Christian Greatness


Matthew 20:17-28

Text Comment

v.17     Remember, we learned in 19:1 that Jesus had, by this time, left Galilee, the primary site of his public ministry, and was now making his way deliberately toward Jerusalem where the final crisis of his life and work would occur.

v.19     This is the fourth of these short summaries of what Jesus told his disciples to expect upon their arrival in Jerusalem.  You may compare this statement to those in 16:21, 17:12 and 17:22-23.  Information in this summary, not included in the former three, is that Jesus will be condemned at a trial and that the Gentiles, that is the Roman government – for it alone could crucify a prisoner – will have a hand in his execution.  What is more, the death Jesus is facing will not be a form of heroic martyrdom, but instead a harrowing, humiliating, ugly butchery.  [France, 291] Then the understated and, for all that, the more dramatic contrast:  after such a death as that, alive again on the third day!

v.20     We learn in Matt. 27:56 that the mother of James and John was a regular member of the larger group of the Lord’s disciples.  In fact, if you compare the parallel accounts in Mark and John, it appears possible, perhaps likely, that this woman’s name was Salome and that she was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  That would make James and John the Lord’s cousins.  Mark has James and John themselves making the request, but it appears from Matthew’s account that the request came through their mother.

v.21     Right and Left of the ruler were the places of highest honor. The background of this request is obviously the Lord’s promise to his disciples in 19:28 that when he, the Son of Man, sat on his glorious throne, his disciples would sit on thrones beside him.  In other words, this woman believed what the Lord had said and so she came seeking the highest measure of such rewards for her sons. There was, in other words, some faith in her request.  [Morris, 509]

v.22     In many places in the Old Testament and later in this same Gospel, “cup” is a metaphor for suffering that must be endured, suffering that God has appointed, sometimes the suffering of his wrath.  You will notice that, if their mother had brought the request, it is to her sons that the Lord addresses the reply.

v.23     While the disciples would fail at Gethsemane, when they scattered at the appearance of danger, in fact, they would drink from the Lord’s cup as he says.  They would suffer for Christ, suffer in many ways. James would in fact be the first of the disciples to die and he would die violently for his loyalty to Jesus.

In any case, the Lord says plainly, these places are not theirs to earn but the Father’s to give.

v.24     So the other ten disciples were as ambitious as James and John.  They were all jealous of position and privilege.  They were angry precisely because James and John were trying to steal a march on the rest of them, trying to get what they wanted for themselves.

v.26     In taking this incident as an occasion to teach an important lesson, as Jesus so often did, he reminds them that the world’s concept of greatness does not apply in the kingdom of God.  In the world people look for the highest possible place for themselves and, when they obtain it, delight in exercising the authority they have gained over others.  “In political life the world over and the centuries through humility is seen as a handicap, not a virtue.  Jesus draws attention to [this] well-known fact of life.”  [Morris, 511]

v.26     In the kingdom of heaven it is different.  The Lord emphasizes the contrast:  “Not so with you.”  The word servant is the word often translated slave, for in those days the one was the other.  The slave occupied the lowest position in society of that day. That is the calling of a Christian.

v.28     A ransom was the price paid to buy prisoners of war out of captivity or slaves from their bondage.  Here is one of the many texts in the Bible in which the saving work of Jesus Christ is explained in terms of substitution.  The preposition which the  NIV translates “for” in the last phrase, “for many,” means “on behalf of many.”  In fact, three assertions are made about the Lord’s death as a redemption:  1) it was voluntary (the Son of God came into the world for this purpose); 2) it was vicarious (that is, substitutionary, he took our place, in other words, and died in our stead); and 3) it had a universal character; he died to redeem not one, or a few, but many.

In John’s third letter, the famous son of Zebedee wrote of one Diotrephes that “he loves to be first.”  John had learned his lesson well.  I suppose all his long life he got red in the face just thinking about the dumb question that he and his brother had put their mother up to asking Jesus.  What was I thinking?  How was it possible that I didn’t realize how wrong, how foolish, how ugly the spirit of that question was?  He would have agreed with John Calvin that that request was nothing but “a bright mirror of human vanity.”  [Mark, ad loc]  And it was as bad with the other ten. Jealously or envy is just vanity expressing itself toward others

Pride and self-seeking are, we are repeatedly taught in the Bible, the very opposite of the Christian spirit.  To seek the most for oneself, in fact, is the repudiation of Jesus Christ, who made himself nothing for us and for our salvation.  It is not only that, as Milton has it in his immortal verse:

That Glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,

And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,

Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high Council-Table,

To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,

He laid aside, and here with us to be,

Forsook the Courts of Everlasting Day,

And chose with us a darksome House of mortal Clay.

