(If you would like to download the PowerPoint presentation for this sermon, Click Here – 162 Being Great in God’s Kingdom)
Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
April 8, 2018
Some people say that the Bible is not relevant to today’s modern world claiming it is “archaic, out of date, behind the times.” They suppose that man has advanced beyond the wisdom of the scriptures. Their premise is that Solomon may have been wise, but modern man is much more advanced than Solomon.
Technology has greatly advanced since Solomon sat on his throne. Travel then was at the speed of a walk, a horse, cart or a ship. Man now zips around in all sorts of wheeled vehicles, powered ships and has airplanes that are faster than the speed of sound. Communication in ancient times was limited to talking in person or sending someone to repeat your message verbally or give it in writing – on parchment, crude paper, or clay a tablet. Communication is now sent at the speed of light over thousands of miles with sound and in full color pictures on devices that fit in your pocket.
Though technology has changed, man has not. He is still the same as he has always been. It would be nice if men were getting smarter and were wiser than Solomon, but that is simply not the case. Every generation wants to think that it is smarter, wiser, better than the previous, but it usually repeats the same mistakes showing that it is not any better, and often worse. Why does each new generation make the same or similar mistakes? Failure to learn from the previous generations. Ignorance of history is dangerous, but it is not enough to just know history to keep from repeating it. You must also pay attention to its lessons.
Today we come to a text that shows once again that man has not changed. He is taught, but he does not listen. Man is innately self-centered and desires to gain for himself according to his desires. Modern man is no different from ancient man. The lesson Jesus teaches His disciples in Matthew 20:20-28 is as relevant today as it was on the day this story took place. Turn to Matthew 20:20 and bookmark the parallel passage in Mark 10:35. We will read through the text and then go back over it to gain an understanding of what it means to be great in the world compared to being great in the kingdom.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him with her sons, bowing down, and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.” But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Last week I pointed out that Jesus, the disciples and a crowd of other followers were traveling on the road that comes from Perea and goes to Jericho and then up to Jerusalem. We know from Mark 10:46 that they have not yet reached Jericho, so what happens next takes place within minutes or hours at the most from when Jesus had taken the disciples aside and told them in advance that what the prophets had foretold about the Messiah would be fulfilled when they got to Jerusalem. Jesus, the Son of Man, would be delivered to the chief priests and scribes who would condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles who would then mock, scourge and crucify Him, but on the third day, Jesus would be raised up. (See: The Man Who Knew His Destiny) This was at least the third time Jesus had told them about this, but they still did not understand. Luke 18:34 states, “they understood none of these things, and this saying was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.” This incident that follows proves that point.
In comparing Matthew with Mark, the first thing to note is that James and John come to Jesus along with their mother to make a series of requests of Jesus. It appears to me that this conversation must have started when they were at least a little separated from the rest of the group because what they ask is very brazen and certain to upset the others if they heard it. My guess is that since it hard to “bow down” while you are walking, they came up to Jesus either while He was taking a break in the journey or that He had stopped walking when they came up and began talking with Him. From the parallel account in Mark 10:35 we find that the first request was from James and John saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” Jesus prompted them to be more specific and that is when their mother intervenes saying, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left.”
This is a very bold request to make. To sit on the right and the left hand is to be made the two highest ranks in the kingdom possible. The one of the right being “second” in command and the one the left “third” in command. She is asking that Jesus make her two sons the two highest ranking officials in the kingdom under Jesus.
How could this woman be so bold to ask such a thing? One reason, other than shear audacity, is her relationship to Jesus. By comparing the accounts of the crucifixion we know that her name is Salome and that she is the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is Jesus’ aunt which makes James and John first cousins of Jesus. This closeness of relationship explains to some degree the boldness she has in coming to Jesus with this request.
It is not uncommon for people to use their relatives or other relationships they have developed as a means to achieve some greater position for themselves. There is a lot of truth in the saying, “It is not what you know, it is who you know.” There is nothing unusual about finding that positions are filled by the person with the best connections instead of the one best qualified. In this case, the mother of James and John seeks to use her relationship as Jesus’ aunt to gain prominent positions for her two sons – Jesus’ cousins. But again, that is still the natural way of the world. We now call it nepotism.
