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Study Notes:

Matthew 20:17-28

To Be Great, Serve

Summary: Jesus calls us to serve others as He has served us by fulfilling God’s unstoppable, pre-determined plan.

As we jump back into Matthew’s biography of Jesus we’re going to see that God has a plan for humanity and this world.  It is pre-determined, pre-plotted, and unstoppable.  It is a plan that involves Christians and the Church, a plan that gives us roles and responsibilities.  But we will also see that we’re only invited into the plan because of what God has already done for us, and part of our role is to humble ourselves and serve others – in other words, to look more like the Jesus we serve.

We’re nearing the end of the book, which means we’re nearing the end of Jesus’ life.  In fact, we pick up this morning with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem where He will die in just a few days.  We’ve already studied the highlight reel of His life and ministry – we’ve heard the Sermon on the Mount including the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.  We’ve seen His miracles.  And there will be more in the coming days, but everything is building to the grand finale now, so Jesus pulls the men aside and tells them what to expect.

Matthew 20:17 Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, 18 “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, 19 and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.”

This is the third time Jesus has mentioned His upcoming death and suffering (see Mt 16:21 and 17:22-23).  This time though, He gives them more details.  He tells the disciples He will be betrayed, He tells them the religious leaders will be involved with His arrest, and He tells them He will be crucified – which was a grizzly and horrific, but well-known form of execution in their day. 

Jesus was not the only person ever crucified, nor was He the first.  In fact, history tells us back in 40 BC, roughly 70 years before the and relative of Caesar Augustus. things we’re reading about now, 2,000 people were crucified in a single day, for the entertainment of Quintilius Varus – a Roman general

The point is: when Jesus spoke of being crucified, He was describing something the disciples could understand, they just couldn’t understand how it could happen to Him.  They thought He was getting ready to establish a Kingdom, and if you remember, they have recently been arguing about who would be the greatest in that Kingdom, who would hold which cabinet position.  Just last week we saw Peter ask how Jesus was going to reward him and the other disciples for all that they had given up to follow Jesus over the past couple of years.

To put it bluntly – these men who knew Jesus best were caught up with thinking about how they would benefit from being so close to Him.  And as we’re about to see, even right after He makes a clear announcement about what He’s walking into, these men refuse to hear it and continue to scheme and maneuver for their own benefit.

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.

21 And He said to her, “What do you wish?”

She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left [IOW: let them be awarded the highest places of honor], in Your kingdom.”

The two sons of Zebedee are James and John, they have been with Jesus since the beginning and John will eventually write the Gospel of John, 1,2, and 3 John, and Revelation.  They are brothers, and like any modern parent who is seeking the best for their kids – their mom asks if Jesus will give her boys preferred status. 

One thing this whole interaction exposes for us is: sometimes, we ask stupid things of God.

Sometimes, we have our own plans and they’re not best – even when we’re asking for good things.  Surely there’s nothing wrong with asking to be close to Jesus.  But mom doesn’t really understand what’s involved with the particular position she’s requesting. 

In a few days Jesus will be executed on a cross between two thieves, one to His right and one to His left and she will stand there witnessing it all.  Surely she doesn’t want that for her sons, does she?  This is one great reason to include a caveat in all of your prayers – “nevertheless, not my will, but Thy will be done Lord.”  Recognize that God has absolute veto power and editorial control over every request you send His way.  Actually celebrate that.  Ask Him to keep you from things you’re not ready for.

22 But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

He’s talking about all the things He just described to them – betrayal, arrest, condemnation, a death sentence, mocking, scourging and crucifixion – this is what He has to look forward to.  So Jesus asks them, do you really want a part of that?  Can you really endure all of this?

They said to Him, “We are able.”

In just a few days Peter will make a similar claim, promising to stand by Jesus through thick and thin, and Jesus tells him, ‘Peter, before this night is over, you will deny Me three times (Matt 26:31-35).’ 

Isn’t it amazing how highly we tend to think of ourselves at times, and how wrong we are?  We often overestimate our ability to endure or achieve and underestimate the chances of our failure or quitting.  Fortunately, God knows us far better than we know ourselves, and He patiently loves us anyway.

Matt 20:23 So He said to them, “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with;

He knows what kind of suffering lies ahead of these men after His own death and resurrection. Jesus knows the same people who hated Him will hate His disciples.  Of the twelve, one will betray Him, 10 will be martyred for their faith, and one, John will face persecution and exile.  So, yes, they will endure difficulties, but notice what Jesus says next:

but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.”

Sorry mom, but the answer is no because those positions have already been prepared for others by God the Father.  And guys, it’s great that you think you’re willing to go through tough times, but God has something else in store and there’s no changing His mind.

I want you to notice here that God knows what He is doing.  He knows the end from the beginning. He is working things together, methodically developing His divine plan.  He’s not figuring it out as He goes, reacting to the latest developments.  He is in control and guaranteeing that things work out in a very specific way.  He has plans for things that haven’t even happened yet but He knows they will.  He tells mom no because her request doesn’t line up with what God has already planned and prepared.

