If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 20. The last time we were in the gospel of Matthew together, we began a new section in the book in which the work and character of our Lord are on display. It’s important for us to know that these words are just as important for us today as they were when they were first spoken to the disciples. Ever since Matthew chapter 18, Jesus has been teaching His disciples, over and over, lessons about what it means to be great in His kingdom. They had a lot of study to do in that area just as we do. Jesus had been emphasizing that in His kingdom; greatness is measured by the yardstick of humility. We see that in Matthew 18, verses 1 through 4. He has also emphasized that salvation belongs to the little ones and to those who have become like them. In Matthew 19, verse 14 He taught that trusting fully in the Lord, and denying oneself and giving instead of getting are the marks of His true followers. He stressed that in Matthew chapter 19, verse 21, and He has taught that eagerness to labor for the master without asking the question “what’s in it for me?” This is the characteristic of His true disciple. And He continues that lesson in Matthew chapter 20, verses 17 through 19 where He gives that last warning about His upcoming trial and crucifixion in Jerusalem. Each of those three announcements in Matthew gather with increasing specificity and intensity as to what He is going to undergo, but that last announcement is directly tied to the lessons about servicehood and humility and kingdom greatness that Jesus has already begun to teach His disciples. And our passage today continues that lesson, so let’s turn to Matthew chapter 20 and verse 20 and hear God’s holy word
Our heavenly father, we thank You for the truth of Your word. We acknowledge that that truth cuts like a knife; it pierces our consciousness, it divides between the heart, soul and spirit. We ask, O Lord, that You would search us out by Your word today, and find if there is any unclean thought in us, and renovate us by the work of the Holy Spirit, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
What does it mean to be great? Perhaps that’s a question that we don’t allow ourselves to ask out loud, at least pertaining to ourselves. We may engage in a discussion about who was the greatest basketball player of all times, we may engage in some question of which was the greatest team of all time in some particular sport, and we ask questions of greatness about sports all the time, but I’m asking this question about our own lives, our own agendas, our own vocations, and maybe we don’t quite phrase it that way when we’re discussing this matter. Maybe we ask the question this way: what does it mean to be successful? What does it mean to be significant? What does it mean to be respected or influential? Maybe that’s how we would put the question of greatness. This is a standing issue for us today, because we ask ourselves things like this. We compare ourselves with others to see how we’re doing. We wonder sometimes if we have risen to the top of our class. We are interested in being respected and we are interested in being noticed and successful.
And in this passage, Jesus is teaching His disciples about what it means to be great in His kingdom. True kingdom greatness, He is going to teach us here, true kingdom greatness is a gospel grace. That is, you cannot achieve greatness apart from the grace of God, in fact you can’t even see what true greatness is until the Lord has opened your eyes. And, furthermore, He teaches us that true kingdom greatness manifests itself, not being perceived by all those around us as influential and respected and important, but instead it manifests itself in our willing service of the brethren for the sake of Christ. And so Jesus gives us a contrast between our views of worldly greatness and importance, and spiritual greatness and importance. And that’s what I’d like to look at with you today in this great passage. I’d like for you to look at two or three things.
I. Our pride and sinful ambition blinds us to the true nature of greatness.
The first one you’ll see in verses 20 and 21. In those verses, you will see an ignorant but trusting, yet prideful question asked by the disciples. Now, I know that’s a confusing phrase, but I really mean all three of those things. We see an ignorant, but trusting yet prideful question asked by the disciples – James and John – of the Lord Jesus, and in these two verses, we will see that our pride and sinful ambition blinds us to the true nature of greatness. That’s very clear in the lives of James and John at this point. Their pride and sinful ambition blinded them to the true nature of greatness. You know the story. The mother of the sons of Zebedee, who was probably Salome, the sister of Mary, and therefore this is Jesus’ aunt, coming to Him and asking Him a favor. The wife of Zebedee is put up by her sons to the task of going to Jesus and asking for them to have the position of honor when Jesus’ kingdom was established. Now, you can understand the dynamics here. Mark tells us in Mark, chapter 10, verse 35 through 41 that James and John themselves, were behind this request. James and John are trying to figure out how they are going to get leverage with Jesus and the idea comes to them, “Look, we’ll send mom.” And when Jesus’ aunt comes to Him and asks Him, how can He refuse His aunt? And so Jesus’ aunt comes to Him and says, ‘Can my boys have the positions of honor when Your kingdom is established?’
