Life of Christ 139
Along the way of this wonderful journey through the life of Christ we have experienced a number of pivot points that mark a serious change or turning in the direction of Christ's life and ministry. Today's story (Matthew 20.17-28) is one of those. Three years of traveling, preaching, teaching, healing, training, mentoring, praying, and ministering have all led to this point.
As they set out on this massively important trip, the last one they will take in which the Apostles will still view Him normally, so to speak, He sits them down for a conversation. He is, once again, seeking to prepare them for the dark night of the soul they will face in a week's time.
Matthew 20.17 And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them,
18 Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death,
19 And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.
Jesus has, through the last year, alluded to this with them both openly and symbolically. He has done this repeatedly. He does it, once more, on this last trip to Jerusalem. He cannot possibly say it any more clearly than this – yet they still do not get it. 'And they understood none of these things' (Luke 18.34).
The Apostles, to their everlasting credit, believe Jesus is Israel's Messiah. Further, they believe He is the divine Son of God. But they do not grasp that the Old Testament prophecies about the messiah reveal two different advents for two different reasons, one to suffer and die as Saviour, and one to rule and reign as King. In their mind, in spite of how badly everything has been going for the last few months, they still expect Jesus to become Israel's king. In a sense, this shows great faith on the part of the Apostles. In another sense, however, and from Jesus' perspective, it reveals a hidebound Jewish parochialism and a stubborn obtuseness.
The Apostles were certainly not dumb. They knew the situation was grim. They knew that the last two times they had been to Jerusalem there had been repeated attempts on Christ's life. They knew the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the common people were now against Him. They, too, knew that matters had reached a crisis point. But, in their mind, Jesus was about to perform some stupendous miracle, and like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, astound everyone, and fix all of this in one fell swoop. They had seen Him walk on water, cleanse lepers, heal the blind and maim, and multiply loaves and fishes. They had seen Him transfigured before them in His glory. They had seen Him, just a few days ago, call Lazarus to walk out of his own tomb. Of course He could handle this problem, and end up on Israel's throne within the next week.
We know that this was the Apostles' mindset because the subject which they had been discussing amongst themselves was the governmental structure under the messiah. Two of them, James and John, had actually gone so far so as to recruit their mother to ask Jesus for plum positions. 'Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom' (Matthew 20.21).
Jesus has faced this situation before, and dealt with it by telling the Apostles that the greatest positions in the kingdom was that of servant. (See Life of Christ 91) But apparently He must needs do so yet again, so He pauses, reorients Himself from trying to impress upon them the coming crucifixion, and uses this as yet another opportunity to prepare them to lead the infant Church in just a few short weeks.
Thus it is that we come to this incredible passage about the necessity of and primacy of being a servant.
25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.
26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Jesus was a revolutionary, not a reformer. (see Life of Christ 49) One of the ways He was revolutionary was in His teaching. His doctrine was entirely orthodox, but at the same time it was completely contrary to the spirit of the age. The tenor of His world, and of ours as well, says that to be great is to 'exercise authority.' Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca? Great bosses. Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson? Great coaches. Douglas MacArthur and George Patton? Great generals. Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan? Great presidents. Each of these men, in their sphere, wielded tremendous amounts of authority over other people. Yet the institution that Jesus founded, the Church, which was soon to be entirely dependent on these 12 men, was to be completely different.
In the church it is not about authority; it is about ministry.
Please do not misunderstand me. There is a place in the local church for some authority to be exercised (Hebrews 13.7). After all, the word 'bishop' means, essentially, boss. I am a pastor, which is simply another word for bishop. As a pastor I have some responsibility to exercise authority over what happens in my church – but holding the position of pastor does not make me great. My life must still be marked by ministry. It is only in ministry that any of us will find greatness in God's kingdom.
We have seen in this blog, over and over again, Jesus preparing the Apostles to lead the infant Church. In so doing He has been preparing them to deal with the difficulties and potential pitfalls that can come into the lives of church leaders. This is yet another one, namely, the natural tendency for the leader of a church to transition from an expectation of serving to an expectation of being served.
Any pastor who takes leadership seriously will find that his sense of leadership gradually begins to bleed beyond the scriptural boundaries in which it ought to remain. He takes more and more upon himself, and his sense of his own importance inflates. Accompanying this, a good church responds to a good pastor's leadership with honor and respect and followship, but that, too, has its own dangers. Honor can become veneration, and veneration builds pride. This does not mean that a pastor should lead from behind, to quote one of Barack Obama's worst statements, nor does it mean that a congregation should not honor their pastor. It does mean, though, that the pastor simply must, at all hazards, maintain an inward primacy on being a servant.
To Jesus, the Church was not about authority; it was about ministry. It was about giving His own life away for others, not about them giving their lives away for Him. In just a week He would prove it to them with the blood dripping down the old rugged cross.
Dare we do any less?