Philosopher Immanuel Kant had a saying, “Always treat a human being as a person, that is, as an end in himself, and not merely as a means to your end. The personality of ourselves we feel very intensely, and we are outraged when others seem to ignore that personality in us, but the personality of others we do not sense so keenly.” This thought, in a nutshell, really describes what is taking place in the passage that we are going to consider today. Perhaps we can relate? I hope not…but, probably so. If there is one thing that we humans are aware of, it is our own wants and desires. And when we juxtapose this against the way of the cross, there is always going to be conflict – do I do what I want, or what Jesus wants. Well, it is interesting to see how Jesus’ disciples respond to Him (Matthew 20:21-28) after His third announcement concerning His death, burial and resurrection. (20:17) They did not have the advantage of the New Testament, history and hindsight that we do. Jesus’ message does not penetrate their hearts at this time. The big problem is that the disciples are focused on themselves, their desires, and it hinders their spiritual sight. They need to be refocused on what really matters, and Jesus helps their understanding in this way.
In contrast to Jesus’ announcement of suffering and death, we have the request of James and John…and their mother. Jesus has been speaking of the cross, but they, on the other hand, are more interested in a crown. What is interesting is that this follows up a similar conversation that has already taken place over in Matthew 18. So, we can see the intensity of this thought on the part of the disciples. This, not so ironically, follows after Jesus twice displaying that the disciples need to be “as little children” in their innocence (Matthew 18, 19). We do get the impression that the mother of James and John is the real inspiration behind this request, and that it is she who is interested in promoting her sons…she simply wants to be certain that her boys get the best reserved seats in heaven. So, every football dad and soccer mom can take a deep breath…they are not the only ones who do this. :-)
First, let’s notice some commendable features in this event. They do believe in prayer and they dare to believe the promise that Jesus has given them about “sitting on the throne.” (19:28) But, several things are wrong with their request. First, it is born out of ignorance -- “You do not know what you ask,” is Jesus’ reply. They do not understand that “the path to the throne” is very difficult. It is important to note that James would be the first of the apostles to be martyred, and John would endure some exceedingly hard days on the Isle of Patmos. A second problem with their request is their lack of heavenly direction. They are thinking like the world, just as Peter does in chapter 16. It seems that James and John, perhaps unwittingly, want to “lord it over” the other disciples, the way that the pagan rulers lorded over their subjects. I mean, after all…they have been “two of the three chosen to be in the inner circle.” And John understands that he is “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” No doubt, they feel relief that they approach Jesus with this request before Peter is able to do so. In reality, they are selfishly seeking glory for themselves, and not for the Lord. Jesus warns the mother and her sons that “thrones are available to those who are worthy of them.” What He means is that humility must be the focus of the lives of those who follow Him, and not pride.
And what is the result of this request? Indignation on the part of the other disciples. Surprise! Not really. Some of them may think – “How could you be so worldly?”…perhaps for others, “Why didn’t I think of it first!” Selfishness only results in dissension and division. All of this presents Jesus the opportunity to teach a practical lesson in leadership. In His kingdom, we must not follow the example of the world, (in most cases) be like the corporate president or wealthy celebrity…our example is Jesus. And what did Jesus reveal and display? “It shall not be so among you. But 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) This is as clear as anything Jesus ever shares. Jesus came to give His life, therefore we should give our lives in service to Him and to others. In our churches today, there are a lot of people who “want attention”…but, not so many who want to serve. If there is one thing we can take away from this message it is that the key to greatness is not found in position or power, but in character. We will “sit beside Jesus” by living lives worthy of such a placing.
“I believe it is beneficial to consider what “servant” really means. "Servant" in our English New Testament usually represents the Greek doulos (bondslave). Sometimes it means diakonos (deacon or minister); this is strictly accurate, for doulos and diakonos are synonyms. Both words indicate a man who is not at his own disposal, but is his master's purchased property. Bought to serve his master's needs, to be at his beck and call every moment, the slave's sole business is to do as he is told. Christian service therefore means, first and foremost, living out a slave relationship to one's Savior.” (1 Corinthians. 6:19-20) Paul certainly recognized this, as most of his letters begin with him calling himself “the bondservant…or slave…of the Lord. “What work does Christ set his servants to do? The way that they serve him, he tells them, is by becoming the slaves of their fellow-servants and being willing to do literally anything, however costly, irksome, or undignified, in order to help them. This is what love means, as he himself showed at the Last Supper when he played the slave's part and washed the disciples' feet. When the New Testament speaks of ministering to the saints, it means not primarily preaching to them but devoting time, trouble, and substance to giving them all the practical help possible. The essence of Christian service is loyalty to the king expressing itself in care for his servants (Matthew 25: 31-46). Only the Holy Spirit can create in us the kind of love toward our Savior that will overflow in imaginative sympathy and practical helpfulness towards his people.” From James Packer, Your Father Loves You, Harold Shaw Publishers,
I have to say I have seen a lot of good things done for the cause of Christ in His churches, especially when The Golden Rule is at work. Or, as I like to put it – a lot of good can be accomplished for the Lord in the church as long as nobody cares who gets the credit. Problems only arise when selfishness, power-mongering take place, or in other words, “when someone needs the credit.” When I hear other preachers and elders say, 80% of the people do 20% of the work (and I have been in such places), it is a truism that plays out in many churches and organizations. This should not be the case with churches where people are taking the lead in being the servants that the Lord has called them to be. We are all busy. But, most of us have the opportunity to prioritize our lives and schedules in such a way that we can serve the Lord and the community. Considering how to be a man (or woman) of vision at church means closing my eyes to myself, submitting myself first to Christ, and then to others. Let’s consider this principle and make the necessary preparations and arrangements to do just this. True leadership (servant-hood) does not seek its own, but what is best for the other person…what is best for the body of Christ. This is Jesus’ style.
I want to close with one final story that captures what it is I am trying to share – that famous writer “anonymous” shares this: Driving down a country road, I came to a very narrow bridge. In front of the bridge, a sign was posted – “Yield.” Seeing no oncoming cars, I continued across the bridge and on to my destination. On my way back, I came to the same one-lane bridge, now from the other direction. To my surprise, I saw another “Yield” sign posted. Curious, I thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.” When I reached the other side of the bridge, I looked back. Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge. Drivers from both directions were requested to give the right of way. It is a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision. The same applies in life and relationships…when the Bible commands us to “be in subjection” this is what it means – whether to the Lord, or to one another.