Following the parable of the hired vineyard workers, Jesus begins his trip toward Jerusalem in earnest. (Matthew 20:17-19) And Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples with [him] apart in the way, and said to them, Behold we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; and they will deliver him up to the nations to mock and to scourge and to crucify, and the third day he shall rise again. If I had been there among those disciples and heard this, would I have understood it?
The gospels tell us that on more than one occasion the disciples didn’t “get it.” Here, Jesus is telling them what He is going to go through in Jerusalem: that He is going there to be captured, beaten, and killed; and then miraculously raised from the dead. But that whole concept is so far outside their expectations of the Messiah, that they take it all allegorically: Yes, maybe Jesus is going to experience opposition there BUT he is going to win in the end; in just three days!
We can tell this is what is going through the minds of James and John: If He is going to become King in three days, hey we’d better get first in line for our place in court.
Matthew 20:20-23 Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with her sons, doing homage, and asking something of him. And he said to her, What wilt thou? She says to him, Speak [the word] that these my two sons may sit, one on thy right hand and one on thy left in thy kingdom. And Jesus answering said, Ye know not what ye ask. Can ye drink the cup which *I* am about to drink? They say to him, We are able. [And] he says to them, Ye shall drink indeed my cup, but to sit on my right hand and on [my] left, is not mine to give, but to those for whom it is prepared of my Father.
Now , it turns out that this concern, about who would get what place of honor in Jesus’ kingly court, was not only in James and John’s hearts. Look at the way the rest of the apostles respond, and how Jesus – knowing their hearts – responds to them.
Matthew 20:24-28 And the ten, having heard [of it], were indignant about the two brothers. But Jesus having called them to [him], said, Ye know that the rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them, and the great exercise authority over them. It shall not be thus amongst you, but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant; and whosoever will be first among you, let him be your bondman; as indeed the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Today, living on the other side of the cross, we know what happened. As Christians, we know the Kingdom that Jesus was talking about is not like the kingdoms of this world and that, therefore, there are no positions of authority and importance in that Kingdom that we can apply for, or vie for… We know this.
But what about in the kingdoms of this world? Should we vie for those?
Most of the time, when we encounter this passage, because it has drawn our focus to the Kingdom of God, we assume that its modern application is to the Church. After all, that is as close as we will get to the Kingdom of God on this Earth… until He returns. And, sure, it is a good thing to serve in Church, to volunteer in that community, to give of our time and talent and treasure, and to do so with humility.
But Jesus’ commandment here, about living as servants, is not necessarily a commandment limited in scope to our role in the Church. Jesus did not come to the world to save only a few of us. He came to give His life as a ransom for many. For God so loved the world…
So, if being called to be servants as opposed to rulers, means being called to live like Jesus, then it must apply to our whole life inside and outside of the Church.
Is that how we live?
Sometimes it seems to me that, here in the US, a significant cross section of confessing Christians considers that it is part of our calling to force our nation to conform to our “Christian” standards.
Oh, I know we have plenty of good reasons, that we say we do it for the sake of our children’s future… but how close does that attitude bring us to being described by these words of Jesus: the rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them, and the great exercise authority over them?
I could be wrong… but Jesus must be right.
I don’t think I have taken the passage out of context. Moreover, I think this is a fundamental question that every one of us who confesses Jesus as our Savior has to address sooner or later: Since Jesus, the Son of God, knew full well that He came down from His Father’s infinite Reality, expressly to bring that Reality into our finite one (the world), shouldn’t we assume that when He spoke, He did so with that eternal Reality in mind?
Isn’t it possible that words He spoke in the midst of what seemed like ordinary circumstances carried within them a message that transcended those circumstances?
If He had been just another man, a good man, a prophet, sent (by God) to address that moment in time of the history of Israel, we might be justified in limiting the scope of his words to that time and situation. But we don’t have that out. That option is denied to us because not only did He claim to be the Son of God, the I AM, He also claimed to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He told Martha, I am the Resurrection and the Life. And He proclaimed to any who would listen that He was and is the Light of the World. John the evangelist knew Him to be the WORD of God.
Does this sound to you like a mere man?
If we believe in Him, if we therefore believe Him, we have no other recourse to accept that even as He was fully human and thus truly died on that cross, He never stopped being the infinite Son of God. (Which is why His one LIFE could pay for the sins of all humanity: ever born or ever to be born.)