Now, let me ask you to stop for just one moment and hold back for a moment your immediate, instinctive negative response to this question, this request that James and John are asking of Jesus. Now I want you to see, just for a moment, that though this request is ignorant and though it is prideful, it still shows that they really believe Jesus. If you’ll turn back in your Bibles to Matthew, chapter 19, verse 28, you will see that Jesus had told the disciples that they were going to reign with Him and they would sit on 12 thrones, and they would judge the tribes of Israel, and so the very fact that James and John want to have the inside track, basically they are saying, ‘Lord, we’d like to have the inside thrones. When we come to reign with You, we’d like to be on the right and on the left of you respectively.’ At least they are showing that they took Jesus seriously in the promise that He had made. Even though they misunderstood His kingdom and they misunderstood greatness, at least they are showing that they truly believed that Jesus was a king, that He was a king of a kingdom, and that they were going to reign with Him.
Nevertheless, they made two mistakes. First, they mistook the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. They perceived this kingdom that Jesus was talking about and this reign that Jesus was talking about was something that was going to happen in the next few days. They imagine themselves sitting on these twelve thrones pretty soon and bringing judgment over the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, they thought of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus, which He was inaugurating at that time, of immediately being a glorious kingdom. They did not see the suffering that was going to be entailed in the kingdom. We have seen this as a standing problem in the disciples’ understanding of Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospel of Matthew. They still haven’t gotten it at this point and He is only a few days away from Jerusalem and His crucifixion.
Secondly, they mistook the nature of kingdom greatness. They perceived their greatness to be directly tied to their apostleship, the office that Jesus had given them, the position or the rank that they had within the apostles, so they could see a greatness in the same way that Jesus said the gentiles think of it. The higher your rank, the greater your importance. The higher your profile, the more power you wield, the greater you must be. And so they were asking for the inside track on those thrones that the apostles were going to judge from.
Now you can understand the context. For about the last four or five chapters, every time someone comes to the disciples to ask a question about what Jesus thinks about this or that, or why the disciples do this or that, who do they come to? They come to Peter. You remember that Jesus had a large entourage following Him. We know that there was an outer circle of disciples sometimes referred to as the 70. Within that broader circle of disciples who followed Jesus there were 12 who were part of the inner circle whom He had hand picked to be those who would propagate the gospel after He was gone. Within that inner circle of 12, there was another inner circle, known as the 3. And who were the disciples in that inner circle of three? Peter, James and John. Now James and John had been standing back for the last 4 chapters watching everybody come to Peter, and ask him, ‘What does Jesus think about this and what do the disciples do about that?’ Now they are thinking, ‘Look, Jesus said that soon we’re going to be reigning on thrones. Let’s ask Him if we can be on the most influential thrones. This way we could sort of “one up” this guy, Peter.’ So their fellow member of the inner circle; they want to go one step better than he. They want to be in the position of influence. Jesus said to these disciples, ‘You have utterly misunderstood what greatness means. You are jockeying for position with one another and the very reason you are jockeying for position is you don’t understand My kingdom, you don’t know what you’re asking and you don’t understand what greatness is.’ So in this passage He begins to teach them about the true nature of greatness. From the very action of James and John, it’s clear to see here that you can’t even start down the path toward kingdom greatness until God’s intervening and sanctifying grace has taken hold of your heart. These men were disciples and yet they were blinded, their faith was mixed with ignorance when it came to the issue of greatness.
Now it should be a back-handed encouragement to us, because if these true hearted Christians – and they were – could have a faith that was so mixed with ignorance, its not surprising that many of us might have that same problem. I want you to note how tender and gentle Jesus is with these brethren in this passage. Jesus is patient and careful as He instructs them about the true way of life. This passage speaks directly to our selfish ambition. Even in spiritual things. You know, even those who are called into Christian service, whether they be ministers, missionaries or any one else, even those people are tempted to a selfish ambition in their service to the Lord. None of us are immune to the problem of pride and none of us are immune from the desire to be respected. We long to be first. We long to be noticed. We long to be appreciated. And Jesus is speaking to that very problem amongst the disciples.