Notice how Salome approaches Jesus. She does so as one would approach an oriental king. She comes “bowing down, and made a request of Him.” Kings tend to have big egos and people soon learned that if you come in a manner that magnified that ego, they could get the king to give them what they wanted. This is true with most people that holds positions of power. We call it “buttering them up.”
Consider how most people would approach their boss for a raise. They would try to feed the boss’ ego telling him how wonderful he is so that he will be favorable to the request, and more times than not, it works. Why? Because humans like to have our pride built up. We want others to think not only good of us, but that in some way we are superior to others. There is gratification in having the sense of power that comes from being able to grant the request of a subordinate.
Salome comes to Jesus seeking to gain for her sons, and really for her self as well. What mother does not want her children to rise to be successful and gain important positions? Parents take great pride in how their children turn out and especially if they do achieve important positions. They would like to brag, “My son, the lawyer . . . My daughter, the doctor,” etc. I am not saying that a parent should not take a certain amount of satisfaction in what their children achieve, but I am saying that parents often become proud over their children because they see it as a reflection of themselves. That is a possibility here. Is Salome promoting her two sons for their sakes, or is it for her own advantage as well since she would then have “bragging rights” to proclaim, “My two sons sit on the left and right of the king!”
Jesus’ answer in Matthew 20:22 is addressed to James and John and not to Salome. We do not know whose idea it was to ask Jesus for these high positions, but it is clear that James & John are not innocent bystanders. The request of their mother is their desire as well as documented in Mark 10:37.
Jesus’ first response seeks to bring them back to reality. “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” He challenges their understanding of what they have requested for the cost of it is high. They will have to be able to “drink the cup” that Jesus was about to drink. This should have been a sobering reminder of what Jesus had just told them in verses 18 & 19 earlier that day about going to Jerusalem where He would suffer many things, be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, be condemned to death, then be delivered to the Gentiles and crucified. They need to recognize that their request may also require them to also endure persecution and martyrdom.
The quickness of their answer that they were able to drink that cup demonstrates they had not taken into full consideration all that would mean. They, like Peter would later, boastfully claimed to be able to do something they were not yet prepared to do. They were bold, part of the reason Jesus nicknamed them, “the sons of thunder.”
It is amazing to me, and yet at the same time not amazing, that they would respond this way. It seems amazing that James and John would even have this request on their minds after the strong rebuke all the disciples received in Capernaum only a few months or so before when they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest in the kingdom (Matthew 18). It also seems amazing that this would be on their minds again when only a short time earlier, only a few minutes or at most a couple of hours earlier, Jesus had told them again about what He would suffer in Jerusalem in just a few days. You would think that their minds would be on a lot of things other than what they would get in the kingdom. If they could not find a way to be an encouragement to Jesus, at least they should have been asking the hows and whys He would have to suffer – how did this fit in with Old Testament prophecies? Why did it have to be this way? etc. Their request and quick answer to Jesus demonstrates the truth of Luke 18:34 that they did not comprehend what Jesus had told them earlier.
James and John were focused on themselves. They wanted to know what was in it for them, and they used their mother and their kinsman relationship with Jesus as a means to get what they wanted. People are still the same way today. Consider how often even your own prayers center on what you want rather than God’s will, glory and honor. James and John claimed that they were able to drink the same cup that Jesus was about to drink, and in fairness to John, only he and Peter followed Jesus after He was arrested. All the other disciples, including James, ran away. Peter later denied Jesus, but John remained faithful. John was the only disciple at the foot of Jesus cross when He was crucified. This shows that perhaps he was prepared, but James was not. In verse 23 Jesus tells them that they would indeed drink from that cup.
James drank from the cup first. He was the very first of the Apostles to be martyred. Acts 12 records that Herod Agrippa I executed James with a sword because it pleased the Jews. John also drank from that cup, but in a different way. John was the only apostle that did not die as a martyr, but lived to be an old man and according to tradition died in Ephesus after his exile to the Island of Patmos. In some ways John may have drunk more deeply from the cup of suffering than those who were put to death, for he had to endure the hatred of this world the longest. It is much easier to die for Christ than it is to live for Him. James and John did drink the cup of Christ’s suffering. Are you ready and willing to do so as well? Jesus warned that those who follow Him will be persecuted.
