Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries


Who is the Greatest in the Kingdom?    audio

Matt 20:20-34 

I had to get a new pair of glasses a few years back. These weren’t everyday glasses. These were ones that are made so I can see what’s on my computer screen without ending up with a cricked neck. They’re fantastic. They make the characters on the screen look perfectly in focus. They just have one drawback. If I forget to change them over when I leave my office I can’t see anything clearly unless it’s right in front of me. It’s not that I’m totally blind. It’s just that everything is blurred.

Of course being unable to see things clearly doesn’t just apply to physical sight, does it? There’s an even worse affliction of sight that some people suffer from. That’s the sort of blurred vision that comes from prejudice or from unthinking acceptance of a particular set of presuppositions or perhaps from listening to too much talk back radio. For example it’s the sort of blindness that might prevent us from understanding the various issues in the debate over asylum seekers or youth gangs. It’s the sort of blindness that leads some people to suggest that the Churches have no right to speak out about social issues.

Well, both of these sorts of blindness appear in Matthew chapter 20. There’s physical blindness in the two blind men, mixed with clear spiritual sight, and there’s spiritual blindness on the part of the disciples and others we meet in this passage.

Let’s look at the passage (Matt 20:20-34). We saw last week that they’re on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way. Jesus has taken his disciples aside and explained to them as clearly as he can what’s going to happen. He says: 18"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised."

Here’s the first example of blindness in the passage. The religious leaders are blind to who Jesus is. They should be able to see that he’s the Messiah predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Instead they’ve rejected him. Their blindness is compounded by the fact that they’ll hand him over to the Gentiles, to whom also he’s been sent. Listen to what Isaiah 49 says of the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord: “And now the LORD says-- he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, … -- 6he says: "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:5-6). Here was the one who was sent to bring both the people of Israel and those of the Gentile nations back to God and he was about to be handed over to death at the hands of those very Gentiles.

But that of course was part of God’s plan, wasn’t it? Again, Is 53 speaks of the Servant of the Lord being despised and rejected, smitten, wounded, all for a good reason: to bring us peace and healing. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Now what do you think? Would you have expected the disciples to be getting it by now? Jesus can’t make it much clearer can he? But their prejudices or their presuppositions about him are pretty strong, and they just don’t seem to be able to get their minds around the concept of him suffering a death like crucifixion.

That comes out fairly clearly in today’s section (v20). They’re going along the road and James and John send their mother to ask Jesus for a favour. Now this isn’t so long after a previous incident when they were discussing who was the greatest among them. This time, though, they decide to take their chances on the understanding that maybe they’re his favourites. So they ask him whether, when he’s glorified, after all this is over and he takes his rightful place in God’s Kingdom, they can sit at either side of him.

Now think about this for a moment. Jesus has just finished talking about his imminent arrest and execution and they’re asking him about taking up the places of honour in his throne room. Now in one sense maybe it shows great faith in him. Maybe they’ve seen through his talk of death and resurrection to what lies beyond the grave. But at the same time, they seem to have glossed over the realities of the cross a bit too glibly. They almost seem to be saying, “It doesn’t matter how he gets there, as long as we can benefit from it.”

It’s very easy, isn’t it, to overlook the sacrifices of others? To say that we can’t feel a thing, as they’re suffering on our behalf. That’s as great a temptation for us, as we think about Jesus’ death, as it was for the disciples. You see, our remembrance of Jesus sacrifice is wrapped up in such sanitised packages isn’t it? We celebrate the communion with nice clean wafers and pleasant tasting wine or grape juice. There’s a natural rejoicing at times like Easter and Christmas. So we tend to overlook the true nature of the incarnation. We overlook the fact that Jesus swapped the glory of being one with God for a smelly stable. That he willingly suffered the indignity of appearing in the form of a baby and growing as a little child, with no rights, in a poor village, in an oppressed nation. The images we cling to are of a clean, warm, friendly, probably well-lit stable, a beautiful baby, an innocent mother,  deserving shepherds, wise men from the east. It’s all so sanitised isn’t it? Yet the reality was far from that image. Jesus came as a nobody. He was rejected and despised by anyone of note. He suffered the most painful and undignified death you can imagine.