Can you imagine the scene? The landing craft are coming ashore in the battle of Guadalcanal, the beginning of the war in the pacific, the Second World War, and the bullets are flying around and the bombs are bursting and this particular marine comes up to his commanding general and he tugs on his sleeve, and he says, “Excuse me, sir, but I was wondering that when we get the ticker tape parade at VJ day, could I ride in the guest of honor car with you?” That’s exactly what James and John are asking of Jesus here. It’s like the player, one of the three or four best on the team, second game of the year, walking up to the coach after practice and saying, “I was wondering if you would put me up for one of the player of the year honors, and then when we have the big celebration, you know, I could be one of the guys up at the head table.” That’s exactly what the disciples are asking for. They have barely entered into the contest and they are already talking about what position they’ll have in the victory celebration. So Jesus is saying, ‘you don’t understand my kingdom, because the kingdom I am going to bring in at first, is going to be a kingdom of humiliation. It’s going to be a kingdom of suffering. It’s going to be a kingdom that is going to entail you to sacrifice everything for me and then, will come the triumph and the glory and the joy.’ And so, we also are often blinded to the nature of kingdom greatness.
But we’re also blinded to its cost. Jesus wants these disciples to understand that when they commit to His kingdom, there is a cost. When we offer the gospel, we do not promise anyone that their life will suddenly be flowery and easy and everything will clear up. Oftentimes, the call of Christ and the gospel is a call to affliction. There is blessing, yes; greater blessing than the world could ever know, but it is not a call to cessation from the world, the flesh and the devil. That often means trial and suffering. J.C. Ryle says this; “We ask that God would make us holy and good. That is a good request, indeed, but are we prepared to be sanctified by any process, any process that God, in His wisdom, may call on us to pass through? Are we ready to be purified by affliction? Weaned by the world by bereavement, drawn nearer to God by losses and sicknesses and sorrows?” This is a lesson that the disciples are not even thinking about when they put their dear mother up to this particular plot of asking to be great in Jesus’ triumph. That’s the first thing we see. Our pride and our sinful ambition blind us to the true nature of greatness.
II. Humility is demanded when we pledge to take Christ’s cup.
The second thing I’d like you to see in verses 22 and 23: Jesus responds to the disciples’ request here, and again the disciples give an ignorant but trusting assertion. We learn in verses 22 and 23 that humility is demanded when we pledge to take Christ’s cup. When we say that we are going to take Christ’s cup, it means that by necessity we must humble ourselves. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus answers in the plural? He doesn’t direct His response to the mother of the sons of Zebedee; He directs His response immediately to James and John. His saying here is excruciatingly poignant. “Are you able to drink the cup that I must drink?” Brian Habig has already beautifully introduced us to the idea of the cup last week. As I watched this coming about three weeks ago, when I saw Brian’s text, I said, “You know, I couldn’t have planned this better if I had been sovereign myself.” He gets to teach you about the cup last week. I get to teach you about the passage where Jesus is foretelling the cup this week. It’s perfect. Brian told us that the cup, especially in the Old Testament, is often an image, a picture, a figure of speech in the Bible, for suffering and especially for the suffering endured when someone is under the wrath of God. Now Jesus said to these disciples, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Are you ready to drink the cup which I must drink?”
When He does so, He is appealing to that important biblical figure of speech – the cup – which in the Old Testament represents the experience of suffering under the hand of God’s wrath. If you turn back with me to Psalm 75, let me just give you one example of this. There are many, but let me just give you one. In Psalm 75, verse 7, the psalmist announces the idea of God as a judge. God as a judge who is going to judge the nation, and in verse 8 he says this: “For a cup is in the hand of the Lord, and the wine foams. It is well mixed and He pours out of this. Surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs.” And so the picture of the cup is the cup of God’s wrath which the wicked must drink and drain it to the dregs. That’s not the last time that this image will be used. If you turn all the way over to the last book in the Bible, Revelation chapter 16, verse 1 picks up that same image again, when talking about the wrath of God against the wicked: “And I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, go and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God into the earth.” And so again the idea of the bowl or the cup of the wrath of God is a picture there to show us the subjected experience which the wicked go through under the just punishment of God.