Jesus also told them that “to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” Jesus is completely submissive to the Father and will not usurp the divine order in any way. This is also a reminder that all that we get from God is according to His grace including any rewards given to us for our faithful service. We do not earn them. We simply receive what He grants to us according to His good will as Jesus had taught only a short time earlier while still in Perea (Matthew 19).
James, John and their mother desired to gain the prominent positions from Jesus. It was wrong for them to seek that for several reasons including:
*The inappropriate timing of asking for this right after Jesus had told them He was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die;
*They had not considered the price that would have to be paid;
*It was not Jesus’ place to appoint those positions;
*It demonstrated that they were still largely infected with the world’s values. The next section reveals so were the other disciples.
If James, John and their mother were trying to ask Jesus their request privately, they did not succeed. Verse 24 reveals that other ten disciples did hear at least part of the conversation and became indignant about what James and John had done. Their indignation was not from a sense of concern for what Jesus would be facing nor from the impropriety of the request made. As demonstrated by their continued bickering which continued even to the night of the Last Supper, they were indignant that James and John were trying to gain a higher position over them through their kinship to Jesus. All of them were still infected with the world’s values, and the world values positions of prominence and power.
Ask the person on the street what success is and you will find that most people will define success in terms of that which will give them a sense of being superior whether the specific is money, prestige, position, power or fame. Even churches are caught up in this mentality defining success in terms of number of members, size of budget or number of missionaries supported. Those things are good, but when they become the goal, the definition of success or the purpose of your life, you have stepped away from godliness and into worldliness. Our goal is simply to be faithful to whatever the Lord calls us. And as the apostle John states in 1 John 2:16, the things of the world are passing away. Money, prestige, position, power and fame will all come to an end. From the eternal point of view they are a dead end. Yet, at this point in time, the disciples were still infected with that worldly quest for prominent positions.
The disciples wanted to be great in God’s kingdom, but they thought of it in terms of worldly standards. Jesus takes this opportunity to teach them how to be truly great by the contrast they were to be with the world.
But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”
Jesus calls them to Himself to make sure all of them would hear Him clearly. What He is was about to teach them was very important to them and is still important to us. We are not to be like the world including the manner in which our rulers and great men function. The rulers of the Gentiles would “lord it over” their subjects, which is a strong term that has the idea of ruling down on the people. That was easily understood at that time since most governments then were some form of dictatorship, and most of those were tyrannical in nature. The “great men” are defined here as having some position by which they have authority over others.
What was true then is still true today. Our “rulers” are elected and
do not have the dictatorial authority over life and death as the despots did then, but the attitudes are often the same. Rulers, whether in government, business or social organizations, do like to “lord it over” those under them. The “great men” may be petty people, but they are usually not hesitant to exercise their authority. Many of us have worked under people who were enamored with their own power and make life miserable for those within their little fiefdom. Most of us at some time have also had deal with bureaucrats, whether government or corporate, who long ago forgot they were there to serve the people or the customer, and instead think it is their responsibility to command and issue edicts. Tragically, these attitudes are often found even in organizations that are supposed to be Christian, including churches.
There are several things that can move men toward these attitudes, but regardless of initial motivations, power itself is corrupting. Even those with altruistic motives of wanting to help others can be coopted by power. Having some power creates a desire to gain more whether the motives are good or evil since having power increases the ability to satisfy those motivations. Having power and the desire for more power compounds upon itself and unless controlled will override virtue so that it is sought by whatever means is available. That is simply the evil nature of the proud and unregenerate human heart.
It is not just rulers and those in positions of great authority that can have these attitudes. The condescending attitude of those who “lord it over” others is a function of pride, so anything elevating pride contributes to the problem. Position and fame are certainly factors, but it only has to be a superior position and fame could be in a very limited context. A Lieutenant could be more arrogant than a General, and the winner of a local talent show can be more haughty than someone who has won a Grammy. The same is true of positions of authority. It only requires the person to have authority over someone else for them to exercise it in an ungodly manner.
While it may be common practice for those that do not know the Lord to use their power in a tyrannical manner to push around those under them, Jesus tells us in vs. 26 that it is not to be that way among believers. It is a great tragedy when that happens in the church. There are many today in pulpits across our land, on the radio, TV and internet, who are self seeking preachers who skillfully take advantage of ignorant, gullible, believers to build up their own little kingdom by fleecing the flock. They merchandise the gospel and make Jesus a commodity to market. They tell people what they want to hear. Paul called that “tickling their ears” in 2 Timothy 4. They play up to man’s innate selfishness appealing to emotion and worldly appetites.
