of themselves at all.


The bottom line is that following Jesus is not a race for exaltation. It is not about our greatness, our kids, or people’s opinion of us. It’s not a race to be the holiest, most spiritual, most liked or to get noticed. “Not so among you.” Following Jesus is a race to serve and labor for the Kingdom.

How can you give yourself away unnoticed, with the sole aim of exalting Christ alone? That is the way of greatness—the way of Jesus.