Greatness Through Service

Matthew 20:17-34

17 Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, 18 “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, 19 and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.”

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.

21 And He said to her, “What do you wish?”

She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.”

22 But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

They said to Him, “We are able.”

23 So He said to them, “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.”

24 And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

29 Now as they went out of Jericho, a great multitude followed Him. 30 And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!”

31 Then the multitude warned them that they should be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!”

32 So Jesus stood still and called them, and said, “What do you want Me to do for you?”

33 They said to Him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” 34 So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes. And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.

 

Introduction

In our passage last week, Jesus explained to the disciples that the high and mighty and wicked at the very top would be thrown down, and the humble at the very bottom would be exalted. That idea forms the background to our passage today. And the question of “how” exactly do the humble get exalted, is one that Jesus answers.

The War Council of the King (v. 17-19)

Jesus has left Galilee (the rural territory) and gone to Judea (the wealthy, politically central territory) and now He is headed to the heart of Judea, Jerusalem. Consistently, throughout the Bible, when you go to Jerusalem, you are going up. It is not just because Jerusalem is in a mountainous place, but because this is where the temple is, and the temple is the great mountain up to God. It was symbolically the highest point on the planet. And Jesus and the disciples are going up to Jerusalem, and as they are going up, Jesus lays out precisely what is going to happen to the disciples. He is going to be betrayed. And who is He going to be betrayed to? The chief priests and scribes. And what will the chief priests and scribes do? They will condemn Him to death. And they will have Gentiles carry it out, first by mocking, then scourging, and finally crucifixion. But the third day He will rise again.

This trip to Jerusalem is Jesus marching to His death. He is a king going on a great campaign, about to engage in His final battle. That is how we must look at what Jesus is doing here. He is a king going to war. And this king gathers His twelve closest lieutenants to Him as a war council and goes over the strategy with them. That is what we are seeing with this scene. 

How to be One of Jesus’s Top Guys (v. 20-28)

Which is what makes it so ironic, that the mother of James and John, shows up to advocate for her sons to Jesus. They already were the two of the three closest disciples to Jesus, along with Peter. Now she asks the rightful King of Israel, who is marching to His capital, when He comes into His kingdom, will He allow her sons to sit on His right and on His left.

What is she asking here? She is asking Jesus if her sons can be number 2 and number 3 in Jesus’ kingdom. Her response is ironic, because when Jesus gets to Jerusalem, who is going to be on His right and on His left? Thieves crucified with Him. He tells her, she does not understand what she is asking Him. He asks James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” What is He asking them here? What is that cup and what is that baptism? It is His death. And they both answer affirmatively, almost certainly not knowing what He meant, despite being told what was going to happen just a few verses earlier. But even though they answer affirmatively, that they can drink His cup and be washed in His baptism, He tells them that only the Father will grant who will sit on His right and on His left. 

The rest of the disciples are indignant. They are offended that these brothers would presume to angle their way into a position of power, a position of power that is over them. But Jesus has His war council re-convene once again. He explains to them that the dynamics of the Kingdom of God are different than they think. The Gentile kings lord their authority over their subjects. But in Christ’s Kingdom, it is not like that. If you want to be great, you must be a servant. This is the very same word used elsewhere in the New Testament for one of the offices of the church: deacon. It means a servant who does menial work like waiting tables. It you want to be great, you need to do the lowest of service. And if you want to be first, if you want to be at the very top, you must be a slave. Even more intense than a servant, you must sacrifice all freedom and be totally at the disposal of everyone. That is how greatness is in Christ’s Kingdom. Greatness comes through service. How are the last made first? How are the humble exalted? Through service to others.

And Jesus explains why this is, and what is foundation to this: that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. God, who needs absolutely nothing and deserves every ounce of service we can give Him, came to His creation to serve with His entire life, pouring that life out for us. The literal greatest and first made Himself least and last. That is the paradigm for us. That is how one becomes great, by giving your life away to others. James and John think they are going to get to be the right-hand men in the King’s court and get to live the high life, but what they are asking is to suffer and serve others in the same way Jesus did.