But it’s much easier to think about the good things, isn’t it, the way James and John did, rather than the reality of how those good things were achieved?

Notice though, that Jesus doesn’t rebuff them completely. Rather he points them to the cost of discipleship. Although they may not have understood what he meant at this point, I’m sure they did later, after the resurrection, as they considered what it would mean to continue as his followers. At this stage they may have heard his mention of the cup as a reference to a cup-bearer, a position of honour. They may have thought of baptism as something like John’s baptism: that is, a token or symbol of God’s renewal of his people before the coming of the Kingdom. But the reality was far from it. It meant suffering and death. And was it only James and John that Jesus was talking to at this stage or was it all disciples? There’s certainly a sense in which it’s true for all disciples isn’t there? All disciples are called to take up their cross and follow Jesus. We’re all called to be baptised with Jesus’ baptism; that is, a baptism of fire, of rejection by the world.

So the question for us is the same as it was for them. Are we ready to suffer and die for what we believe? Do we value our closeness to Christ so much that we’re willing to stand at his right and left hands as he’s tortured and put to death? Or are we interested only in the glory of being with the conquering King in his kingdom? What Jesus is saying is you can’t have one without the other, though the one makes the other worth going through.

He finishes by reminding them, once again, that the standards of the Kingdom are opposed to those of the world. Whereas in the world we expect those in authority to wield that authority, to enjoy the status of their position, in the Kingdom of God, those who are great are the ones who serve others. The first are the ones who act as slaves of the rest. So much so in fact that even the Son of Man, that is, the Messiah, the anointed King, came not to be served but to serve, and give up his life as a ransom for many. Far from valuing himself as indispensable because of his position, the way others would, he gave himself up to death so others could be brought back into the Kingdom. Are you prepared to give up your life, that is, your rights, your comfort, your familiar church environment, in order to make it possible for others to be brought into the Kingdom? That’s what it might mean to be a servant or a slave of all.

Well, they’ve no sooner finished this conversation, than they come to Jericho. They’re just passing through and on their way out of the city a pair of blind men hear the commotion and when they hear who it is they immediately begin to shout out “Lord, have mercy on us Son of David!” and they won’t be silenced. By contrast with the disciples, here are two men who though physically blind are spiritually aware. They recognise Jesus, not just as a healer, but as the Son of David. Perhaps they remember that the prophecies of the coming Messiah included him healing the blind. Anyway they cry out until Jesus hears them and calls them over.

Jesus asks them what they would like him to do for them. It’s the same question, notice, that Jesus has just asked James and John, back in v21. But this request is different. They want to see. They’re not worried about future glory; all they want is to be restored to full health. So Jesus touches their eyes and they’re healed. And what do they do? They follow him along the road. You would wouldn’t you?

It’s significant, isn’t it, that immediately following Jesus’ discussion with his disciples about the cost of discipleship, we come across these men, who gladly become followers of Jesus, because of what he’s given them.

I guess there are two motivations for following Christ, and we find both in this passage. One is gratitude for what Jesus has done for us, that leads us to do great things for him, and the other is the knowledge of what he’s prepared for those who persevere to the end. This should be an equally strong motivation and I think, in fact, if you look at the teachings of Scripture, this is the motivation most often presented. You see, it’s as we ponder the results of the baptism with which Jesus was baptised that we realise that the suffering involved in joining him in that baptism is worth it. The glory that Jesus is now enjoying at his Father’s right hand is promised to us as well, as we follow the same path as him, the path of a servant.

But there’s a warning in this as well. If we try to be great in some other way than by becoming a servant, we’ll lose whatever greatness we achieve. It’s what we saw at the end of the parable last week. Only by being last, by being a servant, a slave of all, will we achieve greatness in God’s Kingdom. We all know that faith in Jesus alone saves us, but as with these two blind men, the result of that salvation is a life of following Jesus along the road to the cross. And beyond the cross is a great reward stored up in heaven for those who love God.

So let’s have our eyes open to the realities of being a disciple of Christ; to the possibility that we might have to suffer loss if we’re Jesus’ followers. And let’s work at being servants, true followers of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.



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