I found this quote from an unknown source in one of my commentaries that describes this well. “The cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a bright ornament upon the bosom of the self-assured and carnal Christian whose hands are indeed the hands of Abel, but whose voice is the voice of Cain. The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemns; the new cross assures. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter. The flesh, smiling and confident, preaches and sings songs about the cross, and before that cross it bows and toward that cross it points with carefully staged histrionics, but upon that cross it will not die and the reproach of that cross it stubbornly refuses to bear.” Such is the nature of Christianity in our land.
There are too many that abuse their positions within the church, both pastors and those involved in the church’s various ministries. There is no place for pride in church leadership or using authority in an ungodly manner. Those are contrary to the nature of true Christianity for they are the opposite of Jesus’ instructions and example. The world may define success in terms of fame, fortune, power and position, but God does not. The world considers those who are rulers and have authority over others to be great, but Jesus teaches the opposite.
Jesus taught, “Whoever wishes to be become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to first among you shall be your slave.” Greatness in God’s kingdom comes from being a servant and a slave. Leaders in the church are to be slaves of Christ and servants of His people. The term here translated servant, diavkonoV / diakonos, is often transliterated as deacon. A deacon was a person who did menial labor such as cleaning up and waiting on tables. Jesus made this a more noble term by using it to describe His most faithful and favored disciples because it marked out the selfless, humble life they were to live. Paul used it to describe those holding an office in the church. If you want to be great, you have to become a humble, selfless servant. Paul describes the proper attitude in Philippians 2:3-4 saying, 3 “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Those who are great in God’s kingdom will serve the others in the name of Christ.
Jesus goes further in saying, “and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Slave is dou:loV / doulos. This was a position lower than a servant for a servant was free to go as he pleased. But a slave was owned by his master and could only go and do what the master wanted. The greatest in the kingdom is the one who is a slave to the others. This is someone who is completely sold out to Christ and His kingdom. Paul often referred to Himself with this same term, a bond-servant, a slave of Christ (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1 etc.). He viewed himself as being owned by Jesus since he was bought with the price of Jesus’ own precious blood (1 Corinthians 6:20). For Paul to live or die was for the Lord (Romans 14:8). The slave is unconcerned for his own life, his own glory, his own power. His only concern is for his master, his lord. While many claim that Jesus is their lord, only a few are His slaves.
Jesus uses Himself as the example of what it means to be great in the kingdom saying in verse 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.” Jesus did not come to exercise His power over man to make man serve Him. He came to serve man and pay the ransom price to redeem man. Jesus did not die on the cross so that you could live in happy circumstances. He died as the ransom that freed you from your bondage to sin. That enables reconciliation with God and escaping His condemnation. It allows you to be adopted into God’s family and fulfill the purpose of your existence in glorifying God by doing His will. If the example set by our master is one of such sacrifice, then it should be the mark of our lives as well.
A Christian is a disciple, a follower of Jesus (Acts 11:26) with the term itself referring to the person’s identification with Christ. Christians are being conformed into His image (Romans 8:29). Does humility and servant-hood characterize your life? Is your concern what people do for you or what you do for them? How much are you willing to sacrifice in the service of your master? Is Jesus really your Lord or just a means by which you hope to gain what you want?
The disciples continued to bicker about who was the greatest until Jesus had been crucified and was risen from the dead. Then with the coming of the Holy Spirit, they began to really live for Christ rather than themselves. The Scriptures tell us that the Holy Spirit now indwells every true believer. Does He indwell you? What evidence of that is there? Are you still seeking after what the world values, or what God values.
Proud, boastful Simon was changed into the Apostle Peter who wrote, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the might hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:6,7). The truly great follow Jesus’ example and seek to serve, not be served; to sacrifice of themselves, not seek others to sacrifice for them. If you want to be great, you do not need to exalt yourself. In all humility, be the slave of Christ and serve Him and His people and let God be the one that exalts you at the proper time.