And if this is so, then His Words must have infinite weight and eternal relevance.
So, when He tells us: Ye know that the rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them, and the great exercise authority over them. It shall not be thus amongst you, but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant… It must give us great pause when we feel the urge, the need, or the motivation to take over the reins of human authority.
I know it is easy for me to think, I am “smarter than that guy” or to say, “hey, look at the evidence, I could do a lot better governing than that guy…” Sure, that might be absolutely true. I mean what can possibly go wrong with wanting true Christians to be in positions of leadership in our city, our state, our nations?
Wouldn’t that make things better for everyone? Hey, we know the truth! We know what is right and what is wrong. We are not going to get fooled by the prince and power of the air… we are not going to be tempted by all that “dark” money or gifts from lobbyists. We know how to stand! We know how to respect everybody… We even love our enemies…
But as I say those words, I hope you are hearing, in the back of your mind, the Apostle Paul reciting 1 Corinthians 10, where he lists for his audience all the ways that the chosen people of God fell to temptation… the very people that God selected and miraculously rescued out of Egypt. He concludes this way:
1 Corinthians 10: 11-14 (NASB) Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let the one who thinks he stands watch out that he does not fall.
No temptation has overtaken you except something common to mankind; and God is faithful, so He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
So here is the question: Is it possible that “exercising authority over men” is just another idol?
If it were, how could you tell?
Well, Paul said, for every temptation, God will provide the way out. I think Jesus did just that in that passage from Matthew 20:
Here is the temptation: Ye know that the rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them, and the great exercise authority over them.
And here is the way out: It shall not be thus amongst you, but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant and whosoever will be first among you, let him be your bondman; as indeed the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Jesus faced this choice Himself:
Ruling humanity as the all-Knowing, all-Powerful, all-Just King of the world (Matthew 4:8-10.)
Becoming a bondservant – a slave – and thus serving all of that humanity with His sacrifice (Philippians 2:5-8.)
Which one did He choose?
I know… and you know.
“But,” comes up the objection in the back of our minds, “that was Jesus. That was His mission. That was what he was supposed to do. That was a once and forever thing, a mission we poor finite humans couldn’t possibly have performed.”
And my reaction to that thought is: What then does it mean to follow in his footsteps?
Like I said, I could be wrong…
But Jesus must be right.
I think this is what John the disciple is telling us:
1 John 2:1-7 (NASB) My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever follows His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says that he remains in Him ought, himself also, walk just as He walked.
Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard.
The answer was straightforward to John the disciple: What are we called to do? Walk the way He walked. That is what He meant when He said: “Follow Me.”
Which way is He leading me?
Is it my calling to do everything within my power to force my society – my nation – to obey the rules of behavior and moral guidelines of Christianity? Or is it to serve that society by proclaiming the Christ to any who will listen so that they themselves can choose to follow Him?
I know I can be accused of creating here a false dichotomy, that maybe we can do both. But I don’t think Jesus gives me that choice in that passage in Matthew 20:24-28.
Does this mean that Christians are not called to take on positions of civic responsibility or leadership in government?
I know what Paul would say. According to 1 Corinthians 7:19-24 (NASB) … what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each person is to remain in that state in which he was called. Were you called as a slave? Do not let it concern you. But if you are also able to become free, take advantage of that. For the one who was called in the Lord as a slave, is the Lord’s freed person; likewise the one who was called as free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought for a price; do not become slaves of people. Brothers and sisters, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.
In other words, the conditions in which we find ourselves in this world are incidental. Any value assigned to them is almost neutral. They should have little to no power to attract us to them because they come a far far second place to what our condition is in the Kingdom of God. Being great and powerful in this world is nothing when compared to who we are in the Kingdom of God.
Do any of us think that a Christian governor, or president, or king is more important, more valuable to the Kingdom of God than that homeless man who has come to know the Lord, and as a consequence spends his days caring for and comforting others caught in his same plight?
If not, then what is a position of leadership for? Maybe I am there to do good to everyone I can. Maybe I am there to be a witness by living my life the way Jesus lived His. That is, by doing good… to everybody, including tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Certainly, I am not in that position so that I can figure a way to cast them all out of our society or make their lives miserable…
Because that is something Jesus never did.