But, still more, having come to share our lowly humanity, he gave himself to the cruelest suffering and death on our behalf.

“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself

and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.”

He suffered God’s wrath in our place – the wrath of a holy God that was against us for our sin – so that we might have life and have it to the full.  He bought us out of our bondage by paying the ransom: his own hideous death, his own drinking of the cup of divine wrath.  All of that we have both in vv. 17-19 and again in v. 28. The Lord’s discussion of pride and humility is set between two accounts of his sacrifice of himself for us.

When we are in ourselves so unworthy, when we owe our eternal life to so great a love and so great a sacrifice, when such an example of selflessness and other-centered living was set for us by the Son of God, it should be obvious to everyone that a proud, grasping spirit is utterly inconsistent with a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  In view of what Christ did for us and had to do for us, for us to seek honors for ourselves is not only obscenely and grotesquely arrogant and pompous, but absurdly ridiculous.  It brings to mind Mark Twain’s observation that human beings are the only ones of all God’s creatures that blush or need to.

Now, remember, Matthew of the four Gospel writers, has a particular interest in the nature of Christian discipleship.  We have said that Matthew is uniquely the Gospel of Discipleship.  Matthew is, even more than Mark, Luke, and John, concerned to give us Christ’s teaching concerning what kind of people Christians ought to be and what kind of lives they ought to live.  He includes more of the Lord’s teaching bringing out the implications for life and conduct of true and living faith in Jesus Christ. And, fundamental to the Lord’s vision of right living is this emphasis on humility.  He began his beatitudes with it in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

And he went on to command his disciples not to seek credit for their service and their piety, not to perform good works so as to be noticed by others.  He warned them of the powerful temptation to locate the speck in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in their own.  He told them that if they wished to be great in the kingdom of heaven they had to become as little children.  And recently he had reminded them that salvation was not something that they could earn but was God’s free gift to them in defiance of their ill-desert.  In many ways he commended this lowliness of mind to them; in many ways he taught them that this humility would be the index of their spiritual greatness; time after time he told them that it was this that he was talking about when he said that the first would be last and the last would be first in the kingdom of God.

In all of this he was only repeating the teaching of Scripture from the very beginning.  Christian people should have a low view of themselves precisely because they, of all people, know how much there is that is low about their lives and how in their thoughts, their speech, and their behavior how inveterately, comprehensively, and inexcusably they are sinners.  Humility is, after all, only honesty taking control over a man or woman’s view of himself or herself.  As William Law tartly put it, “Humility does not consist in having a worse opinion of ourselves than we deserve.”   So St. Teresa spoke for countless saints when she said, “…I am always very glad that my slanderers should tell a trifling lie about me rather than the whole terrible truth.”  And Alexander Whyte, with his characteristic imagination, spoke for every sincere Christian when he said,  “Lucifer himself would be a humble angel with his wings over his face if he had a past like yours, and would often enough return to look at it.”

But it is possible to stop there in thinking about Christian humility.  It is possible to think of humility largely, if not exclusively, in terms of one’s sense of moral unworthiness, of his impossibly great debt to God’s grace, of the vast distance that separates what he deserves from what he has received.  It is possible to think of humility as largely a vengeance taken upon oneself for one’s sins, a determined refusal to let our hearts escape the truth about ourselves before God or before man.  There is, as we have said, a great deal of this teaching about humility in the Bible and it is absolutely true and absolutely important.  There is a great deal of teaching about these dimensions of humility in the great classics of Christian spirituality:  from Augustine to á Kempis, from John Owen to William Law.  And this is as it should be.  For the Lord God says,

“I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is

contrite and lowly in spirit…”  [Isa. 57:15]

But, as we have often said, one does not put on holiness only by the mortification of sin, only by the denial of those thoughts and actions that are sinful.  One does not become godly simply by the repudiation of what is ungodly in one’s life.  Every piece of holiness has both a negative and positive dimension.  The miser will never get over his miserliness by telling himself times without number not to love his money so.  He must also and at the same time learn to love generosity by practicing it.  It is the positive virtue that most effectively lays the ax to the root of vice in any heart.  And this is the Bible’s teaching everywhere, as it is the experience of the faithful through the ages.

And so it is the teaching of our Lord Jesus.  He taught us, indeed, to be poor in spirit and not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought.  He taught us to recognize our sinfulness and acknowledge it to him and to others.  That is humility to be sure.  But, like every other virtue, humility is not only negative; it is not only the denial of pride.  It is something positive, a practice that looks outward. Believing yourself an unworthy sinner – as you are – and knowing that you owe your hope of everlasting life entirely to Christ – as you do – is only the first part of that true Christian mind that Jesus was always commending to his disciples.  No spiritual grace, no aspect of living faith in Christ has only an inward direction.  When we allow ourselves to think about and even to practice humility too privately, too individualistically, we run the risk of fooling ourselves into thinking we are humble when we are not.  It is possible to talk a good humility, very possible, and Christians are adept at this self-deception.  And when what we mean by humility is only an inner state, a private attitude, it is even easier to fool ourselves.

