“And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes and they will condemn him to death and will deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Mt.20.17-34)
Time is running out. Ever since the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13, we have witnessed Jesus’ withdrawal from the leaders and even from the crowds so that He could teach His disciples about the nature of His kingdom and what they would have to be like if they were to be a part of it. Now the withdrawal stage is ending, and Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to die by crucifixion.
This new change of direction is announced clearly for the first time in verse 17: “Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem …” By the start of the following chapter, he is there. Chapter 21 begins, “When they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage to the Mount of Olives …” (Mt.21.1). Sadly, the disciples still do not understand what Jesus is about to do or what it will mean for their discipleship.
Verses 17-19 contain the third prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and there are at least two reasons why this is repeated. The obvious reason is that the disciples had not understood what Jesus had told them. They had gotten the idea that He was going to die, which is why they were “filled with grief,” but they had only the vaguest notion of what this meant. They certainly did not understand why He would die or that He would be raised from the dead afterward.
When we compare these predictions, we also sense that Jesus added to His teaching bit by bit. He spoke of His treatment by the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (ch.16). In chapter 17 He added the fact of His betrayal. In chapter 20 He revealed that the leaders of the people would turn Him over to the Gentiles, who would mock and flog Him, and that His death would be by crucifixion. This was the heart and substance of what Jesus had come to do, so it was both natural and necessary for Jesus to repeat it again and again for the disciples’ benefit. Not long after this, these truths would be the very center of their preaching.
There is another reason why Jesus repeated these predictions: So, the disciples might learn that self-denial, humility, and service were to be the pattern not merely of His life and ministry but of their own. This has been clear from the very first time Jesus spoke of His death. Peter had confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the first thing anyone needs to know about Jesus. Jesus had gone on to the second truth we need to know, namely, that He had come to die and then be raised to life. Immediately after this He used the example of His death to teach what the life of His disciples must be like: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
The disciples did not understand this. They did not want anything to do with bearing crosses. They wanted to be great in Christ’s kingdom. Matthew words are an introduction to the story of the disciples’ continuing struggles to be great (vv.20-28). And they lead to this conclusion: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (vv.26-28).
Verses 26-28 are an application for the disciples of the principle laid down in verses 18 and 19 and show why the prediction of Jesus’ death appears for a third time in this chapter.
“Not to be served but to serve.” What a difficult lesson to learn. Yet how necessary. Do you know about Brother Lawrence, the Carmelite monk who lived in the seventeenth century? His birth name was Nicholas Herman. He was born in Lorraine, served as a soldier in the French army, and was converted through seeing a tree in winter, stripped of its leaves, and reflecting on the fact that within a short time its leaves would be renewed through the love and power of God. He became a monk in 1666.
In the Carmelite monastery where he was assigned, Lawrence, as he was then called, worked in the kitchen, where he had charge of the utensils. At first he hated the work, but he set himself to walk in God’s presence so that he could worship God and serve others in these humble circumstances. In time he came to worship God more in the kitchen than in the cathedral, and he could pray, “Lord of all pots and pans and things, … make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the dishes.” His meditations on the Christian life became The Practice of the Presence of God, which is a Christian classic. Brother Lawrence chose humility and by it achieved greatness.
How little we know of serving others, even after many years of Christian living! Yet how essential to discipleship! Humility reminds us of the need to die to ourselves, take up our crosses, follow Jesus, and serve others. It is one of the most difficult things we have to learn.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org