John Calvin writes in his commentary on Matthew 18:4 (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Volume Second, p. 333 [in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol XVI, Baker Book House, 2003]):
That man is truly humble who neither claims any personal merit in the sight of God, nor proudly despises brethren, or aims at being thought superior to them, but reckons it enough that he is one of the members of Christ, and desires nothing more than that the Head alone should be exalted.
Here are 5 characteristics of humility in a sentence. The first three are negative and the last two are positive. A humble person does not claim personal merit before God. He does not despise or look down on other brothers and sisters. He does not aim at being thought of as superior to them. He does find contentment in being a member of Christ’s body and he does desire that Christ Jesus alone be exalted.
I think in the context of Mark 9.30-37, the disciples were guilty of violating all 5 of these aspects or expressions of humility. The first one isn’t so explicit but it’s hard to see how they can break the rest without breaking this one. They certainly looked down on the others and wanted to be thought of as superior to all the other disciples. That’s what the whole debate is about. And why do they want supremacy over each other and the rest of the world in Jesus’ kingdom? Because they are not content to simply be included in that kingdom and united to Jesus. He is not enough for them. They are not content to have a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Christ (Acts 26.18). They didn’t just want a place among the people, they wanted to be exalted over the rest of the kingdom people. Which means they didn’t desire that Christ Jesus alone is exalted.
I find this temptation in my own life. There is the desire for our church to grow in numbers and to see many conversions. There is nothing wrong with that desire, but when it is seen as a means for me to be seen as a superior church planter or pastor, or to be recognized among my tribe of Christians, then it is horribly vile and evil. Do I despise other churches and pastors? I think if I do, it’s in critiquing their ecclesiology or their methodology as being “pragmatic” and comparing our church’s strengths (which are few) to their weaknesses.
It’s a joy to be a Christian! It’s a privilege unspeakable to have a place among those who are set apart and united to Jesus the Messiah! I deserve God’s righteous wrath for my Christian and pastoral pride and arrogance. I deserve hell where the worm doesn’t die and the fire isn’t quenched. I deserve to be abandoned by everyone I know. I deserve to be isolated from all and have no good thing. Yet, not only do I enjoy God’s common grace, I receive a lesson in humility by John Calvin and the Holy Spirit and am given an occasion to strengthen humility and weaken pride. God is good. May Jesus Christ alone be exalted in me and CrossView Church. May other churches flourish in the LA area and churches be planted all over the region that do not have any of my many weaknesses. And may they be stronger than I am in my strengths. May I decrease and may Jesus Christ increase. And may God help that last sentence to increasingly be the genuine prayer of my heart.
Book recommendation: The best and most practical book that’s encouraged me to increasingly grow in humility is CJ Mahaney’s book, Humility: True Greatness.