It is possible – we have seen it – for people to be proud of their lowliness, their sinfulness, how undeserving they are.  We can become conceited of our miseries and commend ourselves to others for our sense of our own unworthiness.  We hear a great deal in Christian circles nowadays about “brokenness.”  I have actually heard people stand up and tell others how “broken” they are.  But in a therapeutic age such as our own, to think and to speak in such a way of your brokenness comes very near to making a boast about how healthy you are. As one observer has put it,

“One sometimes encounters…a style of humility that seems suspiciously like its opposite:  ‘I’m deeply humbled, Lord, that you have chosen so unworthy a vessel to accomplish such great things for your kingdom.”  [James Neuchterlein, First Things, (Oct. 2001) 8]

Our pride is so insidious, so ever-present, so powerful a force within us that we can succumb to it even when we are thinking and speaking about our failures and our shortcomings and our need for God’s grace.  And that is one reason why Jesus never allowed his disciples to think of true humility, the true mind and heart of faith, in terms only of inner states, of mental attitudes, in terms of our view of ourselves.  This is why he always added to the negative practice of humility the positive practice of humility: the service of others.

Jesus was always making true humility not just a state of mind but an active engagement with the lives of others.  What he says here is entirely typical of his teaching. You measure your state of mind by your treatment of others.  The problem with the request of James and John was not simply the proud and vainglorious spirit that motivated it.  It was their forgetfulness of others, their indifference toward the happiness and welfare of others.  The problem was not only that they wanted the highest places for themselves, but that they didn’t care that others would have the highest place.  The sin of that request lay just as much in their indifference toward others.  No, says Jesus, if you want to be first, to be great in the kingdom of God, your humility must be demonstrated in your service of others.  If you aspire to be great in humility, such a thing will not be achieved by thinking harder about how bad you are, but by becoming a slave to more and more people, living your life more and more for them and not for yourself, giving yourself more generously and sacrificially to bless, help, and seek the welfare of others.

For every hundred who sit at home thinking bad thoughts about themselves, there is one who accepts all the inconvenience, the trouble, the pains, and the thanklessness of regularly, daily, hourly doing good for other people.  But always and everywhere in Jesus’ teaching, humility is an honesty about oneself, a lowliness of spirit, a sense of absolute dependence upon the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ that, in the nature of the case, leads and must lead to other-centered living.

This is so for many reasons.  For example, 1)  true gratitude – which any real faith in Jesus must produce – is incompatible with selfishness and self-promotion.  The grateful heart seeks ways to demonstrate its gratitude but self-love does not demonstrate gratitude.  The service of others does.  This is one reason why it is regularly the experience of believers in Christ that when they do find themselves overwhelmed with love for him, their immediate instinct is to perform some service in his name, some service in the lives of others.  Ecstasy in Christian experience produces action that blesses other people.  That is an amazing fact; something to ponder.   It has been so with me and I know it has been so with many of you that when you are stirred to the depths of your heart by who Christ is and what he has done for you, you want to do something and the doing that occurs to you is always some doing that holds promise of blessing in the life of someone else.

Why true faith leads inevitably to other-centered living in the second place is that self-love and self-service, in the nature of the case, presuppose a sense of desert, of worthiness.  But such a sense is incompatible with the conviction that one has not deserved God’s gift or Christ’s sacrifice.  We are not forgiven, we are not given entrance to eternal life as our just deserts, because we had it coming, but as a gift of God’s love.  But if self-love betrays a true understanding of the nature of salvation as God’s gift to the undeserving, then the only love left to show is a love to God and to others.  And everywhere we are taught in Holy Scripture that love to God is best shown in the love we show to others.  Jesus made a point of saying that many times.  “As I have loved you, so you love one another.”  “If you love me, keep my commandments,” and when he said that he was talking about his commandment to love our brothers.