Technology has advanced tremendously, but man still has the __________ nature throughout the generations
What Jesus teaches is as _____________ today as it was the day He spoke it
Jesus and the disciples are still _____________ on the road from Perea to Jericho
Luke 18:34 – the disciples ______comprehend Jesus’ warnings about what would soon happen in Jerusalem
James & John along with their mother come to Jesus and ask Him to grant whatever ___________they make
Their specific request is __________wanting to be granted the two highest ranks under Jesus in the kingdom
Salome could be bold because she is Mary’s sister, Jesus’ __________ – James & John are His cousins
It is still common for people to use relatives and close friends to advance themselves – ______________
Salome approaches Jesus as she would an oriental king – people still “butter up” others to _______a request
People like their pride built up and the sense of power in granting the request of a ________________
Salome would have _______________ for herself if her sons were in such positions of power
Jesus’ challenge of their ignorance in their request and its consequences should have made them _________
Their quick answer proves they _____________understand “the cup” Jesus was about to drink
Jesus had already rebuked the disciples about ________and gave multiple warnings about His coming death
James & John were focused on themselves – _____________ is the normal human condition
James was the _________ apostle to be martyred (Acts 12), and John was the last apostle to die
Vs. 23 – That decision was for the Father and Jesus was in _______________ to the Father
The other disciples overheard and became indignant at James & John for seeking ________________
The world’s definitions for success are not the same as God’s – 1 John 2:16
Jesus calls all the disciples to Himself to make sure they will __________ what He is going to teach
Gentile rulers “________ it over” their subjects and their “great men” exercise authority
That is still the way of the world regardless of the position of the “ruler” or ___________ of authority
Power is ____________even when the motives are altruistic – some power increases desire for more power
Arrogance, haughtiness and tyrannical use of power are tragic when they exist in the __________
Pride and ungodly use of authority are ___________to the nature of true Christianity and Jesus’ teaching
The great in God’s kingdom are servants (diavkonoV / _____________ ) to others – Philippians 2:3-4
Jesus came for the benefit of man including dying to _____________ man from sin
A Christian is a ___________ , a follower of Jesus and therefore that includes His example of sacrifice
The disciples ceased bickering for power when the _________________ came and filled them (Acts 2)
Proud & boastful Simon was ____________ into the humble Apostle Peter – 1 Peter 5:5-6
If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, be _____________ to be the servant of all
Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Count how many times a reference is made to Jesus. 2) Discuss with your parents how to be great in God’s kingdom and how Jesus’ example encourages that.
THINK ABOUT IT!
Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. How has technology advanced since the First Century? How have you seen it advance in your own life time? Does technological advance give evidence of man being more intelligent and wiser now than in previous generations? Why or why not? In what ways has man not changed over the centuries? Where is Jesus in this passage (Matthew 20:20-28)? How do James, John and their mother approach Jesus? What would enable Salome (James & John’s mother) to be so bold with Jesus? What is the significance of sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand in the kingdom? What benefit would Salome receive if her sons were in those positions? Why does building up the ego of a superior help in getting them to grant a request? Why does Jesus tell them they do not know what they are asking for? What is the “cup” that Jesus was about to drink? Why did James and John seem to be oblivious to what that meant? Why didn’t they understand the prophecy Jesus had just told them about what would happen in Jerusalem? How did James drink of that cup? How did John drink of that cup? Why was it wrong for them to ask Jesus for those positions? Why couldn’t Jesus grant their request? Why were the other disciples indignant with James & John when they heard about their request? In what ways does the world define success? How do you define success? How do you think the disciples would have defined success at that point in time? What does it mean that “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them”? Why would that be bad? In what ways would their “great men exercise authority over them”? Why was that bad? Do you have to be a “ruler” or a “great man” to have the same attitude or practices Jesus describes here? Explain. Why does power corrupt? Why is it common to find worldly attitudes and practices of leadership in the church (pride, arrogance, authoritarian)? What should be the characteristics of Christian leadership? How can the wrong attitudes and practices be prevented and the proper attitudes and practices of leadership be fostered in a church? Does your own attitude and practice match that of Philippians 2:3-4? If not, what needs to change? What is the difference between a servant and a slave? What was Jesus’ example in serving man? What did His giving His life a ransom accomplish for mankind? For you personally? What does it mean to be a Christian? What are the characteristics of a true Christian? If you do not possess those characteristics, what needs to change? When did the disciples finally stop bickering in their competition for prominent positions in the kingdom? What caused that to change? What does that indicate about how change will be made in your own life?
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