Now, in this passage there is a double meaning, a double entendre. Here, in Matthew chapter 20 when Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Are you ready to drink My cup? Are you willing? Are you able to drink My cup?’ He is saying, ‘Are you ready and are you willing to endure suffering on My behalf? Are you going to partake the same kinds of suffering that I am going to endure?’ So the cup represents a way of life that is going to involve not just pomp and circumstance, but afflictions and trials and persecutions and suffering and ultimately death. And James and John quickly respond, “Yes, we are able”. And of course, there was faith in their response, friends. Their lives bear it out. James became the first of the disciples to be martyred, we are told in the book of Acts. Herod put him to death. John was the last of the disciples, but he died as an exile on Patmos. These men would spend their lives suffering for the Lord Jesus Christ, and so there was a great precedence in their response and yet, as we’ve said, there is an excruciating poignancy in Jesus’ question. “Are you willing, are you able to bear My cup?” Their immediate response is “yes”.
Do you remember another exchange with one of the inner members of Jesus’ disciples? Peter said, “I’ll never forsake you, Lord. I’ll die for you.” “Peter, will you? I tell you Peter, that before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” So, Jesus says, “Are you ready to drink the cup?” And their response is, “Yes, we are.” But they have no idea what it is that Jesus is to drink, because Jesus is not simply to drink suffering and trial and persecution. He is, to himself, drink the cup of the wrath of God alone. Turn over to Matthew chapter 26. Matthew highlights the poignancy of this passage in these two verses. In Matthew 26, verse 39, the passage that Brian read for us last week. Jesus is on His face praying, prostrating before the Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, and He prays this prayer: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet, not as I will, but as thy will.” So Jesus, there in the garden with Peter – and notice in verse 37, the two sons of Zebedee – prays that the Lord would allow that cup to pass from Him. And then we read this: “All this had taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled”. “Then all the disciples left Him and fled.” “Are you ready to drink the cup that I must drink?” “We’re ready!” “Then all the disciples left Him and fled.” The Lord Jesus says to these disciples, ‘You have no idea what you are asking. You have no idea what sort of pledge you are making.’ And yet, He goes to the cross for them.
And then He says in response to them in verse 23, “You will drink My cup, but to sit on My right and on My left is not mine to give.” He says that the assignment of positions of preeminence – the assignment of the station of greatness – is the job of the Heavenly Father. Yes, the Lord Jesus is the one who appoints officers, but it’s the Father’s prerogative to determine who is great in the kingdom, and that teaches us that simply being an officer amongst the Lord’s people does not equal, is not the same thing as, being great. There are many people through the ages who have never held office in the Lord Jesus’ church that He has called to greatness. I cannot help but think that that widow who gave all that she had – that mite – will be numbered amongst the mighty in the kingdom of heaven, when we’re there in glory. She never was a rabbi, she was never an elder of the synagogue, but she was great. Conversely, there will be many who have held office and yet because their hearts were not with the Lord, they will not be numbered amongst the great. In Christ’s kingdom, office does not equal greatness. In the world’s mind the higher your office, the greater you are. Not in Christ’s kingdom. The lower your service, the more abject your suffering on behalf of one another, the greater your concern for your brethren, the greater you are. Jesus is teaching us here that there is a difference between office and greatness. When we accept Christ as our Savior, we accept His lordship, and that means accepting the way that He chose to go, the way of trial and of suffering. When you follow Jesus, you must take His cup. Because of the very nature of that cup – the cup of woe – we must be humble. How can one be proud and haughty before the cup of woe. If the cup of woe is the cup that you are taking, how can you be prideful about that? You have to be humble before the cup of suffering. Jesus is our example. He is the one who gives us the pattern, the model for walking in the way of greatness. J.C. Ryle says this: “He (speaking of God) has given those who follow after holiness the clearest of precepts, the best of motives and the most encouraging of promises. But that is not all. He has further supplied us with the most perfect pattern and example, even the life of His own son.” The Lord Jesus, and what He did, shows us what it means to serve one another. He showed us what it means to be great.