And now notice the ripple effects.

24 And when the ten [the rest of Jesus’ hand-picked disciples] heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers.

Wait, are you telling me there was envy and mistrust even among Jesus’ disciples?  Yes, there was. The rest of the men hear what’s going on and they’re bothered because they almost missed out – the brothers almost pulled off a backroom deal.  They’re not upset because James and John had the audacity to ask; they’re upset because they didn’t think of it first.  They’re all jockeying for privilege.

But Jesus uses this as a chance to talk to all of them about what’s really going on in their hearts by contrasting what leadership looks like in God’s Kingdom with what leadership looks like on earth.

25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles [specifically the Romans, but anyone who is not a Jew] lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 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 tells these men, God has a whole different set of leadership traits and values than the ones you’re used to.  Just look at My life, look at the example I’m setting for you.  If you want to be great, don’t scheme and maneuver, don’t cut other people off or shut them out, work for their greater good.  Sacrifice for others.  Use your position and power for their benefit instead of trying to protect yourself and your privilege. 

Can you imagine what the world would look like if people would accept and follow what Jesus is saying here?

I want to take the rest of our time this morning to go back and make three observations from everything we’ve seen. I want to make three points that we’ll discuss in depth, three things we can learn from this passage of Scripture

  1. God has a plan that will come to pass and benefit us.
  2. God makes tremendous sacrifices as part of His plan.
  3. Understanding God’s plan should change us.

1. OK, so first, God has a plan.  Jesus told the men what was going to happen in Jerusalem, because His death was part of God’s plan.  And then Jesus told James and John they could not have the position they requested because God planned to give it to someone else.

Sometimes we need to be reminded but God is in control of everything that happens in the world.  He has a plan and it will come to pass.  No matter what happens in the elections, no matter what happens with the economy, no matter if an asteroid is headed for earth, if the globe is or isn’t warming, or if plans to attack us are or are not being made – God has a plan, He is moving the pieces, and He is irresistible and unstoppable.

He tells the prophet Isaiah

Is 46:9 Remember the former things of old,

For I am God, and there is no other;

I am God, and there is none like Me,

10  Declaring the end from the beginning,

And from ancient times things that are not yet done,

Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,

And I will do all My pleasure,’

I love the absolute defiance of My God.  He says, ‘I do what I want and no one can stop Me.  I have My reasons, I have My ways, I have My timing.  I am God and there is no one else like Me.’ 

Now, I know that might be a put off for some of you.  You don’t like that.  You don’t like claims of absolute power and control.

And you’re right.  It can be terrible and ugly, it can be harmful and destructive, when the heart and mind of the individual in power is selfish, racist, sexist, and hateful.  But that’s not what God is like.  God is righteous, perfectly just, entirely holy and He’s saying nothing can resist or deny, frustrate or derail His plans to ultimately make things beautiful and peaceful again.  In other words, yes, God has ultimate power, but He uses it for ultimate good.

And, amazingly, that ultimate good includes us.  You see, we – those who have heard His call to repent and surrender – to stop living for ourselves, to stop rebelling, resisting, and begin submitting to Him – His unstoppable plan involves tremendous blessings for us.

Sometimes we ask for things, like James and John, and God has to tell us no.  But the Scriptures tell us He is actually preparing countless blessings for us even when our specific request is delayed or denied.

In the famous 23rd Psalm David thinks on all the blessings of God and writes:

Ps 23:5 – You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies

In other words, God sees and knows my troubles, my difficulties, He sees my enemies, but He’s not stressed out, He actually prepares a table for me in their presence.  I never suffer alone, God prepares for everything that happens.  If you’re going through difficult times right now, maybe this is something you need to do: prayerfully consider – how has God prepared me for this or prepared this for me?  He is good and merciful and nothing takes Him by surprise.

In Psalm 31 we read

Ps 31:19  Oh, how great is Your goodness,

Which You have laid up for those who fear You,

Which You have prepared for those who trust in You

In the presence of the sons of men!

Notice the theme here – God has a plan, He is laying things up, He is preparing things – He’s telling James and John no, because He’s already planned that for someone else, but He has other plans for these brothers and other plans for you and me.

Jesus told His disciples on the night before He was crucified –

John 14:2 In My Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.

Jesus is telling His disciples, this is all moving toward something very intentional.  Something planned since the dawn of Creation.  God is not in reactionary mode, He knew what would happen, He knows what is happening.  God has a plan and there is a purpose to it all.

2. But notice too, that His plan involves His own sacrifice and suffering.  As Jesus points out: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

When you begin to understand God, you begin to marvel at what all of this means.  You see, when you understand Who Jesus is and where He came from, it’s amazing that He would even come down here to earth at all. 

