Learning to serve others rather than themselves was a difficult lesson for the disciples. At the start of Matthew 18, the disciples were arguing about who should be greatest in Christ’s kingdom. To them, as for us, a kingdom meant pomp and power, not a cross. They assumed Jesus was going to take over the throne of His father David, and they were vying to see who would stand closest to that throne, exercise the greatest influence, and receive the greatest honor.
Jesus answered them by an illustration. He drew a little child into the middle of the group, saying, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
We think the disciples would have gotten the point, particularly since it had been reinforced for them visually. But in the very next chapter we find the disciples actually turning children aside. They told the mothers that Jesus was too important, too busy, but they were really thinking that they were too important and busy. Jesus rebuked the disciples. He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
A third incident is the one we have come to now (Matthew 20.20-28), before the triumphal entry. On this occasion the mother of James and John comes to Jesus asking if her sons may sit on the right and left sides of Jesus when He ushers in His kingdom. The other disciples hear about it and become angry with James and John, which shows that although James and John are the chief offenders this occasion, the others are thinking in exactly the same way. They are angry because they resent James and John for getting the jump on them.
Jesus takes time to instruct the two brothers. He asks if they are able to “drink the cup” He is going to drink. This was a figure of speech referring to His suffering. He is saying that greatness in His kingdom has to do with suffering. It means denying themselves, taking up their crosses, and following Him closely day by day. James and John do not understand this, of course, so they reply in naive self-confidence, “We can.”
Jesus tells them they will indeed drink from His cup. James became one of the first Christian martyrs, and John suffered for the faith by being imprisoned on the island of Patmos. “But,” says Jesus, “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
Then Jesus calls the entire group together and reinforces what He has already been saying: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” These verses are linked with the prediction of His own suffering in verses 18 and 19.
Sadly, this is not the end of the matter. We might think that the disciples would have dropped their feud at this point and that the fight for the chief place among them would have been forgotten. But this was not so. Apparently the conflict intensified and continued even into the upper room, for if Luke is giving us an accurate chronology of this evening, we learn that even after the institution of the Lord’s Supper “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.” At this point Luke includes nearly the same words we find in Matthew 20 about the kings of the Gentiles lording it over them and about the need for the followers of Christ to be servants. It was at this point perhaps that the Lord laid His clothes aside, took a bowl of water and a towel, and washed the disciples’ feet as a dramatic illustration of His teaching.
We should learn from this story that the desire to be foremost is also great in us and that we can be maneuvering for prominence even as we come to the communion service. We can be so caught up in thoughts of our own importance that we do not even hear Christ speaking. We need to become like little children so we can learn from Jesus, learning among other things what humility is and how it must function.
Before looking at the last of the three incidents in the concluding part of chapter 20, we need to consider one of the most remarkable verses in Matthew, perhaps even in the entire Word of God. It is verse 28 of this chapter: “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The important word is ransom, the only occurrence of this precise form of the word in the New Testament.
To understand ransom we need to know that it is one of a number of related words that describes Christ’s work of redemption. Other words for redemption are not related – ransom belongs to a word group based on the root verb luo, which means “to loose.” When used of persons, it signified the loosening of bonds so that, for example, a prisoner might be released. It was usually necessary to pay a ransom to free a prisoner. It is the way Jesus freed us from sin’s slavery by His death.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org