III. Kingdom greatness is measured by kingdom service.
And then there is one last thing. If you’ll look at verses 24 through 28, the other disciples were incensed at what James and John would ask. And they gathered together as one in their indignation and they came to Jesus demanding some sort of satisfaction, and the Lord tenderly brings them together and He teaches them all a lesson about greatness. And in this passage, we learn that kingdom greatness is measured by kingdom service. Kingdom greatness is measured by kingdom service.
Notice Jesus begins by contrasting the difference between worldly greatness and kingdom greatness. In verse 25, 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 this way among you.” Jesus is saying, ‘Greatness in My kingdom is measured by an entirely different standard’. William Hendriksen puts it this way: “Jesus is saying that in the kingdom over which He reigns greatness is obtained by pursuing a course of action which is the exact opposite of that which is followed in the unbelieving world. Greatness in His kingdom consists of self-giving in the out-pouring of the self in service to others for the glory of God.”
Now, by that measure, if that’s the definition of greatness, let me ask you a question: are you great? Maybe that’s a little too challenging a question. Let me ask it this way. Are you seeking after that kind of greatness? Is that the kind of greatness that you want to have, or is there some other kind of greatness that you are seeking? Are you seeking after the greatness that says, everyone looks at me and admires me? I’m significant, I’m influential, and I’m successful in the eyes of others. Is that the greatness that you are seeking, or are you seeking this kind of greatness: The kind of greatness which finds its significance in serving others for the sake of Christ and His gospel?
Two examples: husbands, God calls you to love your wife, yet you’re in a relationship that is falling apart. Your wife doesn’t respect you like you think she ought to. Your marriage is poor, in fact she’s been a great discouragement to you. She hasn’t met your needs. She has wounded you. You are bitter. Are you serving her? Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church. “And all the disciples left Him and fled.” Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church. Have you begun to love even when you expect nothing in return?
Students, on the campuses of Jackson Academy, or Jackson Prep, or Mississippi State, or Ole Miss, what kind of greatness are you seeking? In your relationships with your peers, what do you long for? Do you strive to be accepted by those who are popular or to become leaders of the pack? Do you distance yourself from the nerdy Christians so you won’t be tainted by their reputation? Or do you see that the people you are really related to are the people of God, the people who profess the Lord Jesus Christ, and is that relationship more important than any other relationship, whether it be paternal or whether it be a close circle of friends of like socio-economic background and neighborhood? What is your standard of greatness? What are you aiming for? How do you intend to find the status of greatness in your life? What does that look like? Jesus is challenging us here. He is giving to us His own example of what greatness is.
In this passage He goes on to the disciples, ‘Let me say to you, this is what greatness is: I have come into this world, not to be served but to serve, and to give my life for the ransom for many.’ Jesus is beautifully setting before us the substitutionary atonement, that He died as a ransom for our sins. This atoning work of Christ both enables us to love and serve others, and it gives us the proper example of our responsibility to give one another in the love and service to others. Christ’s love is our source, our motivation, and our example of how we are to love and serve, and that is our fundamental motive in our involvement in missions. We’ve said that all week for the last couple of weeks – that the love of Christ controls us, therefore we are ambassadors. That’s why we give, that’s why we pray, that’s why we go, that’s why we long to be a blessing. J.C. Ryle says, “True greatness consists not in receiving, but in giving, not in selfish absorption of good things, but imparting good to others. Not in being served, but in serving. Not in sitting still and being ministered to, but in going about and ministering to others.”
This is a hard lesson. Jesus taught it over and over and over to His disciples, because, as one of the old Puritans said, “Nothing cleaves closer to the heart than pride.” Our pride keeps us back from loving and serving in this way. It is only the work of the Holy Spirit that can sever the pride from our hearts. So Jesus has to teach this lesson over and over again. It is hard work, but it is gospel work. Christ is calling us to it. Will you take His cup? Let us pray:
Our Lord and our God, we love Your word even when it’s hard. Teach us to do it now. By grace, we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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