There was no need for Him to get involved.  He had no obligation.  God made the universe, He made our planet, He made human beings, and gave us everything to enjoy along with one rule – just one.  But we broke that rule and everything else along with it. 

Human beings, and our pride, our greed, our insatiable desire for more and better, are responsible for countless wars, crime, violence, social injustices, environmental pollution and most of the things that make the lives of other people miserable – this is what we have done with what God entrusted to us.

And He could have just sat back in Heaven, washed His hands of it all and turned His back while we destroyed each other, the planet, and ourselves.  But He didn’t.

He choose to come down, to get involved, and not as a king, or a general, or a professor, not as a medical doctor, or tech wiz, but as a servant.  God put on human flesh and He

    • Washed human feet
    • God touched human beings
    • God ate food prepared by human beings
    • God wore clothes made by human beings
    • And ultimately, God allowed Himself to be abused and murdered by human beings

Jesus had no entitlement mentality.  He said, we are going up to Jerusalem and I am going to suffer, and rise again. These things WILL happen, I know they will, but I continue anyway.

So, why?  Why did He do it? Because His death was necessary to secure our salvation.

We all agree that at times we do bad things, wrong things, we’re not the person we want to be.  When we are honest, we will admit we have varying degrees of impurity in our lives and it needs to be filtered out, but how?  What will remove it?  How will we be reconciled with a Holy and pure God?

Even the best of us know that as long as we live we continue to sin, we don’t stop.  We feel like we improve in one area, but there’s always another trip wire that we know will make us blow up or fall down in another area.  We’re imperfect and try though we may, we can’t get all the wrinkles out and hold it together all the time.

So, many of us simply expect God and everyone else to adjust the scale.  We want to be able to talk our way into a better grade because we’re doing the best we can or we’re not as bad as so and so.  But God says no.  He won’t adjust the scale.  We are trapped in our failure and we need to be rescued by someone outside.  And that’s where Jesus comes in.  He suffered for sin, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.

He did it voluntarily, it’s not as if He was powerless to prevent it.  He knowingly and willingly allowed Himself to be betrayed by one of His own disciples, to be condemned by His own priests, though innocent, and to be handed over or delivered by those He established a special relationship with to those outside His covenant, and was ultimately mocked, scourged, and crucified.

Yet the Bible tells us He did it all for the joy of the result

Heb 12:2 [Jesus], for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

This is what God has planned, and endured, for you and for me.  The disciples thought they needed Jesus alive so they could benefit from knowing Him and have a good position in His Kingdom, but what they really needed was for His plan to be fulfilled so they could benefit forever.

3. And now Jesus tells the disciples, what I’m doing should have an affect on you.  He calls us to follow His example.  He says don’t be like the people you see around you every day. Think and act differently.  Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 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.”

There is supposed to be a shocking difference between leadership exercised by Christians and leadership exercised by other people.  And this applies to leadership in all forms and in all places.  There should a be difference in the way Christian men lead and love their wives, a difference in how Christian parents lead and love their children, how Christian bosses supervise their employees and most certainly servant leadership should be on display in the church itself.

I’m always disappointed to hear stories of pastors or ministry leaders in other churches who were served instead of being servants.  But around here, we both expect and try to model this approach – pastors, staff, ministry leaders, everyone should be willing to do whatever needs to be done – no one is too good for anything.  If it needs to be done, we’re all servants, so do it.  Around here you see pastors and elders running brush hogs and chainsaws, ministry leaders picking up and taking out trash, pulling weeds, unclogging toilets, and emptying grease traps in the kitchen because leaders are here to serve, not be served.

Whatever position you find yourself in, whatever title you hold, whatever responsibility you’ve been entrusted with at work or school, in the house or the church, remember this:

Phil 2:3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. 

This kind of servant leadership, this mindset that says I value others more and prioritize myself less is hard, but remember: Christ has already done this for you.  He’s calling you to receive all the benefits of a relationship with Him and then to reflect the goodness you’ve already received to others.

It’s the pattern God has always used, first He gives, then He asks you to follow.

He gave Adam and Eve the Garden to enjoy and then told them to obey.

He delivered the Jews out of Egypt and then gave them the Law.

He told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit and then to go out in ministry.

God has prepared salvation for you. He is preparing a place for you in Heaven.  He has prepared good things for you to do and be a part of and He gives you supernatural gifts and strength to serve the people around you.  Go read 1 Corinthians 12, read Ephesians 4, read Romans 12 refresh yourself with the knowledge of all that God is giving you to enable you to serve. 

God is calling you to live a different life, to do things differently, and it’s going to be hard at times, but He has also done more for you than you can possibly understand.  He is calling you to move out into a position of service FROM a position of strength – you can serve because of what you receive in Christ.

You are the beneficiary of God’s unstoppable plan, the preparations He has made from the beginning of time and continues to work out at His own expense.  The Bible boldly declares whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved – it’s a promise that is made possible because Christ was willing to suffer, even when those closest to Him were seeking their own benefit.

Let’s pray.

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