Then, why true faith leads inevitable to other-centered living in the third place, and this is point that the Lord Jesus makes here in our text:  when one becomes a Christian, a follower of Christ, in the nature of the case he or she comes to believe that Christ’s life, his way of life, must be the true pattern for all human life.  We believe in Jesus as the Son of God incarnate, as the only perfect human being, as the one who by the goodness of his life opened the way to heaven for us all.  But, if that is so, then we have accepted that we should imitate him in our living not simply because he has told us to, but because that is the way of true goodness, the way to the fulfillment of life, the way to live as we were meant to live.  Everyone who believes that Jesus is Lord believes and must believe that he is the true exemplar of human life!   But his way was not the way of self-love.  Far from it.  His way was the way of sacrifice for others. So that is what human life ought to be! There was never in all of human history a life lived so completely for others and for the good of others and the blessing of others as was the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  This is indeed the interior life of the Triune God!  Life lived for others.  The Father for the Son, the Son for the Father, the Spirit for the Father and the Son and on and on.  The love of others comes very near the secret of all life!

I have been reading recently a study of the life and teachings of Siddhatta Gotama, whom history knows as Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.  As a Christian, I find Buddha a very interesting and revealing contrast to Jesus.  Of Buddha’s life, for example, very little is known.  Buddhists themselves have often made a point of denying the importance of the knowledge of Buddha’s life.  He himself taught that he had found enlightenment through a certain method and that, through enlightenment, he had come to possess peace and immunity in the midst of life’s suffering.  But any of his disciples could achieve the same enlightenment if they followed his method.  This explains why there is no narrative of his life to speak of, no real interest in or concentration on what Buddha did apart from his discovery of the method to reach enlightenment.  There have even been some scholars who doubted that Buddha ever lived, who thought he was only a mythical figure.  While that is not widely believed in Buddhist scholarship, it is true that we don’t know for sure even in what century he was born and lived. We know little of his life. It is his teaching of this method by which one searches for enlightenment that is all important.  People must do as he did, but they must rely on themselves.  It is their effort, not some gift of the Buddha, that will tell the tale.  Buddhism is, like every other religion and philosophy of life apart from biblical Christianity, a religion of self-effort and self-achievement.  How different the Bible’s concentration on Jesus and his life – who he was and what he did. The gospel is not the discovery of a method, but the announcement of Christ’s victory over sin and death for those who trust in him.

But what was even more interesting to me is that, in his pursuit of enlightenment we are told that Buddha deserted his family, his wife and his infant son.  This is one thing we are told about Buddha’s life.  They stood in the way of his search for enlightenment.  And he would later make it a rule that his disciples must abandon their homes, become mendicant monks, and practice the mental disciplines of yoga as he had done.  There is a striking self-absorption in Buddhism.  In the teaching of Jesus one never finds truth himself at the expense of others.  One does not come to a true understanding of himself, of God, of the world on the backs of other people.  When Christ’s grace lays hold of a man or a woman it makes that person more faithful to others, more caring of their needs and welfare, more interested in the nitty-gritty of their daily lives, more willing to make sacrifices for their welfare and happiness, less preoccupied with one’s own enlightenment and more interested in light for others..  In the faith of Jesus Christ, salvation, eternal life, true wisdom comes from a great love and a great sacrifice.  It comes from a person, one supremely luminous and utterly unique person, God incarnate, Jesus Christ. No wonder then that Christ and his life, his love, his selflessness becomes the pattern for the life of his disciples – not that they obtain eternal life by their own selflessness, but because, saved by a great love they have come to want to love themselves; redeemed by a great sacrifice, they have come to want to sacrifice themselves; granted eternal life on account of another’s commitment to them, they have come to see such selfless commitment as the true summum bonum, the highest good of human life.  What they have found in Jesus they have come to want for themselves for his sake. Taught to look outside and away from themselves for their salvation, they are now taught to look outward and away from themselves for the purpose and fulfillment of their lives. All of this is the effect of placing this discussion of humility between two statements of the Lord’s suffering and death for our salvation.  Christian humility is the imitation of Christ in his selfless, costly love for others.

Buddha was profoundly wrong!  His was a classic an oft-repeated error.  One does not find the true meaning of life or escape from the power of the sufferings and pains of this world inside of oneself.  It is found in looking outward, first to Christ and then, in his name, to others. One does not conquer the sufferings of this world by passivity but by sharing those sufferings out of love for others and out of gratitude to Christ for his having first shared our sufferings at such terrible cost to himself.  So the humility of a real Christian is not the wearing of saffron robe and begging for one’s living and turning away from the daily lives of other people; it is instead the washing of others’ feet.  Someone has suggested that the heraldry, the coat of arms of the Christian church is a “a basin on a field of towels.”

Young people, here is the true adventure of life and here is the way into that adventure:  the imitation of your Redeemer, Jesus Christ in the serving of others.  Set out to return to your Redeemer something of his selfless love for you by your loving others in the same way in his name. I guarantee, I solemnly promise you in Jesus’ name, that the Lord Jesus never said truer words than when he said that those who do that will become great!  Great in God’s eyes and great in the eyes of all who understand true goodness and true Christlikeness.