The King Marshals His Army (v. 29-34)

Jesus and His men leave Jericho, that great city that the armies of Joshua, who Jesus was named after, committed to total destruction. Here is yet another echo of Scripture, that the new Joshua is making a similar campaign. He marches out from Jericho to Jerusalem, and now His army (the multitude) gather behind Him. You might think this is a stretch to say that Jesus’ multitude is an army, but throughout history anyone who can gather thousands to one place is considered to have an army. Just look at our own situation from a few months ago on January 6th. And forget the politics of it for one second and just look at the sheer logistics of it: a man gathered possibly a hundred thousand people on a weekday, some of whom threatened people in positions of great power. The inflamed rhetoric around the event is because those powerful people really were terrified. They see multitudes loyal to a man and see an army that could attack them. When Jesus marches into Jerusalem with the multitudes hailing Him, what do you think the chief priests and scribes saw? The very same thing. An army poised to overthrow them.

And as Jesus’ army is marching on Jerusalem, two blind men cry out to Him, calling Him the Son of David, and beg for Him to have mercy on them. But the crowd chides them. They were probably annoyed by these blind beggars. But Jesus is not annoyed. He stops and listens to them. And He asks them what they would like Him to do. They tell Him they want their eyes to be opened, and Jesus touches their eyes and their sight is restored. And what do they do in response to having their sight restored? Go their way and live their lives? No, they follow Him.

A passage that began with two men begging to be made Jesus’ top guys, ends with Jesus serving two men with absolutely nothing and lifting them up and restoring them, and restoring them to what? Service to others.

Conclusion

What we have to understand about this passage is that it is the answer to how Jesus makes the last first. Jesus does not throw down the powerful, corrupt, and wicked at the very top who love to lord it over us, only to exalt us to be the new powerful, corrupt, and wicked who love to lord it over everybody. That is not how His kingdom works. And it is not how His kingdom grew and expanded throughout the world over the centuries. Yes, even in places where the church has spread and influenced cultures and societies and nations, you often have wicked, corrupt men weasel their way into positions of power, but that is the way the world always was, what is unique has been men of great power and authority, being generous and sacrificial. Great kings who understand their existence is for their people, not that their people exist for them. Despite how overtly anti-Christian our world has become, the impulse to want leaders who serve their people is fruit of the gospel. Most people have no idea that that is not normal. What is normal is what Jesus says, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them.” If you took an ancient person, and told them “some of the highest status people in our society are NFL players” and then they watch an NFL game and see the break in the game where they show players on their day off helping build a playground or visit sick children in the hospital, we might ignore that scene or cynically think “this is all just a PR campaign,” but an ancient person would probably see this and laugh hysterically. “You mean to tell me the highest status people in your society spend their free time doing the work of slaves?” We do not see how radically different this is from the natural world. Even if we see it cynically as a PR move, “oh that is just for the cameras” and they are doing it just to look good, we still live in the kind of place so influenced by the gospel of Jesus Christ that something like that looks good to the public at large. The bulk of human history is not like that. Such a thing would look ridiculous to pre-Christian men. We often have very little idea just how much the gospel has effected people, even those who do not even believe it.

That is how the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is built, through lives dedicated to service. Where it is not even a conscious thing you think about, you just do. Where you cannot think of living any other way than for the good of others. A people who are shaped in this way, who are formed out of a desire to serve and care for others are a people who are truly great. All the greatest glories of the first Christendom, the art, the architecture, the beautiful cathedrals, the advancement of knowledge, of technology, the growing prosperity throughout the millennia, all of it is due to this radical change in way of life, a people who saw serving others as greatness. And if we and our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren are going to build something similar, it will be through dedicating our lives to serving others, by giving ourselves away, even unto death. If you want to be great, become a servant. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.